Friday , October 18 2019
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Pierre Lemieux

Articles by Pierre Lemieux

Is It Sufficient to Just Believe?

16 hours ago

What’s the importance of truth in economics? Has the presidency of Donald Trump taught us anything in that respect? By “us”, I mean we libertarians who have been tempted by populist enterprises. The Economist writes (“The Man Without a Plan: Donald Trump Suddenly Withdraws from Northern Syria,” October 10, 2019) that Trump’s advisers
are coping with a commander-in-chief who, according to his own former secretary of state, “is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says: ‘This is what I believe.’”
This characterization corresponds to what an observer can gather from listening to the President or reading his tweets. And it is independent of what one

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Emergency and Shortages in Altruistic California

4 days ago

Sometimes, one gets the impression that knowledge of economics has progressed. It can be guessed that proportionately fewer people than in the 17th century now think that trade wars are good (except within some backward governments). At other times, it seems that knowledge has not progressed much: take “price-gouging” laws, whose effects the California power blackouts illustrate again.
In rich California, the preventive power blackouts created many shortages, in the proper sense of non-availability of goods at current, legal prices:
Within the Bay Area blackout zones, residents were rushing Tuesday to buy food, water and electric generators–almost as if a hurricane were approaching. Stores including Rite Aid and Target across Oakland had run out of flashlights and

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Did Sustainable Atlas Shrug?

6 days ago

Ayn Rand’s 1957 philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged may not be a literary masterpiece or the last word in political theory, but it does hold some lessons. It tells the story of very productive and creative individuals who, harassed by politicians and bureaucrats, shrugged and retired in their own secret anarchic community. The rest of the world suffered.
These days, more than one million Californians have suffered from prophylactic power cuts meant to prevent falling electric lines from starting wildfires. Some fires did break out anyway. In Venezuela and other centrally planned countries, power cuts are staged for other reasons.
An editorial in the Wall Street Journal (“California’s Dark Ages,” October 10, 2019) writes about PG&E, the main electric utility

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Do People Want to Be Free?

11 days ago

The heroic resistance by many Hong Kong residents suggests that all individuals want liberty, an idea inherited from the Enlightenment. But is this classical-liberal and libertarian vision generally valid? Here are some related questions.
In the Fall issue of Regulation, I have an anniversary review of James Buchanan’s What Do Economists Do?, a collection of essays he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s. One of these essays, a lecture he gave at a 1978 Liberty Fund conference, makes an uplifting statement consistent with the classical-liberal and libertarian tradition (italics in original):
Man wants liberty to become the man he wants to become.
Buchanan apparently did not remain as optimistic. In a 2005 Public Choice article, “Afraid to Be Free: Dependency as

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The Pursuit of Nuttiness

16 days ago

There is much enthusiasm these days, from adults and adolescents alike, for the pursuit of nuttiness. Consider two instances.
One instance can be found in the environmental crusade, as explained by Gerard Baker in the Wall Street Journal (“St. Greta Spreads the Climate Gospel,” September 20):
The High Church of Environmentalism has acquired many of the characteristics of its ecclesiastical predecessor. An apocalyptic eschatology warns that we will all be consumed by fire if we don’t follow the ordained rules. The notion that it is our sinful nature that has brought us to mortal peril—from the Original Sin of a carbon-unleashing industrial revolution to daily transgressions with plastic bottles and long-haul flights—is as central to its message as it was to the

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American Sanctions: Why Foreigners Obey

17 days ago

Why are international sanctions decreed by the US government obeyed by the targeted “sanctioned persons,” who are foreign nationals generally out of reach of penalties from American authorities? The answer is simple but apparently unknown to many people. The sanctioned persons are not expected to do anything to obey. What the sanctions do is to prohibit Americans (as well as nationals of third countries) from dealing with the foreign sanctioned persons (which include individuals and entities), and the criminal penalties target Americans.
Sanctions are like tariffs or embargoes: they first hit the very subjects of the sanctioning government in order to affect the foreign targets. The embargo of 1808-1809 provided an advance example.
On September 25, the US

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Trump’s UN Speech: An Introduction to Politics and LGBTQ

22 days ago

The speech delivered by President Donald Trump at the United Nations on September 24 provides a good introduction to politics. I recommend reading the actual transcript or watching the speech, not because it is especially surprising–many politicians say similar things in similar grandiloquent speeches–but because it is caricatural. It exemplifies many phenomena: collectivist political speech, the default philosophy in political discourse, and state propaganda through false or misleading statements. Let me give a few examples, starting with the last point.
In his speech, Trump said:
The United States, after having spent over two and a half trillion dollars since my election to completely rebuild our great military, is also, by far, the world’s most powerful nation.

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The Problem of France

September 16, 2019

The explanation may look too simple, but it is very likely the correct one. The problem of France is not wine, literature, or the sensuality of the whole country. The problem was illustrated by a French government minister a couple of days ago. Alexis de Tocqueville and other observers already pinpointed the problem as it sailed unchanged from the Ancient Regime through the democratic governments that followed the devastating revolution of 1789. The problem is the French state.

On Thursday, Bruno Le Maire, Emmanuel Macron’s minister of the Economy and Finance, attacked Libra, the tame and regulation-friendly cryptocurrency that Facebook is trying to launch. Le Maire fears that Libra could lead to “an eventual privatization of a currency” and to many other problems

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Power to the Children and Hail to the State!

September 11, 2019

Three dangerous aspects of the relationship between children and political power are worth noting. First, children have been getting more and more political influence—that is, influence on making other people move under the threat of government guns. Greta Thunberg is their current face. The 16-year-old Swedish girl is waging an international campaign for environmental control that lead her to sail (literally) to the shores of America without the carbon footprint of flying. She was already demonstrating when she was 15. In America and elsewhere, high school students regularly participate in demonstrations in order to try to impose their preferred political solutions on others—including on their parents who pay for their schooling. Parents bring their toddlers to

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Is the State Your Father or Your Mother?

September 7, 2019

The problem of the relations between the state and the individual was illustrated by a short Twitter exchange with a frequent contradictor of mine. He tweeted:
One of those general moral/political rules is the social contract, that Libertarians routinely deny … Or if there is such a contract, it is with the globe, thus justifying sacrificing the interests of the country of your birth that raised you.
I responded:
Oh your country raised you? Is ze/hir your father or your mother?
There was a mistake in my reply: I should have simply written “ze” instead of “ze/hir.” I admit I am not very much on top of that. Of course, anybody might use any noun or pronoun while referring to zirself, although I would deny that ze has the right to impose hir preference on others,

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The Purpose of a Gun Is Not to Kill

September 2, 2019

If the purpose of guns were to kill, cops would not be allowed to have them because, in civilized countries contrary to James Bond movies, they don’t have a license to kill.
A tool or instrument, observed Friedrich Hayek, cannot be defined outside of human purposes. For example, the definition of a hammer must include what most people want it for, that is, as the online Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us, “for pounding.” In his 1942 Economica article “Scientism and the Study of Society” (reproduced in his The Counter-Revolution of Science), Hayek noted:
Take the concept of a “tool” or “instrument,” or of any particular tool such as a hammer or a barometer. It is easily seen that these concepts cannot be interpreted to refer to “objective facts,” that is, to things

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Why Turkeys Are an Endangered Species

August 28, 2019

The truth is, turkeys are not an endangered species. If they were endangered and fell under Appendix 1 of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), their trade would be forbidden and grocery stores could not sell them. Around 17% of the world turkey production is exported (see also the data from the USDA). Why aren’t turkeys disappearing since more than 800 million of them are eaten every year in the world? To ask this question is to start understanding the misrepresentation in CITES.
The Economist used to understand the problem. The March 6, 2018 issue explained (“Trade Bans and Conservation: Call of the Wild”):
The obvious economic explanation is that the over-exploitation of animals and plants is an example of

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Rights as Government Power and the Kiss of Judas

August 25, 2019

As many analysts have noted, including Anthony de Jasay, the idea of rights is slippery, for it can mean that everything not specifically listed as a right is forbidden to ordinary citizens. A related way to turn the modern idea of rights on its head is to claim that the state or the rulers have specific rights opposable to individual rights. We just had an illustration of this, not in Papua, but in America itself.
On Friday, escalating his trade war with China, president Donald Trump tweeted:
Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China.
A Wall Street Journal editorial commented:
Order? Somebody should tell Chairman Trump this isn’t the People’s Republic of America.
Guess what? Trump is probably correct.

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Self-interest and Capitalism Are Not Synonymous

August 22, 2019

“I am in favor of self-interest and thus of capitalism. It follows that I may legitimately judge any public policy according to whether or not it furthers my personal interest.” This is a paraphrase of what an intelligent Twitter correspondent of mine seems to believe. Although he does know something about business and economics, he is completely wrong on that point.
It is not because one favors self-interest that one must support capitalism. (I take capitalism in the sense of free markets or economic freedom.) Socialism and its extreme of communism are also based on self-interest, both in the sense that many or most who support such systems believe it is in their self-interest to do so, and in the sense that individuals living under those regimes continue to act

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And They Want to be Sovereign!

August 18, 2019

Under the title “The U.K. Banned a Cream Cheese Commercial Due to Gender Stereotypes,” Reason Magazine journalist Ben McDonald reports:
The first ads to fall prey to the U.K.’s new ban on gender stereotypes in advertising are tepid spots for Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Volkswagen. The law, which is enforced by the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), went into effect in June … The ASA said it received 128 complaints regarding the cream cheese ad and three complaints about the car ad.
It’s worth reading the whole story. Reason Magazine, which used to be a sympathetic libertarian voice, has become an essential source of information about the absurdities and dangers of statism and our authoritarian culture.
I know that some Brexiteers honestly believe that

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Ethnic Studies and Hxrstory: Not Doubleplusgood

August 17, 2019

In his last book, The Fatal Conceit, Nobel Laureate economist Friedrich Hayek seemed too pessimistic on the future of civilization. But when one looks at the current project of a mandatory Ethnic Studies class for California high school and Cal State students (“Ethnic Studies May Soon Be Mandatory. Can California Get It Right,” August 13, 2019), some pessimism is warranted.
Hayek believed that traditional, evolved morality formed the basis of a civilized society. He was referring to rules of property, freedom, justice, exchange, privacy, and such. (He pointed out that some moral rules, such as those related to sexual mores, may need to change because they have outlived their usefulness: he was a classical liberal more than a conservative.) His pessimism came from

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El Paso etc.: A New Behavioral-Economics Bias?

August 14, 2019

Over the last few decades, behavioral economists have found rational limitations or biases that, they claim, prevent individuals from pursuing their own good. State agents who intervene to correct individual biases, however, are typically not subject to biases that would prevent them from implementing the common good. (See my recent Reason Foundation paper.) But what if the state instead fuels dangerous individual biases?
Consider the “Big Chief bias,” a new bias that, I suggest, behavioral economists should add to their long list. It describes the tendency of many individuals to blindly follow the big chief of the group—tribe, nation, race, party—they identify with. If the state fuels this bias, the consequences will likely be more detrimental than they would be

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A Simple Economic Question About Guns

August 14, 2019


Aug 14 2019 at 8:32am

Why would they?  I think we can make a large list of places they don’t/haven’t targeted yet, and it doesn’t seem particularly illuminating.  Why not dog shows? Or Pokemon conventions? Or yoga retreats?
I think it first makes sense to classify what seem to be the basic motivations for mass shootings as far as we understand them.  I should note that I do my best to avoid much reporting on mass shootings, so completely possible I’ve missed something here, but I think we can broadly put motivations into 3 buckets.
Animus towards a particular institution or set of people.  I think a lot (but not all) school shootings fall into this

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Reflections on an Interview with Bernie Sanders

August 12, 2019

If you watch the interview of Bernie Sanders by Joe Rogan, which has been clicked close to eight million times, you will find that the Vermont senator and presidential candidate looks honest and persuasive. One reason is that he has been a politician for nearly all his life, but there is more than that.
One thing is that he stands on the shoulders of two centuries of socialists. He is promising lots of goodies: free college, free health care, free dental care, higher wages at no cost (nobody will lose his job), protectionism, a ban on assault weapons but no confiscation of the millions already owned, saving the earth, no oil, more income for everybody except the corporations and “the billionaires,” rebuilding communities, retrofitting buildings…
This looks like a

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Are Trade Wars “Good and Easy to Win”?

August 6, 2019

“Trade wars are good and easy to win,” President Donald Trump famously tweeted on March 2, 2018. (His circumstantial qualifications do not matter because they are based on a trade-balance fetish.) Anybody with reasonable knowledge, or perhaps even just a good intuition, of economic theory and history would beg to differ.
Adam Smith knew something about economics and economic history. In fact, he knew more than nearly all his contemporaries and more than Mr. Trump and his ignorant or sycophantic advisors. Smith was a moderate classical liberal, although very radical compared to the garden variety of today’s conservatives and “liberals.” He did not benefit from the future development of economic analysis that his own work would launch. He believed in exceptions to a

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Madman or Madwoman in Power: A Simple, Realistic, Urgent Idea

August 2, 2019

Is it possible that a madman or egomaniac (perhaps combined with an ignoramus) become president of the United States? The same question can be asked for any other country although it takes special importance in the United States given the importance of the country in the world and the extraordinary power of its president.
Liberal governments, that is, classical-liberal governments were ideally supposed to be madman-proof. Even a madman at the helm of the government would have little power to do good and thus to do bad. Friedrich Hayek expressed the gist of this idea in his famous article “Individualism: True and False” (reproduced notably in his Studies on the Abuse and Decline of Reason, Liberty Fund, 2010). He wrote:
[Adam] Smith’s chief concern was not so much

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Brexit and the Divine Right of the Majority

July 24, 2019

A photograph published in Monday’s Wall Street Journal shows supporters of Boris Johnson, the incoming British prime minister, brandishing signs saying “We Voted Leave.” Problem is, against the 51.9% of the voters who did vote “Leave,” 48.1% voted “Remain.” If you further consider that the referendum turnout was 72.2%, these numbers reduce to 37.5% and 34.7% respectively: about a third of the electorate voted one way, a third the other way. (See BBC, “EU Referendum Results.”) Why should such a slim majority (and a fortiori a mere plurality) allow the winners to impose their preferences on the minority? Is there a divine right of the majority?
One answer is that to avoid conflict, a procedure is required to decide public choices, and majority voting is such a

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Minimum Wage: A Most Remarkable Belief

July 17, 2019

In a study published earlier this month, “The Effects on Employment and Family Income of Increasing the Federal Minimum Wage,” the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that a gradual increase of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 (from the current $7.25) would boost the wages of 17 million workers at the cost of 1.3 million pushed out of employment. (Lower increases in the minimum wage would have similar but reduced effects.) The reaction of Rep. Bobby Scott (D., Va.), as reported by the Wall Street Journal (“$15 Minimum Wage Would Bring Mixed Fortunes for U.S. Workers,” July 8, 2019) was typical of what many if not most minimum wage advocates believe:
If you look at the whole report, there’s no question there are significant benefits for a

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Anecdotes vs. Data in the Trade War

July 9, 2019

Anecdotes are not necessarily useful to understand the social and economic world. An anecdote based on a sample of one can be worse than useless. A related point: we don’t expect a plumber to be able to criticize the mechanics of fluids; and we don’t expect a businessman to successfully challenge the economics of international trade. Jean-Baptiste Say, author of the 1803 Treatise on Political Economy, was an exception, and he wrote a whole treatise to prove it.
Brian Tedesco, the owner of an unidentified “consumer-electronics sales and distributing company,” wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal of June 30, where he boasts that his customers did not pay the 25% tariff on the goods he imports from China. He says he has “a different perspective,” and that he was

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Prescription Drug Prices: Retaliatory Socialism

July 6, 2019

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (“Trump Plans Order to Tie Drug Prices to other Nations’ Costs,” July 5, 2019) reported:
President Trump said Friday he was preparing an executive order that would lower drug prices so that the federal government would pay no more than the costs paid by other countries.
Mr. Trump is quoted as saying:
As you know for years and years, other nations paid less for drugs than we do, sometimes by 60, 70%. We’re going to be, and we’re working on it right now, we’re working on a favored-nations clause, where we pay whatever the lowest nation’s price is.
It’s not clear that he sees a difference between countries, nations, states, and individuals. But let’s ignore this point.
Prices differ between the United States, where the market for drugs

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A Delight in Despotism: The Case of Vaping

July 5, 2019

Not jumping the Berlin Wall can save lives. Somebody won’t get shot. Over the longer term, however, it is likely that tyranny wastes more lives than liberty. Anyway, the real question is not how many lives are destroyed under the two regimes, but what can justify forbidding a specific individual to cross what he thinks is a wall against his own flourishing.
I was reminded of this sort of questions when I followed a link in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal about a “debate” the newspaper hosted some months ago on the question “Do E-Cigarettes Do More Good Than Harm?” The subtitle explained that it was “a debate over which is bigger: the damage from the rise in teenage vaping or the benefits of using e-cigarettes to stop tobacco smoking.”
The elephant missing in the room

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Founders Turning in their Graves

July 4, 2019

Especially on July 4, James Madison must be turning in his grave. Here is one reason, among others.
The Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States lists all tariffs imposed by the U.S. government. Revision 8 of the 2019 edition, dated July 2019, contains 3,882 pages. You can download it from the United States International Trade Commission. It will occupy 16 GB on your hard disk, which corresponds to a big chunk, if not all, of the storage space in your smartphone. At Walmart, you can get a Lenovo Chromebook laptop (S330) for $169 (at the time of writing): including the OS, its hard disk of 32 GB would be more than half full after you download the Harmonized Tariff Schedule.
To be fair, the Harmonized Tariff Schedule also contains tariffs at a zero rate, that

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Antitrust and Ideology

July 2, 2019

Most people, including many among those who think of themselves as defenders of free markets, believe that antitrust laws are justified. It nearly goes without saying. So the recent paper of Ryan Young and Clyde Wayne Crews (“The Case Against Antitrust Law,” Competitive Enterprise Institute, April 2019), which reviews the case against these laws, is most welcome. They conclude:
Antitrust regulation harms competition, consumers, and innovation, and therefore should be repealed. Congress should repeal the Sherman Act of 1890, the Clayton Act of 1914, and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, as amended, including the Celler-Kefauver Act of 1950 and the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act of 1976. …
Consumers and competition would greatly benefit from the repeal of antitrust

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A Move to the Left?

June 27, 2019

That Scott Gottlieb, who recently resigned his position as FDA commissioner, has returned to the American Enterprise Institute (after two earlier stints there) perhaps illustrates the move to the left that The Economist and others have detected in American public opinion and politics (“Donald Trump’s Presidency Has Moved America Left,” June 15, 2019). What I call “the left” incorporates the ideology according to which the state, as opposed to individuals, should make the choices that it thinks are detrimental to these individuals themselves or to “society”—which is what some elite thinks “society” likes or dislikes.
I agree that a large part of “the right” has come to think the same way, which is a return to the old European right’s authoritarian ways. So replace

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A Chicken Game Between Two Governments

June 23, 2019

If President Trump called off an Iranian attack in order to save innocent civilians, he deserves praise. Render to God what is God’s, and to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But, as a Wall Street Journal editorial emphasized, there is something off in this story (“Iran Calls Trump’s Bluff,” June 21, 2019):
It’s important to understand how extraordinary this is. The Commander in Chief ordered ships and planes into battle but recalled them because he hadn’t asked in advance what the damage and casualties might be? While the planes were in the air, he asked, oh, by the way? This is hard to take at face value. …
More likely, he changed his mind because he had second thoughts about the military and political consequences of engaging in a conflict he promised as a candidate to

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