Monday, December 17, 2012

Pick a Number; Any Number

With all the ink that has been spilt on this particular subject in the last three days, it's hard to imagine I'd have anything non-superfluous to contribute to the conversation. And my general disposition to shy away from all things reactionary has led me to be pretty silent on issues surrounding Friday's events - particularly on more sociable public outlets. But I feel like I should at least try to put something together, maybe for my own personal edification. There's quite a bit of disconnect out there. That much is evident from the reactions I've been seeing. And maybe that's par for the course. We need to be compassionate and understanding of the various reactions we're witnessing. But we need to also not let our emotions excessively plague our reason. There are some reactions which really are tasteless, inappropriate, or more importantly just thoughtless. They should not be left unabated.

Most of the reactions seem to be centered around gun-control. This kind of talk spikes every time such an incident occurs. But people seem to be particularly vociferous this time around. Things are publicly mounting in the direction of some kind of new federal legislation.

One of the things I find most disturbing about a lot of what I read from gun-control advocates (and maybe I get this from my father), is that a lot of them are fairly clueless about both firearms and the Second Amendment. Regarding the latter, you see an inordinate amount of people ask why you would need firearms such as X or Y in order to be able to hunt. And, not only that, but they also misconstrue this to be the argument of most firearm advocates - that they are simply vested in reserving the right to hunt or shoot for sport. Now, it's true enough that there are plenty of gun-owners for which this is the extent of their interest. But I'd hesitate to say that particular group is in the majority among them. And, in either case, sport has little or nothing at all to do with the Second Amendment.

Regarding the former, it's clear that a good amount of people don't understand the basic functioning of firearms either. People will gravitate towards the most cosmetic features of particular weapons (black plastic, rails, bayonet slugs, pistol-grips, etc.) and assume these distinctions make a particular difference regarding the deadliness of the weapon. Meanwhile most hunting rifles are functionally indistinguishable. And yet calls to bad guns with particular cosmetic features persist.

Many of these same people will point to magazine capacity as a point of contention - that there's no need for 30-round magazines for self-defense. Of course, this is a claim that is completely dependent on context. But, even if we granted the argument, I would ask what difference they think it would make going from, say, 30-round magazines to a maximum of 10 or 15. If most magazines were fixed, you could almost understand their belief in magazine-capacity as a limiting factor. But most magazines are not fixed. They are detachable. And quickly so. Going from 30 to 15-round capacity simply means that if I want to shoot 30 rounds, I'm going to use two 15-round magazines. Otherwise, functionally, there is little difference that I can see. Swapping a magazine, for any layman, can be done easily in under two seconds. THAT is the difference between a 30-round magazine and a 15-round magazine...a less-than-two-second window after the first fifteen shots. This isn't really prohibitive for the shooter, particularly if there are no armed civilians nearby. There is not some linear correlation between a weapon's killing capacity and it's magazine capacity. The capacity of the standard-issue magazine for the M-16 (an ACTUAL "assault rifle") is NOT one hundred rounds. I assure you, they are nonetheless deadlier.

This leads into another point of contention - this one surrounding terminology. In a lot of arguments, I think deferring to semantics can be a deflection. But, when it comes to this issue, I think the semantic errors really do serve to reinforce certain opinions about gun-control. One term that keeps being repeatedly brought up is "assault rifle." Based on the information I've seen so far, no assault rifles had been used to carry out this crime. And yet the terminology persists. When I hear the echo of, "There's no reason people should be able to own assault rifles!", I want to reply with, "Most Americans think that's a reasonable opinion and they overwhelmingly agree with you...which is why they've been banned for about eighty years now."

"Assault rifle" is a specific term reserved for weapons with a specific functional capability - namely the ability to easily switch between semi-automatic and full-automatic. "Assault rifle" does not mean "any weapon that looks menacing" or "any rifle that looks like an assault rifle." What people are wanting to refer to here is a newer, political, classification of weapons that are aesthetically "assault-rifle-like"...dubbed "assault weapon(s)". Of course, even linguistically, the term is a little silly given that the purpose of weapons, in general, is to "assault". I'm not aware of "non-assault" weapons. Anyways, the point here is that there is confusion over the functional capability of legal firearms under this second category, and incorrectly referencing them using the same terminology as a whole other caste of weapons does not improve our understanding of the situation or make clear what the proper response should be.

This leads into the more general point I want to make about the practical (short-term) problem I see. The solutions I've seen thrown up (that center around gun-control) don't make a lot of sense to me - even if I had no objection to restricting access to firearms on any level. There's nothing about more intense screenings and background checks, limiting magazine capacity, or banning particular aesthetics that would have seemed to make any difference at all in this case. And while I think a lot of people who support these kinds of things mean well, ultimately, I can't help but pour a little bit of derision over the mindset that would allow someone to think that effectively limiting us to "hunting rifles" would really curb incidents like this in any meaningful way. It's as if they believe that the firepower that could take down a buck works by some mystical properties that humans are immune to. I'm not a firearm expert, but I don't find this to be the case. You're not going to be able to de-couple the two without specific reference to function. And, at that point, we're talking about some fairly significant limitations that would need to be imposed (a ban on all non-fixed magazines, outlawing a surplus of more than 3-4 rounds per person, banning semi-automatic weapons altogether, etc.). Short of that, a lot of the suggestions wouldn't effectually amount to much.

Outside of all the specifics about various arguments being made, there's something that's been bothering me in a more general way. In the wake of this senseless act of violence, we feel compelled to demand a "solution." What a solution would be, in its make-up, is something of contention. But what it would mean seems largely agreed on - a cessation of this kind of violence. However, I'm not sure what we mean by "solution" is really as cut-and-dry as it seems. And I'm less certain that it's reasonably attainable. Let me break that down a little bit.

Almost everything we do has some cost associated with it. We balance our needs and wants against the costs and proceed with what seems most acceptable. Sometimes this is done intentionally at the individual level, intentionally at the collective level, or even unintentionally at the collective level through individual actions. But, regardless of their nature, there are trade offs we make for these choices. So, let's detach this from the issue of guns for a moment and ask ourselves, "On the spectrum of mortality, is there an acceptable number of innocent deaths in the cost of ANY of our freedoms?" And, please, don't give a knee-jerk reaction here. Really think about this. Take any of the freedoms we enjoy on a daily basis (explicit or otherwise) - If you knew that, statistically, having such freedoms would likely directly escalate the chance of death for innocent people, what would be the magic number that would be acceptable to you?

Is there such a number? I'm not sure there is. If there is one, we might guess that it would be attached directly to the importance of the thing we're paying the cost for though, right? How important is your right to self-defense? Would you rank that as being pretty important? I would. I think most other people would as well. So, how many deaths are "acceptable" within the confines of us retaining that right? Twenty? Twenty-thousand? Is the right to have a car and to drive to and from work more fundamental than the right to defend yourself? Most would say no, I'd assume. So, what is the magic number of deaths within the acceptable limit with regards to us having the right to drive cars? Do you know what that number is? I don't know what it is. But I do know it's more than 30,000 in the United States - because that's how many deaths we suffer from auto-accidents annually, and almost no one thinks we should ban cars.

Our want for the mere convenience (not need) of cars is so great that we're completely OK with having 30,000 human beings kick the bucket because of it every single year. The ratio of vehicular-deaths to gun-deaths in the United States is roughly 3:1. So why the clamor over firearms as opposed to trucks? Here's another sobering thought; if an event just like Friday's massacre happened twice a week for an entire year it still wouldn't come close to the death toll for the largest mass-murder in U.S. history - and that crime was carried out with box cutters. Do we need box cutters? No. Is there some other way we could use shipping boxes without having to use a device capable of cutting a person open? Probably. So why are we OK with it? Why is there no need for a box-cutter lobby?

The only thing I can surmise is that the people in the gun-control crowd see absolutely no use whatsoever in having a firearm. Or, at the very least, they see less usefulness in owning a firearm than owning a box cutter. If that really is the case, that's a hard one for me to chew. At the end of the day, the securing of any and all rights (no matter the conception) is dependent upon an agent's ability to compel others to obey said obligations. In that way, a meaningful right to self-defense is the presupposition of all other rights. It's arguably a constitutive component of the whole concept of rights to begin with. Now, the contours of those rights and their defense is always going to be a source of contention, I'm sure. But that a reasonably compelling (read: lethal) method for securing our individual rights be more important (even if less exercised) than our supposed "right" to box cutters, greasy hamburgers, and Toyota Camry's doesn't seem completely crazy to me. And yet, here we are.

In any case, I'm not trying to circle back around to make this a conversation about rights per se. But, rather, my point was simply to illustrate that there aren't many aspects of our lives that we couldn't make safer (in many cases, much, much safer) if we're willing to bear such opportunity costs. Milton Friedman, in a fairly famous exchange with a college student, brought up this very same idea - in a different context - which seemed to be met with bewilderment. We get a chance to act like purists when something that is bad and of prominence occurs. But it's rarely a question of whether one thing or another is acceptable or unacceptable - it's a question of where we put the goalposts. As Friedman pointed out, certainly Ford could have included the parts in question to make the vehicle safer. But you could continue the same logical argument indefinitely. They could have also added more insulating materials, airbags, driver's caging, and on and on and on creating a safer and more expensive vehicle with each pass until you've turned it into a tank no one could/would use. Each level of that would have a specific amount of risk associated with its hypothetical use. So what magical number of deaths are "OK"?

At the end of the day, I fear the drastic moves that might be made in terms of gun control because I think it belies any rational sense of equality and power enjoined upon the greatest minority - the individual. But I also fear the lesser (half-hearted) measures because I think some may unintentionally lead to worse results. I can't escape a conversation in the public sphere about this without being reminded that my current view is the craziest one - that there may simply be not much we can or should do about this politically. And, yet, that's how I feel. The "we gotta do something(!)" crowd is screaming pretty loud, and they seem content to throw about anything on the fire without checking to see if it's combustible first. So you'll have to pardon my lack of enthusiasm on this one. It looks like if you're not willing to push more God, guns, or government onto other people you've already lost your seat at this particular table.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Towards a Disparate View of Anarchy

There's been a couple of thoughts floating around in my mind for a little while that have sort of coalesced recently. I haven't really fleshed it out completely yet, and I'm not even sure the distinction I'm trying to make is meaningful in the philosophical sense - it may be just a matter of semantics at its base. But I thought I would share my thoughts about it here, if for no other reason than personal record.

When we get into politically theoretical arguments with people it generally revolves around the merits of one political system or another. People talk about democracy, dictatorship, anarchy, etc., and they compare and contrast the (likely) outcomes of their implementations. But I've always had a hard time thinking of anarchy as a "political system" (like the others). And, to be clear, I'm speaking of anarchy in the libertarian context here. While critics of such flavors of anarchism are quick to remind libertarians that it is just as coercive or forcefully structured as any of these other systems, there's something about this I just don't quite buy. And I think it has less to do with their points about libertarian idiosyncrasies than what I believe may just be a categorical mistake.

Let me start by pointing out a common issue among/between radical libertarians. We have a hard time labeling ourselves. Some prefer mutualism, others voluntaryism, and still others anarcho-capitalism or even just plain old anarchism. I think the reasoning behind the use can actually tell you a bit about the reason that person supports anarchism, or even what they believe the result of anarchism to be; the primary conclusions are still fairly similar. But each group often has a subset of people which are vehemently against people using the other labels for various reasons. Within the last couple of years, it's been the terms "anarcho-capitalism" and "anarchism" that have fallen more into disrepute than the rest. The largest driving factor here seems to be the confusion that it might spring on a public less knowledgeable about actual anarchism and more knowledgeable about its caricature in popular culture. But this isn't the only reason.

Others believe the term to be contradictory, or at least they believe that the word can't properly describe what a radical libertarian actually believes. This is tied into the (fairly nuanced) claim by libertarianism's critics that libertarians believe in things like rules and force just as much as supporters of other political theories. So a system of an(no)-archi(rules/structure)sm could seem conflicting. However, several very bright and thoughtful "anarchist" libertarians have used the term and been fully aware of the implications of the verbiage and the political theory itself - so what gives? Well, I think anarchism is also often defined as "no rulers", which is actually a very important disctinction from the previous reading...especially for libertarians. Having no rulers may simply mean something closer to what Roderick Long calls "equality of authority", meaning that no individual or group can obtain more or less rights than other individuals. Now this is a much more intelligible interpretation for libertarians, and one that libertarian "anarchists" could/would probably stand by.

Now, what constitutes our "rights" is a matter for a much longer and in-depth discussion to be sure. For libertarians, those rights are positively grounded in the framework of property, and more specifically self-ownership. But the rights themselves are negative, our conception of property merely defines its contours. And a strong conception of equality in authority can, at least hypothetically, get you to that positive conception of property, deductively (a la Rothbard). So, or at least as it goes in some libertarian circles, if we can make a strong argument for the equality of man when it comes to rights, we can get to libertarianism as a normative political theory. This kind of "political authority" is, in turn, what actually defines libertarianism, negatively, in the abstract. And this is the crux of my musings.

When we talk about various "political systems", we're typically talking about bundles of political and/or meta-political prescriptions. Libertarianism, and more to the point the radical kind I'm talking about here, is thought about in the same way. But I think that's misleading. In the abstract, libertarian anarchism is an ideal - in its purest form it is a world without political aggression. So it's political prescriptions, to the extent that they have any, are relative, and marginal. So while they may act in symphony with other political factions on any given action or prescription, it will generally be only to the extent that such actions lessen political aggression.

So, let's suppose that a bill is being proposed that would effectively lower taxes on the lower middle-class by 10%. Radical libertarians may overwhelmingly support it. So may Democrats. But the structure and reasoning behind that support may be (and probably is) very different. Libertarians would support such a move because, generally, it should result in less political coercion on net, pushing things further towards the ideal. Democrats may support it because they believe it would "help" the poor; that it would more fully approximate their conception of social justice perhaps. And, in that way, it could and would be argued that Democrats too are pushing toward their own ideal conception(s). The important political distinction here, though, is that the Democrats actually believe in the efficacy of the underlying political structure that would enforce such a prescription, the underlying subjugation of one man's "authority" to another's. And it's in this way that I believe an-archism is a-political.

It's somewhat reminiscent of the dichotomy between theism and atheism. It is likewise posited by (angry) theists that a-theism is also a religion, while atheists insist that they simply have a lack of belief of the religious sort. But it would seem that this is more of a quibble about the proper conception of religion. It follows from a common understanding of "religion" that a-theists hold a negative claim. In the same way, it follows from a common understanding of "property" that an-archists also hold a negative claim. I don't want to call "anarchy" a political system for the same reasons I don't want to call "atheism" a religion. As has been pointed out, there are arguments to the contrary, but I find them generally unpersuasive, and possibly even irrelevant in most contexts. Atheism is not a religious view, it's a lack of one. Anarchism is not a political view, it's a lack of one. I don't believe that one man can, even by explicit conferrence, diminish the rights of others nor inflate his own. And when I say I'm an anarchist, this is precisely what I mean.

Again, I haven't completely fleshed all this out. I still find arguments to the contrary compelling enough to give them a good hearing. But this is where I sit at the moment. The reason that I think this distinction is important, if there is a meaningful distinction at all, is that I think it may garner an incorrect approach for libertarians trying to make the best of their arguments. I think when we simply offer libertarianism as a competing political system, and more specifically one of the type that can simply be voted into mandate, I think we diminish its message and cause confusion. Engaging facets of our current political system is surely important. Some of our most significant gains (and losses) have obviously been on this front. But, I think, it's also important to remember that the political means we embrace are purely instrumental.

Too often libertarian anarchists step back and present this gigantic institutional worldview as if we would somehow politically implement such a system from the top down. But this project isn't a game of musical chairs. It's not an "all-or-nothing" endeavor. Effective change, of a radically libertarian sort, will not come about purely because of popular political imposition from inside the current system. It will likely only come to fruition through popular dissent and the building of competing institutions outside of the current political sphere.

And, perhaps more importantly, I don't think it makes sense for us to talk about "anarchism" as a system that can be implemented in any real sense. As we elaborated above, anarchism is negatively defined. It's an ideal. In that sense, true anarchism can never be achieved until there is a true cessation of force and coercion. So I don't imagine it to be some kind of switch that will be thrown if the monopolistic Leviathan of State should ever fall apart for one reason or another. The deviations are numerous, both public and private; our whole project is about a constant push to rectify these usurpations of personal authority no matter how they're institutionalized. This means that our vision should not be so myopic as to look at our goal as some singular and finite overthrowing of the State, but rather our scope should be much broader - the development of various strategies to keep all institutions in check and to ensure, as best as is possible, the political autonomy of all individuals.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Five Stages of Radical Libertarianism

After you've been knee-deep in various parts of the libertarian movement for a few years you start to notice that there are some very common experiences within our ranks. Very few people, that I'm aware of, come from a place of libertarianism as a start-point (adopted views from parents, etc.). Most of us were one thing or another at some point and then eventually found our way here. Some of us stop at the front door, while others venture much deeper into the ideas. Among the latter, in particular, I find the deliberative journey to be a long and arduous one. Of course, this varies from person to person, but the process of personal reformation seems to be a drawn-out one for most. And, more interestingly, it even seems to have a common order of stages:


This is the starting point. The most likely candidates seem to be conservatives of one stripe or another - those with a keep interest in Constitutional matters especially. But I've also seen quite a few liberals who have ended up making the turn as well. In either case, candidates seems to show a moderate to considerable amount of concern for political issues. They are often tapped into one or more political media outlets, and you will find them relaying at least relatively cogent arguments for their positions - usually at Thanksgiving dinner.


This is the spark. I think it's this point where there is the widest variance among neo-libertarians (I'm using this term loosely). What almost always happens is that there is one speech, or book, or movie, or whatever that jolts this person in some manner. Sometimes it revolves around explicitly political issues, other times it's social, cultural, or economic. For myself it was economic - reading Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson. Whatever it happens to be, it gives the person a new perspective on some aspect of the human experience that they hadn't given thought to before, or had never quite been able to articulate. Related reading, listening, or viewing ensues.


This is the recalculation. The person in question scours through the related material and begins to form new views. Sometimes it occurs marginally and the reformation works from the fringes inward. Other times there a slate-wiping moment where many of their previously held beliefs are questioned to the point of total re-evaluation. In both cases, an overhaul of personal beliefs is taking place. Shifting of views in this phase is almost constant; on a seemingly day-to-day basis. Eventually a new core of belief emerges, and gives the next stage flight.


This is anger. It should be noted that there is often a pretty large overlap between this stage and the last one. It starts to creep in before the newer views ever feel cemented for the person. I think there can be several reasons for this stage, but the one that makes the most sense to me is that this is a stage of retro-active denial of sorts. The person begins to strongly criticize others for not seeing the inconsistency of their political views. And, in that way, I think a temporal mirror is being held up. I think that some of the anger is, unconsciously, the result of frustration not just felt towards others, but towards one's self; for treading so long without seeing the "obvious." It's a dangerous phase of that journey. It can seem dark and self-destructive. One can easily lose the favor and friends and family, and unintentionally brand themselves as a skald. Some people never leave this phase.


This is acceptance. It's not a reversal of beliefs, but rather an understanding of the political reality one is confronted with. The person begins to break from the habit of hostile verbal engagements. Their argumentation becomes more reserved and Socratic. They become more calm and concise with their points, if not more devastating  Oddly enough, many people who reach this stage actually become personal pacifists (although almost all still believe in a right to self-defense). I think that this is the group that tends to excel at philosophical argumentation for libertarianism, even though they arguably represent a significantly small number of self-described libertarians...even of the "radical" variety. They've transitioned from rabid prosthelytization to political trailblazing and torch-bearing.

I'm sure you could make even more explicit stage-divisions here. But I think these would be generally familiar to anyone who's ever wandered their way through that transition. If you find yourself between stages one and four, strap in and hope for the best. Stage five is much smoother sailing.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Free-Market Anarchism is a Prescription; Not a Solution

It's been long-said that giving time and consideration to opposing ideologies is a good sign that your mind hasn't managed to seal itself shut. But the more I read Gene's blog, the more I think that maybe I'm just subconsciously punishing myself for past discretions. Yesterday he briefly illustrated how/why anarchism does not solve the problem of "coercion." Or, at least, that was his aim.

There are a couple of responses here, so I'll pull it apart in layers.

The first issue is a semantic one. Libertarians use terms like "coercion", "aggression", and sometimes even "violence" in a somewhat idiosyncratic way (although I'd advise most libertarians to stay clear of using the latter). They often use such terms to explicitly refer to violations of property rights. Now, whether you believe this to be a "proper" usage of such terms or not is another argument - the fact is that such words are used by libertarians in this manner to mean something specific, and Gene knows this.

So my first problem with his post is the way the reference-point of that term, "coercion", changes (or is ambiguous) at different points in his post. For instance, it would seem that in the title he is rebutting a claim - hypothetically the claim by (libertarian?) anarchists that anarchism will remove/solve the "coercion" problem. But, of course, that implicit claim contains a specific meaning or case of the term "coercion." He rounds out his rebuttal with the claim that of the two characters within his hypothetical, one of them is going to "believe he was coerced" no matter what the outcome and that "it takes two to tango". Well now it seems like we're using a meaning of the term that is a half-step between the libertarian usage (in the implied claim) and the more general meaning - something closer to just plain violence or force.

Well, of course if you have two people with opposing views of justice on any particular matter one of them is likely to be forced to meet the other's obligations in some manner. Enforcing obligations is not what anarcho-libertarians are talking about when they reference coercion. After all, their whole political philosophy is about enforceable obligations. So if that is the sense in which he means to invoke "coercion" towards the end of his hypothetical, then he's misinterpreting the claim he's trying to rebut  If he's invoking it in the proper sense then his claim is nonsensical, as what either of them happen to believe about whether he was or wasn't coerced has no bearing on whether he actually was.

The more interesting point that I believe he was trying to make here though is that people (even libertarian anarchists) have a wide variety of "beliefs" about the normative conception of justice. So, in essence  someone is always going to feel like or claim that they are being aggressed against. Now, that claim, if it's the thrust of his commentary, is true as far as it goes. But I'm not exactly sure what it's meant to prove.

There are plenty of snarky, self-righteous libertarians who, perhaps on occasion  offer over-extended claims about the panacea of market-anarchism. I'll certainly grant you that much. But I don't know any serious supporters of such a system who believe that it would magically conform perfectly to their conception of justice if it ever somehow became a reality.

To make my following point really hit home here with the non-anarchist types (is "Hobbesians" a pejorative term?), let's move that hypothetical world back a few pegs away from anarchist ideals. Under free-market anarchy you could absolutely still maintain a lattice of institutions which effectively prohibits drug-use. It could be even worse than prohibitions under the current system. There's nothing about anarchism that tells you that this would be an impossibility.

However, what anarchists will tell you (particularly the free-market variety) is that there are particular market mechanisms that would, again hypothetically, make it much more difficult to push various costs and externalities of such political institutions onto third parties. So, unless you have a very large number of people who are dead-set on finding and locking up drug-users...and they are willing to financially bear that's not likely to become a dominant policy. It doesn't mean it's impossible. It simply means that the cost mechanisms for such "laws" will be more accurate and that therefore the scope or existence of the most pervasive, ineffective, and far-reaching laws we currently have would be drastically limited.

Now, there are plenty discussions that could be had over the efficacy of such arguments. But that is generally the (consequentialist) thrust of the radical libertarian lean towards anarchism - that the economics of such a system are such that it provides the best incentives to make institutions reflect the most libertarian policies possible. They could be wrong. But that is the claim. It's important to separate the prescriptive claim from the normative one. And, too often, anarcho-libertarians are bad about doing just that. If you happen to meet such a libertarian who really believes that an ideal political structure will somehow result in a perfect societal cohesion or will resolve all disputes or end all oppression then you are just arguing with a fool.

The current "tried and true" political system that we live under doesn't offer such protections (outside of the lofty promises of its politicians) either. That alone doesn't make it less ideally libertarian, and I wouldn't make a monolithic argument against it on such a basis. The political argument on the systemic (not philosophical) level is a relative one. As a libertarian, which system will be most likely to garner a more libertarian outcome? For some of us the answer is "anarchy". And the knowledge that people might disagree on any number of political issues or that arguments about the proper conception(s) of justice will continue to ensue; neither revelation will tautologically point such libertarians back in the direction of Leviathan. And there's no reason, based on the arguments as provided, that they should.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

On Pluralism

Daniel has an interesting if not loose observation on the lack of diversity in libertarian circles. He seems to believe that a lack of diversity might reflect a greater issue within the movement or its politics - that if we look around and see that the only people who agree with us are a lot like us, that maybe there's a problem. I don't think he's wrong in his general observation. I actually think it's an interesting point. And I'm certainly not sure I have the answers to all the "why's" that come out of that observation. But I'd like to offer an equally loose observation of my own.

I think the assessment that the greater tradition of liberal politics is pluralist politics is essentially correct. But I think that the libertarian focus on politics is narrower than it seems. Libertarianism, in part, is a metapolitical critique of political means. It's, firstly and foremost, a discussion of the boundaries of the political process. To the extent that there are prevalent libertarian policy prescriptions, they are defined by the boundaries of the political system they seek.
In that way, they actually seek an even broader and deeper sense of political pluralism...a pluralism unbounded by the shackles of politically democratic institutions.

With that clarification, what does all this have to do with the question of libertarian demographics? Well, as I pointed out, libertarians seem to be more focused on political means. They are "system-builders" (or at least theoreticians). The more mainline political movements seem to be more about deciding what political products the current system produces than rearranging the political system itself. So I'd like to make what I believe to be an analogous observation. If you look at the demographic of computer users, I believe you'd see a group that's fairly pluralistic in any given sense of the term. Sure, you have PC and Mac users, and they fight with each other about various features of operating systems and so on. But, generally speaking, it's a pretty diverse group of people.

Now, given that there seem to be an awful lot of different types of people using and interested in computers and computer products, you might expect that a typical Computer Engineering class would be a practical bastion of pluralism. But, and I can say this as Computer Engineering was my major, you'd be wrong - dead wrong. In fact, strangely enough, you'd find an awful lot of people that are, well, a lot like me - white, out of shape, nerdy, introverted guys. Why is that?

Well, more generally, that field tends to attract people who are interested in math, science, pulling things apart, and putting them back together. It attracts "architects"...system-builders...sticklers for logic and its implications. Alright, but why do people like that seem to be white, out of shape, nerdy, introverted guys? Your guess is probably as good as mine. The more important question, whose answer seems implicitly assumed by Daniel, is if a lack of pluralism (particularly in non-ideological, genetic factors) among a group is a sign that they are somehow wayward.

It's easy to say "yes" given an open-ended want or plea for diversity. And you can probably double down on the ease with which "yes" can be said if it's politically expedient to make the claim. Surely diversity is a good thing. But I'm inclined to say that it's more difficult to say that a lack of diversity indicates a bad thing. I'd love to see a more diverse group of people interested in building computers - even if their ideas seem unconventional or silly. But I don't think the homogeneity of the field is an indicator that there is something wrong with the science, or the people who work within it either. And I'd go further in venturing to say that it doesn't tell you much of a damn thing about their sense of pluralism or its importance.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Small Victory

It's always nice to revel in the cognitively dissonant buzz that surrounds the post-election rants and ravings. Between the Democrats calling their opposition crybabies and sore losers for wanting recounts and the Republicans ranting about possibly rigged elections, the hypocrisy is almost too rich. I've never in my life been more confident of the utter interchangeability of these two parties. It really is a red-team/blue-team world.

However, I was particularly calm during this election. Or at least I was much more cool and collected than most of my family and friends - who pretend to be politically engaged for the two days leading into the election but then seem to fall into a deep apathetic slumber for the next four years. In any case, I wasn't phased at all. For me, America was going to lose regardless of who was chosen. And there is an odd amount of comfort in the settled nature of that.

On the other hand, I was ecstatic for what I consider to be wonderful, even if seemingly small, victories that libertarians had last night - both directly and indirectly. For starters, over one million people voted for Gary Johnson. And while that seems statistically insignificant, this does not count the myriad of other write-in protest votes that other libertarians pushed forward, or the slew of libertarians who abstained from voting in protest. They could very well have swayed the election, but held firm. Those people deserve some credit here.

On top of that, there were four states which had amendments on the ballot that in one way or another mitigated the possibility of gay marriage. These were summarily struck down by the voters in those states. I couldn't be happier in this regard.

The coupe de grace for me was the full (recreational) legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. This is a first...and it's a bigger deal than I think people are probably being led to believe. It's wonderful in its own right for freedom, but there's a second cause for celebration among civicly minded libertarians.

One of the burgeoning movements of the last decade has been the states'-rights/nullification crowd. Unfortunately, and as expected, they have been heavily marginalized by big-federal-government types on the left; who (somewhat ironically) point to slavery and Jim Crow to de-veil the movement as nothing more than antiquated, bigoted racists. It's been unfortunate that their endeavor has been largely successful as far as the public goes.

But now, although I don't think they realize it yet, those particular leftists are going to be put in a very odd position. If, as the governor of Colorado has stated, these states are pledging to uphold these laws, then we may see an inflated clash between these states and the federal government - a federal government which has escalated DEA raids (even of state-legal marijuana dispensaries) since Obama took office. I predict fireworks.

Now, we can't be sure of what such supporters of Obama and the federal government more generally are going to throw out there as a caveat or defense, but they'll at least have to acknowledge (even if passively or indirectly) the tenuous nature of their argument against federalism. Federal government, they argue, is a bulwark against the tyranny of state-governments...which can certainly be true as far as it goes. But what then is to be said about when the federal government is too tyrannical?

Is the federal government always on the right side of matters? This isn't a rare occurrence in our country. The federal government is often slow to move on good changes, and yet receives all the credit for lashing the remaining states into order when most of the national tide has/had already been turned. Try doing some research regarding the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave laws and tell me again all about how the federal government is the bulwark of freedom. It's not a settled case. Are we better served by the centralization or decentralization of power?

This is the question that is going to be wrestled with - or at least that's my hope. You never really know. But, if I were a betting man, I would imagine this will come to a head at some point if the current administration does not make a course-correction. And I welcome that discussion. All things said, things could have been a lot worse last night. But it's a good start, and there's still a long road ahead.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Money is Speech

Or, rather, a means to speak.

In the days leading up to the election, some arguments in more public forums have strayed into the various minutia of issues; among them concerns about the Citizens United decision and campaign financing more generally. I won't get into the argument over whether corporations are "people" or not, but it's worth addressing at least one related claim. Dissenters, when presented with the argument that a corporation (or persons thereof) should be entitled to free speech, say boldly, "Since when is money speech?" It's an interesting rhetorical flourish but it seems like you could draw some bad political conclusions from such an inference.

Money in itself, or any economic means for that matter, isn't speech in the literal sense. But it is often an indirect vehicle for speech. Imagine if I were to tell you that you could not spend money on paper. All of a sudden we could not write articles or novels, or distribute pamphlets, books, or magazines - all considered mainstays of our conceived notions of speaking. If you came to me and complained that I was abridging your freedom to speak, would me saying, "Since when is money speech?" assuage your concerns? Why, I'm not stopping you from speaking freely; I'm merely keeping you from purchasing paper. Don't you see?

This is the thin veil by which the government all too often effectively strips us of our very basic liberties, and few people seem to see its coercion as such. We are ostensibly free to speak - withholding the exceptions for campaigns, libel, treason, and copyright. Likewise we are able to own firearms - at least the ones that meet all the requirements, specifications, and regulations of our dear leaders. And we all know you have the freedom to smoke - provided that you're one hundred feet away from any building and are able to jump the 200% to 500% tax hurdle.

Home of the brave, land of the free. Well, free to the degree they outline freedom for you at least. I understand the concern that many people have regarding corporate influence on the political process, but trying to stifle campaign contributions is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and further creating a case and precedent for the stifling of freedom. From a political perspective, campaign contributions don't even begin to measure up to the other ways corporations wield power and influence with the government. And, as has been pointed out time and time again, this is not a bug of the system - it's a feature. No amount of legislation and feel-good bulwarking will divorce state power from economic power. It's a symbiotic relationship; one giving the other solvency.

Of course, the debate will go on. And this isn't all to say that if campaign financing were hedged tomorrow that the world would suddenly fall apart. My primary concern is for the precedent it sets with the logic of its supporters. I don't believe that limiting the concept of free speech to its most literal and direct interpretation will help preserve it. More importantly, it works to further marginalize the importance of freedom with respect to our economic means. Too often we take shortcuts for political expediency, and freedom suffers.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Unpopular Thoughts: NYC Marathon

Whether it's being excoriated for not voting or laughed at for supporting a total debasement of the state, it's safe to say I'm used to holding heavily marginalized positions. I'm never really too surprised when someone reacts to some of my views with a strong sense of bewilderment. It's generally because I at least understand where they are coming from, even if I disagree adamantly  But every once in a while I'll have what I consider a pretty normal view or reaction regarding something, only to find that it's not the common view at all. Enter the NYC Marathon.

A Thought Experiment:

An earthquake has devastated your relatively well-populated city. We are days after the initial event. Many are without power, water, gas, and so on. Private and municipal forces alike are struggling to find the resources to put things back together in a timely manner. Clearly this will be a long-term project.

Behold, there is word of a giant money-machine...and it's coming to your city. It has approximately $340 Million to dispense, and plans to do so in two days; once reaching the center of town, it will volley all of the money high into the air and let it fall down to the ground over the city like confetti.

In order to get the machine into the center of town, the city must divert some resources (policemen, etc.) to ensure safe passage. The machine will also have to slowly navigate through the streets, many of the people of which still remain devastated and helpless. Some find it tasteless and offensive that such resources would be diverted to usher in this money-machine.

Should the city allow the money machine to enter or not?

I would think that the money-machine should be allowed to enter; that the small amount of resources diverted (temporarily) would pale in comparison to the newly affordable resources that could be obtained when the money-machine made its way into the city. It seems that such a thing would provide an immense amount of help, ultimately, to many people in need. But if I'm to believe the reactions of most people regarding the NYC Marathon, my opinion is a heartless one.

They shut down the NYC Marathon because there was a public outrage over the tastelessness of holding a marathon at a time when people were hurting for resources. The $340 Million that the marathon brings into the city annually apparently was not given a place of consideration as a "resource." And while it might seem awkward to have a group of people running through devastated streets, I would never uphold peoples' "feelings" about it up as so much of a sacred cow that I would let it stop the city from getting this additional (seemingly needed) financial boost. But, if I'm to believe the reactions of most people, I couldn't be crazier for thinking so.

It doesn't help that there's been a lot of confusion over exactly who was doing what regarding the marathon either. For instance, critics were loathing the tents, water, and generators being publicly stockpiled for the coming race, and slammed the mayor for not utilizing these resources elsewhere. And this morning, by extension, they seemed disgusted that those supplies were still sitting around unused. Of course, it had never dawned on them that simply because the marathon was being held in NYC that the city itself was not running it. Nor did it occur to them that the supplies belonged to the organization that was running the race, and that the generators were privately rented and paid for by that organization. It also didn't occur to them that the organization was paying the city handsomely to utilize other resources for the marathon (police).

But we shouldn't get into the habit of letting facts get between us and our misdirected ire. I think the argument about time and sensitivity is fine as far as it goes, but I don't know if we should let it stand the in the way of reason. As I see it, the city is now far worse off than it would have been had the people decided to control their outrage and allow the marathon to take place. I could be wrong. Certainly most people believe me to be. But it wouldn't be really too terribly shocking to find that a majority of people supported cutting off their own nose to spite their face either.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Between Critic and Skald

I know that, in pretty much all ways, this is much like a flea trying to throw down with a dog, but I just can't seem to let go of these wonderfully temporary grudges I'm afforded whenever I read Gene's blog posts. Today he writes:

"I might add, making justice entirely a matter of market decisions is not a way to de-politicize justice: no, it is only masquerading as an abjuration of politics: in truth, it is the political decision that access to and control over justice should be based entirely upon wealth."

Well, yes and no, Gene.

It certainly wouldn't make the scope and practice of justice completely apolitical. But arguing that it wouldn't de-politicize it at all seems to me to be somewhat careless. If shoe production and distribution was merely a matter of public policy, would we similarly be able to say that opening such functions to markets would NOT be de-politicization? If so, what an unexpected conclusion. You see, my shoe-buying experiences seem fairly apolitical for what it's worth. And yet, if the government were in charge of distributing shoes, I think it would just be one more political argument I'd be seeing on Facebook this election season.

By extension, there doesn't seem to be much concern that access to and control over shoes will be based entirely upon wealth if left to market forces. The same goes for food, cars, and shelter for that matter. It's almost as if, niche markets aside, producers of goods and services think that the real money is in getting their product to be purchased by lots of consumers as opposed to a small handful. Now, maybe there is reason to believe that markets for justice would function differently from other markets we are familiar with. I think there's certainly a case for that. But I don't think you're going to sway many free-market advocates by waving off that discussion altogether and just trudging out cliched lines about wealth and access that you very-well know does not hold for the vast majority of markets.

Of course, as always, detractors of anarcho-libertarians have a really bad, if not amusing, habit of pointing out supposed problems with free-market anarchism that already exist in spades under the current system. If our concern is the undue influence wealth has over political processes, how can you/we ignore its influence in the current system? It permeates America's political process from top to bottom. From regulation, to protectionist policies, to contracts, to government-funding, to municipal ventures, to patents, to copyrights, to tax-loopholes, to outright subsidization; where is it that you see a breakdown in favor given to the wealthy? And those are just some of the by-products of that system that don't directly emanate from the judicial process itself! The wealthy have the time and resources to recruit armies of the best lawyers money can buy; fully leveraging the court system, while those who are without are left to public defenders - who are in the employ of the POLITICAL apparatus itself.

And you think you're successfully dismissing radical libertarian political analysis with an off-hand single-sentence assertion about power falling under the purview of wealth? Give us a little bit of a break here.

Look, I've said it before several times; Gene is a very, very smart guy. Much smarter than I am. I'm sure he'd practically demolish me in any dialectical engagement. But he has to make the effort. He has a background steeped in libertarian theory. He's only going to get ire and dismissal in place of respect if he comes in hurling the usual softballs we get from people who don't understand markets or libertarianism to begin with. And he's very capable of doing it! I've seen him make very devastating arguments against libertarian policies. But more often than not, he doesn't make that effort. I don't know why. I can only surmise that the chip he has on his shoulder about his own conversion has brought him to throwing pretty much anything he can at his old views - even if it doesn't stand up to criticism. And we're certainly all guilty of that from time to time. I suppose I hold him to a higher standard. I still read his blog almost daily on the off-chance he does connect; because, when he does, it's very compelling. But he's starting to transgress the line between critic and skald.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?

Looking at so many political engagements across the spectrum, I see so many people proffer both vice and virtue. There are those who urge us to find love and compassion for our fellow men; lamenting greed and cold-heartedness. Some wish us to be more competent and assertive; eschewing those who lack any sense of responsibility for themselves. And still others call for a deeper patience and tolerance for those with whom we disagree; demanding cessation of unprovoked violence and aggression.

The tragedy in our ideological differences, I think, isn't the variance. The tragedy is that our way of thinking about such issues ("politically") has led us to believe that the conception and practice of these ideas are mutually exclusive. This is not necessarily so. We will probably never see a world with united preferences. There will always be areas (even vast ones) of disagreement. But there is little reason to believe that values (such as the above) cannot be mutually deterministic. That I care about others should not  be construed to mean that I have no sense of someone's personal responsibilities. That I urge competence and assertiveness should not be construed to mean that I'm intolerant. That I oppose aggression should not be construed to mean I'm cold-hearted.

And yet I see such non sequiturs all the time when I witness the political discourse of today. It seems that we have a tendency to believe that because we may oppose the means of others that we must also oppose their ends - but it's simply not the case. Whether such misunderstandings are a subconscious "tic" or simply a strategic way to make those who disagree with you seem immoral, I'm not completely sure. But I'd imagine it's a spectrum. And it's almost certainly some degree of both.

My advice to you, when you should read such things, is to be charitable in your argumentation. Remember that we're all human...we all have (probably) both good and bad ideas. We all certainly have our faults. I've met many people who I believe do and say "bad" things, but I would never pull their intentions into the category of malevolence. Their hearts are, more often than not, in the right place. Even the most vile among us (excluding the inextricably insane) seem to feel the need to build moral justifications for their actions. I don't think that's mere coincidence.

So listen to what others have to say. And when others begin to cast off-hand dispersions towards your intentions, don't simply rebut in kind and leave them feeling vindicated. Patiently but firmly remind them that, if they believe that you simply don't care about these other values, that they are mistaken and need to reconsider their accusations. Real communication about such important things is already going to be an uphill battle. It's not made any better when peoples' familiarity with their opponent only extends to what amounts to a caricature of their views.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Policies and Scope

I've done what I could to avoid any serious personal investment in the upcoming election. This includes side-stepping the debates and trying to avoid the pitfalls of political conversation with family and friends. In 2008 I felt like I had a dog in the race so to speak. I'm not sure whether I owe my change in demeanor over these four years to evolution in my own thoughts or my generally growing weary of the political process. Whichever the case, I've lost any desire I'd once had to have anything to do with it. But, like all bad things, you can only dodge it for so long. Eventually confrontation seeps its way into some conversation or another. And then you start to wish you had stayed in bed that particular morning.

So, when I have had the unfortunate opportunity to bat around some election-season politics (and I generally prefer just to play devil's advocate when that happens), I've noticed two particular aspects of any given talking point that seems to garner an eerily small amount of critical thought; policy and scope.

I think the failure of the voter to distinguish rhetoric from policy is sometimes pretty alarming. This follows regarding the rhetoric of both favored and opposing politicians. Often I'll hear a person drone on about the claims of politicians they happen to despise - citing their ideas as radical and generally malevolent. Pushing aside the conspiratorial nature of the second claim, the first often seems off-base from the start. I've heard very few politicians publicly propose ideas that are relatively radical (given the baseline of American politics). And this is the case because, strategically, it doesn't make any sense for politicians to pander to the fringe when pandering to moderates is much more fruitful. This is why most of their speeches or remarks in front of any relatively neutral audience is generally overly prefaced and temper perceptions about their position. Now, of course, in front of any special interest group, a politician will deviate and sometimes certainly say things that will seem at least relatively radical. And this is where the people who fire volleys over extremism and radicalization get their ammunition.

But it's very important to contrast not only what a politician claims to believe, but what a politician ACTUALLY believes (these are not usually the same thing) with affectable policy. Politicians are going to feel quite a bit of restraint - not only from the shifting political support of the public, but also (more importantly) from the other major players in the federal government. So, in other words, even if a person feels that someone has proposed or believes in something that is relatively radical (no matter how accurate that description may be), it's certainly not an accurate reflection of what policies and legislation will come to fruition once they are elected.

Another failure of most people is in reflecting on the scope of any given talking point(s). Take for instance two recent topics de jour in the parlay of presidential debates; public funding of PBS and the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. In the former example you have sparked contention over, at most, hundreds of millions of dollars afforded to public broadcasting around the nation. For the sake of argument, let me make it clear that, in principle, I'm against such spending myself. But it would seem that any person with a basic grasp on math and a little knowledge of where we are regarding federal spending (approximately 4 TRILLION dollar budget and approximately 16 TRILLION dollar national debt) would quickly be able to see that spending (arguably) valuable debate time squabbling over what we're giving to Big Bird isn't thinking about the fiscal situation seriously. And yet that fight is prominent...with people on both sides of the political aisle.

Then we turn to the issue of Benghazi, a tragic incident to be sure - and one that has certainly seemed to have been coordinated at this point. It's certainly easy to see, in hindsight (as with many terrorist attacks), ways in which this situation might have been avoided. And certainly no one should belittle the deaths of the four U.S. personnel killed in the aftermath. I wonder, however, how Republicans in particular imagine they are to make much political hay after their bleak and misguided history of foreign policy blundering. But I wonder, more importantly, how the scope of this situation has been construed as to blanket the multitude of foreign policy issues we're already faced with. Lost in the squabble over the attacks seems to be the radical (appropriately used) response to such attacks by more prominent Muslim groups in Libya...protests which exceeded 30,000 people at one point. And yet I can't expect those eager to blow up Obama's spot on this issue to recognize this, or to not continue to disparage all Muslims with the blood of the guilty. And what of our own intervention in Libya over recent years and decades? Will that receive any consideration? And our larger involvement in supporting and deposing regimes of interest across the Middle East? And if the tragedy of the deaths of four in Benghazi is an all-consuming issue in our current political sparring, then what of the thousands of U.S. soldiers who have died (many of them even more senselessly) in our wars abroad? What about the hundreds and thousands of INNOCENT women and children that have perished to drone and other air strikes in our decade-old quest for justice? Where is the hand-wringing of Americans over that tragedy? Or how about the HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of innocents killed in Iraq not only during the Second Gulf War, but because of the political and economic sanctions spearheaded by our government?

In words repeated but immortalized by one of my musical idols, "The death of one is a tragedy. The death of millions is just a statistic."

My general point isn't that people are stupid. I'm certainly not as smart as most of the people I engage with. The problem, as I see it, is that people are so attached to their political team-identity that they are content with remaining willfully ignorant about certain things. If your opponent does something wrong, it was the worst thing that could have happened. If your guy does something wrong or performs poorly, it was an opponent's fault. Non sequiturs, strawmen, ad hominem - all just shifters of of victory. This is why most conversations on this front seem fruitless. People are either unconcerned with or incapable of unwinding their own political ideologies. After all, why bother with the task of critically analyzing what you believe when all you're concerned about is being part of the winning team? And then why should I bother parrying the claims and accusations of people who put as much forethought into their political alliances as they put into choosing their favorite football team?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Concessions and Contentions

In a recent post on his blog, Gene takes issue with an excerpt from one of Bob Murphy's articles (and it's subsequent narration). The excerpt:

"I think there are strong reasons to suppose that civil war would be much less likely in a region dominated by private defense and judicial agencies, rather than by a monopoly State."

Gene responds:

"Well, yes, a region "dominated" by ancap-style private defense agencies and judicial systems would not have civil wars, because, per the theory of these entities, they will be non-aggressive and will respect property rights. But what in the world makes one think we can get to such a world? Can anyone actually present any instances of a modern state breaking down, after which a whole bunch of "private defense agencies" simply hang their shingles up on Main Street and begin selling defense services?"

Two concessions:

1. There is no promise that bringing governmental functions under the purview of markets will result in an ideal anarcho-capitalist society. There is no promise of an end to "civil war." There is no promise that entities that provide security and/or arbitration on an open market will be "non-aggressive" or have perfectly libertarian ideals.

2. There is no promise that toppling the state suddenly would provide for a situation in which alternate institutions could rise suddenly to replace them, functionally.

And yet, even with these concessions in mind, and even with purely consequentialist concerns, my anarchic tendencies still pervade:

1. Very few ANCAPs believe that a functioning anarchy is dependent upon a massive conversion of the public to libertarian ideals. If we did, we would have likely conceded its inefficacy from the start. The defining arguments, instead, appeal to human nature, incentives, and market-structures; it's about economics. The belief is that not only would it be more difficult to manage a consistent and pervasive externalization of costs for meaningful "non-libertarian" governance (outlawing of drugs, gambling, etc.), but also that free markets provide stronger, faster, and more meaningful checks against the centralization of power. There's a lot of debate, even within libertarian circles, about what that kind of world would look like. What isn't in as much dispute (for all that we may disagree on ideals) is that it would approximate a baseline libertarianism far better than what we currently have today.

2. I think the deontological pull of some libertarian arguments would lead one to believe that pulling the hatch on everything in a heartbeat would technically be the "right" thing to do, ethically, even if it had undesired consequences. I have sympathy for that view (it's one that I've held at various points), but I don't think all libertarians hold that view. Regarding the proverbial "gun in the room" in libertarian-speak, I think there's a difference between not having a gun and dropping a gun. When you look at failed states, you're not looking at destroyed institutions, you're looking at vacated and re-occupied institutions. And the difference between the dissolution and re-occupation of an institution are as different as night and day. In fact, this is one of the pillars of the anarchist rebuttal to arguments about invasion from foreign nations; that it would be much more difficult to control, extort, and expropriate without some kind of centralized system through which to operate.

And, to me, this just reinforces the argument against the state. No one single organization or institution should enjoy such a monopoly of power that its dissolution or usurpation could leave people, quite literally, defenseless. Indeed, it's those very monopolistic privileges that suppress alternative institutions and therefore leave people helpless when the state goes up in flames. If the government had some kind of monopolistic power over the production and distribution of food, and such a government were subsequently overthrown, what would we then say about our predicament? Would we look at the warlords now holding or fighting for the reigns of that centralized system and wonder how people could ever be so silly as to think free markets in food could ever meaningfully displace the centralized system being fought over?

Are these knock-down arguments? Absolutely not. The contentions that surround these arguments are actually fairly complicated and a lot of it is subtle. Couple that with the magnitude of the implications and you've got quite a lot to work out and discuss. So while I would caution you to not take the substance of my short-handed rejoinders for granted, I'd also ask that you'd not give the ideas short-shrift either. As I'm too often reminded, libertarians could go a long way to show a little humility in light of serious arguments. And people who have a bone to pick with libertarians could go a long way in addressing the most thorough and decisive form of libertarian arguments; not simply scoring rhetorical points to assuage their political animosity.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Voting: Two Strategies Divided

I'm a pretty regular listener to a radio-show called "Free Talk Live". I don't have any personal affinity for the hosts (in fact, at least one of them drives me crazy on a pretty constant basis). But I share similarly radical political views and so the discussions are usually pretty interesting to me. One of the hosts has a secondary show/podcast where he gives one-on-one interviews to all kinds of different people. I made the unfortunate mistake of listening to one such interview with someone by the name of Kal Molinet.

I'm not going to get worked into a tizzy over his atrocious style of argumentation (which seems to simply be to steamroll his opponent and not let them get a word in). What I do want to address, however, was his primary point; that voting, in itself, is an immoral act.

My view on voting is a little complicated. But suffice it to say I think that calling it "immoral" is a bit misguided. Let's consider some of the reasons why we would or would not vote.

There are plenty of reasons to assume that no libertarian paradise will spring forth from the fingertips of the electorate. So no delusions on that front. However, it is quite clearly possible to affect marginal (even if temporary) change through the voting process. History is replete with democratic shifts towards freedom in different instances. Now, it might not outweigh the net shift in the other direction (over time), but that doesn't seem to be a reason to let voting fall into dis-utility. In fact, you could ask how much worse things might be if all advocates of freedom had simply stopped voting.

Now, it's certainly true that we're not likely to find anything too close to a libertarian anarchist politician. And to any extent that such a politician is not "pure" on that scale, I could see how you might complain that voting gives sanction to injustice. And Molinet alludes to similar points when he talks about people "playing their game". Of course, the convenient fact this overlooks is that you're already locked into that game at this point. And this is where the morality of all of it comes in.

Now...if I simply told you to go kill an innocent person, and you did it, who is morally culpable? There's certainly arguments to the contrary, but I think most libertarians would say the person taking the action is primarily the guilty party. Of course, we are talking about two parties and a single action. Political mechanisms are a bit more complicated.

Let's look at a different analogy. Let's say there's a person with a gun. There are nine other people nearby. Being in possession of the gun, he's calling the shots for now. But there's a twist. It turns out that this situation is somewhat democratic. He's going to do whatever the majority of those nine people tell him to do. A vote comes up. They are going to shoot some (innocent) people in the group. Four of them want to shoot two people. Four of them want to shoot three people. You are the undecided vote.

So how would Molinet's criticisms apply here? He would apparently say it's immoral for you to give the vote to shoot two people instead of three. After all, your vote would be sanctioning such a killing, right? And if a slave-owner let the slaves vote to release one among them, it would also be sanction of slavery, and thus immoral, right? And if there was a referendum to repeal a massive amount of power regarding the federal government, then voting for such a thing would also be sanction, and thus immoral, right? You can see the problem with this line of reasoning. He's basically making the argument that you can't morally take control of the Deathstar...because the Deathstar is used for evil. So even if you have the chance to hurl it into a star, you must refrain from taking control...lest you "sanction" its use.

This is why his ethical claim is a little bizarre.

This is not to say, however, that there aren't any good liberty-fueled arguments for abstaining from voting though. There is a substantial line of political argument that holds consent as the cohesive culprit behind the state. From this point of view, strategically, voting is not important. What becomes important is spreading ideas, challenging standard lines of political discourse, and building alternate institutions. If those ventures become successful enough, the idea is that the state will simply wither away because it will not have the necessary consent to function.

The primary differences between the two strategies (at least to me) is simply that one is more short-term and temporary, and the other is more long-term. And while there may be qualms about the dedication of man-power and resources between the two ventures, they certainly aren't mutually exclusive. One can embrace one or both strategies. And they can certainly do it without doing anything immoral, or even giving explicit sanction. It's certainly something worth talking about. And, I'm sure, it can all be a large point of confusion at the very least. But I'm pretty appalled at the lack of tact and openness from the Molinet camp. I certainly hope his fellow-travelers are a little less stubborn.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Deconstruction in One (Long) Sentence (Part II)

I couldn't begin to imagine what might cause the perpetual and popular criminalization of an underclass which others are being forced to "help" at the point of a gun...

Friday, August 3, 2012

Deconstruction in One (Long) Sentence

If McDonald's "provided" services in the same manner that the government does, and came knocking on your door every couple of weeks with an open-ended claim to further payments, pointing at a picture of you accompanied with the label "Fed Human (McD)" appropriated to your belly, "revolution" might very well be your next whisper; but, in America, if you give the assailant a different uniform, it's right as rain.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Tolerance Through Thick and Thin

It's hard to get enthused or worked up about political shouting matches over purveyors of fried chicken, but I think the recent kerfuffle over Chik-fil-A could prove illustrative in the right context. For those out of the loop, Chik-fil-A is getting hammered by sexual-equality groups for some anti-gay-marriage statements made by one of its proprietors a couple of weeks ago. Of course, the general views of the very Christian owner(s) of Chik-fil-A have been known for quite a while (anyone wonder why their doors are closed every Sunday?). But social media outlets seem to be useful for putting old (and often, even untrue) stories under a magnifying glass. And the views are indeed sometimes quite myopic...

I won't pick apart the disparaging claims bandied about by "conservatives" or "liberals" on the subject. That would be a bit pedantic at this point. What I think is interesting is that the libertarian response (at least among my small circle of that world) is pretty varied. I actually find that kind of comforting in a weird way. A lot of people tend to think of libertarians as a very narrow and homogeneous group. And, indeed, as libertarians are generally sticklers for consistency, you might think we'd have a very clear prescription for such an issue. I think some people may have even at one point called us "cultish" for such things. But it's actually a somewhat complex issue upon reflection. And the variance on this subject among libertarians actually highlights a very real diversity among us.

With that in mind, here's how I see it...

It's not an issue of justice. Or at least, if it is, there's a whole lot of fuzziness. Chik-fil-A does not turn the machinery of the state. They may give money to people who try to talk to people who turn that machinery, but they're not turning it. So, from a thin libertarian perspective, that's going to be an important part of this equation. If this kind of consideration grounds your concern, we could expect a somewhat neutral view on suggested boycotts.

However, under both a thin and thick conception of libertarianism you could make a good argument for supporting the boycotts. On the thin end there's certainly a good argument for withholding your business from people who support (even if not directly) things you find unjust. And it's certainly well within your own rights to do so. On the thicker end there are good arguments for believing that a society that does not support sexual equality would also not, adequately, support a framework of institutions that are more libertarian-friendly.

There's also a (somewhat) thick argument about the limits of "support" perhaps. If you're supplying arms to the Third Reich there's an argument, on thin grounds, that you're not directly killing people so therefore there is no true injustice. But it's easy to see how one might oppose, in a very libertarian fashion and for very libertarian reasons, such things.

But what I'm kind of interested in is a third level of critique (not sure whether to call it thick or thin) that questions the limits of such conceptions. For one thing, I think appeals to tolerance could be ushered on both sides of the argument. Surely there are arguments that a libertarian society would be more workable or coherent when tolerance is embraced by all; but that might also lead you to believe that if we want to foster an appreciation for freedom, or more importantly discussion, in those we disagree with, then we might be well-off to show a certain degree of tolerance for them as well.

That doesn't mean that we have to agree with them, or do business with them. But I'm not sure that threatening to practically excommunicate all whom we disagree with is particularly libertarian either. I want those people to be public with their opinions, and even vociferously so. It's a point of engagement. I want fear and hatred to be curtailed and defeated. I don't want it to be simply swept under a rug to be perpetually bandied about in indirect ways for generations.

However, even if we believed market-based excommunication to be perfectly libertarian (and there's certainly good arguments for it) I'm not sure how much sense it makes on a practical level. Let's think about this. We're saying that we should actively abstain from doing business with actors that give money to people who push for political change that we find to be unjust. If we were being consistent, wouldn't it apply in the other direction as well? Maybe you own a small or mid-size company in Nowhere, USA. You're picking up employees left and right to keep up with increased business. Now, to a libertarian, there may be no injustice in screening potential employees on the basis of their political views. But would it be a practical or wise thing to do for libertarianism in the long run?

Granted, it's probably relatively easier for consumers do this. But it's not clear why it would be less of an imperative (politically) for employers. I mean I can't give money to someone with an Obama sticker on their car, right? There's a good chance that they are taking some of that money and contributing it directly (or indirectly) to his campaign. And I don't think the idea of blowing up innocent Pakistani children with drones is particularly libertarian. So, if we're going to be consistent, I guess we could say that I should only hire people that support my views, right?

You can see how this could get kind of sticky in a hurry. On a related note, this is part of why I've found the state-based conception of "discrimination" (or rather its prohibition) nonsensical. In their case, the consideration is flipped. Employers aren't "allowed" to discriminate based on any number of things generally perceived to be outside of the realm of meritocratic considerations. Yet, for whatever reason, it's perfectly fine for customers to engage in such discrimination - which might even be more detrimental/appalling on the grounds of severing bridges to wealth accumulation. In a legal context, it's perfectly OK for people to decide to never do business with a company because it's owner is black, Hispanic, gay, etc. It's not clear to me why this is acceptable when the other is not...but this is a tangential conversation.

My broader point isn't to say that there is any particular "libertarian" view in all of this that is "right", or that should prevail in any meaningful sense. I just think it's interesting how nuanced the opinions can be in a framework that is thought to be pretty restrictive. I get the impression that most people think we drank the Nozickian KoolAid at some point and just punched out. But, at least from what I read, it turns out we're not all mind-numbed robots after all. Well, the others are maybe. But not me. I'm cool like that.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

I Didn't Build That? (Part II)

Anthony Gregory has a good recent article at HuffPo. As with far too many social hubs, the comments sections are often atrocious - and the section for this article is no exception. Most of them are so far outside the sphere of relevance that they don't deserve any serious retort. But sometimes when there is a theme recurrent enough to get under your skin, you just wanna set phasers to blast and have a field day.

So...I was going to address this particular theme I was seeing, and then these wondrous intertubes graced me with a comment that seemed to echo about anything worth saying on my end. So I thought I'd share said poster's thoughts here.

One commenter, responding to a cross-post of the original HuffPo article at BHL claims the following:

"Yes, the public has built some bad things, and some unnecessary things, along with the many good and useful and necessary things its has built. All of the things the public has built have influenced the outcomes individuals have achieved, and in some very frequent cases have been causally necessary conditions for the achievement of those outcomes."

And then the voice in my head that must have been parading as another commenter responds:

"Even if you believe that, don't you find it troubling (logically if not morally) that the end result is a situation where one party holds an open-ended claim against another?

Consider a non-state example. There are many businesses who owe their prosperity to Facebook advertising, and they've all paid some mutually agreed sum for that advantage. What if Mark Zuckerberg falls on hard times a decade from now, and shows up at their collective doorstep saying "...this network of information, this means of influencing people, you didn't build that, so it seems only right you should now be asked to pay me more."

Immediately you would see the problem with this reasoning: it has no end. If Zuckerberg somehow manages to beg a few extra dollars from these clients, surely he will come back to beg again. And why shouldn't he keep coming, if they are foolish enough to accept a retroactive adjustment of his price?

Surely you can see how much worse the problem would be if a) the advertisers never had a choice about using Facebook to begin with, and b) if Zuckerberg could simply force people to pay his new and infinitely adjustable price.

So...why is this argument any better when the party making happens to be the state?"


This a thousand times.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Didn't Build That?

In a recent blog post (as this whole ordeal so often starts), one "dkuehn" reflects on the "You didn't build that." statements made by Obama, and opines for more worthy political adversaries:

"It's incredible that this obvious point is twisted into some kind of anti-business screed. Man is not an island, and we benefit all the time from the achievements of others, the knowledge of others, and positive externalities. The market itself is a positive externality because of the benefits conferred by liquid markets and diversity. That's called a network effect. The benefits derived from one more node in a network are much broader than just the benefits enjoyed by a single person making a decision to enter that network."

I'd like to display my initial thought(s) as well as an response to a later reaction in the comment section (which hasn't been responded to as of yet)...

My initial response:

"Boy, no offense, but you've had quite a litany of posts the last couple of days that have had me shaking my head a bit. You know how you, fairly often, take something (like this Obama quote) and say that you can't even imagine how it's seen as so controversial. Well, a lot of us read your criticisms of those criticisms, and think the same thing. This is one of those times (at least for me).

I don't expect everyone who picks up quotes/memes like this and runs with it to understand the full(er) implication of their criticisms. I'm sure that there are plenty of people (if not most of them) who do not look at the content in any serious way, and use whatever they can as a ploy to further their own political views. But it's not very difficult for me to imagine the way in which people could be reading this and finding it controversial. And when a very intelligent guy likes you seems "bewildered" by it, I'm (apologetically) inclined to think you're being too clever by half.

Of course man is not an island. And anyone who supports free markets (a number of whom share criticisms of this quote) knows that. Hell, if I had a dime for every time someone proffered that, as a libertarian, I must believe in some kind of atomistic individualism, maybe I'd have more time to respond to posts like this.

The context of his comments are narrower than that. He's talking (pretty specifically in light of the extended quote provided) of public/political goods within that network. By coupling that with the eschewing of atomistic thinking he's (not so subtly) creating a false dichotomy. People might be wrong to fight against the provision and securing of political "goods", but that doesn't make their views atomistic. You can be very aware and supportive of the concept of working with others and not support the types of things he seems to think are justified by such a sentiment. The ideas aren't mutually inclusive.

Put more concisely, if he's just axiomatically stating that we benefit from each other, then there's no point in bringing it up (in a political context). If he's using it to lend support to an array of political initiatives, then his argument is contentious at best - and I would think anyone would expect heavy criticism at the very least."

dkuehn later writes in response to another commenter:

"Nowhere in Obama's statement did say any version of "and if you disagree with me you must think production is atomistic".

Wills is worrying over nothing. I didn't respond much to that point because I didn't think it was a very insightful point.

Now, if Wills actually wants to generate an argument against this argument for public goods, that's fine. It's just a campaign speech - you probably could put together several successful counter-arguments. But don't put words in Obama's mouth about what the thinks of libertarians, and don't say he's creating a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is saying "either you think people are atomistic or you think we should have lots and lots of public goods". Obama never said that."

And this was my response to that:

"Why do I feel like I've been sucked into a black hole and came out the other side as Bob Murphy?

"A false dichotomy is saying 'either you think people are atomistic or you think we should have lots and lots of public goods'. Obama never said that."

Alright, Daniel, Obama certainly never explicitly says that. But I do believe this statement approximates what is implicit therein. And somehow I get the feeling that you'd disagree (probably quite vociferously). So let's take a Socratic approach and see if we can broach the core issue more easily:

In the context of Obama talking about taxes, government expenditures, and various public goods & services, what exactly do you believe to be the rhetorical relevance of his foray into the "there are some things we do better together" rant? Is all of this talk actually decoupled from his policy prescriptions? Unless that's the case, then I stand by my previous point(s).

Either he understands opponents of his prescriptions are, in fact, generally not atomistic - in which case, what's the point of his rant? Or he believes those who disagree with his policy prescriptions are somehow eschewing the benefits of social interaction - in which case we have a large non sequitur on our hands."

Now, I think we can be charitable enough to believe that what Obama said was poorly worded...and that he doesn't believe that we have no significant part in building what we do (individually). But I believe what I've pointed out above is a pretty dirty thing to do rhetorically...and as human beings we do this type of thing way too often and should try to not only avoid it, but to call others on it when we see it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Charity in Argumentation

Over at his blog Gene makes a quick criticism of an argument pushed by Robert Murphy:

When Microsoft and Apple have a dispute, they go to court, and let a judge resolve it for them. But, for, say, drug dealers, government justice is not an option, so instead they (often) resort to violence.

Therefore, concludes Bob Murphy, if we entirely eliminate the government justice system... all organizations will resolve their disputes peacefully!

This is the sort of deft, counter-intuitive logic that makes libertarians so very tricksy to debate.

I don't want to belabor the libertarian resolution to such a contention, but I'll go ahead and lay it out there before I get to my own criticism:

The reason why black markets are notoriously violent is precisely because they are shielded from dominant commercial institutions. By definition, such trade is relegated to the swaths of humanity who've generally resorted to a life of crime in the first place. It's not particularly a mystery that bootleggers during Prohibition had a quite violent way of settling disputes while alcoholic vendors today aren't exactly battling it out on the streets.

The larger question or contention, obviously, are which commercial institutions are necessary to promote peaceful but practically enforceable dispute resolution. Free-market anarchists believe monopolistic institutions of dispute resolution to be not only unnecessary but inadequate, while people like Gene believe they are quite necessary if not ideal. Those who believe in the functional primacy of market competition in the arena of arbitration and conflict resolution appeal to a broad array of economic arguments against oligarchical institutional models. Likewise, those who believe in the primacy of monopolistic models of justice make their own appeals.

My point is not to say who's right here. There's a long and complex debate to be had, and it's already been taking place for quite a while now - with lots of good points made on all sides, I believe. It might not ever be settled with devotees on both sides. My contention with Gene's little reductio ad absurdum is that it proves too little. Both of the regulating forces being lobbied for (trade in an open market and governmental provision of justice) are notably absent in the context of conflict resolution between drug dealers. It's not a simple slam-dunk to assume the full integration of one or the other will magically make all such violent forms of resolution disappear (and, to the extent that violent resolution is still prevalent today - with an institutional monopoly on justice already in place -, a little more humility in the supposed unraveling of opponents' arguments might be appropriate).

This brings me to the heart of the issue - Murphy has never treated it with assumption. He's written and talked extensively on the subject, as have others, pushing economic and political arguments for why such institutional competition would not only be workable, but preferable. Now, you don't have to agree with his arguments. But you can't treat it like these arguments have never been forwarded, and that the statements he makes concerning the subject are mere assertion or that they are somehow disconnected from those arguments.

And this is the problem. Gene used to be on the same proverbial side of the fence. He knows the arguments. Hell, he knows Murphy personally. But, as he does too often, he snipes at the most uncharitable and least fleshed out versions of the standard libertarian arguments. That is to say, if he were trying to make real headway on the subject (particularly with libertarians) he would engage the arguments in their most robust and extrapolated forms. The irony here is that he publicly detests the very thing here that I'm accusing him of doing as a disingenuous ploy - advancing arguments on rhetorical merit.

This isn't to say that he always does this. I actually find quite a few of his arguments pretty devastating. And the ones I find most devastating are the ones where he meets the radical libertarians out on the field, trying to get them to punt away their most advanced arguments; not shit-talking them in the locker room. And when he makes points like the above, I can't help but feel like he's doing something closer to the latter. Gene's a really smart guy. There's no doubt about it. But the chip on his shoulder regarding libertarians sometimes, I think, prevents him from forging his criticisms in the same honest but dispassionate form he'd like to see to see his own opponents employing.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

America (Fuck Yeah!)

Unfortunately I haven't been able to find the time nor mood to post too much lately, but hopefully I'll get that turned around in short order. Anyways, since we find ourselves in the most red, white, and blue part of the year, I figured I would share a couple of thoughts on patriotism.

My more libertarian-minded FaceBook acquaintances seem to have the habit of catching a whole lot of heat for inflammatory posts on days like this. I can't beat them up too much for it; God knows I've said some things that have probably pissed more than a few people off. There are surely better ways to affect some sort of outreach, but that's not really what I mean to focus on here.

In some of the comments on one particular thread that was ignited tonight there was some sparring over what patriotism means. And, depending on how any given person referenced the term, about any normative statement made sent everyone else reeling. It became clear pretty quickly that the definition of the word was contested, and, being that no one was interested in defining terms, it's continued to escalate in a pretty dismal way.

In any case, I noticed no less that five different (general) ways in which patriotism was invoked:

1. Patriotism as fealty to people.
2. Patriotism as fealty to culture.
3. Patriotism as fealty to ideology.
4. Patriotism as fealty to (rehabilitatable) government.
5. Patriotism as fealty to the nation-state (in all ventures).

I put these in order from most agreeable to least (for me, of course). And I believe the initial poster was being critical of patriotism as it pertains to #5 and perhaps #4. But the people who were pissed off (mostly conservatives and minarchists) had some variant of #1-4 in mind. Those with #1-3 in mind tried very hard to detach patriotism from the government of the United States of America. But, of course the context of each particular invocation could not be more glaring; the boundaries of these seemingly distinct fealties are all mysteriously very geopolitical.

So you take pride in or swear your allegiance to people. Good for you. But when you're using the word patriotism, specifically, you're not talking about Iranian people, or Chinese people, or Mexican people. No, when you're "patriotic" about "people" you mean to say you're "patriotic" regarding Americans - or, rather, citizens of the United States of America. The same seems to hold true with patriotism in the context of culture, ideology, and government itself. It doesn't seem like we're being pulled to feel patriotism for any one of these things based on specific qualities of each - as surely we are able to find such qualities in different places all over the world. And, yet, we don't feel such associations with them.

Indeed, even within our own nation we do not find uniformities regarding these items. To the extent that there is any real unifying theme to be had among these items, it really does seem to be the banner under which such allegiance is held; an allegiance to the nation itself. So while I can sympathize with trying to divorce the concept of patriotism from the government itself (particularly when you find yourself out of favor with its current incarnation), it does seem like it's the common denominator. And beyond the cognitively dissonant recognition of the flag's prominence in state formalities (from the flagpoles of every public office to the fabric of state-endorsed uniforms), we need look no further than the words of the Pledge of Allegiance itself - a picture of which started the whole FaceBook kerfuffle to begin with:

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one nation..."

Of course, that's not to say that Bellamy's terse verse excludes anything more inclusive. But it's hard to look at this pledge we take (most notably as children in those wonderfully government-centric institutions we call public schools) and think it's silly that people would think of patriotism or allegiance in terms of the nation-state. There's at least some level of folly in denying what seems so obvious on some level.

Nevertheless we're treated to what seems like an almost self-excusing conflation of terms. It's almost as if we find refuge in these more ambiguous meanings because we want to believe that the nation (the state) was and can still be more in line with what we wish; as if it's a way to escape losing some kind of traditional pride. In it's own quaint way, it's almost a self-enforced excuse machine for the state itself as well. I mean sure, the United States is killing lots of innocent people around the world and encroaching on liberties here at home as well, but that's not important! What's important is this specific set of ideas I like (which only some people share) that was instituted before by one administration or another or could be instituted in the future if we're lucky enough!

You see, there's the REAL America and then there's the not-so-real America. The REAL Americans are people X; the REAL American culture is culture X; the REAL American ideal is ideal X; and the REAL American style of government is government X. To the extent that thing Y isn't thing X, thing Y isn't American. So all the horrible stuff that the government or its people engage in - not American! It's something else altogether. So while you criticize America for Y and Z, it's important for you to understand that America is actually X. YOU DO NOT CRITICIZE X!!!

That really does seem to be how silly things have gotten. In a lot of ways, it's similar to some of the arguments rendered about the Constitution from the orginalist crowd. When confronted with half of Spooner's argument, that the Constitution has failed because it's allowed for all the bad laws and policy thus far, defenders will often retort that the Constitution didn't fail, that simply some of us had failed it. But given the purpose of the Constitution, you're just reiterating the damning evidence! You can retreat to saying something like what the founders intended in it was good, or the particular interpretation that I have of it is good, but that doesn't erase how it is actually being used (or misused)!

This is how some of us feel with regards to self-proclaimed "patriots". You can narrow your definition of this nation or it's governance to whatever you believe to be right or just, and simply view everything else as a coup. If your definition of the United States is just whatever portion of it is in compliance with your ideals, I can't stop you. But I can think it's silly. And I can think that your choice to use these broad national terms to describe a very particular subset of said nation is not only misleading but functionally apologetic. In trying to steal the national rhetoric to distinguish that which you believe to be good you seem to do little more than excuse the things you actually detest.