Warehouses, Theft, and Starvation

I got a chuckle out of this post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. Jason Brennan is justifiably annoyed at the facile view expressed by this graphic:

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I meant to blog this issue last year, but didn’t get the chance: As readers of PoT know, last August, I did some volunteer work in Nicaragua with a colleague of mine from Felician, along with students from his class on global capitalism. While there, we spent a day building wheelchairs at the facilities of the American Nicaragua Foundation, a charitable organization outside Managua. Words are inadequate to convey the admiration I have for the people who work there.

One of the things that impressed me while there were ANF’s gigantic warehouses filled with food and other goods, intended for distribution to the poor. I took some photos of the warehouses, but never uploaded them to the PoT site, so they’re still sitting on a Sandisk back home in New Jersey. When I get a chance, I’ll upload a shot here, but meantime, just click the ANF link, and you can see a few photos of them there. They’re big–bigger than the average American supermarket. And ANF had several of them at that location alone.

Another thing that impressed me was that ANF’s warehouses were, one and all, guarded by armed guards fully prepared to shoot anyone, rich or poor, who tried to muscle his way into the warehouses and loot their contents. In addition, ANF’s grounds were surrounded by fences with barbed wire. Sometimes, good fences really do make good neighbors, even if you have to throw some barbed wire into the mix.

It’s no secret that Nicaragua is a democratic socialist country ruled by a former Marxist junta, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). News flash: even there, theft is illegal, stealing food is against the law, and you can let someone–maybe lots of people–starve to death while you own a warehouse full of food. You can do all of that with a clean conscience, because while generosity is a virtue, and charity is an instance of it, neither the virtue nor the activity imply that benefactors are rightless beings. After all, if benefactors were rightless, beneficiaries would be equally so, since both sets of entities are human beings. Even the Sandinistas know that (or have figured it out), despite the fact that they view ANF’s activities with some suspicion and discomfort–partly because they regard it as a front organization for the United States, and partly because its existence draws attention to the inadequacies of the regime’s own social welfare efforts.

Anyway, I hate to break the news, but the preceding–that theft is wrong, that theft of food is wrong and should be illegal, and that the poor cannot be allowed, en masse, to loot the wealthy–are not distinctively capitalist insights, and are not distinctive features of specifically capitalist political economies. People have known the preceding things for a long time, and have acted accordingly. There have always been food markets and food storage places in the world, and it’s always been a crime to steal from them. The only people who don’t seem to grasp that are the people among us who insist on arguing in images and slogans. That’s not a distinctively capitalist phenomenon, either. But for better or worse, capitalism is where the activity involved pays the most handsome wage.

Back home; going postal; some news

I just got back from Nicaragua, and I’m ready to blog.

Now that I’ve recovered a bit from my trip–in other words, now that I’m no longer chained to the bathroom–I’ve been sitting here trying to compare what I observed in Nicaragua with what I’d observed on recent trips to Pakistan and the Palestinian Territories. I haven’t come to any conclusions, but a series of anecdotes about postcards conveys something about the flavor of each place. I swear I’m not making any of it up.

Nicaragua. I had time to kill one day Augusto Sandino International Airport in Managua, so I decided to get some postcards. I went over to a vendor, and asked her, in half-assed Spanish, for five postcards. She gave them to me, I paid for them, and then thought to ask for stamps. She didn’t have any, so I asked my friend and colleague George–who’s Nicaraguan–where I could get some stamps. “What the hell for?” he asked (he speaks American). “To mail some postcards,” I said. “Dude,” he said, “What’s the point? Nicaragua doesn’t have a postal service.”  Oh. A revelation. (Not that this made a difference to my postcard issue, but it turns out that Nicaragua doesn’t have any accurate street addresses, either.)

Stereotype 1: Nicaragua, land of postcards but no postal service.

Pakistan. Compare this to Pakistan, which has an exemplary postal service, care of its erstwhile British colonial overlords. One day I had time to kill at Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore, so I went over to a vendor and asked him, in perfectly fluent Urdu, for some postcards. “What are those?” he asked. That’s when my Urdu started to break down.

Irfan: Well, they’re cards with a picture on one side, and blank space on the other, so that you can write on them and mail them to people.

Vendor: What would you want one of those for? Just get a calling card. I have the best prices! Check these out…

I really had no idea how to respond to that, whether in Urdu or in English, so I tried to mumble an excuse and started backing slowly out of the store. The vendor started to panic.

Vendor: I have batteries too! All kinds. You need double A’s? Lithium? Duracell?

Irfan: Thanks, I don’t need batteries.

Vendor: Tea? Coffee? Chicken kebab? When does your flight leave?

Stereotype 2: Pakistan, land of a British-style postal service and pushy vendors, but no postcards.

Israel/Palestine. I ended up having no time to kill at Ben Gurion International Airport. A colleague from Al Quds University Law School had persuaded me to join him and about a dozen people for a jaunt to the Golan Heights the day before my flight was supposed to leave. We left East Jerusalem early in the morning, and headed north to Golan on the understanding that I had to be back in Jerusalem by midnight to catch a taxi to Tel Aviv for a 5 am flight. Security regulations required me to get to the airport by 2 am.

We took a (very) leisurely drive to Golan, spent the day at a water park there (I think it was Kfar Blum), had a (very, very) leisurely six-course barbecue in the park, and then headed (in leisurely fashion) to Lake Tiberias around 8 pm, where we spent a few hours dancing on a very large, loud, DJ-outfitted dance boat full of drunk Russian Jews and hyperactive Israeli Arabs. (Actually, among “us” Palestinians, the men danced. The Arab/Palestinian women sat on the sidelines, clapping, ululating, and urging us on. I’m gratified to say that one of them told me that I “danced like a Palestinian.”) After that, we had a four course dinner on the shores of Lake Tiberias, when around 11 pm–gorged on chicken, fish, watermelon, Turkish coffee, etc.–it began to occur to my hosts that at this rate, I might miss my flight. We then rushed, dangerously and at full speed, down the Tiberias coast. Eventually, we rushed into the West Bank via Jericho (stopping only for ice cream), dropped everyone else off at Abu Dis, then rushed back into Jerusalem past its checkpoint (by this time my tipsy driver was sweating bullets and weaving all over the highway), and got me to my taxi 90 minutes late.

The taxi driver–who was patiently undisturbed about the delay, and either a member of Hamas or a Mossad agent impersonating one–rushed me to Tel Aviv, administering an alarming ideological-theological purity test along the way, but getting me there in record time.

Taxi Driver: Are you Christian or Muslim? [‘Jewish’ or ‘atheist’ were evidently not among the conceivable options.]

Irfan: Muslim. [A bald-faced lie, but the right answer in context.]

Driver: Good.

Driver (after a pause): Are you Shia or Sunni?

Irfan: Sunni.

Driver: Good. The Shia are kaffirun [infidels]. They are fanatics. They will all burn in Hell. I am glad you are a Sunni.

Irfan: So am I.

Driver: Do you know Hassan Nasrallah?

Irfan: Well, I know who he is. [It seemed important here not to equivocate on ‘know’.]

Driver: What is your opinion of him?

Irfan: I don’t like him. He seems like a fanatic.

Driver: Good.

Etc. Repeat for forty-five hair-raising minutes, each ad hoc fatwa condemning more people to death or damnation, and each fatwa getting closer to revealing that I deserved the same fate. By the end of it, I was praying to be detained at an Israeli checkpoint.

Before long, I was detained at an Israeli checkpoint–or, well, a series of them. The first stop was just outside the airport, and took about half an hour. Then I got to the airport itself and was searched yet again. Then I got in line to check my bag, and was approached by an adorable security agent speaking Hebrew-accented English.

Security agent: We have reason to believe that you are bringing a bomb onto this flight.

Irfan (after a long pause): Sorry, what?

Security agent (rolling her eyes, and speaking very slowly, in exasperation): We…have…reaaason…to believe…that you…are bringing a bomb…onto the plane.

Irfan: Well, you might, but I don’t.

I didn’t mean to sound like a smart-ass, but I didn’t know what else to say. I hadn’t put a bomb in my bag (or anywhere else), but I had no way of proving that she had no reason to believe that I was bringing a bomb onto the plane. It just didn’t seem like the time or a place for a critical reasoning lesson on the burden of proof. (Philosophy, I’ve found, is a liability in most situations involving security agents, armed troops, law enforcement officers, or officers of the court.) She didn’t seem to like my answer, so she handed me over to another (very attractive) young lady, who walked me over to Strip Search Guy, who was much less fun than either of them had been.

I won’t bother to summarize the strip search part of my visit to Ben Gurion International Airport. Suffice to say that there was more stripping and searching than dialogue in the Strip Search Room. It also took longer than I thought it would. Who knew that there were that many orifices and surfaces in and on the human body large enough to hide a bomb? I guess by the end of it both Strip Search Guy and I had the answer.

After the strip search, I had to have my bag searched for the fourth or fifth time–once again by a very cute female security agent (a different one). She politely ransacked every millimeter of my bag, asking my permission to undo (and then redo) all of my packages (which I cheerfully gave)–including the bubble wrapped plaques of the Dome of the Rock that I had been cheated into buying by some scam artist in the Arab Quarter named “Ahmad” (what else?) who said that I “owed” it to him, to God, to Palestine, and to my Mom to shell out $200 to buy her (my Mom) a premium Dome of the Rock plaque with a nationalist-approved Quranic verse intended to prove that the Dome of the Rock was and shall forever remain within the exclusive sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority. I can’t believe I fell for it.

Anyway, this whole security process took three hours. By the end of it, the Alitalia airline agent who’d been waiting for me looked both alarmed and relieved when I emerged from security. “We thought you were going to be detained,” she whispered, and ushered me at last onto my plane. I hadn’t changed clothes or taken a shower in almost 24 hours, and was still damp from the Golan water park, with clumps of mud stuck to my socks and shins. I didn’t detonate a bomb, but I stank all the way to Rome, where I finally had the chance to clean up, buy some new clothes, and throw the old ones away. Bottom line: there was no time for postcards at Ben Gurion International Airport.

Stereotype 3: Israel, land of postcards and postal service, both of which are rendered inaccessible for security reasons.

I’m not sure what that all means, but these three anecdotes are the foundation for all of the stereotypes I now have about Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Israel/Palestine.

In other, unrelated news:

1.  Kate, Carrie-Ann and I are on the final edits of Reason Papers 36.1, which will be coming out on Monday the 18th (it clocks in at 223 pages).

2. Within the next few days, I’ll be turning “Policy of Truth” into a group blog. At some point in the near future, I’ll also be putting as much of my writing as I can find (and as is presentable) under the “Writing” tab of the site. Stay tuned.

Managua, Day 9: Notes on La Prensa

In my last post, I mentioned that La Prensa is a “pretty explicitly partisan” paper, but that turns out to be an understatement. I realized a little while later that the paper is owned, published, and edited by the Chamorro family, probably the most prominent political opponents of the current Ortega regime. So despite its wide circulation, that makes La Prensa the functional equivalent of a party-line newspaper.

One often hears (at least I´ve often heard) the claim that American newspapers differ from European (and I suppose, Central American) newspapers by cultivating a sort of fake objectivity—a pretense at political neutrality, and at a separation between the newsroom and the editorial pages, that—to their detriment–they never pull off. The result is a deceptive form of neutrality that fails to take stock of its own normative presuppositions, and refuses to see the need to justify them. Non-American (i.e., non-US) papers, by contrast, dispense with the pretense, and offer an integrated but explicitly selective take on current events. Exposed as I typically am to the fake objectivity of US papers, I was inclined to be receptive to the non-US journalistic model, but I now find myself skeptical. I had to read La Prensa for about a week fully to grasp the false alternative involved in the ´fake objectivity´versus `explicitly partisan´ journalistic models. There has to be a rationally justifiable mean between the two extremes, but I don´t think I´ve ever encountered it anywhere myself.

In any case, I find La Prensa´s take on things interesting. The news section is typically about 12 pages long, and 10-11 of those pages are devoted to Nicaraguan news, almost all of it critical of the Ortega regime. The last page is devoted to world news, and that in turn tends nowadays to be focusing on Gaza and Iraq. Judging from the editorials on the subject, La Prensa seems to be fairly pro-Israel: over the last week, I´ve seen two op-eds on the the Israel-Palestine dispute, both favorable to Israel. Call me cynical, but I have to wonder whether that´s a case of the paper´s posturing toward a pro-US position for US consumption. On the other hand, I´m told that the evangelical Christian population here tends to a pro-Israel perspective, and I´ve certainly seen my share of bumper stickers to that effect (`Dios benditto a la tierra de Israel´: God bless the land of Israel). A rather odd predicament for a one-time redoubt of the PLO–the PLO famously had an office in the Sandinista´s Managua–but I guess times change.

PS, August 11: For a good general discussion of journalistic objectivity, take a look at this 2007 piece by David Kelley.

Managua, Day 6: where am I?

From this morning´s La Prensa:

Since January 10, 2007, it´s been 2,763 days since the unconstitutional president Daniel Ortega last offered a press conference.

It´s a news item in a box near the top of p. 3. Reading La Prensa, I get the impression that I´m visiting a standard issue-authoritarian socialist dictatorship that has, for years, been imitating the anti-socialist regime it was supposed to replace (the Somoza regime). But the papers tend to be pretty explicitly partisan here, so it´s hard for a newcomer to know the score.

Managua, Day 5: American tax dollars at work

From this morning´s La Prensa, from an item titled, “More support for the Navy”:

The United States Government donated $40 million to the [Nicaraguan] naval forces for various projects intended to improve its operating capacities in the fight against narcotics trafficking. Yesterday in Bluefields [an eastern coastal city], two swift boats* were delivered; present [at the delivery] were the US ambassador Phyllis Powers and the Chief of the Nicaraguan Armed Forces, General Julio Cesar Aviles.

*My translation of “lanchas rapidas.”

I´m trying to figure out whether this is all that much of an improvement from the mid 80s, when “US military aid to Nicaragua” meant aid to the contras.

Managua, Day 2

Greetings from Las Colinas, Managua, Nicaragua–land of “Christianity, Socialism, and Solidarity” (the national slogan, or one of them). Yeah, yeah, I know–one out of three ain´t bad.

Have so far just settled in to my B&B, gaped at the ramshackle poverty of the place, butchered the Spanish language to the uncomprehending stares of the natives, gaped at a few volcanos, and had some interesting conversations with my “hosts” about Locke, property, capitalism, communism, imperialism, globalization and the FSLN–naturally, over fabulous food at the finest eating eating establishments in Managua. This is when I´m not in the pool, floating under the mango and coconut trees. I could get used to this–I am getting used to it–but the real blogging will have to wait until later, when the fun-meter goes down a bit.

Two-week blogging hiatus: Off to Nicaragua

Well, this blog has only been existence for about a week or so, and no sooner have I started it, but I’m putting it on hiatus for two weeks. I’m off to Nicaragua for the next two weeks with my colleague George Abaunza for the experiential learning component of his Sociology 305 course, “Global Problems and Perceptions of Capitalism.” Here’s the course description:

This course will introduce students to the socio-cultural, historical and political analysis of the spread of capitalism, its consequences and interpretations among different cultures. Issues such as global poverty, ethnic conflicts, economic development, disease, environment and social protests will be examined within the context of global problems and the challenges leading to possible solutions.

Sounds pretty left-wing to me. The main text for the class is Thomas O’Brien’s The Century of U.S. Capitalism in Latin America. The trip is sponsored by Felician College in association with the American Nicaragua Foundation; ten Felician undergraduates (and a few others) will be coming along for the ride. I suppose I’ll be functioning partly as tourist, partly as chaperone, and partly as Randian corrective to George’s anti-capitalist, anti-globalization, Marxo-Sandinista juggernaut. It’s my first trip south of the U.S. border, the only exception being a trip to Puerto Rico I took with my family when I was about fifteen. (And I’ve repeatedly been told that Puerto Rico isn’t an exception.) I’ll try to blog from Managua if I can, but I’m not sure what kind of Internet access or free time I’ll have, so for now I’m going to call it a two-week blogging hiatus.

Augusto Sandino

Augusto Sandino

I’m joking a bit about “Randian corrective,” by the way, despite my total lack of sympathy for Marxism. Though I think Rand had some useful things to say about capitalism, I don’t think she had anything particularly illuminating to say about poverty in the developing world, or about how to make the transition from Third World poverty to an ideal form of capitalism. At best she gave some hints about how to think about the issues, but even there, I find much of what she says about the Third World wanting, misleading, and occasionally downright stupid. I haven’t yet read Hernando de Soto or Muhammad Yunus (both have been recommended to me), but I found a sensible general discussion of the issues in Johan Norberg’s In Defense of Capitalism, which I intend to bring with me to Nicaragua. Here’s an interesting passage from “The Case of Latin America” in that book:

It was not surprising that politicians in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina, among others, fell for the dependency [dependencia] school. Since the mid-19th century, the region had experienced an economic upturn through the export of a few central raw materials, such as coffee, bananas, sugar, cotton, and copper. But that still did not bring any broad-based national development, because the countries in question were typical societies of privilege. A small, protected landlord class owned enormous tracts of land, which were worked by legions of destitute unskilled workers, who were often paid in kind from goods from estates. This tiny elite reaped huge profits but did not invest them…..If new lands were needed, they were simply stolen from the native population.

And so on; Norberg details the mechanisms of exploitation and depredation for a few more sentences. Here’s the lesson:

What this example shows is that trade alone does not necessarily create dynamic development in an oppressive society. If a country is static and characterized by enormous privileges and discrimination, there is little chance of trade solving all these problems. For that to happen, the population must acquire liberty and the opportunity of economic participation. Land reforms to put an end to centuries of feudalism would have been needed, coupled with a commitment to education and free markets. (p. 164).

I’ve italicized what I regard as the key phrases or sentences in both passages. Development economics is not my area of expertise, but given what I do know (or think I know) about the relevant history, I find Norberg’s claims here highly plausible.

In particular, as a classical liberal with Lockean sympathies, three questions occur to me: (1) How did that “small, protected landlord class” come to acquire those enormous tracts of land? And how did their methods of acquisition measure up against the best Lockean account we have of initial appropriation and legitimate transfer? (2) What sorts of land reforms would have been required to correct for (or approximately correct for) the centuries of feudalism and/or theft that Norberg mentions? (3) How do we characterize an economic system that mimics capitalism in its outward features, but has been shaped by, and is path-dependent on, centuries of feudalism? (Actually, a fourth question: does Norberg’s reference to “education” in the last sentence refer to private education or a mix of private and public education?)

In my view, the preceding issues are better handled by Nozick’s defense of libertarianism in Anarchy, State, and Utopia than by Rand’s defense of capitalism in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal or Atlas Shrugged. It’s Nozick and not Rand who self-consciously leaves theoretical room for a form of rectificatory justice in his defense of the free market, and Nozick rather than Rand who has some useful related comments to make about history, “hypothetical histories,” and justice. (There are, I realize, exceptions to this rule. Rand has insightful things to say about the functioning of pseudo-capitalist “mixed economies,” but mostly geared to a specifically American context. Relatedly, I find Rand’s essays on NASA and Apollo 11 in The Voice of Reason a paradoxical combination of profound insight and contemptible cant.) I realize that rectificatory justice and land reform elicit derision in some quarters (both left- and right-wing, for different reasons), but Norberg’s comment seems to me so plausible that I find it hard to conceive a cure for Third World poverty that doesn’t somehow incorporate land reform as an essential element.

Anyway, more on all this, and on traffic ethics, when I get back in mid-August.

P.S., I was going to give this post a title involving some dumb variation on “No pasaran”—the old Sandinista/Spanish Civil War slogan—but I couldn’t figure out how to conjugate “I shall not blog” in Spanish, and it wasn’t all that funny anyway, so I left it. I don’t know how to do accent marks, either. Sometimes you just have to face the fact that despite five years of high school Spanish, one semester of college Spanish, and six months of tutoring, you’re ultimately still a gringo.