Too Big To Fail: The First 5000 Years

by Daniel on February 25, 2012

One of the many fascinating pieces of information that David Graeber tosses off like shrapnel in Debt is that the first recorded appearance of the word “freedom” in a political document is in a Sumerian proclamation of a debt amnesty or jubilee.

What interested me, however, from the point of view of a professional banker, is that the document in question provided only for the discharge of personal debts of the Sumerians; commercial debts of merchants were not discharged. Clearly (and I suppose there is an interesting anthropological history to be written of the extent to which the appropriate level of cynicism about these things as changed from pre-Christian Mesopotamia to modern London), anyone who could have convinced the Babylonian legal system that his liabilities were all personal debts covered by the jubilee, while his assets were all mercantile trade credits, would have made out like a bandit. The point I am trying to make here is that as well as being the first mention of the word “freedom”, this proclamation marks the first recorded instance of a regulator-sanctioned selective default. Then a lot of things happened including the Fall of Rome and the Beatles, and then we had the FDIC’s decision in 2009 to transfer the assets and deposits of Washington Mutual to JP Morgan Chase over a weekend, leaving holding company creditors exposed to an extravagantly bankrupt shell. So from the start to the beginning of the story of debt, it has always mattered whether or not you were on the right side of what the relevant regulator wanted to accomplish.
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Occam’s Phaser?

by John Holbo on February 25, 2012

I’m rereading Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia because I got to thinking: what’s wrong with good old fashioned ‘force and fraud’ anyway? Isn’t the Night Watchman state just creeping Soft Tyranny, in Tocqueville’s sense? Plus it’s obviously a moral hazard and generally destructive to private virtue.

So Nozick seemed like relevant reading. Some unsystematic liveblogging:

First, Nozick is amusingly harsh, in passing, to fellow libertarians.

Since many of the people who take a similar position are narrow and rigid, and filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being, my now having natural responses which fit the theory puts me in some bad company.

The next time someone tells you that Corey Robin is paranoid, just explain to them that actually you are an orthodox Nozickian about these things.

Next, this classic bit:

One form of philosophical activity feels like pushing and shoving things to fit into some fixed perimeter of specified shape. All those things are lying out there, and they must be fit in. You push and shove the material into the rigid area getting it into the boundary on one side, and it bulges out on another. You run around and press in the protruding bulge, producing yet another in another place. So you push and shove and clip off corners from the things so they’ll fit and you press in until finally almost everything sits unstably more or less in there; what doesn’t gets heaved far away so that it won’t be noticed.

This is true!

Next, he spends a great deal of time answering my question. 150 pages. Why have even a minimal state that secures everyone against force and fraud? I know now that his answer is … really quite complicated and ultimately not altogether clear, despite the fact that Nozick is generally a clear writer. I’m not convinced Nozick really has any right, by his lights, to a full-fledged Night Watchman state. Something more minimal would be more respectful of the individual rights that we are, supposedly, respecting at all costs, seems to me.

But that’s more than I can put in a post, so let’s consider a different issue: [click to continue…]