Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Time Freedom Almost Won: A Near-Miss in Obtaining a Bill of Rights

The long struggle for freedom includes great milestone achievements over the centuries and millennia: Hammurabi, Moses, Greco-Roman legal thought, the Magna Carta, the Tübinger Vertrag, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the United States Declaration of Independence, The United State Constitution, The United States Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation, to name merely a few.

But there were also some great failures along the way.

In 1628, the British Parliament created a document called the ‘Petition of Right.’ It incorporated many of the ideas from the Magna Carta, and anticipated many of the ideas of the later ‘Bill of Rights’ documents. Both houses of Parliament approved the petition and sent it to King Charles I.

Previously, Charles had promised to honor the already-stated rights enumerated in the Magna Carta; but at the same time, Charles had warned that Parliament should not question, or infringe upon, what he considered to be the absolute authority of the monarch. Parliament was unwilling to rely merely on the king’s assurance, especially when the king limited that promise with his claim to absolute authority.

Sir Edward Coke led the effort of drafting and obtaining passage through Parliament for the document. Coke championed the rights of the people against the crown during the reign of James I, the predecessor of Charles I. His surname is pronounced ‘Cook’ despite its spelling.

The petition was a brilliant move, as historian John Barry writes:

Parliament would not rely on his word, especially with that limitation. Coke suggested that Parliament require the king to acknowledge English liberties in a legislative way. He proposed sending a “Petition of Right” to the king to define the rights of his subjects and Parliament and limits on the royal prerogative. Though called a “petition,” it was not to be a request granted by the king’s grace; it would be a resolution voted by Parliament and assented to by the king. King and Parliament together, representing a unified nation, would give it the strongest possible legal force and make it binding upon the crown.

Had Charles signed the document, it would have confirmed and acknowledged due process, property rights, and a slew of other freedoms. It would also have probably avoided the English Civil War, and thereby saved many lives — including the king’s: Charles was beheaded in the uproar which he partly caused by at first failing to agree to the petition, then by begrudgingly agreeing to it, and finally by reneging on his agreement to it.

1628, then, was the year in which freedom almost triumphed. But almost triumphing is actually losing.

It would require the bloody English Civil War (1642 to 1651) and the abdication of James II (1688) to finally bring about the English Bill of Rights. An additional 61 years were needed to implement the ideas of the Petition of Right.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Civilization’s Most Impressive Developments: ‘Natural’ Does Not Mean ‘Good’

In the early twenty-first century, many people have come to have positive associations with the word ‘natural’ and with the concept it represents. There are, however, circumstances in which ‘natural’ is bad.

To organize a society around the belief that every person should have equal rights and be afforded equal opportunities is unnatural. What is natural, and what comes naturally to people, is to treat people unequally, to give people unequal opportunities, and to assume that people have unequal rights.

Human nature leans toward the organization of systems in which some people receive preferential treatment, have disproportionate influence, and exercise favoritism in their treatment of others.

The organization of a government composed of freely-elected representatives — which corresponds to an intuitive notion of ‘fair and just’ — is unnatural. It is also the way in which civilization has managed to achieve its greatest accomplishments.

The benefits of this unnatural pattern are relatively new in history, as scholar Jonah Goldberg writes:

Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Human rights are unnatural. The world we live in today is unnatural, and we stumbled into it more or less by accident. The natural state of mankind is grinding poverty punctuated by horrific violence terminating with an early death. It was like this for a very, very long time.

The achievements of the last century or two are significant: both in terms of percentage and in terms of absolute numbers, fewer people are living in poverty around the world. Average lifespans are increasing worldwide. Literacy is rapidly expanding around the globe.

Humans are experiencing the benefits of free market economics and free enterprise system — what is generally called ‘capitalism,’ although strictly defined, ‘capitalism’ is something broader than free markets and free enterprise.

The growth of market economies correlates to, and parallels, the growth of the arts, the expansion of civil rights, and better standards of living even for the poorest of people.

Economics is the best way to tell the story of humanity’s quantum leap out of its natural environment of poverty. Until the 1700s, humans everywhere — Europe, North and South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Oceania — lived on the equivalent of one to three dollars a day. Since then, human prosperity has been exploding across the world, starting in England and Holland with the rest of Western Europe and North America close behind. Debate climate change all you like. This is the most important “hockey stick” chart in all of human history.

The natural status of humans is poverty, disease, violence, and ignorance, as fans of Thomas Hobbes know. Advances and developments in civilization occur despite human nature, not because of it. It is by opposing nature that benefits are accrued for people in general, and for the most vulnerable of people in particular.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Global Growth, Domestic Prosperity, and Wealth Creation

Early in one’s economic education, the terms “zero-sum” and “positive-sum” are presented as designating two categories of systematic understanding. The difference is significant.

The label “positive-sum” defines an outcome in which no party gains at another’s expense; i.e., one party can gain without another party’s losing, or even both parties can gain. This is often viewed as ‘wealth creation’ in political terms.

A “zero-sum” situation is one in which a party can only gain as another party loses. This is a condition in which the total amount of wealth in the system does not, or cannot, change.

Where, in real life, does one encounter either “positive-sum” or “zero-sum” circumstances? Free markets, innovation, and population growth lead to wealth creation.

If international interaction occurs on a free-market basis, then it can lead to a “positive-sum” outcome, as author David Wallace-Wells writes: “The market fabric of globalization” is “a vision of cross-national participation, imbued with the neoliberal ethos that life on Earth” is “a positive-sum game.”

Note, however, that in international trade, the labels ‘free market’ and ‘free trade’ are significantly different.

If free-market trade happens internationally, then there is “a reward for cooperation, effectively transforming, at least in theory, what had once been seen as zero-sum competitions into positive-sum collaborations.”

David Wallace-Wells calls this outlook ‘neoliberalism,’ an accurate but confusing word. Neoliberalism must be distinguished from classical liberalism, from social liberalism, from left liberalism, and from modern liberalism.

While navigating this swamp of verbiage, it’s helpful to remember that the word ‘liberal’ is related to the word ‘liberty’ - the original use of the word ‘liberalism,’ despite its later applications, spoke of making people ‘free from’ government’s regulations and taxes.

Words and phrases like ‘free market’ and ‘minimalist taxation’ convey similar views with less ambiguity.

In any case, “neoliberalism” fosters “positive-sum cooperation of all kinds.” Note that positive-sum outcomes are linked to cooperation. A voluntary trade increases value on both sides of the equation.

The person in northern Finland trades his air-conditioner to the person in the Sahara, receiving in return a snow-shovel. Each person traded away an object of low value in return for an object of high value. Each person experienced a net increase in value.

By contrast, it is difficult to find true “zero-sum” examples of trade in the real world. Imagined zero-sum transactions occur mainly in the rhetoric of populist politicians who are trying to persuade voters.

Policymakers sometimes act as if they are acting in zero-sum situations; but because zero-sum situations are in reality quite rare, what politicians see as zero-sum conditions are actually positive-sum in some hidden way.

If policies are created because a positive-sum situation has been misidentified as a zero-sum situation, then certain behavior often arise in response to policies based on misidentifications: black markets, gray markets, bartering, etc.

The fact that most situations are positive-sum situations is due in part to human ingenuity. People constantly seek value, seek ways to produce value, and seek ways to trade one value for another. Wealth is sometimes produced when new uses are found for objects or substances deemed worthless and discarded.

The positive-sum principle, i.e., the increase of wealth, makes it possible for all people in a society to enjoy a rising standard of living, and makes it possible for nations to gain wealth without depriving other nations of wealth. Indeed, when one nation gains wealth, the unintended byproduct is often an increase in wealth for other nations.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Austria on the Edge: A Borderline Nation

Both geographically and culturally, Austria is a nation on the edge.

Large parts of Europe share a cultural history. As different as Germany and France might be, they both emerged from the Frankish Empire, along with Benelux lands of Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. This Frankish influence extended through southeastern Germany into Austria, but ends somewhere before the Hungarian border.

It’s worth noting that the name ‘France’ derives from the name of the Germanic tribe, the Franks, which moved into the region - previously known as ‘Gaul’ - as a stabilizing influence to calm the chaos which filled the ‘power vacuum’ left by the retreating Roman occupational forces.

Western Austria shows its kinship to Bavaria more clearly than eastern Austria, but both bear a Germanic stamp.

To understand the cultural genesis of these regions, the reader must think back a millennium or so, to a time when the map of Europe looked very different. Instead of the modern nation-states which now organize the continent, there were many small kingdoms, with somewhat fluid borders, organized into local coalitions, and overseen by an overarching but likewise fluid empire.

There was no “Germany” or “Austria,” but rather dozens of kingdoms and duchies filled the map.

The Frankish Empire, which metamorphosed into the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), was a loose network which united most of these small entities. These little kingdoms grew and shrank, merging in marriages, dividing in inheritances among a monarch’s children, occasionally trading bits of land back and forth, or being altered in the course of warfare.

The Frankish Empire, which began in late 400s, expanded in various directions, including eastward. The term ‘march’ is used to denote “a frontier or border area between two countries or territories,” according to one dictionary. Long before the word ‘Austria’ was used or invented, this region was known as the ‘eastern march’ - the edge of the Frankish Empire, later the edge of the HRE.

Bavaria - or Bayern - was the springboard on the eastern end of the empire from which expansion into Austria was made.

From the Germanic Osten meaning ‘east’ and Reich meaning ‘empire,’ the name Österreich emerged. ‘Austria’ is a literal Latinization of the same. Thus eventually and gradually the modern nomenclature arose, as historian Steven Beller writes:

Austria began its history in the late tenth century as an eastern march of the duchy of Bavaria. It was during this period that an area in the Danube valley came to be known as ‘the eastern land’, in Latin ‘terra orientalis’, or ‘ostarrichi’ in the local German of the time. The first written evidence of this early medieval equivalent of ‘Österreich’ dates from 996. In the eleventh century the march was sometimes referred to as ‘Osterlant’; the Latin version of ‘Austria’ first appears in a document in 1147.

So ‘terra orientalis,’ ‘Osterlant,’ and ‘eastern land’ are linguistic equivalents in Latin, German, and English respectively. Of course, the spellings have changed slightly over the centuries.

These old terms took on troubling new meanings in the twentieth century. When the Nazis took over Austria in 1938 and annexed it, they called in Ostmark, meaning ‘the eastern march.’

The Austrians regained their freedom and political independence in 1945, and rejected the name which the Nazis had placed onto their country. Since then, Austrians have found the term Ostmark to be an offensive and troubling reminded of the seven years during which their nation suffered under National Socialist domination, as Steven Beller reports:

As Austrian historians were at pains after 1945 to prove, the march was never actually called the ‘Ostmark’. Nevertheless, it was as an eastern march of the German kingdom under Bavarian suzerainty, a military district on the Germans' south-east frontier, that Austria started its career.

Prior to 1933, there was nothing troubling about being the eastern extension of Frankish or Germanic heritage. Indeed, it was a mark of high civilization.

But the way in which the Nazis perverted culture caused the Austrians in the postwar era to find ways, in this case linguistic ways, to distance themselves from twentieth-century Germany.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Tolerance and Its Role in Western Civilization

One of the distinctive features of Western Civilization is the notion of religious tolerance. This freedom of religion is one of several characteristics which defines this unique set of values which constitutes the Western worldview. But already the mention of ‘Western Civilization’ should give occasion for pause, and for clarification.

It is difficult to find a suitable name for the institutions and ways of life which now shape people in every part of the world. The term ‘Western’ was applied because Europe, which was not the source but rather the incubator of this civilization, is west of Asia, and more precisely, west or northwest of those parts of Asia which contributed essential parts of what would become Western Civilization.

Europe is west of Babylon and Mesopotamia, and west of Persia and Jerusalem. Europe came to view itself as the “West.” Yet those locations to the east are indispensable parts of the emergence of Western Civilization. The “West” could not have come to be without the “East” - without Hammurabi or Moses, without Darius or Abraham. So ‘West’ is a misnomer in terms of origin. The “West” came out of the “East.”

For a second reason, ‘West’ is a misnomer, because the ‘West’ is now everywhere. If this civilization hatched and matured in Europe, it is now found in China and India, in Africa and South America. The “West” is neither west nor east, but all around the world.

The West is in China, which no longer binds women’s feet. The West is in India, which is working to abandon the practice of suttee or sati. The West is in Africa, which seeks education and universal suffrage. The West is in South America, which works toward the recognition and freedom of the individual.

Gandhi studied in England, where he harvested ideas from John Locke, from the Magna Carta, from Edmund Burke, and from the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Mao proclaimed himself a Marxist, i.e., the follower of a German Jew. In rather non-Western places, the West is making itself felt.

So whatever the West is, it is misleading to call it the ‘West’ - it came from the East, and is now everywhere.

What else can we call it? Some historians use the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition,’ which points again to sources: Both Judaism and Christianity arose outside of Europe, in Asia. To be sure, the unique set of values and worldview which emerge from Judaism and Christianity have greatly shaped Western Civilization. To that extent, the name ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ might be correct.

But Judeo-Christian values have now spread widely, into many cultures which are neither Jewish nor Christian. The indignation and outcry against torture, the desire for respectful treatment of women, and a worldview which values mathematics and the observational sciences are infiltrating the minds of many who are Hindu, Buddhist, or atheist. To call this civilization ‘Judeo-Christian’ is perhaps historically correct, but ignores the fact that Judeo-Christian values have been adopted, individually and collectively, by millions of people who are neither Jews nor Christians.

The popularity of the environmentalist ‘green’ sentiment in the early decades of the twenty-first century are directly attributable to the Judeo-Christian ethic. While the Mesopotamians saw the physical world as an accidental product of the activities of various gods and goddesses, and therefore unworthy of special protection, the Hebrews saw the earth as a divinely-planned artistic creation, worth nurturing and preserving.

The observation will be made: the West has not always behaved according to Western values; Jews and Christians have not always instantiated Judeo-Christian values. Have crimes been committed by the West? Yes. Have Jews and Christians sinned? Yes.

It is in the West’s sins that we can perhaps most clearly see its distinctiveness. Occasional acts of torture, committed by the West, have called forth public furor - in the West. The harshest condemnations of the West’s sins have come from the West itself. Other civilizations expressed less outrage - even when they were the victims of the West’s crimes.

The members of other civilizations don’t protest when their own civilizations commit torture: that is simply what is expected. Torture is not merely tolerated in those civilizations: it is expected. It is institutionally enshrined.

In the West, crimes against human dignity, crimes against human freedom, provoke outrage. That is why Western Civilization began the movement to end slavery, and began the movement for women’s suffrage.

Women in Western cultures take their right to vote for granted, and are now moving toward other forms of legal and social equality. In non-Western cultures, slavery still exists; in non-Western cultures, the explicit inferiority of women is articulated and embodied in legal codes and societal attitudes.

A third candidate for a name is simply “European Culture.” For the reasons outlined above, it should be clear to the ready why this name is as insufficient as the other two.

The conclusion is reached: it cannot be “Western Civilization,” nor can it be the “Judeo-Christian Tradition,” and it also can’t be “European Culture.” But whatever it is, it nurtured and expressed distinctive ideas - ideas not found elsewhere - ideas that every human life deserves individual recognition and dignity, ideas that human beings all seek freedom, find a measure of fulfillment in it, and find further fulfillment in struggling to gain it, both for themselves, and for others.

This unique perspective has now infiltrated much of the world: in every nation, there are individuals who are ‘Western’ - ironically, on both sides of the Chinese civil war: Mao’s communism was the product of Marx, a European; Chiang Kai-shek looked to create a European-style nation-state governed by freely-elected representatives with a free market.

The West’s roots go back thousands of years, and milestones along the way can be identified. Between 311 and 313 A.D., Roman Emperor Constantine, through a series of legislative maneuvers, made the Christian religion legal. For nearly three hundred years, Christians had been persecuted: arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and executed, simply because they followed Jesus. The Romans had murdered tens of thousands of Christians.

When Christianity finally became legal, the older pagan religions of Rome were also still legal. Constantine created one of the first, if not the first, societies with religious tolerance. Side-by-side, various religions coexisted.

Constantine, himself a Christian, had established religious tolerance. But that tolerance soon encountered resistance. Some within the empire wanted one single religion to established as the official religion, and other religions to be marginalized or even outlawed. It became necessary to defend religious tolerance, as author Mark Koyama illustrates:

In the late 4th century, the Roman senator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, a pagan, issued a plea for religious pluralism: “We gaze up at the same stars; the sky covers us all; the same universe encompasses us. Does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for the Truth? The heart of so great a mystery cannot be reached by following one road only.”

By contrast, in the previous Persian Empire, various religions existed, but were geographically segregated. Under Constantine, Christians and Roman polytheists lived in the same towns and shopped in the same marketplaces.

Constantine is, then, an important milestone on the way to a mature version of Western Civilization. Senator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus is another. Symmachus is naively willing to embrace mutually contradictory propositions, which later Western philosophy would need to sort out, but there is a distinct seed of tolerance in his words.

Tolerance is a key ingredient to Western Civilization. Tolerance is allowing other people to carry on with ideas, words, or actions which are judged to be wrong or incorrect. Tolerance is asserting that one’s intellectual or political opponents have a right to exist, because they are human beings.

To show tolerance, a person is not required to affirm, support, accept, or welcome an idea which he opposes. Consider twentieth century American elections: Republicans and Democrats debated fiercely, and did not affirm, support, accept, or welcome either’s ideas: they opposed each other at every turn. But they demonstrated tolerance toward each other.

Western Civilization is in danger any and every time that there is an attempt to eliminate, silence, or stifle opposition.

Tolerance does not mean accepting, affirming, supporting, or welcoming opposing ideas. Tolerance means allowing someone else to believe or say what is firmly believed to be wrong. To tolerate is not to be silent; to tolerate is recognize someone’s right to say something which is confidently considered to be wrong - one person can tolerate another person’s ideas even while debating against those ideas.

Tolerance is the act of clearly identifying another person’s beliefs, words, and actions as wrong and incorrect, and maintaining that individual’s right to carry on, even while vocally and vociferously condemning those beliefs, words, and actions. In this concept of tolerance, the two key Western concepts are seen: the importance of the individual and the importance of freedom.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The End of Islamic Maritime Hegemony, for a While at Least: The Battle of Lepanto

In the early sixteenth century, the Muslim navies controlled the Mediterranean. Nearly all trade between Africa and Europe crossed that sea, and much trade with Asia was also shipped across that body of water.

Islamic fleets could demand any amount of money they wished for leaving freighters unharassed. Islamic pirates raided ships, not only taking the cargo, but also taking the crew to be sold as slaves.

Trade between Europe and other parts of the world was reduced. China and India experienced a decline in importing from, and exporting to, Europe.

Standard academic accounts tell that the Battle of Lepanto was “a famous naval engagement fought near the town of Lepanto in Greece, on the Gulf of Corinth,” on October 7, 1571.

This report of the battle, from a common encyclopedia, tells that the battle was between the Muslims “and the combined Mediterranean fleets of the” European “allies, principally the Venetian and Spanish craft.”

Those “allies” were organized by the Holy Roman Empire. The HRE, as the old joke goes, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. It was, instead, a defensive coalition of European states. The HRE fluctuated between decades of neglect and times of critical importance.

When there was no threat of military attack, the HRE was of little importance and had little power, its emperor having little influence and being forced to placate the Electors. (The Electors were a group of princes who chose the emperor.)

But when the danger of armed offensive was real, the HRE suddenly galvanized itself and its member nations as a defensive alliance. This was the case at Lepanto.

The forces gathered at Lepanto were part of the Holy League, a special coalition which was formed principally of Spain and various Italian republics and kingdoms. Some parts of the HRE, like Savoy, were part of the Holy League, while others were not.

The Portuguese were not involved at Lepanto, their navy being committed to defend against Islamic naval attacks in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. The French were at odds with the Spanish, and so did not want to be in a coalition with them - indeed, the French had hired Muslim mercenaries to fight against the Spanish. Other HRE nations had signed temporary truces with the Muslims and did not appear at Lepanto.

It was, then, a somewhat unusual combination of navies that defending against the Muslims at Lepanto: “Under the command of Don John of Austria they obtained an overwhelming victory. Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, distinguished himself in this battle, receiving three wounds.

This battle marked a clear turning-point, “destroying the” Islamic “fleet and ending their supremacy in the Mediterranean.”

Considering the primitive bow-gun weapons then in use, the loss of life was remarkable.

Exact numbers of casualties do not exist, “being estimated at 20,000 for the” Muslims, “and 8,000” for the defensive fleets.

The allies brought into the fight 200 galleys and 8 galeasses (large three-masters, carrying cannon).

The Islamic “fleet numbered 273, but of smaller size on the average and fewer cannon.” The Muslims “employed” European “prisoners as galley-slaves and 10,000 or more were liberated by the” European victory.

With the Mediterranean now open, ships could move freely between Africa, Europe, and western Asia. The economic results were mutually beneficial to all three.