Regional wars that were only with hindsight lumped all together

Monday, January 1st, 2018

It wasn’t always clear that World War II, or the Second World War, would be seen as a single, unified war, as Victor Davis Hanson emphasizes in The Second World Wars:

By 1939, Germany had entered its third European war within 70 years, following World War I (1914–1918) and, before that, the Franco–Prussian War (1870–1871). Conflicts throughout history become serial when an enemy is not utterly defeated and is not forced to submit to the political conditions of the victor, whether in the two Peloponnesian or three Punic Wars, or the later Hundred Years’ and Seven Years’ Wars. Such was the case with the preludes to World War II, when many of the major familiar nations of the European world were again at war. Germany was once more the aggressor. That fact also helped spawn the familiar idea of “World War II” and its alternative designation, the “Second World War.” Yet this time around, both sides tacitly agreed that there would not be a World War III — either Germany would finally achieve its near century-long dream of European dominance or cease to exist as a National Socialist state and military power. Yet the Allies understood history far better: In any existential war, only the side that has the ability to destroy the homeland of the other wins.

The war, also like many conflicts of the past, was certainly chronologically inexact, with two official denouements known in the Anglosphere as V-E and V-J Day. The war, like many, was also ill-defined, especially for a country such as Bulgaria, to take one minor example, which had no common interests or communications with its nominal Pacific ally Japan. Likewise, the Greeks were indifferent to the war against fascism in China, and in the same way the Soviet Union cared little whether Italy had invaded France.

Often border disputes on the periphery of Germany, ethnic hatreds in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and political grievances and national ambitions set off regional wars that were only with hindsight lumped all together as World War II, at least in Britain and the United States. Most sides had hopes of allying their parochial causes to larger ideological crusades. But far more important, they just wanted to join the right side of strong allies that might be likely winners and divvy up spoils. General Francisco Franco’s fascist government in Spain was emblematic of such opportunism that transcended ideological affinities. During 1939–1941, Franco — despite horrendous recent losses in the Spanish Civil War and despite Hitler’s occasional rebuffs — considered possible entrance into the war on the Axis side. Franco assumed that the Allies would likely be defeated and there might be colonial spoils in North Africa allotted to Spain. He often boasted that Spain might unilaterally take Gibraltar or enlist hundreds of thousands of warriors to the Axis cause. But between 1943 and 1944, Spain increasingly began to reassert its neutrality, in recognition that the Axis powers would now likely lose the war and their war-won territories — and prior allegiance might earn an Allied invasion and with it a change of government. By late 1944, Fascist Spain was no longer exporting tungsten to Germany and was instead reinvented as sympathetic to British and American democracy and eager to become an anticommunist ally after the war.

Eric Garner’s daughter has heart attack without being “choked” or tackled

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

How should the police handle a large man who won’t comply? That’s what I asked when Eric Garner, a large man indeed, refused to comply with NYPD officers, got taken down with a headlock, and ended up under a dogpile — where he had a heart attack and died. This was described as an unarmed black man being choked to death.

Now his daughter, Erica Garner, has suffered her own second heart attack, severe enough to cause brain damage, without being “choked” or tackled. It’s pretty clear that there’s a family history of heart disease.

I still don’t know how the police should handle a large man who won’t comply, especially if he’s at risk of a heart attack.

Switzerland is prepared for civilizational collapse

Saturday, December 16th, 2017

Switzerland is prepared for civilizational collapse, Alex Tabarrok notes:

All around Switzerland, for example, one can find thousands of water fountains fed by natural springs. Zurich is famous for its 1200 fountains, some of them quite beautiful and ornate, but it’s the multiple small, simple fountains in every Swiss village that really tell the story. Elegant, yes, but if and when central water systems are destroyed these fountains are a decentralized and robust system for providing everyone with drinkable water.

The Swiss political system is also decentralized. If the central government fails, the Swiss might not even notice. The mountains and valleys also mean that Swiss towns and villages are geographically independent yet linked in a spider-web of robust connections.

Despite being at peace since 1815, Switzerland is prepared for war. Swiss males (and perhaps females in the future) are required to serve in the military (those who cannot, pay a special tax) creating a robust reservoir of trained citizens ready to serve in an emergency.

The Swiss have been tunneling the Alps for hundreds of years creating innumerable secret hideaways for people and stores.

As a further example of how ridiculously well prepared the Swiss are for any and all threats, there are things like hidden hydroelectric dams built inside of unmarked mountains so that in the event of mass bombings, they’ll still have electricity from these secret facilities. And, remember, these are the things the Swiss government has let us know about. It is thought that there are probably more fortifications and hidden goodies scattered about the country’s landscape.

In addition, to thousands of military bunkers permeating the Swiss mountains there are several hundred thousand private and public fallout shelters the largest of which can hold some 20,000 people. Some of the largest installations have been decommissioned and even turned into museums but there is little doubt that they could be rapidly re-purposed.. As the Swiss continue to improve their already fantastic railway system it’s standard practice to convert old railway tunnels to security shelters.

Buried deep alongside the hydroelectric dams, shelters and food stores, the Swiss also have libraries ready to reboot civilization.

I thought secret Swiss forts were impressive. I wasn’t expecting secret Swiss hydroelectric dams. The Swiss military system is fascinating.

I really should read John McPhee’s La Place de la Concorde Suisse.

One percent of the population commits 63 percent of all violent crimes

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

One percent of the population commits 63 percent of all violent crimes — at least in Sweden, based on convictions:

A total of 93,642 individuals (3.9 %) had at least one violent conviction. The distribution of convictions was highly skewed; 24,342 persistent violent offenders (1.0 % of the total population) accounted for 63.2 % of all convictions. Persistence in violence was associated with male sex (OR 2.5), personality disorder (OR 2.3), violent crime conviction before age 19 (OR 2.0), drug-related offenses (OR 1.9), nonviolent criminality (OR 1.9), substance use disorder (OR 1.9), and major mental disorder (OR 1.3).

The majority of violent crimes are perpetrated by a small number of persistent violent offenders, typically males, characterized by early onset of violent criminality, substance abuse, personality disorders, and nonviolent criminality.

Number of Convictions by Percentile

If all violent crime careers could come to a stop after a third conviction (which would require interventions directed at 1 % of the total population), more than 50 % of all convictions for violent crime in the total population would be prevented.

[...]

First offenses are particularly difficult to predict, especially due to the low base rates of violent crime overall. By contrast, the majority of violent crimes are committed by a group of offenders who may be identified by rather easily observable features, such as having already been convicted of violent crimes several times already in adolescence, and having problems with substance abuse.

These statistics seemingly support the catchphrase and model employed in California and several other states in the USA, “three strikes and you’re out.”

The one knocking on the door

Monday, December 11th, 2017

The New Yorker traces the origins of “You will not replace us!” back to a cosmopolitan gay Gascon named Renaud Camus — no relation to Albert:

In recent years, though, Camus’s name has been associated less with erotica than with a single poignant phrase, le grand remplacement. In 2012, he made this the title of an alarmist book. Native “white” Europeans, he argues, are being reverse-colonized by black and brown immigrants, who are flooding the Continent in what amounts to an extinction-level event. “The great replacement is very simple,” he has said. “You have one people, and in the space of a generation you have a different people.” The specific identity of the replacement population, he suggests, is of less importance than the act of replacement itself. “Individuals, yes, can join a people, integrate with it, assimilate to it,” he writes in the book. “But peoples, civilizations, religions — and especially when these religions are themselves civilizations, types of society, almost States — cannot and cannot even want to…blend into other peoples, other civilizations.”

Camus believes that all Western countries are faced with varying degrees of “ethnic and civilizational substitution.” He points to the increasing prevalence of Spanish, and other foreign languages, in the United States as evidence of the same phenomenon. Although his arguments are scarcely available in translation, they have been picked up by right-wing and white-nationalist circles throughout the English-speaking world. In July, Lauren Southern, the Canadian alt-right Internet personality, posted, on YouTube, a video titled “The Great Replacement”; it has received more than a quarter of a million views. On great-replacement.com, a Web site maintained anonymously, the introductory text declares, “The same term can be applied to many other European peoples both in Europe and abroad…where the same policy of mass immigration of non-European people poses a demographic threat. Of all the different races of people on this planet, only the European races are facing the possibility of extinction in a relatively near future.” The site announces its mission as “spreading awareness” of Camus’s term, which, the site’s author concludes, is more palatable than a similar concept, “white genocide.” (A search for that phrase on YouTube yields more than fifty thousand videos.)

“I don’t have any genetic conception of races,” Camus told me. “I don’t use the word ‘superior.’ ” He insisted that he would feel equally sad if Japanese culture or “African culture” were to disappear because of immigration. On Twitter, he has quipped, “The only race I hate is the one knocking on the door.”

Leave the colonists to fend for themselves

Sunday, December 10th, 2017

I would not call the foundation of American gun culture the “American Indian foundation of American gun culture,” but the Indians did have a clear influence:

In England, there was no written, express guarantee of a right to arms until 1689, when Parliament enacted the English Bill of Rights. In America, arms rights were recognized in the Virginia Charter of 1606 and by the New England Charter of 1620. Geographically, the two charters covered all the future English colonies in what would become the United States of America. According to the charters, the colonists had the perpetual right to import arms, ammunition and other goods for their “Defence or otherwise.”

The Virginians and New Englanders also had an express guarantee of the right to use their arms at ‘‘all times forever hereafter, for their several Defences,’’ to “encounter, expulse, repel and resist’’ anyone who attempted ‘‘the Hurt, Detriment, or Annoyance of the said several Colonies or Plantations.’’ In practice, the colonists’ right of self-defense against invaders and criminals would need to be exercised through the collective action of the colonists, there being no British army anywhere near.

As history turned out, the willingness of Americans to be subjects of the British crown ended when the crown began violating its guarantees of American arms rights. The American Revolution began when Americans used their firearms to resist house-to-house gun and powder confiscation at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. The attempted confiscation was part of a royal plan to disarm America, set in motion by King George III’s October 1774 embargo on the shipment of firearms and gunpowder to America. (By that point, Americans considered their arms rights to have been guaranteed by the 1689 Bill of Rights, because the 1606 and 1620 charters had long since been replaced.)

[...]

The despotic Stuart kings ruled England from 1603 to 1688. They were terrified of popular revolution and worked hard to disarm most of the population. Even under Queen Elizabeth I (who reigned from 1558 to 1603), militia training and practice were often desultory.

In the early 17th century, many English militia arms were centrally stored rather than kept at home. There were muster days, when a community would have to demonstrate that it had arms for its militia. But practice days were fewer.

[...]

In Great Britain, there was little opportunity for commoners lawfully to develop hunting skills. In the British Isles in the 17th century, hunting was very strictly regulated by the bewilderingly complex Game Laws.

[...]

But conditions in North America demanded a change. First of all, the early settlers had a greater need to hunt for survival. This is one reason that Anglo-Americans — far sooner than the English still in England — shifted from matchlocks to flintlocks. The flintlock’s ignition is much simpler than a matchlock’s: When the flintlock user pulls the trigger, a piece of flint is struck against a piece of steel, producing a shower of sparks that ignite the gunpowder. So a flintlock could be kept permanently loaded and always ready to fire in an instant. In ready mode, it does not reveal the user’s location. The flintlock was more reliable in damp or windy conditions. It was also simpler and faster to reload than a matchlock. It had obvious superiority for hunting in the forests of North America. Captain Myles Standish, an early leader of the Plymouth Colony, was America’s first famous flintlock user. A flintlock was three times more expensive than a matchlock, and in America, the extra price was well worth it.

Unlike England, America had no class-based hunting restrictions. The presumption was that everyone could hunt. Whatever restrictions might be imposed would apply to everyone equally.

An example of a neutral law was the Plymouth Colony’s statute against firing a gun after sunset. This was because when there was an emergency (e.g., an Indian attack), guns would be fired to raise the alarm. (That was how Paul Revere’s news that “The British are coming” was broadcast beyond the sound of his voice, on the night of April 18, 1775.) So Plymouth said that target practice, hunting and so on should be conducted in daylight and not when they might create a false alarm. An exception to the sundown law allowed shooting a wolf.

[...]

The Anglo-Americans faced a dilemma in their Indian trade. On the one hand, firearms sales were often a sine qua non for trade relations with any tribe of unconquered friendly Indians. On the other hand, the colonists were desperate to keep firearms out of the hands of hostile Indians. The colonists enacted many laws to attempt to control the Indian arms trade, but they were exercises in futility. To the limited extent that the laws deterred Anglo-Americans from selling arms to the Indians, Indians could acquire arms from trade networks linked to New Netherland (Delaware to Albany) or New France (Canada down to New Orleans, via the Mississippi River). Indian wars continued until the late 19th century, and nobody’s policies, including those of the U.S. government, managed to prevent Indians from acquiring arms. (See David J. Silverman’s Thundersticks: Firearms and Violent Transformation of Native America.)

Especially in frontier regions, many colonists lived in a state of constant peril from Indian raids. Even when there were formal treaty relations with the most proximate Indians, the Indians might change their minds and launch a surprise attack. For example, Virginia was nearly wiped out by the Powhatan in the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, which began in 1622.

To defend families and communities, the colonists were on their own. The general 17th century model of Spanish and French colonialism centered on trade outposts run by the central government in Europe and protected by that government’s standing army and navy. The English approach, though, was usually to grant a charter to a joint stock company or to a proprietor, to create some basic rules for colonial governance and relations with the mother country, and mostly to leave the colonists to fend for themselves. The English policy reduced the central government’s burden of expense for the colonies and forced the colonists to provide for their own defense.

Accordingly, most colonies enacted strict laws to instill and foster a firearms culture. This required changing the habits of some of the immigrants from Europe, most of whom came from places with much weaker arms cultures.

Of course the colonial laws included mandatory participation in the militia by able-bodied males and mandatory personal arms ownership for such participation. That part of the story is well-known. But the colonial laws went further.

Many laws required firearms ownership by any head of a household, even if the head were not militia-eligible (e.g., the head of the household was a woman or an old man.) Heads of households had to ensure that there was at least one firearm for every male in the household age 16 or over. This included free servants and indentured servants. Some colonies required that when a male indentured servant completed his term of service, his “freedom dues” (goods given by the master, so that the former servant could live independently) had to include a firearm.

To encourage settlement, the Carolina colony (today, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia) induced immigration by offering immigrants freehold land ownership, along with strong guarantees of religious liberty. To receive the land grant, an immigrant had to bring six months worth of provisions to take care of his family while his farm was being cleared and cultivated. Also required: ‘‘provided always, that every man be armed with a good musket full bore, 10 pounds powder and 20 pounds of bullet.’’ (See “A Brief Description of the Province of Carolina” (London 1666), a pamphlet by proprietors encouraging immigration, reprinted in “9 English Historical Documents: American Colonial Documents to 1776,” David C. Douglas gen. ed., Merrill Jensen ed., 1955).

The Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered parents to arrange for arms training for all their children aged 10 or above, both boys and girls. Conscientious objectors were exempt.

Arms carrying was often mandatory for travel outside of towns and for attendance at large public events, particularly church services. Then, as now, unarmed church services were favorite targets for attack, because there would be lots of people gathered in a small space.

So one effect of the Anglo-Indian encounter was to foster a culture of widespread household gun ownership and widespread arms carrying. This was very different from conditions back in England, where the government was certainly not ordering people to always carry guns to the weekly (and mandatory) Church of England services.

Evolving towards ever-more-optimal and ever-more-efficient institutions for the good of all

Friday, December 8th, 2017

Scott Alexander sees the idea of cultural evolution idea as a bit too optimistic:

Like, there’s a perspective where lots of countries have a King, because societies that have a single central nexus to their coordination structure are able to coordinate better than ones that don’t, and having them rule for life promotes long-term thinking, and them be hereditary provides a clear Schelling Point for secession disputes that prevents civil war and cleverly ensures that the previous ruler is incentivized to promote the peaceful transfer of power to the next one, and this is why constitutional monarchies have slightly higher yearly GDP growth than other forms of government.

And there’s another perspective where lots of countries have a King, because some guy seized so much power that he can live in a giant palace and order people around all day instead of doing work. And if anyone tries to prevent him from doing that, he can arrange to have that person beheaded.

Legal Systems Very Different From Ours is very much part of the first perspective. It’s a story of nations and legal systems evolving towards ever-more-optimal and ever-more-efficient institutions for the good of all, and it presents strong evidence supporting that story. I can’t disagree with its evidence from within its narrative, but I still wonder how much to worry about this alternate way of looking at things.

They really, really didn’t seem prepared for crime

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

Something kept seeming off about all the legal systems mentioned in Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, which only clicked into place for Scott Alexander about halfway through — they really, really didn’t seem prepared for crime:

A lot of them worked on a principle like: “If there’s a crime, we’ll call together a court made of all the town elders, plus at least three different religious leaders, plus the heads of the families of everybody involved, plus a representative of the Great King, plus nine different jurists from nine different universities, and all of them will meet on the Field Of Meeting, and a great tent will be erected, and…” The whole thing sounded like it might work as long as there was like one crime a year. Any more than that and none of the society’s officials would ever have time for anything else.

As weird as it is to punish murder with a fine, the fines these societies levied for murder sounded really high: the Islamic price was a hundred camels, the Irish price was seven female slaves. The average person wouldn’t have that many slaves or camels, so people in Arabia or Ireland would band together into clan/family-based blood-money-paying-groups that acted kind of like insurance companies. If a member got convicted of a crime, everyone else would come together to help them pony up the money. I assume this helped incentivize people’s families to discourage them from committing crimes. But it has the same feeling of nobody expecting very many crimes to be committed. How much of medieval Arabia’s GDP consisted of transfers of 100 camels from murderers to victims’ families?

One little-admitted but much-worried-about justification for mass incarceration in our society is the concern that some people are just so naturally violent that, left in the outside world, they would offend again and again until they died. The societies in this book didn’t seem to worry about this. If someone killed, their family would give up the relevant number of camels, and then everyone would be on their way. As far as I can tell, the Amish have no idea what to do about any crime more dire than using a telephone. Nobody used anything at all like incarceration. 18th century England occasionally sent prisoners somewhere horrible like America, but once the colonies revolted they experimented with jails, found them too expensive, and just sort of flailed around punishment-less until they finally discovered Australia.

There’s a lot of concern about police brutality, police racism, police failure-to-actually-control crime, et cetera. A few far-leftists have flirted with the idea of abolishing police, and the only way I can make sense of this is by analogy to something like Somali or Icelandic law. These were genuine community-based non-hierarchical legal systems. And, for the place and the time, they seem to have worked really well (Somaliland, which uses traditional Somali law, is doing way better than Somalia proper, whose law system is somewhat westernized). But I also know that it’s weirdly hard to get a good picture of how modern crime rates compare to ancient ones. On the one hand are statistics like the ones saying crime has increased by an order of magnitude since 1900 or so; on the other are findings like Steven Pinker’s that violence is constantly declining. Apply the “court made of town elders plus at least three different religious leaders plus…” to Baltimore, and the Field Of Meeting is going to get pretty crowded. On the other hand, in my past work with criminals I’ve been constantly surprised by how much role their families and their communities still play in their lives, and maybe a system that left legal enforcement up to them would do better than the overstretched and underperforming police.

All legal systems need a punishment of last resort

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

One of the most interesting things Scott Alexander got from Legal Systems Very Different From Ours is that all legal systems need a punishment of last resort — one that can be enforced whether or not the offender agrees with it — but these punishments practically never happen in real life:

The Gypsies and Amish will ostracize members who defy the court — but since everyone lives in fear of ostracization, in real life they’ll just pay the fine or make their public confession or whatever. The English will hang criminals at the drop of a hat — but since the threat of hanging incentivizes them to bribe prosecutors, in reality few people will need to be hanged. The Icelandic courts could declare offenders outlaws who can be killed without repercussion — but the threat encourages Icelanders to pay the wergeld, and nobody has to get outlawed. The Somalis are ready to have murderous family feuds — but the possibility of such a feud keeps people willing to go to arbitration. Even our own legal system works like this. The police can physically drag you to jail, kicking and screaming. But more likely you’re going to plea bargain, or agree to community service, or at least be cooperative and polite while the police take you away. Plea bargains — which are easier for prosecutors, easier for defendants, and easier for taxpayers — seem like a good example of cultural evolution in action; once someone thought them up, there was no way they weren’t going to take over everything despite their very serious costs.

Ordinary people blunder into highly advanced systems

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

Friedman’s Legal Systems Very Different From Ours and Scott’s Seeing Like A State — “the book G.K. Chesterton would have written if he had gone into economic history instead of literature” — both discuss cultural evolution and its magical results:

In Seeing Like A State, ordinary people living their daily lives blunder into highly advanced systems for doing whatever it is they do. Primitive farmers will know every tiny detail about exactly when to plant which crops, and how to exploit microvariations in soil quality, and know ridiculous tricks like planting fish heads in the ground as fertilizer. Ordinary city-dwellers will organically build houses and stores and streets in exactly the right fractal patterns to maximize some measure of quality of life. Scott dubs this “metis”, an evolved intuitive sense of practical wisdom that often outperforms seemingly more scientific solutions.

Many of the societies Friedman profiles in Legal Systems Very Different From Ours seem to operate on metis. Most don’t know who developed their legal system; in a few of them, it is explicitly declared to have been the work of God. Most don’t really know why their legal system works — in some cases, Friedman only gives an economic analysis of why some rule might exist after admitting that previous scholarship (both modern academic, and within the society in question) has failed to come up with answers. And a lot of them are too brilliant, and need too many weird interlocking parts, to be the work of any single person.

“Cultural evolution” is the idea that cultures evolve in a way analogous to biological organisms. The definition gets kind of fuzzy — if I come up with a good idea and my culture adopts it, is that the result of “cultural evolution” or ordinary human ingenuity? `But a lot of people find the concept to have some value — and if it has any at all, Legal Systems Very Different From Ours has to include some of the best examples.

Friedman frames this in economic terms. Social “entrepreneurs” come up with some new system that solves a need, and it catches on by raising the utility of everyone involved. The mutual-protection-insurance-groups of 18th century England work this way: somebody invents them and offers the opportunity for other people to sign on, everyone who does ends up better off than the people who doesn’t, and they eventually reach fixation. Same with the criminal-prosecutor bribes; someone thinks it up, it leaves both sides better off, so everybody who hears about it does it. Viewed very optimistically, wherever there’s a problem in your culture, institutions to solve the problem will magically appear and spread until everybody does them.

Conflict is an especially fertile ground for cultural innovation. Friedman stresses how many legal systems, including advanced ones with lawyers and codes and everything, show signs of originating from feud systems, which might be the most basic form of law. They work like this: “If you offend me in some way, I will try to kill you”. A slightly more advanced version that takes account of possibly power differentials between offender and victim: “If you offend me in some way, everybody in my family will try to kill everybody in your family”. This originally sounds unpromising, but it turns out that people really don’t want their family members murdered. So we end up with an even more advanced version: “If you offend me in some way, we had better find some way to arbitrate our dispute, or else everybody in my family will try to kill everybody in your family”.

The Somali system seems to be somewhere around here: if two people have a dispute, they find a mutually agreeable judge to arbitrate; the judge will decide who’s in the wrong and what fine they need to pay to make it right. If someone refuses to go to the judge, or refuses to abide by the judge’s decision, then it’s family-member-killing time. Needless to say, Somali judges’ services remain popular. And since judges gain status by arbitrating, and since only judges who make widely-regarded-as-good decisions get invited to keep doing so, there’s economic pressure for the judges to make good decisions (which then go down as precedent and inspire future cases). It’s easy to see how something like this can turn into a perfectly respectable legal system where people totally forget that killing each other’s family members is even an option. Catch it at this last stage, and hear enough people admit they have no idea who “invented” their legal system, and it looks like it appeared by magic.

An account which is both amoral and alegal

Monday, December 4th, 2017

Scott Alexander describes David Friedman’s A Positive Account of Property Rights as maybe the single most mind-opening essay he’s ever read. I came away with much the same impression. Read the whole thing, but here’s the last bit of the introduction:

For all of these reasons, I believe it is worth attempting a positive account of rights — an account which is both amoral and alegal. In part I of this essay I present such an account — one in which rights, in particular property rights, are a consequence of strategic behavior and may exist with no moral or legal support.[3] The account is presented both as an explanation of how rights could arise in a Hobbesian anarchy and as an explanation of the nature of rights as we observe them around us. In Part II I suggest ways in which something like the present structure of rights might have developed.

One puzzling feature of rights as we observe them is the degree to which the same conclusions seem to follow from very different assumptions. Thus roughly similar structures of rights can be and are deduced by libertarian philosophers trying to show what set of natural rights is just and by economists trying to show what set of legal rules would be efficient. And the structures of rights that they deduce seem similar to those observed in human behavior and embodied in the common law. In Part III of this essay I will try to suggest at least partial explanations for this triple coincidence — the apparent similarity between what is, what is just, and what is efficient.

He will break up the fight before they kill more men than they can afford

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

Iceland, from the 10th through 13th Centuries, had a legislature (the Althing) and courts, but no executive branch:

Unlike the Rom, the Icelanders’ problem wasn’t foreign oppressors — it was that they were the Viking equivalent of those hard-core libertarians who live in compounds in Montana where the Feds can’t reach them. In this case “the Feds” were the forces of King Harald Fairhair, who had just taken over and centralized power in Norway. Some Norwegians decided they would rather live on a remote and frequently-exploding piece of rock on the edge of the world than be anyone’s subject: thus, medieval Iceland.

If an Icelander thought a crime had happened, they would go to court and plead the case themselves. If the court pronounced a guilty verdict, it would demand a penalty from the criminal. Usually this was a fine paid to the victim; even murders were punished with wergeld. If the criminal paid the fine voluntarily, all was well. If they refused — or didn’t even come to court — then the court could declare the criminal an outlaw, meaning it was legal to kill him and take his stuff. And:

One obvious objection to a system of private enforcement is that the poor (or weak) would be defenseless. The Icelandic system dealt with this problem by giving the victim a property right — the right to be reimbursed by the criminal — and making that right transferable. The victim could turn over his case to someone else, either gratis or in return for a consideration. A man who did not have sufficient resources to prosecute a case or enforce a verdict could sell it to another who did and who expected to make a profit in both money and reputation by winning the case and collecting the fine. This meant that an attack on even the poorest victim could lead to eventual punishment.

A second objection is that the rich (or powerful) could commit crimes with impunity, since nobody would be able to enforce judgment against them. Where power is sufficiently concentrated this might be true; this was one of the problems which led to the eventual breakdown of the Icelandic legal system in the thirteenth century. But so long as power was reasonably dispersed, as it seems to have been for the first two centuries after the system was established, this was a less serious problem. A man who refused to pay his fines was outlawed and would probably not be supported by as many of his friends as the plaintiff seeking to enforce judgment, since in case of violent conflict his defenders would find themselves legally in the wrong. If the lawbreaker defended himself by force, every injury inflicted on the partisans of the other side would result in another suit, and every refusal to pay another fine would pull more people into the coalition against him.

There is a scene in Njal’s Saga that provides striking evidence of the stability of this system. Conflict between two groups has become so intense that open fighting threatens to break out in the middle of the court. A leader of one faction asks a benevolent neutral what he will do for them in case of a fight. He replies that if they are losing he will help them, and if they are winning he will break up the fight before they kill more men than they can afford! Even when the system seems so near to breaking down, it is still assumed that every enemy killed must eventually be paid for. The reason is obvious enough; each man killed will have friends and relations who are still neutral — and will remain neutral if and only if the killing is made up for by an appropriate wergeld.

The exotic anarcho-capitalist part comes in later

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

Eighteenth-Century England had a government, a court system, and some minimal law enforcement, but the system seems ludicrously backward at first glance:

There were no public prosecutors; anyone who felt like it could bring a criminal to court and start prosecuting him, but if nobody felt like it then the crime remained unpunished. Prosecuting took a lot of time and money and was generally a thankless task. And the government didn’t want to go to the expense of imprisoning people, so they usually just hanged convicted offenders (if the crime seemed really bad) or pardoned them (if it didn’t seem to merit hanging). The exotic anarcho-capitalist part comes in as English civil society creates its own structures to work around these limitations.

Merchants, landowners, and other people with wealth banded together in mutual-protection-insurance-groups. Everyone in the group would pay a fixed amount yearly, and if one of them got robbed the group would use the money to hire a prosecutor to try the criminal. Group members would publish their names in the newspaper to help inform thieves whom it was a bad idea to rob. But this wasn’t about leaving poor people out to dry. The groups would also help indigents who couldn’t afford their own prosecutors, partly out of a desire to crack down on crime before it reached the point where it could inconvenience them. They wouldn’t help people who could have afforded insurance but declined anyway, though — otherwise there would be no incentive to buy in.

What about the lack of good punishments? Once a trial was underway, prosecutors would usually cut a deal: the offender would bribe the prosecutor with a certain amount, and the prosecutor would drop the case. The size of the bribe would vary based on how much the offender could pay, the extent of their crime, and the facts of the case (and therefore the likelihood of the magistrate choosing hanging vs. pardon). This not only helped tailor the punishment more precisely to the crime, but helped defer the cost of prosecution: victims (or their mutual-protection-insurance-groups) were incentivized to press charges because they could recoup their costs through the bribes paid to drop them:

What both modern and contemporary commentators seem to have missed is that, however corrupt such arrangements might be from a legal standpoint, they helped solve the fundamental problem of private prosecution. The possibility of compounding provided an incentive to prosecute — it converted the system into something more like a civil system, where a victim sues in the hope of collecting money damages. And while compounding might save the criminal from the noose, he did not get off scott free. He ended up paying, to the prosecutor, what was in effect a fine.

Have you seen broader American society?

Friday, December 1st, 2017

The Amish form competitive dictatorships:

The basic unit of Amish society is the church congregation; Amish settlements big enough to support multiple churches will have many congregations mixed together. Each congregation will have its own rules, especially about which technologies their members are or aren’t allowed to use. Amish people who violate their congregation’s rules, either by using forbidden technology or by the usual litany of sins, are punished with public confession or temporary ostracism. Amish people who refuse to abide by lesser punishments are excommunicated, though they can be un-excommunicated if they change their minds and agree to follow the court’s orders.

Amish congregations are nominally democratic, but in practice Friedman calls them dictatorship-like because everyone votes the way the bishop wants. But they are a “competitive dictatorship”; since there are so many different congregations in the same town, an Amish family who doesn’t like their congregation’s leadership or legal system can move to another congregation and agree to be bound by their laws instead. This makes it a rare remaining example of a polycentric legal system outside anarcho-capitalist fantasies or Too Like the Lightning:

Such a system can be viewed as a competitive market for legal rules, constrained, like other competitive markets, to produce about the product that the customers want. Competitive dictatorship is the mechanism we routinely use to control hotels and restaurants; the customers have no vote on what color the walls are painted or what is on the menu, but an absolute vote on which one they patronize.

They do encounter the same problem as the Gypsies: can you just commit a crime, then accept your ostracism and integrate with another society somewhere else? The Amish have some internal mechanisms to prevent this: congregations are usually on good terms with each other, but if Congregation A accepts a member being shunned by Congregation B, then all of Congregation B’s members will shun all of Congregation A’s members. In practice, this makes it easy to switch rules as a member in good standing who honestly doesn’t like the laws, but hard to break the laws and get away with it.

Of course, you can still leave the Amish community and go join broader American society. But have you seen broader American society?

There is no equality before the taxman

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

This is no libertarian tax reform, but there are provisions that Veronique de Rugy of Reason really likes:

Before breaking down these proposals, it is worth remembering that our current system is horribly complicated, making compliance costs exorbitant. It is incredibly unfair, extending privileges to some at the expense of others. There is no equality before the taxman.

Genuine tax reform would expand and simplify the tax base by getting rid of the thousands of loopholes to special interest groups. It would lower the top marginal rates and end the double taxation on saving and investment. It should restore some horizontal equity (two people making the same income paying the same taxes). It would also make as many provisions permanent — and predictable — as possible.

Good tax reform would require the federal government to make adjustments in spending, the way states and the District of Columbia operate, so the amount of tax collected more or less covers spending for a given year.

The House version goes after a large number of tax exemptions, breaks, credits and deductions that make our code so complicated and unfair. It takes some significantly steps to reduce the mortgage interest deductions. It also gets rid of most — with the exception of a $10,000 deduction — of the state and local tax deductions (SALT). Pretty impressive moves considering ending tax deductions is usually where tax reform goes to die.

The House plan doubles the standard deduction, meaning dramatically fewer taxpayers will itemize their taxes.

The Senate plan also doubles the standard deduction. (an estimated 90 percent of filers making under $200K would now claim the standard deduction). It gets rid of SALT entirely, but is more timid on the mortgage interest deductions. Moreover, it preserves many of the tax breaks with which the House dispenses. And rather than making the tax changes permanent, it includes a sunset date of 2025 reverting the standard deduction, the estate tax, the child tax credit, SALT, the pass-through deduction, and individual tax rates to 2017 levels.

President Trump’s intention to give a real tax break to the middle class is counter-productive considering the middle class barely shoulders any of the income tax as it is. The top 10 percent of income earners — households making $133K, not $1 million as most assume — currently pay more than 70 percent of all income tax revenue. The middle quintile pays, on average, 2.6 percent of the federal income tax.

And yet, in both the House and Senate plans the middle class receives the largest tax relief by reducing their marginal tax rates, increasing the child tax credit and doubling the standard deduction. The result is fewer taxpayers would be paying income tax at all, problematic from a small government perspective. It also means a more progressive income tax code than it already is.

[...]

Both plans cut the corporate income tax rate from its current 35 percent level to 20 percent. The Senate version implements the cut in 2019, the House version in 2018. Both have the good sense to make the change permanent. This is the most pro-growth/wage change. This is a measure worth passing to make the country tax environment more competitive.