The Opposite of Libertarianism

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In libertarian circles it is a conventional position that the word that describes our opposite is "statism," adherents of which are "statists." I challenge that assumption.

In the first place, most people are unfamiliar with the term “statism.” Its use merely adds to the aura of weirdness and abnormality surrounding the advocacy of liberty. To the extent that voters don't know the definition of “statism,” any argument relying on it cannot help us win elections.

Second, I am not an etymologist and lack data to prove this, but my gut feeling is that libertarian writers in the 1930s to 1960s felt comfortable using the word “statist” because (Ayn Rand comes to mind) they spoke French and viewed “state” as the English translation of état. In the USA, however, “state” specifically refers to one of the 50 states. The better translation of état is “nation” or “government.” So I propose that “statism” be retired in favor of either "nationalism" or "governmentalism" as the word by which we designate the opposite of libertarianism.

To the extent that voters don't know the definition of “statism,” any argument relying on it cannot help us win elections.

“Nationalism” is particularly attractive because it conjures up connotations of National Socialism as the end point of liberty's opponents. “Governmentalism,” on the other hand, pinpoints the government as our nemesis. Yes, “state” can also mean “government,” but I feel that my proposal would best align our language with that of the people we want to reach.




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Will the LP Be Destroyed by Victories?

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The thesis of this reflection is simple: if the Republicans move to the right on economic issues, trying to attract fiscal-Right voters, and stay with the Right on guns, while the Democrats move to their social left by supporting legalization of recreational cannabis, sex workers, and gambling, then every Libertarian Party issue will be championed by either Democrats or Republicans who will have a better chance of winning elections. At that point, the LP will have no reason to exist.

The GOP recently passed tax cuts, and the current White House is aggressively deregulating. The LP can do little that the GOP is not already doing. The GOP is also extremely strong on gun rights and opposition to gun control, and, like the Democrats’, its foreign policy is veering toward military disengagement abroad.

The LP has won by forcing the two major parties to embrace libertarian issues in a way that would have been untenable and even unthinkable in previous generations.

Meanwhile, state and local Democratic parties are increasingly willing to reform criminal laws to legalize recreational cannabis. Right now it is also a vanguard or vogue position among far-left Democrats to support legalizing prostitution (a position that has long been championed by gay rights groups on the far left). There are whispers in New York that the Democrats in the state legislature intend to legalize both recreational cannabis and sex workers, a path that other state Democratic Parties are also treading.

The LP has won by forcing the two major parties to embrace libertarian issues in a way that would have been untenable and even unthinkable in previous generations. But take away weed, whores, guns, and tax cuts, and what is left for the LP to talk about? Nothing. There may be nothing more for the LP to do. But do not worry. I have a solution to this problem.

The one thing liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans cannot do is create a social space uniquely for libertarians. The Libertarian Party should essentially reimagine itself as a social club for liberty where running candidates is a hobby but the real purpose is building a community. The LP can organize meetings, sponsor online events, build forums for communication, assist the authorship and distribution of ideological content, and fund academic scholarships. The LP will probably never win elections even if it tries, so it has nothing to lose by moving in this direction.

But take away weed, whores, guns, and tax cuts, and what is left for the LP to talk about?

An organized movement built from LP grassroots community activism could then trickle down into the mass of mainstream voters, keeping the GOP on the far Right and forcing Democrats to defend the social Left. Other than providing services uniquely to libertarians, there may be nothing the LP can do that Republicans or Democrats could not do better in today's political climate.




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Should Libertarians Run for President?

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Who would be the ideal Libertarian presidential candidate for 2020? Does he (or she) exist? Will we get anyone like this person, or will it be business as usual?

We’ll find out soon enough.

One of the reasons we keep getting candidates many of us don’t want is that we can’t all agree on what the Libertarian Party nominee ought to do. Should he educate the public about what libertarians believe? Should he play the spoiler and trip up big-government Republicans? Would it be best for him to rack up the biggest possible numbers on election day? Or should he really, honest-to-gosh try to win the election?

Power is the only language the political universe understands. Spoiler power is all we can expect, at present, to have.

I think we can all agree that we want a country where the Libertarian choice would prevail. But we’re not terribly close to having it. In the meantime, I fail to see where “swinging for the fence” is going to get us.

Even if we dislike political necessity, because it goes against our convictions, we must understand it if we are to increase our influence. The only way our candidates can educate the public is by getting coverage in the media. To achieve this, we must make the media sit up and take notice. We do that by creating a disturbance in their universe.

A spoiler can have that effect. If candidates seriously threaten to take votes away from the media’s anointed contenders, they begin to attract attention. The threatened party will, sooner than later, begin to court potential spoiler votes.

Power is the only language the political universe understands. Spoiler power is all we can expect, at present, to have. We need to quit apologizing for this potential and embrace it instead.

We can all agree that we want a country where the Libertarian choice would prevail. But we’re not terribly close to having it.

The candidacy of Ron Paul demonstrated that a Republican can run as a spoiler and exert considerable influence on the public. If a Libertarian Party candidate could grab a share of the vote only as large as Paul’s, he or she would be in an excellent position to educate — as Rep. Paul has.

Candidates who want to be taken seriously won’t come out and admit they don’t expect to win all the marbles. But if they truly believe they will win as Libertarians, then they’ve lost whatever marbles they ever had. They’re better off simply stating — if they want to enjoy the success possible for them — what will be the truth: that they offer an alternative to Republican or Democratic options. In other words, to move the cumbersome machinery of the election to a different place.

Voters want to believe that casting their ballot will have some effect. If they know a candidate isn’t going to win the election, they at least hope to influence its outcome as strongly as possible. Libertarian ideas are popular with many people who don’t consider themselves libertarians. A candidate who stops pandering to established interests and stands for our values has a good chance of siphoning away a contender’s votes. The greater effect that has on the outcome of the election, the more likely Republican (and to a far lesser degree, Democratic) candidates may be to adopt pro-liberty positions.

Candidates who want to be taken seriously won’t come out and admit they don’t expect to win all the marbles. But if they truly believe they will win as Libertarians, then they’ve lost whatever marbles they ever had.

The next president who is in any shape or form libertarian will be a Republican. Again, we’re perfectly free to dislike this. That doesn’t change the fact that if one of our own is elected, it will be from the GOP ticket. The threat of voting for spoiler Libertarian Party candidates can provide the leverage to move a Rand Paul or a Justin Amash into winning the GOP nomination. Once nominated, in the general election that person would stand an excellent chance.

We’re not going to love everything about a Republican candidate. I have serious issues with Paul because I suspect he’s something of a closet social conservative. But though he says things rightwing culture warriors like, thus far his record shows him to be reliably libertarian. I’m not overly worried that, if he were elected president, he would turn into Jerry Falwell.

Money spent on the presidential race could instead be used to fund down-ballot races, especially locally, where LP candidates have a real shot at winning.

Donald Trump is nobody’s idea of a libertarian. The few bones he’s thrown us were certainly not motivated by any fear that a more liberty-loving challenger would defeat him in the 2020 primary. But if one does indeed run next time, we need to look long and hard at the possibility of registering Republican long enough to vote for him or her in the primary.

Libertarians should run for president only if they can change the outcome of the race. That’s the only way they’ll be noticed by the media, which is the only way they can educate the public. Any other candidacy for the highest office in the land is a waste of time. The money spent could instead be used to fund down-ballot races, especially locally, where LP candidates have a real shot at winning.

I have no idea, yet, whom I’ll vote for next year. But I will only vote for the Libertarian option if I feel that he or she is serious about being a presence in the election. I owe no one my vote, and I won’t be taken for granted. I want my vote to count. That will only happen if the candidate I vote for counts, too.




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The Year That Was

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It's hard to get a handle on a year as wild as 2018 proved to be. But we can try at least to sum up the last year of Liberty, through the voices and messages of our esteemed contributors:

Thanks to all you readers for another tremendous year. Now we ask you: What all did we miss? What would you like to see more of? You can bet we'll continue doing our best to bring you items and commentary of interest across the entire range of libertarian thought. See you in 2019!

 



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Is My Vote Wasted?

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The purpose of this Reflection is not to argue for or against any specific position but merely to articulate and clarify various arguments. The issue is simple: if I vote for the Libertarian Party candidate, is my vote wasted?

Here are 25 responses to that question.

(1) If I vote Libertarian and the Republican candidate loses to the Democrat then my vote was indeed wasted and could have made a difference if cast for the Republican.

(2) But virtually no elections are decided by exactly one vote, so my vote was wasted either way.

(3) But if everyone who voted Libertarian had voted Republican, or Democratic, that could have made a difference.

(4) But I am only responsible for myself individually, not for the entire "libertarian voting bloc," so I shouldn't think like a collectivist.

(5) But that is a realistic way to think.

(6) One vote almost never decides an election, so shouldn’t I vote for the best candidate with the purest principles, as a personal statement?

(7) But voter turnout rates are low, so every vote counts, if only as a measure of opinion. In fact a lot of effort and money goes into getting every last voter available.

(8) Wouldn’t it be most idealistic to cast a vote that could make a real difference for real people? Which means . . .

(A) voting for a candidate who can win; or

(B) voting for a Libertarian, because this will force the GOP closer to libertarianism, because it will need to try to get our votes.

(9) If everyone like me voted for the LP, then couldn’t the LP win?

(10) The LP fundamentally does not care about winning elections, but the GOP does, so how can the LP win anything?

(11) Aren’t Republican candidates better that Libertarians, because they really enact laws? And aren’t most Republicans sympathetic to libertarianism, anyway?

(12) But aren’t Republicans really no better than Democrats? They support big government when it suits them; they are conservatives, not libertarians, so a vote for the GOP is a wasted vote.

(13) If I cast a vote for anyone, am I not giving my consent to and endorsing the big government state and its taxes, wars, regulations, plans for gun control, etc.?

(14) Won’t the big government machine steamroll on, regardless of whether I cast a vote? So I might as well try to vote for a politician who will fight to slow it down.

(15) It costs practically nothing to vote, and the marginal impact I might have is wasted if I don't.

(16) But actually going to the polls and taking an hour off from work to cast a vote is too much trouble, relative to how little my own vote matters.

(17) Politics is a dirty business, so I don't want to get involved by voting.

(18) Politics is a dirty business, and the only way to clean it up is for people like me to get involved. So I have to vote. Even if my vote is wasted today, it starts the process of moving toward a tomorrow when my vote will not be wasted.

(19) If a Republican runs against a Democrat, and the Libertarian gets 4% of the vote and the Republican loses by 2% and I voted Libertarian and the Democrats achieve world domination, then I am to blame.

(20) But if the other 96% had voted with me, then the Libertarian would have won, so they are to blame. And if the Republican candidate had been very libertarian-leaning he would have taken half the LP vote anyway, so he is to blame.

(21) My vote is my own; it belongs to me. So I owe no duty to do anything other than vote my conscience and my values, which are Libertarian.

(22) Libertarian Party candidates often disagree with voters on important issues, such as abortion or immigration or privatization. If I vote along Libertarian Party lines, I may be voting for individuals who differ substantially from me or the party, or both.

(23) As a member of the American experiment in democracy, initiated by Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, and other brave men, I owe a duty to my nation to act as a member of the body politic, which includes a duty to research the candidates and cast a vote that is intelligently designed to do the most good for the country by maximizing support for the most electable candidate who would also be competent, sane, and reasonable in his policies, which most often means the Republican candidate.

(24) The real war in American politics is between Democrats and Republicans, so any vote outside that system is a wasted vote.

(25) The establishment sells the idea that it is a two-party system, but if the public became aware of the nation's third largest political party the system would become a three-party competition and the LP could realistically go from 4% to 30% of the vote. The reason we don't get votes is because nobody knows who we are and what we stand for, not because voters don't like us.

* * *

I leave my readers with a question: which of these positions do you agree or disagree with, and why?




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A FreedomFest Report

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FreedomFest, LasVegas, July 2018: Fewer breakout sessions. Shorter hours. Only one special-event luncheon. What’s going on at FreedomFest? Are we losing it?

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Too much choice can be daunting. As first timer Walter Block of the Mises Institute and Loyola University told us, “I attended FreedomFest for the first time in 2018. It was a magnificent experience. Rarely have so many lovers of liberty gathered under one roof. The only ‘problem’ I had with the event was the concurrent sessions. I wanted to attend ALL of them!”

We wanted this year’s event to involve our attendees more directly — not just sitting in chairs listening to speakers, but participating actively in the discussion.

History professor Barry Strauss of Cornell University concurred, saying, “FreedomFest was one of the few conferences that I’ve attended in my professional career of which I could say, ‘I only wish that I could have attended more sessions.’ From start to finish, it was an inspiration.”Imagine the frustration of previous years, when we offered 30% more sessions from which to choose!

Sometimes “less” really is “more.” When presentations are tightened, only the best remain. That’s what we decided to do at FreedomFest this year, reducing the number of concurrent breakout session from 13 to ten and ending each day at 6:30 instead of 8.

We wanted this year’s event to involve our attendees more directly — not just sitting in chairs listening to speakers, but participating actively in the discussion. So we lengthened our Q&A times, reduced the number of breakout sessions, created a scavenger hunt that brought attendees more actively into the exhibit hall, and added “conversation circles” in the evenings where attendees and speakers could discuss thematic topics. We expanded our “FreedomFest after Dark” activities with Karaoke led by “Lady of Liberty” Avens O’Brien and clubbing at a local night spot. The result was a more vibrant, engaged experience for everyone.

The Mock Trial was back too, this year charging the Public School System with fraud. We even had a hint of scandal in the jury box.

Of course, not everything was brand new. Perennial favorite Judge Napolitano was back, reporting on the Constitution and the significance of President Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. And we followed his speech with a special-event luncheon moderated by Steve Forbes. But most attendees enjoyed the break time by visiting the exhibit hall, viewing one of our lunchtime movies, or buying a sandwich and visiting with other attendees in our lounge areas.

The Mock Trial was back too, this year charging the Public School System with fraud. We even had a hint of scandal in the jury box, when the foreman announced a tie of 6–6, even though the collected ballots were clearly marked 7 to convict, 4 to acquit, and one with both options marked. Was this an example of the New Math? Or the “everybody wins a trophy” mindset? We promise Price Waterhouse wasn’t tabulating the results!

Of course, FreedomFest is never without controversy. Our panel on “The Rise and Triumph of the Angry Voter” led to some testy anger among the panelists, and the debate between Newsmax contributor Wayne Allyn Root and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat over whether Trump is more like Reagan or Mussolini became predictably (for Root) loud. The debate between Douthat and Hugh Hefner biographer Steve Watts on whether FreedomFest should dedicate a room to the late Hugh Hefner was controversial as well — was Hefner a hero who liberated women from Victorian sexual mores, or a lecher who objectified women by turning them into sexual playthings? Interestingly, the debate on “Faith and Reason” between Dan Peterson and Michael Shermer was more popular than the Playboy debate, with standing room only.

Eli Whitney, John Deere, Alexander Graham Bell, and even Ray Kroc drastically changed the face and future of America, “and it did not begin at the ballot box."

First-timer George Will was another keynote speaker, delivering an inspiring speech about the power of entrepreneurship and innovation. Referencing Ted Kennedy’s declaration that “change begins at the ballot box,“ Will offered several examples refuting the claim; he reminded the audience that Eli Whitney, John Deere, Alexander Graham Bell, and even Ray Kroc drastically changed the face and future of America, “and it did not begin at the ballot box. It began with the spark of entrepreneurial genius. . . . It began in individualism, which is important to everyone in this audience.”

Financial speakers have always been part of our faculty, and this year attendees enjoyed the new “Fast Money Summit” sponsored by Eagle Publishing, with its shortened 25-minute breakout sessions featuring top financial experts such as Steve Forbes, Mark Skousen, Doug Casey, Jim Rogers, Gena Lofton, Alex Green, Peter Schiff, Keith Fitz-Gerald, Marin Katusa, Jim Woods, and many more. At FreedomFest we believe that financial freedom is just as important as political freedom; money makes it possible to support causes and live a fuller personal life. “One good tip is worth the price of your admission,” was Eagle’s promise.

Others found their way to the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival — and some never left. “I can buy the recordings of the speeches,” one woman told me. “Where else can I watch these great films and meet the directors afterward?” In all modesty, as the director of the world’s only fully juried libertarian film festival — I couldn’t agree more. We had the best films and the best attendance in our eight-year history, with four world premiere films, five SRO screenings, 11 hard-hitting panels, and films that inspired us even as they told stories that outraged us. Libertarian films can be depressing when they’re set in dystopian futures or focus entirely on the hopelessness of big government; what I loved about this year’s lineup is that they offered hope for a brighter future through greater freedom, greater courage, greater understanding, and greater technology. And the production values of our films this year were top notch.

Storytelling can be more powerful than a lecture because of the emotional connection it creates with the audience.

Our films focused on themes such as immigration, escape from communism, criminal justice reform, and technology. Their messages were often indirect and compelling. One of my favorites was the Best Comedy winner The Inconsiderate Houseguest (Rob and Letitia Capili), which offers a subtle (Rob claims “unintended”) and unexpected theme about immigration beneath its quirky story about an uptight, rule-oriented roommate. “Subtle” is the key here; messages don’t need to shout if they are presented well. Storytelling can be more powerful than a lecture because of the emotional connection it creates with the audience. In fact, at our Thursday night Master Class for filmmakers, one of the panelists credited the television show Modern Family with changing public opinion, and thus public law, regarding gay marriage because of its likeable gay couple and its reluctantly tolerant and loving family patriarch. “Everyone knows the message of a Michael Moore movie, but almost no one watches his documentaries. They just hear about it on the news,” another panelist observed. Engaging stories with nuanced messages have the power to move hearts and change minds. That’s the main reason we started the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival.

The $2,500 Anthem Grand Prize went to Skid Row Marathon (Mark Hayes, director), an inspiring documentary about L.A. Judge Craig Mitchell who, troubled by the outrageous mandatory sentencing he was forced to impose, started a running club to help former felons regain their self-confidence and restart their lives. Mitchell has taken the club to marathon competitions throughout the world. The club is financed through private donations and teaches the principles of choice and accountability. Club member Rafael Cabrera was on hand for the Q&A following the screening. The film also won the $500 AnthemVault Prize for Best Original Score, featuring music composed by club member Ben Shirley. I defy you to watch this film with a dry eye.

Saber Rock (Matt and Thomas Locastro, directors), about a young Afghan interpreter for the American military who was targeted for assassination by the Taliban when he began teaching children about the principles of freedom, won the Anthem award for Best Short Documentary. The real Saber Rock attended the festival and gave an impassioned opening night speech to the FreedomFest crowd. Rock was a festival favorite, taking selfies with numerous fans throughout the week. He was awarded Anthem’s Special Jury Prize for heroism and received a standing ovation from the audience.

The room was so packed that we had to bring in 50 more chairs, while many leaned against the walls or sat on the floor and at least 20 more brought chairs to sit five-deep in the doorway.

Festival judge Gary Alexander argued at the judges’ meeting that America Under Siege: Antifa was one of the most important films at the festival because it reveals the truth behind the rising violence against free speech. Meanwhile, the gentle tone of Off the Grid with Thomas Massie won the hearts of festival attendees, who awarded it the Audience Choice trophy. Director Matt Battaglia follows the brilliant MIT graduate and inventor around the Kentucky farm that he built and maintains with his own hands as he talks about the priorities in his life and why he went to Congress. In one memorable segment he describes his congressional lapel pin, which garners him deferential treatment wherever he goes in Washington, as “Precious” and describes how difficult it can be to keep “Precious” from corrupting one’s focus and integrity.

A second Audience Choice trophy was awarded to Jimmy Morrison for his film The Housing Bubble, which features interviews with FreedomFest regulars Doug Casey, Peter Schiff, Jim Rogers, Gene Epstein, Tom Palmer, and others. It offers a cogent history of money, interest rates, inflation, and how they affect each one of us. The room was so packed that we had to bring in 50 more chairs, while many leaned against the walls or sat on the floor and at least 20 more brought chairs to sit five-deep in the doorway. The post-screening panel included all of the speakers who were featured in the film. Said director Morrison of the experience, “After all the delays with my movie, I really needed to make a statement with my premiere. I can't thank you enough for all that you did to make last week so successful!” That’s why we do what we do. These libertarian films need a venue. We provide it.

The Anthem Libertarian Film Festival is one of the fastest-growing features of FreedomFest, and also the best kept secret. Film aficionados can purchase a FilmLovers Pass for all four days for just $149, less than a third of the FreedomFest retail price. It includes all the films, plus film panels featuring top FreedomFest speakers and entrance to the exhibit hall. You can’t attend the FreedomFest general sessions or breakout sessions with it, but come on — with films and panels like these, who needs FreedomFest?

Members of the Reason crew presented the libertarian position on drug policy, gun control, biotechnology, pensions, prison reform, Bitcoin, transportation, and more. It was a libertarian feast.

My husband, Mark Skousen, who produces FreedomFest, completely disagrees with me on this, of course! “Why would anyone go to a movie when they can hear these great speakers in person?” he often asks me. And he has a point. With nearly 250 speakers and over 200 sessions, it’s hard to choose. A good point, but only one point.

This year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Reason magazine, FreedomFest hosted six Reason Day breakout sessions, plus the Reason Media Awards at our Saturday night banquet. Reason notables Katherine Mangu-Ward, Nick Gillespie, Matt Welch, Bob Poole, Ronald Bailey, Jacob Sullum, Lisa Snell and others presented the libertarian position on drug policy, gun control, biotechnology, pensions, prison reform, Bitcoin, transportation, and more. It was a libertarian feast, culminating in presenting the Friedlander Prize to Steve Forbes at the Saturday night banquet.

But don’t just take me word for the success of FreedomFest 2018; here’s what Marc Beauchamp, former west coast bureau chief for Forbes Magazine, foreign correspondent in Tokyo, and trade association executive director in Washington DC, said about FreedomFest this year:

“For me . . . FreedomFest is where you hear things you don’t hear anywhere else.

“Like the foreign policy panel where it was pointed out that Russia’s economy is smaller than that of Italy or South Korea and Doug Casey said, ‘Russia is a gas station in a wheat field attached to a gun store.’

“You can get pretty glum watching talking heads on cable TV. The antidote is David Boaz’s optimism — that there’s never been a better time to be alive in the United States, and in almost any other country on the planet.

FreedomFest is an individualist’s dream (though admittedly, for those who arrange it, it can have its nightmare moments).

“FreedomFest is a movable feast. You never know what’s on the menu. I enjoyed Skeptic magazine’s Michael Shermer’s breakout session on the scientific search for evidence of an afterlife, and his conclusion that we should focus on living a full meaningful life rather than worrying about what might or might not happen in the afterlife.”

In sum, FreedomFest is an individualist’s dream (though admittedly, for those who arrange it, it can have its nightmare moments). As in those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels of the ’70s and ’80s, you can create your own conference as you circle your favorite sessions and decide what you’re going to hear and do.

We can’t wait to see all of our friends at FreedomFest 2019 where our theme is “The Wild West.” Escape the Deep State to Live Free! Come choose your own adventure in Las Vegas July 17–20. Hats and boots optional. Leave your horse at home.




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The Ruling Class Has Split!

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For many decades, libertarians — in common with traditional conservatives and many antiwar liberals — have identified the Great Satan as the imperial presidency. This now appears to have been an overly optimistic view.

It’s not that the presidency isn’t dangerous. It’s that the leading opponents of the presidency are equally so. They are almost as potent, and they are even more tenacious about holding onto power.

I refer to the professional bureaucrats, the secret police, and the ministry of propaganda. By “professional bureaucrats” I mean all those people who set policy for and pretend to manage the nation’s vast pyramids of power — power over social welfare, public education, war, the economy, nature itself. By “ministry of propaganda” I mean the obvious: the news media, some of it (the on-air networks) the creation of government, most of it the chronic crony of government — although, like all such creatures and cronies, without compunction about ousting particular governments if possible. By “secret police” I also mean the obvious, and in this case the literal: the FBI and other national gendarmeries, leading members of which plotted to manage and then to invalidate the latest presidential election.

Revolutions don’t happen because oppressed people rise up against the state; they happen because there is a split in the ruling class.

The presidency retains its absurd powers, and continues absurdly to exercise them. Yet a year and a half into his tenure, the president and his henchmen have been unable to fire even such mid-level enemies as Peter Strzok, to prod the FBI into providing documentation that it is legally obligated to provide, or to halt a mob of government-funded lawyers, egged on by a partisan press, from entrapping the president’s associates and hauling them before kangaroo courts. That’s how far the president’s writ runs, and it isn’t very far.

When I was in college, I learned, to my dismay, that revolutions don’t happen because oppressed people rise up against the state; they happen because there is a “split in the ruling class.” I was dismayed because I wanted to picture revolution as an ideologically romantic thing, and even more dismayed because I had to read books, not about heroic moral leaders, but about such dull things as Baron Stein’s reforms of Prussia, the conflict between the noblesse de robe and the noblesse d’épée, and the hatred between Iberians and creoles in Spanish America. Dull as it is, however, the general idea was right: revolutions aren’t born among powerless people, trying to end the tyranny of the powerful; they’re born among powerful people who hate the other powerful people.

The two factions of the ruling class despise each other. They can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. It’s a fight to the death.

When you read the report of Inspector General Horowitz, this is what you see: the secret police, the propagandists, and the bureaucratic insiders waging trench warfare against the loathéd populists of the presidential clique. The two factions of the ruling class despise each other. They can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. It’s a fight to the death. But they’re not fighting, either of them, to reduce the power of government. Oh no.

The good news, and the bad news, is that such struggles are hard to confine. Conflicts within the state have often led to conflicts about the state. Power passed out of the hands of the original contestants and into the hands of people who actually remolded the state and its politics. The resulting regime was usually worse than the one it replaced. The imperial Trump and his preppy antagonists could conceivably be replaced by the mob of radicals now fighting their own civil war against the Clintonians for control of the Democratic Party.

But I don’t think America is ready to be ruled by latter-day Jacobins. I think it more likely that Americans will see, and are now seeing, that when the government has unlimited power it attracts people who want unlimited power, and that these people will become increasingly ungoverned in pursuit of it. The solution is not to replace one gang with another but to limit the power of all. I think it’s a good time for libertarians to mention this increasingly obvious fact, and never to stop mentioning it.




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What Is Identity, Anyway?

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A few of my close relatives have taken DNA tests. The results have surprised me, both in ways I’ve liked and in ways I haven’t been quite so enthusiastic about.

A long-persisting family legend had it that we were part Spanish. I loved that, because it sounded so castanet-clickingly romantic. Now it turns out that we haven’t a drop of Spanish blood.

If we had any Scandinavian ancestry apart from the predominant Norwegian, I’d have assumed it would turn out to be Danish, or (sorry, Grandma) Swedish. (The Norwegians, in general, don’t much care for the Swedes. Grandma used to say that a Swede was “a Norwegian with his brains knocked out.”) Turns out that the neighbors to whom we are related are Finns and Russians.

A long-persisting family legend had it that we were part Spanish. Now it turns out that we haven’t a drop of Spanish blood.

I’m almost afraid to mention the latter connection to my left-of-center friends. They already tended to behave as if my vote for Gary Johnson singlehandedly cost Hillary Clinton her crown. Now they’re liable to think that Vladimir Putin must be my sixtieth cousin thrice removed.

Americans have gone senseless about “identity.” Though I’m not sure very many of us realize what that word means. It hints at genealogy but seems to have more to do with political tribalism.

Do I feel any different, now that I know I share some DNA with people who steam the frigid winters away in saunas, drink far too much vodka, and wear bearskin hats? I must admit that I don’t. But then again, I’ve never understood why people should define themselves by any circumstance they can neither change nor control.

Grandma used to say that a Swede was “a Norwegian with his brains knocked out.”

I think that “identity” functions as a cheap substitute for a solid sense of self. I offer, as proof of this, the fact that the identifier about which our society makes the biggest deal is skin color. At its thickest points on the body, skin takes up about a millimeter and a half of space. And for all the political dramatics about “race,” given the hundreds of thousands of years human beings have been interbreeding, there exists no guarantee that any two people who just happen to have the same skin tone are any more closely related than Cousin Vlad and I.

I strongly suspect that “race” is little more than a political construct. As is the Left’s new favorite toy, “gender.” Proof of that, I believe, can be seen in the fact that so much political hay is made of these by people who make their living making hay.

I may have declared this on these pages before, but I identify solely as me. That’s because, to use an expression I hate, “I know who I am.” Thus, not only do I get along quite well with myself, but I’m reasonably free from the manipulations of those who are determined to herd us all. The attribute that brings me closest to belonging to a voting bloc is my libertarian philosophy. But if I know us as well as I think I do, I believe I can confidently say that anyone who tries to herd libertarians is going to end up getting trampled.




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Is the Libertarian Movement Moving Anymore?

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It’s been a long time since there was a new libertarian book I wanted to read. Or a libertarian argument I itched to join.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence. I think it peaked in the ’90s.

Think back on that time. In 1994 the Republicans rallied against Hillary Clinton’s health insurance plan and took back the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and with a staying power they hadn’t had in 70 years. Bill Clinton tacked to the right, famously saying in 1995, “The era of big government is over.” Whether or not Bill meant it, it meant something that he said it.

Politicians get their proposals from ideas current at the time. If the New Deal was socialistic, it was because in the first half of the last century, socialism was in the air. Similarly, Bill Clinton did some pro-market things in the ’90s that Democrats wouldn’t have done 70 years before.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence.

The reigning ideas had changed. When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from the free-market economists, principally Martin Anderson and Milton Friedman. Starting under Jimmy Carter and continuing under Ronald Reagan, the federal government followed the advice of the economists and ripped away price and entry controls over airlines, trucking, and natural gas. It opened up the telephone industry to competition and removed interest-rate controls on banks. The New York Stock Exchange freed itself of controls on commissions. The Supreme Court freed professionals of controls on advertising. When unions failed to seed themselves in the new tech industries, they lost their grip on most of the private economy.

Under Clinton, the government supported the extension of private property into the radio spectrum and into the North Pacific fisheries for halibut and black cod. Clinton signed the Republicans’ North American Free Trade Agreement and the Republicans’ welfare reform.

In the last half of the ’90s came the dotcom boom. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and others became cultural figures in a way businessmen hadn’t since the 1920s. The Democrats were happy with the dotcom boom. Al Gore even claimed parenthood of the Internet.

When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from free-market economists.

All this was totally unlike the reigning Democratic thought of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s.

And in the ’90s there came peace. For the first time since Adolf Hitler, America had no enemy. That was a new thing, and a wonderful thing.

None of this is hardcore libertarianism, but think of what libertarianism really is. The essence of it is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life. Well, the biggest threat to private life is war. From 1940 through 1973, the military could pluck a young man out of private life against his will, put a gun in his hands and make him bellow, “Yes, Sir!” But even with the draft gone, war still skews thought and feeling. It limits what a society can afford, what it can allow, or even what it can discuss. Remember the time after Sept. 11, 2001.

Libertarians like to say their philosophy is about freedom, but it is a particular brand of freedom. The Left offers a brand of freedom: “Just let us control your work and property, and you can be free of worry about food, shelter, schooling, public transit, sickness, and old age.” The Left dismisses the libertarian’s freedom as “the freedom to starve” — which, among other things, it is. The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face. And if enough individuals crash and burn, people may decide the system that allows it is not worth it. The libertarian’s freedom requires a large dose of self-reliance — and in the ’90s, self-reliance was pushing forward with welfare reform and the most entrepreneurial economy since the 1920s.

The essence of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life.

Regarding self-reliance, the frontier political struggle was for private accounts within Social Security. Here was a proposal to phase down payments out of a common pot under government control and phase in individual accounts under private control. Libertarian purists were prissy about it, because the individual’s control was going to be limited and the contributions would still be compulsory, but these are not realistic people, and nothing was ever going to satisfy them. The limited Social Security “privatization” would have been a big change, a culture-shifting change. The Left sensed how big it was, and denounced it in an emotional fury as a Wall Street plot to make financiers rich. And it wasn’t. I knew who the proponents were. I had interviewed some of them and written about them. I had read their books. They weren’t trying to make money; they were trying to make the world better. The most credible ones, the ones from the commercial world, made an economic case that had to do with individual wealth, not Wall Street’s profits. (For example, see The Real Deal: The History and Future of Social Security, bySylvester Schieber and John Shoven, published by Yale University Press in 1999.)

We forget that in the private sector, individual accounts did push aside “common-pot” pension plans. They’re called 401(k) plans. They increase the individual’s chance to gain and also his risk of loss — a net gain for self-reliance. They were put in by employers, not by employees. But with Social Security, the Democrats appealed to employees’ fear of loss, and the “privatizers” were defeated — decisively. Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s. And those who keep predicting that Social Security will fail are wrong. It won’t. Congress will fix it by raising taxes, probably by eliminating the cap on taxable income. If they have to, they’ll cut benefits in some gentle and technocratic way.

The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face.

It has been years since Republicans talked about private accounts in Social Security. It’s a dead body they don’t want to be reminded of. Donald Trump vowed never to go near it, and he won’t.

The ’90s were the time of greatest libertarian momentum. By my reckoning, they ended with several events.

The first event was the protest against the World Trade Organization in my hometown, Seattle, on November 30, 1999. The Left came out — tens of thousands of them — against trade. I had imagined that the Left had withered away like the Marxian state, but I was wrong. They were here. They would come again in the Occupy Wall Street demos, and in the Bernie Sanders campaign, loud and obnoxious.

The second event was the end of the dotcom boom in early 2000. You can extend the rules of capitalism when there is a surplus of happiness. Not otherwise.

Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s.

The third event was the attacks of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

After the war came another recession, worse than the one before it. Bankers and capitalists were seen to be bad, and Alan Greenspan was ejected from the people’s hall of heroes.

And then came Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump.

Can anyone argue that we’re progressing?

Has there been a libertarian moment to compare with the ’90s? There were the campaigns of Ron Paul — which amounted to what? What did they achieve? Paul has not changed his party, as Barry Goldwater famously did. Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party, and into an anti-immigrant, anti-trade, resentful mess. Ron Paul’s son is still in the Senate, but one man does not a movement make. Note the exit of Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona — not a good omen.

George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

So where are we, now? Here in Seattle, with my city council putting a (since-retracted) head tax on Amazon in order to succor the squatters on public land — and passing out tax-funded vouchers to donate to dingbat political candidates — it feels like a socialist moment. I also read in the press that Democrats across the country have turned left, and are toying with such Bernie-style ideas as free college for everyone, Medicare for everyone, and a guaranteed job for everyone. There is even babbling out there for UBI — universal basic income.

For everyone.

Those are all hobgoblin ideas until you think of the typical American Democratic politician we all know trying to define them, sell them, and get the average American to love them and pay for them. I imagine that, and I feel better. I think the socialists are selling something Americans won’t want to buy.

Anyway, I hope so.




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Out of Whack

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"War is a judgment that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe."

 — Dorothy Sayers          

Like those of most libertarians, my views cause widespread confusion. Friends often ask my opinion on the political brouhahas of the moment. Because I don’t come down, with the brute consistency of a sledgehammer, on the same side every time, they tend to accuse me of being inconsistent.

They may be right about that, though I happen to think that the libertarian philosophy is the only truly consistent one in currency today. But I also hold a value I consider at least as important. I believe in balance.

Most of the choices we face from day to day don’t lend themselves to “conservative” or “liberal” solutions.

The ancients regarded balance as a primary virtue. A person of sense and reason was one of balanced mind. As was a responsible citizen. But 21st-century society has gotten perilously out of balance, out of whack.

It is virtually impossible for an individual human being to be either totally conservative or totally liberal. We wouldn’t even attempt it in everyday life. And most of the choices we face from day to day don’t lend themselves to “conservative” or “liberal” solutions. Will you buy this “liberal” tie at the clothing store? Will I squeeze myself some “conservative” grapefruit juice for breakfast?

In their behavior as citizens, however, most people feel they must always run in the same direction. They are less like adults than like middle-schoolers. They distrust their own opinions, or simply can’t be bothered to form them. Instead, they join a gang.

Every healthy society needs both conservatives and liberals. Nobody is infallible. We need each other, even if we don’t like each other.

Inevitably, the gang swells into a mob. All too easily, it may then metastasize into an army. Therein lies the peril.

When they get frustrated because they can’t figure me out, my friends will demand to know just where I stand. Am I a liberal or a conservative? One of “us,” or one of “them?” And when I reply that I am both — a very libertarian answer — they either tell me that’s impossible, or they get so frustrated that they never mention politics around me again.

If they give me a chance to explain, I say that I don’t consider liberalism and conservatism to be mutually exclusive. Sure, we’re always being told that they are. But every healthy society needs them both. Nobody is infallible. We need each other, even if we don’t like each other.

We can’t make sound decisions if we must follow one strategy all the time. In politics, as in the governance of our individual lives, one size never fits all, nor does one approach solve every problem. Too often, politics attempts to govern all of our lives. But we can’t make good choices even for ourselves, much less for others, if we ignore common sense and the balanced perspective necessary to maintain it. Surely neither Left nor Right can be correct every time.

We can’t make sound decisions if we must follow one strategy all the time. One size never fits all, nor does one approach solve every problem.

Now, when we tell our friends we think they’re right some of the time and at least occasionally wrong, it disarms them. It invites them to think instead of automatically reacting. In our refusal to be drafted into either army, we retain our own power. We stand firm as conscientious objectors in a totally unnecessary and wasteful war, waged on behalf of tyrants.

Divide-and-conquer tactics are useful only to conquerors. Those who would rule over us cherish one value, and only one: power. They are totally consistent. They are brutes. And unless enough of us refuse to cooperate, the sledgehammer they wield will crush us all.




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