Immigration and unicorn thinking

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There is a popular myth among some libertarians and many conservatives that restricting immigration is something that’s consistent with the ideals of small government. Immigration policy, they say, is about policing of the border and regulating foreigners, not about infringing on the property and individual rights of citizens. To the chagrin of some, I concede that this is a consistent belief for a libertarian to hold.

But it’s a belief based on “unicorn” policy, not reality. It’s akin to our friends on the left who believe in helping low-income people by raising the minimum wage. Consistent, but based on how they imagine it should work rather than on what both theory and experience suggest. The simple fact is that you can’t control immigration without controlling the citizens of a country. Read more

Bernier’s bad bet

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Maxime Bernier is taking a gamble. He believes that there is a large, disenfranchised voting bloc in Canada on which he can capitalise to form a new party that, he says, will focus on smaller, constitutional government that respects taxpayers and opposes economic favouritism—though he’s spent more time in the news for culture warring.

His gamble seems to be that the anti-immigration and anti-political correctness crowds to whom he’s been throwing bones will (a) make up a part, but not the basis, of his political coalition, and (b) be willing to make concessions on these issues to support a core mission of smaller, constitutionally restrained government.

Unfortunately for Bernier, if he’s sincere that this is his goal he’s made his gamble based on an out-of-date understanding of politics in Western countries. The political climate in which this was likely to succeed—the one in which Bernier has spent his political career—is changing.
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Don’t cheer for gridlock

In The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge, Vincent Ostrom argues that a democratic society must be a self-governing society. Not just one that’s designed the right way.

By explaining why people need to be able to use persuasion and work together to solve their problems to keep democracy healthy, Ostrom gives us a useful way to think about a common concern: gridlock. Libertarians often cheer for gridlock. We shouldn’t. And not just because it’s tone deaf.  Read more

Sweet talk and self-governance

We haven’t heard as much lately about panic over falling faith in democracy, but questions about the proper scope of democracy and what we mean by “democracy” are still relevant. Is democracy popping a ballot in a box, or does it include our conversations and what we do as communities?

Vincent Ostrom asks this question in The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge, and urges us to recognise a seldom-discussed danger to democracy. We often hear that we need to do more than just vote—we need to vote well. But, says Ostrom, we also need to be able to persuade each other—to use what Deirdre McCloskey calls “sweet talk“. Sweet talk is how we get people to act together when we can’t force them to. But we have to persuade well, the right way—building buy-in and consensus. The wrong kind of persuasion might be as dangerous as the wrong kind of voting. “Rhetoric pursued as an art of manipulation can be a trap contributing to the vulnerability of democratic societies.” (xiii)

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How Bitcoin Destroyed Venezuela

Rising alarmism about the amount of energy used to mine bitcoin is leading to a proliferation of confused articles like Eric Holthaus’s Bitcoin could cost us our clean-energy future (Grist, Dec. 15, 2017).

Most of these articles repeat an error popularized by Christopher Malmo, who has written and rewritten the same article about bitcoin’s awful energy consumption for Motherboard since creating the genre with Bitcoin Is Unsustainable back in 2015. The error is based on Malmo’s conviction that bitcoin is mostly a replacement for credit cards. The fact that a single bitcoin is at present worth more than $14,000 CAD might help him see the difference if he were interested, but he isn’t, because he insists on repeating his conviction in each new article.

Why is this important? Because it leads him into a more serious error, which is confusing bitcoin mining, which takes a lot of energy, and bitcoin transactionswhich do not (except in the sense that the mining, for the time being, validates them). This leads to a raft of horrifying comparisons: each bitcoin transaction “uses as much energy as your house in a week” (my house in frigid Montreal, or Malmo’s house in temperate Vancouver? dunno, but either way he’s wrong); bitcoin consumes as much energy as [ insert name of tropical country here ]. The truth, of course, is not that simple. Read more

Bridging gulfs

“Peace is not a result of agreement, but of toleration of disagreement.” – F.A. Hayek

A recent episode of This American Life, Will I Know Anyone at This Party?, is a compassionate piece on the struggle within the Republican Party as it moves toward more populist concerns, especially about immigration. It’s worth a listen for Canadians because the same battle is simmering here, and we need to find ways to engage with those who are fearful or feel left behind before it boils over.

The podcast points out that concerns about America’s changing demographics aren’t new, but they are reaching a boiling point among self-identified Republicans. Although these fears are made worse by bad information about immigrants that might be insulated by selective media consumption that rejects alternative viewpoints as part of a conspiracy (‘The Mainstream Media!’), it seems obvious that there is an element of an evolutionary holdover fear of the new and unknown at play. That, at least, is nothing new. Read more