Friday, February 25, 2011

Left-Anarchism: A Dog Chasing Its Own Tail

I've often been enamored of thinkers who would describe themselves as left-leaning libertarians. People like Roderick Long and Sheldon Richman have continuously offered great insight and nuance with the broadly libertarian community. That being said, if there's anything that repels any interest that I once held in this faction it's articles like this.

Social Anarchists, Free-Market Leftists, Liberaltarians, or whatever you'd like to call them are well-known within the larger libertarian community for the animus and contention they hold for their more right-leaning libertarian brethren - whom they've often dubbed "vulgar" libertarians. I've seen the term used in two distinctly different contexts. The first, and most often used, condition refers to a libertarian who leans in the direction of being critical of lower-class recipients of government entitlements but whom often disregard the artificial entitlements bestowed upon corporations and businesses in general. To be fair, I think they make a very good point. And few libertarians who don't already find themselves in the orbit of ethics a la Rothbard often defend entities that, if they were consistent, they shouldn't.

The other context the "vulgar" prefix is used in is regarding liberty-minded people who fall under the "thin-libertarian" category. These are people who, ideologically perhaps, value liberty as the overwhelmingly primary moral litmus test. "Thick-libertarians" find that the value of liberty is necessarily bound with other social values (compassion, equality, etc.). Left-libertarians are generally of the latter variety. Many of them support liberty only so far as it is the most effective path to realize these other values. So, a thin-libertarian may believe the minimum wage is wrong because it coerces employers and restricts their freedom of association. A thick-libertarian may believe the minimum wage is wrong because it ultimately unemploys people. Not all consequentialist libertarians consider their valuation of liberty to be thickly bound but it is a point worth debating.

What strikes me negatively about many left-leaning libertarians is that, because of their thickly bound values, they often put themselves in awkward and somewhat inconsistent positions. In the article above, it seems to me that the author, although recognizing that public monopolization of various services is wrong (note: even for the consequential reasons entailed by the multiple values they hold), twists himself into the odd knot of defending public unions. Why? Well, it seems, from the author's point of view, such a defense is warranted when there are more egregious acts taking place that benefit the likes of another interest group - the owners of capital (read: business).

Now, while I think it's worth debating which interest groups are the worst offenders of what we would commonly describe as freedom, it's not clear to me how one group, even if we somehow would prove them to be less offensive than another, should somehow be defended in light of that relative status. In fact, that kind of twisted logic seems to be the logical inverse of what their right-leaning opponents so often exhibit. Right-leaning libertarians, looking at net government transfer payments overwhelmingly leaning in the direction of the lower-class, often ignore some of the more complicated benefits and power bestowed on business and end up defending these companies from the onslaught of the left in general - pointing out how (in their mind) government clearly favors labor over capital. Left-leaning libertarians, conversely, seem to be overlooking the parasitic nature of the interest groups they are defending while drawing focus to corporate welfare instead.

And, again, to be fair, not all people in the left-libertarian camp are guilty of this. But it seems to me, by their own account of what logically constitutes a "vulgar" libertarian, many of them are simply just as guilty as the people they label. This isn't confined to the current national discussion regarding public sector unions and their fate: I've seen left-libertarians defending what they ought not, by their own ideological account, simply because their knee-jerk reaction, like those they bemoan, is to provide a relative defense for a particular interest group with whom they focus on or sympathize. It appears to me that all libertarians would find it silly to deflect the wrongness of someone being arrested for smoking marijuana simply because there are even more aggressive actions taking place. Why would libertarians (of either the left or right variety) want to start behaving as such issues like this then?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Teh Gays Are Stupid

I heard some banter on the radio this morning regarding some public service announcements circulating in the NY area with celebrities trying to call people out for using the term "gay" to refer to something they don't like - or something that is unacceptable. It looks like they are set up as little sketches with said celebrities calling the would-be-haters out on their horrible social gaff. The specific one I was treated to was one involving the comedian Wanda Sykes - berating a couple of customers for using "gay" to refer to something "stupid" or "dumb."

Now, my personal ethical view isn't particularly thick in regards to issues like this (refraining from offending others). I understand where people are coming from when they think it's unbecoming to speak a certain way or use certain terminology that might be offensive - and I have no problem with those people disassociating themselves from said parties. But I've always kind of felt that the crusade to socially punish or excommunicate people for the words they use is a little over-the-top (and not in the Sylvester Stallone trucking around the country while entering arm-wrestling competitions kind of way). Contrary to popular belief, I don't think pressuring people to speak one way or another pushes us further along in any way socially - in fact I think it makes people dishonest and vengeful, slowing progress if anything. If there's someone out there who is an unapologetic bigot, I want that person out in the open - I can choose to withhold my associations with that person much easier this way.

Regardless of how you feel about social pressuring with regard to language usage, the ad really struck me as ironic if nothing else. Why is using the term "gay" bad in this context? It's bad because it's a term that describes a human characteristic. And it's using that broad human characteristic to denote something "bad" or something contemptible. This usually rubs people in the West the wrong way even when it's a characteristic we choose - but it seems much worse to us when it's something that we're largely born with. This is why race and gender are excellent social fire-starters.

Did you catch where the makers of the commercial messed up?

They explicitly implored people to stop using the human (and possibly genetic) characteristic of "gay" to denote something that's "stupid" and/or "dumb." But "stupid" and "dumb" are not etymological synonyms for "bad." Their usage has had a similar trajectory - ascribing "bad" or "contemptible" properties to a human (and largely genetic) characteristic. "Stupid" is a term that has been used for centuries. It can mean stunned or astonished - but more often than not it's been used to describe mentally "slow" people - this includes people with all kinds of mental disabilities (particularly before we started pulling different disorders apart). "Dumb", before being lumped in with "stupid", "gay", and "retarded", meant someone who doesn't have the physical capability to speak - usually due to injury or genetics.

So what are us passersby supposed to gain from this little exercise? That it's not OK to use the language of personal characteristics like "gay" and "retarded" as negative connotation but for other language of personal characteristics like "stupid" and "dumb" it's perfectly alright? Don't get me wrong here; I think people can be wrong in simply mis-using words (in that way I can probably be the grammar-police sometimes) - but I'm a firm believer in language being fluid and changing. Sometimes words come to mean completely different things, even when easily traced back to roots that suggest its social mis-use (currently or previously). Language is a subject that's beyond my personal expertise, but it doesn't strike me as unconventional to realize that words mean, in large part, simply what people mean by them. If I start using the term "shoe" to mean "bad" and it catches on, culturally, it won't mean that people using the term "shoe" in 50 years to describe bad things have anything against shoes. It's possible that a word can be completely divorced from its etymology - in fact, an awful lot of English words and phrases have been and are currently.

So, my point isn't that people don't mis-use words, or that they don't sometimes use them for bigoted reasons. My point is short and sweet - but threefold:

  • Policing someone's language does not police their mind. You're not going to get rid of irrational hatred by keeping people from espousing it
  • The meaning of words can change over time; as such, terms can completely disconnect themselves from their original meaning in casual usage
  • If you want to berate someone for walking on thin ice, it's probably a good idea to make sure that you too are not on comparably weak ground

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Slip Knot of Tribalism

I've been bouncing around a libertarian democratic strategy in my head. I've kind of run the gamut on views regarding voting, from self-compromise to refusal to vote for the lesser of two evils; from believing voting is a duty to believing it to be almost a crime; from thinking it makes all the difference in the world to thinking it's virtually meaningless at the margin. But I'm brushing these unuseful devils aside for the moment.

The fact is that we live in something that resembles a democratic republic - and we are not likely to succeed without doing one of two things:

  • convincing the majority of Americans to withhold their political consent
  • convincing Americans to vote for someone to dismantle things from the inside

Unfortunately (or maybe even fortunately depending on how you look at it), these two conditions are almost mutually inclusive - it's hard to imagine one without the other. Or, at the point that you have one, of what use is the other? In either case, achieving one or both of these conditions would be the ultimate pragmatic goal for libertarians if they want to see their vision(s) come to fruition.

Given the libertarian track record for convincing the larger population of the main tenets of libertarianism - this would seem almost impossible. But I think I have good reason to believe that a single prominent politician (from either side) managing to get his foot in the door (in terms of public image) could be just enough to turn the demographic tide for libertarians. And, even more interestingly, it could be due to a human trait we've been known to loathe; tribalism.

My argument goes something like this:

As humans, we tend to break ourselves off into various factions - geographically, politically, economically, religiously, etc. Our least fractious divides (ie: standards by which we have the fewest over-arching divisions) are probably geography and politics. In these two areas we are fiercely tribal. But the number of large groups are few - and they represent the vast majority of Americans. There are few people who don't feel tied to this country in a national sense...this seems to transcend almost all other divisions to some degree. And on the political side, although we often disagree vociferously, we generally have found ourselves behind one of two groups - Republicans and Democrats. Igniting support for the libertarian cause in any of these groups would be the best bet to realize one of the two conditions for libertarian victory.

Ok - so far so good. But this is obvious; where does it get us? Well, we're often not fighting conventionally on these fronts because we see no hope of personally persuading so many people to "switch sides" so to speak. But I think we can bridge that impossible gap (just maybe) with the help of that tribalistic pull we lament so much.

A few years ago, I would have fancied myself a neo-conservative. I was defending one George W. Bush against a sea of detractors from the left. Right or wrong, I was burning rubber in that direction. The things that drove me were a sense that the people on the other side hated this country....and that my "team" was bent on saving it. We were heroes (haha - I know trust me!). So what turned a die-hard supporter of the Iraq War into an anarchist? It's simple. One Republican - Jason Lewis.

Jason Lewis is an FM talk-radio personality who occasionally fills in for one Rush Limbaugh - whom I used to listen to quite frequently in those days. Jason Lewis was of a different caliber though. He seemed well educated in the areas of history and economics. His logic seemed particularly unforgiving - utterly destroying dissenting callers and their arguments. Of course, looking back now, he doesn't seem to deserve the altar I'd placed him on. But some very compelling arguments from one of "my guys (Republicans)" inspired me to acquire the same knowledge that he had - so that, I too, could make such devastating arguments.

I proceeded to snag some books off his reading list; among which were Milton Friedman's FREE TO CHOOSE and Henry Hazlitt's ECONOMICS IN ONE LESSON. Those books, in turn, led me to the works of scholars of the Austrian school of economics - Hayek and Mises. That led me, in turn to Rothbard, and so on and so forth. When I try to think back to how I felt before all this happened - I couldn't have imagined sliding down the political slope so far as to eventually hold views almost antithetical to those I held at the time. The leftists, whom made similarly compelling arguments, didn't budge me at all. So what happened?

At the heart of it, everything boiled down to one guy who was on my "team" who pointed me in the general direction of liberty. Once pointed in that direction, there was no turning back. My tribalism (that is, my red vs. blue mentality) almost acted as a slip knot securing the path I would ultimately take regarding my political philosophy. It took one prominent man in my corner (or what I perceived to be my corner) to throw me a bone - and that was all she wrote.

In light of that revelation, maybe the efforts of people like Ron and Rand Paul aren't futile (or maybe similar people in the opposing party - I'm not currently aware of any). Maybe if one of them wrangled their way into the position of being "our guy" going up against "their guy" our tribalism would take hold. That's not the right reason to support anyone. But maybe support for the wrong reasons would lead us to support for the right reasons - as it did with me. Maybe the political cheer-leading would force people into positions where they would have come to understand and support the views of "our guy"...and that would be enough to spark the flame so to speak.

As to getting one of these people into such a position - that, I suppose, is the tough question. I'm not sure what the best way to affect such a role change would be. But judging from recent elections and the mood of different factions on the Right as of now, it seems further from impossible than it ever has before. Maybe some of the supposed front-runners will have such a rough time in this fractious political environment that someone who is more marginally supported would have a real chance. Ron Paul has certainly proven (with the CPAC straw-poll) that his views resonate with at least some people on the Right. If he could manage to make it to the fore-front, and Republicans found themselves defending him, is it possible that we might bear witness to a true paradigm shift?

It's a strategy worth considering - one that is much easier to implement as well.