Natural Disaster Recovery before Government Involvement

With all the focus on the response from D.C. to recent (and ongoing) hurricanes, we might be forgiven for thinking no one else could handle it.

But did you know that civil society used to respond to natural disasters with remarkable speed and resource management?

At the Cato Institute, Chris Edwards discusses the responses to and recovery from the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, and the 1913 Great Easter flood. A taste:

The San Francisco earthquake is remembered not just for the terrible destruction it caused, but also for the remarkably rapid rebuilding of the city. More than 200,000 residents initially left the city, but the population recovered to pre-quake levels within just three years, and residents quickly rebuilt about 20,000 buildings.

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A Better Way to Label Food

Over at the Cato Institute, Peter Van Doren complains that the rush to have the government label foods “organic” or “natural” creates a market, where producers are pooled without necessarily even doing the work that consumers want.

The bottom line is that these government labels leave much to be desired, including criteria for defining the particular labels. While reasonable debate rages over label definitions, however, producers benefit from being pooled under the label.

Van Doren calls that a “pooled market.” To contrast:

A separated market – a market with different levels of price and quality conveyed to consumers through marketing and branding – would provide more choices for consumers. For example, in the past several years both Whole Foods and Perdue have used concerns about genetically modified foods and antibiotics as opportunities to market the safety and quality of their foods. Consumers who are motivated to pay more for healthy foods incentivize transparency and increased quality from producers.

A more common term for this is a competitive market or free market.

[P]ooling the market through FDA regulation would protect the producers without effectively addressing the groups’ complaints. A pooled market allows manufacturers to hide behind the false assurances regulations offer, but in a competitive, separated market other food companies will step in to offer truly “natural” foods and reap the benefits. . . . Consumers concerned with the health and safety of the food they buy should instead push for the choices and accountability that markets provide.

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City tears down & replaces a privately-created stairway the city refused to build

A tale from Canada, courtesy of Professor Mike Munger.

Locals needed a stairway to cover a dangerous muddy slope. Toronto chose not to build the stairway because it would cost $65,000 (Canadian dollars). So a private entrepreneur created one for $550 – an obvious improvement over the mud slide.

The city’s response? Tear it down and construct a new $15,000 stairway.

The city’s actions, from start to finish, do not make sense unless you consider the incentives inherent in state government, which Munger nicely explains in his piece.… Continue Reading

Were Coins Invented By The State?

Larry White and George Selgin have recently been debating the origin of money coins*. Both scholars are key sources for Pressing the Button’s page on money.

White kicked things off by challenging the state theory of money, which he believes has lately made a resurgence among economic historians. The state theory of money says, “governments played an essential role in the establishment of money.” Instead, according to White, there is plenty of reason to believe money emerged from (relatively) voluntary action.

In short, White’s point is that the state theory of money cannot explain certain characteristics of coins we know must be true.

The pseudonymous ‘Lord Keynes’ responded to defend the state theory. And George Selgin has responded to that.

Selgin considers Lord Keynes to make a number of logical errors. But what is most interesting for us at PTB is the laundry list of recent scholarly support Selgin musters for the proposition that money emerged from civil society.

This is a critically important lesson because most of us simply assume that money has (and other state services have) always been provided by state governments. This lends credibility to the argument that money should be provided by the state. For many of us, the idea that there could be an non-state alternative might be surprising. But there it is nonetheless!

* Note: there is some equivocation between coins and money in these links. Just go with it: the relevant issue is how a highly useful form of money (metallic coins) was established.… Continue Reading

Sometimes, you don’t need violence to achieve equality

Anthony Comegna of the Cato Institute recently responded to a recent book detailing the causes of equality and inequality.

The book, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Scheidel, tells us that large concentrations of wealth is the norm of civilized existence, along with “the ultimate foes in libertarian thought, the state and all its attendant extractive parts.”

Yet equality often results from calamities, such as “mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics.” The Great Leveler, it turns out, is great violence.

This appears to be a pessimistic outcome for libertarians: in order to flatten state power its conjoined inequality, mass violence seems necessary.

But Comegna disagrees. Social transformation need not be violent, as we here at PTB have set out to illustrate. His concluding paragraph rings like a paean to the idea behind PTB:

Scheidel largely discounts the possibility of peaceful reform, but perhaps what we need is a non-violent systems collapse or an individualist revolution. If we can manage to combine the strongest horsemen with the ideological opposite of coercion, perhaps we can both reduce inequality and do so non-violently. Rather than a true collapse, this might look more like a systems replacement. Instead of absolute leveling through nuclear annihilation, we might achieve it through digital currency reform, the 3-D printed domestic economy, an artificial intelligence explosion, space exploration, or the perfection of genetic manipulation. We might level inequality with any number of technological singularities or moral-cultural revolutions, but we should recognize that violence nearly always begets violence.

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Will Nava Presses the Button on The Isaac Morehouse Podcast

Our very own Will Nava recently discussed his essay “Would You Press the Button?” with Isaac Morehouse on his podcast.

Morehouse graciously said this about the essay: “I really think this is a groundbreaking paper, I think it’s going to be foundational. It’s going to matter years, decades from now, in terms of helping understand what the state is.” (3:40 into the audio)

Nobody can present both the Pressing the Button project and the idea behind it quite like Will can. Check it out!Continue Reading

Insurance for Police could Reduce Abuse

Much theorizing about the provision of non-state services considers the idea of insurance.

Insurance is there to minimize the risk of certain events, where the cost of the event is high and the likelihood low. We may be familiar with accident insurance, health insurance, or fire insurance. But what about national defense insurance or local security insurance?

The cool thing about insurance is that it incentivizes best practices. How so? Because bad practices can often be costly. For example, if you smoke, your health insurance premiums will increase – thus incentivizing the healthy practice of not smoking. In the case of local security insurance, then, having locks on your doors and a working burglar alarm may lower your premiums too.

Private police forces may also invest in insurance, to protect against damages in legal actions brought in response to police abuses.

In fact, this kind of insurance is already on the market for municipal police forces, and it is already operating to abate police abuse:

In Wisconsin . . . an insurer in 2002 recommended new training and supervision of SWAT teams in the Lake Winnebago area in the aftermath of two botched drug raids. In 2010, a police chief in Rutledge, Tennessee, was fired to appease the town’s liability insurer after assault allegations were leveled against him. In many other states, police forces have been asked to adopt new policies regarding body cameras, strip searches, and use of force.

. . .

Before the threat of losing their insurance materialized, the city [of Irwindale, California] had failed to invest in adequate training for police officers, citing budgetary concerns.

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NYT: Anarchists Fill Services Void Left by Faltering Greek Governance

These self-styled anarchists have organized to provide social support like food, medicine, housing. Importantly, among the beneficiaries of these services are refugees (e.g. from Syria). They have also created communities, complete with child education and weddings.

David Boaz of the Cato Institute comments:

There’s really nothing paradoxical about anarchists setting up institutions and communities outside the state to provide needed goods and services. . . . Anarchists who organize voluntarily to achieve common purposes are just living their philosophy.

 … Continue Reading

Education Alternatives as a Gateway to More Freedom

Most people don’t believe that governments must fully monopolize the provision of education, but they do believe government must ensure education is provided for through subsidies and regulations.

I couldn’t disagree more.  Government support for education actively undermines valuable learning and is the greatest threat to real education.  Just like government support for the arts is harmful to art, so too is government support for education harmful to education.  Education is too valuable to be tainted by the state.

In PTB spirit, this post is not about philosophical arguments on education and the state, nor is it about pragmatic policy prescriptions.  Looking to policy reform is the source of the problem, not the solution.  The solution is the creative construction of market alternatives.

This is a personal issue for me, as my own intellectual and career journey led me to the creation of an alternative to traditional higher education, which is the last stop on the government education conveyor belt.

There are two reasons I think market alternatives to bloated, bureaucratized colleges and universities are a powerful and important part of pressing the button.

First, they help individuals better achieve their goals, live free, and create value.  Like all voluntary transactions, they literally create more freedom and build civil society with every profitable exchange.  Anytime someone goes from a government supported service to a market alternative, it’s a win for freedom.

Second, they dismantle the linchpin of the Collective Interpretive Framework (CIF) for the state.  Governments don’t exist because people think they are good or efficient, they exist because people believe them necessary. … Continue Reading

There is Only One Way to Save Our City

MORPHEUS: Commander we need a presence inside the matrix to await contact from the Oracle.

LOCK: I don’t want to hear that s***. I don’t care about Oracles or prophecies or Messiahs. I care about one thing…stopping that army from destroying this city and to do that, I need soldiers to obey my orders.

MORPHEUS: With all due respect commander, there is only one way to save our city.

LOCK: How?


LOCK: G*dd*mmit Morpheus, not everyone believes what you believe.

MORPHEUS: My beliefs do not require them to.

The Matrix Reloaded

When free markets succeed, people bet against the unknown by saying “Well, sure, that one situation worked out okay, but we can’t be absolutely certain that the free market will successfully handle every possible situation. So don’t jump to any optimistic conclusions.”

When government fails, people gamble on the unknown by saying “Well, sure, that one incident turned out very poorly, but we can’t be absolutely certain that better politicians won’t come along and make everything better in the future. So don’t jump to any overly pessimistic conclusions.”

When it comes to free markets, people encourage relentless skepticism and unyielding caution. When it comes to politics, people encourage relentless faith and unyielding loyalty.

No matter how much good the free market produces, we’ll always need to see more evidence before we place faith in it. No matter how much evil or inefficiency is produced by politics, however, we’ll always find a way to keep placing more and more faith in it.… Continue Reading