Tuesday, August 31, 2010

How Rush Limbaugh Radicalized My Politics

Last week I took some time off to do a favor for my family. I took part of that time, as I usually do, to visit with my father and grandmother. I enjoyed it as always. Often I engage in long, drawn-out discussions with my father on political issues. He tends to talk much more than I do (believe it or not) but I still thoroughly enjoy the conversation.

One of the main themes in this particular pow-wow revolved around the "mosque at ground-zero." He started in on a somewhat lengthy dialogue about how absolutely atrocious it was that we were "letting these people get away with this." There had always been things I didn't see completely eye-to-eye with my father on, but I felt an abnormal amount of resistance to his opinions this time around. In fact, I felt such a strong reaction to it that I contributed absolutely nothing to this part of the conversation. Those who know me probably have a brow raised. Normally I'm quick to converse with people I disagree with. But with his opinion on this issue being so emotional for him, as was my opposition to it, I decided that it would be best for me (in light of the visit) to just leave it alone.

I didn't think much of it until he mentioned something to my grandmother in an offhand comment. He referenced a book I bought him several years ago (which she later read) by Mark Steyn entitled America Alone. In the book the author discusses the dangers inherent to an ever-growing Islamic demographic in the Western World. At the time, it seemed like a great refutation of the anti-American sentiment we seemed to all be buried in. And I remember enjoying the book a great deal. This gave me pause. How exactly did I get from that mental space to the one I enjoy now? I tried to trace my philosophical journey back to its source. And then it dawned on me, "Rush Limbaugh turned me into a radical anarchist!"

I grew up in a divorced household (households?). My mother and step-father were fairly liberal and religiously active (Catholic). My father was a Ronald Reagan conservative and religiously inactive (although carrying on the good fight against those dirty non-Christians). By the time I was old enough to have my preferred TV programming interrupted by my father's love for watching the news, I thoroughly hated politics. Hearing my dad groan and gripe about this and that was just enough to keep me from caring.

I started becoming politically aware in late high school. This proved to be an awkward time as I found myself politically conservative - and at the same time, in abandoning some of my previously held Christian beliefs, I also found myself clinging to more eastern (esoteric) religious philosophies. Yeah, that's right - I was one of the cool kids.

When I moved out and went to college (and subsequently away from my first-hand sources of political opinion - my parents) I began listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio from time to time. I was enamored with him at first. I thought he seemed like a pretty bright guy, and I kind of enjoyed the snarky way in which he made fun of liberals. This resulted in a pretty steady path on the political front for me, at least for a while. I was a conservative, and I couldn't stand all those hippy commies that seemed so ever-present in the landscape. But I found myself changing course drastically after being exposed to another radio host.

Whenever Rush was gone (for whatever reason) he'd often have different guest hosts, many of whom I also enjoyed listening to. On one of these occasions a particular host just seemed to be hitting grand slam after grand slam in arguments with the callers on the economic front. His conclusions might have been wrong (I didn't know anything about economics at the time) but there was a little depth to this well. I was intrigued. That host turned out to be one Jason Lewis - who has his own radio show in Minneapolis. Whadya' know, he even had his own podcast. I started listening to it fervently and soaking it all in. My favorite part of the program was listening to him get into arguments with his callers, incidents in which he was rarely operating at a handicap. I was so taken by his understanding of both law and economics that I started acquiring books from his preferred reading list. This is where my journey into the world of libertarianism began.

Two books from that list began a chain-reaction in my mind that would permanently alter my outlook on politics, economics, and ethics. The first was a book called Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. The second was a short piece entitled The Law by Frederich Bastiat. These two works proved to be the wedge that pried open my political curiosity in more ways than everything else had previously done. Then, those books led me to the Mises Institute, which then opened me to a plethora of Austrian scholars. I started reading DiLorenzo and Murphy, which prompted me tackle the big guns (namely Mises and Hayek). As I started to consume more and more, I noticed that my views were becoming less and less.....conservative. Or at least, less conservative in the modern political sense of the term. I was becoming something I didn't feel too comfortable revealing to other people. I was becoming a "Libertarian."

As I kept reading more and more, I found myself then slowly drifting from the Libertarian Party line (big "L" Libertarian) - which was fine because there wasn't enough time for me to be that attached to it in the first place. I made the fatal mistake of picking up For a New Liberty by Murray Rothbard. I can't begin to tell you about the amount of cognitive dissonance this book caused me. I could hardly get through a single chapter without dismissing the book and the author as being outrageous. This guy wasn't talking about less taxes and smaller government. He wasn't even trying to really make any arguments about what was better for the greater good - which was a hallmark of every serious political movement I'd been exposed to up until this point. He was talking about something different altogether. He was talking about the inconsistent ethical framework on which all governments are built. He was talking about pushing us in a direction of no government at all.

Had he lost his mind? He was describing anarchy! Indeed he was. And what's worse, as hard as I tried to dismiss his rhetoric, it made sense in a way that no other political philosophy ever had for me. How could having no government possibly make sense to me. It seemed so non-pragmatic (later that feeling faded). It seemed so non-sensical. What made it click so much with me in the end? It took a while, but I realized it came down to morality. For better or worse, I've been convinced that violence (and particularly violence that isn't merely in self-defense) is not virtuous - and for that matter, not even civil. That was something for animals. Communication, trade, peace...these were the means for rational compassionate entities. Whether you were the most devout Christian, or the most fervent Atheist humanitarian, it just made sense. You have no right to do things to other people without their consent. This was not only the most virtuous default position, but the most flexible. It allowed for anyone to adopt any beliefs they want, provided they do not push those beliefs on others. Nothing could be more passive. Nothing could be more neutral.

It's from that point of realization that all of the vestiges of my previous political stances unraveled. I was rebuilding all of it from the ground up. And it was probably the most humbling personal experience of my life. I'd been wrong. I'd been very wrong. And I was wrong in a way that favored violence and coercion upon innocent people. I never claimed (now or then) to be perfect or anything of the sort...but I've never felt more shameful for my transgressions than I did in those few weeks. Some of the things I'd said and/or supported still bother me...and I'm still trying to make up for it.

I never would have guessed, at the time, that many years later I'd be sitting in my grandmother's living room with my teeth clenched, listening with utter rage to a diatribe given by my father about the despicable nature of someone putting up a building in downtown New York. If you would have predicted that, I would have laughed in your face and walked away. Yet there I was, staring with the awkward discontent of a convert. And maybe I really wasn't angry with him or his position as much as I was angry that I would have shared it with him, gladly, at one point in the not-so-distant past. But maybe holding onto a crappy political ethos for a while is a good way to motivate a person to adopt a better one. After all, if it wasn't for me listening to Rush Limbaugh all that time, I probably would have never become a radical anarchist.

Monday, August 16, 2010

From the Mouths of Statists

I was reading through some commentary regarding "The 24 Types of Authoritarian" cartoon parody - located on the blog site of the person who created the original cartoon being parodied. A long, drawn-out argument between liberals and libertarians ensued. I could pull material from the comments for a long time to come. But this little piece of heaven made me smile:

There’s also public roads, the fire department, the police department, garbagemen, the Post Office, the DMV, public transportation, and public schools, all of which I can logically assume you have benefited from at some point or another. These things do not pay for themselves. By living here, you have a responsibility to contribute, just as you would in any living situation.

Here, let me try:

There's also hammers, shoes, soccer balls, umbrellas, tires, and floor tile, all of which I can logically assume you have benefited from at some point or another. These things do not pay for themselves. By living here, you have a responsibility to contribute...

Imagine how cringe-worthy and stupid that would sound to most people if I walked around saying that out loud. Reflect on that for a second...

Now you know how I feel whenever a statist presents an argument like the aforementioned one.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Quote of the Day

Over at C4SS, Gene de Nardo presents an interesting piece (which I largely disagree with) entitled "The Capital Conundrum." I'm sympathetic to many of the claims made by members of the libertarian-left regarding corporate welfare and protection. But when it comes to economics, their unbreakable latch with labor theory is just utterly enraging - they believe in it so thoroughly that they are willing to disregard the individualist/libertarian ethos they claim to hold so intimately.

For anyone willing to read through the commentary, my thoughts are largely in line with Stephan Kinsella and Less Antman.

But the quote of the day comes from this little gem of a comment provided by one "RanDomino":

I say, if a community takes something from someone, they probably had a good reason. If you don’t think it was fair, don’t have anything to do with them.

Crap like this is EXACTLY why I'm not a left-libertarian...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Water, Food, and Dirty Laundry

Hearing some bits and pieces about the on-going "net neutrality" debate, I thought I would offer a few thoughts. At it's end, the concern seems to be over various telecommunications companies gaining some kind of monopolistic stranglehold on the internet through tiered subscription arrangements and the manual blocking of certain kinds of websites or data. If that is their intention, then I believe their focus is misplaced. If proponents are really concerned about such a stranglehold arising, a focus on barriers to entry in the telecommunications market is a more apt solution; not government control and burdensome regulation on providers. Consider how the three following analogous situations present themselves in the marketplace, and consider the reaction of the common person:

WATER - Although a municipal venture, the public is not charged a flat rate for water. Like electricity, the provision for and distribution of water is scarce. Because of this, you pay per unit consumed. Data transmission is fundamentally no different. It costs money to transmit data. Bandwidth is limited. We can fundamentally understand why the price structure for most scarce goods reflects a (somewhat) linear relationship between price and quantity, yet when it comes to the transmission of data, people become enraged at the thought of paying more for consuming more.

FOOD - Product discrimination is more than apparent in the food industry. More often than not, when you go to a restaurant you will be limited to certain types of drinks, and therein certain brands. Some restaurants procure contracts with large franchises like Pepsi or Coca-Cola, and agree to offer only their products, and to exclude the competitor's products. Likewise, super-markets give visual shelving preference to their own brands and specific name brands. Yet, people do not generally demand that the government force such businesses to provide access to all brands of a given product in equity simply because they provide a product. Why? How does the market facilitate demand for a wider selection of products?

DIRTY LAUNDRY - Let's say I want to open a laundromat down the street. I set up my business in an identical fashion to many other laundromats with one distinct difference; I charge half price per load washed when my customers use Tide detergent (I've made a lucrative contract with Tide to do such). Should this be illegal? Why or why not? If the general populace does not like this arrangement, what are they likely to do?

These are all serious points and questions I have for the proponents of net neutrality. I would argue, strongly, that the extent to which markets can't resolve such issues is the exact extent to which that given industry enjoys some kind of privilege bequeathed to them by government directly or otherwise. If the government had its hands in the telecommunications industry to as little degree as it does in the industry of dirty linens, I think there would be little to nothing at all to worry about - which is why my primary concern is barriers to entry; particularly the barriers fostered or imposed by government. Unfortunately the telecommunications industry, as a largely municipal venture, is a far cry from separation when it comes to government influence and privilege.

What seems to be leading the charge on this issue is a general misunderstanding of arbitrage in a free market, peppered with a healthy dose of class warfare. Call me unimpressed. The general indictment includes sudden bouts of greed and selfishness, with no apparent tie to the reality of things. As with the financial crisis, we're led to believe that SUDDENLY certain market actors are overcome by greed and a general yearning for profit. The tragedy is that they are so right they don't even understand the implications of their conjecture.

The horrible (read sarcastically) truth is that almost all market actors are motivated by greed. To act like you're surprising someone by alerting them to that fact is to presume that someone is far dumber than they probably are - and maybe that presumption is too common. Telecommunications companies, just like banks, are out to make the largest profits they can. If they could charge you ten times what they are currently charging and make more money (after the loss of market share) they would. Don't delude yourself into thinking that there's some bulwark vestige of altruism in the boardroom that's keeping them from getting another penny out of you - there's not.

The dirty truth is that, without a true natural monopoly, businesses have a hard time keeping their prices above the average subjective evaluation of that good or service. The discrepancies between cost, price, and subjective evaluation creates arbitrage opportunities. Oil companies don't sell oil for $50 a gallon. It's not because they wouldn't like to. It's because they can't - economically, not legally. As long as that given company doesn't hold a natural monopoly on oil, another company can make a killing by offering oil to their customers for $49 a gallon...and so on and so on.

Some economic explanations are simple and some are not. Yet there are some basic truths that aren't hard to wrap your head around when you learn the basics. The reason you can buy a shirt for $5 isn't that the producer is altruistic. The reason that 98% of Americans live on wages exceeding that of minimal federal and state requirements isn't because those requirements exist. Likewise, the reason you can find an enormous variation in soft drinks when you visit your local supermarket is not because of some government mandate imposed by the disenfranchised denizens of fast food joints that give preference to certain brands or products. Granted, some of these conclusions aren't obvious. In fact, some of them are down-right counter-intuitive. But maybe we should give some of these issues more thought before we start publically calling out the hangman.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Food for Thought

Just something to ponder:

I've never really come across an argument against less government that couldn't be leveraged as an argument against larger government - unless that government was ruled by the proverbial "philosopher-king."

Do individuals become less corrupt, stupid, or evil when they act collectively?