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Is Bitcoin the Key to Evading Capital Controls?

My first post-staff weekly column is up at Reason.com, and it’s about the potential cryptocurrencies show for dodging capital controls and evading the worst effects of intrusive monetary policy. Some news reports suggest that it’s already happening in Greece, and on a small scale it probably is. But I suspect those headlines resulted from financial journalists looking at the situation and figuring out how they would hedge risk and get money past the authorities. More people are likely to see and have access to those solutions in the future.

To read the full article, click “Bitcoin May Be Too Late for Greece, But Not Other Countries Headed In That Direction.”

Compassion Means Stealing Shit From People Who, Unlike You, Thought Ahead

You are welcome in the community if you have the secret Christian decoder ringYesterday, a Facebook “friend” (in the broad social media sense of the term) posted a brief musing about the current flurry of apocalyptic fiction.

If the apocalypse-books industry was a little less “arm yourself to the teeth so your family is the only one in town that doesn’t starve in our far-fetched psuedoscientific global economic collapse” and a little more “use battle-tested American Red Cross first aid and community response training to save as many people as possible during a plausible natural disaster scenario,” I’d have a lot more respect for it. I mean, I’m not going to be the guy who shoots some stranger’s kid over a can of string beans, and people who write books where they fantasize about that sort of thing scare me more than the idea of an actual apocalypse does.

Now, personally, I understand wishing writers catered more to my tastes. If the romance novel genre had more sex scenes and less heartwrenching relationship contrivance, I’d “have a lot more respect for it” too. In the morning, I mean. But romance novelists have hit on a formula that works, and they don’t need my respect. The same goes for apocalyptic fiction and my Facebook acquaintance’s complaints.

I’m also not entirely sure what this guy is talking about. I’ve read a few shit-hits-the-fan novels, and they boil down to ant-and-grasshopper morality tales, though the ant usually (unlike in the original fable) rises to the occasion to help out neighbors and rebuild a community. There are lots of books and lots of takes, of course, and maybe Facebook guy has a specific dude-in-his-bunker book in mind. But the granddaddy of the current apocalyptic fiction flurry is probably Patriots by James Wesley, Rawles (no, the comma isn’t an accident). Patriots, once you get past the use of “are you a Christian?” as the gag-inducing secret handshake of the economic collapse, focuses on people who planned ahead to survive the worst and reconnect with others.

Anyway, that’s an aside, the real point is that the first comment on this musing was:

If an apocalypse ever happens, I’m going to make it my sole mission in life to gather together an enormous mob of people to take out all the survivalists, and then use all of their stockpiles to build a socialist utopia.

And then Facebook guy answers, “I like the way you think!”

One utopia, coming up!

Photo by the U.S. Government

Why do I care? Because Facebook guy is a civil liberties columnist and advocate. In fact, he inherited a civil libertarian gig I had years ago, though he writes from more of a progressive/SJW perspective. He’s also very active as a political lefty in his community (the one that preppers apparently plan to barricade the doors against). This progressive “civil libertarian” perspective apparently includes the idea that if people have more foresight than you and put aside some provisions for hard times, it’s OK to gang together with other dumbasses who didn’t stick some canned soup in the pantry, kill the prepared types (I’m interpreting “take out” by its usual usage), steal their shit, and use the stuff to impose your preferred political and economic system on the survivors. This is a whole step beyond just wishing the SHTF fiction genre was nothing more than a series of boring tracts about the Red Cross’s good deeds. I’d have to turn my bitching about romance novels into a rape fantasy to achieve the equivalent, and I’m not a sufficiently shitty human being to do that.

To give this guy his due, he does advocate for civil liberties in an effective way on a lot of issues. He’s generally very good on police abuse, search and seizure, and free speech. But it’s interesting how overtly thuggish a professional civil liberties advocate can be in an unguarded moment–to the point of high-fiving the idea of mass violence and totalitarian impositions against those who rub him the wrong way.

Is there a take-away here?

Yeah. Be very cautious of those who set themselves up as guardians of your liberty. You never know when their personal preferences in some other area will overcome their regard for your freedom.

Oh, and I know Fifty Shades of Grey has sex scenes. I just can’t… No thanks.

Jim Bovard Digs High Desert Barbecue

Recently, the most excellent journalist and scrutinizer of creatures governmental, James Bovard, had some kind things to say about High Desert Barbecue. In a review on his blog, he described the novel as “a zesty subversive romp through the woods and deserts of northern Arizona.” He goes on to write:

It is hard not to like a book that warns readers in the preface to not “use this novel as a hiking guide.” One can easily understand why the author resettled in that part of the world. Ridge lines stocked with Ponderosa Pines sound far more pleasant than either the Capital Beltway or the New York subway. The novel sparkles with a spirit of resistance to oppressive authority that is rarely encountered on the East Coast.

If you’ve read any of Bovard’s boooks, you know that he does an excellent job of dissecting the foibles and (more often) horrors committed by the state and its enablers. His latest work, Public Policy Hooligan, describes his journey to where and who he is today.

I appear on RT to discuss matters of military corruption and intoxication

After a disturbing video turned up of military contractors in Afghanistan blotto on booze and ketamine (and what good is a war zone if there’s no party?), I was invited on RT to discuss that matter and the tangentially related issue of corruption in the awarding of military contracts. If the discussion seems a little disjointed, it’s likely because anchor Liz Wahl was having technical difficulties. I suspect she couldn’t hear me at all, so I think she carried it off pretty well.

Live and learn

You’ll notice that Disloyal Opposition looks a tad different today. Well … Many years ago, I was warned to back up my files before screwing around with anything computer-related. This morning, I noticed that WordPress had a number of pending updates sitting in the queue, waiting my approval. I wanted to get on with my current project with minimal delay, so approve I did. Without backing up files.

It seems that the updated version of my WordPress theme conflicts with … something. I don’t know what, and I’m not so in love with the theme that I care to troubleshoot and dig through code. And, since I didn’t backup my files, I can’t roll back to the old version.

So I chose a new theme that includes the features I want and doesn’t conflict with … something. I hope you like the new look.

In ‘The Churchill Memorandum,’ freedom comes with trade-offs

I’ve always had a weakness for “what-if” or “alternate-history” fiction — stories turning on random accidents removing people who would otherwise have become the major figures we know, or important decisions made in a way other than what history records, culminating in worlds very different from the one we inhabit. Of course, as with all books, some such efforts are more worthy of my time than others. I would very much like back the several hours I once spent on a Harry Harrison alternate Civil War novel that left me wishing I could scrape literary residue off my eyeballs and that the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind could bleach the plot from my memory.

Other alternate-history books, happy to say, are much better.

Sean Gabb’s The Churchill Memorandum (Kindle version here) is one of the more sophisticated, cynical and well-written takes on the alternative-history theme that I’ve read. Imagine a version of the 1950s in which Nazi Germany still exists, as a superpower, but has followed a path similar to that taken by China in our world: some political loosening, a lot of economic liberalization, and a complete about-face on anti-semitism (Hitler died before implementing the Holocaust, or embarking on World War II). The other major superpower is Great Britain, which remains mostly free, prosperous and still settled in its colonial ways and attitudes.

In this alternate world, America is a second-rate power under the rule of Harry Anslinger, of alcohol- and, later, drug-prohibition fame. While almost a laughable figure now, Anslinger at his height was a dangerous and fanatical creature, and his fictional regime strikes me as a likely extrapolation of the real man’s style, if he’d succeeded to such power. The reason for that twist is the driving force for this novel, as young historian Anthony Markham — more snobbily English than thou as he compensates for his frowned-upon homosexuality and ethnically mixed heritage — is drawn into an international conflict over the possession of a document penned by the (in alternate reality) obscure Winston Churchill, revealing just how the world was divvied up and the U.S. pushed into totalitarianism and international irrelevance.

Markham technically violates one of my rules for fiction, which call for a main character with whom I can identify, or is at least likable. He’s too cowardly and self-involved to satisfy that requirement. But he’s written with such humor, and required to run such a gauntlet of trying circumstances, that it’s easy to forgive his flaws — especially when he longs for another shot of morphine to carry him through the inevitable next set of tribulations.

Familiar twentieth-century figures abound in this world — though in appropriately skewed ways. German prosperity can be attributed to the political ascendancy of economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Ayn Rand is an imprisoned dissident in the U.S., and young Margaret Roberts is being groomed for an unprecedented future as a woman prime minister.

Americans unfamiliar with British political or journalistic life should keep Google handy to look up the names of conspirators willing to use the most brutal means to win or keep political power in this alternate U.K. Gabb’s treatment of his characters suggests a well-informed insight into the personal failings of their real-world counterparts.

As you might guess from some of the names dropped above, Gabb is a libertarian — director of the Libertarian Alliance in the U.K. He’s also an accomplished novelist; as Richard Blake, he’s authored the excellent Aelric series of historical novels set in the later Roman empire. And he’s a historian. The combination seems to have made him an author who cares about freedom, but is too aware of the realities of world events to believe that a world that he (and other British libertarians) might find more attractive than our own could have been achieved without important trade-offs.

The result is great entertainment and very much worthy of a read.

The Churchill Memorandum (Kindle)

The Churchill Memorandum (paperback)

A chill runs down my spine

I know that I’ve been distracted recently, so can I digress from my usually scholarly and restrained well-spoken self and say: I’m just a tad scared?

Seriously. Ben Bernanke seems to have adopted Kevin Bacon’s first movie appearance as his guide to holding a press conference, gold bugs look prescient as the dollar slides toward Weimar territory and Donald Trump … holy shit, Donald Trump?

It’s as if we’ve entered the period of the decline of the republic — but without the reliable money that kept the Gracchi brothers fat and happy. And without the cool architecture and classy duds, of course. It’s the fall of civilization, but with everybody sporting wife-beaters in a strip mall. Come to think of it, it’s the fall of something, but maybe not civilization.

I know that “the end is nigh” is a reliable fall-back for everybody who really means, “things were better when I was a kid,” but do we really have to flirt so closely with stupid and disastrous just to call me out as a false Cassandra?

Actually, I don’t think “the end is nigh” – but I do thing that suckage is here, and likely to stick around for a good, long while. Good times more often end with a whimper than a bang, and I expect that we’ll slog through the same. Our kids will be heading out in our cast-off suits for long-shot job interview number 197 — at a Tongan corporation (the new superpower in 2031) — and we’ll still be telling them that things will likely turn around soon.

Well, they could turn around, but we’re idiots.

I don’t feel optimistic about the future, if that’s not obvious from the above. But I think I and my progeny are relatively well-positioned to slink in the future — scathed, perhaps, but not destroyed. Family history records that we’re pretty adept at slipping across borders: Spain to Italy, Germany to Serbia, Italy to Argentina, Serbia to America, Argentina to … well … the Bronx (we don’t always choose well).

So descendants of mine are likely to skulk through the future, ignoring the powers-that-be, making their own way and prospering on the margins.

But, damn it, I’m stuck here and now!

Is post-partisanship just amoral or outright sociopathic?

There’s a certain hankering in American political culture for governing stripped of arguments and ideology, and dedicated to just getting things done. Of course, that overlooks important questions about what should get done and how it should be accomplished.

The current issue of Esquire contains what initially comes off as a journalistic blow-job titled, “Michael Bloomberg Will Save Us From Ourselves If Only We Let Him.” The piece starts off in the tone of just the latest eruption of can’t-we-just-get-along pining for a world in which people just let the government get on with the business of getting into our business without arguing over the propriety of the micro-controlling fever-dreams of the the sort of technocratic dominants who make the compulsively submissive journalists at national publications cream themselves.

But John H. Richardson’s Esquire piece is much more interesting, and much more revelatory, than that. In an article that continually portrays a politician who has absolute faith in his own rectitude, Richardson hints not just at the core of Bloomberg, but at the problem of non-ideological politics itself: “Bloomberg is the ultimate independent, the calm modern technocrat rooted in metrics and cleansed of ideology, come to drain the swamps of government with his amazing modern business-management techniques … unless he’s actually just an old-fashioned autocrat looking down on us from above and tinkering with our lives like a science experiment, stripping our noisy polis of all its native poetry.”

As Richardson suggests, the problem with pragmatism, technocracy and post-partisanship is that they breeze right by the important truth that all of our messy political arguments are rooted in real debates. These debates aren’t (or shouldn’t be) just cheerleading for Team Red or Team Blue — they’re about the wisdom and propriety of government programs that can massively affect the lives of millions of people. Stripped of fripperies, ideology is, at its core, morality as applied to the use of coercive government power. That means political debates are, or should be, arguments over the morality of political programs. Viewed in those terms, post-partisanship is arguably amoral, if not outright sociopathic.

I think most people understand this point. It’s not enough to put a technocrat in charge of getting that new facility down the road open on time and running efficiently if you haven’t yet had a full discussion over the fact that it’s a concentration camp and that forcing people into it may just be fundamentally evil.

So pining for non-ideological, pragmatic, post-partisan politics isn’t just missing the point, it’s an exercise in discarding what may well be the most important factor in the process.

Recently, the importance of ideological debates have been emphasized by research that shows that people with different political views possess very different moral foundations. So we’re not just arguing over the details, but over fundamentals. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, of the University of Virginia, has profiled the moral thinking of liberals, conservatives and libertarians. Of interest to me is that, in a recent paper, Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology he and his co-authors write that libertarians like yours truly place great emphasis on liberty as a value — scoring higher on economic liberty than conservatives and higher on social liberty than liberals. “[T]hey endorse a world in which people are left alone to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, and in which nations are not tied down by obligations to other nations. They also exceed both liberals and conservatives (but are closer to liberals) in endorsing personal or
lifestyle liberty.” By contrast, liberals tend to emphasize worries about harm, benevolence, and altruism, while conservatives are concerned with conformity, loyalty, and tradition. There’s overlap among all three groups, of course, but you can’t disregard not just the important differences in values among these three groups, but the likelihood that those values will come into conflict. As the paper states, “Libertarians may fear that the
moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives (as measured by the MFQ) are claims that can be used to trample upon individual rights.” Liberals and conservatives may correspondingly see threats in the values held dear by others.

So political debate becomes ever-more clearly rooted in disagreements over the rightness or wrongness of using the power of the state in any given situation. It isn’t just squabbling over who should be in charge, but whether both the ends and means of proposed and existing policies are good, bad, or ambivalent.

Once we see how deep the moral fissures go, Bloomberg’s “pragmatism” becomes, if there was ever any doubt, an intolerance for points of view other than his own. He wants to use government power without entertaining discussions about right and wrong. That’s not non-ideological, it’s authoritarian.

And so it is with other calls for politics stripped of partisanship.

Incidentally, Haidt sees the Tea Party movement as driven more by a passion for “karma” than a desire for liberty. You can participate in his research here.

We miss you, Frank Drebin

I didn’t know this until very recently, but the late Leslie Nielsen’s breakthrough comic movie, Airplane!, made laugh-riot history through spoofing 1970s air disaster films by effectively making a twisted version of 1950s cinematic disaster dud, Zero Hour.

(Hat tip to S.M. Oliva)

Update: Err … To clarify: I knew about Airplane!. I didn’t know it was a spoofy remake of a ’50s flick.

Gay marriage and the benefits of (un)democracy

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anybody that I was pleased by Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision last week striking down California’s Proposition 8 and clearing the way for gay couples to enjoy the questionable benefits of marriage to the same extent as straight couples. As I’ve written in the past, the maid of honor (title by his own insistence) at my wedding was a gay friend of my wife (and an all-around decent guy), I have more than a few gay and lesbian friends, and I see no particular reason why they should be denied access to the many legal niceties, conveniences and (occasionally) pitfalls that come with obtaining a government-issued license recognizing a supposedly private relationship.

Frankly, by allowing the government to tie so many bells and whistles to state-sanctioned marriage, the public made it inevitable that many people beyond the originally intended audience would not just want, but need access to that official seal of approval. Holy matrimony be damned, it’s about inheritance, joint bank accounts, common property and the simple decency inherent in being allowed to make hard decisions after an unexpected summons to a hospital bed. Mixed-race couples wanted (and got) access to state recognition for their marriages first, and now same-sex couples want (and are getting) the same thing.

But I’ve written about that before. For a change, let’s take a gander at the reaction to Judge Walker’s ruling.

Unelected judge” is the critical phrase most commonly leveled at the San Francisco-based Reagan appointee (along with charges that the allegedly gay jurist is just defending his own). Having lost the legal battle (so far), social conservatives have now become rabid majoritarians, advocates of 50% + 1 as the ultimate arbiter of what’s right and proper. Suddenly, National Review’s Rich Lowry is arguing, “let’s stipulate that Judge Walker is right. In that case, he and like-minded people should come up with, say, Proposition 9 overturning the ban and persuade 50.1 percent of Californians to support it.”

Uh huh. And Lowry has the same take on the recent decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago (PDF), voiding that city’s handgun ban, right? Overturning that law was judicial overreach, too, wasn’t it? Or is that different?

Look, a lot of terrible violations of liberty and equality before the law can be very popular, including various types of discrimination, bans and restrictions of all sorts, censorship of speech critical of charismatic politicians, ad nauseum. Pretty much any type of authoritarianism is capable of commanding the support of the majority given the right time and place for a poll.  Care to guess how a national referendum on the Fourth Amendment would have turned out in the aftermath of 9/11? The founders had a lot of faults, but a lack of awareness about the flaws of majority rule wasn’t one of them. That’s why they were so critical of democracy and put in place restrictions on what the people and their representatives can do.

With his decision, Judge Walker exercised a 21st-century implementation of the long-established power of the judiciary to rein-in the power of the state, even when that power is exercised directly by the majority. In truth, individual rights and limits on state power, and the enforcement of those rights and limits by the judiciary, are fundamentally anti-democratic. And that anti-democratic tradition is a good thing.

A majority of California voters tried to ban the extension of the legal rights attached to state-sanctioned marriage to a group they don’t like — an overt exercise in discrimination. Judge Walker said no. Democracy may have lost in that contest, but liberty triumphed.

Now, if you want to discuss why the government is involved in marriage at all …