Why I’m against Ukraine joining the EU and you should be too

Cross post from romaninukraine.com:

Ukraine-EU-Protests-EU-flag To me, the story of Ukraine is the story of vanquished aristocracy. Twice in Ukraine’s history, first by the Mongols then by the Bolsheviks, the most capable Ukrainians, the successful, the talented, the leadership were obliterated — vanquished, killed or deported — a potentially ruinous blow for any society and testimony to the resilience of Ukrainians. Between these catastrophes, we have tremendous assimilation pressure from Russian- or Polish-imposed feudalism and its violent resistance by our kozaks.

These warriors kept the Ukrainian idea alive and for this we owe them a debt of gratitude, but for all their legendary self-reliance and ferocity, the kozaks failed to create a society prosperous enough to endure among hostile neighbors. An agrarian morality is insufficient for prosperity.

And the Ukrainian soul, if judged by the poets, is an agrarian soul — a peasant soul, if you’ll forgive the term — longing for the return of its ancient kings and glory.

Tonight, Ukrainians are in the streets. They say they want to join the European Union. I don’t believe them. I don’t want to believe them. I prefer to believe that they want three things: property rights, economic opportunity, the ability to travel.

I prefer to believe this because when I consider the other possibility, I see serfs begging for better masters. I see people who want all the benefits of a free society and none of its responsibilities.

No one has ever begged their way to freedom. Property rights which are true and lasting cannot be given, they must be earned. In the words of Lord Byron, “He who would be free must strike the first blow.”


Train Stations and Supermarkets in Ukraine

First published in the Ukrainian Weekly, July 1, 2012:

L’viv-born economist, Ludwig Von Mises made the case that capitalism forces people, even enemies, to cooperate and serve one another. This is so evident, we often fail to see it.

Consider buying something at a store. It is typical for both customer and cashier to say “thank you.” This mutual expression of gratitude reflects how both parties benefit. The customer receives his product, and the cashier, on behalf of the owner, the customer’s money. They are both happier and the world becomes a better place.

The mutual benefit only occurs for businesses relying on voluntary patronage. It doesn’t exist where people profit from tax dollars — for example, at the train station. This brings me to my personal experience buying tickets in Kyiv’s “Vokzal.”

I was been told you can buy tickets online in Ukraine, but the website looks confusing. You must register. Also, after you buy them online, you go to the train station and cut in front of the many exhausted travelers waiting on long lines just to receive online-purchased train ticket. I can’t imagine doing that. So, for my stay in Ukraine, I’ve resorted to standing on lines at train stations to purchase tickets.

For my non-Ukrainian readers, let me clarify how horrible this experience is: The station is perpetually crowded and smells like body odor. By my estimate, the average wait in Kyiv is thirty minutes. You have to demonstrate your capitulation to the system by stooping to speak through a little portal to the impatient clerk. You have no idea what train tickets are available or how much they cost until you get there. A decision must be made the instant you get the information and there doesn’t seem to be any way to get an overview of what’s available.

You ask for Thursday night, they tell you, very rapidly what’s leaving on Thursday night, which types of cabins, times of travel and cost. It’s an awfully large amount of information to process quickly, especially for non-native speakers and especially if you’re a nice person sensitive to the impatience of the people behind you.

It gets worse.

On a recent visit to the train station a young man asked to cut in front of me, just as I reached the front of the line. Perhaps he had bought a ticket online. “Thirty seconds,” he said. I nodded. Good manners are only a weakness in a bureaucratically managed enterprise.

He was indeed finished in thirty seconds, but a lady sensed her opportunity and asserted her place behind the young man. I told her she couldn’t cut, and even posted my arm, but she snuck around my other side as soon as he finished.

She jumped straight into a heated argument with the clerk. The clerk refused something but she wouldn’t accept it and kept arguing. Eventually, the clerk put a cardboard sign in the window that read “Technical break,” dropped the venetian blinds, and left her booth, switching off the light.

This shouldn’t have caught me by surprise.

Various times are printed on the glass of the booth. Though they weren’t labeled, I’ve since learned these were the technical breaks. Each booth has five or six technical breaks during the day and they range from ten to sixty minutes in duration. This one was supposed to be twenty minutes long, and I decided to wait it out rather than move to a different line. She returned on time, but then spent five minutes counting money with another lady. When I finally had her attention, she told me that nothing was available on the day I wanted to travel, or the day after that. I couldn’t make an immediate decision about what to do, so I left empty handed.

Most Ukrainians would probably think: “Of course, that it how it works at the train station. That is how it always worked, and that is how it will always be until the end of time. There is no alternative.”

One must be able to imagine progress before achieving it. Imagine a supermarket. I shop at the Mega Market near Olympiski Stadium metro station. In fact, I went there just to cheer myself up after my failure at the train station. I like choices. I like polite people.

At Mega Market, I don’t have to ask which products are available. They are advertised with beautiful pictures and sometimes, attractive people hand me leaflets as I wander the aisles at my own leisurely pace. I get free samples. I can touch, hold and even smell things before I buy them. The biggest miracle of all, however, may be the checkout.

There is no glass between me and clerk. I don’t have to stoop. They smile and demonstrate good manners. They never take technical breaks. A girl only leaves her station when her replacement arrives. Even if they did take breaks, it wouldn’t matter because the lines are always short. Do train station bureaucrats stumble through supermarkets in utter awe? Do they consider the managers there to be super-human geniuses?

Economist Frederick Hayek distinguished between two economies in every society. There is the voluntary economy, where exchanges rely on voluntary patronage, and there is the coercive economy — so called because it runs on taxes which are collected coercively. For the sake of good manners, peace, and making the most of the little time each of has on this Earth, we should remember how we are treated by each.

Alien vs. Predator, and the hypocrisy of Allen West

Originally published on Ad Libertad:

The battle lines are forming in Washington DC. Barring any tricks which the embattled (racist, redneck, kooky, backward, radical, unelectable) libertarian wing of the Republican Party may still have up its sleeve, it seems to be another contest between Marxist-Leninist Socialists who will take everything we have in the name of social welfare, and National Socialists who will take everything we have in the name of national security. Much like in Alien vs. Predator, whoever wins, we lose.

I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon toward tyranny and fiscal ruin long ago, and the important thing now is to brace for calamity. A fiscally conservative friend of mine is appalled by my cynicism. He invokes America’s greatness and my veteran status in an attempt to bring me back to the noble cause of shutting up and blindly supporting the Republican Party. He recently encouraged me to watch Allen West’s speech at CPAC 2012. He wants, presumably, for me to give people like Allen West my time, money, attention and respect, because nothing is more important that defeating Obama (. . . says the Predator about the Alien).

In the speech, Allen West goes on at length about the virtues of the Constitution. He said, “[The founders] laid out in no uncertain terms the types of things government would have the right to do, and the types of things it wouldn’t.” I’d love to hear him reconcile this with his discussion of “a Chamberlin-Churchill moment,” and “kinetic solutions” to Iran’s nuclear research, and “the precipice of World War Three.” Does he know the Constitution requires presidents to seek congressional declarations of war? Or does he, like most politicians, only believes in the Constitution when it foils his political opponents.

He said, “The founders knew that if government were allowed to restrict the freedom of the people . . . freedom would not long survive,” yet he voted in favor of renewing Patriot Act provisions.

He decries reckless spending: “We’ve allowed the federal bureaucracy to balloon out of control,” yet he voted in raise the debt ceiling. When questioned by Young America’s Foundation’s Ron Meyer, he asked for the thing all politicians have always requested: unity and support. Presumably, Allen West’s rapid betrayal of the principles he invoked in his campaign would be remedied if only I gave him more money, time, attention and respect. . . .

Read more from Ad Libertad

Review of “Utopia in Four Movements”

This guest column appeared in the Daily Iowan on Nov 11, 2011:

I think my Ukrainian heritage fuels my twin obsessions with Soviet history and economics. Sadly, this often puts me on opposing ideological ground from my good friends and fellow alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which recently helped bring “Utopia in Four Movements,” to Iowa City’s local, tax-supported theater.

Sam Green, the filmmaker who narrated the exploration of “the battered state of the utopian impulse,” on one hand described socialism has having gone “monstrously wrong,” and on the other, expressed open sentimentality for the Russian and Maoist revolutions. He showed pictures of executed Cambodians and also said a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book was among his favorite possessions.

For any readers who may have left the theater with a sense of moral ambiguity, I offer this brief history lesson.

In “The Black Book of Communism,” French researchers estimate communist China slaughtered 65 million of its own citizens. Estimates of Soviet citizens killed by their leaders range from 20 million to 62 million made by political science professor R. J. Rummel. In Cambodia, after an unholy combination of Marx and Rousseau, they attempted an agrarian based communist society and managed, in an astonishingly short period of time, to slaughter almost a third of their population. Perhaps Stalin was right. Killing one person is a tragedy. Killing millions is only a statistic.

The sound of societies turning into gigantic meat grinders was accompanied by three choruses from leftist intellectuals. One sang “It’s not so bad.” Perhaps its leading performer was New York Times reporter Walter Duranty who won a Pulitzer Prize for dismissing the starvation of six to ten million Ukrainians as “malignant propaganda.”

The second chorus sang “next time”: Forget Lenin’s hostages and mass executions, forget the extermination of the Don Cossacks. The right people weren’t in charge. Forget the Gulag Archipelago. Forget China’s Great Leap Forward and North Korea’s Arduous March. Forget the cannibalism. Revoke private property and this next time, we will deliver paradise.

The last chorus sang “that’s not real communism.” For them, I present some of Marx’s and Engels’s less publicized writing: In the January 1849 edition of Marx’s journal “Neue Rheinische Zeitung,” Engels wrote, “Basques, Scottish Highlanders, Serbs are racial trash and will have to be destroyed.” Marx wrote in his “People’s Paper,” April 16, 1852, “The classes and races too weak to master the new conditions of life must give way. They must perish in the Revolutionary Holocaust.”

Mr. Green showed a picture of Bolshevik soldiers marching during the Russian Revolution and wondered how exciting it would have felt to be among them. By what standards does he go sentimental? If it’s brute force combined with a glorious vision of the future, he could easily include Germany’s National Socialists (i.e. Nazis) on his list of supposedly noble and only slightly misguided movements. They had a great vision too, for the living.

Contrary to what I learned in school, the National Socialists of Germany were not ideologically opposite from the Marxist-Leninist Socialists of the Soviet Union. Their great difference lay in the fact that one slaughtered millions according to race, and the other slaughtered millions according to “class” — the ambiguous, undefined term at the center of Marxism. They were two wings of the same cult of state power, determined to carve society into a better version of itself using bullets and bayonets. It deserves no sentimentalism.

Let’s hope the “state of the utopian impulse” remains battered.

Legalize Land Ownership

A Column appeared in the Kyiv Post a while back arguing the criminalization of selling agricultural land to non-Ukrainians should remain in place. My response was going to appear as an op-ed, but it seems they decided for this one instead, so I’ll post it here.

You can read the original column “Business Sense: Nation should not be in rush to lift moratorium on sale of farmland” by Michael Lee here. I also saved a copy here.

My reply:


I was disappointed to read Michael Lee’s column last month in support of the national moratorium on the sale of farmland. I am always saddened and amazed to see that even analysts who readily reject central economic planning quite happily centrally plan once they seize the reins of government or a journalistic platform.

We should remember that there is no law without punishment. Every law, statute, regulation is backed, ultimately, by force or threat of force. The use of force to restrict peaceful, voluntary activity, like the sale of land by an “owner,” should always be viewed with extreme suspicion. “Owner” bears quotation marks, because one doesn’t truly own something whose usage is severely restricted by the state.

Throughout history, restrictions on peaceful, voluntary activity have been justified in various ways. Mr. Lee echoes one of the most popular — security for the incompetent. Because he believes some land owners will squander the money they receive, any land owner who sells his property must be considered a criminal.

His column bears the same pretense of knowledge assumed by history’s many glorious central planners. He knows, for example, that the current practice of landlords receiving “their annual rental income in cash or in a combination of cash, seeds and straw” is superior to the lump-sum profit from a sale of land because of its reliability, and that land value as well as rents and the landlords’ income will increase as the global population increases. I’m not sure how he’d reconcile this argument with Ukraine’s crashing population (which I’m certain has nothing to do with the countless, arbitrary restrictions over the lives of Ukrainians) and even if it were true, it assumes all land owners will prefer more income tomorrow instead of less income today. What if an 85-year-old land owner wants to see the world for the first time in her life? Is she condemned instead to wait for tomorrow’s supposedly higher income?

The column presumes these rental increases (driven by a nonexistent population growth) may be the difference between a “village thriving or dying a slow death,” and that leasing land coupled with “some initiative from the state” will “lead to a wider renaissance in rural communities.” No doubt many will feel reassured to hear the great planners not limiting their genius to economics.

He presumes that land ownership and renting is “an efficient way to filter foreign investment directly to where it can have the greatest impact,” as if anybody knows where that is. He knows too that for companies forced to rent instead of buy, “not having to find huge amounts of capital to pay for land is advantageous. . . it can be put into equipment, inputs and infrastructures where it will have a greater impact on the return on investment.”

If the case for the superiority of renting, both from the perspective of owners and agri-businesses, is so obvious, one wonders why the selling of land even needs to be criminalized. Are we to believe businesses are so stupid they need to be forced into the most beneficial course of action?

The fact is, neither Mr. Lee, nor any technocrat, nor I know which specific business practices are best. The only way to discover it is to respect property rights and allow the capitalist process to work.

Those who consider Ukrainians not ready to manage the property they supposedly own are mistaking the poison for the cure. It is precisely because the capitalist process here has been so mutilated for so long, that there is less competence, innovation, and discipline than in more capitalistic countries. In Ukraine those who posses such virtues have had less opportunity to receive rewards or accumulate capital, and those who don’t, little reason to learn them as one’s success in this economy seems determined too much by obtaining the political connections necessary to navigate arbitrary restrictions like the ones Mr. Lee supports.

Yes, letting capitalism work means allowing people to fail. I would remind those who seek to compromise property rights in the name of security for the incompetent that throughout history and without exception all levels of society, rich and poor, have been better off when property rights were upheld, and restrictions of peaceful, voluntary activities were minimal.

Tell us what’s going on with our money

I was disappointed last week to discover that despite his co-sponsorship of the Audit the Fed amendment, Rep. Dave Loebsack voted against its inclusion in a package of financial reforms.

The Audit the Fed amendment had 320 co-sponsors and broad bi-partisan support. The fact that Loebsack and more than 100 other co-sponsors betrayed the amendment at its decisive moment reflects the power of the Federal Reserve.

The Fed is a semi-private bank that sets interest rates by an elaborate process that ultimately amounts to printing money and thereby diluting the value of the money in our wallets, bank accounts and mattresses.

(Read more from press-citizen.com)

Who will question our wars?

A couple weeks ago, I attended my first Republican district convention. I missed 2008’s, having been deployed to Afghanistan’s Kunar Province on my third combat tour with the Army.

I’d hoped to speak in favor of a friend’s amendment to the party platform, which would have tempered its implicit support for American militarism.

Neither Iraq, nor Afghanistan, are mentioned in the platform. Instead, there is support for “the proliferation of democratic principles around the world,” and praise for military technology and our troops. As is usually the case, the misguided motives of empire hide behind a fawning over its servants.

Sadly, the opportunity to speak was denied when two-thirds of delegates (exactly enough, we were told) voted to suspend the rules and adopt the existing platform without discussion. I suspect they were motivated by exhaustion rather than censorship. Hours of slogans about limited government, the philosophy of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution had taken their toll. So I make my point here:

(Original link at desmoinesregister.com seems broken, so click here)