Where is the further conversation?

“Check your privilege” has become a mainstay of social justice rhetoric. Assumed privilege is also a presumption behind microaggression accusations now seeming to sprout by the second. Those employing the terms frequently describe them as reminders to be empathetic and sensitive, elevating social relations. But they are often little more than assertions that others are members of an oppressor class, fundamentally mistaken in their views and responsible for a cornucopia of complaints.

The “kinder, gentler” version offers a sometimes-useful reminder that you might be including some inappropriate assumptions in your understanding, because something that may be sensible for you, given your characteristics and circumstances — i.e., your privilege — may not be sensible for others, leading to insufficient consideration of others and therefore erroneous evaluations.

Max Borders has described the latter meaning (or demeaning) as:

Your rights and opinions are invalid and you have no real complaints or suffering because you belong to X group. Or … you are obligated to pay because people who look like you in some ways did bad things at some point.

In other words, others need not listen to, much less respect, your arguments. Further, your inherent “wrongness” sacrifices your rights and property to satisfy those claiming to be oppressed, an aggression justified as undoing your alleged privilege or responding to your microaggression.

How are we to judge between such dramatically opposed interpretations?

The key is that, where confusion reigns, better evaluation requires clearer, more accurate understanding. That demands a real, ongoing conversation. So ask what would be entailed if “check your privilege” or its microaggression progeny was intended to advance such a conversation.

When such terms are used to preemptively cut off communication by stopping those who disagree from being heard or taken seriously, neither clarity nor empathy will be improved. So they must not end discussions; they must facilitate more complete conversations.

By themselves, the terms say you are wrong in your understanding and views, and too self-absorbed to notice. However, they leave how and why unspecified, beyond somehow relating to membership in an allegedly privileged group defined by accusers. Progress toward better understanding requires several additional steps.

Such progress would require specifying precisely what faulty premises, assumptions or arguments a person holds to, as well as why they are inappropriate for the issues considered. The appropriate premises to replace them would then need articulation.
How the “new and improved” premises would alter one’s conclusions would need to be demonstrated, followed by considering the appropriate remedies based on the alternative analysis. It would have to explain how proposed remedies were not merely “more for me” gambits, connected to the rationales offered only by self-interest. It would have to justify any special privileges to be created now for those claiming victimhood status, including any coercive impositions on members of supposedly dominant or victimizer classes who had nothing to do with the “sins of their fathers.”

When “check your privilege” and microaggression claims communicate that we should think carefully about others’ circumstances, which may be far different than ours, and be empathetic, it can be a useful reminder in advancing mutual understanding. But it can bear good fruit only as the beginning of a far deeper discussion.

In contrast, when they are used to peremptorily declare victory in social justice disputes, they assert special privileges for speakers to define themselves as morally superior and disqualify those who disagree from any consideration, without any coherent argument. And when that social demonization is leveraged into coercive imposition of “solutions” at the expense of those they decide must make it up to them, it undermines social cooperation, by undermining the rights upon which it is built, without advancing understanding or empathy.

Gary Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University and a research fellow at the Independent Institute. His books include Lines of Liberty (2015), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).

Jones Act Ready for Retirement


Los Angeles PortNational defense needs have long been such an all-purpose excuse for protectionism that they may be the best illustration of Samuel Johnson’s aphorism that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

The products that have ridden defense coat-tails to special treatment make up a long, and long-standing, list. For example, in the U.S., they have included sugar, peanuts, candles, thumbtacks, gloves, umbrellas and many more common goods. One my particular favorites is mohair. After WWII, when our soldiers wore wool uniforms, assertions that we might be unable to supply enough mohair in future conflicts triggered subsidies beginning in 1954. Apparently we wouldn’t be able to fight effectively if uniforms weren’t itchy enough. Soon after, the military switched to synthetic fibers, displacing wool from the strategic materials list in 1960. But mohair production subsidies continued for thirty-five more years. And even when they were ended in 1995, lobbying brought the subsidies back a few years later.

While many such protectionism gambits are obvious jokes just waiting for economists to tell, there is one that would seem to merit special consideration. That is trying to build up a country’s fleet and its military capabilities by eliminating other countries’ ability to ship goods between domestic ports. One reason for giving that policy, imposed by the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly called the Jones Act, more careful consideration, is that it has a pedigree of over three-and-a-half centuries. Perhaps more important is that its English predecessor had the endorsement of Adam Smith, usually known as a free trader, not a protectionist.

The Jones Act traces back to England’s 1660 navigation law “for the increase of shipping … wherein … the wealth, safety and strength of this kingdom is so much concerned.” It required that all shipping between British ports had to go in British-built ships with British owners. Parliament also required a three-quarters British crew. Those rules were a cornerstone of Britain’s mercantilist system whose burdens, along with those imposed by other restrictions, added impetus to the American Revolution.

Despite the policy’s role leading America toward independence, the U.S. Congress’ inaugural session enacted similar restrictions on coastal shipping even before adoption of the Bill of Rights. The restrictions are now codified by the Jones Act. Its rationale and terms — restricting trade between American ports to vessels built, owned and three-quarters manned by Americans — echo Britain’s navigation acts.

In Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith endorsed the British navigation acts, an endorsement that has been deployed since as inoculation against criticism of the Jones Act from backers of free trade and its strictly voluntary arrangements. Smith’s rationale for the exception was that “the defense of Great Britain depends very much upon the number of its sailors and shipping.” Consequently, “The act of navigation, therefore, very properly endeavors to give the sailors and shipping of Great Britain the monopoly of the trade of their own country.” Smith made it clear that it would restrict trade and the wealth it would create, but “As defense, however, is of much more importance than opulence, the act of navigation is, perhaps, the wisest of all the commercial regulations of England.”

Unfortunately, Smith’s high praise does not apply to the Jones Act. The circumstance that justified it does not apply to America now. And despite incredibly high costs, it does not add to American shipping, sailors or capabilities.

If the relevant choice was an all or nothing one between defense and opulence, there is no doubt that defense, when threatened by aggression, is more important than opulence. But it is a marginal choice, not an all-or-nothing choice. Given one’s current level of threats, readiness and consumption possibilities, added shipping restrictions could improve military readiness, but only by taking away from the goods and services citizens can exchange for their productive efforts in peaceful trade. The issue is how much value is added to readiness and how costly is it to achieve?

Smith’s endorsement of a policy to bolster naval defense is sensible only when that defense would be inadequate without such restrictions. If there were already sufficient defensive capability for the threats faced, the marginal value of expansion would be small. Smith argued that in England’s case, the threat faced from the Dutch (“the great carriers of Europe”), Britain’s main naval rival, justified more military strength. In fact, he noted that the navigation acts aimed to undermine the sea-power of the Dutch at least as much as to stimulate British sea-power. As Smith put it, “though England and Holland were not actually at war, the most violent animosity subsisted between the two nations.” In consequence, what justified the policy was warlike “diminution of the naval power of Holland, the only naval power which could endanger the security of England.”

In other words, Smith did not endorse the restrictions of the navigation acts as generally justified, but only justified by a serious, specific war threat. One might have made a case that America’s founding echoed such a situation, given its early weakness. But similar circumstances have not applied during most American’s lifetimes. They did not characterize America in the aftermath of WWII. They have not characterized America as the world’s dominant strongest naval superpower; particularly after Eisenhower’s warning that the military-industrial complex could be dictating far more defense production than can be justified. Yet, even without a plausible case for inadequate naval power, Jones Act restrictions have been retained.

One might consider burgeoning Chinese military sea-power to be a current analog. But restricting America’s coastal trade to American ships does not appreciably restrict Chinese sea-power, military or otherwise, given the tidal wave of goods their ships carry to America and other destinations around the world. Further, concern about potential naval military threats as a rationale for the Jones Act is inconsistent with the sharp drawdown taking place in the Navy fleet.

Beyond the question of a sufficient military threat, for the Jones Act to make any sense, it must produce benefits, increasing the number of American ships, sailors and construction capabilities. But it does not.

From 43 percent of global shipping in 1950, the Department of Transportation found in 2009 that “U.S.-flag ships carry only about 1.5 percent of the foreign trade of the United States.” The wider U.S. flag fleet lost half its tonnage capacity between 1975 and 2007.

Vessels meeting Jones Act requirements fell to 90 in 2014 from 193 in 2000. 110 tankers have become 43. Almost five times as many American ships now fly other flags to escape Jones Act burdens, even though it makes them ineligible for domestic shipping.

Even if the Jones Act had a positive effect on American shipping, it could do little for military production potential, as only one shipyard that builds the Navy’s primary vessels also builds commercial shipping vessels.

The Jones Act must also provide services that would be hard to acquire during hostilities and emergencies. But it does not.

The Department of Defense has stated that “Unfortunately, very few commercial ships with high military utility have been constructed in U.S. shipyards in the past 20 years. Consequently … nearly all of the [charter] offers are for foreign-built ships.” Similarly, in the aftermath of both Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, Jones Act restrictions were suspended because they hindered emergency response capabilities.

Despite no evidence that the Jones Act provides any expansion in shipping or defense capabilities, the only reason Adam Smith found justified such restrictions, its costs are substantial.

Ships meeting Jones Act restrictions may cost triple or quadruple those built in Korean or Japanese yards. Crewing expenses can be a similar multiple. Maintenance and repair costs are also far greater. One illustration of the result is that foreign-flagged tankers can transport oil for one-third the cost of American-flagged tankers.

The Jones Act doesn’t add to America’s naval or defense capabilities, rendering Adam Smith’s endorsement void. It has been accompanied by plummeting numbers of American-flagged ships and the trade they carry. It hinders rather than helps in mounting emergency operations. The military services it is supposedly makes possible are already provided more efficiently by foreign ships. And the costs are very high. It is time to end its nothing-for-something trade that only impoverishes us.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

Defending Liberty in All Its Forms

Americans pay ritual obeisance to liberty. But daily, they say “there ought to be a law” that restricts it. They have only the dimmest awareness of our founders’ views on this central issue and no knowledge of friends of freedom beyond our shores. That is a pity, because such investigation would yield much insight.

A good example is Belgian-born philosopher/economist Gustave de Molinari, born March 3, nearly two centuries ago. He has been described as defending “peace, free trade, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and liberty in all its forms.” His touchstones were private property and unrestricted markets–i.e., liberty–made possible by government limited to securing life, liberty and property.

A few examples cannot do justice to Molinari’s half-century defense of liberty, based on each person’s self-ownership. But it is worth reflecting on his vision of a world where government sovereignty, enforced via coercion, is replaced with individual sovereignty wherever possible.

[G]overnment should restrict itself to guaranteeing the security of its citizens…the freedom of labor and of trade should otherwise be whole and absolute.

Society is heavily taxed in the increased costs which follow government appropriation of products and services naturally belonging to the sphere of private enterprise.

[The enlarged] functions of the State…is the real explanation of the grossly inadequate performance of their first duty–protection of life and property of the individual.

The sovereign power of governments over the life and property of the individual is, in fact, the sole fount and spring of militaryism, policy, and protection…the abolishment of that “state” is the present, most urgent, need of society.

[A] careful examination of the facts will decide the problem of government more and more in favor of liberty…

Sovereignty rests in the property of the individual over his person and goods and in the liberty of disposing of them…naturally limited by the rights of equally sovereign individuals…

[G]overnment has abused its unlimited power over individual life and property…

However seriously he might be declared sovereign master of himself, his goods and life, the individual was still controlled by a power invested with rights which took precedence of his own…The sole possible remedy—to curtail this subjection with its priority of claims over those of the sovereignty of the individual…

Government must confine itself to the naturally collective functions of providing external and internal security.

[P]rogress will be…secured by measures extending the sphere of individual self-government…

What is the interest of the individual? It is to remain the absolute proprietor of his person and property and to retain the power to dispose of them at will…It is, in a word, to possess ‘individual sovereignty’ in the fullest…Each individual sovereignty has its natural frontiers within which it may operate and outside of which it may not pass without violating other sovereignties. These natural limits must be recognized and guaranteed…such is the purpose of “government.”

Sovereignty rests in the property of the individual over his person and goods and in the liberty of disposing of them…

The individual appropriates and possesses himself…This is liberty. Property and liberty are the two aspects or two constituents of sovereignty.

[T]he ills [ascribed] to liberty–or, to use an absolutely equivalent expression, to free competition–do not originate in liberty, but in monopoly and restriction…a society truly free–a society relieved from all restriction, from all barriers, unique as will be such a society in all the course of history–will be exempt from most of the ills, as we suffer them today…the organization of such a society will be the most just, the best, and the most favorable to the production and distribution of wealth that is attainable by mortal man.

The true remedy for most evils is none other than liberty, unlimited and complete liberty, liberty in every field of human endeavor.

Gustave de Molinari learned of “the destructive apparatus of the civilized State” from the French Revolution, “naively undertaken to establish a regime of liberty and prosperity for the benefit of humanity, end[ing]…in an increase in the servitude and burdens.” That inspired him to a long life of opposition to the destruction that goes with coercion, always looking forward to “an era of assured liberty.”

Molinari brought a natural rights objection to government abuses of their citizens that should not have been considered radical, but was—that “no one has ever thought that the laws which apply to [government] are the same as those which apply to the others.” He did so because he saw that “Everywhere, men resign themselves to the most extreme sacrifices rather than do without government and hence security, without realizing that in so doing, they misjudge their alternatives.” He saw that the alternatives included a vast expansion of liberty, and an accompanying explosion of human potential and the human spirit. That is something our age needs to be inspired toward, as well.