Sowell’s Efficient Police State

Recently the economist Thomas Sowell has defended government spying against American citizens. Here is what he says with commentary.

Intelligence agencies have neither the manpower, the time, the money, nor the interest to listen in on you and your aunt Mabel.

But it is up to the intelligence agencies to decide to whom they will listen. Maybe they will find listening to me talk with my aunt Mabel boring, but maybe they won’t. What makes Sowell think that they will not listen to conversations between people who have nothing to do with terrorism? Everybody has a private life, with personal secrets to hide from strangers. Might not a curious or ambitious agent want to peek in? Now Sowell may object that it is unlikely. But I say that it is not up to him to calculate the level of perversity of government agents. Doesn’t he know how many people governments killed in the 20th century alone? Spying on citizens is a trivial misdemeanor compared to mass murder. He should rest assured that state functionaries are quite capable of that.

And consider: in the East Germany during the Cold War a large segment of the population were Stasi spies for the government reporting on their family members and “friends.” In Russia, life was, as Hedrick Smith described it, “a mass settling of scores on a personal level.” So, all the government has to do is disrupt the harmony of interests sufficiently and invest in more manpower and money for domestic and foreign intelligence. That time will come if intellectuals like Sowell spend their time justifying the state’s spying regime.

Sowell’s second point I take to be that even if the government does spy on personal conversations, it is highly unlikely that it will be your conversations. But for heaven’s sake, it will be someone’s conversation! Someone will be unlucky. And it well may be you. And how is injustice Ok if it is limited to the relatively few individuals among some large arbitrary group? Is murdering a Chinese person better than murdering a Dane, because, well, there are plenty more Chinese where that guy came from?

Further, what of the prominent ideological enemies of the regime? Isn’t it so much more likely that they will be singled out for surveillance to make it reasonable for them to be concerned?

Or is the idea that one should count on his insignificance, on being “ordinary” or some average mass-man, and on the possibility of hiding in a crowd as protection against the state? But “ordinary” people have precisely the least amount of power to protect themselves, if the state chooses to make an example of them, say, to intimidate other “ordinary” people. Moreover, the extent to which terrorists also hide in the crowd makes this strategy so much less useful, as the spies will want to scrutinize anyone they deem in any way suspicious, regardless of how “ordinary” he looks to Sowell.

But, a Supreme Court Justice once pointed out that the Constitution of the United States is not a suicide pact. The Constitution was meant for us to live under, not be paralyzed by, in the face of death.

But to permit the government to violate the Constitution in the face of potential dangers is to put a premium on the government’s insisting that such dangers exist. If the government can suspend the Constitution any time the President declares a state of emergency, then it will encourage the use of that “tool,” national emergency or security or what not, for the state to gain dictatorial powers. That’s what public debate is for, to figure out if the danger really exists, or whether granting the government extra power is reasonable. Sowell has to prove that such a situation prevails right now. It is not enough simply to assert that “we are at war.” I mean, these days we’re always at war with someone, and that unfortunate state of affairs has come about not insignificantly because the state wants to use the fear of men like Sowell to justify increasing in size and scope and reach.

At any rate, should we be at war at all? Isn’t it our constant foreign interventionism that motivates terrorist attacks? To give the government more power in domestic matters is ultimately to enlarge that power in foreign affairs. So, there will be more wars, more foreign belligerence and oppression, which will lead to still greater dangers to American citizens, real or imagined, and to still more calls for the expansion of the police and warfare state. As usual, one intervention creates conditions that seem to call for more interventions until one part of society becomes an army on the march and the other, morally twisted slaves and informers. This vicious circle has to be broken. And Sowell is not helping.

Precious time can be wasted filing legalistic documents to get some judge’s permission to tap the domestic terrorists’ phones before CBS or CNN broadcasts the news of the captured terrorist leader overseas and the domestic terrorists stop using the phones that they had used before to talk with him.

I am not an expert on the proper procedures to keep secrets. Let us suppose then that Sowell is right. “Precious time” will, indeed, be wasted. So what? The government will have to find another way of catching those it dislikes. But at least our freedoms will be preserved. To mock Sowell just a bit, collective security is not a pact that will lead us to the world of 1984. Perhaps some risk of a terrorist attack is preferable to the danger that arbitrary government powers pose to every citizen. Maybe when people in America start disappearing without a trace, and a bullet to the back of the head in a prison corridor to “traitors” and “enemies of the people” will become standard government procedure, then Sowell will regret his defense of the destructionism of the state.

That is the point of no return — and we are drifting towards it, chattering away about legalisms and politics.

Oh yes, those annoying legalism and politics. Let us abolish the law (and lawyers), the pointless squabbling of the politicians, and, in the same spirit, the elections and transfer all powers to our new absolute monarch, George Bush. At least things will get done then. Right? Bush is a man of action. He’ll take care of everything. He is our beloved and trusted leader. All he needs is just a little more power. Surely, we can’t refuse a guy as nice as Bush, can we? I think we can and should.

And by the way. You have my full permission to listen to my conversations. I ain’t got nothing to hide.

Our Sicko Prisons

There is an influential school of thought among armchair penologists that considers prison rape to be an unofficial part of punishment. It occurred to me that this school needs to be shut down.

What is the purpose of permitting prison rape? Let’s see whether or not any of the standard four perspectives on punishment applies to our case.

Could anal rape perhaps be in the criminal’s own good? If degradation, abject humiliation, and infection with STDs like AIDS are in one’s own good, then yes. It is rather difficult, indeed, to imagine a less useful or redemptive instance of suffering than being raped. The only exception perhaps is raping a rapist to make him realize the horror of his own prior crimes, but prison inmates rarely make the relevant distinctions.

Do not the rapists, either, upon shaming and using another human being in such a vile manner, travel even further down into the darkness? It is unlikely that even the most fanatical paternalist authoritarian would argue from this point of view.

Equally obvious is that permitting prison rape does not condemn a criminal any more than he is already condemned. He is isolated from society and can do no more harm to it for the time being. Even if one is under the mistaken impression that “they are all scum,” if being raped may at least in some cases cause a man to lose all of his natural sentiment and become a monster who will later be released, then the policy of permitting or encouraging rapes is contrary to the purpose of condemning those who cannot be reformed. Even less clear is how such a policy is supposed to civilize those rapists who are scheduled for parole.

The most common justification for the indifference to the fate of prisoners is the pragmatic one, viz., that the widespread awareness of the possibility of being raped serves as a deterrent to crime. In reality, however, the effect is probably the opposite of that which our pragmatic is trying to achieve. The knowledge of prison horrors deters mostly the timid from riling the state; it makes prison more pleasant and therefore less intimidating for the ruthless and the depraved who commit rapes. (Why is being deprived of female company in jail not a sufficient deterrent?) It is only the tyrant who prefers to have the good citizens quiver before him while refusing to restrain those who assault private persons and property.

Further, the cause of the common good requires that punishments be calibrated with precision, lest they either result in an excessive crime rate, or in unintended substitution effects, or punish too harshly. To the extent that lawmakers fail to take rapes into account (which is inevitable because rapes are covert and unpredictable), the punishments are, from the pragmatic point of view, too harsh, which is undesirable. “Pragmatism” is supposed to seek, via cold-blooded and unsentimental calculation, the greatest happiness for society as a whole, but criminals still remain members of society, and any calculation ought to include their welfare into account, as well.

In addition, a society in which brutal punishments are inflicted even for minor transgressions would be too risky to live in, because no one is perfect. This is especially so for political crimes, that is, for upsetting the state, since it is for them that the greatest wrath of the state is reserved.

Finally, might justice call for allowing or even approving of rapes? Could it be a clever way of getting back at the “liberals” who “coddle criminals”? First, as has already been mentioned, it is the more brutal criminals who rape the less brutal. Is letting them satisfy their urges in such a hideous manner not “coddling”? Whence such astonishing permissiveness? Second, and most important, the first principle of retributive justice is uniformity: all things being equal, the same crime must be punished in the same way no matter who commits it. Yet rape is entirely arbitrary. One man steals a car, goes to prison for two years, leads an uneventful life, and upon being released, integrates himself into society. Another takes the same punishment, yet suffers being raped every day and commits suicide two months later. That is justice? Oy vey!

I would further demur to the proposition that letting the mob satisfy its hate and sadism against offenders by legitimizing prison rapes leads to a virtuous society.

Even if one holds that being repeatedly raped is the fate deserved even by small-time rule-breakers (and perhaps inflicts this punishment on his own children when they upset him?), one must first persuade his fellow citizens of his idea of the good and try to put it into law. Logic also places our defender of “justice” into a strange position of having actually to feel distraught with the number of inmates, which includes the rapists, who avoid rape and thereby escape justice.

It seems to me that the adherents of the pro-rape school would be well-advised to re-evaluate their philosophy.

Hanson Loves Total War

Victor Davis Hanson is very pleased with the decision of the US government to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. He replies to Gene Callahan’s dissection of his position, e.g.:

Callahan ignores the fact that the bomb ended, not perpetuated “eternal” war, abruptly saving millions of casualties on both sides.

Only unconditional surrender discredited the militarists and thus allowed democracy to emerge — and with it more than a half century of Japanese prosperity, security, and liberal government.

And in the security of the present he forgets that the allies much earlier had tried a negotiated, rather than unconditional surrender and subsequent occupation of the enemy homeland in 1918 — and got Hitler and another war later as thanks.

1. To get started, is Hanson familiar with the doctrine of double effect? Roughly, it states that it may be permissible to perform an act with both a good effect and a bad effect, provided that the latter

  1. is outweighed by the good effect;

  2. is a mere side effect; if it is either one’s goal or a means to the goal, then the act is forbidden.

Thus, bombing a munitions factory may (though not necessarily) be Ok, even though some civilians may die as an unintended side effect, while deliberately bombing civilians in order to, for example, break a country’s will to fight is morally wrong, as it involves doing evil so that “good” may come out of it.

This moral rule prohibited the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to achieve the aims Hanson favors.

2. It is true that the nuclear bombing ended the war; however:

  1. Could the war have been ended in some other, less wicked, way?

  2. Surely, Hanson does not condemn all war negotiations because of the singular event of Hitler’s rise to power? (And Hitler is a separate subject altogether.)

  3. How does he know that “dropping the bomb on Hiroshima probably saved millions of lives”? Why not merely thousands of lives? For example, during the entire World War 2 there were around 400,000 American deaths. If the number of lives allegedly saved is small, then the double effect principle is violated not only in part b) but in part a), as well.

  4. The “eternal” perpetual war refers to the ideology of total war. The rule according to which an armed conflict must end in an unconditional surrender of, in Richard Weaver’s words, “a totally depraved opponent” leads inevitably to an endless orgy of murder and destruction.

    The main reason for the non-occurrence up until now of World War 3 has been, other than perhaps the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction between the US and the USSR, precisely a rejection of the ideology of total war. By resurrecting it, Hanson is not doing anyone any favors.

Further, Ludwig von Mises describes the economics of total war as follows:

The wars fought by primitive tribes did not affect cooperation under the division of labor. Such cooperation by and large did not exist between the warring parties before the outbreak of hostilities. These wars were unlimited or total wars. They aimed at total victory and total defeat.

The defeated were either exterminated or expelled from their dwelling places or enslaved.

The idea that a treaty could settle the conflict and make it possible for both parties to live in peaceful neighborly conditions was not present in the minds of the fighters.

Is Hanson defending the ways of primitive tribes? Must the enemy be destroyed utterly for peace to endure?

3. Hanson is not suggesting, I hope, that “more than a half century of Japanese prosperity, security, and liberal government” can compensate those who died in the blasts?

Is he saying that economic benefits to some arbitrary group of people can make up for hundreds of thousands of unjustly murdered? Is living well really the best revenge?

And were demanding an unconditional surrender and nuclear bombing the only ways of instituting liberal government in Japan? Could a less immoral way have been devised? Whatever happened to the power of ideas?

4. Of course, “dropping a bomb on the headquarters of the Japanese 2nd Army to force a military cabal to surrender” is much worse than “blowing up an office building,” because the former killed a lot more innocent people than the latter, precisely as a means to forcing an unconditional surrender!

5. Finally, it does not in fact make a “difference who starts wars, much less whether they are fought by fascists or democracies” with regard to the just way of waging wars. Bombing innocent people is wicked regardless of whether “their” government started the war or committed atrocities elsewhere. This is because there is a difference between jus ad bellum and jus in bello that our author overlooks.

Hanson ought to reconsider his collectivism.

Errors of War

The “war on terror” has brought about not only a curtailment of the Irrelevant Liberties, but also a great deal of mental confusion. For example, there exist many otherwise intelligent people who believe that “evil” can be “destroyed” with the help of overwhelming military force. But evil is negative; it is a privation, an absence of good. How does one destroy that which does not really exist? How can one destroy an imperfection?

This is by no means a spurious analogy. Consider the war on poverty. For years the state tried to fight poverty with various coercive redistribution schemes. It failed, because poverty is simply a lack of wealth. It is not destruction that we must strive for; it is creation of wealth. This creation is a slow and fragile process of capital accumulation. By sabotaging the market economy, the government only slowed this process down.

What about the war on drugs? One can agree that the use of certain drugs by certain people under certain circumstances constitutes a vice. But that is between them and God and their friends and families. It is of no concern to the larger society. The drug war has ruined countless lives both here and abroad. It has contributed mightily to the growth of the Leviathan. Yet it failed utterly. The drug warriors pretend that the absence of good, in this case unwillingness to face reality, can be fought with Apache helicopters, prisons, and deceptive propaganda rather than a good sermon and a fighting spirit.

In general then, in order to “destroy evil” one must create good.

How does this principle apply to the current war? First off, there can be no comparison between a war and apprehending a criminal. Most wars, and this one is no exception, involve the use of unjust violence in “retaliation” for another instance of unjust violence. This can quickly lead to escalation, which is precisely what the government has been constantly warning us about. Yet the bloodthirsty intellectuals and many of the conservative rank-and-file think that “victory” is assured. They should take their eyes off the technological terrors they’ve constructed and re-read their Sun Tzu:

7. You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.

8. Hence that general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack.

10. You may advance and be absolutely irresistible, if you make for the enemy’s weak points; you may retire and be safe from pursuit if your movements are more rapid than those of the enemy.

17. For should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.

18. Numerical weakness comes from having to prepare against possible attacks; numerical strength, from compelling our adversary to make these preparations against us.

30. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.

33. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain. (The Art of War, VI)

It seems that the terrorists know exactly what they are doing. Clearly, the natural order works in a certain way. Crushing people consistently fails to bring peace. There can never be a war to end all wars. Something else is needed. But what?

The answer is 100% free trade and strictly contractual relations with the citizens of all countries. We have to show them how good laissez-faire capitalism and international trade are so that they will think twice before blowing themselves up. The quicker they are incorporated into the international division of labor, the faster war and terrorism will become costly and very unpopular. There will emerge powerful business interests opposed to the disruption of trade inherent in any war. Today, for example, perpetual peace with China is all but assured given both countries’ commitment to capitalism. Recently somebody has come up with the idea that peace between Israel and the Palestinians can be achieved by building a wall between them and cutting off all contact. Going through with this will be a disaster, because neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis will then have anything to lose from each other’s destruction. They need more trade and more capitalism, not less.

We need to recall that almost all products and services we buy are made with the help of overseas capital or labor. Business negotiations among very different people are routinely conducted without the threat of nuclear war to back up the offers. We must come to appreciate how truly awe-inspiring it is to do business with people whose culture is profoundly different from our own. It is here in this perpetually despised “cash nexus” that our common humanity is reaffirmed in the most powerful way. It is the combination of self-interest and goodwill toward men that free trade both manifests and encourages that creates order and intelligibility and benevolence out of chaos and fear in man’s social life.

Another common error has to do with the much derided “moral equivalence.” How many times have we seen the slogan “God bless America!”? But God’s blessings are as a rule bestowed on those nations that are unwavering in their adherence to the natural law. Should they disobey, their past achievements will not save them from disaster. It is not worth pointing out, for example, that the people who died in the 9/11 attack did not deserve to be murdered. However, because most Americans failed even to try to restrain the state whose wild ambitions include managing the world with utter disregard for the laws of both social cooperation and conscience, they may not feign righteousness. They are utterly indifferent to their duty as citizens continuously to force the state to respect economic freedom at home and peace and self-determination of nations abroad and then become outraged when people around them die violent deaths. But maintaining a free, peaceful, and prosperous society requires keen minds and constant struggle, lest it degenerates into a ruthless welfare-warfare state with countless enemies. That struggle entails a conscious commitment to the correct ideology and a willingness to act on it. The fault, as always, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.

I was amused by the recent incident with the National Review‘s firing Ann “the Warrior Princess” Coulter for saying “We should invade [the terrorists’] countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.” They truth is, they are just as bloodthirsty as she is, but being the neocons that they are, they have to call for World War III while staying politically correct (which means Christianity is a no-no).

The corruption of the Western civilization is never more obvious when its “defenders” tremble in anticipation of spreading it with fire and sword. Persuading others of the superiority of the Western culture is not even an option. Unfortunately, instead of the Western ideals they will only spread destruction and the doctrine of might. This evil that they sow we all shall reap. In abundance.

Democracy or Who Made You King?

It often happens that a state will justify its various misdeeds and foreign aggression by arguing that it was “democratically elected,” while the other, evil state was not. Fortunately, this defense proves too much.

Suppose that I and a few other toughs form a gang with an intent to rob and terrorize the populace. When some of my victims ask me how I can do such evil things, I will patiently explain to them that my fellow gangsters voted for me to be their leader. When my bewildered victim objects that he does not understand what the rightness or wrongness of my actions has to do with the procedure by which I got to be chief, I will stubbornly repeat that this fact authorizes me to do pretty much anything I want. Surely, this is not what the democrats have in mind.

Democracy is in essence an internal political institution used to remove unpopular rulers peacefully, without violent revolutions. The ruler who got a one-time approval of the masses does not receive a license to do as he pleases. It is often alleged that democracy will nevertheless produce more liberal and peaceful governments than alternative arrangements. This, however, is by no means obvious. As economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe has shown, democracy has a crucial flaw. Elected officials are temporary caretakers and therefore have little incentive to think in the long term. The propaganda which the democratically elected rulers produce starts to includes false economic theories that justify their short-term focus. Worse, this attitude spreads to the rest of society. Everyone is in the political game, constantly being tempted to steal from one another by taking control of the machinery of state. Life speeds up and becomes more chaotic, more present-oriented, more error-prone, and even perhaps less “examined.” There is no longer a clear separation between state and society, a fact which tends to elevate limited wars to total wars. Mass-men turned politicians, drunk with power, send millions of their former fellows to die and to kill for those politicians’ quite arbitrary value judgments. For example, in his article entitled “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome,” Bruce Bartlett quotes historian A.H.M. Jones:

Oppression and extortion began very early in the provinces and reached fantastic proportions in the later republic. Most governors were primarily interested in acquiring military glory and in making money during their year in office, and the companies which farmed the taxes expected to make ample profits.

There was usually collusion between the governor and the tax contractors and the senate was too far away to exercise any effective control over either.

The other great abuse of the provinces was extensive moneylending at exorbitant rates of interest to the provincial communities, which could not raise enough ready cash to satisfy both the exorbitant demands of the tax contractors and the blackmail levied by the governors. (italics mine)

Hoppe’s assault on democracy is open to an objection, one which I believe Ludwig von Mises would have made. Capitalism is a system of mass production. It serves the interests of everyone, but especially the common people. If the masses are completely inert and apolitical, the elites will never be able to avoid the temptation to exploit them to the max. Therefore, the masses must participate in shaping the institutions that bind us all. The question “Who made you king?” is thus answered as “Capitalism did.” Consumer sovereignty does not protect itself. It is true that

[the rationalists] never gave a thought to the possibility that public opinion could favor spurious ideologies whose realization would harm welfare and well-being and disintegrate social cooperation. …

After having nullified the fable of the divine mission of anointed kings, the liberals fell prey to no less illusory doctrines, to the irresistible power of reason, to the infallibility of the volonté générale and to the divine inspiration of majorities. (HA, 440)

Yes, “it will require many long years of self-education until the subject can turn himself into the citizen.” But there is no escape from the need for popular sovereignty, even if it is properly made to exclude the underclass. Free enterprise cannot exist without it.

Hoppe’s answer, it seems to me, would go as follows. Why must a common ideology necessarily be expressed in the process of voting for one of the two candidates for public office? The threat of revolution or a palace coup every now and then, while potentially disruptive, is a good price to pay for freedom from the perverse incentives of democracy. Furthermore, it is not at all obvious that there must be a sovereign over private property owners at all. Since Hoppe is an anarcho-capitalist, this is where I think he would disagree with Mises the most.

Another objection aims at the relevance of Hoppe’s argument. In the United States, for example, there is little democracy. No government has never asked me for advice. Few people vote. The choice is usually between the lesser of the two evils. There are many more permanent bureaucrats who are notorious for ignoring the Congress than there are elected officials. Courts wield a great deal of power. Politics is played by the “interested parties,” also known as pressure groups. In fact, popular referenda, when the state allows them, often produce results superior to the decrees of the state.

We can easily counter this by pointing out that while the Founders had intended for the government to embody the best features of democracy and monarchy (a “republic”), things have changed so that it now embodies the worst features of both. Hence we have on the one hand what Joe Sobran calls the “autonomous government,” and on the other hand, an autonomous government which is out of control. It exploits the public to a much greater extent than a monarchy would to the detriment even of the majority of government workers themselves.

Finally, we may question Hoppe’s assertion of a strong connection between the king’s ownership of a territory and his desire to enhance its capital value. If a king is placed in charge of a country the size of the United States, then his own standard of living will be almost unaffected if he mismanages it even to the extent that famines will kill off half the population. After all, how much does one man need that the rent he receives from one hundred million people is not enough, but the rent he receives from two hundred million people is? To be sure, in his capacity as a citizen and benefactor of a well-functioning market economy he must respect economic laws if he wishes to squeeze the most out of “his” people. But all elected rulers face the same constraints on their power. Is not Hoppe placing too much hope on the ideal chief of state whose far-sighted statesmanship is supposed to free us from the tyranny of squabbling politicians who think only in the short-term and are concerned exclusively with the welfare of their own special interests? But in practice is not that chief of state liable to treat his subjects as mere cattle to be manipulated and exploited for his own amusement? Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the king will not think, like Louis XV, that “Après moi le déluge,” which is French for “In the long run we are all dead.”

Hoppe argues that such an outcome is both unlikely and will almost never be permitted. This is plausible; for example, in his Discourse, Étienne de La Boétie tells the following story:

Cato the Utican, while still a child under the rod, could come and go in the house of Sylla the despot. Because of the place and family of his origin and because he and Sylla were close relatives, the door was never closed to him. He always had his teacher with him when he went there, as was the custom for children of noble birth.

He noticed that in the house of Sylla, in the dictator’s presence or at his command, some men were imprisoned and others sentenced; one was banished, another was strangled; one demanded the goods of another citizen, another his head; in short, all went there, not as to the house of a city magistrate but as to the people’s tyrant, and this was therefore not a court of justice, but rather a resort of tyranny.

Whereupon the young lad said to his teacher, “Why don’t you give me a dagger? I will hide it under my robe. I often go into Sylla’s room before he is risen, and my arm is strong enough to rid the city of him.” There is a speech truly characteristic of Cato; it was a true beginning of this hero so worthy of his end.

And should one not mention his name or his country, but state merely the fact as it is, the episode itself would speak eloquently, and anyone would divine that he was a Roman born in Rome at the time when she was free.

Some theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, permitted tyrannicide under certain circumstances. Unfortunately, in totalitarian countries such as Cuba, the former Soviet Union, the former Communist China, the chief is or was the absolute monarch, completely mad, and restrained by nothing. That no one there ever assassinated the dictators reveals much about the power of fear and belief. It seems therefore that the correct ideology and the correct religion come first, and the choice of the procedure by which the continuation of the government is assured a distant second.

It is also worth keeping in mind that what matters most is the size of the state and the existence of a sufficient number of competing political systems. As long as individuals have a good exit option, the attitude of the members of each given polity will be not so much “my country, love it or leave it” as “please love my country.” We can speak of de facto market anarchism when the number of competing states approaches some critical number. A canonical example of this happy state of affairs is what exists among private residential communities, condos, and cooperative apartment buildings. Their smallness and the huge amount of competition ensure that the governing boards of these settlements are focusing on one overriding goal, viz. maintaining and raising property values. What is more, they can do so rationally, unlike the larger governments which can never know if their “investments” in “infrastructure” and suchlike pay off. Here, also, is a list of things that an association or a condo board may not, in practice, do:

  • Inflate the money supply.

  • Send you off to war to fight for the Greatness of Our Beloved Condominium.

  • Impose a progressive income tax or any tax other than a small property tax.

  • Use public funds for the private gain of board members and their friends.

This looks like ideal government to me, insofar as anything can be ideal in a fallen world. Any scandal or arbitrary inconvenience will immediately lower the attractiveness of the community’s political system and the residents’ property values. After all, would you buy an apartment in a condo where you had to fill out tax forms? Would you not notice if a board member has decided to place himself “above the law” by painting the front of his house an ugly color while denying the same privilege to everyone else? However, already at the level of a small town things start to break down.

As a result, Hoppe’s arguments acquire particular potency when applied to local governments.

Today, with the disappearance of the frontier and unexplored territories suitable for human life and the impossibility of hiding from the assassins of the state (unless you are Osama bin Laden) or from its bombers, the task of ensuring the availability of a variety of exit options falls upon the citizens of the world.

The matter is complicated by the existence of nation-states. On the one hand, the existence of many nations naturally implies the existence of many states. On the other hand, for a citizen of one nation-state all other nation-states may not provide a good exit option. What is to be done? One approach is apparent. That the United States is a magnet for foreign immigrants suggests that the standard of living is the crucial benchmark for choosing one’s country of residence. But prosperity requires liberty, and both carry with them a large number of accompanying institutions and ways of living and doing business. Hence free nations, like all happy families according to Leo Tolstoy, are all alike in the most important sense of the word. Not only then does laissez-faire capitalism make it less likely for a person to feel the need to emigrate, but it makes each nation a better alternative for the citizens of all other nations.

In sum, democracy is vastly overrated. The only argument which supports it is that it prevents violent revolutions. Unfortunately, realistic democracy introduces a number of extremely unpleasant side effects which cancel out whatever usefulness democracy does have.

Our Military Myth

As the Red Army example shows, the practice of collective rape can even become a form of bonding process.

— Antony Beevor, author of The Fall of Berlin 1945

The military, that greatest conservative institution in the U.S. and the embodiment of strength and honor, protects the American people from aggression. The foolish and cowardly naysayers do not comprehend how many foreign tyrants are looking to plunder our nation’s silverware, force Microsoft to publish the Windows source code, and convert us to Islam at gunpoint. Our soldiers spread American virtues all over the globe, protecting the weak, establishing order, and securing important resources for the American consumer. God bless our guys, and may the sacrifices they make for all of us every single day be always remembered.

Such is our carefully cultivated myth about the military. This is what the guardians of what is perfectly normal, thank you very much, teach children in civics classes, and this is also the belief of many adults. Now I was blessed with attending school in the former Soviet Union, where the propaganda was too clumsy and heavy-handed to be taken seriously. That was also the time of the collapse of the Soviet Empire, which means that nobody really cared. Fortunately for all concerned, the American Leviathan is healthy and pleasantly alert. This is why the citizen-subjects of this great country overlook the obvious fact that the modern military is a Communist establishment, and the ideology which sustains it a relapse into primitive barbarism which took place after a period of relative civilization. Genghis Khan burned entire towns and piled thousands of skulls into enormous pyramids. Only a few decades ago million-men armies slaughtered each other in world wars with efficiency which would have astounded poor old Genghis. Thriving cities were razed to the ground and their inhabitants annihilated. No one could escape, for if a citizen was not a soldier, he was considered to be a tool of state working for the war effort. As Ludwig von Mises wrote poignantly in 1919,

If in ancient times the destructive will of the more powerful met its limits in the inadequacy of the means of destruction and in the possibility available to the conquered of escaping persecution by moving away, then progress in the techniques of war and transportation and communication makes it impossible today for the defeated to evade the execution of the victor’s sentence of annihilation.

War has become more fearful and destructive than ever before because it is now waged with all the means of the highly developed technique that the free economy has created. Bourgeois civilization has built railroads and electric power plants, has invented explosives and airplanes, in order to create wealth. Imperialism has placed the tools of peace in the service of destruction.

With modern means it would be easy to wipe out humanity at one blow. In horrible madness Caligula wished that the entire Roman people had one head so that he could strike it off. The civilization of the twentieth century has made it possible for the raving madness of the modern imperialists to realize similar bloody dreams. By pressing a button one can expose thousands to destruction.

It was the fate of civilization that it was unable to keep the external means that it had created out of the hands of those who had remained estranged from its spirit.

Centuries of Christianity cooled the spirit of aggression and destruction in man. Classical liberalism, an ideology which ignited human imagination in the West in the 18th and 19th centuries further undermined the warlike instinct by firmly linking peace and prosperity and proving beyond all doubt the “futility of victory.” The French Revolution and later the totalitarian states of the 20th century undid all that. Human life no longer mattered. Neither did liberty.

That the influence of Christianity has been tremendously weakened is apparent. (Some have suggested that many Christians have given up because they are waiting to be lifted into heaven while they are still alive.) God is still dead (or should I say “stunned”), and there are few signs of a serious religious revival. Intellectuals publish books with titles such as Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. That mass-men are content to live under any system of social organization has been clear for a long time. Yet even among the natural elite very few know or care about classical liberalism. The situation is desperate, which is why it is worth dispelling some of our common illusions.

Make no mistake: when a person joins the army, he for all intents and purposes defects to the former Soviet Union and asserts a preference for life under total state. Consider:

  1. His life will be strictly regimented by his superiors to the extent that would have horrified a Soviet miner.

  2. During the time of his incarceration he will be completely useless to his fellow man. Instead of starting a business or learning a trade, he will be learning how to destroy in the blink of an eye what others have spent years and even centuries building.

  3. As a result of the brainwashing he will receive in the army he will run a serious risk of losing his ability to think critically. In addition, I fail to see how a man who has killed in an unjust war and has not repented can be a moral man or a believer in God.

  4. He will be turned into a weapon to be used according to the whims of the General Secretary of the Republican-Democrat party in Washington, D.C. He will be used to kill innocents, disrupt free trade, prop up tyrants at home and abroad, and foment hatred for private American citizens.

  5. He will be used as a guinea pig in government experiments, and, if he goes to war, he will likely be exposed to chemicals, radiation, and suchlike without his knowledge or consent, all of which will cause him to die well before his time.

Now I do not want to be unfair and overlook the benefits of military service. In general, a young man should consider joining the army if

  1. He likes to kill people and destroy private and public property.

  2. He thinks that he will enjoy recreations such as driving a tank or shooting big guns.

  3. He believes that the military will give him ample opportunity to rape local women and use the services of prostitutes, e.g., while on shore leave.

  4. He wishes to acquire certain rare skills, e.g., the skill of demolition or piloting airplanes or even hostage negotiation.

  5. He lives in a society where the dominant type of relationship is the hegemonic bond, for instance, a barbarian tribe or a military state geared for conquest, such that the most expeditious path to advancement is through a career in the military.

We have to admit that the historically greatest benefit of being a soldier — the ability to loot sacked cities — is offered less frequently these days. But for true professionals there are many opportunities to do well financially.

There was a reason why the Founders abhorred standing armies. It is very dangerous to have a well-armed, extremely expensive, mindlessly obedient, and uncivilized group of Communists among a free people. When the conservatives were yelling at Bill Clinton for “gutting the military,” one wondered exactly what the problem was. It was simply that Clinton preferred his welfare state to his warfare state, while the current master, George Bush, has the opposite preference.

At any rate, the conservatives were wrong. It is true that the size of the military has been going down steadily since the end of the Cold and Gulf Wars. At the end of the Clinton administration the military had 1.37 million active duty forces (down from around 2 million in 1991). But military spending has been going up, e.g. from $270 billion in 1998 to $312 billion in 2002. To put these numbers in perspective, consider this Cato Institute’s analysis:

When the U.S. annual budget for national defense is compared with that of other nations, the true magnitude of U.S. defense spending becomes clear. U.S. defense spending roughly equals the combined spending of the next 10 nations on the list — eight of which are our wealthy allies (only Russia and China fall outside this group).

The U.S. share of worldwide military spending increased from 27.5 percent in 1986 during the height of the Reagan military buildup to 32 percent in 1995. Today, the United States spends more than all of its wealthy friends and allies combined and almost one and a half times the amount spent by all of its rich NATO allies combined (the next most capable militaries in the world).

More important, the United States spends over 3.5 times the combined spending of nations that are “potential threat states” — Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba and North Korea.

This state of affairs is intolerable. Recall that in politics there is practically no goodwill, which means that peace prevails when there is a balance of power, i.e. when the costs of aggression to the state outweigh the benefits. We therefore face two choices: either cut the size and budget of the U.S. military substantially or watch other countries arm themselves and retaliate in ways which make it difficult for the U.S. government to use its own strengths. In other words, a balance of power today is achieved by cutting our own military spending.

Here then is a genuine pro-liberty reform. Let us root out Communism in our own midst. Let these poor government workers truly serve the people in the market, even as private security guards and consultants. Let international companies hire their own mercenaries so that everybody knows that the latter are not financed with our money. Let war contractors make the proverbial plowshares. Let the Joint Chiefs of Staff change their vocation to the Amazing Siamese Twins in a traveling circus. In short, abolish the standing army.

Letter to Ted Rall

Dear Mr. Rall:

In your latest article you write that “eliminating last year’s $1.5 trillion tax cut — money that would have gone to rich people who won’t miss it — would pay off everyone’s student loans for the next 50 years.”

Sir, I am very curious how you actually know that these rich people will not miss the money they have to pay to the government. Surely, you do not fancy yourself the Holy Ghost with the power to see into men’s souls? Your assertion is particularly odd, because usually people do miss things which they had but which were taken from them.

But let us see where this takes us. Suppose for the sake of argument that these rich will not actually miss their property. In that case why would they not give it to the government voluntarily? There are two possibilities. One is that they are simply too lazy (or forgetful) and will actually thank you for doing the hard work of relieving them of their goods, something which (you have to admit) is rather difficult to believe. Two is that they will give the money away to causes which you consider to be less important than those to which you yourself are partial. Again, you appear to believe yourself to be God who knows what is good and what is evil better than our blind and depraved rich.

Wait a minute! I do not wish to be unfair. Perhaps what you really mean is that “the rich will be harmed less than the poor will benefit”. Indeed, think of how many poor students we can educate if one selfish and materialistic rich person, who is no doubt leading a life of vice, debauchery, and dissipation, is prevented from buying his third yacht! Once again I bow before your Godlike attributes. There is omniscience as you manipulate men in cold blood; you take from A and give to B and know that “total happiness,” however defined, has been increased. There is perfect justice as the selfishness of the rich is punished, and there is overflowing love as the “meek” (the semi-barbarian teenagers? the welfare bums?) are elevated. There is supreme law-giving as you decree that it is Peter’s duty to surrender a portion of his wealth or income to Paul. There is, finally, omnipotence, as you blithely tell the government what to do and expect it to obey.

Sir, your ego is staggering, as is your conceit. Have you considered starting your own religion?

Best regards,

Dmitry Chernikov

P.S. Has it occurred to you that “free” higher education will have to be paid by the very same students in the form of higher taxes later who now have to pay for it themselves? There is a limit to how much you can soak the rich.

Letter to the Wall Street Journal on Sanctions

Re: End Sanctions on India.

You’ve got to be kidding. Conservatives have happily allowed the feds to seize enormous powers, such as the ability to put sanctions on any country in the world. Now it should be obvious that these sanctions don’t benefit the American people. But what is silly about an article like this is its presumption that some government bureaucrat will read it and suddenly go “Wow, this guy is right! I’m going to end the sanctions now!”

Look fellows, what you have to do it look slightly beyond your own group (India) and the next day (repealing current sanctions), as conservatives used to be able to do. The issue is not India and what our policy toward it should be today. It’s all countries and our policy to them at all times. In peacetime sanctions should not be imposed upon anybody, ever. Until we take this power away from the feds, they will keep using it arbitrarily and for their own purposes, which have nothing to do with general welfare.

If you want to accomplish your goal, you should make the case for sanctionless foreign policy, instead of this opportunistic and ultimately fruitless pursuit of narrow self-interest, which has zero chance of changing public opinion.

Wheels Within Wheels

I credit Murray Rothbard with identifying two types of conspiracies, viz. “capitalist ploys” or conspiracies designed to promote someone’s narrow self-interest at the expense of the general public; and “communist plots” which he further subdivides into conspiracies set up with the goal of promoting an ideology and the goal of acquiring political power. These seem to cover all the relevant cases. Indeed, the most successful conspiracies are those that attack on all three fronts; witness, for example, the combined forces of idealistic but naive anti-private-gun-ownership do-gooders, government regulators, and trial lawyers who want to loot gun manufacturers.

The first type of conspiracy is so ubiquitous, varied, and natural in a semi-free society that we will not be discussing it here. It is enough to note that politically connected companies seek freedom from consumer sovereignty through favorable regulations, anti-trust laws, exemptions from liability, and so forth. Their competitors, realizing that they have to play the game if they want to survive, defend themselves with greater or lesser success. The artificial obstacles also deter some entrepreneurs who would otherwise have challenged the vested interests from even trying. The result is that huge amounts of money are wasted financing projects that are not in the best interests of the consumers. Then there are the resources spent on lobbying (i.e. loot or privilege seeking) which, too, could be employed productively. We are all poorer because of it. Because there is no ideological pressure on the part of the elites to stop this kind of thing, the political landscape becomes a battlefield where only the ruthless survive. Indeed, some economists have expressed astonishment that so little money is spent on lobbying given that the federal government has almost three trillion dollars in stolen money and possesses vast discretionary powers. What a contrast to the harmony of interests in the market!

Ideological “conspiracies” are normal in any society and can be either good or bad depending on the ideology and the means used to promote it, viz. truthful persuasion vs. deception or violence.

Here I would like to focus on government plots. Persons who distrust the government in ways other than those sanctioned by that government are often labelled “paranoid.” (The relevant meaning of this term is “a tendency toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others.”) As I hope to demonstrate, it is a rash and unjustified accusation.

Suppose that I, following Friedrich Hayek, take seriously the possibility of the government’s putting psychotropic drugs in the water supply. What reasons could a non-Nobel-prize-winning economist offer to dismiss my concern out of hand?

I submit that there are exactly five reasons for doing so:

  1. The policy in question cannot be implemented due to inadequate technology. For example, there exist no drugs powerful enough and in sufficient quantities (at least at the moment) to produce the desired effect after being dissolved in great amounts of water.

  2. The policy is unthinkable because the government is bound by ideological, moral, or religious prohibitions. In other words, who would do such an evil thing?

  3. The policy is against government interests. Rulers themselves cannot avoid drinking the contaminated water; drugged-up populace cannot be whipped up into nationalist frenzy; and so on.

  4. The policy will fail due to individual resistance. People, having become aware of what the government has done, will stop drinking tap water and switch to bottled water, move out of the territory affected by the drugs, or likewise evade the state.

  5. The policy will fail due to collective resistance. Secrecy cannot be maintained, and the natural elites can successfully resist this policy in the name of the entire community and threaten to remove the current rulers from power unless they rescind it.

In light of this, shall we say, “rationality test” let us entertain a conspiracy theory. I am going to claim that like Chancellor Palpatine in the movie Star Wars II, George Bush or some other high-ranking federal officials orchestrated the September 11 attack in order to consolidate political power and that Osama bin Laden does not even exist. (I will be focusing exclusively on the president, even though the D.C. mandarinate is composed of a multitude of semi-autonomous and often rival agencies.) Before examining any evidence that I may have, you accuse me of paranoia. Out of the five reasons above, which ones would you use to support your judgment of me?

Now reasons one and four are not applicable, while reason three is explicitly countered by the theory itself. Reason five fails due to several considerations. First, there are no longer practically any institutional restraints left to keep the state in check. Everything that has happened after September 11 has been mopping up.

Second, the government has admitted that bin Laden has managed to mastermind his spectacular crime in almost complete secrecy, and it is difficult to see why this feat would be any easier for a group of conspicuous foreigners than for the compulsively paranoid central government.

Third, the government has confessed to astonishing incompetence in what is supposed to be its primary function, namely, production of security, but why would malicious intent be any more unthinkable than such incompetence, both of which are natural and common occurrences in the life of the Leviathan?

Thus, only the second reason rings true. Suppose now that Bush was as corrupt as any dictator, from Nero to Stalin, and you were a traveler from a distant land studying America. (See G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man for a marvelous use of this device.) Might it not occur to you that Bush had a hand in this directly?

Wait a minute, you object at once, George Bush is a devout Christian. He is not a tyrant. He is not Saddam Hussein who we are supposed to believe speared babies on bayonets and gassed “his own” people. What kind of a psychopath do I take Bush to be in order to for him to murder thousands of his countrymen? Is he not just one of the guys? To this I will reply that the possession of vast political power along with a pervasive apparatus of flattery and glorification of force has a profound effect on a man. “Power corrupts” is not a cliché but reality. In truth, Bush is Nero and Stalin, and it is anybody’s guess how far gone he is. My conspiracy theory amounts to the claim that enough time had passed for Bush to go insane, and you counter that one year of being president could not have twisted him so badly. Fair enough, but let us understand that our disagreement is a trivial one, based on the evaluation of a man’s character. There is nothing a priori implausible about my theory.

Remember also that much more hideous things have been done by the supposed guardians of the commonwealth throughout history, including American history. It need not necessarily have taken outright madness for George Bush to do something much less destructive than what Stalin or Lincoln did and blow up the towers.

Now obviously I do not actually think that Bush had anything directly to do with the attack. But it is truly scary that this “crazy” conspiracy theory passes the rationality test. But then it can’t happen here, and it can’t happen now.

People Wanted

In thusly named chapter of his book Fair Play economist and moralist Steven Landsburg has posed a number of intriguing problems. (Also see his Be Fruitful and Multiply and Who Shall Inherit the Earth?) I will attempt to solve each one in turn.

1. Landsburg asks

Do living people have any moral obligation to the trillions of potential people who will never have the opportunity to live unless we conceive them?

The answer is surely either yes or no, but either answer leads to troubling conclusions. If the answer is yes, then it seems to follow that we are morally obligated to have more children than we really want. The unconceived are like prisoners being held in a sort of limbo, unable to break through into the world of the living. If they have rights, then surely, we are required to help some of them escape. …

But if the answer is… no, then it seems there can be no moral objection to our trashing the entire earth, to the point where there will be no future generations… If we prevent future generations from being conceived in the first place, and if the unconceived do not count as moral entities, then our crimes have no victims, so they’re not true crimes.

These questions are religious in nature, hence we can reason as follows. If there is pre-existence of the soul (due allowance being made for the possibility that God is “outside” of time) and if the soul is immortal, then it is conceivable that those souls that are not Hell-bound may benefit from a stay in this world. But no religion that I know of has any rules which deal with disembodied souls that have not yet existed as human beings. Indeed, we have no knowledge of any celestial procedure by which souls are assigned to human bodies. Whatever the truth of this matter, it is highly doubtful that souls exist “in a sort of limbo, unable to break through into the world of the living.” (Even if they are in limbo, who is to say that they are unhappy there?) It is true that there is a general commandment in the Bible to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” But it says nothing about precisely what level of human population is most pleasing to God.

If, however, souls do not exist prior to birth, then the unconceived do not exist and hence cannot be said to benefit from the gift of life. It can be argued that when a child is born (or a soul is created) its joy of being alive adds to the total, but it is not at all obvious that we ought to be concerned with the maximization of the amorphous “total happiness” in this peculiar fashion. Now I imagine that almost everyone has experienced the “horror of the void,” a feeling of what it is like not to exist. Indeed, for human beings the idea of not existing is quite unpleasant. But that which does not exist is not aware of its terrible condition and the joys of being alive. Hence we do not seem to have a duty to bring things into being.

Furthermore, if the Biblical commandment is true, then we ought to keep having children. The earth is far from being subdued, and I agree that we could “use” a lot more people. If the commandment is false and God is indifferent to whether or not there are six billion people on earth or only two people, then it cannot be wrong to reduce the total population dramatically. If there is no God, then I see no moral reason not to trash the earth and thereby prevent future generations from being conceived.

2. Landsburg continues:

Surely you know couples like this: They have two children, and they’re undecided about whether to have a third. They waver back and forth; they lean one way and then the other; they weigh the pros and they weigh the cons. Finally they decide to go ahead. And from the instant that third child is born, the parents love it so deeply that they’d gladly sacrifice all their assets to preserve its life.

Compare that with the way people shop for appliances or furniture or compact discs. Ordinarily, the products you hesitate over are not the ones you end up treasuring most deeply. There are exceptions of course — sometimes that CD is surprisingly good once you get it home — by the general rule is that if you weren’t sure you wanted it, it’s unlikely to be cherished. Why, then, are children so different? …

If you’ve already got two kids and are wavering over a third, then you’ve already got a pretty good idea of what parenthood is like, and you already know that, unlike the addict who despises his addiction, you’re going to treasure your attachment to your children. When you know you’re going to love something that much after you’ve got it, how can you hesitate about getting it in the first place?

This inconsistency is due entirely to the difference between things that one creates and consumer items that one purchases. Imagine that you are building your business or writing a complicated computer program or engaging in any sort of creative activity. You may almost fall in love with your “baby.” But before you start, you cannot value the object which you will be creating even if you have run other businesses and written other programs. This is because its value is inseparable from the exercise of your own creative faculties that imbue it with life.

Now consider how people adopt babies from foreign countries. They treat this task as a business endeavor: they pay quite a bit of money, inspect the “merchandise” for “defects,” and so on. For these people the child is, at least temporarily, a consumer item to be bought and sold exactly like a CD. They know what they want, and they do not hesitate to get it.

Creation is difficult. And this is why people hesitate. Nine months of pregnancy, the weaning, the child’s hunger for knowledge, the worrying — it takes a toll. There are payoffs, but first one has to take the plunge.

This insight also gives us a clue as to the reason for the parent’s “addiction” to his child. Not being a parent myself, I can only speculate that it is the trust that the child shows toward the parent in spite and because of the almost unlimited power which the latter has over the child. It is the fact that the child allows the parent to influence it. This is what I find so delightful whenever I play with children, e.g. those of my relatives. It is a great honor to be trusted by a kid who is not one’s own. Kids seem to have a sixth sense by which they tell worthy people from those who are not worthy.

Now the more children one has, the less attention one can devote to each one and the less interaction with each child one will have, as Landsburg points out, hence the less pleasure one can derive from the child’s trust and from the imprint which the parent will leave upon him. One’s child is one’s creation and one has to love it and work on it in order to derive the most utility from it. But love is scarce. So is time. I offer a conjecture that one of the reasons why Landsburg is reluctant to have more children may be that he is subconsciously concerned that his “addiction” to his daughter (or perhaps to his science of economics) will diminish.

3. The final paradox which we will consider is this:

Suppose you’re planning to conceive a child in the near future, and you’re thinking about going down to the bank to purchase some bonds as a gift to that child. There is no doubt that the trip to the bank will cause a slight shift in your schedule for the rest of the day, hence a slight shift in the moment of conception, and hence a complete change in the identity of your child (because the sperm that’s out of the pack at 10:01 is unlikely to be in front of the pack at 10:02).

Now then: If you go to the bank, you will conceive child A, who is destined to be wealthy. If instead you spend all your money at the race track, you will instead conceive child B, who is destined to be poor. Moreover, you know in advance, based on the experience of virtually all parents, that no matter which child is born, that is the child you will prefer. If, twenty years after B is born, you were magically offered the opportunity to trade him for A, it’s a sure bet that you wouldn’t consider it. In fact, if an evil genie threatened to turn B into A, you’d pay him not to do it.

But by going to the bank instead of the racetrack, you are essentially paying for the privilege of siring the wealthy A instead of the impoverished B. This, despite the fact that you’d do practically anything to prevent B from turning into A after he’s born. This seems very hard to reconcile with any economic theory of rational behavior, yet there it is.

I confess to being puzzled by the fact that Landsburg considers this to be a problem. Perhaps I do not understand the paradox. But it seems that at the moment of conception the parent faces the choice of

(an abstract child + wealth) versus (an abstract child + poverty).

Clearly, the first choice is preferable. Twenty years from now he will face a completely different choice:

(a concrete living and breathing son or daughter + poverty) versus (an abstract child + wealth).

This choice is by no means obvious. Moreover, at the moment of conception the parent is not in a position even to consider the second choice, because this living and breathing son or daughter does not yet exist.

I have no hesitation in recommending Landsburg’s book to everyone. It is full of most interesting “moral niceties.”

Update 2/19/2011. If we want to have children, then presumably we love them and will good to them; their happiness makes us happy. Therefore, we owe it to ourselves to care for them, not “trash the earth,” etc.