Category Archives: Fiscal Policy

Applied Austrian Economics

Today, I’d like to bring attention to two videos that deal with topics surrounding the Austrian school of economics.

The first is the Henry Hazlitt Memorial Lecture given by my long-time friend and colleague, Ed Younkins: “Ayn Rand and the Austrian Economists” [YouTube link]. Ed is particularly qualified to have delivered this very interesting lecture. He has authored many books and essays exploring the interconnections between Rand and Austrian theorists, including Flourishing and Happiness in a Free Society: Toward a Synthesis of Aristotelianism, Austrian Economics, and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (2011). He was also a contributor to the Spring 2005 Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (JARS) symposium, “Ayn Rand Among the Austrians,” for which he wrote the essay, “Menger, Mises, Rand, and Beyond.” That symposium featured important essays by a dozen authors, including George Reisman, Walter Block, Roderick T. Long, Peter Boettke, and Steven Horwitz. And as a coeditor, with Roger Bissell and me, of The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom (2019), Ed also contributed an essay to that anthology, “Freedom and Flourishing: Toward a Synthesis of Traditions and Disciplines,” in which he argues for an integration of Aristotelian, Randian, and Austrian insights.

Clearly, this is a subject matter that has preoccupied Ed for many years. In this lecture, Ed draws from the neo-Aristotelian realist core in the works of Carl Menger, founding father of the Austrian school. Ed sees fruitful connections between Menger’s approach and that of Ayn Rand. He makes a case for integrating the praxeological insights of Ludwig von Mises with a larger normative (and meta-normative) vision, drawn not only from Rand but from the neo-Aristotelian philosophers, Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl. (It should be noted too that Ed and the Dougs were all on the Advisory Board of JARS for years, so it’s nice to see continuing cross-pollination!) And he addresses the thought of Murray Rothbard, who sought to reconfigure Mises’s Kantian-influenced praxeology on surer Aristotelian footing. As Ed puts it, the neo-Aristotelian and Objectivist worldviews can provide a more robust context for Austrian economic insights. And there is much to be gained from the intellectual exchange of these perspectives.

The only Austrian theorist not discussed in Ed’s presentation is Friedrich Hayek. Hayek departs from Misesian praxeology and is not generally considered a neo-Aristotelian. But there is much affinity between Hayek’s critique of constructivist rationalism and Rand’s rejection of rationalist thinking. On this basis alone, I have long argued that an engagement between Hayekian and Randian perspectives can be fruitful—and I’d strongly encourage integration of key Hayekian insights in any attempted integration of Austrian theory and Objectivism. (I explore Hayek’s views in depth in my book, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, and I engage the Hayekian and Randian perspectives in my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, especially chapter 8.)

Coincident with the release of Ed’s lecture is a YouTube presentation by two dear friends: Ryan Neugebauer (Ryan N) and Ryan McGaughey (Ryan M), or as I like to call them: “Ryan Squared” (I can’t provide a superscript ‘2’ here, but you get the idea!)

This discussion, “Austrian Economics, Political Economy, and the Case for the Mixed Economy” [YouTube link], is as provocative as its title suggests. Their aim is to invite feedback as they move toward a coauthored essay that uses Austrian insights to make the case for a mixed economy.

The Ryans begin with a discussion of my work on dialectical libertarianism, specifically Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism and its critique of Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism (ancap). With dialectics—the art of context keeping—as methodological backdrop, they seek to promote the project of human freedom and personal flourishing with a recognition of the conditions that exist. They oppose reductionists on either side of the dualistic divide—those anarcho-capitalists who envision the market’s absorption of all governmental functions and those socialists or communists who propose the government’s absorption of the market. This false alternative leads the purists in both camps to embrace what Karl Popper once called “canvas cleaning.” The ancap would ‘push a button’ to eliminate the state as surely as the communist would ‘push a button’ to demolish the market, no matter how many bodies are left in the wake of wiping the slate clean. Moreover, even if such a button could be pushed, the proposed resolution ignores the need for a cultural transformation that might nourish and support any such radical social change.

The ‘mixed economy’—that catchall term for various mixtures of markets and states—has existed for eons and there is no foreseeable future in which this phenomenon will wither away. Indeed, it is no coincidence that classical economics was viewed as the study of political economy, for politics and economics have been inextricably intertwined in various ways. Ultimately, the question is: What kind of mixture is optimal for the nurturing of freedom and flourishing?

Before even considering this question, however, the Ryans’ focus here is on the ways in which the Austrian school of economics has helped us to understand the nature of a market economy. As Ryan M puts it, the Austrian school has provided core notions that were essential not just to the marginal revolution spearheaded by Carl Menger, but to the tradition he founded. Among those ideas was Menger’s insistence that value is not inherent in material objects, but in the subject’s valuation of those objects. This is the kind of ‘subjectivism’ that Ed Younkins views as fully compatible with Menger’s Aristotelian realism and Rand’s Objectivism, insofar as material objects are evaluated in an agent-relative manner that is fully engaged with the world, rather than cut off from it. (Rand distinguished her Objectivist alternative from the classical objectivist position, which she dubbed “intrinsicism,” insofar as it placed intrinsic value on the objects in the material world, rather than value-as-evaluated-by-a-conscious-subject.)

Other core notions in the Austrian tradition include an appreciation of the epistemic role of markets and an understanding of the non-neutrality of money. In his works, Hayek explained the function of the price mechanism in transmitting inarticulate (tacit) knowledge across social networks as a means of coordination. And, as Ryan M emphasizes, the Austrian view of the non-neutrality of money is crucially important to Austrian business cycle theory. Austrian theorists cast light on the differential ways that inflationary infusions of money redistribute wealth to those who are its first beneficiaries. In his 1938 work, Theory of Money and Credit, Mises pioneered this view in a way that fully embraced the discipline of political economy. While Austrians long championed the notion that money as an institution evolved through the division and specialization of labor, they also recognized the state’s intimate involvement throughout history with coinage, banking, and structural variations in the supply of money. Hence, to say that money is not neutral is not merely an economic observation; it is a profoundly political one as well. Mises’s approach was a scathing indictment of static equilibrium models in favor of a process orientation. It also pointed to a class dimension in the business cycle, a dimension explored more comprehensively by Mises’s student, Murray Rothbard.

This intermingling of economics and politics shows up in both Austrian economics and libertarian politics. Indeed, as Ryan N observes, it is often difficult to separate Austrian economics from the purest libertarian politics upheld by certain Austrian economists. Some Austrians, most notably Hayek, departed from these purist demands, favoring political means for the provision of social safety nets. The Ryans wish to utilize the economic tools of Austrian theory in ways that might bolster the case for a mixed economy. They are not unsympathetic to anarcho-libertarian ideals. But in the real world, those ideals have never been actualized. They might be implicit in some real-world social relations, but the rules of the game have been corrupted throughout human history. What is called “capitalism” today is not the “unknown ideal” of its advocates. In “capitalism: the known reality,” as I’ve called it, the structures of property ownership were historically constituted by the enclosure of the commons, conquest, and colonialism such that any notion of Lockean ‘just acquisition’ is rendered almost incomprehensible. To this extent, the dichotomous view of market and state is ahistorical, for the economic and the political have always been organically linked.

The Ryans maintain that those of us who are concerned with justice can’t rewind history and undo the damage of centuries of wealth and land redistribution. But we can attempt to make up for it. And that is the springboard for what the Ryans propose. Given the context that exists, how might Austrian insights be used to improve our society?

Moving forward—in building the case for a mixed economy, indeed, for a better mixed economy—I’d encourage my friends to address issues raised in the Austrian literature by two of its contemporary representatives: Don Lavoie and Sanford Ikeda. In National Economic Planning: What is Left? (1985), Lavoie is concerned with those state-centered mixed economies that tend toward the militarization of economic life, bolstering not only the welfare state, but the warfare state as well. This organic conjunction of welfare and warfare is something that has been a part of U.S. history, but it has had a global impact. And it has deep class dimensions.

Critiques of the mixed economy have been offered by Marxist, public choice, and Austrian thinkers. Marxist theorist Paul Mattick published a 1964 essay, “Dynamics of the Mixed Economy,” that explored these issues. Ikeda’s work, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism (1996), draws from both public choice and Austrian insights to address the “spontaneous order” that is distinctive to political processes in real existing mixed economies.

Any case for the mixed economy should grapple more fully with this literature.

I very much enjoyed both Ed Younkins’s lecture and the Ryan Neugebauer-Ryan McGaughey presentation and I highly recommend both YouTube videos to Notablog readers. Links below.

Practical Politics for Left-Libertarians

As of this date, despite the presence of various third-party candidates in the 2024 election cycle, it is virtually inevitable that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden is going to serve another term in the White House. But there are other political visions that are awaiting an audience.

As an advocate of dialectics—the art of context-keeping—I have long stressed that even the loftiest of political goals must begin with the conditions that exist. Or, as I like to paraphrase good ol’ Don Rumsfeld: We plan our way toward a better future based on the conditions that we have, not on the conditions we wished we had. There is no magic button that we can push to suddenly transform our society into one that nourishes human freedom and personal flourishing. This can be daunting for those of us who advocate radical social change—that is, change that emerges from a deeper understanding of the systemic and historical roots of a society’s problems as the means to resolving them.  

There are many different strains of libertarian thinking that have lent themselves to this radical project. Today, my very dear friend Ryan Neugebauer has published on Medium what he calls “A Dialectical Left-Libertarian Political Platform.” While there are many different dialectical left-libertarian approaches to contemporary problems, here, Ryan attempts to bring together a wide variety of practical, real-world strategies that would “unshackle society.”

I’m sure that readers coming from diametrically opposed political perspectives will be both attracted to—and abhorred by—various proposals that Ryan puts forth in this paper. There is no doubt, however, that Ryan’s political program is panoramic in its approach. He provides a check list of ways to free-up markets, by shrinking the intellectual property regime, tackling restrictive zoning laws, and addressing land value taxation. He discusses public options in healthcare, universal basic income or negative income taxes, education, gun control, drug prohibitionism, police accountability, restorative justice, immigration, energy policy, foreign policy, diplomacy, and global trade. Along the way, he also discusses “bottom-up” libertarian municipalism and cooperatives, while embracing a laissez-faire policy on contentious social issues.

However you receive any proposal put forth by Ryan, he is clearly committed to focusing on the “overall socioeconomic and political systems that we currently have” as the foundation for all that might be—while using eclectic strategies at our disposal in an effort “to increase freedom, equality, justice, and flourishing” within that context. On that basis alone, he’s passed the dialectical test resoundingly. Check out his essay here.

DWR (12): The NYC “Warzone”

As we move closer to the 2024 election, it is only natural that we are entering the Period of Hyperbole. That’s a polite way of saying the Period of Hypocrisy, Twisted Logic, and Outright Lies.

The Right-Wing Attack on New York

I’m one of those born and bred New Yorkers who finds it maddening to read the litany of familiar right-wing attacks on my hometown, which typically intensify during election cycles. It’s so predictable that I can practically check off all the right-wing talking points in my sleep. Anytime I hear the phrase “New York values”, for example, I know that it’s a code word. No, not for “rude”, “brash”, or “loud”. It’s hurled as an epithet and it’s meant to disparage New Yorker’s tolerance — nay, embrace — of difference. Most Gotham dwellers have a cosmopolitan ‘live and let live’ perspective on the world and for this, they are routinely excoriated.

But since the pandemic and the protests and riots that followed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, right-wingers have been harping on New York’s ‘lawlessness’. Just turn on Fox News and you’ll hear that crime in NYC is “worse than the 90s”! This meme — an exercise in gallows humor that has been circulating on social media platforms — is not too far from the vision that Fox News presents to the world … even more hilarious because Fox is based in New York City!

The clear pattern is: Don’t just denigrate New York City. Make sure you blame the Democrats for the city’s collapse into “a hellscape of unchecked violence and chaos”. Donald Trump rails against the city of his birth as “one of the most dangerous and violent cities in the United States … where killings are taking place at a number like nobody’s ever seen.” Missouri Republican Josh Hawley asserts that “you can’t go out on the streets without being shot.” And GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley tweets: “Gov. Kathy Hochul has sat on the sidelines while liberal district attorneys like Alvin Bragg turn New York City into a war zone where innocent people are scared to take the subway and criminals get a free pass. Governors are supposed to protect their people. She can send a message to criminals by announcing her intent to pardon Daniel Penny. She can remove Alvin Bragg for endangering Manhattan residents. One thing is clear: doing nothing only continues the crime wave in New York.”

Alas, as James Peron points out: “These false perceptions about ‘out-of-control’ crime are used by Republicans routinely to terrify voters. Like politicians in general they are prone to use fear to rally the terrified.” Yes, all politicians, left and right, use fear as part of their arsenal of Machiavellian manipulation. And in this case, it’s the right wingers who need a history lesson. Any simple fact check would prove how debased their hyperbolic claims are.

History Lessons

Nothing compares to the crime rates of the late 1980s and early 1990s. There were over 2000+ murders per year between 1987 and 1994, reaching a peak of 2,262 murders in 1990. Despite an uptick in crime in the year after the pandemic, 2022 murders numbered 438. That’s about as far from Fox’s Grimm Fairytales as one can get. NYC remains the most densely populated city in the United States; with an estimated population of around 8 million, it is home to more people than the populations of 38 individual states. And if one counts the NYC metropolitan area, we’re talking nearly 19 million people — certainly the most populated metro area in the country and still among the most populated metro areas in the world. But “the NYPD’s historical CompStat figures show that the Five Boroughs [of NYC] are still far safer now than they were back in 2000.” Murders are down, shootings are down. And even though there has been an increase in robberies, burglaries, and grand larcenies, they don’t even remotely compare to the city’s historic heights in 1990.

How about a little dialectical context-keeping? Here’s the historical data:

Overall, crime in 2022 was 76% lower (and lower in every major category) than it was in the peak year of 1990. And, except for a few outliers, it is lower than it was in 1990, 1993, 1998, and 2001.

The city’s declining crime rates were part of a national trend. As Radley Balko explains, even though U.S. murder rates increased in 2020–2021, “they were still well below the rates of the early 1990s.” NPR reports that, currently, New York is experiencing “a downward trend … According to NYPD, in March 2023, New York City saw a 26.1% drop in shooting incidents compared to this time last year. And homicides fell by 11.4%.”

Why Target NYC?

So, the question remains: Why do right-wing politicians target NYC?

As my dear friend Ryan Neugebauer points out with characteristic bluntness:

There are so many cities to choose from in this country. And actually, for the largest city in the country, [New York City’s] crime is massively low, even compared to many U.S. cities pre-pandemic. Little Rock, Arkansas has been shit for a while, way worse than NYC. But no, we won’t talk about that. Houston, my neck of the woods (4th largest city), is also worse than NYC, and has been for a long time. No focus on that. You have to ask WHY a location is being uniquely focused on.

The right-wing focuses on its rise since the pandemic, while neglecting its performance in comparison to so many other cities in the country also dealing with a rise since the pandemic.

The whole issue speaks to right-wing disingenuousness and hypocrisy, as Ryan observes. Indeed, in claiming that the city’s crime rate is uniquely bad today, Nikki Haley, in her tweet above, focuses specifically on Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg — who, it just so happens, recently announced an indictment of her former boss, Donald Trump. It’s convenient to focus on the Demonic Democrats, whom Republicans blame for turning NYC into a “warzone” — and yet, they never look at the “warzone” in their own backyards. For example, if we compare Columbia, a city in Haley’s state (which isn’t even the most violent city in South Carolina) to the five boroughs that constitute New York City, here’s what we find:

As Ryan observes: “It’s potent to deconstruct a false narrative with facts, but it’s even more potent to show how that false narrative ignores facts about areas that go counter to your simplistic (in the right-wing case, ‘Democrat-run cities are bad’) narrative.” Current statistics show that red states have higher murder rates than blue states. Eight of the Top Ten “Murder” states are led by Republicans — Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. But these states also have higher poverty rates and greater economic decay, factors that have more nuanced relationships with crime than, say, the party affiliations of city and state politicians. And I’d say the same thing about New York City, which has seen dramatic declines in its crime rates under Republican, Independent, and Democratic mayoralties.

Still, Ryan adds:

If you are going to make the point that NYC is a warzone, you have to delineate what criteria counts for being a warzone. And comparison is not an unfair thing to use in that discussion. If South Carolina has worse stats in some of its cities, it’s fair to ask “what makes these places NOT warzones?” Why do they have worse statistics and aren’t the focus? What’s so unique about NYC that it has your attention?

I think most New Yorkers know the answer to that question. Save for the singular event of 9/11, New York City has always been the focal point of right-wing hostility. “Anti-New York sentiment is a longtime conservative shibboleth,” explains David Birdsell, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Kean University. “It’s very popular and easy to demonize New York as fundamentally alien.”

This view of the “alien” nature of New York has been bolstered more so ever since its designation as a “Sanctuary City” in a 1989 executive order, signed by Democratic Mayor Ed Koch. But that policy protecting undocumented immigrants from deportation and prosecution has been upheld by Republicans and Democrats alike. In 1994, upon becoming Mayor, even Republican Rudy Giuliani embraced the policy (as did his successor, Mike Bloomberg). This town has always been a city of sanctuary, a city of immigrants. It is estimated that about 40% of the U.S. population can trace its lineage to Ellis Island, “the gateway to America”. Till this day, NYC is consistently ranked as the most cosmopolitan city in the world. And that makes it a target especially for those who want to close the borders to those troublesome “invaders”—or who seek to overwhelm the city’s sanctuary status by using migrants as political pawns.

The Historic Drop in NYC Crime

Let’s give some credit where credit is due. Crime rates began their decline under Democratic Mayor David Dinkins, but it was during the moderate Republican administration of Rudy Giuliani that New York’s crime rates began to decline precipitously. There has been a huge debate over the causal factors behind this decline. Some argue that this was a national trend and not exclusive to New York City. Others argue that while violent crime declined 28% nationally in the 1990s, New York City’s violent crime declined 56% in that same period, thereby driving those nationwide trends. Some cite better economic conditions as key, while others cite a combination of community policing and “Broken Windows” policies and an increase in the prison population. A Brennan Center Study argues persuasively, however, that mass incarceration had zero effect on crime rates, but that CompStat was responsible for a 5 to 15 percent decrease in crime in those cities that adopted it. CompStat, used to track crime trends, was the brainchild of NYPD deputy police commissioner Jack Maple. In New York City, this innovative tool guided more police and other resources to high-crime areas that most needed them.

Ironically, it was during this period — far closer to the “warzone” metaphor than anything one might find today — that Donald Trump forged his New York real estate deals. One would think that at a time when crime had hit historic heights in this city, a savvy businessman would be less inclined to do business here. But that wasn’t the case. Despite his notorious feuds with Mayor Koch, Trump used his family’s political clout with former Democratic Mayor Abe Beame to bolster his real estate ventures. At the time, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York was Rudy Giuliani, who implicated Trump at the center of a “cesspool of corruption” entailing “the buying and selling of public office” and extravagant real estate deals that clobbered New York taxpayers. Trump had cashed-in on his crony capitalist connections big time. He renovated, built and/or acquired such properties as the Grand Hyatt Hotel (1980), Trump Tower (1980), the Plaza Hotel (1988, which subsequently filed for bankruptcy 2 years later), the Trump Building (1996, of which he’s still, apparently, the landlord), and the 76 acres that constituted the Lincoln Square neighborhood, which, due to his own struggles with debt, were sold off to investors based in Hong Kong in 1997.

The Real Problems in New York City

And this, perhaps, is just a glimpse into what have been the real problems in New York City. Republicans and Democrats alike have done enormous damage to this city’s economy and its social infrastructure. From the days of those epic struggles between big developers like Robert Moses and decentralists like Jane Jacobs, this city has seen enormous changes to its landscape that have led to prohibitively high costs of living and draconian regulatory policies. Rents and housing prices remain high, as do taxes. Those taxes are used to support robust systems of public welfare and public education. The poor and working classes suffer disproportionately as affordable housing has been war-“zoned” out of existence, while wealthier landowners exploit rent stabilization laws for their own benefit. NYC remains one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to live.

It has also been battered by a historic drop in its population. New York State saw its steepest population decline in the last year alone. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that this city was hit hardest by the pandemic. Its population declined not only due to nearly 40,000 recorded deaths — “one of the deadliest disasters by death toll in the history of New York City” — but also to an exodus of 300,000 people during the period from April 2020 to June 2021. An additional 123,000+ people left the city in the July 2021-July 2022 period. And as many began working remotely during the pandemic, fewer people have returned to their offices in Manhattan. Even with hybrid work schedules, workers who are commuting to the city’s epicenter “are spending $12.4 billion less per year than they were before the pandemic.”

Ever the New Yorker, I’d like to think that that statue in the harbor, which lifts its lamp to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, is just as much a testament to this city’s resilience. But this is what makes the right-wing narrative on the New York City “warzone” so tragic. It shifts attention away from profoundly systemic problems and prevents us from tackling the much larger socioeconomic issues that need to be addressed fundamentally. That would require the kind of dialectical thinking that is anathema to ideological rigidity of any kind, right or left.

This article was also published on Medium.

The Essential Women of Liberty

For people looking for a fine introduction to the thought of a select group of women who have contributed to the cause of liberty, let me recommend The Essential Women of Liberty, coedited by Donald Boudreaux and Aeon J. Skoble, published by the Fraser Institute, with a foreword by Virginia Postrel. My dear friend Aeon informs me that the book is also available in hardcover and softcover editions.

The volume includes essays on Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, Rose Director Friedman, Mary Paley Marshall, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand (a nice essay by Carrie-Ann Biondi), Anna Schwartz, Jane Jacobs, Elinor Ostrom, and Deirdre McCloskey.

I am truly delighted by the remarkably diverse selection of thinkers featured in this anthology. Indeed, any volume that runs the gamut from Wollstonecraft and Rand to Jacobs and Ostrom is worth the price of admission.

Deirdre McCloskey is the only woman featured in this collection whom I’ve ever had the privilege of getting to know personally, having worked closely with her as a contributor to The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, which I coedited with Roger Bissell and Ed Younkins. (Indeed, a Facebook symposium dedicated to that anthology generated a colloquy on her delightful contribution, which appeared in the May 2020 issue of Poroi.)

The book is available as a PDF (for free) and in a Kindle edition (for a mere 99 cents!). Check out a nice YouTube video highlighting the collection …

DWR (2): Hayek as Democratic Socialist?

Les Leopold has a Common Dreams essay entitled “Was Frederick [sic] Hayek a Bernie Sanders Socialist?” that checks off the many areas in which Friedrich A. Hayek favored social welfare “safety net” protections that are on a par with the policies advocated by many “progressives” today.

My friend Ryan Neugebauer shared the article on his Facebook Timeline (so a H/T to him!). And it prompted a productive exchange between us. This is the second in what I’ve called my DWR (“Dialogues With Ryan“) series.

Ryan observes correctly that Hayek was “a strong proponent of governmental countervailing power within a capitalist economy,” much “closer in line with [Bernie] Sanders than … with Ayn Rand or [Ludwig von] Mises.” For Ryan, “as long as Statist Capitalism exists (the only form that has ever existed), some form of Social Democratic project is in order.” He therefore favors “a synthesis of libertarian and social democratic thought, … promoting bottom-up dual-power/mutual aid projects [that depend] on the state less and [that build] ‘an alternative society in the shell of the old.'” He argues, correctly in my view, that “it makes no sense to take away the crutches before you strengthen and heal the broken leg.”

Ryan points out further that it was the reactionary conservative “Otto von Bismarck who erected the modern welfare-regulatory state in response to Socialist revolutionaries agitating for change in Germany during 19th century Industrial Capitalism. When people are distressed by poor working conditions, poor pay, and see no end in sight, they agitate for radical change.” Though he embraces long-term anarchist goals, he argues that as long as you have “a situation where a nation state is … affected by crony interests and a distorted banking sector, having a form of social democracy is the preferable option in my eyes. … In contrast to many Progressives and State Socialists, I prefer polycentric systems and multiple option arrangements/escape potential.” He provides a key example:

I would prefer a situation where Trans individuals wouldn’t be dependent simply on the public system, which could restrict their options due to political control, and instead be able to access alternative private options if they should choose or are able to get support to access. I would prefer people being able to access different forms of schooling and not be forced to attend a public school system. Given that the political mechanism is often captured by right-wing interests, it does not make sense to crowd out alternatives, require “public only” arrangements, and simply count on always having “the right people in”, as many Progressives and State Socialists do. I gave a few examples, but I typically prefer having more options than less and power distributed as much as possible.

One can achieve that while maintaining a robust social insurance system. It just will likely always be up for grabs such as long as it is attached to a political system that is easily captured by nefarious interests.

In the Facebook discussion that followed, I wrote:

This is a very nice discussion about the kinds of alternatives that people—who favor freedom and flourishing—must face given the conditions that exist. While Hayek most assuredly was not a strict libertarian on matters of government “intervention”—and I put this in scare quotes because the state has always been intimately involved with all things economic—I think there are two important takeaways from The Road to Serfdom that advocates of more benign social-democratic measures forget at their peril.

The first is this: Politics in general and the state in particular have always been central to the constitution of class structures in society. The more political power comes to dominate social life, the more it becomes the only power worth having (which is why I applaud your support of bottom-up, polycentric, decentralized models of social decision-making). In Hayek’s view, however, the growth of political economy engenders a process in which “the worst get on top” necessarily. And “the worst” are, for Hayek, almost always those drawn from those predatory business-class interests within capitalism that had the most to gain from the regulatory, welfare-warfare state.


Given this reality, even the most benign of social-democratic “safety net” measures that Hayek favored could not escape a class character. Historically, as you suggest, “safety net” measures have often been enacted to not only benefit certain elements of the “ruling class”, but to undercut working class revolts (a la Bismark). (As an aside: I’d go so far as to say that historically, confrontational labor strikes and unrest have been intimately tied up with the depressionary phase of the boom-bust cycle, which both Marxists and Austrians root in the state-banking nexus. Pardon the plug, but on this, see my own undergraduate history honors thesis.


The second takeaway is Hayek’s view that extensive government control produces a socio-psychological alteration in the character of individuals within the larger culture. This social-psychological corruption is both a reciprocally related cause and effect of advancing political economy, a process of mutual reinforcement that undermines accountability, personal responsibility, and the autonomy of the individual’s moral conscience.

As a long-term alternative, Hayek advocated social change for sure, but with a dialectical sensibility; he believed that it could only occur through a slow and gradual change in cultural mores, traditions, and habits, which are often tacit. Like you, he argued that trying to impose such change “top-down,” without the requisite cultural foundations, is doomed to fail. And yet despite this almost Burkean emphasis on slow and gradual change, Hayek adamantly declared he was not a conservative. He embraced the essence of a radical approach. “We are bound all the time to question fundamentals,” he said; “it must be our privilege to be radical.”

I think this was a worthwhile discussion … and wanted to preserve it on my Notablog.

RIP, Fred Folvary

I had the distinct pleasure and honor of being in touch with my friend, Fred Folvary, as late as May 11, 2021, the day I wished him “Happy Birthday.” I learned yesterday that Fred had passed away on June 5, only a few weeks after we’d corresponded.

Fred was an amiable soul and a maverick thinker, who embraced aspects of public choice and Georgist theory, offering novel discussions of everything from public goods to the boom-bust cycle.

My deepest condolences to his friends and family. He will be missed.

Revisiting Kolko’s “Triumph of Conservatism”

In light of our recent discussions of the history of “capitalism”, check out Chris Wright​’s succinct 2018 summary of Gabriel Kolko‘s trailblazing work on the Progressive Era. Kolko has been taken to task by many, but even those who disagree with aspects of his work, such as my pals, Rob Bradley​, and recent JARS contributor, Roger Donway, have readily acknowledged that Kolko blew “to smithereens the smug narrative about Progressivist regulation,” “disproving the old stereotypes of Gilded Age businessmen as uncompromising pro-capitalists and Progressive reformers as do-gooders. He showed that industrialists had not been as laissez-faire or reformers as high-minded as Progressivism alleged.”

The Facebook discussion that followed from my cross-posting of this led me to reproduce in whole a note from my Journal of Ayn Rand Studies-published review (vol. 20, no. 2, December 2020, pp. 340-71): “Free Market Revolution: Partial or Complete?” (references therein):

For my own comparison of the parallels between Rand’s critique of the neofascist mixed economy and that offered by Kolko, see Sciabarra [1995] 2013, 311–12. The debate over Kolko’s historiography—particularly in light of the fiftieth anniversary of his profoundly influential Triumph of Conservatism—has spiked in recent years. Bradley and Donway (2013) devote an article to a reassessment of Kolko’s revisionist perspective on the Progressive era, including his study of Railroads and Regulation (Kolko 1965). They argue correctly that industries, such as railroads, were essentially “feudal” from their inception (Bradley and Donway 2013, 564). They take issue with the neo-Marxist premises in Kolko’s conceptual framework and Kolko’s questionable interpretations of some of the data. Still, as critical as they are, they conclude: “Ourreinterpretation of Kolko in light of libertarian thought should not take away from Kolko’s success in amending the simplistic Progressivist interpretation of American history. The present review merely points out that a libertarian, anti-Progressivist interpretation of Progressive legislation should be freed from Kolko’s leftist framework and supported by better evidence” (575). They repeat that point in a later essay (Bradley and Donway 2015): “Unquestionably, Kolko did valuable work in disproving the old stereotypes of Gilded Age businessmen as uncompromising pro-capitalists and Progressive reformers as do-gooders. He showed that industrialists had not been as laissez-faire or reformers as high-minded as Progressivism alleged.” The authors also issued a correction with regard to their criticism that Kolko had doctored a quote by railroad magnate James J. Hill (see Bradley and Donway n.d.). But even in a forthcoming reply to Stromberg’s defense (2019, 43) of Kolko’s admirable avoidance of historical “reductionism” (on display in the work of many pre-revisionist left-wing historians), they credit Kolko for having blown “to smithereens the smug narrative about Progressivist regulation, spread by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and his ilk, which dominated American historiography during the Forties, Fifties, and early Sixties” (Bradley and Donway forthcoming; see also Bradley 2014). Ironically, Kolko provided a back cover blurb for Bradley 2009, praising it as “[f]ascinating, comprehensive . . . far surpassing my own history of political capitalism in the 1960s.”

Bradley and Donway’s criticisms notwithstanding, Kolko is certainly not the only revisionist historian who has written on the corporatist nature of the Progressive political agenda. For example, see essays by William Appleman Williams, Martin J. Sklar, Murray Rothbard, Ronald Radosh, David Eakins, James Gilbert, and Leonard Liggio in Radosh and Rothbard 1972. Also see Weinstein and Eakins 1970; Green and Nader 1973; Liggio and Martin 1976; Sklar 1988; Horwitz 1992; Lindsey and Teles 2017; Rothbard 2017; Holcombe 2018; Newman 2019a.

Newman (2019b) places special emphasis on the principle that “personnel is policy,” that is, those who are appointed to regulatory agencies will often dictate the trajectory of the policies in question. He argues convincingly that, like all legislative processes, the establishment of regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, emerged out of the push-and-pull of conflicting interests, some inimical to business, others fully in favor of using political means for business consolidation. Newman shows “that regulatory capture is a dynamic process that does not follow a deterministic path because control of an agency depends on the commissioners appointed who are continually changing over time” (1038).

“Rent-seeking”—as outlined by public choice theorists such as Gordon Tullock, James Buchanan, and George Joseph Stigler—is made all the more complicated with the “division of power among regulatory agencies that have overlapping jurisdictions, [requiring] special interests . . . to make sure that they have control of multiple commissions in order to accomplish their objectives” (1040).

It should also be noted that Arthur Ekirch, whose work Rand praised, was equally impressed by the theses of revisionist historians on the left. Ekirch remarks that way back in 1944, Friedrich Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom had warned that the rise of state capitalism, “[t]he progressive abandonment of freedom in economic affairs[,] . . . was leading to a similar destruction of political and personal freedom” (Ekirch [1955] 1967, 310). He highlights the complementary contributions of both Robert Wiebe (1962) and Gabriel Kolko (1963; 1965) toward our understanding of the emergence of a form of “state socialism” or “state capitalism” in which business has been among the chief designers and beneficiaries of the regulatory apparatus from its inception (Ekirch 1974, 143–44).

Gordon Adams (1981) provides another provocative perspective on regulation. Though Adams focuses on “the politics of defense contracting,” his insights are equally applicable to the give-and-take that takes place across all regulatory agencies. The “Iron Triangle,” as Adams famously characterized it, constitutes the relationship between congressional committees, regulatory bureaucracies, and the industries being regulated—that is, the dynamic and systemic interrelationships between congressional committees that create bureaucratic regulatory agencies, which are designed to serve their “constituencies.” But the constituencies of each regulatory agency are not “the people.” Indeed, Adams argues that the constituencies in question are the actual industries being regulated. And so, the entire regulatory state has emerged in a way such that industries push for regulations, which enable them to block entry into markets, using money to buy various forms of “pork barrel” legislation, while lobbying and courting members of Congress and gaining key personnel appointments to the very regulatory agencies that were ostensibly created to “protect” the public from corporate “excess.” See also Higgs 2006. Regulation also helps to socialize risk for a whole panoply of industries—from health care insurance companies to the most blatant of industrial polluters. See Sciabarra 2020 and LaCalle 2019, respectively.

— from my review of the Yaron Brook-Don Watkins book, Free Market Revolution, published in JARS’s December 2021 issue (pp. 362-63, n. 12)

Big Apple 100!

Larry McShane, in yesterday’s New York Daily News reminds us that May 3, 2021 was the 100th anniversary of the first time the term “Big Apple” was used to refer to New York City (by New York Morning Telegraph cub reporter and horse-racing writer, John J. Fitz Gerald). In his article, “Apple of Our Eyes: 100th ann’y of Nickname that’s Synonymous with City,” McShane relies on the work of Gerald Cohen and Barry Popik, who traced the lineage of the term:

Back in 1921, when Babe Ruth was in right field for the Yankees and Mayor John Hylan in City Hall, a horse-racing writer for the New York Morning Telegraph overheard a Louisiana chat between two Black stablehands. The pair mentioned an upcoming trip from New Orleans to New York — the Big Apple, as they called it. …

“Back then, if you wanted to refer to New York by its nickname, it was ‘Gotham’ or ‘Li’l Old New York.’ But not the Big Apple.”

The nickname was resurrected in the 1970s, during the days of rising crime and declining fiscal policy. Of course, folks at that time were talking about how the Big Apple was “rotten to the core.” But jazz aficionado Charles Gillett (and president of the NY Convention and Visitors Bureau) seized on the term, regularly used “among Harlem musicians of the ’30s, who hailed a New York gig as playing the ‘Big Apple’.”

Alas, there is no recognition anywhere in the city of Fitz Gerald (who is buried in an unmarked grave 160 miles north of Belmont Park). Nor has there been any attempt to track down those New Orleans stablehands who used the term that Fitz Gerald brought into print. Just “one more instance of the African-American influence on the language” and on New York City lore.

Coronavirus (30): “Cuomogate” and Systemic Crisis

Back on 5 May 2020, in the twenty-first installment of my ongoing Coronavirus series, “Lockdowns, Libertarians, and Liberation,” I wrote about the state of the COVID pandemic in New York:

Today, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York state are at a staggering 320,000+ and rising; the number of deaths attributed to the virus nears 25,000. And, of these, New York City accounts for nearly 19,000 deaths. New York state has a death rate of 126 per 100,000 people; the city itself has a death rate of 219 per 100,000. Even if some of my libertarian colleagues wish to dismiss 20% of these casualties because they are typically listed under the category of “probable” rather than “confirmed” deaths, that still means that in excess of 20,000 people in my home state are dead from this virus in two months. We need to put this in perspective because I’m tired of hearing how accidents kill more people in a year or how influenza and pneumonia kill more people in a year, and nobody talks about it. In a typical year, like, say, 2017, 7,687 people died in accidents and 4,517 people died from the flu and pneumonia in New York state. COVID-19 has now killed more than the annual total of these two leading causes of death combined in this state in just two months. It is therefore astonishing to me how any person would indict the state’s healthcare system as somehow to blame for the horrific death toll—whatever problems that are inherent in that system—especially when it has been stretched to its limits, and its doctors, nurses, and first responders have worked heroically to treat and save so many lives.

As a postscript to that installment (25 May 2020), I addressed the issue of  how state governors (such as NJ Governor Murphy and NY Governor Cuomo) were being blamed for having “spiked” deaths in their own states by returning recovering COVID-19 elderly patients to the nursing homes from which they came. I stated:

Well, if you listen to the folks at Fox News, Cuomo, Murphy, etc. purposely sent patients, who previously lived in nursing homes and were subsequently hospitalized for and designated as having recovered from COVID-19, back into the nursing homes from which they came. The Fox Folks claim that this was some diabolical plot to kill off the elderly population and/or to inflate the death tallies in NY and NJ, since many of those who were designated as “recovered” were still capable of infecting others.

But yes, aside from the Fox Folks, there are legitimate questions about the wisdom of the policy of sending these patients back to the nursing homes—though it is not at all clear that the infection rate within nursing homes was strictly a result of this policy. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the spike in nursing homes was as much the result of nursing home residents coming into contact with asymptomatic infected staff.

The initial policy was adopted because the hospitals in NY were being overrun and taxed to a catastrophic degree, and when the USS Comfort arrived, and the Javits Convention Center (along with four other centers in the outer boroughs) were set up, they were opened to take in patients who were not sick from Coronavirus; they were to be places where folks facing traumatic medical problems unrelated to the virus could be cared for under “virus-free” conditions. The private and public hospital network were to shoulder the burden of the growing population of sick and dying patients from the virus, while these other places (the Comfort, Javits, etc.) would provide medical care for those not infected with the virus, but in need of urgent medical care (so-called “elective” surgeries were all postponed, but, obviously, there are many other medical problems that people face, for which they require treatment, in medical facilities that are not death traps for those with underlying pre-existing conditions).

Though the official reversal came at the beginning of May, the policy actually started to change at the beginning of April. It was at that time that the Comfort and the Javits Center were finally opened up to care for the overflow of COVID-19 patients. … [I]t was a policy that was shaped by the exponential growths in hospitalizations and intubations that were happening in late March and early April, until the state hit a plateau of 800-1000 deaths per day. Once it became clear that the healthcare network, as taxed as it was, would not collapse, and that these other facilities could take in COVID-19 patients, the practice of sending recovering nursing home patients back into nursing homes started to change. And extra precautions were put into place at the beginning of May.

Clearly, mistakes have been made at every level of government; but it’s a huge leap to characterize something that was a tragic mistake to viewing it as a criminal act. I live in NY; I’ve lost neighbors, a cousin, friends, and even cherished local proprietors, to this horrific disease. There’s a lot of blame to go around; those most at fault, however, were the folks who denied that there was even a virus at work, that the whole thing was a hoax, and that one could just wash it away with a little detergent or by mainlining bleach.

On 16 July 2020, in the twenty-eighth installment of my Coronavirus Series, “Sweden is Not New York,” I pushed back against those who were comparing New York unfavorably to Sweden in its response to the pandemic. I wrote:

Jon Miltimore’s essay “Why Sweden Succeeded in ‘Flattening the Curve’ and New York Failed” is, sadly, an exercise in comparing apples and oranges. From the article:

If flattening the curve was the primary goal of policymakers, Sweden was largely a success. New York, on the other hand, was not, despite widespread closures and strict enforcement of social distancing policies. The reason New York failed and Sweden succeeded probably has relatively little to do with the fact that bars and restaurants were open in Sweden. Or that New York’s schools were closed while Sweden’s were open. As Weiss explains, the difference probably isn’t related to lockdowns at all. It probably has much more to do with the fact that New York failed to protect the most at-risk populations: the elderly and infirm.

The article goes on to discuss the debate between the implications of different public policy responses to the virus. In response, I wrote:

There is absolutely no comparison between the Swedish and NY cases, regardless of the public policies adopted by either government. First, in NY, the share of COVID-related deaths in long-term care facilities was 20% of the total number of deaths (about 6,500 of the total of 32,000+ deaths in the state of NY). That means that the vast majority of deaths did not occur in nursing homes. Moreover, though damage was done early on, by putting recovering COVID patients back into nursing homes, that policy was influenced by the huge surge in cases at a time when not even the Comfort or the Javits Center were open to COVID patients (a policy that changed at the beginning of April). Conditions were evolving swiftly. Moreover, unlike other states that are experiencing a surge now, therapies based on steroids, plasma, Remdesivir, etc. were not in widespread usage. It’s largely on the pile of bodies in NY that current medical advances have been made, sad to say.

Second, studies have shown that, at least in NYC, the highest transmission belt for the virus was its vast subway system, serving 5-6 million people per day prior to the city’s curtailment of “business as usual” in mid-March and most of the communities that were disproportionately affected by the impact of the virus were minority communities, many of whose members continued to work and crowd the subways and buses, becoming infected and bringing that infection back to their families and neighborhoods. There is no similar density in Sweden (the Stockholm Metro typically serves one fifth the number of people compared to the subways in NYC).

Of course, I got push-back from one commentator who claimed, without offering any evidence, that in New York “COVID-19 has killed at least 11,000 to 12,000 nursing-home and assisted-living residents in New York, nearly double what the state admits to. And as the deaths mount, so have the lies and cover-ups. States like New York exclude from their nursing home death tallies those who die in a hospital. Outside of New York, more than half of all deaths from COVID-19 are of residents in long-term care facilities., even if they were originally infected in an assisted living facility.” To which I replied: “Even if I accepted your statistic—which I don’t—it does not explain the other 20,000 deaths that occurred in this state. Or are those lies too?”

Well, recently, an investigation into the nursing home deaths, completed by New York Attorney General Lettia James, concluded that the state had indeed undercounted nursing home deaths.

I was wrong. There were not 6,500 nursing home-related deaths. Nor were there 11,000 to 12,000 deaths as my interlocutor claimed. In fact, the deaths were more than double the original estimate. Current statistics in an ongoing investigation, combining deaths in nursing homes and nursing home patients who died subsequently in hospitals, now place the total at 13,382, perhaps as high as 15,000, which accounts not for 20% but for around 30% of the nearly 47,000 deaths thus far recorded in the state of New York.

Which means, of course, that my central point stands: The vast majority of the deaths in this state were not nursing home-related; something horrible happened here precisely because it happened here first, in the New York metropolitan area—the densest population center in the United States. None of the newest, scandalous revelations alters this fact.

But these revelations do show that Governor Andrew Cuomo did indeed fail the public trust by withholding information and needlessly endangering lives. Cuomo should have acted differently and decisively in being fully transparent. In thinking about “Andrew’s Next Move,” New York Post writer Bob McManus makes an important point:

“A less fearful, more self-confident governor … would have admitted upfront that a fateful, though defensible, error had been made last March. That’s when the state Department of Health ordered nursing homes to accept COVID-infected patients to clear hospitals for an anticipated wave of new patients. That crisis never came, but that doesn’t make the policy evil or even unreasonable, just tragically mistaken. Cuomo should have owned it and moved on.”

I should state for the record that I am not one of those libertarians who believes that every politician is evil by nature of being a politician. Some do believe, honestly, that they have a calling to public service. And I have no doubt that many politicians, acting during the time of a serious public healthcare crisis, were flying blind and doing everything they could, given the ever-evolving conditions that existed, to meet the challenges before them.

But “flying blind” led to tragedies far beyond the deaths of nursing home patients.

This whole affair has revealed far more about the gaping holes in our healthcare system and in the insidious ways that our medical-science-state-corporate nexus works, often to the detriment of the very thing it is ostensibly supposed to protect: human lives.

Ultimately, what might be the worst legacy of the Cuomo administration’s handling of the pandemic is how the machinations of that nexus have become transparent in all their ugliness. As the Daily Poster reports: Cuomo’s political machine raked in “more than $2 million from the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA), its executives and its lobbying firms,” which funneled more than $450,000 to New York legislators in 2020 alone. Moreover, the administration moved to shield “hospital and nursing home executives from legal consequences if their corporate decisions killed people during the pandemic.” This wasn’t merely protecting frontline health workers from lawsuits; it was a deliberate attempt to provide “liability protection to top corporate officials who make staffing and safety decisions.” Today, 27 states have adopted this policy, granting legal immunity to nursing home executives.

And let’s be clear: This is not a Cuomo conspiracy. It is a policy that has been fully embraced by top Republicans, who often decry Cuomo’s “murderous” response to the pandemic. By shielding from civil litigation (forget criminal prosecution!) politically connected hospital and nursing home executives (who heavily fund political campaigns), patients who have been put at serious risk and the next of kin of those who have lost their lives have no legal recourse for compensation, given a broken healthcare system that can’t provide basic health insurance for the vast majority of people in this country. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell has been calling for a national policy guaranteeing such immunity, especially for corporate executives who might be putting their workers at serious risk, as part of any relief package.

So, like everything else: While some public policies may lead to progress in combatting a serious health crisis, they are still filtered through a system that must, by necessity, corrupt.

From the very beginning of this nightmarish pandemic, governments at every level—city, state, and federal institutions—have played a part in this systemic corruption. This is not an exercise in “What-about-ism.” Let us not forget that Former President Donald Trump admitted to Bob Woodward that he wanted to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic so as not to cause a public “panic.” He claimed credit for a vaccine because of “Operation Warp-Speed,” giving billions of dollars to Big Pharma companies to fast-track vaccine development, fully socializing their risks, fully guaranteeing their profits in a public-private “partnership.” Little thought was given to how that vaccine was supposed to be delivered to the vast majority of Americans, stranding millions of people with no ability to even schedule an appointment. People are standing for endless hours in long lines outside stadiums or massive makeshift fields hoping to get vaccinated, and are often turned away. Big Box stores are being subsidized to participate in the massive effort, but serious shortages remain, even as this country reaches half-a-million fatalities from this pandemic.

Even a simple alteration of policy to allow primary care physicians to inoculate their own patients hasn’t been entertained.

I will take whatever vaccine is available to me whenever it becomes available because I’m a guy with plenty of pre-existing medical issues. But that doesn’t mean I have to like the politicized processes that have poisoned this country’s response to a crisis of such horrific magnitude.

Independent Institute Publications

I received a message from my friend, David J. Theroux, the Founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Institute. I have always found their publications to be thought-provoking, whether one agrees or disagrees with any opinion expressed. Folks should check out some of the following links:

The Crisis in Civil Rights: Best Books and Articles on Race, Police, and the Welfare State, compiled by their Senior Fellow Dr. Williamson M. Evers (someone I’ve known since my undergraduate days as a member of Students for a Libertarian Society):

These are among the most exhaustive, annotated reading lists ever assembled on the issues of civil rights, police reform, race relations, and the welfare state, created for educators and students, business and civic leaders, policymakers, journalists, and the general public. Check them out!