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Ludwig von Mises was born 135 years ago today. 104 years ago, his first great book, Theory of Money and Credit, was published. Mises wrote this treatise in the dark, foreboding days before World War I. This gave the project urgency and greatly affected its makeup. He would later write in his Notes and Recollections,
“If I could have worked quietly and taken my time, I would have begun with a theory of direct exchange in the first volume; and then I could proceed to the theory of indirect exchange. But I actually began with indirect exchange, because I believed that I did not have much time; I knew that we were on the eve of a great war and I wanted to complete my book before the war's outbreak. I thus decided that in a few points only I would go beyond the narrow field of strictly monetary theory, and would postpone my preparation of a more complete work.”
Although still young, the economist had already mastered his science. He probably could have written something like his later magnum opus Human Action — a systematic exposition of economics and the case for classical liberalism — right then in the second decade of the 20th century.
But as fate would have it, Mises — whose ideas represented the height of the classical-liberal tradition — came on the scene at the precise moment when the Western world completely foreswore that tradition, embraced the total state, and hurled itself headlong toward self-destruction. Peace and the market were abandoned for war and planning. Mises was the ultimate knight of liberalism in two senses: he was the greatest and the last.
Mises and the Great War
The death knell of the age of liberalism could be heard in the cannonades of the First World War. And Mises had barely enough time to finish, publish, and defend his treatise on money before he himself was sent to the eastern front as an artillery officer.
Other scholars of comparable qualifications were given safe roles in war-planning offices. But Mises, whose liberal ideas were out of step with the establishment in Austria, was put directly in harm's way. One of history's greatest geniuses was a single air burst away from having his career nipped in the bud.
How tragic that would have been! Mises had not yet even written his great 1920 essay Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, which contained the single most powerful argument against central planning that had ever been formulated. Imagine the mind of the greatest critic of central planning being snuffed out by the war that represented central planning's apotheosis.
Put yourself in Mises's shoes on the front line. You, better than anyone else in history, understand the workings of the peaceful market society. You understand the fatal flaws of socialism and interventionism, and the futility of war. You have the answers! You know the societal code that would unlock and unleash humanity's potential.
But nobody will listen to you, and you are surrounded by destruction and madness. Moreover, you yourself may at any moment be devoured by this war that rages around you, and all these unwritten ideas that are bubbling over in your mind will be lost to humanity forever.
Proceed Ever More Boldly
It would be enough to break almost any man. But, fortunately for us, Mises was not only a genius but also a paragon of moral courage. In this harrowing crisis, as in all his subsequent trials, Mises bolstered that courage with a scrap of Latin poetry he had learned as a schoolboy.
“How one carries on in the face of unavoidable catastrophe is a matter of temperament. In high school, as was custom, I had chosen a verse by Virgil to be my motto: Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito. Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it. I recalled these words during the darkest hours of the war. Again and again I had met with situations from which rational deliberation found no means of escape; but then the unexpected intervened, and with it came salvation. I would not lose courage even now. I wanted to do everything an economist could do. I would not tire in saying what I knew to be true.”
And he was forever faithful to that resolution. Throughout his career, Mises was ever the picture of principled intransigence. An intellectual Leonidas, surrounded by hordes of socialists, fascists, and money cranks, he stood his ground. Even as old allies — like those swept up in the Keynesian Revolution — fell away, still he stood his ground. Still he fought. And he fought not only for the sake of future generations, but for the sake of his own.
For Mises, it was not enough to theoretically expose the folly of inflationism in The Theory of Money and Credit, a book for the ages. He also personally fought the inflationism present in interwar Austria, using his influence to save his homeland from the hyperinflation that would soon after befall Weimar Germany and contribute toward the rise of Nazism.
For Mises, it was not enough to theoretically prove the madness of socialism in Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, another book for the ages. He also personally dissuaded the most powerful man in Vienna from imposing on that city the Bolshevism that would soon after lead to famine in Russia.
He also tried to save his civilization from the ravages of war. In his 1919 book Nation, State, and Economy, Mises presented a viable path forward for Europe. The idea of self determination should be applied not just as a wartime slogan but as a political reality. Every group, no matter how small, should be free to declare independence from its ruling political entity. The principle of secession, combined with universal free trade, would bring peace. Mises even said that, if at all possible, this principle of secession should be extended all the way down to the level of the individual.
Mises offered an ominous prediction. No matter how wronged Germany feels about the terms of peace, it should pursue no acts of vengeance. Should Germany’s anger turn to revenge, the country would be destroyed, along with what remains of old-world civilization in Europe. In short, he warned of what would later become the mass slaughter Second World War.
Tragically, his anti-war efforts were not as impactful as his economic activism. Yet Mises's efforts probably saved the lives of thousands — and the livelihoods of millions. And Mises's impact was not limited to Austria. He was even able to gain ground in Germany, which was previously intellectually dominated by the "Socialists of the Chair" (Kathedersozialisten). He managed to turn the brightest young German scholars working in the social sciences toward liberalism and the free market.
Mises Versus Hitler
In his biography of Mises, Guido Hülsmann tells us of the tragic turn that followed.
“Just as Mises was finally beginning to stir the spirit of liberty among the young generation of German economists, the old Kathedersozialisten had a final and devastating triumph. On January 30, 1933, their intellectual scion, Adolf Hitler, was appointed chancellor of the German Reich.”
As the Nazi threat grew, Mises as a Jewish liberal was impelled to leave his native Austria. Later the German police would break into Mises's Vienna apartment and confiscate his papers. The Nazis knew that an office full of the written ideas of Mises was more potentially dangerous to their kind than any Allied weapons cache.
In Switzerland, Mises finally found the repose necessary to write his systematic treatise: Nationaloekonomie, the German-language precursor to Human Action.
Here finally was the "more complete work" Mises envisioned in his 30s: a magisterial exposition of the social sciences, and an irrefutable case for the liberal society.
The book fell, as David Hume said of his own great treatise, "stillborn from the press." World War II was underway. The European mind was once again gripped with madness and bent on self-destruction. It had no time or attention to give to liberalism, even in such a refined and compelling form as this.
And once again, not only were Mises's ideas endangered but his own person as well. Mises came within a hair's breadth of being kidnapped by German agents. The Swiss Alps were no longer enough to keep Mises safe from Hitler's forces.
To escape the Continent, Mises and his new wife first had to travel by bus from Switzerland to Portugal, barely keeping one step ahead of the Nazis the whole way.
Mises and FEE
They finally found safe harbor in New York City. But financial security did not come with physical safety. Mises and his wife found themselves faced with austerity like they had never known before. Most of Mises's savings had been confiscated by the Nazis. And, as accomplished as he was, Mises could not find any faculty positions, because American universities had become almost as anti-capitalistic as European academia.
If he had sold out, as did so many of his colleagues did, he might have easily secured a place in a prestigious university. But Mises was not about to back down now. As always, he found ways to get by without giving in. Tu ne cede.
In America, there was still a remnant of individualists. Many of these freedom lovers found Mises's ideas to be a revelation. From their ranks, several stepped forward to provide Mises with the financial and professional support he needed to stay productive in his later years. A great many of these supporters were associated with the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).
With this support Mises was able to once again express, this time in English (which he had rapidly learned to write masterfully), his systematic social theory in his magnum opus, Human Action. FEE played a key role in making the publication of this timeless masterpiece possible.
For a young economist named Murray Rothbard, reading Human Action was a life-changing event. He was instantly converted into a hardcore Misesian. Rothbard immediately started building on Mises's work, paving the way for the renaissance of Austrian economics that would occur in America years later. The influence of Human Action touched the lives of many other great thinkers from Ayn Rand to Gordon Tullock, and continues to do so in our own time.
Mises fought for liberty until the very end, writing books into his 80s and giving speeches into his 90s. At one of his last speeches, in the year before he died, a young physician named Ron Paul was in attendance. Dr. Paul had driven 50 miles to see Mises, and would later recollect that the event was "an inspiration."
At the end of his life, Mises had only one regret: that his powers were then failing when he still had "so much to give to the people, to the world." Mises died as he had lived: brimming with goodwill toward his fellow human beings and animated by an unrelenting drive to improve their lot in the world.
The impacts of Mises's life and work have been resounding now for over a century. Yet in the midst of the challenges we now face, his writings and his example are as timely now as they ever were. His writings show us how we may one day remedy our greatest afflictions. And his example can inspire in us the courage needed for the trials we must unavoidably face in the meantime.
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by Dan Sanchez and Isaac Morehouse
You wake up to the realization that you have an important meeting in 30 minutes. You leap out of bed, throw some clothes on, grab your keys, and rush out the door. You’re halfway to your car when you see it.
Somebody has slashed your tires.
You’re a 30 year old startup founder, but suddenly you become a 60 year old curmudgeon. “Hooligans! Scum of the earth! If I ever got my hands on them, I’d…”
Then you stop, and a strange calm comes over you. Is it your meditation practice kicking in? No, the look on your face is not one of serenity, so much as one of curiosity and resolve.
It’s not a moment of zen, but of economics.
Far fetched? Actually, no. The economic way of thinking can be a powerful tool for dealing with life’s challenges. In fact, you might even say that economics can be a form of self-help.
The kernel of economics is the concept of human action: of purposeful behavior. Action involves seeking goals according to one’s own preferences, which are influenced by incentives.
And all action is rational in the sense that it is based upon available information, however incorrect and incomplete, and upon ideas, however fallacious and flawed, about cause and effect, means toward ends.
This may seem pretty common sense, but all too often we seem to disregard these truths. When faced with the problematic behavior of our fellow human beings, we often dwell on the moral defects or perceived absurdity of that conduct. “He’s just a monster.” “She’s just irrational.” “They’re just a bunch of idiots.”
To take an extreme example, after 9/11 and at the beginning of the Afghan War, when asked by the press of his estimation of Osama bin Laden, a top U.S. general could only offer the answer, “He’s a madman.” Nothing about the terrorist’s motives or cause, however sinister and unjust. Nothing about his strategy, however diabolical. Just, “He’s a madman.” With such a crude approach to assessing a mortal enemy as this, it is no wonder that the War on Terror has failed so spectacularly.
Such a response might make one feel superior and self-satisfied, but really it’s self-disempowering. It stops, dead in its tracks, all analysis, all understanding, all progress toward solutions. It can lead to despair of having any kind of influence on others whatsoever. And it drastically dwindles one’s toolkit for effectively dealing with human actors. Individuals considered as nothing but mindless inhuman obstacles can only either be avoided or overcome with force.
Transcending Office Politics
But what if neither option is on the table? For example, what if you’re dealing with a co-worker who is always looking to sabotage you at a job you don’t want to quit? You can’t just hide from him in the storage closet. You can’t just smack him in the face with a keyboard, like James McAvoy did to Chris Pratt in the movie Wanted. Without the economic way of thinking, all you can do is simmer in resentment. Maybe you’ll find petty consolation (and even some lulz) in trying to make his life miserable in return, like Jim Halpert putting Dwight Schrute’s stapler in Jell-O in The Office.
Economics reminds us that, however depraved, however imbalanced, however impaired, all human beings act according to preferences, information, and incentives. So when someone gives you grief, instead of stewing in contempt and judgment, try grappling with and modifying those preferences, that information, and those incentives.
Why is that colleague trying to sabotage you?
Maybe his preferences are such that he cares more about his own career advancement than about being part of a functioning and collegial team.
Maybe these preferences are shaped by incentives that arise from the fact that your company started moving away from private clients and toward government contracting. So the organization has become more bureaucratic and hierarchical, and less geared toward efficiency and service. In such a context, it’s not surprising that he would place rank-climbing above collaborative value-creation.
Maybe his information, gleaned from his life experiences, tells him that the only way to climb the corporate ladder is by pulling someone else down.
Now that you have an idea where he’s coming from, you can consider whether you can change those preferences, that information, and those incentives.
Can you alter the incentive structure by convincing your CEO that the government contracts are changing the organizational culture for the worse, and that the company should shift back to private clientele?
Can you induce a preference shuffle in your nemesis by helping him with one of his projects, thereby showing him the benefit of cooperation for one’s career?
Can you change his information by recommending to him a book that explains how it is value-creation and not resume-padding that will make his career and work life thrive?
The economic way of thinking can also help you better deal with the person who can at times be your worst enemy: yourself.
Too often we assess ourselves as crudely and unproductively as we assess others, again dwelling on judgment. “My relationships keep failing because I’m just a bad person.” “I can’t lose weight because I simply have no self control.” “I keep making bad career decisions because I’m such an idiot.”
What a useless kind of evaluation!
Again, you, like all other human beings, act according to preferences, information, and incentives. So, instead of wallowing in self-loathing, think about how you can hack those preferences, that information, and those incentives.
How can you hack your information so as to alter your choices? Maybe the diet you’ve chosen is unsustainable, and you need to do research to find one that you can stick to without always feeling hungry. Maybe you and your partner have mismatching expectations for your relationship, so you need to talk it out and come to understand each other.
How can you hack your incentive structure so as to adjust your preferences? Is living at home sapping your self-reliance? Why not move out? Is being in school squashing your initiative and enterprise? Why not drop out? Is your job at the DMV or some other government office making you indolent and surly? Why not quit?
From Pathology to Play
When you treat yourself and others as pathological creatures, as senseless, stubborn beasts, life becomes a dreary slog to be suffered and endured: like trying to squeeze your way through a vast herd of heedless cattle.
But when you look at humanity through the lens of economics, correctly seeing yourself and others as purposeful beings with dynamic preferences, information, and incentives, life becomes play: a massively multiplayer game full of creative challenges in which the best strategy is to win friends and influence people.
Originally published at fee.org on September 4, 2016.
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Have you ever noticed how frustrating it is to argue with people about politics on the Internet: like trying to use your head to knock down a brick wall? Well, keep in mind that the feeling is probably mutual.
But also consider the practical utility of that brick wall: the rational interest many people have in being close-minded and wedded to false beliefs. As economist Bryan Caplan has written:
“…irrationality, like ignorance, is sensitive to price, and false beliefs about politics and religion are cheap. If you underestimate the costs of excessive drinking, you can ruin your life. In contrast, if you underestimate the benefits of immigration, or the evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, what happens to you? In all probability, the same thing that would have happened to you if you knew the whole truth.”
False beliefs about economics and political philosophy may be devastating in aggregate, but for the individual the cost of choosing to embrace fallacy is negligible. So, as Caplan argues, it is perfectly rational for many to stubbornly cling to false but “emotionally appealing” beliefs. There are no individual, internalized costs that could possibly outweigh whatever emotional benefit the false belief might have.
Caplan wrote the passage quoted above in 2006. Last year, British writer James Bartholomew coined a term and crystallized a concept that is highly complementary to Caplan’s analysis: virtue signaling.
Virtue and Vanity
Most of what passes for political discourse on the Internet does not consist of actual attempts to persuade. Rather, the opiners are like preening birds, chirping for anyone within earshot to signal that, “I am a decent, virtuous person,” usually adding, “unlike the troglodyte rightwingers or degenerate leftists I’m denouncing.”
Such virtue signalling is socially profitable. When others in your social set detect that you faithfully subscribe to that set’s orthodoxy, they become better disposed toward you. This can result in professional, social, even romantic opportunities.
And just as holding a comforting false belief is rock-bottom cheap, so is expressing a socially-advantageous false belief.
But in addition to this rational interest, there is a compulsive, pathological component to virtue signaling as well. That part is baggage from the way we are all raised as kids.
When children are free to learn from undirected experiences, they learn to conceive of truth as something that guides the successful pursuit of their own goals. But in the domineering, tightly-directed environments of school and the modern household, we condition our children to conceive of truth as received wisdom handed down by authority.
Children are largely deprived of the noble joy of discovering truths as revealed by successful action. Instead they are left with the ignoble gratification of pleasing a taskmaster by reciting an answer that is marked “correct.” And this goes far beyond academics. For the modern child, learning “good behavior” is not about discovering through trial and error what kinds of behaviors are conducive to thriving socially. Instead, it’s about winning praise and avoiding censure from authority figures.
Thanks to this conditioning, we have all become approval-junkies, always on the lookout for our next fix of external validation: for the next little rush of dopamine we get whenever we are patted on the head by others for being a “good boy” or a “good girl,” for exhibiting the right behavior, for giving the right answer, for expressing the right opinion.
This is why the mania for virtue signalling is so ubiquitous, and why orthodoxies are so impervious. Expressing political opinions is not about hammering out useful truths through the crucible of debate, but about signaling one’s own virtue by “tattling” on others for being unvirtuous: for being crypto-commies or crypto-fascists; for being closet racists or race-traitor “cucks;” for being enemies of the poor or apologists for criminals.
Much of our political debate consists of our abused inner children basically calling out, “Teacher, teacher, look at me. I followed the rules, but Johnny didn’t. Johnny is a bad boy, and he said a mean word, too. Teacher look what Trump said. He should say sorry. Teacher look what Hillary did. You should give her detention.”
You can’t expect much enlightenment to emerge from this level of discourse.
An Alternative Approach to Advancing Liberty
This may make the situation seem hopeless for advocates of the freedom philosophy. How can we convince the public about the virtues of freedom, when they are only concerned with signaling their own virtue and are so heedless of argument and reason?
One solution might be to focus on how the freedom philosophy can benefit people in their own lives individually.
For example, children thrive and develop wonderfully under freedom: when their parents adopt unschooling and peaceful parenting. Parents can deny this; they can cling to their false authoritarian beliefs about child rearing. But, unlike with public policy questions, being wrong on the question of parenting is extremely expensive on the individual level. Parents can choose to virtue signal that they, like all “decent” people, support public schools and condemn their kids to a decade-plus sentence of forced desk labor, but only if they pay the cost: ending up with alienated, stressed-out, frivolous kids with no spirit of enterprise.
Unlike with policy debates, parents actually have a direct, internalized stake in arriving at the right answer to the parenting question. Once parents accept that the freedom philosophy is true when it comes to their children, it will be easier for them to see how it is true for society in general. And children raised in freedom are more apt to recognize its virtues across the board as well. It’s hard to imagine an unschooled kid growing up to be an authoritarian adult.
Also, adults who have already been institutionalized by schools and made neurotic by domineering parents often imbibe a docile, dependent, permission-based mindset that holds them back in their career and in life in general. And they often find themselves gravitating toward unfree environments, routines, and relationships that compound the damage done in their childhoods.
Understanding the freedom philosophy (especially the character-building nature of liberty and the character-corroding natures of both power and servitude) can be an individual’s first step toward breaking free from these destructive mindsets and environments. (Indeed, even many libertarians have not deinstitutionalized themselves in this way.) And again, concerning this question, the seeker of self-improvement actually has skin in the game, and so has every interest in being open to a philosophy that can turn his/her life around.
This is the kind of approach that the exciting company Praxis has taken: using the freedom philosophy, deschooling, and the spirit of entrepreneurship to help launch the careers and change the lives of young people from all across the country.
Imagine a world-wide libertarian community that consists of fewer Internet virtue-signalers and would-be politicos, and an ever-rising number of entrepreneurial, wealth-building, value-creating, life-affirming individuals who astound and inspire all who know them. What exemplars of, and walking arguments for, the greatness of liberty such men and women would be.
Maybe freedom lovers should stop expending so much energy bashing our heads against the brick wall of policy disputation, and instead try the open door of appealing to self-interest: by promoting the freedom philosophy, not just as a political philosophy, but as a life philosophy.
Originally published at fee.org on July 21, 2016.
Five police officers were killed and six were injured in Dallas yesterday when snipers opened fire during a protest of the recent police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. This mass shooting was a despicable act of murder.
It was also blowback.
“Blowback” is a term generally reserved for foreign policy. It refers to the reverberating ill effects of foreign interventions. Ron Paul famously and persuasively characterized the 9/11 attacks as blowback from decades of US warfare and imperialism in the Greater Middle East.
In the 1980s, American support for the anti-Soviet Mujahideen in Afghanistan helped lay the groundwork for what would become Osama bin Laden’s jihadist network, Al Qaeda. And in the 1990s, further US interventions in the Middle East spurred the jihadis to turn on their former sponsors and to wage a terrorist war on the west that culminated in the attacks on September 11, 2001.
The outrage elicited by those attacks provided cover for a massive US-led war for the Greater Middle East that rages to this day. That Long War has only served to plummet the entire region into chaos and carnage, which has caused the number of jihadis and would-be terrorists to grow exponentially. As a result, western civilians continue to suffer blowback in the form of terror attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando, Paris, Brussels, etc. These attacks are fueling Islamophobia and driving calls for further violence and repression against Muslims.
The motor of this spinning cycle of reciprocal bloodshed is collectivism. Seeing fellows attacked prompts fear and anger. Fear and anger focused by the lens of reason pinpoints individual offenders for the delivery of justice. But refracted through the lens of collectivism and primal reaction, fear and anger disperses into indiscriminate terror and hate, which scatters to cover whole populations who are ascribed collective guilt and prescribed collective punishment.
This collective punishment of innocents then prompts fear and anger among the targeted population. If they too are afflicted with collectivism, some of them will also succumb to terror and hate, which will be expressed in retaliatory indiscriminate violence: blowback. This collectivist retaliation begets further collectivist retaliation, and the cycle of violence spins out of control.
The Home Front
But this phenomenon is by no means restricted to international affairs. It can characterize civil unrest as well. Again, what we saw yesterday in Dallas was, if not something even more diabolical, blowback.
The American people feel under siege. Different populations feel besieged by different forces. Black Americans especially have suffered decades of persecution by the American “justice” system: police brutality and harassment, mass incarceration, being nickel-and-dimed by tickets and fines, etc. And especially since the summer of 2014, they have been seeing a litany of viral photos and videos of black Americans having been gunned down, throttled, and broken by the police.
This violence too is driven by collectivism. Law enforcement officers are granted an exceptional status in society: a special dispensation to mete out violence with impunity. This caste privilege has instilled deep tribalism in many police officers, which is amplified by training and police union propaganda. Cops are trained to be obsessed with “officer safety” and to effectively treat those outside the “blue tribe” (whom they ostensibly “protect and serve”) as an enemy population: as if every American they detain is a potential quick-draw gunman ready to shoot them down in a millisecond. This paranoia, combined with the impunity of the badge, is what makes an encounter with the police so potentially lethal: especially for black civilians.
Take the collectivism of “blue” tribalism explained above and add, for some individuals, the collectivism of racial terror (irrational, hateful prejudice that every black male is a potential super-predator), and you begin to understand the epidemic of police violence against American blacks.
Hate and Terror
Badges do not grant extra rights, but neither do they negate the human rights of officers.
This police violence has elicited thoroughly justified fear and anger. Virtually all of this emotional response has expressed itself in peaceful protest, led by the Black Lives Matter movement.
However, for some already-unstable individuals, it can boil over into terror, hate, and indiscriminate violence: blowback. Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley was filled with hate when he killed two off-duty NYPD officers in 2014 following the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. So was whoever killed five police officers in Dallas yesterday following the killing of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
True justice is always individual and never collective. Badges do not grant extra rights, but neither do they negate the human rights of officers. Victims of police violence have a right to protect themselves from current attacks with proportional defensive force against actual perpetrators. They or their heirs also have a right to secure restitution from the specific individuals who violated their rights. But collectivist “retribution” is neither defense nor restitution.
Just as international terrorism is often blowback from international war and occupation, the sniper attack on cops in Dallas yesterday was blowback from American police acting as a domestic army of occupation. And just as the victims of terror attacks do not deserve to be killed for the crimes of war-making politicians, the victims of yesterday’s shootings did not deserve to be killed for the crimes of other cops.
Collectivist retaliatory violence is not justice. It is despicable warfare and murder. That does not change the fact that refraining from collectivist violence is not only the right thing to do, but is also the best way to avoid collectivist retaliatory violence: that is, to avoid blowback. We are not “blaming the victim” when we counsel a foreign policy of peace. It is not only right; it is also the best way to be safe from terrorism. Neither is it “blaming the victim” to counsel a domestic policy of justice. It is not only right; it is also the best way to be safe from civil unrest and domestic terrorism.
Originally published at fee.org on July 8, 2016.
Wednesday, two shocking videos of police officers fatally shooting civilians (Alton Stirling and Philando Castile) surfaced. The day before, many were appalled to hear the Director of the FBI announce that Hillary Clinton would not be charged for mishandling classified information. The two events may seem unrelated, but at bottom, they concern the same fundamental problem: impunity.
Impunity is the essence of power. What, after all, is power? Is it simply the capacity to exert unjust force? The ability to impress one’s will upon the flesh or belongings of another? No, it’s more than that.
Most anyone can wield unjust force. Anyone could walk out onto the street right now and exert their will on somebody weaker: say, pushing over an old lady or stealing candy from a baby. And the toughest, or most heavily-armed guy in town can strong-arm just about any other single person.
But isolated incidents of aggression do not constitute power. The “reign” of the rogue rampager is generally short-lived. It only lasts until the community recognizes him as the menace to society that he is and neutralizes him.
Power isn’t simply about the exertion of unjust force. It is about what happens next, after the exertion. Does the perpetrator generally get away with, or not? Systematically getting away with it — or impunity — is where power truly lies. And that is what makes agents of the State different from any other bully. State agents can violate rights with reliable impunity because a critical mass of the public considers the aggression of state agents to be exceptionally legitimate. Impunity is power, and as Lord Acton said, power corrupts.
The Impunity of the Badge
State impunity is at the root of the problem of police violence. As agents of the exalted State, the police are seen as paladins of public order. The populace grants cops a special dispensation to commit violence that would be considered criminal if perpetrated by anybody else. This privilege is enshrined in law most clearly as the doctrine of “qualified immunity.” As Evan Bernick of the Institute for Justice wrote:
In the 1967 case of Pierson v. Ray, the Supreme Court held that police officers sued for constitutional violations can raise ‘qualified immunity’ as a defense, and thereby escape paying out of their own pockets, even if they violated a person’s constitutional rights.
When victims of police violence or their heirs seek redress and are awarded monetary payments, it is taxpayers, and not the cops, who pick up the tab. Police officers are rarely even prosecuted for violence inflicted while they’re on the clock. The worst that an offending officer can generally expect to face is getting fired, but he will more likely just get a paid suspension.
Thus insulated from responsibility, officer treatment of “mundanes” is predictably often grossly irresponsible. Confident in being sheltered from consequences by their “blue privilege,” officers are far more prone to indulge in lethal cowardice: to place “officer safety” so far above civilian rights that they are willing to gun down a stranger at the slightest whiff of potential danger. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile each carried a gun, as they have the natural right to do. Neither threatened the officers with his weapon, or even brandished it. Yet in both cases, merely becoming aware of the guns sent a cop into a murderous panic. Both Sterling and Castile were fatally shot multiple times in the chest.
The Impunity of High Office
State impunity not only corrupts the regime’s low-level enforcers, but its elite policy makers as well. The FBI let Hillary Clinton off the hook for secrecy violations she committed as Secretary of State, even though these were much more egregious than violations that have earned lower-level personnel decades in prison. She used technology that was more open to being compromised by spies and hackers, while at the same less open to legal and public scrutiny.
But the kinds of activities she was hiding are far more criminal than the fact that she hid them. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton played a key role in bringing war to such places as Libya, Syria, and Honduras, and in escalating the war in Afghanistan. She is complicit in causing untold death and misery.
Yet, thanks to her connections and her position in the state power apparatus, she faces no consequences for her crimes, and is free to acquire even more immunity and power as a likely President of the United States.
It is the “sovereign immunity” she enjoys as an office-holder that has made Hillary Clinton so reckless and cavalier about the havoc she has wreaked around the world. If she thought she might ever be held accountable for upending entire countries, she would have likely been far less warlike in her policies.
From policing to foreign policy, impunity corrupts, and absolute impunity corrupts absolutely.
Originally published at fee.org on July 7, 2016.
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