Tyler Cowen’s “State Capacity Libertarianism”

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Tyler Cowen recently posted an argument on his web page, Marginal Revolution, called, “What Libertarianism Has Become and Will Become: State Capacity Libertarianism.”

Terrible name, I thought. But I kept reading.

Cowen, who is professor of economics at George Mason University and director of its Mercatus Center, is probably the most prominent mainstream libertarian intellectual today. (In essence, “mainstream” means that nonlibertarians will listen to him.) His webpage shows a mind ranging from the history of the Marshall Plan to the economics of art to how globalization affects the way the world eats.

The essence of Cowen’s view is that civilization has always needed a functioning state to underpin property rights and markets, and that in the 21st-century it needs one to solve a range of problems.

He begins his piece as follows:

“Having tracked the libertarian ‘movement’ for much of my life, I believe it is now pretty much hollowed out, at least in terms of flow. One branch split off into Ron Paul-ism and less savory alt-right directions, and another, more establishment branch remains out there in force but not really commanding new adherents.”

The problem, he says, is that plumb-line libertarianism doesn’t address some 21st-century problems, starting with the effects of carbon combustion on the Earth’s climate. Smart libertarians and classical liberals, he says (with a nod to Adam Smith), “have, as if guided by an invisible hand, evolved into a view that I dub with the entirely non-sticky name of State Capacity Libertarianism.”

(Entirely non-sticky: correct.)

We need the state. And let’s admit that state power has achieved some vital things that were not going to be done by markets alone.

The essence of Cowen’s view is that civilization has always needed a functioning state to underpin property rights and markets, and that in the 21st-century it needs one to solve a range of problems from global warming and traffic congestion. “State Capacity Libertarians,” Cowen writes, “are more likely to have positive views of infrastructure, science subsidies, nuclear power (requires state support!), and space programs than are mainstream libertarians or modern Democrats.”

That’s right. We need the state. And let’s admit that state power has achieved some vital things that were not going to be done by markets alone. One is the creation of public-health institutions that can protect the public from such scourges as smallpox, polio, AIDS, SARS, and Ebola. Another is to make markets work better by requiring the disclosure of information such as the contents of processed food or the legal properties of stocks and bonds.

“Plumb-line” libertarians — the purists — will, of course, object that Cowen has opened the door to the state, which nonlibertarians will attempt to kick open all the way. And it is so. In the world of opinion journalism Cowen’s opened door was wrenched off its hinges by Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen in a piece entitled, “Libertarianism Is Losing Its Grip on Conservative Thought. Good.”

To Olsen, libertarians are zealots who declare “government always bad, private action always good.” And there are people like that. Olsen argues that this means libertarians “are congenitally unable to present plausible answers to challenges that people want addressed.” As an example, he cites the economic gap in Britain between the prosperous South and depressed North, an ailment to which the U.K.’s prime minister, the “one-nation conservative” Boris Johnson, now promises to minister. Olsen also cites the push by Sen. Mario Rubio (R-FL), for federal intervention to shore up “hollowed-out” manufacturing industries. Olsen applauds these proposals. He favors a politics in which “democratic governments can legitimately define a problem and then use tax, spending and regulatory policy to try to accomplish a specific, publicly defined goal.”

The purists will, of course, object that Cowen has opened the door to the state, which nonlibertarians will attempt to kick open all the way. And it is so.

Olsen goes on to argue that too many Republicans in Congress have been cowed by libertarians with their “government bad, private action good” mantra, so that the Republicans offer no solutions to such problems as health insurance coverage, climate change and “the modern economy’s impulse to value formal education and devalue common labor.” Olsen concludes, “Cowen’s essay is thus aptly timed, bringing a ray of sunshine into a long-darkened movement . . . The hard core will try to keep the rest of us in the shadows, but the days will lengthen as more and more conservatives break free from their frozen slumber.”

Shadows and dark forces aside, there is some truth in what Olsen says. Several of the Democratic presidential wannabees are pushing for the entire U.S. health insurance industry to be scrapped and replaced by federal officials. The Republicans oppose this, of course, but mainly by dragging their feet, which is not a strategy that ultimately wins. For years now, the Republicans in Congress have promised to repeal Obamacare, but when they had the votes to do it, they didn’t. They had nothing politically acceptable to replace it with. Now they are maneuvered into the position of effectively defending the program they promised to kill.

So Olsen has a point. If you are too doctrinaire you remove yourself from the discussion and you get nothing. But in defining his position, Olsen opens the door to state action much too wide. He wants government to take up “the challenges that people want addressed.” And that could be anything.

Libertarians seek to limit state action. Cowen is arguing, as am I, not to imagine limits too strict. To defend against an imminent threat to the health and safety of the people, state power may be used against foreign army or an infectious microbe, or to defend against a long-term threat like a warming planet. But the problem Olsen defines as “the modern economy’s impulse to value formal education and devalue common labor” is not such an imminent threat. Nor is the relative decline of manufacturing. These are social trends, not imminent dangers. The percentage of Americans employed in manufacturing has been declining since 1953 — and with the advance of robotics, employment in that sector, if not production, will continue to decline. Get used to it.

Now Republicans are maneuvered into the position of effectively defending the program they promised to kill.

To a libertarian, the market value of different kinds of labor is a background fact that you take into account in your private decisions. If you grow up in a low-wage area with few opportunities, you can move away. You can stay and start a company and thereby provide work. If you can’t make it in manufacturing, you can do something else. Go into the service industry. Become a university professor. Sell hot dogs. Whatever. To a libertarian, these are not government problems.

In today’s America, they are. Politicians and journalists proclaim a manufacturing crisis, an opioid crisis, a homeless crisis, a student-loan crisis, a teen pregnancy crisis, a food-desert crisis, an obesity crisis, on and on. The thing is endless. Government is enlisted to eradicate poverty, inequality, racism, sexism and homophobia. Reacting to the crisis of plastic bits in the Pacific Ocean, the city where I live has banned plastic straws, and to address the obesity crisis (supposedly) it taxes the sugar content of canned and bottled drinks.

No libertarian can accept Olsen’s idea of a government unleashed in this way. You can, however, consider Olsen’s criticism. Some of the time, out of political necessity, it makes sense to accept compromise solutions. Charter schools are better than uniform public schools. A mandate to buy private health insurance is better than “Medicare for All.” A carbon tax is better than green socialism. As George Orwell once wrote, the sure sign of a zealot is an argument that half a loaf is the same as no bread.

Politicians and journalists proclaim a manufacturing crisis, an opioid crisis, a homeless crisis, a student-loan crisis, a teen pregnancy crisis, a food-desert crisis, an obesity crisis, on and on. The thing is endless.

Consider some of the replies to Cowen from libertarians.

Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute was against him. “There is no political will or constituency for skillful technocratic state management of society . . . There is no third way between state and market.” Come on, Deist, don’t try to win by asserting theoretical categories. A society can have some state and some market — which is what we do have, here and in almost every jurisdiction on the planet, in various proportions. That’s what we’re talking about, and you know it. “Western states won't give up their sclerotic regulatory, tax, central banking, and entitlement systems no matter how many flying cars or hyperloops we want.” Yep, they probably won’t, just as Cowen says. “Climate change is not a problem or issue for anyone to solve.” Well, maybe not for anyone to solve, but perhaps for all of humanity to ameliorate — and intelligent amelioration might be good enough. “The environmental movement will quash nuclear (especially after Fukushima).” Maybe, but arguing in favor of nuclear power as part of the solution makes more sense than the environmentalist position, which is to pin all our hopes on solar and wind.

Deist also has his definition. “Libertarianism simply means ‘private.’ It is a non-state approach to organizing human society. It is not narrow or confining; in fact everything Cowen desires in an improved society can be advanced through private mechanisms.” Everything, eh? This reminds me of when I was a teenager and I wrote to Nathaniel Branden asking him how we would build highways without eminent domain. He replied that in a free society this would not be a problem, “nor has it ever been.”

Bryan Caplan offers a piece titled, “Worst Advice to Libertarians Ever?” He quotes Cowen’s lines, “We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.” Okay; Cowen didn’t say he liked growing government, but that he was willing to accept much of it. I don’t think this means, as responder Gabriel M. says, that Cowen “wants the next generation of libertarians to be social democrats.”

Arguing in favor of nuclear power as part of the solution makes more sense than the environmentalist position, which is to pin all our hopes on solar and wind.

Cowen replies to Caplan: “Bryan’s extreme rhetoric is a sign my points have hit home. I regularly debate these topics with him over lunch, I think Bryan is tired of being beat up upon in person. Note that in my essay I mention pandemics, global warming, and intellectual property as problem areas. There are plenty of facts on each topic. Bryan doesn’t mention one of these in response, instead shifting ground to the war on terror and resource pessimism, which he then punctures.”

When you argue against someone, rhetorical fairness requires that you take on their strongest points, not just their weakest ones.

At the Hoover Institution, economist David Henderson argues that “libertarianism, properly conceived, can handle almost all the modern problems that Cowen throws at it, whereas state capacity is fraught with danger.” Henderson argues that hardcore libertarians are right about recreational drugs, which maybe they are (meth, too?), and about the public schools. (Totally privatized schooling in one jump, or vouchers, or charters first?) He allows that on global warming, “if it is indeed a problem,” Cowen makes a good point. Maybe a carbon tax is needed, though how to get China pay its share? And do we really trust the government to get the details right? (What’s the alternative?) Henderson is right that there is some danger in Cowen’s position, but he also makes a crucial concession about global warming.

Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason, argues that Cowen’s “spirit is on target” but that his “specifics are fundamentally mistaken.” He goes on to concede, however, that Cowen is mostly right about the movement not commanding new adherents. And concerning the necessity of compromise, Gillespie writes that a better, non plumb-line definition of libertarianism is “an outlook that privileges things such as autonomy, open-mindedness, pluralism, tolerance, innovation, and voluntary cooperation over forced participation in as many parts of life as possible." I like that definition a lot, and I think Cowen would like it. It seems to me that Gillespie accepts much of what Cowen says.

Maybe a carbon tax is needed, though how to get China pay its share? And do we really trust the government to get the details right? (What’s the alternative?)

Dan Hugger of the Acton Institute argues that Cowen’s “state capacity libertarianism” “is actually a case for a politically pragmatic libertarianism tailor-made to a hostile audience.” Okay.

Several commenters describe Cowen’s position as left-liberal or social democrat — in other words, “liberaltarian.” These are sort-of libertarians who want to ally with Left in the hope of converting them. Read some of the comments from leftists on Olsen’s piece in the Washington Post.

  • “Libertarians are cruel,” writes Jetmechanic1. “Probably more so than republicans. They are overwhelmingly people who have money and status and don’t answer to anyone.”
  • “Libertarianism will never go away because Conservatives will always need a rationalization for ripping people off,” writes Blochead1.
  • “These people will eat you if they make a dime from it,” writes CountryMouse2.
  • “I’ve yet to hear of even ONE Libertarian of any stripe refusing to accept their Social Security checks,” writes CubbyMichael. (Isabel Paterson was one.)
  • From Domiba: “Tell a so-called libertarian to pave his own road.”
  • Then there is Kumit, who asserts that conservatism and libertarianism both are “just dog-whistle fascism.” (The “dog whistle” trope is a way of dismissing your opponents’ arguments without having to consider them.)

We are not allies of the Left. They don’t want anything to do with us. Cowen’s version of a compromised libertarianism is not “liberaltarianism” in any case.

Cowen’s positions are not plumb-line, but they are broadly libertarian. To me, the central statement of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you. This doesn’t mean that you don’t love your family or your country or the green Earth, or that you accept no obligations to them. It means that you decide which ones to accept, and that others respect your decision. You accept the world as you find it and make your own way. You can ask others for help, and if you treat them kindly you have a good chance of getting it, but you can’t demand it of them. “Society” does not owe you food, shelter, housing, medical care and a free bus pass.

Our opponents accuse us of saying, “You are on your own,” as if we were cutting people off from humanity. And I think: No way. You are free to make all kinds of affiliations, and most people do. But you decide — what you believe, whom you love, whom you live with, where you live, what work you do and how you spend your money.

You accept the world as you find it and make your own way. You can ask others for help, and if you treat them kindly you have a good chance of getting it, but you can’t demand it of them.

In many of these things, we are essentially a libertarian society right now. Our politics is not libertarian, but even in our economic life, we are broadly more libertarian than not.

The case for liberty is also about the quality of the society. A society of private decisions is fluid. Freewheeling. Organic. Its direction is set by the sum of people’s choices, of which only a small part is how they vote. More important is what they do. It is the same in industry. The future of the medical industry, for example, requires that innovators constantly develop new drugs, new devices, new treatments and new ideas. A single payer will tend to roll a moldy carpet over all that. Regarding research and development spending, Terence Kealey wrote in The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (1996), “Nationalization always lowers budgets, whatever the enterprise.” (p. 247). Especially when there is no competition — and that is what “single payer” means — government services tend to be not too good.

The political world of 2020 doesn’t want to hear this. The candidates vie with one another to offer free stuff and secular salvation. One is an avowed socialist, and none is a libertarian. Still we have a good case, and we can make it stronger if we are not so dogmatic about it. Life is complicated, and an entire political philosophy built on the nonaggression principle will not work and will not sell. But we can still promote a world of strong (if not absolute) self-ownership, self-reliance and individual rights. We can say what H.L. Mencken said of the freedom of the press, when asked how much of it he was for. His answer was, simply, “As much as people can stand.”




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The Good News about Us

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I was teaching a seminar, a week or so ago, when I got an interesting response to a simple observation.

The text was the Divine Comedy, and the topic was sin. I wanted to emphasize the distinction between “original sin” and what theologians call “total depravity.” There’s plenty of evidence for original sin, I noted; just look at children. They quite naturally lie, steal, and commit aggression. But the idea that there’s nothing good about people — that’s something different. “The empirical evidence indicates that people are mainly good,” I said. “Every day, almost everything they do is right.”

The students looked confused. “Our world couldn’t exist,” I continued, “if the vast majority of people’s decisions weren’t right. That’s how I was able to get here on the freeway this morning. Everybody was operating a lethal instrument, and one that’s not easy to handle, either; but everybody made the kind of moral and practical decisions that allowed thousands of us to get to our destinations.”

The empirical evidence indicates that people are mainly good. Every day, almost everything they do is right.

Suddenly the looks of doubt and confusion turned to surprise and joy. No one had thought of this obvious truth — a truth so obvious that, frankly, I usually forget it myself. As you know, I am especially prone to forget it while writing about the shocking state of our political affairs.

Yet the overwhelmingly correct decisions that people make in their daily lives are not just a vindication of human nature; they are a vindication of libertarian ideas about the importance of letting people make their own decisions. It’s true, there’s a difference between moral and practical choices. And it’s true, education is needed. Teenagers need to learn how to drive. They also need to learn that it’s morally wrong to express their irritations by aiming a huge hunk of steel going 70 miles an hour at the targets of their displeasure. But once they have the necessary education — which is not too hard to acquire, if authority figures don’t mess it up — they do pretty well in their own bailiwick. Better than the authority figures ordinarily do in theirs. So leave them alone! Laissez-faire!

No one had thought of this obvious truth — a truth so obvious that, frankly, I usually forget it myself.

Speaking of education, this isn’t a lesson that’s particularly difficult to convey to our friends and neighbors. It’s a joyful lesson. And here’s the corollary: The genius of limited government is that it reduces the number of bailiwicks in which authority figures can intervene, and make a mess of things. I don’t know how to spend your money, and neither does President Trump. And I don’t know how to run your race relations, healthcare, retirement schemes, diet, college choice, weapons provision, electricity consumption, or — to return to the original example — means of transportation. Neither does Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or any of the rest of them. So they should butt out.

Again, not hard to understand. And not even new. Alexander Pope said it 300 years ago:

Each might his sev’ral province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.




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Lori Heine, R.I.P.

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Lori Sue Heine, a beloved contributor to Liberty, died on July 8 at her home in Phoenix. She was 56.

A native of Phoenix, Lori graduated from Grand Canyon University in 1988. She spent much of her life in the insurance industry, but several years ago struck out on her own, working from home on individual projects. Her first contribution to Liberty, "Preaching to the Unconverted," appeared in our May 2010 issue. She was very popular with our readers.

I last heard from Lori in response to messages I sent on June 20 and 22, asking whether she was writing anything for us. She replied in the early morning of June 24: “I'm working on some notes right now for another essay. It should be ready in a few days.” She added that she taking some medication that wasn’t going right: “I've spoken with the doctor and she's prescribing something different. Hopefully it will be an improvement. I expect to be back on track now.”

When you read Lori's essays, you’ll meet an independent thinker, always judicious but always lively, ably projecting an energetic personal style.

In her latest article for Liberty she had criticized presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, pointing out aspects of his ideas that no one else seemed to have noticed. On July 3 I sent her new evidence of his folly, congratulating her on being right. The next day she wrote to me: “I agree. Buttigieg is a couple crab puffs shy of a pu-pu plate. This is shaping into a very entertaining Democratic race.” She mentioned “the circus of amusement,” and wished me a happy Fourth of July.

That message was the last I received.

If you go to Liberty’s Search function and type her name, you’ll find about 80 contributions — a remarkable legacy. Some are responses to items in the news, some are answers to perennial questions, but each of them is as fresh as the day it was written. Lori had the knack of showing how immediate issues are connected with universal principles, and of illustrating universal principles by vivid pictures from ordinary life. When you read her essays, you’ll meet an independent thinker, always judicious but always lively, ably projecting an energetic personal style.

I used the terms “independent” and “personal,” but they aren’t good enough. It’s easy to be independent and personal if that’s all you want to be: just adopt the edgiest position you can, and announce it in the first words that come to you. Lori wouldn’t dream of doing that. She labeled her works “essays” (“Essay #3,” “Essay #5”) because that’s what they were: essays, in the original sense of the word — serious attempts to arrive at truth. Each was an intellectual experience, ripening toward the moment when it could be given its most appropriate name. Yet as you read it, its shape came through right away, clear and sound as a crystal vase.

Lori required very little editing. Good copy is delightful to any editor, but I was particularly interested in Lori’s responses to the few edits I made. She considered them carefully, accepting most but often going beyond them, sending the work back to me with brief but important additions and alterations. They weren’t just fine tunings; they were ways of setting things right at the moment while embarking on the next journey of thought and feeling. It was as if there were one great essay that was always growing out of her experience. When I’d write to her asking whether she might have something for Liberty, she usually replied, “I’ve been thinking . . .”

She labeled her works “essays” because that’s what they were: essays, in the original sense of the word — serious attempts to arrive at truth.

Maybe a crystal vase isn’t exactly the right metaphor, although it’s close. Lori’s essays were shapely, but they weren’t intended to be ornamental; she wanted them to hold water, and they did. Before she sat down at the keyboard, her concepts had already passed a serious examination; then, as the keyboard clicked, they were rigorously interrogated and ruthlessly disciplined. When she was finished, I’m sure she sat back and said, “I think that’s good!” When she started her next essay, I’m sure she said, “I think this will be better!”

Bill Merritt, also a distinguished contributor to Liberty, has said of Lori: “I never met her and didn't know her outside of the pages of Liberty but sometimes one comes to feel like he knows a writer, and I'd come to really admire her, not just for her words, but for the largeness of her . . . soul, for lack of a better word.”

Lori’s political ideas expressed that generous soul. She was a libertarian because, to paraphrase the words of Christ, she wanted people to have life and have it more abundantly. Her most common argument was that both Left and Right have it wrong; their idea of reality is severely constricted, and being so, is blind to at least half the world and its opportunities. For ignorance, prejudice, self-conceit, and meddling she had a noble scorn, but her goal was to persuade both Left and Right, and Libertarians too, that they should grow out of those things. She thought that when they did, they would find that life was good. To paraphrase another literary eminence, she thought they might achieve a just and lasting peace among themselves, and with all others.

As a lesbian Christian, active in the Episcopal church and in gay environments in which libertarian opinion is uncommon, Lori had many opportunities to practice what she preached. She seized them. Detesting the sentimentality and hypocrisy of modern liberals and Progressives, just as she detested the social bigotries of many modern conservatives, she declined to participate in the rituals of any tribe; yet she stayed in there, making good arguments, trying to find common ground, and when not finding it, refusing to have a fit, stage a scene, or make contemporary social life any more miserable than it was already. I believe she was always — to use the military metaphor — left in possession of the field.

Lori was a libertarian because, to paraphrase the words of Christ, she wanted people to have life and have it more abundantly.

Now I will speak more personally. The news of Lori’s death was devastating to me. During the years of our association I had come to depend on her, in several ways. Most obviously, I looked forward to the writing that she regularly, and generously, provided to Liberty. She wasn’t “on contract,” but every three or four weeks, an essay would turn up in my mailbox. If more weeks passed and I hadn’t received an essay, I wrote to her, saying that I knew she had something cooking — and she always did. Something savory, too.

But I didn’t rely just on her writing. I relied on her. Lori was one of those great libertarians — Ayn Rand, Isabel Paterson, R.W. Bradford — who delighted in staying up late at night to converse about things that mattered, in a way that mattered: wittily, knowledgeably, and with all of the self engaged. That’s what she did for me, online, during the many late nights of messages that she and I sent back and forth. Often our conversation was about popular culture and our impressions and memories of it — “Wonder Woman”! — and about life in Gay America. Often it was about people’s attitudes to politics and the strange experiences that a normal, rational person (Lori) had in her journey through our weird National Conversations. And often the dialogue turned to religion. Lori was devoutly but unostentatiously religious. As a fellow Episcopalian, I treasured her sharp insights on Christian customs and beliefs, and on the social environment of our church and other churches. I didn’t just treasure them. I looked forward to them, laughed over them, and loved them.

Again, I found that Lori was willing to back her opinions with her daily life. A vigorous opponent of political correctness, she refused to reciprocate the hostility of the politically correct. An advocate of individualism, she made her own decisions and took absolute responsibility for them. A lover of her country, she embodied, in her thoughtfulness and candor, the true ideals of citizenship. A lover of liberty, she gladly granted others not only freedom but also tolerance and understanding. A thinker, she also knew how to write. What more can you want? Only that Lori should still be with us.

In September 2018, Lori’s book Good Clowns was published. It is available from Amazon.




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Four Theories about the Great Depression

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More than most people, libertarians have beliefs about the Great Depression. Having spent several years studying the matter, I have some conclusions about four such beliefs: first, that what caused the depression was the Federal Reserve allowing a drop in the money supply; second, that what made it terrible was the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which collapsed America’s foreign trade; third, that the New Deal really began under Herbert Hoover; and fourth, that what lengthened the Depression was fear of what the New Deal government would do.

In addressing these questions, I am relying heavily on my hometown newspapers — the Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Star — because newspapers are “the raw material of history.” They are not the only sources available, and they have their mistakes, omissions, and biases. But they are broader than politicians’ collected personal papers and broader, in a different sense, than the economists’ statistical tables. As sources for general research about a period, I like newspapers best. I know newspapers. I spent 37 years working for newspapers and magazines, about half that time on the business and financial pages.

The first of the four beliefs, associated with Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, is that the Federal Reserve was responsible for turning a recession into a depression — the deepest and longest in American history — by shrinking the money supply. It’s true that there was less money in people’s pockets, and that was a bad effect. But when economists talk about the Fed shrinking the money supply, they mean shrinking the money available to the banks — and during most of the Depression banks were loaded to the gunwales with money. With few willing and qualified borrowers, they simply parked depositors’ money in US Treasury bonds and local bonds and warrants (thereby helping to finance their local governments and the New Deal). Bankers talked about this on the business pages, and showed it in the year-end bank balance sheets presented in newspaper display ads. For those reasons I find it difficult to indict the Fed for starving the banking system of money.

Newspapers have their mistakes, omissions, and biases. But they are broader than politicians’ collected personal papers and broader, in a different sense, than the economists’ statistical tables.

A variant of this argument is that the Fed mistakenly turned a recession into a depression by raising interest rates.

Overall the Fed lowered interest rates in the depression. In the two years following the Crash of 1929, the Fed cut its rate on short-term loans to banks, going down from 6% to 1.5%. But to stop the outflow of the Treasury’s gold during the currency crisis of September 1931, the Fed temporarily raised the rate to 3.5%. This 2% bump is the “mistake” that the economists holler about. At the time the Fed did this, critics said it would retard recovery, and when recovery didn’t come, the critics pronounced themselves right. But at the time, the financial editor of the Seattle Times noted that the Fed’s supposedly stimulative 1.5% interest rate hadn’t done anything to stimulate recovery. (The Keynesians would later say the Fed was “pushing on a string.”) Investors weren’t holding back because of two percentage points. They were holding back because they were afraid to borrow at all.

I’m not a historian of the Fed, and am not claiming the Fed made no mistakes. But pinning the depression on the stinginess of the Fed to the banks doesn’t seem right. If it were true, the interest rates would have been higher. Also, there would have been furious complaints in the newspapers, even in Seattle. And I didn’t see it.

During most of the Depression banks were loaded to the gunwales with cash. With few willing and qualified borrowers, they simply parked depositors’ money.

The second belief is that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff caused the Depression by posting the highest taxes on imports in the 20th century. The figure usually cited is that the average tariff rate under Smoot-Hawley was 59% — a horrible rate. This, however, was the rate on dutiable goods, and excludes the many goods on the free list. The average rate on all goods was 19.8% — still bad, but something less than torture.

Free traders always reach for the Smoot-Hawley argument. I have heard it not only from libertarians but from supporters of the WTO, TPP, NAFTA, and the promoters of trade in my hometown. And politically, I am on free traders’ side. I agree that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, signed in June 1930 by Herbert Hoover, was bad medicine. And in this case, there was protest in the newspapers, with voices saying it was a terrible, self-defeating law, and predicting that other countries would retaliate. The newspapers ran stories when the other countries did retaliate.

Smoot-Hawley was also a contributing cause of the collapse in the international bond market in 1931, because it made it more difficult for America’s debtors — Britain, France, Germany, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and others — to earn the dollars to repay their debts. But this one bad law cannot bear all the blame for the subsequent implosion of America’s imports and exports.

I can think of four reasons why. First, the Depression was already on, so that by June 1930 imports and exports were already headed downward. Second, if you want to blame tariffs, put two-thirds of the blame on the tariffs in place before Smoot-Hawley was signed, which were an average of 13.5% on all goods. Third, in 1930 exports made up only about 5% of US output (versus 12.5% today), so that the shrinkage in trade, though dramatic in itself, was only two or three percentage points of the overall economy.

This one bad law cannot bear all the blame for the subsequent implosion of America’s imports and exports.

Finally, in September 1931, the British Commonwealth went off the gold standard. The British, Australian, and Canadian currencies were immediately devalued by 15 to 20%. Austria, Germany, Japan, and Sweden also went off gold, effectively devaluing their own currencies. The products of these fiat-money countries immediately dropped in price relative to the products of the United States. One example: Swedish wood pulp pushed US pulp out of world markets, so that almost all the pulp mills in Washington state shut down.

When Franklin Roosevelt came into office in March 1933, he ended the convertibility of the dollar into gold at the old rate of $20.67 an ounce. The reason for doing this was not a shortage of gold; the Treasury had stacks of it. The reason was to match the foreign devaluations and make American goods competitive again. And it did. Trade, the stock market, and the real economy jumped immediately when the dollar went off gold. From April to July 1933 there was a kind of boom, even though Smoot-Hawley was still in effect. (The boom ended because of the National Industrial Recovery Act and some other things, but that is another story.)

If you focus on principles, which libertarians like to do, you can lose sight of magnitudes and proportions that matter more.

The third belief, that Herbert Hoover was an interventionist and implemented a kind of proto-New Deal, is a thesis of Murray Rothbard in America’s Great Depression. Rothbard recounts that after the Crash of 1929, Hoover called leaders of industry to the White House and made them promise not to cut wages. The theory at the time was that this would maintain “purchasing power” and thereby prevent a depression. That was a precedent for the New Deal. It was noted at the time by business columnist Merryle Rukeyser (father of Louis Rukeyser, host of PBS-TV’s “Wall Street Week” from 1970 to 2002). Merryle Rukeyser wrote in December 1929 of the Hoover meetings, “The old-fashioned idea of leaving such matters to the individualism of business leaders — known as the doctrine of laissez faire among economists — has been formally laid to rest and buried.”

So Rothbard had a point: in principle, Hoover was an interventionist. But if you focus on principles, which libertarians like to do, you can lose sight of magnitudes and proportions that matter more. The larger fact is that the Hoover and Roosevelt regimes were hugely different in what the federal government undertook to do, what constitutional precedents they set, how many people they employed, how much money they spent, and how much they affected the world we still live in.

The fourth belief, that the New Deal prolonged the depression by frightening investors, is the thesis of libertarian historian Robert Higgs in his essay, “Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed After the War.” (Reprinted in Depression, War and Cold War, Independent Institute, 2006.) Higgs argues that the Depression lasted for more than ten years because of “a pervasive uncertainty among investors about the security of their property rights in their capital and its prospective returns” during the later New Deal of 1935–1940.

I can’t comment on much past the beginning of 1935, because that’s where I am in my reading. But I can verify that “regime uncertainty” was real, and that I saw evidence of it beginning in mid-1933, when the initial Roosevelt boom faltered.

At first Forbes advised his business readers to swallow it and said he was loyally swallowing it himself.

In the newspapers I read, the best barometer of this is B.C. Forbes’ business-page column. Forbes — the founder of the eponymous magazine — was very much a pro-capitalist guy. (The magazine calls itself a “capitalist tool.”) Forbes once wrote that his job as a newspaper columnist was to explain the economy to ordinary readers by interviewing industrialists and bankers. Much of the time Forbes was a transmission belt of their doings, thoughts, and feelings along with his own.

It was predictable that Forbes would not like the New Deal. At first he advised his business readers to swallow it and said he was loyally swallowing it himself. But he quickly began choking on the two principal “recovery” programs, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRA’s boss, Gen. Hugh Johnson, was a loud, imperious man who had been President Wilson’s boss of military conscription during World War I. During the early New Deal, Johnson helped to popularize two expressions: to chisel, meaning to lower one’s price below the government minimum, and to crack down, meaning to punish. In July 1933, Johnson went right to work, cracking down on the chiselers in American industry.

General Johnson was the closest that peacetime American business ever had to a military dictator. In August 1933, Forbes called him “a Vesuvius, in epochal, thundering eruption . . . Not even Teddy Roosevelt in his most explosive days matched General Johnson’s Titanic energy and action — or his wielding of the big stick.”

And: “Mussolini has nothing on him in readiness to undertake multitudinous tasks and to swing the Big Stick.” (This was when Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, was popular with many Americans.)

General Johnson was the closest that peacetime American business ever had to a military dictator.

In the fall of 1934, when Gen. Johnson was replaced by labor attorney Donald Richberg, Forbes wrote: “Reason is expected to replace ranting swashbucklerism.” Forbes loved to publicize good omens, but during these years he was repeatedly disappointed.

In March 1934, Forbes quoted an anonymous industrialist (probably Charles Schwab of Bethlehem Steel, whom he named elsewhere in the column): “No, don’t quote me as saying anything that would sound like criticism of the administration or any branch of it. It’s too dangerous. I don’t want to be cracked down on at this time when Washington has unlimited power to do what it likes.”

Later in the same month Forbes wrote, “The fear today is not of the law but of bureaucrats. Few employers regard themselves as in a position to stand up against dictation as Henry Ford has done.” (Ford had refused to accept the NRA’s “voluntary” price and production controls, and was not allowed to display the Blue Eagle and its motto “We Do Our Part.”)

One of Forbes’ October 1934 columns was an open letter to Franklin Roosevelt, titled in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer “Mr. President, All Employers Aren’t Crooks.”

Forbes loved to publicize good omens, but during these years he was repeatedly disappointed.

Forbes is not the only wellspring of business angst. Here is Merryle Rukeyser, a man more sympathetic to the New Deal than Forbes, in September 1934: “Business men are in a timid mood because of lack of assurance as to their tax liability and as to the attitude of the powers that be toward business profits.”

A doubter might argue that a handful of newspaper columns aren’t enough to prove Higgs’ thesis. I suppose so; but how would you prove it? It is about a state of mind — “confidence” — and how do you demonstrate that except by considering what people say and do? In fact, investors talked and acted as if they lacked confidence; statistics show a shortage of long-term investment. And in fact, there were statements by Roosevelt and by Hugh Johnson, Harold Ickes, Henry Wallace, Rexford Tugwell, and other New Dealers that might very well cause investors to lack confidence. And it was not only the New Dealers, but also their opponents on the left: Dr. Francis Townsend, who wanted every American over 60 to have $200 a month of government money (about $3000 in today’s terms); Upton Sinclair, the Democratic nominee for governor who wanted to set up a socialist economy in California; Father Coughlin, a radio priest who ranted against the rich; and Sen. Huey Long, the “Kingfish” of Louisiana who called his program “Share the Wealth,” and who was stopped only by an assassin’s bullet. This was a different time — and newspapers give you a flavor of it.

Of the four beliefs about the Depression I mentioned at the beginning, I think Robert Higgs’ “regime uncertainty” is most clearly verified. (Read his essay!) The crucial fact about the Depression of the 1930s is not that America got out of it; it always gets out. It’s that the getting out took more than ten years, which was longer any other depression in US history, and that Canada, Britain, Germany, and most other countries got out sooner, and that it took a worldwide war and the eclipse of the New Dealers for America to get all the way out.

Investors talked and acted as if they lacked confidence; statistics show a shortage of long-term investment.

But I don’t think the depression of the 1930s — the onset of it, the depth of it, the duration of it — was caused by any single thing. The commercial world is more complicated than that. I think the Austrian theory of overinvestment, or “mal-investment,” explains much of the setup of the crash, because in the late 1920s and into 1930 there were a lot of bad investments in real estate, commercial buildings, holding companies, and junky stocks. The Crash in 1929 shrank people’s assets and, more important, their confidence — for years. The Dow Jones Industrials went down almost 90%. The reparations owed by Germany to Britain and France, the sovereign debts owed to the United States by Germany, Britain, and France, as well as by Brazil and other South American republics, all had something to do with it, because in 1931 this grand edifice of debt went down in a heap. The bond market was so thoroughly wrecked that counties, cities, school districts, and corporations were locked out of long-term borrowing for several years. Smoot-Hawley and the whole movement toward economic nationalism had a bad effect. The gold standard deepened the Depression because it imposed a discipline on government finances — heavy spending cuts — at a time when they were painful, and when some countries freed themselves of that discipline it shifted the pain to the other ones. Finally, the anti-capitalist political currents and the ad hoc, experimental, extralegal character of the New Deal frightened investors, whose long-term commitments were needed for economic recovery.

That’s the best I can do. I’m still reading old newspapers.




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Making It Work

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Libertarian policy proposals are often ridiculed for being too impractical and naively idealistic. This article will put forward practical solutions for implementing libertarian policies in ways that can, and will, work in the real world. Privatization and healthcare, two areas in which libertarian policy is hotly contested, are the focus.

I’ll start with a summary of two objections to freedom and follow with a solution for overcoming that objection. I will then add details.

First Objection: infrastructure — such as roads and train lines — and utilities cannot be privatized because they are natural monopolies: two operators cannot compete along the same line at the same time.

Most people are aware that public monopolies are often mismanaged by operators who have no accountability to the public.

First Solution: if the right to operate the space, be it the road, or train line, or power line, were auctioned off for very short periods, at open competitive bidding, it stands to reason that the efficient privatization company would make enough money to place the highest bid at the next round, and would have operated in the best way possible to maximize profits and consumers (if consumers cared to listen to reason). In other words, private operators would compete along the vector of time, not space, with the most efficient one winning the highest profit and likely making the highest bid for the next slot of time.

Second Objection: under the present system, which evolved under capitalism, health insurers pay for the healthcare of the people who pay healthcare premiums, the premiums bearing no direct relation to the healthcare actually received. The system would have to work this way, because the whole idea of insurance is that you pay for the risk that you may one day need insurance, not for the actual healthcare you receive thereafter. This system causes a disconnect between the healthcare buyers and the healthcare sellers, enabling the sellers to jack up their prices. Only big government and a bunch of crusty, arrogant, elitist bureaucrats have the power to step in and force prices down to affordable levels by setting or capping prices by law.

Second Solution: to the extent that health insurance as such poses a structural tendency to sever payment from delivery of service, the problem can be solved not by leaning toward big government but by moving toward greater freedom in free-market competition. Require doctors to publish schedules of what services they offer and at what costs, as would be reasonable in any capitalist system in which sellers must be honest about what they are selling. Then drastically deregulate health insurers so that any entrepreneur can start a health insurance company and compete in any state, across state lines. In this ideal world, health insurers would compete in a marketplace — not a fake Obamacare exchange but a real capitalist free market.

What this natural monopoly thought process ignores is that there are many ways for companies to compete, if you think outside the box.

What will naturally evolve from this is a situation in which, to pass along as much cost saving to customers as possible, in order to get as much business as possible, some health insurers will develop a system for the insureds to prepay for the price services they want, from specific doctors at specific prices. Then, if they get sick and need those services, they will get what they shopped and paid for. The actual payment mechanism would still be the insurer pooling all payments and then paying after the fact for the people who got sick, but price competition would force doctors to lower their prices to competitive levels to get buyers, and this same pricing pressure would force health insurers to pass along the best deal to the buyer. Premiums would be applied after the fact, pro rata, to the healthcare that people chose to buy before the fact. A buyer will compare prices and choose a seller, and buyers and sellers will naturally converge at the equilibrium price point between supply and demand — which as (smart, sane, rational, libertarian) economists know, is the right antidote for monopolistic price gouging.

Details:

Examples of so-called natural monopolies include transit routes, bandwidth, electric utilities and power lines, cable service, garbage collection, and air space for planes or drones.

“Natural monopoly” public infrastructure can be privatized. And they should be privatized. Most people are aware that public monopolies are often mismanaged by operators who have no accountability to the public.

But it is assumed that there can be no competing alternatives, since the land or space simply isn’t there. So let there be a monopoly, but have the government regulate it so it will be forced it to sell at price points below the monopoly price. What this natural monopoly thought process ignores is that there are many ways for companies to compete, if you think outside the box.

Competition in running natural monopoly infrastructure can take place along the dimension of time, not of space, such that, when the natural monopolies are privatized, what is sold is a lease, essentially, to last two or three years, but no longer. The buyer would have every right to do whatever he likes with the land or infrastructure and monetize and run it as he pleases, but only for the term of the lease, at which point the right to buy the next period of time would be up for open bidding and awarded to the highest bidder. Economic efficiency and capitalist theory dictate that the company that can make the most money from such an enterprise will tend to be both the highest bidder and the company that can continue to run it the best. If a transit route is run badly, sales will flag, profits will drop, and the opportunity will arise for someone better to place a higher bid in the next round. Thus, even with only one owner, there will be competition in the economic sense.

If you believe instead, as smart people do, that money is made in a free society by creating high quality at an affordable price where supply meets demand, then the objection collapses.

Additions to the scheme may need to be made, such as requiring a pro rata portion of an operator’s profits to be paid back to previous owners who invested in long-term durable equipment or improvements from which the current owner benefits. But such additions are not difficult to design. As a bonus, if any contractor commits massive fraud against the consumer, this will be easy to see, because if a competing operator wins the next lease bid, when he looks at the infrastructure he will see what the previous operator did to it, and consumers will be protected better than we would be under heavy regulator scrutiny.

Today’s economy already proves that this will work. There are hundreds of huge corporations that buy some downstream service from only one seller, for the term of a lease; and there is ample price competition, even though only one seller can get the deal to be a supplier at one time. The companies that sell “back end” human resources services (outsourced services such as paychecks and benefits management) to Fortune 500 corporations are an example: a buyer can sensibly go with only one seller at a time, but there is a ton of competition. Another example: places exist where various owners own the rights to different heights above the ground of a single plot of land, so that two companies can compete by owning different floors of the same building, competing along the dimension of height, not of length.

The person who made the original objection to privatization will object again, saying that the rich will bid big to get ownership of the monopoly, charge high prices while offering crappy service, and run away after their lease ends — taking profits derived from forcing people to pay a lot for a service with no alternatives. The operators’ costs would have been low, since they didn’t give a damn about infrastructure investments. But this objection reduces merely to the general argument against free market capitalism. The Marxists and socialists think that rich people get rich by fleecing their victims. If you believe instead, as smart people do, that money is made in a free society by creating high quality at an affordable price where supply meets demand, then the objection collapses. Specifically it is wrong because an operator who does a good job will always make more, net, long term, than a con artist, hence the good operator will have more money and more motivation to outbid the crooks.

New York City as subway operator does not, and cannot, spend the money it should to maintain the subway service as it deserves and needs.

This is not to say that the system can never be abused. No system is perfect. Privatization is certainly not less perfect that a regulated natural monopoly, and it would ultimately be far better. Just ask anyone who rides the subway in New York City: in addition to being a vital means of transportation for millions of New Yorkers, it is also the location that the wonderfully brainless liberal politicians of New York have chosen as the de facto living space for the mentally ill homeless people, just to get them off the streets. The bigger picture is that the economic demand for the subway would justify a rise in fares that is politically unpopular and therefore impossible. So New York City as subway operator does not, and cannot, spend the money it should to maintain the subway service as it deserves and needs. The New York Times even ran a crusade to get more spending for the subways, noting how horrible they are and how many people use them, which crusade did not succeed, and could not succeed. The free market would do better.

I have suggested two or three years as the basic contract period for the operation of natural monopolies. It needs to be short enough to enable consumers to hold bad operators accountable so that better ones can step in. Employees may not want two- or three-year contracts, and somewhat more may need to be paid them on this account. Nevertheless, we need to get away from the labor union mentality, according to which the labor pool only works if employees are chained to their jobs and employers are chained to long-term labor contracts. The United States is becoming "the gig economy," as they say, led by the Uber and Lyft drivers. A lot of industries are moving toward hiring employees for a temporary, shorter duration and away from hiring them for permanent, full-time jobs. Employees with strong professional skills are so valuable that no one who purchased a short-term lease on a natural monopoly would want to get rid of them.

As far as planning goes, there are examples in today's economy of businesses drawing up plans for long-term operations, because that is how they can best succeed, but if their basic contracts are not renewed, they just tear up the plans. In business you need long-term plans, but you also need to face the risk that these plans may fail dramatically, at any time. If you don't get investors in your second year of operation, you just eat the third, fourth and fifth years of your business plan, no matter how great those years might have been.

Thousands of small businesses will pop up to become micro-health insurers and facilitate the trade, between doctor and patient, of treatment for money.

Now to some details about healthcare. Free market economics doesn’t work if there is a disconnect between the person who pays the money for a benefit and the person who receives the benefit. The disconnect causes prices and costs to skyrocket, because the buyer cannot force the seller down. Many libertarians already know this: one of our objections to government spending is that the government will overspend because there is a disconnect between the taxpayer and the beneficiary. Healthcare, where the health insurer pays but the patient receives the treatment, and does not directly pay the doctor, and the doctors don’t compete for each individual patient on price, is a great example of a buy-sell disconnect.

The problem with health insurance is that, originally, it was in fact insurance that a person bought to mitigate the risk of getting sick, but it has become a behemoth that pays for all medical expenses and then collects exorbitant and arbitrary amounts from the public, with no connection between payments and collections in an individual patient’s case. The problem arises because, by the time people become sick, their medical costs are typically too great for them to pay, so they must have already had insurance to get treatment, and the insurance will then end up paying all costs.

To reform healthcare, first, require doctors, as a condition of receiving their license to practice medicine, or merely by means of laws mandating truth in advertising, to create a schedule of fees and prices for each of their services, and publish it, and let individual patients receive that care if they pay that fee from the schedule of rates. Second, break up the regulations of health insurance companies so that anyone can start one and can compete in every state with a minimum of red tape. Third, require that each health insurer publish the actuarial tables that each insurer is using, showing what portion of your payment will pay for what medical treatment in the future from what doctor’s schedule of fees. Fourth, allow the consumer to “buy” his future medical treatment by choosing what portion of his premium he chooses to allocate to the doctors’ services that he could potentially get, from the competing doctors’ fee schedules, “through” his health insurance company.

The doctors who succeeded would be those who proved they could deliver successful, effective treatments, but at cheaper prices.

The health insurer would pool the buyers’ payment to make the actual payment to the doctors for the insureds who become sick, but each buyer could take the income that he has allotted for health insurance and “spend” it by choosing the slate of healthcare services he would pay for at that price, selecting his doctor from among the competitors. Doctors would compete on the price to be chosen by each buyer when he decides how to allot his healthcare premium spend.

This would combine two novel approaches: “shopping” for treatment from the doctor, not the insurer, and expanding competition among health insurers by allowing small startup health insurers, akin to what was done for poor businesses in Asia by the “micro-credit” revolution that enabled any poor woman or man to open a business on a small loan. Thousands of small businesses will pop up to become micro-health insurers and facilitate the trade, between doctor and patient, of treatment for money. This would connect the buyer to the seller and enable massive price competition among doctors, so costs would plummet, because many doctors would seek patients by offering cheaper prices at affordable levels of quality. Obviously this would not lower the quality of healthcare, because the doctors who succeeded would be those who proved they could deliver successful, effective treatments, but at cheaper prices. In today’s world, where everyone finds ratings and reviews online, the doctors with the best value propositions, defined as higher quality at cheaper price, would be readily apparent.

The micro-health insurer could also prepay, locking the buyer and seller in at that price while taking profit up front and not when the healthcare is delivered. This would keep healthcare costs locked down at the competitive price the buyer chose to pay, and complete the sale for the buyer at the time of purchase, not after the fact when the patient-buyer becomes sick and his very life depends on paying for healthcare. Right now there are maybe a handful of insurers and 20 health insurance plans that compete in any given state Obamacare Exchange, but the initiative I have outlined would open the door to thousands of health insurers, and potentially hundreds of thousands of healthcare “menus” and “menu items” available to buyers pre-paying doctors a pro rata share of the healthcare premium cost of treatments received.

A free-market system could work for the benefit of all Americans by introducing price competition into the healthcare industry.

The analogy of healthcare options to a menu at a restaurant is apropos. People need food. If you don’t have it, you die, just as a sick person who needs medical treatment gets it or dies. This does not enable the farms to jack up the price of food until it is out of sight, as doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical makers are doing. Instead, thousands of restaurants and grocery stores compete, buying food from farms and selling it as a selection of options on a menu. People buy what they want, within the limits of their budget. Consumers win, and have tasty meals and full bellies. Yes, poor people may have to eat at cheap fast food stores, but they don’t starve to death (and the food at Dunkin Donuts is not that bad!). If you are willing to make do with less, such as by purchasing vegetables and cooking your food at home, you can eat quite nicely. So, too, could a free-market system work for the benefit of all Americans by introducing price competition into the healthcare industry, which would create affordable options across a range of price points.

The conclusion to infer from this article is that, while the statists object that libertarian policy cannot be implemented in a practical manner, this is simply not true. Thinking outside the box, and being creative and innovative about policy solutions, will meet the challenge of making liberty work for America.




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Designer Reality

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Libertarians take great stock in the law of supply and demand. We understand that as long as something is in demand (as long as it isn’t a cure for cancer), there will generally be a supply of it. As it was with alcohol — the consumption of which only increased as a result of Prohibition — so, too, has it been with such drugs as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

Less obvious, perhaps even to us, is the driving force behind the seemingly unstoppable popularity of alternative reality. Why do so many people, in this increasingly dystopian century, appear to be disconnected from objective truth? I don’t believe it can simply be explained as dissatisfaction with dystopia. There appears to be a general notion that people can believe whatever they want, and that reality is so subjective that it is mere clay, to be molded into whatever shape they choose.

In childhood, this is called imagination. If it persists into adulthood, it can become a form of mental illness. And instead of the remedy for dystopia, it appears to be the cause of it. Even a great many of those who never resort to alcohol or other drugs are addicted to designer reality.

Why do so many people, in this increasingly dystopian century, appear to be disconnected from objective truth?

Nor are libertarians immune to the addiction. I recently made the mistake of involving myself in one of those pointless Facebook flame wars I keep resolving to stay out of. It was on a libertarian page, and some cocky young gun posted yet another of those dreary challenges to feminine patience: “Why aren’t there more libertarian women?”

Of those who jumped into this discussion on the commentary thread, at least half were women. Real live, flesh-and-blood women were saying that we did exist, explaining how we had come to be libertarians, and suggesting how more of us could be encouraged to follow. Not that this appeared to teach the young gun, or his buddies, anything of value.

The answer to every one of our comments was some variation of the same: “Libertarianism is a logical philosophy, and men are logical, but women are not. Women are emotional and cannot be logical.” It was basically only a slightly more mature version of “Girls are stinky and have cooties” or of that old playground taunt: “Girls go to Jupiter to get more stupider. Boys go to Mars to get more candy bars.” I suppose the goal was to get us to be more emotional, so they could prove their point.

The word “logic” kept being repeated, as if it were a magical incantation. I saw zero evidence that these guys were using much of it, but they seemed to think if they kept asserting that they possessed superior logic, they needed to do no more. They had their designer reality, it gave them a terrific high, and they could imagine nothing better. The possibility that if they stopped telling us how illogical we were, and actually made the effort to explain the libertarian philosophy to us, they might meet with more widespread results, apparently never occurred to them.

It differs little from telling children that Santa Claus doesn’t really come down the chimney and eat those cookies.

Taking the chance that since they talked so much about logic, they might actually recognize it when they saw it, I attempted to reason with them. I pointed out that libertarians believe in the value of the individual. That one of their sages, Ayn Rand (herself — ahem — a woman), proclaimed that the individual was “the smallest minority” and stalwartly championed individual rights. And that they were speaking of women in a strictly collective sense — lumping us all together in a most unlibertarian way. They responded by casting Rand, and presumably any other woman who actually used logic, as a freak of nature who was at worst a horribly deformed woman, or at best some sort of an honorary man.

I have had this experience with nearly all the designer reality addicts I have ever engaged in conversation, no matter what pretty world they’ve chosen to inhabit. The cherished belief is doggedly repeated. Regardless of how good my argument happens to be, or how much evidence I present to support my position, it has no effect except to make them less logical and more — well — emotional. It differs little from telling children that Santa Claus doesn’t really come down the chimney and eat those cookies. They seem not so much indifferent to the truth as afraid of it.

The problem does not begin with the seemingly endless variety of designer reality available to us. Its origin can be traced to an insatiable demand. And the lure is powerful. This is not because all designer reality is utter bunk, but because in almost every version, there is at least a grain of truth.

Women can be emotional. I know that after that online conversation with those male libertarians, I wanted to scream my head off. But the political powers-that-be can take a grain of truth, add a little yeast, and expand it into a monstrous blob of dough. Many women turn their frustrations with men into protest-marching, silly-hat-wearing, man-hating lunacy. Today’s feminists have managed to make burning bras look, by comparison, charmingly quaint.

The big-government power structure functions as a duopoly, neither side of which is totally right or wrong. Most people choose the portions of truth they prefer and ignore the fact that the rest of what they’ve chosen is falsehood. The powers-that-be are basically telling us that we can have no more than part of the truth. That we are not entitled to the full truth. That we must be content with whichever lies we find the most pleasant — or at any rate, the least painful.

Today’s feminists have managed to make burning bras look, by comparison, charmingly quaint.

A temptation to accept partial truth is, it seems to me, the contemporary equivalent of taking the apple from the Serpent. It is the fruit the State dangles before us. And when we get cast out of the Garden, we waste our time arguing over trivialities — such as whether to blame Adam or Eve. Or maybe Adam and Steve.

Liberty enables us to pursue the full truth. We certainly don’t all agree on what that is, but each of us who values freedom should never settle for anything less. When we waste our time bickering over whose designer reality is prettier, we sell our freedom short. And, so divided, we invite the potentates of big government to conquer us.




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A Cheap Date

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Politically speaking, libertarians can seem like a cheap date. We’re good enough for a nice time, when a prettier, sexier option is unavailable. But let’s face it, whenever the supermodel or the football hero flashes a flirtatious smile, a lot of our potential partners will desert us.

These days, we’re doing plenty of strategizing. Should we take this course, or that? I’ll switch to the team sports metaphor that works so well in politics. For the most part, the choice appears to come down to the following: do we woo players from Team Red or Team Blue? Our franchise is perpetually struggling to stay competitive, and free agents are again beginning to shop their allegiances around.

Both Left and Right recognize how obnoxious — even downright dangerous — big government can be when people they don’t like have control of it.

The ever-shifting team standings have not altered the opinion I’ve held for the last several years. We need to take as many players as we can from both sides. Their willingness to sign with our franchise depends largely on where their team sits in the rankings. This is tiresome, the situation is silly, and most of them are idiots. But however degrading it is that we need to include them in our considerations at all, thisin no way alters the facts.

To put the matter as simply as possible, when their team is winning, they have little desire to abandon it. But when the other side gains the upper hand, they start getting itchy. They recognize how obnoxious — even downright dangerous — big government can be when people they don’t like have control of it. Even though it strikes them as a dandy idea when they think they might, however indirectly, wield power, as the Left believed it did through Obama, and the Right now anticipates doing through Trump.

Cheap dates can take comfort in one thing. Sometimes those who condescend to date us actually fall in love with us. They may only be looking for a good time at the moment, but once they’re close enough to actually get to know us, our philosophy may take hold. That is obviously the case every time the political pendulum swings from one side to the other, because our numbers are increasing. Perhaps not as rapidly as we’d like, but steadily nonetheless.

Our country is so deeply in the thrall of statist authoritarianism that growth may not happen for the liberty movement in any other way. When we peruse the mainstream media’s coverage of libertarian ideas — and that coverage is always scant, at best — we can plainly see that what there is of it is usually inaccurate, or even slanderous. They started out with Gary Johnson’s 2016 campaign byportraying him as a pothead, and after his unfortunate “Aleppo moment” — so unfortunate that it has apparently become code for “disastrous gaffe” — they used it to define him totally. But the good news, which no mainstream media site is ever going to bring us, is that a fast-growing majority ofthe country no longer trusts them to tell it what to think. The opportunity for libertarians to win new hearts and minds has never been greater.

The segment of the population it makes the most sense for us to woo is the independent middle. This is the category in which the “experts” try to stick libertarians when they don’t know what sense to make of us, or when they simply want to make us disappear. Though nonpartisan “moderates” are stereotyped as ignorant, or as just not caring about politics, there are far too many of them to be so mindlessly dismissed.

Our country is so deeply in the thrall of statist authoritarianism that growth may not happen for the liberty movement in any other way.

When our philosophy is explained to them by people not invested in distorting it, we often find that they are kindred spirits. Libertarianism is a treasure such individuals are happy to discover, because it explains things they’ve never been able to make sense of before. They very well may be better matched with us than those who’ve been weak-minded enough to waste years of their lives as authoritarians in the first place.

I suspect that Donald Trump will turn out to be very nearly as big a tyrant and bully as Hillary Clinton would have been. If we’re counting on keeping all the converts who defected from the political Right during the Obama years, the flash and dash of The Donald will prove irresistible to quite a number, and our hearts will be broken yet again. Over the course of the Trump regime, however long it lasts, many leftists with the sense to be at least temporarily scared by big government will bat their lashes at us and whisper sweet nothings in our ears. Some who originated on the Right will stay with us but others won’t, and we can be pretty sure that our success rate in keeping converts from the Left will be similar.

Our hearts are precious; we should guard them. We need to keep ourselves true to what we’ve come to recognize as truth, come what may — knowing that, after all, we’re worth more than a cheap date, and trusting that the people worthy of our devotion will be the marrying kind.




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Low-Hanging Fruit

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This season abounds in low-hanging fruit, linguistic atrocities that are easy to spot, at least for people like us. Let’s grab a few.

On September 8, I gazed into the depths of my cellphone and discovered this headline from the New York Daily News: “Mont. Senator’s nephew found brutally slayed at home.” That’s a brutal dispatch of “slain,” anyway.

A week or so before, I’d discovered that Chris Brown, the singer, claimed he was being “unfairly demonized” because of a scrape with police. As bad a talker as Brown is — and that’s about as bad as you can get — this doesn’t appear to be what he himself said. It’s what the Los Angeles Times said (August 31). But maybe people are fairly demonized every day, and it just doesn’t get reported.

Two days before that, the other Times, the one in New York, reported the following about the fun couple, Anthony Weiner, former congressman and campaigner for the mayoralty of New York, and Huma Abedin, Chelsea Clinton’s shadow:

A documentary, “Weiner,” released in May, traced the disastrous campaign and the effects on Ms. Abedin, who is shown near tears after the revelations were publicly revealed. (August 29)

And no wonder — revelations are bad enough, but it’s terrible when they get revealed.

Hitting the Huma trail on the same day, CNN Politics supplied this information:

Abedin is Clinton’s most well known aide. While Clinton works the ropeline after events, Abedin is always close behind and Clinton supporters regularly ask the aide for selfies with her, much like they do with the candidate. (August 29)

Few of our otherwise omniscient news providers are aware of the fact that the superlative of “well” is “best”; hence, the phrase in the first sentence of the passage just quoted should be best known, and never most well known, which is exactly what a third-grader would come up with. Similarly, third-graders usually do not realize that “like” is a preposition, not a conjunction, and therefore cannot introduce a clause (“they do”). Adults, particularly adults in the word business, ought to know better, but we see that they don’t.

Maybe people are fairly demonized every day, and it just doesn’t get reported.

Many sad events, or sad reports, seem to have happened in late August. Here’s a report originally dated August 25 and attributed variously to the Associated Press and Reuters. It’s about a Bolivian politician, Rodolfo Illanes, who . . . well, see for yourself: the report says that Illanes went

to Panduro, 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of the La Paz, where the strikers [miners rebelling against the government’s refusal to allow them to work for private companies] have blockaded a highway since Monday, to open a dialogue.

When I was in the eighth grade, more or less, I desperately wanted to move to Bolivia. I’d been reading books about Incas and such. Somehow I discovered that you could write to the State Department for “advisories” about living conditions in other countries, and I acquired the advisory for Bolivia. My lazy heart leaped when I found that on the Altiplano one could hire a maid for $20 a month, but it sank at the news that the maid would need to hang the food from the ceiling, to keep non-human fauna from devouring it. That ended my dreams of Bolivia, but it did not end my knowledge that the seat of government (though not the constitutional capital) of Bolivia is La Paz, that “Paz” means “peace,” and that “la” means “the.” So my heart sank again when I saw the place being called, by someone more ignorant than I was in the eighth grade, “the La Paz.”

So, maybe it’s a typo. Maybe. Strangely, however, the typo remained when I checked the report four days later. By then it had been reproduced by the Las Vegas Review Journal, the Seattle Times, the Chicago Tribune, and, of course, the New York Times. All of their texts remained unchanged after four days. Either no one had reported the error, because no one actually reads these papers, or people had reported it, but the papers paid no heed. Obviously, they’ll print (and keep) any damned thing their wire services send them.

Adults, particularly adults in the word business, ought to know better, but we see that they don’t.

I take this as significant evidence of the intellectual nullity of the American press. Confirmation is provided by the inanity of the report itself. Sr. Illanes was seized by the protestors and beaten to death, perhaps also tortured before he died. That’s a hell of a reward for an attempt to “open a dialogue.” But can it be that as the agent of a crazed Castroite president, Illanes had actually shown up to deliver orders and threats? The report might, conceivably, have addressed that question. But certainly the guy wasn’t there to administer hugs and say, “I’m OK; you’re OK; let’s dialogue!” I seem to remember that when the nuts took over Bolivia, American journalists were very interested in this great new attempt to construct a socialist state. Now that the attempt has resulted in nothing but the further impoverishment of the country, journalistic curiosity has dissipated. What was the government agent doing? Oh, probably he was trying to open a dialogue.

Here’s news that’s closer to home. On September 10, and running all day, the following contribution to public knowledge was made by CNN. It’s one of the network’s many attempts to recontextualize Mrs. Clinton’s nauseating “basket of deplorables” statement, thereby rescuing her from the charge of lunacy. “Clinton’s comments,” said the CNN authors,

amounted to startlingly blunt talk for a candidate who is usually measured in her assessment of the Republican nominee.

Although Clinton has accused Trump of racism before, she has never explicitly called him a racist. Last month, she delivered a major speech in which she accused Trump of aligning himself with far-right extremists and saying he "built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia."

"He's taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party," Clinton said in Reno, Nevada. "His disregard for the values that make our country great is profoundly dangerous."

Thank God her assessments are usually measured. But I continue to wonder what language CNN thinks it’s using. In what dialect of English can you accuse someone of racism without calling him a racist? Oh, that’s not “explicit”? Try accusing someone of committing murder and then fending off a lawsuit by claiming that you didn’t explicitly call him a murderer.

Where would Hillary Clinton be if she hadn’t attracted (flies to ointment, fools to money) enormous swarms of sophists to protect her and harry her opponents? Living in a senior facility in Altoona, I suppose. But couldn’t she attract better forms of sophism?

On August 30, someone named Krystal Ball, a Democratic politician and sometime TV commentator, appeared on Fox News to claim that “there’s no evidence” Clinton lied about the emails, and that “there’s just no evidence” Clinton practiced pay-for-play when she was working for the State Department. But evidence is Clinton’s problem; that’s why we’re all talking about these things. There’s plentiful evidence of wrongdoing. Everybody heard her lie, repeatedly, about her emails. That’s not just evidence; it’s proof. As for pay-for-play, we can argue about proof, but evidence abounds. If it didn’t, Ms. Ball wouldn’t be discussing it on Fox. And there’s no difference between politicians with bizarre names and Clinton’s institutional propaganda machine, perpetually emitting statements that there’s “not a shred of evidence” that she ever did anything wrong.

Where would Hillary Clinton be if she hadn’t attracted enormous swarms of sophists to protect her and harry her opponents?

Kirsten Powers, an intelligent commentator who sometimes provides actual commentary, as opposed to propaganda, wrote an article for USA Today (September 12) with the engaging title, “What else is Clinton hiding?” But the answer turned out to be “nothing as far as I can see.” Powers noted the “feverish” claims of Donald Trump and his friends that there might be something wrong with Hillary Clinton’s health — claims that by September 12 didn’t sound feverish to anyone except feverish Clinton apologists. On September 10, Clinton had been videoed as she was dumped into a vehicle and carted away, after collapsing at a public event. Bizarrely, Powers continued to emphasize that “these accusations were made in the absence of any actual incident involving Clinton’s health.”

Isn’t it strange that people who comment on the news don’t seem to read it themselves? Clinton’s health problems had been no secret. There had been plenty of incidents, and despite the mainstream media’s attempts to ignore them, the evidence was well known. It had, indeed, been discussed not only “feverishly” but ad nauseam. Here’s a fair summary.

Even more bizarrely — or should I say feverishly? — Powers went for evidence for her own position to . . . can you imagine whom? She went to Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert. Ohhhh Kaaaayyyy . . . And what wisdom did she derive from him? The idea that evidence doesn’t count!

According to Adams,

You have to understand that people don’t use rational thought to make decisions. We rationalize after we make a decision. It’s all about making accusations and associating people with bad feelings.

Strangely, on this foundation of radical skepticism about the influence of fact and reason — a skepticism that, oddly enough, occasions no doubts regarding Adams’ own conclusions — he suggests that, factually, there is nothing wrong with Clinton. So she collapsed on the street? So she had a four-minute coughing fit? So all these other things happened to her?

“If you look at the health claims against Clinton one by one, they don’t mean anything,” Adams told me. “Clinton’s coughing wouldn’t mean anything if (her health) hadn’t already been raised.”

No, of course not. I lie to you once. I lie to you twice. I lie to you 25 times. By then, questions about my veracity are raised. Then I lie to you the 26th time, and you fly into a rage for no reason at all. Somehow, you are now convinced that I am a liar! As Adams says, “Forget about data, logic, facts. The visual [of Clinton’s small, very small, very rare total collapse on a New York street] is so strong” that people actually believe she’s sick.

A pretzel has better logic than this — but it’s only one example of the twists that Clinton’s apologists seem determined to put themselves through. If, to save Hillary Clinton, you need to abandon all pretense to disinterested reflection, that’s a small price to pay, isn’t it? The truly shocking thing is the arrogance with which the alleged intellectuals press their claims. They appear to believe that they are entitled to say anything, anything at all, no matter how silly it is, and still be accepted as authorities about life and truth.

Imagine! Being judged, not by your degree from Harvard, but by your degree of success!

I’m seldom impressed by the sagacity of political commentators, Left or Right. But I was impressed by a recent series of observations made by Pat Caddell, an ostensibly Democratic electoral expert. In an informal interview conducted on September 14, Caddell discussed the existence of

a political class which continues to think that they were the supreme and that they were self-perpetuating, picking and choosing only people who would be like them and think like them, and imposing on the American people what they wanted, which benefited them, but not the people, and never being held to any standards of success or failure.

This, as he said, is the Establishment, “the entire governing establishment of America.”

In the current social and rhetorical environment, the comment about “never being held to any standards of success or failure” is nothing short of shocking. Imagine! Being judged, not by your degree from Harvard, but by your degree of success! That standard is for guys working the line at Ford.

Pick your issue: when do you hear a member of the Establishment advocating some policy and stating the standard by which anyone could tell whether it was a success or failure? I’ll pick education. The Establishment, which consists in large part of professors and their clones, always advocates more (tax) money for “the schools.” Now it is advocating various schemes to make college education “free.” But when does anyone specify the measure by which we might judge the success of these schemes?

This is one of many ways in which the Establishment distances itself from normal people. Normal people allocate a few hundred dollars — of their own money — so they can take a plane to New York on Thursday. If the plane doesn’t get them to New York on Thursday, they reckon that as a failure. They have a standard of judgment. But how many trillions of dollars of other people’s money has the Establishment spent, with great self-congratulation, on ending poverty, ending drug abuse, abolishing racial antagonism, securing peace, etc., and what have we got to show for it? Only an Establishment that keeps getting bigger and fiercer as it hires and indoctrinates new cadres to fight these losing battles. Where are the organs of self-criticism that are supposed to ask the question, “Are you succeeding?”

Trump happens to be a maniacal big-government Planner like all the rest of them. But that is never the source of the criticism, or the hate.

You will not find them in the ordinary media. In Caddell’s view, the alleged critics are now the most vicious parts of the Establishment they are paid to monitor. The media “is [sic] no longer . . . devoted to fact, it is an outrider, it’s the assassination squad of the governing elite.”

When I open my computer, the first thing that comes up is Google News. I’m fascinated by Google’s single-minded devotion to the Establishment cause. On many days, four or five of the first ten stories are attacks, frequently weird and unbalanced attacks, on Donald Trump. Now, this Trump happens to be a maniacal big-government Planner like all the rest of them. But that is never the source of the criticism, or the hate. He is hated because he has made the mistake of revealing that the other emperors have no clothes. Thus the thousands of attempted “assassinations.”

But what about us? You and me. Libertarians.

Right now, both the Republicans and the Democrats think they can benefit from libertarian votes. So you may have forgotten that you — you personally, as a libertarian — are ordinarily a more inviting target for the Establishment’s verbal assassins than even Donald Trump. Just look at the things you believe, the positions you take, and you’ll see that you are.

Do you have an isolationist or an America-first foreign policy? Do you favor homeschooling? Are you opposed to the welfare state? Are you a devotee of the original Constitution, unamended by the sophistry of lawyers? Are you opposed to racial preferences? Do you assert your rights under the Second Amendment? Are you opposed to the mixture of religion with politics, by either Christians or Muslims? Are you opposed to political correctness? Do you believe that free speech means free speech, no matter whom it disturbs, offends, or outrages?

If so, then you are the person whom Donald Trump is accused of being. And you are in line for assassination whenever the media remembers who you are.

Sorry; this fruit is pretty sour.




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Just End It Already

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A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind — if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else — then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease. — C.S. Lewis, “Membership”

As Liberty’s unofficial correspondent on all things Facebook, I submit a report on two funny memes that are making the rounds. One shows a bumper sticker that says: “Giant Meteor 2016 — Just End it Already.” The other is a scary merging of the faces of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, combining the power rivals into “Clump.” We could easily conclude, from these and similar expressions of opinion we hear daily, that this election season has made America tired and disgusted. And we would be right.

It is also making America mean. We’ve been goaded to such a high pitch of tension, resentment, and fear that nefarious “activists” can stir up a riot almost anywhere. If Mayberry actually existed, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to hear that Andy, Barney, Goober, and Gomer were shooting it out with a mob protesting the beloved old TV program’s racism.

What is now erupting, all over this country, is nothing less than the violence we Americans have visited upon one another, to an ever-accelerating degree, for decades.

This whole mess was hatched in academia. Since the 1960s, pointy-headed know-it-alls have gloried in stirring up trouble. They used to rally students to throw off the chains of oppression and question everything — especially authority. Now they have become agents of authority. They agitate for free education, but their real aim is easy indoctrination.

The agitators and indoctrinators are not only on one side. For years the political Right has been warning about the dangers of the Left’s influence in these areas, but their outrage is strictly selective. When the Right gets its hands on the controls, it’s shown itself to be no less manipulative.

It is astonishing that right-wingers can decry race-baiting against white people, then cheer for politicians who trade on the fear of blacks. It is no less strange that leftists can condemn violence when it’s committed by the police, yet laud as heroes activists who incite violence — even when people in their own communities are hurt or killed because of it. And the loopy binary that either sees cops as always blameless and black men as responsible for every violent crime, or the other way around, makes no sense whatsoever. Rolling back the now-paramilitary powers of the police would actually save lives on both sides. If the police do the jobs taxpayers are paying them to do, and make our streets safer, police will benefit from the improvement as much as anyone else; but they can hardly keep the streets safer and make them even more dangerous at the same time.

While some posts on Facebook complain about these problems, a precious few others actually propose intelligent solutions. On the day I write this, Dr. Mary Ruwart, a fine contemporary libertarian thinker, notes the following: “The fewer things politicians control, the less it matters who controls the politicians.” I wonder if that simple sentence might actually hold the key.

It makes no sense to expect government to do everything that needs to be done, and not expect a rise in violence. The War on Drugs continues to visit an incalculable amount of aggression against us, all in the name of alleviating our misery, but has done little except make us more miserable than ever. It is a major reason black families are locked in inner-city poverty,while the families themselves are torn apart. Government is force, and nothing else. Americans keep saying that “Violence begets violence” but excusing it when it’s instigated by their ownside. Polls show that they’re increasingly distrustful of government’s ability to solve problems, yet they go on looking to government for every solution.

Know-it-all academics used to rally students to throw off the chains of oppression and question everything — especially authority. Now they have become agents of authority.

It’s obvious that our culture is obsessed with politics. It’s also becoming increasingly obvious that our culture is deathly sick. How can libertarians begin to help enough people make the connection between these two observations and take our country back from the power-brokers?

We are a nation of individual human beings. There are differences between us, and whenever enough of us share the same difference, we are gathered into a gripe-group. As tensions with rival groups increase, our groups become armies in a sort of civil war. Not that life ever gets much better for any of us. In fact, as we’ve become more disunited, our circumstances have grown steadily worse.

It shouldn’t matter so much who is elected president. Nor would it, if the office functioned as our founders designed it. We are so obsessed with politics today because the president has become an emperor. Now we face the decision of whether to have an emperor or an empress. History will be made!

We’ve undertaken violence against one another for the supposed sake of health, but it has turned against us. Government and the struggle for its control — politics — have become a deadly disease. The question we can ask those obsessed with government control is, “Who benefits from the use of force?” The answer is that emperors do. Empires are held together and expanded by violence, both internally and externally. It does nothing for the people except subjugate them. That is, when it doesn’t kill them.

It shouldn’t matter so much who is elected president. Nor would it, if the office functioned as our founders designed it.

Deep down in our unconscious minds — those dark cellars into which we shove the unpleasant truths we don’t want to face — we know that all violence is alike. There are no different sorts — one for “us” and another for “them.” No sort that is good, while only another is bad. When we resort to violence against one another by means of the state, in this high-stakes game we call politics, we are ingesting murder, larceny, and mayhem in our hearts. We have no reason to be astonished when that violence erupts fromus in more primitive and less sophisticated ways.

What is now erupting, all over this country, is nothing less than the violence we Americans have visited upon one another, to an ever-accelerating degree, for decades. We’ve voted ourselves each other’s money, seized each other’s land, forced our neighbors’ children to be taught things of which the neighbors heartily disapprove. Now we’re withholding healthcare from one another for the Orwellian purpose of “making healthcare affordable.” Next, we’ll render ourselves defenseless for the sake of keeping ourselves safe. We can’t say just where it all will end, but the destruction that’s ravaging our cities gives us a likely preview.

Our culture is indeed sick unto death, and it may not survive. The peace and harmony that come as the result of mutual respect are the only possible cure. We libertarians know this. Let’s spread the message far and wide, before it is too late.




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Will Libertarians Ever Sing Kumbaya?

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I keep hearing about the “libertarian moment.” And I do believe we’re inching toward one — although we’re not there yet. I’m hoping that when it does arrive, our moment will be beautiful to behold. But will it sound beautiful? So far, we’re making an awful lot of noise, but it’s becoming more of a cacophony than a symphony.

On Facebook, I belong to several libertarian groups — part of the lively cross-section of America that the social media serve. These are contentious times, and this election year has been a bloody mess. Sensible souls (most of whom probably stay away from Facebook) might imagine that within groups dedicated to one particular point of view, the discourse is relatively harmonious. That would be sensible, but as far as libertarian groups are concerned it certainly isn’t true.

A lot of the members of these online groups heartily hate each other. They’re at each other’s throats all the time. Of course we’re an independent bunch, and our individualism makes us obstreperous. But I must admit that I come away from some Facebook encounters — as well as any number of those that happen face-to-face — quite shaken. In the immortal words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

So far, libertarians are making an awful lot of noise, but it’s becoming more of a cacophony than a symphony.

More and more people are joining our ranks. Of course that’s a welcome development. But too many of them are permitting the sicknesses that swarm through statist politics to infect the liberty movement. Our new converts are bringing these contagions in with them.

Confusion abounds about what should be politicized and what shouldn’t. Those of us who’ve been around for a while know that matters that legitimately concern government should be politicized, while those that government should stay completely out of should not. Either this distinction isn’t being explained to inquirers, or they’re woefully slow to grasp it.

If something shouldn’t be politicized, then why are we squabbling about it? We ought to let all comers into our treehouse, as long as they uphold libertarian ideals. I stopped worrying about cooties many years ago. And I tend to resent my time being wasted by disputes over who belongs at which table in the cafeteria.

On one of the libertarian Facebook pages, a couple of days before I began this essay, someone posted a screed ridiculing belief in God. Why was that posted there? Are there no atheist groups? The unmistakable implication was that all libertarians are — or should be — atheists.

Statist politics tend to appeal to emotion rather than to reason. They also attract weaklings unsure of who they are.

I happen to be a libertarian primarily because I’m a Christian, and it’s the political philosophy I believe comes closest to the way Christ taught his followers to live. Now, if I believed that this meant the United States should be turned into a theocracy, I can see why other libertarians would have a problem with it. But then again, if I did believe such a thing, I wouldn’t be a libertarian.

Statist politics tend to appeal to emotion rather than to reason. They also attract weaklings unsure of who they are. Those invested in seeing themselves (or being seen) as strong and tough-minded, or as godly, patriotic, and upright, usually become Republicans. They love to strut and crow about their “conservatism.” And would-be sophisticates, itching to join the society of the intellectual, the revolutionary, or the cool, gravitate toward the Democratic Party and bloviate endlessly about “progressivism,” “compassion,” and “social justice.”

If these were simply their opinions about themselves, such fancies would be relatively harmless. There is nothing particularly wrong with being any of these things, or at least of trying to be. But they are opinions. They are not fully-fleshed identities. Nor are they necessarily convictions that grow out of confident self-knowledge.

Now this sort of middle-school preening is making its way into the liberty movement. We’re all supposed to care who’s too smart to believe in God, who’s more compassionate toward the downtrodden than everybody else, who thinks all women should be housewives and who thinks homosexuality is a sin. It’s like listening to 12-year-olds brag about being asked to the dance or making the basketball team. As long as these matters aren’t forced to become their problem, well-adjusted adults aren’t going to give a damn.

It used to be understood, by most people over the age of twelve, that adulthood meant occasionally having to suffer the proximity of those they didn’t like.

I don’t believe that any law should force bakers to make my wedding cake. Some right-tilting libertarians are so disappointed when they hear this that they refuse to believe it. The switch is flipped on when they hear that I’m gay, and they’re so intent on proving whatever point they feel compelled to prove that there’s no way to turn it off again. It used to be understood, by most people over the age of twelve, that adulthood meant occasionally having to suffer the proximity of those they didn’t like. The Republicans and the Democrats have decided that, as a popular Facebook meme puts it, they “don’t want to ‘adult’ today” — which might explain why both parties’ membership rolls are shrinking.

One of the things I love best about libertarians is that most of us enjoy being individuals. When we come together, I meet gay Christians, pro-life atheists, gun-toting pacifists, and recovering alcoholics who’d never touch weed but wholeheartedly support its legalization. Nobody consents to being crammed into a pigeonhole and conveniently labeled. Each of us can be gloriously ourselves. Why would we want it any other way?

By all means, let’s keep on coming together. Maybe, instead of a symphony orchestra, we’re more like a rowdy and exuberant jazz band. We each feel free to improvise; you strut our stuff and I strut mine. Yet on the all-important central theme we cangel. Together, we can make beautiful music. As long as we remember the song.




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