This is a new blog dedicated to addressing issues and ideas from the perspective of freedom, natural rights and non-aggression.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

State, Media and Terror

            Given their coexistence, the State and the media industry, each motivated above all else by the construction and preservation of the public’s overall perception of their legitimacy, will have the natural tendency to cooperate in the creation of consistent and self-protecting narratives of information.
As for the State, it is true that elected members require the perception of legitimacy to maintain their individual positions of power in a democratic system, but even as a whole, the State needs an overall perception of legitimacy – be it enthusiastic, patriotic support or a passive concession of necessity – in order for its system of law to be respected and enforced as it intends and for it to increase its power without substantial opposition. The interest of the State therefore, in the instance that it releases information or statements to the public, is not to be truthful, but only to do so in a way which enhances or protects its image. The State will tend to utilize any opportunity to employ falsehoods or exaggerations that it believes will improve this general perception, insofar as it sees the benefits of its dishonesty as outweighing the risk of the truth being illuminated and its perception of legitimacy potentially being damaged.
Similarly, media outlets rely on a perception of legitimacy among the market in order to gain an audience of consumers who demand accurate information. The media then may prima facie seem inclined in most or all cases to provide the most truthful and accurate information that it can, knowing that viewers who become skeptical of the accuracy of its reporting will be inclined to opt for an alternative source of media which appears more trustworthy. However, the introduction of the State as a source of information entirely transforms the media industry. The State, rightly or wrongly looked upon as a reliable source of information, becomes a principal source of the information that the media consumes and presents to the public, as all its information comes with a certain inferred seal of government approval. The problem, as suggested above, is that the State has no overpowering dedication to honesty. Thus as the media becomes ever more reliant on the State as a source it is put in an awkward predicament: as the State releases deceptive information designed to bolster its perception of legitimacy – either to set the stage for the usurpation of more power or to cover up past delegitimizing activities – the media must either contradict the information of the State and therefore admit that both its primary source of information is unreliable and even more important, that it has reported inaccurate information in the past, or it must go against its own function of reporting accurate information in order to appear as having legitimate sources and avoid confessing to deviating from the truth in the past and risk suffering the same delegitimization that is feared by the State.
As long as the media relies on the State for information, it will tend to cover its tracks in synchronicity with the State, and thus a relationship of cooperation develops, in which the State lies, the media reports the lie, the State defends the lie, and the media has no choice but to perpetuate the deceptive narrative pushed by the State lest they admit the inaccuracy of their information and risk losing the one quality which keeps them competitive in their respective market. The State and the media then become partners in the quest for public approval – a cartel of deception so to speak – and a partnership that is formed at the expense of the truth.
This partnership is evident more than anywhere else in the realm of United States foreign policy, specifically the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism. Recent instances of terrorism both overseas and within the domestic United States provide perfect illustrations of the collaborative relationship between the State and the media and their collective tendency to act as protectors of each other’s respective images, mutualize their enemies and unify their political agendas.
            Media coverage of the large-scale protests and corresponding embassy attacks across Islamic dominated nations in September of 2012 serves as a prime example of the media protecting the State through a simplified and biased narrative. The protestors in these demonstrations made the focus of their grievances clear through direct and explicit actions, such as burning U.S. flags and effigies of Barack Obama, chanting “death to America” and “death to Israel”, and of course gathering outside, and in some cases even, attacking western embassies. But whereas one might assume the motives of the many thousands of people spread out across numerous countries and multiple continents would be multifaceted and difficult to pinpoint, the media coverage of these events was remarkably one-dimensional in attributing the protests exclusively to one YouTube video that included a disparaging depiction of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed, offering a consistent and simple narrative:

FOXNEWS.COM: "The protests were the latest in a week-long wave of violence sparked by the low-budget film, which portrays Islam's Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a child molester."1
CNN.COM: "The Benghazi consulate was one of several American diplomatic missions that faced protests after the online release of a film that ridiculed Muslims and depicted the Prophet Mohammed as a child molester, womanizer and ruthless killer."2

MSNBC.COM: "Throughout the Middle East and Africa, thousands are taking to the streets protesting an American-made film that ridicules the prophet Muhammad."3

REUTERS.COM: "Fury about a film that insults the Prophet Mohammad tore across the Middle East after weekly prayers on Friday with protesters attacking U.S. embassies and burning American flags as the Pentagon rushed to bolster security at its missions."4

            In accordance with the proposed theory of State and media, the source of the media’s quick conclusions regarding the motivations behind the mass protests came from the information put out by the federal government. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney made explicit and repetitious attribution to the film:

We also need to understand that this is a fairly volatile situation and it is in response not to United States policy, and not to, obviously, the administration, or the American people, but it is in response to a video, a film that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting. That in no way justifies any violent reaction to it, but this is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at U.S. policy, this is in response to a video that is offensive to Muslims.5

            The rhetoric used by Carney in addressing the protests seems on the surface very defensive and arrogant; almost self-incriminating in the way he repetitiously denies presupposed allegations that there may be some anti-United States government sentiment in these regions. Of course, hostility towards United States policies in the Islamic world are well documented, with anti-drone policy protests occurring in Pakistan rather frequently of late6 and influential terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda explicitly citing United States policies as their primary grievance and motive. In fact, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri made his own statement on the protests shortly thereafter and in direct contradiction with Carney’s take, specifically advancing opposition to United States policy and not even mentioning the film:

Greetings to the honorable free ones protecting Islam, and (greetings) upon those who raided the American embassy in Benghazi, and the ones who protested in front of the American embassy in Cairo and downed its American flag and raised instead the flag of Islam and jihad. And I invite them to continue their confrontation with the American Crusader-Zionist aggression on Islam and Muslims, and I invite the rest of Muslims to follow their lead.7

            It is hard to understand in the case that Jay Carney’s statements are true (that the protests were only about the film), why the nature of the demonstrations was so specifically directed in ways that would infer angst regarding the very thing which Carney rules out as a motive: United State policy. Why, if the protestors were unconcerned with the actions of the United States government, would they attack western embassies that specifically represent the U.S. government and its allies? Why, if Carney was correct, would protestors burn effigies of the American president – the leader of the U.S. government? Why would they chant “death to Israel” in relation to a YouTube video made in the United States?
It seems that Carney’s attributions were misguided at best. Did he really believe that, if the United States had hypothetically been completely neutral and uninvolved in the Middle East for the past century that these protests would have carried on regardless and without any deviation in magnitude or manner? It is hard to imagine that anyone with knowledge of the subject would make a claim so absolute. On the motivations behind the protests, former head of the CIA Osama bin Laden tracking unit and respected author and expert on Islamic terrorism and Middle Eastern politics Michael Scheuer starkly contradicted Carney’s statements, describing the September protests as being “all about American intervention in the Middle East.” In a television interview, Scheuer explained the protests by focusing on unrest in the heavily Islamic nation of Sudan, and its relationship to United States policy, saying:

You just mentioned that there is a problem in the Sudan now. Well, last year or two years ago, we (the United States government) and the British and the European Union, ripped half of Muslim Sudan away from that country, along with seventy percent of its oil, and gave it to a new Christian nation in the south. This has everything to do with what our government does and it should be clear to Americans. Americans aren’t hated in the Muslim world as people, but their government, under either party, is detested.8

Scheuer and other experts on these regions surely would not deny at least some level of genuine anger over the film cited by the media in regards to the protests. However, for Carney to make absolute attribution to the film and blankly conclude the “obvious” lack of resentment in the protests towards United States is far too simplistic and counterintuitive to be taken seriously. While one side of the debate concedes both factors of the film and policy reactions in its assessment, the other flatly denies one factor without explanation. The question now, for those interested in reality, becomes, to what end were the protests directed at United States policy in contrast to the film, and more importantly for our purposes, why was there so little debate on these initial presumptions in the media?
            As for the latter question, the reasons for the media’s sidestepping of debate on the issue have already been laid out. The implications of Carney’s statements, which denied any aggression against United States policy from the protestors, were that the U.S. government was not at fault – that the violence stirring up in these regions was not a consequence of bad or misguided policies and that there was no blood on the hands of the administration. In turn, the opposite perspective – that the demonstrations were in response to U.S. policy – would imply a failure or level of incompetency from the State. It becomes clear now that in shifting the blame from U.S. policy to this film, the government was seeking to maintain the perception of legitimacy described above. In accepting blame for the consequences of a failed policy the State loses legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and in accordance with the previously proposed theory of State and media, the State will then be motivated to engage in dishonesty, such as falsely ascribing blame to another source for the sake of preserving its image. Naturally, the State comes to its own defense and seeks to protect itself from being held accountable for its own incompetence.
            In conjunction with the State and our theory, the media, rather than taking an objective stance on the issue and bringing light to the blatant inconsistencies in the government’s attribution, instead followed along in lockstep with the administration. For the media to admit the State’s past mistakes and dishonesty it would have to admit to some level its own past mistakes and reporting of that dishonesty. For example, if the protests were, say, in response to a war that the United States waged on the basis of false information, then the U.S. would be inclined to deny the motive of the protests in order to protect its image. In turn, the media, who may have reported that very fallacious information, acting as a mouthpiece for the State, and convincing the public on the necessity of said war, would then be similarly inclined to play along with the State’s excuses and diversions for their own sake, for admitting that the State’s information had been inaccurate in the past would be self-incriminating – delegitimizing – and thus against their interest.
This pattern can be applied universally to deceptive State information and its subsequent reporting by the media. As the media continues to distribute the State’s image-protecting propaganda to its audience and as both institutions attempt to maintain their perception of legitimacy, their narrative of deceptive information becomes ever more intertwined and mutually dependent, constantly progressing from the original point of separation to an endgame of complete consolidated unification of State and media where the information released by the State and that reported by the media are totally indistinguishable and unregulated by the market demand for accurate and unbiased information.
As this State-media merger comes into effect the lies begin to compound and shift from small, petty inaccuracies intended to protect their image into broader, more flagrant deception essential to maintaining the illusion of legitimacy that they have created and cannot afford to lose. It becomes necessary now at every point, both for the State and the media, to treat every news item that might threaten their fragilely build façade with a sense of paranoia and make sure to collaborate in the construction of a simplified and distorted version of the story that fits into their defensive narrative.
All information that challenges the narrative and could potentially damage the now collective perception of legitimacy is quickly marginalized or misrepresented in their favor, as in the case of these protests, where demonstrations clearly directed against United States foreign policy, on some level at least, were broken down into an easily digestible story, consistent with the narrative where presumably crazed religious radicals in undeveloped, undemocratic countries overreact to an offensive video, revealing their inferred savage nature and ignorance of freedom of speech and the like, as opposed to justifiably angered citizens of nations where western military and political intervention and possibly embarrassing policy blunders have created real tension and warranted resentment. Neither the State nor the media are willing to admit that there could be any discontent with their services, for such a concession would be damaging to their image.
As the State and the media become more united and cooperative, the State’s enemies become the media’s enemies too, as the media solidifies itself as a guard against attacks on the State’s reputation (for the sake of its own reputation of course). A premier example of this tendency on a part of the media is their response to the recent Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt of the perpetrators. While certainly newsworthy, this situation of domestic terrorism was covered extensively by the media at a level that could be seen as somewhat over the top, as the faces of the two accused were fixed on the TV screen for nearly a week and news outlets followed the police chase nonstop as if all other news in world had to be postponed until the circumstances had been rectified. Even while these events were dominating the media, over 30 people were killed from a series of bombings in Iraq on the same day9 and even more left dead from an earthquake on the Iranian/Pakistani border less than 24 hours later.10 Whereas a bomb going off a killing three people in Boston should certainly a big deal to an American based media outlet, one might wonder why there was little to no national media attention given to the four people murdered among the 26 shot in Chicago the weekend immediately preceding the bombing incident11. Referencing an even more proportionally fatal fertilizer plant explosion in Texas that occurred that same week12, political satirist Adam Corolla addressed this controversial discrepancy in media coverage during his popular podcast:

Boston has 3 people dead and quite a few injured. But it's 3 people dead, there's that many people during the course of this podcast, that many people times ten die out on highways… Now, you have 15 people dead (fertilizer plant in Texas), but that's the whole thing about it; we're not really into math, we're into feelings, and we're not really into it when it comes to body counts… But if a terrorist touched off that plant, then now we’ve got an issue.13

Whereas the fertilizer plant explosion was most likely an accident, the murders in Chicago, just like the bombing in Boston, were no doubt carried out with malicious intent. While in comparison, a bomb going off in the midst of such a world renowned event may explain the superiority of its significance over the shootings in Chicago to some degree, the disproportionality in contrast of ceaseless, ultra-focused news coverage of one and virtually none for the other calls for some explanation. There was terrible violence committed in both these instances, however, one stark difference exists which might help to interpret the reasons for the great divide in media coverage between the two stories, this being, the difference in the eyes of the State between a common criminal and a terrorist.
The common criminal, be he a murderer or a thief, aggresses against his victims for his own empowerment – power over their property, power over their life – doing so for his own benefit only – his own parasitic sustenance. At the very least one can conclude that this criminality does not pose much of a threat to the State, and therefore, the media sees no need to sound the alarm and condemn his actions. One might even go as far to suggest that the State identifies with the common criminal, as the State too sustains itself through the coercive and parasitic extraction of its citizen’s private wealth. Whereas the State gains enough of a perception of legitimacy to call its form of plunder taxation, the criminal similarly “taxes” his victims on a much smaller scale, and since the State makes the law, it has no reason to fear the criminal.
The terrorist in contrast, acts in political belligerence – committing his act of aggression not for his own sake, but for the sake of his statement or his message. The terrorist seeks to use violence to initiate some political or societal change, and whereas the common criminal is a threat to the public only (those whom the State claims to protect), the terrorist is a threat to State as well. He is their creation – spawned in opposition to their policies – and so for the public to realize that the State is creating enemies through its policies, people who directly threaten the public’s safety (thus contradicting its obligation to protect them by actually putting them in danger), would be devastating to its reputation.
The common criminal seeks to change nothing but his own disposition at the expense of another individual. The terrorist oppositely sacrifices his own well-being to try and weaken or challenge the power of the State. He, just like the State – which enforces its laws through the barrel of a gun – utilizes the threat of violence to advance his political agenda. In sharing the same modus operandi as the State, the terrorist becomes their competition – a rival in the market for control and coercion – and as the State builds its armies, rains bombs down upon foreign nations and uses force to subdue insubordination to its rule domestically, the entrance of a new player into their market becomes a threat to their legitimacy, for the terrorist epitomizes everything that the state is on a microcosmic scale. The only significant difference between them is that one is considered legitimate and the other is not, and so naturally, the State responds to the terrorist like any good monopoly would and seeks to immediately and forcibly destroy its competition.
Respecting their relationship of mutual protection, the media identifies the terrorist as a threat as well. When the terrorist makes his attack, he becomes an almost cartoonish villain in the media’s portrayal. The public is warned of his evils over and over again and a state of fear is induced through constant and aggressive coverage of his supposed imminent danger to the nation. The State’s enemy becomes the media’s enemy, and as the media relays this information to its audience, he becomes their enemy as well.
While the common criminal gets only a mention in the news the terrorist becomes the leading story. In a media that strives to serve its audience in the public, it would seem that the discrepancy between these two forms of criminals would be far less pronounced – based on their level of threat to the public. Yet, as the State’s presence corrupts the media’s ability to remain balanced and impartial, the media’s allegiance to its customers takes a backseat to its allegiance to the State, and so the State’s war is the media’s war, the State’s enemy the media’s enemy, and the State’s agenda the media’s agenda as well.
As the media becomes more centralized and consolidated from the corruption of the State, biased information becomes ever harder to avoid as a consumer of media. Just as the media begins to identify with the State for its own reasons, the general public cannot help but suffer from the same identification. While all the information they receive is filtered through a State-favoring litmus test, the public can only but naturally become swayed by the seeming consensus of pro-State information circulating through the media, and thus just like the media institutions themselves, people become ever more reliant and dependent on the State, allowing it to assume more power as all the information presented to the public has the effect of reinforcing their perception of the State’s legitimacy.
As the public grows to identify with the State, citizens begin to subconsciously do the media’s job of protecting the State’s image for them, and in an instance such as the September 2012 demonstrations in the Middle East, the public shows itself just as eager to find a simplified and non-self-incriminating explanation as the media is. The State’s natural tendency to defend itself and rationalize all its actions carries over through the media to the individuals in the public, who treat the State’s actions as their own and therefore seek to vindicate them with their own personal, psychological defense mechanisms. Likewise, as the State labels an enemy, be it a foreign state or an individual terrorist, the public quickly does the same and cheers on the State against its enemy like a local sports team. The State perverts the purpose of the media, the media contaminates the minds of the public, and all these three factions of society – the producers, distributors and consumers of information – are eventually unified under one Orwellian condition of shameless nationalism, political paternalism and the ultimate deification of the State.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Income Tax, Slavery and Self-Ownership

                Taxation is a policy of the state that it widely accepted as morally just and a necessary element of a stable and functioning society. Slavery is fortunately now condemned and rejected as an immoral practice, antithetical to individual liberty, and unwelcome in a free society. However, as the saying goes, bad habits die hard, and slavery is one of humanity’s worst habits, prominent for a prevailing portion of human history. In comparison, it may seem like these concepts couldn’t be any more different, like comparing good and evil, or savagery and sophistication. Yet, contrary to what may be common perception, the taxation of personal income and earnings is fundamentally akin to slavery, both being logically and morally justified under the same principles. Therefore, the taxing of income, objectively compared to the institution of slavery, should be found morally abhorrent and incongruent with human freedom in the same ways. 
                Firstly, it must be understood precisely how the taxation of income is grounded on the same foundations as slavery. Let us imagine, as an example, that the state taxes your income at 30% of your earnings. This means then, that if you were to work for a total of 100 hours, the state entitles itself to 30 hours of your labor. Therefore, you are working for 30 hours without compensation. If you were in need of 70$, you would first need to work 30 hours unpaid for the state before you reach the desired amount of earnings that your labor bears. This equates to what could be called proportional slavery, in which a portion of an individual’s labor is owned by another, just as an absolute slave would have their labor owned completely by another.
                Although it is clear that as an individual, proportional slavery is favorable to absolute slavery, just as assault is favorable to murder, that does not diminish the fact that they are inseparably based on the same principle. Murder violates the rights of the victim to a greater degree than assault, yet both are unjust (and illegal). Absolute slavery violates the slave’s right to self-ownership to a greater degree than the proportional slavery of the income tax, yet it is unclear how one could be claimed as unjust while the other as not, unless it were to be claimed in conjunction that injustice only exists when the principle that validates its identification as so is executed at a certain magnitude. 
                This claim would raise the question, would it be more unjust to enslave one-hundred people at 30% of their labor or one person at 100%? In this case, the magnitude of the injustice to one-hundred people is far greater (approximately 30 times greater) than to that of the one-person, making the injustice of his isolated slavery more acceptable in terms of its universal degree of effect. Yet, in the situation of isolated slavery, the distribution of injustice is much less fair. Where does magnitude of injustice meet distribution of injustice? And more importantly, who is to decide this? It is not difficult to imagine, given the endorsement of a quantitatively based acceptance of injustice, that the other ninety-nine people in this circumstance, having the majority, would be more inclined to enslave one person completely rather than have themselves enslaved at a level of 30%, as well as feeling a greater sense of moral justification knowing, or at least perceiving that a greater injustice had been averted. When people come to see unjust acts in this manner, certain minorities will always be the first to reap the negative impact of the injustice that will follow. In fact, it would be quite possible to argue that this mentality has been used to justify slavery in several instances in the past, if not all. 
                Some may argue outright that the taxation of income is not akin to slavery because it does not claim entitlement to the entirety of the taxed individual’s labor. To refute this objection, one might imagine a slave master allowing “his” slaves to keep one-percent of the cotton that they picked to use or sell. Are these people then not to be identified as slaves since they are being allowed to keep a certain percentage of the fruits of their labor? It is hard to imagine anyone trying to defend this position. Yet, if the objector concedes that these people are still slaves, then at what percentage of earnings that an individual is allowed to keep do they lose their identification as a slave? They key word in the question that has just been posed is allowed. The principle by which an individual is allowed to keep a certain portion of the earnings that their own labor produces is what defines slavery and negates the principle of self-ownership and personal liberty. Just as the fact that the master decides how much, if any, of the fruits produced by the labor of “his” slaves that they are allowed to keep individually gives this practice the classification of slavery, the state as well, deciding how much a citizen is allowed to keep should entail the same classification, as it puts forth the idea that the labor of the people in a society belongs to the state, which allows them to keep a certain amount only after it takes what it rightfully owns. Ownership entails property, and holding an individual’s labor as property is precisely the way in which we define slavery. Just because the state only holds a share in that property rather than the whole thing does not negate the principle of exterior ownership. 
                Further refutation of the parallels of slavery and income taxes may concede the corresponding immorality of the two yet argue in favor of the taxation of income from what may be called the “get what you pay for” argument. If everyone pays into the system at certain rate, or is enslaved at a certain proportion as we now understand it, the state, in all its benevolence, will be able to reallocate the wealth that it consumes in a way so that those who pay into it receive a net gain from the services that the state provides – a sort of generator of wealth for all. For the purpose of focusing on the original proposition, let us assume for now that the state spends people’s money more effectively than they do, that those with lower incomes are able to influence the state in an equally beneficial degree to those with higher incomes, and that those individuals that run the state possess some profound blend of divine altruism and omnipotent intellect. Even so, these wildly exaggerated presumptions do not make a relevant refutation of the claim that slavery and the taxation of income are based on the same principles. Even if we concede for the sake of argument that someone would be able to benefit another by forcing them to do something different than what they were planning to do on their own accord, that superior knowledge does not mean that by forcing them to comply with their commands that that person would be making their own choice. It is conceivable to think that someone could coercively enslave someone to one hour of easy labor everyday, well housing them in their own personal mansion and treating them to whatever desires they wished so long as they completed their one daily hour of easy labor. It is not the conditions of slavery which entails it to that label but rather the deprivation of choice regarding the usage and production of one’s labor that is antithetical to self-ownership. An American slave owner in the 1800’s could have very well housed and fed one of his slaves at a standard higher than what wealth their labor produced for him, yet that imbalance of wealth would not negate their identification as a slave. 
                It is common for an employer to only hire an employee if they think that that employee will generate more wealth for them than it will take to employ them, yet it is the fact that the employee can choose whether or not to work for that employer that keeps them from being identified as a slave. A worker can choose to leave if they wish whereas a slave cannot – that is what separates the two forms of labor. Unlike previous historical forms of absolute slavery, someone paying a tax on their income has the choice to decide where they work, but they cannot escape the proportional slavery being imposed by the state. A runaway slave, be they absolute or proportional, cannot be construed as to have found freedom with the slave master following him everywhere he goes. Only once the slave master’s dominion over the labor has been severed entirely can someone truly be considered a free individual. 
                A similar position to this may not suggest that everyone benefits from the taxation of income, but from a more utilitarian standpoint, it may be argued that this proportional slavery can be beneficial to society as a whole. Having a tax on income, they might say, allows for state to appropriate the wealth of its citizens in a manner that will bring about greater prosperity to the population as a whole. By taking from some and giving to another, someone else might be benefiting at the expense of another in a way that proportionally brings greater standards of living to society as a whole. It is not hard to conceive of a white person in the early 19th century United States justifying their form of slavery in a similar way, saying that because they were enslaving black people, they were able to live better-off – that the majority was able to benefit at the expense of the minority. If by some hypothetical assessment we were able to determine that enslaving (absolutely) a minority in the population would make the standard of living within that population higher, would that in turn make it just? If not, then would partially enslaving parts of the population to reach the same goal be any more just? Or even partially enslaving the entire population? Unless someone is purposely seeking to maintain the existence of the principle of slavery in our society, why would someone argue that we should allocate slavery equally instead of abolishing it completely?
                The answer to this may lie in what is perhaps the most substantive conclusion on this matter that still maintains a relatively favorable perspective on the taxation of income: that slavery is a necessary condition of humanity. This claim certainly holds some water, for even the most well-read historian would be hard pressed to pinpoint a period in civilized history in which slavery was non-existent. Even the United States, after finally abolishing outright slavery with the 13th amendment in 1865, could barely make it half a century before instituting the income tax permanently in 1913 and effectively reinstating slavery on a proportional level. This time, a minority was not enslaved absolutely to serve the majority; instead the slavery was distributed among the whole population. As has been illustrated however, dispersing slavery among the many may, technically speaking, be a step towards equality, but one would think that equality of enslavement is not the goal that our society should be pursuing, unless of course, these bleak claims of the essential coexistence of humanity and slavery are in fact accurate. 
                However, this connection may not be entirely true. Although we have conceived hypotheticals that contradict this principle, we have learned through economic studies and history that slavery is an ineffective economic policy because the forced divorcement from self-ownership corresponds with a divorcement from self-incentive. As Ludwig von Mises explains:
If one treats men like cattle, one cannot squeeze out of them more than cattle-like performances. But it then becomes significant that man is physically weaker than oxen and horses, and that feeding and guarding a slave is, in proportion to the performance to be reaped, more expensive than feeding and guarding cattle. When treated as a chattel, man renders a smaller yield per unit of cost expended for current sustenance and guarding than domestic animals. If one asks from an unfree laborer human performances, one must provide him with specifically human inducements. If the employer aims at obtaining products which in quality and quantity excel those whose production can be extorted by the whip, he must interest the toiler in the yield of his contribution. Instead of punishing laziness and sloth, he must reward diligence, skill, and eagerness. But whatever he may try in this respect, he will never obtain from a bonded worker, i.e., a worker who does not reap the full market price of his contribution, a performance equal to that rendered by a freeman, i.e., a man hired on the unhampered labor market. The upper limit beyond which it is impossible to lift the quality and quantity of the products and services rendered by slave and serf labor is far below the standards of free labor. In the production of articles of superior quality an enterprise employing the apparently cheap labor of unfree workers can never stand the competition of enterprises employing free labor. It is this fact that has made all systems of compulsory labor disappear. [1]
                Deprived of natural dominion over the products of their labor, a slave possesses far less motivation to utilize their labor in the most productive and efficient ways when doing the bare minimum that it takes to get by will result in the same outcome. Theoretically, the proportional implementation of this principle will have the same effect in accordance with the degree to which individuals are enslaved and withdrawn from their self-ownership and incentives. 
                People working together for mutual benefit, have proven on the largest of scales to create greater benefits for both parties, as we have seen with the societal advancements that such economic systems have generated in countries like this one. The parasitic relationships of slavery are not mutually dependent with our species. But what is in mutual dependence with slavery is the presence of a slave master – someone who seeks to gain from the parasitic relationship. Throughout all of history there has been one consistent, systemic enabler of slavery in every case of its existence - the state. 
                Thus, it is evident that such a cynical appraisal of human nature need not be taken to illuminate the roots that slavery has grown and continues to grow upon. Misconstruing slavery as a necessary condition of humanity is totally unwarranted when its actual source is clear. Slavery is a necessary condition of the state. This is why slavery has been instituted through history, this is why it continues to plague supposedly advanced societies with different forms and aliases such as the income tax, and this is why it will likely persist for a long time to come, be it in its current structure or whatever way they choose to disguise it as next. 
                Maybe, as some might say, these forms of enslavement are just the price we pay for civilization. Maybe we do need rulers and slave masters to guide us in the right direction. But one thing is for sure. It will not do us any good to ignore reality and pretend that the principles we are accepting are anything different than what they are. The taxation of income may not spawn the same imagery of shackles and chains that absolute slavery does, but it violates the exact same principles of self-ownership and the dominion over one’s own labor. With this in mind, it would be hard to envision how any society that abandons these principles could legitimately call itself free.
                Is true freedom perhaps, impossible? Could it be the case that we will never fully rid ourselves of all forms of enslavement?
                A subscriber to such pessimistic views of human nature must, in turn, reject as incompatible with reality the ethic of justice and freedom that is often claimed as the foundation of our society today. Surely, the perpetual institutionalization of enslavement at any level would make such an ethic unabsolute, dependent on its own contradiction, and ipso facto obsolete. So the question then is this: are we to base society on an ethic that endorses self-ownership and embraces the possibility of human freedom or on the presumption that these ends are unattainable and man is to eternally forgo his liberties for the sake of a civilization which strives not to free man of his chains but reapply them in ever more creative ways?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

On Vagrancy, Disorderly Conduct and the Nature of “Public” Property

                The question of the legitimacy of “vagrancy” or “disorderly conduct” laws is really a deeper fundamental inquiry into the nature of public property. More specifically, who is it that really “owns” public property? Is it (a) all of the citizens of the state own an equally minute share of each space of public property; or (b) the actual institution of the state owns all public property entirely?
In the instance of (a), two possible resolutions to the question of vagrancy laws are possible. Firstly and simply, if every citizen is an owner of public property then there is no justification for any laws restricting the use of the property as the citizen is a rightful co-owner of that land, unless there is a voluntary contract made in which each citizen explicitly agrees to the hypothetical restriction. Clearly this is not a logical answer as it leaves us with the inevitable circumstance of conflict between the many owners on the proper use of the property. Therefore, we must assume that no one co-owner of the public property has carte blanche authority to use it in whatever way they wish, rather, as with co-owned private property, there must be a universal consensus of the owners on how the property will be used. If there were to be a universal consensus of the owners restricting something such as “vagrancy”, then we see how such a law could come into place. However, this is not how these rules have come into place in the past, and the impractically of such a consensus in a largely populated society makes the reason for this obvious.
                Thus we find ourselves favoring notion (b), that of public property as state-owned property. The vagrant does not make direct contractual agreement to the criminality of his vagrancy, and the vagrant is not permitted to refrain from participation in the system of law enacted and enforced by the state, even on his own private property. Therefore, he cannot be construed as to being a part owner of the land owned by the state, as he has no direct involvement in the decisions regarding its use and likewise cannot be interpreted as being some sort of shareholder as he has been forced into association with the state, and is forced to make the contributions that it sees fit.
                Thus, vagrancy and disorderly conduct law can be seen to have some legitimacy as a sort of trespassing policy on public land. Because in reality, public property is not really public at all, as the public is not the owner, rather, it is the private property of the state, and to the extent that the state allows its citizens to utilize that property is its own prerogative. The state may be motivated to be more gracious with the property in respect to the citizens in order to keep them satisfied with their form of governance.
                However, in a democratic system, one can see how easily a law that may target a minority group of the citizenry-something that a vagrancy or disorderly conduct law is very capable of doing-could come into existence without objection, and even with the express approval of the majority. Even with the restraints of a written constitution, a government is only bound in that it needs the approval of the majority of its citizenry and to the extent that it can subvert the restrictions of its charter without their disapproval, or with their approval, it will. Thus, like the private property of a business, that state’s incentive to allow its citizens to have a say in the use of its own property is for its own self-sustenance, but this does not make that property any less private or safe from unjust or discriminatory rules regarding its use.
                From this we can come to one of  two conclusions. If public (state-owned) property is just, then vagrancy or disorderly conduct laws are equally just vis-à-vis natural law and property rights. If public (state-owned) property is unjust, due to the involuntary means by which the state sustains itself, then vagrancy and disorderly conduct laws are wholly unjust as well, along with all other legislative law. In other words, either the state has a justified carte blanche authority over its property to do whatever is in its best interests as long as it follows a just form of punishment for property crime, or the state has no justified authority over anything whatsoever. There is no middle ground from an ethical standpoint.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Assault Weapons Ban Means More Gun Violence

What would be the impact of removing “assault weapons” from the legal market? In a perfect world of course, we would be granted with a securer and safer society in which not even the evilest, most morally backward criminals would be able to use these firearms in another horrific massacre. In this imaginary world too, we would never have to lock our doors for the fear of thievery, no one would ever die from a heroin overdose and murder would be a long-gone remnant of our pre-legislatively crafted utopia. Lamentably however, this paradise can only exist in our imagination - a far cry from the reality that we are bound to - no matter how many laws are passed to try and force it into existence.
The issue of gun control has, understandably, been one heavily driven by what are unmistakably sincere emotions and reasonable moral questioning. However, the economic factors that play a role in this debate should not be overlooked, and by this I don’t mean to simply argue to save a couple jobs in the firearms industry, which in some irony is performing incredibly well right now.
What I intend to bring attention to in reference to economics are the dangerous impacts of implementing such a prohibition of “assault weapons”. When a consumer good is made to be illegal, the rational demand, or the reasons for which people seek to acquire the good, i.e., its functions, are not impacted by its newfound illegality. Instead the general impacts are as follows:
1.      The good leaves the legal market and fulfills its demand in the black market.
2.      The supply of the good goes down due to the attempts to restrict its sale and production – thus increasing the price.
3.      General demand goes down due to the risk involved with breaking the law – thus making the net-benefit of purchasing the good less.
With both supply and demand lowering, taken at face value, these impacts may seem to favor those who seek to lower gun violence by banning “assault weapons” and in turn show why those people would gravitate to such a position in the first place. However, some clarification on the practical consequences of such a law will reveal that these effects are not as positive as they may seem to be and are instead counterproductive in deterring gun violence.
Whereas it is true that supply and demand are both diminished in a black market, the degree to which they are lessened is not equal. The decrease in supply is significantly greater than the decrease in demand. This is why goods become more expensive in a black market. Applied to the issue at hand, there are two main factors in determining who would be deterred from purchasing “assault weapons” following the passing of their prohibition.
Firstly, those who value the functions of an “assault weapon” the most would be the ones least discouraged by the increase in prices, as those who still perceive the value of the weapon as a greater value than its higher price will not be economically dissuaded from purchasing it on the black market. This would likely mean that those who might be interested in purchasing an “assault weapon” for home defense would be more easily swayed into choosing another type of legal firearm at a better value whereas someone looking for something to use as a tool of mass carnage or trying to gain an advantage on those handling less powerful weaponry would be more apt to consider the price of the illegal weapon to be worthwhile. Similarly, the same person who might consider that price worthwhile may now be driven instead into purchasing even more dangerous weapons on the black market, such as an automatic weapon, since the price between the two guns are now closer due to the fact that they are now both illegal.
Perhaps a more important factor than economic dissuasion is that of the consumer’s attitude towards the law. Clearly, someone who intends to use the firearm they are purchasing to murder someone, a blatantly unlawful act, is not likely to allow the potential consequences of illegal activity to change their mind, as the penalties for the crimes that could be committed with the weapon are much greater than those associated with its possession. Naturally, it’s those citizens who plan to comply with the law that will be prevented from purchasing an “assault weapon”, in other words, those who aren’t going to be murdering anyone in the first place.
In both these cases we see that the demand of those who the proponents of the “assault weapons” ban seek to restrain would generally be accommodated by the black market whereas those who wish to use the weapon for self-defense are the ones who end up being deprived. Still however, it may be argued that the decreasing supply and increasing prices may create a reduction in the circulation of these weapons, thus, in time, creating a net-reduction of overall gun violence and justifying prohibition.
Overlooked in this presumption however are the indirect consequences of shifting an industry from the legal market to the black market. When the sale of a good is completely unrestricted there is no demand for it in the black market. With a prohibition of “assault weapons” and the subsequent shift in their demand into the black market, a new and profitable source of income would be provided for those already involved in the sale of prohibited goods, such as other weapons that are already illegal.
Since gang-related violence is already a primary source of gun crime in the United States already, creating another source of revenue for these gangs doesn’t seem to be an effective way of curtailing gun violence. One could never downplay the sickening circumstances of some of the mass murders we’ve seen recently in this country, at the same time however, these horrific massacres are anomalistic in comparison to the number of gang-related homicides that occur frequently in major cities all across the nation, costing many innocent bystanders, and innocent children their lives.
Moving an industry from the legal market to the black market also creates a distortion in the natural division of labor. Unhampered legal markets allocate laborers into specific industries based on their economic efficiency and productivity. People naturally look to find jobs in legal markets rather than black markets simply for the reason that the constant threat of imprisonment makes them want to look for an alternative, less perilous career path.
Yet, while potentially being locked up in a cage is certainly undesirable, what’s worse is starving, sleeping in the street, or being unable to feed your children. This is why people stuck in the lower classes often find themselves working in the black market. As long as the demand still exists, there is always a market for things like illegal guns, and whereas well-educated, financially stable people who can afford to acquire qualifications and assimilate themselves into the legal markets do not have to concern themselves with these industries, those who are not as well-off will always be driven into them.
We have seen this with things like drugs, prostitution, and guns that are already prohibited. Inner cities are locked-down by criminal gangs and condemned to carry the burden of the demand of prohibited goods. Were such goods left to the legal market, there would be room for these people at the bottom of the division of labor, allowing them to move up naturally in the workforce. Instead, they are either thrown in prison or driven into a kill or be killed sub-culture where their competitors in the market are the enemy (ironically increasing the demand for high-powered weaponry), and innocent people often pay the price.
Though good intentions undoubtedly fill the hearts of those who mourn the shootings at Sandy Hook and Aurora and consequently demand the prohibition of the weapons used at these massacres, a practical overview of the effects of prohibition, both generally and specifically to the situation illustrates a point that must be better understood by all those who seek to use the power of the state to cure society’s ills – utopia cannot be created with the law, and to the extent that it is tried, we are only made to become more and more vulnerable to those who act outside of it.
It’s not impossible that such a prohibition could prevent some future massacre from ever occurring, yet the overall consequences of such a law will be to create a greater imbalance in the struggle between those who use guns to protect and those who use them to attack. Well the passing of these laws could conceivably keep “assault weapons” out of the hands of a couple people who might have used them for malicious purposes, the ultimate effect will be that violent gangs will be able to afford more AK-47’s.
If the purpose of the proposed law is to decrease violence, creating a new black market is not the answer. The creation of a black market always leads to more violence. If the purpose of this proposed law is to make the public feel good about themselves so that we can pretend these atrocities have been rectified then perhaps, to these ends, it will be effective. But the truth is that prohibiting “assault weapons” will lead to a net-increase in gun violence by empowering those very same people who would use these guns to kill.