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.