Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Reflection on Vulgar Libertarianism

The seemingly rising prominence of left-libertarianism on the interwebz has given lots of self-professed "plum-line" libertarians pause for thought. And, for the most part, rightfully so. There are lots of libertarians who easily fall into the habit of supporting or denouncing things with the most superficial of litmus tests. From dismissing and excoriating the downtrodden to throwing down for any corporate entity that comes under public fire, libertarians have a habit of being the contrarians - even if it engenders inconsistent lines of thought.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly why this is the dominant tendency in these circles. I think a lot of it could be chalked up to transition costs. Most modern American libertarians start out on the political right. And as their thoughts on the state radicalize, then maybe so too do their thoughts on its victims and beneficiaries. That isn't so bad in and of itself (heightened awareness). But you can certainly have a radicalized ideology without transforming legitimate views into caricatures of themselves.

Sometimes people really do struggle with the most basic things in life (a shock, I know). And sometimes companies really do have bad practices or treat their employees poorly. The flaw with the more right-leaning versions of libertarianism is that there is this tendency to believe that if you acknowledge such social problems that you are ceding ground. But this is, in fact, the very notion that ideologically binds the non-libertarians to the Hobbesian state. The refusal to acknowledge these problems is, too often, just a shadow cast in the wake of a deeper concession - that the state is the only manner in which such problems could be rectified. I don't think this will prove to be a winning strategy in the long-run.

But, of course, it's also true enough that there really are many people across the libertarian spectrum who do buy into these "vulgar" (as left-libertarians have dubbed it) ideas. And while they might feel they're piercing some kind of politically correct veil, they're also helping to ensure a shaky foundation for the movement as a whole. There's little excuse for it generally, and that left-libertarians have brought it to the table should be noted (with humility and gratitude). They've provided an excellent source of perspective for swaths of radical libertarians out there. They've probably changed the course of the movement for the better, almost without a doubt. However, I believe right-leaning and more neutral radical libertarians could offer some humble criticisms in return.

My experiences with left-libertarians (a few excluded) leads me to believe there is a "vulgar" type of libertarianism that creeps within their community as well. It is the inverse of the well-noted pandemic in right-libertarianism. Instead of blindly supporting capital and excoriating labor, there is a tendency to blindly support labor and excoriate capital. I don't make these accusations carelessly, as left-libertarians bring light to a lot of issues and inconsistencies that dominate much of libertarian thought. But nevertheless, among them is surely the analog of right-libertarian "vulgarism." And while it's important that they point out that there are certainly both lower and higher order social problems that exist and that can be dispensed of in serious ways without aggression (in the libertarian sense), it doesn't follow that all of the problems that they point to are truly problems in a politically meaningful sense, or that the supposedly non-aggressive solutions to them are righteous.

This phenomenon extends to non-economic portions of the social front as well. Too often we see libertarian in-fighting around tenets of political correctness. While I'm inclined to believe that there really is something to the concepts that generate politically correct thought (from sexism to racism and all kinds of other matters of prejudice), I'm not quite sure that either side is appropriately weighing the scope of each individual issue at hand. Right-libertarians, for instance, are sometimes automatically dismissive of prevailing forms of sexism, while left-libertarians seem to find a lot of it that isn't (obviously) apparent. And this says nothing of the post-collision detractions pointed at one another, which often come across as equally nonsensical and intolerant. No, I don't think it's "right" when men generalize or demean women. But I also don't think it's right that we gun for some type of "non-violent" social exodus of such people either. It's one thing to push in the direction of good will and understanding. It's another to imprison people in their own thoughts and feelings for fear of ostracism.

I'm not going to pretend lines like that don't get blurry either. There really are people who proceed with bigotry and malice, and an evolution of tried solutions might reach towards public condemnation and excoriation. On the other hand, there really do seem like many instances where we're left trying to prove too much about the motivations of people, and not leaving them much room for tolerance and temperance in our judgment. I don't want people to have values that are objectionable to my own. But I also don't want to live in a world where all objectionable values are met with strong castigation either. Libertarianism is rife with schisms. The bridges between its factions aren't going to be easy to build, if they can be built at all. But even the most contentious slivers therein bring something to the table - they tend to better ground each other with small concessions and temperance. It's then not that surprising that for all left-libertarianism has provided the movement in terms of variance in perspective, the movement will inevitably push back against it with it's own (hopefully coherent) criticisms. This is a start.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

There Should be Awards for Stuff Like This

Alright - I had a Lysander Spooner quote that ended up in my FaceBook feed earlier today, and I made the mistake of thinking that it might be fun to look at the comments. Boy was I ever wrong.

The point in question was of the contractual nature of the Constitution and who it binds and in what manner it does so. Spooner, of course, claims that the supposed binding of the people to the power and privilege of the federal government thus constituted is nonsensical according to our most basic ethical notions. Now, some people were dismissing this out of hand; implying that the quote made no sense because the Constitution does not bind "the people", but rather binds the government. Clearly they were either not thinking hard about the considerable obligations entailed in giving the government specified (or plenary) powers, or they were conflating the Bill of Rights with the Constitution. (To be clear, I'm aware that the Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution - but you could understand how someone would be led to say such a thing if they were simply thinking of the Bill of Rights by itself.)

So, I tried to clear up both points - to illuminate the supposed "binding" which Spooner was seeking to criticize, and which I would also criticize. But we all know that no good deed goes unpunished. I immediately started to get responses from one person who apparently didn't get that I was simply trying to make some more subtle clarifications so that Spooner's point could be better grasped by the aforementioned commenters. He apparently thought, because I showed the manner in which people might feel that they were "bound" by such a document, that I was actually making a normative case for why this would be so. He then proceeded, in subsequent responses, to illustrate the finer points of libertarianism-101. I witnessed such breathtakingly nuanced arguments as:

The Constitution is a compact between the States and National Government."
"The Bill of rights is for the common man."
" Rights are inalienable."
" Natural Law trumps Positive Law."

 I'm not sure exactly who he thought he was arguing with. I have to think it wouldn't take much mental fortitude to figure out that I was in agreement with the initial criticism Spooner was laying out, and simply trying to help point people I felt were confused in the right direction. But apparently I'm wrong. I'd like to claim surprise but this happens constantly on FaceBook and blog comments - particularly among libertarians. We have a propensity to proselytize. It's just unfortunate that it's all too often, even unwittingly at times, to each other. There are certainly little nuances here and there that we bicker about. And that's fine as far as it goes. But when I get lectured about how rights are inalienable, or how positive law supervenes onto natural law something is wrong.

Plus, let's face it, there's something really creepy about people turning common nouns into proper nouns...who trusts libertarians who capitalize the words "National Government?"

Anyways, this wasn't even the main point of the post here. What I wanted to get at was something that was posted way after I had already given up on all humanity. One of the last comments in the thread was the following:

"Nothing more ironic than to see Americans dismiss the U.S. Constitution while they enjoy the freedoms and liberties to do so publicly which are uniquely guaranteed by it. Dismiss the people who are currently corrupting our government, but don't be so ignorant as to think that this is what our forefathers envisioned. Getting back to the Constitution and away from this perversion we call a Congress is the only hope for our future."

Alright, come on people! I can't even make this shit up! This was a (I can only assume) serious response...from a human being...on the subject of the Constitution...directed at LYSANDER SPOONER! This is the type of thing that really just brings out every ounce of misanthropy I can bear to will. It's not that I think that there is no argument for the Constitution, or against Spooner. Far from it. I'd imagine there are plenty of reasonable objections. But this is just willful ignorance at best. He doesn't even realize that what is probably Spooner's most tangible legacy is a short piece that attempts to spearhead this claim precisely, and leave it bleeding and eventually dead. The better part of his entire argument against the Constitution serves to highlight the incredible irony of statements like the one above.

The whole point of the document (the Constitution), and this coincides with the claims of its supporters, is to place strict limits on what government can and cannot do. By asking us to instead dismiss that government's current administrators is to vindicate Spooner's criticism entirely. Not only does the above argument do nothing to put a stop to Spooner's home-run, it gleefully helps to usher the ball over the fence. To say that not replying would have been better is to say too little. I'll instead go ahead and say that there could have been almost no worse response than that. That's how bad it was.

But I'll let you be the judge. You can read Spooner's words for yourself as he takes his victory lap around the bases:

"Inasmuch as the Constitution was never signed, nor agreed to, by anybody, as a contract, and therefore never bound anybody, and is now binding upon nobody; and is, moreover, such an one as no people can ever hereafter be expected to consent to, except as they may be forced to do so at the point of the bayonet, it is perhaps of no importance what its true legal meaning, as a contract, is. Nevertheless, the writer thinks it proper to say that, in his opinion, the Constitution is no such instrument as it has generally been assumed to be; but that by false interpretations, and naked usurpations, the government has been made in practice a very widely, and almost wholly, different thing from what the Constitution itself purports to authorize. He has heretofore written much, and could write much more, to prove that such is the truth. But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain — that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist."

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Gratitude for the Highwaymen

There's been a lot of shifting and posturing lately around the cut-off and transition dates that permeate the second quarter of the fiscal year. But the newest occupation of idle hands and minds is raising hell over their first paycheck of the year being smaller. There were several "temporary tax cuts" which were extended recently, but one that wasn't was the temporary cut on Social Security taxes (about 2%). It's not a gigantic amount but it's considerable enough to be noticed and apparently lamented.

I don't have too much of a problem with people making a fuss about that publicly. Frankly, I'm more concerned about the federal government's spending than their taxing (as the latter simply follows from the former in one way or another), but I can't help but be a little off-put by the reactions of some people to the "fussing" of others. Their retorts simply aren't substantive.

The bread and butter of the collective response so far has been to, first, reiterate the historical arc of how the temporary tax cut came to be, and , secondly, lambaste dissenters for not being grateful for whatever temporary reprieve from said taxation that they had enjoyed the previous two years. This rubs me the wrong way for a couple of different reasons.

As I alluded to above, taxation itself isn't the issue per se. The government gets its funding by borrowing and taxing. But even when it borrows, it's merely taxing inter-temporally  If I use a credit card to pay for something, I'm merely transferring my costs to myself in the future, at a premium. In the case of the card, my savings in the present is much higher than 2%. But it is not a gift. I'm still on the line for that bill. I am in debt. So it is with tax cuts. They are deferrals of payment. When and how the payment materializes is trivial to that point. And this is why I believe serious fiscal discourse should focus on spending as opposed to revenue.

However, the main issue I take with the casual retorts is that they are laden with an inherent assumption that, once unearthed, makes their argument quite petty and meaningless. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the government was fiscally responsible and more closely bound spending and revenue. What is on the table for discussion is this 2% payroll tax increase. Percentages are relative. To say that the taxpayer should be "grateful" for the tax rates we "enjoyed" during the last two years is to assume that the current rate of taxation is optimal or correct. But that discussion isn't being had. The implication is that any deviation from the baseline is a gift from government, and less that we should otherwise be paying. But what is the grounding for that?

To illustrate my point, assume that baseline taxation would have been twice as high. I think that most people would consider that level of taxation oppressive. And if there was a similar lapse in a 2% tax cut you might expect that dissension would be more common. And yet that would not follow from the logic being currently employed. There's nothing about their argument that says that we shouldn't also be grateful for that 2% reprieve in the hypothetical scenario.

And you may say, "But of course, that is because we're now talking about ridiculously high taxes..."

Ah, but that's precisely my point. The argument in question, which is being used against current dissenters, makes no account of the appropriate level of taxation. It only holds so long as the current level of taxation and/or spending is acceptable. If it isn't, then such an argument falls apart under it's own weight.

Of course, I'm not arguing (here) about what is or isn't an appropriate level of taxation. I simply wanted to point out that, too often, conversations like this are rife with implicit assumptions - many of which are either incoherent or at the least not definitive. And way too often we simply don't question such premises, and instead set our dialectical fortifications within the framework they've already established with the question itself. I would know because I fall victim to it all the time. But if you're cognizant enough to step back and criticize such framing, you can stop a silly argument in its tracks and, more importantly, watch the scales fall from the eyes of onlookers.