On Usury

Here is the latest anti-capitalist screed from the Sun. Those wicked Jews payday lenders are there again, fleecing the poor. Bastards! They should be forced to charge a reasonable rate of interest, or preferably none at all, or else be shut down and thrown in jail.

Of course, the poor will then not be able to get ANY loans, but c’mon, priorities!

As with the minimum wage debate, lazy liberal journalists think wealth just falls out of the sky and that our only concern is how to distribute it equally. They don’t think about consequences. The poor are, for obvious reasons, terrible credit risks. NOBODY is going to lend them squat, unless they can charge high rates of interest to cover the risk.

Does this suck for the poor? You betcha. But is the answer to cut off the few sources of ready cash they still have?

Maybe instead of destroying credit opportunities, the sages of Baltimore can start to think about expanding economic opportunities in the city, allowing the poor to stand on their own two feet. Hm, what could we do? Admirably, the Sun a month ago criticized Councilwoman Clarke’s proposal to raise the city min wage to $15, but they should read this businessman’s description of the tax and regulatory burden of doing business in Charm City. If businesses have such trouble getting started and expanding, there will be no jobs, and the poor will have no other choices.

Updates on recent political events

Whew! It’s been far too long since I’ve added to this blog. A lot of other things went on in my own, as I’m sure it did in yours. One thing important happened: I changed my registration to Libertarian and joined the Libertarian Party. I’m keeping the domain name “Charm City Conservative”, since I still feel affinity with the conservative movement, but I’m definitely at the libertarian end of it. My focus is on reducing government, rather than on trying to use government force to achieve certain ends — not even conservative ones.

Last weekend, the LP had its national convention and nominated Gary Johnson and Bill Weld for President and VP. I agree with Tom Woods and Jeff Deist that Johnson seems to concede too much to the opposition, both on the left and right. For example, he is weak on freedom of association, but also has strong interventionist tendencies. For the latter, though, the “conservative” competitor Austin Petersen didn’t seem much better. I personally think that fighting the military-industrial complex could be the toughest task of any president, so we ideally want really strong non-interventionists for candidates.

On that note, I suppose it could be worse when it comes to Donald Trump’s near-victory in the Republican race. While Rand Paul was the least interventionist, Trump does seem much more willing to re-focus our foreign policy on national defense, rather than global policing, when compared to his rivals. The same, sadly, can’t be said for Hillary Clinton, the presumed winner of the Democratic race. Sometimes I wish I had registered as a Democrat just to cast my vote for Bernie and register my opposition to Hillary’s warmongering candidacy.

Why a conservative should be a libertarian

Briefly speaking, I’ll define a conservative as someone who wants to use state power to control the social and cultural dimensions of society, while allowing free rein to the economy, whereas a libertarian believes in complete abolition of state power, except for the punishment of force and fraud. The standard conservative objection to libertarianism is then that only certain social and cultural norms are conducive to a healthy society and that these norms cannot be left to the whims of civil society and voluntary association; they must be codified in law and rigidly enforced by government.

The main error in this way of thinking is the lack of faith it reveals in the power of one’s own culture. Let’s say there are objectively correct social norms. If some norms promote a healthier society than other norms, wouldn’t those norms prevail in free competition with other norms? If communities that follow conservative Christian teaching thrive, while others that follow socially liberal teaching fail, won’t the conservative communities grow and the liberal ones shrink?

One objection is that, in a quasi-Darwinian world of cultural competition, the culture that prevails may not be objectively the best, but merely the best at destroying competitors. For example, violent Islamists may just blow up peaceful Christians, even if Christianity is better. But libertarianism already addresses this in allowing for the right to defense of self and property. And if a culture doesn’t even allow self-defense, what exactly makes it so great? Or why should others shoulder the burden of defending it?

All talk and no action from the President

A recent editorial in the Sun praises President Obama for a recent speech to the Islamic Society of Baltimore. The speech was full of platitudes about tolerance, but should not convince the skeptic. If Obama really cares about Muslims so much, why is he continuing the illegal drone campaigns against Muslim countries? Why did he invade Libya to overthrow their lawful government, and why has he been arming rebels against Syria’s lawful government and promoting the deaths of thousands of Muslims there?

It is typical of our politics that a politician will be respected just for saying the right thing, not for doing it. By his illegal wars, which, to be fair, are merely continued from his Republican predecessor, he foments the same terrorism that he claims to fight. This terrorism is what threatens average Americans and causes them, even if wrongly, to fear all Muslims as their potential enemies. Rather than look to his own policies and limit the damage he is inflicting on Muslims abroad, he wishes to blame the average American for his prejudice, thereby abdicating his own responsibility for creating the conditions for that prejudice.

So it isn’t just Republicans who exploit popular fear; Democrats exploit it too for their own purposes. In both cases, they shift the blame away from the military-industrial complex and the hawks who constantly push for more intervention and more war, and throw it on powerless average people who have no personal problem with Muslims but are terrified by media reports of suicide bombings and mass shootings.

Realism

I like thinking about the tension between optimism and pessimism in forming a realistic outlook on life. For example, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe notes, the right-winger or conservative can be characterized as one who believes in mankind’s fundamental inequality, whereas the left-winger or progressive believes in man’s fundamental equality. But both appear to be true, even within Hoppe’s conservative form of libertarianism: even if people have different abilities, they all share in equal dignity, which in libertarian thought means in particular the right to be free from aggression against their persons and property.

So I can characterize myself as a pessimist in that I believe in humanity’s fundamental inequality and in the futility of trying to engineer equal outcomes, or even equal opportunity. If people are conceived and born with different abilities, even the most meritocratic society will sort them into a hierarchy, and this would true under a utopian libertarian regime where everything is organized by voluntary contract and association.

At the same time, I am optimistic in my belief that liberty and the abolition of the oppressive state will bring about a maximization of human flourishing. So I trust in humanity’s ability to work out optimal solutions for society’s problems when they are given the maximum freedom to do so. Having said that, I still believe that liberty is morally superior to statism, and that even if free individuals cannot always work out the best solutions, and even if it were possible to engineer the perfect society, it would be immoral to take away people’s liberty by force in order to achieve this.

Thoughts about liberty

So my preferred candidate in the GOP presidential race, Rand Paul, just declared the suspension of his candidacy. My understanding is that he has not yet formally withdrawn from the race, meaning that votes cast for him in the primary could still secure him delegates at the convention. But if he does formally withdraw his candidacy, I may have to think about my second choice.

There are arguments to made for several of them. Trump is rude and politically incorrect, but his nationalism is a refreshing change from the internationalist warmongering that sadly seems to define much of the GOP foreign policy consensus. That being said, Trump has made several bloodthirsty remarks on the campaign that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly, such as his support for retaliation against the families of terrorists.

Ted Cruz is the closest to Rand on most of the issues. His style is a bit too conservative and evangelical for many, but he has actually been much more forthright about protecting American civil liberties and adopting a more defensive and nationalist foreign policy than most other candidates, barring Paul and Trump. My main objections involve the evidence of his opportunism on issues ranging from foreign policy to immigration, as well as doubts about his constitutional eligibility for office, given the fact that he was born in Canada.

I know Ben Carson once endorsed Rand Paul, which makes me now want to give him another look, despite the fact that I’ve been very underwhelmed by his debate performances. While Marco Rubio is very conservative on certain issues, he is far too militaristic on the one hand, and too pro-amnesty on the other.

Why are there good public schools in Baltimore?

The conversation about Baltimore schools usually revolves around their awfulness. See this piece about Freddie Gray’s allegedly “apartheid” school, so-called because it was overwhelmingly black (as if that were a bad thing!). But the city school system, while having a bad reputation generally, nevertheless boasts some isolated high-performers, such as my local Roland Park Elementary/Middle School.

Usually when public schools are compared, progressives will note that the better schools are in wealthier areas, where higher property taxes enable the schools to attract and keep better teachers and invest in more educational resources. However, while this may be a valid point when comparing schools from one city to another, Baltimore City Public Schools is a unified district; Roland Park Elementary doesn’t get more public money than schools in the poorest parts of West Baltimore just because Roland Park is a wealthier neighborhood.

The only difference must lie in the neighborhoods themselves. Wealthy neighborhoods, for whatever reason, are just more conducive to good schools, even when the rules insist they get the same amount of money. Baltimore schools in any event get much more funding than schools in the highest-performing districts, like Fairfax County, VA. This article also shows that Baltimore schools get most of their funding from the state and federal governments, meaning that the schools would still be well-funded even if local property taxes were lowered from their currently very high rate.

Local and national politics

Thursday night I attended the Baltimore City Republican Central Committee meeting, which was open to the public. In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to 1, there was a delightful frisson of subversiveness, as we plotted how to take over the city administration from the party that is so much responsible for Baltimore’s woes. A particularly exciting event was an address by Alan Walden, the former WBAL news anchor who has just announced his candidacy for mayor of Baltimore. Alan certainly has gravitas and his candidacy promises an exciting race.

I left the meeting and the ensuing pub dinner with feelings of camaraderie and affection, even though I’m sure I don’t see eye to eye with them on every issue. I identify more as a libertarian than a run-of-the-mill conservative, which in the context of Republican politics means I probably am outside the mainstream on foreign policy, drug policy and civil liberties. But I still feel I have way more in common with Republicans than your average Democrat on a number of issues, mostly domestic, e.g. education, healthcare, taxation, public spending and so son.

Libertarians sometimes complain that non-libertarians associate them more with the right than with the left, but the complaint usually comes from those who, for whatever reason, put special emphasis on their social liberalism. I have to say that social issues, along with immigration policy, are probably areas in which I lean more towards the conservative than the doctrinaire libertarian view, though I think arguments can be made that conservatism on those matters can be defended from within libertarian ideas.

In any case, I think that aside from some ideas, like avoiding war or legalizing drugs, which strike the average American as “liberal”, libertarians do share a lot more with the right and the left. The left is for big government in a way in which the right just isn’t, even if the mainstream right makes an exception when it comes to unlimited spending on the military. And at the local level, where issues like defense are irrelevant, it makes that much more sense to identify as a Republican.

Follow the money, or why we need voluntary exchange all the way down

My friend Brian Vaeth gave me some useful feedback on my last post. It’s not just that state government is more distant from local city concerns, and therefore less likely to allocate resources effectively. It’s that even local leaders are not free from corruption and venality, and cooperation with local authorities will not guarantee that money goes where it is needed the most, rather than in the pockets of local politicians and the politically connected.

The situation is a lot like foreign aid. The main problem with the national government giving money to foreign countries is that the resources are not allocated to those who can make best use of them. Instead, they are given to local political leaders, who frequent misuse the money, since there is no accountability. This is generally case with government funding: since the government can’t really run out of money, since it taxes or prints what it needs, it has much less incentive to use it wisely or ensure that it goes to the most deserving.

What I said before still stands, however: we need to know what is holding developers back from improving on the blighted properties. I was fortunate to find the writing of Matthew Loftus recently. He is a resident of Sandtown and has much to say about local, non-government efforts to improve blocks even in the worst neighborhoods. This shows that things can get better without government meddling. The question now is how to enable these efforts further by removing restrictions.

Keynesianism and urban renewal

A new op-ed in the Sun gives qualified praise to Governor Hogan’s plan to spend $700 million of the state’s money on demolishing vacant buildings in Baltimore, with a view to creating either green spaces or new housing. While the authors generally accept that it is right for the state government to spend more of the state taxpayers’ money on the city’s problems, they raise concerns that the project will not meet local needs without local cooperation and oversight.

The concerns are genuine, but the premise is false, namely that the government can even be trusted to make the right decisions on these matters, which is the essence of Keynesian thinking. Believers in government solutions seem to forget they’ve been in charge of Baltimore for fifty years now, and what have they done with this power? Is there any reason to think they will suddenly change and begin to allocate resources responsibly? Just look at the recent scandals at the city Housing Authority, which, by the way, involves government and government finance at all levels: city, state and federal.

The correct approach is to find out the ways in which government is holding back development currently. Vague diagnoses of “structural racism” and naive calls for more government intervention just don’t cut it at this stage. We need to give our trust back to the private sector, including the actual owners and tenants of the communities concerned.