Thieving monkeys and government corruption

Monkey with iPhoneOne of my friends posted a very cute video on Facebook. If you can’t get the video to work, what you would see if you watched it is some clever monkeys in a Japanese tourist area. Rather than stealing people’s food, they instead steal people’s glasses, hats, flip-flops, and even their smart phones.

This is not a sign of monkey brain-death, with the monkeys so fascinated by modern technology they no longer care about food. Quite the contrary. It’s a sign of advanced monkey intelligence. Stealing food is random, leaving them with whatever dribs, drabs, and dregs they can find.  Stealing things humans consider valuable gives them something to hold for ransom.  Thus, the monkeys will return the stolen items only if the owner offers them a sufficiently satisfying quality and quantity of food:

Now, some might think this is just cute and clever, or that it shows that monkeys understand supply and demand as well as the concept of bartering. People with these thoughts will be right, but they’ll also be missing the bigger picture. What Wolf Howling pointed out to me when he saw the video is that we are witnessing government (or the mafia) in action: The monkeys forcibly remove something of value from the people unfortunate enough to be in their jurisdiction, and then make people pay ransom to recover whatever it was the government took in the first place. This is not government of the people, by the people, and for the people; it’s corruption.

And while I’m on the topic of government corruption, I’d like to throw in a few words here about Daniel Hannan’s Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, which, peculiarly enough, has something to say about thieving monkeys.  Not in those precise words, of course, but his discussion about liberty and capitalism seems to apply to those clever primates.

I bought the book back in July, when I was fortunate enough to attend one of Hannan’s speaking engagements, but I’m embarrassed to say that the book languished on my “to read” stack until this week. Because Hannan is erudite, charming, and articulate, I knew the book would be worth the read, but I spent the last half of 2015 scrambling from one family demand to the next, and coddled myself in between with a steady, pathetic diet of my junk novels.

This year, is different: I am steadily resuming control over my life and over my reading, so I sat down to read Inventing Freedom and, so far, have found it a much more interesting and enjoyable read than any junk novel could have been. I was depriving myself of something really pleasurable by delaying so long before reading it. Anyway, the last six months are water under the bridge, and I want to talk about Hannan’s book, which I’m almost halfway through.

For those who don’t know about the book, Hannan discusses the unique set of historical circumstances that resulted in the Anglosphere’s concept of individual liberty, something that is a foreign to the rest of the world (which, even when it appropriates the language, never really understands the concepts).  In some ways, the stars had to align so exquisitely, the fact that we have this notion of individual liberty is as fortuitous as the development of life itself on earth. Just as some say life on earth could only come about thanks to intelligent design, it almost seems as if there was a master hand behind the Anglosphere’s liberty doctrine too: everything from perfectly-timed invasions and immigrations, fortunate deaths, usefully lost territory, and compliant protectors — it’s all there, coming together in an English society that seeded vast parts of the world (most notably America) with the idea that life, liberty, and property are not vested in a monarch or the state, but are the common and true property of all people.  The state’s proper role in the Anglosophere is to protect, not abuse those precious unalienable rights.

Yes, yes. You’re wondering what Daniel Hannan’s masterful, readable book has to do with the monkey video. The thing is that, the moment I saw the video, it reminded me of Hannan’s passage about the important nexus between capitalism and liberty, because the capitalist system is the system most likely to preserve individual liberty, in no small part by preventing corruption. My thoughts on this stem from Hannan’s discussion about the way in which Marx caused the entire Western world wrongly to view England’s medieval years as times during which peasants were part of a productive, pleasant peasant collective, completely tied to ancestral lands, something that changed only when the Industrial Revolution dehumanized them. In this pastoral view, they may have been downtrodden serfs owned by their liege lord, but they were still self-sustaining units revolving around a form of familial communism.

While this may have been in the rest of the world, the surprising fact is that it wasn’t true in England (although Marx, with his typical knack for getting things wrong, based this generality on his observations about English history). Even during the Middle Ages, England’s peasant class was a thriving, dynamic institution, without primogeniture.

Speaking of primogeniture (and I am digressing here, but it’s just so interesting), we all learned in college history class that the British aristocracy escaped a French Revolution because there was no primogeniture. In France, every aristocrat’s son was himself an aristocrat, with the result that the poor in 18th century France were groaning under the weight of a huge and useless aristocracy.

In England, thanks to primogeniture, only the oldest son joined the aristocracy and, if the estate was entailed, he got it all. Younger sons might still have had titles, but they were not among the privileged few, and many became ordinary citizens. Hannan suggests that this might explain Britain’s Industrial Revolution: because well-brought up young men were sinking in social status, and bringing their energy and education with them as they went down, they became the class that helped power capitalism.

I think coffee helped too. Before the advent of coffee, which came about in 1683, after the Ottoman’s were repulsed at Vienna, the only drinks that were safe from waterborne toxins were alcoholic. Unlike the ubiquitous wines, rums, and beers, coffee neither befuddled nor sedated the drinker. Indeed, it gave him energy. Moreover, the coffee houses became natural meeting places to discuss business deals. I may not be a coffee drinker myself, but I think it has a lot to do with the capitalist world I so appreciate. But back to Hannan’s book….

Anyway, Hannan notes something I’d known about, but never fully appreciated. Primogeniture doesn’t see property as something that must be divvied up.  It is, instead, something that, subject to entails, the living owner can control after his death.  In Europe, you cannot disinherit your children, no matter how rotten they are. The children’s interest in the property also means that they can have a legal say in how you manage your money when you’re alive, even if you earned every penny yourself. After all, one day it will be theirs.

In the Anglosphere, however, we own our own property and can do with it as we will, something that existed even in England’s medieval era — hence the pleasant peasants who weren’t actually parts of pastoral communist collectives). And that’s how I get to the following quotation about liberty, capitalism, and corrupt government, all of which reminded me of thieving monkeys:

The Anglosphere conception of liberty has had its critics, domestic and foreign, down the centuries. Yes, capitalism might make people wealthier, said these detractors, but was there not a price pay? Did people not lose an element of their humanity? Did they not become more selfish, more atomized, more calculating?

No. There is nothing selfish about capitalism. Like every economic model, it is a matrix within which individual actors can behave morally or immorally. But it does have one exceptional virtue: no one has yet come up with a system that rewards decent behavior to the same extent.

In an open market based on property rights and free contract, you become wealthy by offering an honest service to others. I am typing these words on a machine developed by the late Steve Jobs. He gained from the exchange (adding fractionally to his net wealth) and so did I (adding to my convenience).

Under the various forms of corporatism tried elsewhere, someone else — generally a state official — gets to allocate the goodies, guaranteeing favoritism and corruption. (p. 142.)

Hannan offers further encomiums to capitalism. You really should read his book.

But you can see why I thought of Hannan’s book when I saw the monkeys in action.  Those monkeys may be bartering, but they are not engaging in a capitalist transaction in which each side walks away the winner.  Instead, like government (whether the pure statism of communism or the fascism of crony capitalism), the monkeys have un-leveled the playing field.  Once they appropriated people’s goods, the people had already lost, even when they were able to buy back their possessions.

As I always say, the state, which creates no wealth, and should exist only to protect individual liberty and encourage capitalism without favoring any players (good roads, policing fraud, waging defensive wars, etc.). Too often, though, even in the once liberty-oriented Anglosphere, the state appropriates goods and either passes them on to favorites, who then sell them back to us, or sells them back to us directly.  The state (meaning state employees) and the cronies always win, and the public always loses.  Thieving monkeys; hapless tourists.