Diddling While Rome Burns

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Your humble social media correspondent is troubled. For some time now, discord among warring libertarians has raged on Facebook, my own battlefield of choice. In just the past few days it has gotten uglier than ever among my own libertarian Facebook friends.

One friend — whom I also know personally — has gone on an unholy tear about the injustices of life as a tenant. “Rent is theft!” his posts repeatedly scream. I’ve always considered him a levelheaded person. I have no idea what’s happened to him. A lot of people are quitting him because he’s gone to a place so dark they don’t want to follow.

In just the past few days it has gotten uglier than ever among my own libertarian Facebook friends.

I know he leans far left. Like a lot of former statist progressives, he’s outraged about something practically all the time. He sees it as his personal mission to convert as many as possible of his comrades to left-libertarianism. I suppose you could say that he’s the Apostle Paul of that faction. But if all he has to give these hungry souls is more outrage and aggrievement, I think he’s offering pretty thin gruel.

In my previous essay in Liberty I alluded to the compulsion I see in so many people to dress up in fancy and heroic costumes. As this turbulence on Facebook was something I was already facing daily, I had it at least partially in mind. Almost everybody involved is between 19 and 25, looking for a girlfriend (or in some cases, a boyfriend) and hoping to appear edgy and revolutionary. I know I must be getting old, because the whole production is making me tired and cranky.

These people need to take a good, hard look around them. I can’t imagine where they’re getting the notion that our increasingly police-state and nuclear-faceoff world really cares whether they’re AnCap, AnSoc or AnCom. Their mothers might have cared, in a worried, “Do you have a tummyache, dear?” sort of way, and their buds at the dorm probably found it mildly engrossing over pizza and beer. But they’re supposed to be adults now, and they’re merely diddling while Rome burns.

We’ve all got a lot of heavy lifting to do if we are even going to budge this society in a libertarian direction. The blessed time when we might profitably haggle about what type of libertarian society we’re going to have — just exactly, and to a precise ideological point — is one that neither I, nor anyone reading this essay, will ever live to see. It may be as distant in the future as the American Revolution is in the past. In the meantime, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we are standing for what is right and that each of us is doing our personal utmost to work toward that worthy goal. Ordering fries with that is simply not an option.

Where are they getting the notion that our increasingly police-state and nuclear-faceoff world really cares whether they’re AnCap, AnSoc or AnCom?

I’m glad to see so many new converts to the liberty movement, especially among the young, but I fear that few of them will persevere long enough to see their commitment through. I think it’s very likely that they’ll get discouraged by the tough slog, and end up returning to statism — a hefty part of the appeal of which is the promise of an order of fries with that. To switch metaphors yet again, we now find ourselves stuck in Siberia, but hope to row, in our huge fleet of leaky rowboats, clear to Honolulu. As we navigate the stormy waters between us and our destination, will they turn aside and end up shipwrecked on Alcatraz?

We’ll all just have to stay tuned. I know that I’ll continue to follow the soap opera. And I fully intend to persevere on our journey. I don’t needa side of fries — though there are some days when I yearn for an aspirin, the size of a hockey puck.




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Infighting: The Libertarian National Pastime

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Baseball is America's national pastime, or so the saying goes. I can say something similar for the libertarian movement. Not a day goes by that two well-known libertarians don't have a fight on Facebook or Twitter, each accusing and condemning the other and seeking to persuade the other to leave the libertarian movement entirely. On some days, in Facebook’s libertarian groups, there are entire wars — the military campaigns and attacks and counterattacks of masses of people fighting each other. All of these people self-define as "libertarian"!

Why does this happen? I think one explanation is that, to be a "libertarian," one must (probably) possess certain core beliefs about freedom, capitalism, etc., and have a certain attitude toward government and individual rights. The Non-Aggression Axiom is a nice summary of that attitude. But that leaves room for many positions, on many issues — which means that there are many issues about which libertarians have passionate feelings. Since core libertarian values don’t clearly define what your position on these issues should be, there are going to be many people in strong opposition, within the same tent.

In Facebook’s libertarian groups, there are entire wars — the military campaigns and attacks and counterattacks of masses of people fighting each other.

For example, a libertarian can be pro-choice or pro-life, can be minarchist or anarchist, can be for open immigration or closed borders, can be pro-GOP or pro-LP or pro-anarchy, can be pro-Trump or anti-Trump. I would even say that a libertarian can be anti-Union and pro-Confederacy (from opposition to centralized government) or anti-Confederacy and pro-Union (from opposition to slavery) — although it is curious that this quarrel is still considered relevant, more than a century and a half after the Civil War ended.

So, let's be frank. Take, for example, abortion. Pro-life people believe they are crusaders against the murder of babies. Pro-choice people believe they are crusaders for women's rights, and that the government’s taking control of a woman's body is the moral equivalent of rape. These people hate each other. But, within the big tent of libertarianism, both types of people exist, often in even numbers.

Because this issue is so important, fighting is inevitable. But note that libertarians, as a group, tend to be people who define their identity by means of their political positions. As such, libertarians will tend, not merely to argue, but to try to say that theirs is the position that should win, that it is the "one true libertarianism," that it is logically necessary from libertarian core principles (which it never is, because the core principles don't define these positions), and then kick everyone who disagrees out of the movement. To continue my example: the pro-life libertarians will accuse the pro-choice ones of being liberals who should go join the Democratic Party; in return, the pro-choice libertarians will call the pro-lifers closet conservatives who should call themselves such. And then, to each other, they will say GFY, GTFO, and other rude, insulting acronyms I only learned after spending some time on Facebook Groups.

A bunch of robots marching in unison is not what people seek in the spirit of truth and beauty that comes from political freedom.

And do you know what I think? I think this is necessary because of the structural foundation of the libertarian position itself. Liberty specifies a few core positions and then leaves gaps and room for individuals to think through their own beliefs on each specific issue. And you know what else? I think that this is how things are always going to be, and any alternative would be no better, even though this state of affairs has some toxic consequences.

What would be better? For some master leader of the movement to choose his position and impose it on every other libertarian, so that the movement could have ideological purity and unity? A bunch of robots marching in unison is not what people seek in the spirit of truth and beauty that comes from political freedom. And, in the absence of someone forcing everyone else to conform to one position, the diversity of positions will persist, and from them follows the necessary infighting.

But what are the toxic side effects? Libertarians can't agree on specific political issues, hence cannot rally around one candidate. If all the libertarians who are registered Republican, and all the ones who are registered Libertarian, and all sympathizers of both, could vote on one unity candidate, that might be enough votes to pose a threat to the establishment. But it can't happen, because there is too much disunity to unite around one candidate. With libertarian votes split between GOP, LP, and people who don't vote as a matter of principle, we just don't have the votes to elect our own candidates. Furthermore, constant infighting creates a militant, disrespectful culture, in which libertarians, who should naturally be friends, become their own fiercest enemies.

What is the solution to this problem? As I see it, there isn't one, and if there were it would be worse than the problem. In a free-for-all, there is fighting, and unregulated capitalism is, among many other things, a free-for-all.

Constant infighting creates a militant, disrespectful culture, in which libertarians, who should naturally be friends, become their own fiercest enemies.

But, to conclude on a note of hope, the candidacy of Trump proves that charisma is far more important for getting votes than party unity. If the Libertarian Party would nominate a candidate with great personal charisma and a cult of personality, then he or she could win the White House. If Trump can win then anyone can. But until that happens, we'll just wait on the sidelines of politics and kick one another in the teeth for disagreeing about which color of mouthwash is correct for libertarian dental hygiene. And, of course, both sides will think that the color of their mouthwash is defined by the Non-Aggression Axiom or Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard or Ron Paul, and that they themselves are obviously correct, and that everyone else can JGTFO.




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The Liberty League

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Individuality is a concept crucial to liberty. The understanding that each of us is an individual is necessary if we are to keep our freedom and use it wisely. Individuality is, therefore, the main concept that tyrants want us to forget. Tyranny makes war on the individual. That means that it makes war on each and every one of us.

I hear a lot of talk, in libertarian circles, about “isms” and “ists.” It seems that these days, everyone has to adhere to an “ism,” be some sort of an “ist” or at least march under a banner that makes a bold statement. Am I a paleolibertarian, an anarchocapitalist, an Objectivist, a Rothbardian, or a Gold Coinage Free Spiritarian? (I made that last one up, but it sounds grand.) When I tell people that I consider myself a just plain libertarian, they tend to sigh as if to say, “How boring!”

It’s disheartening to me to hear my fellow liberty-lovers label themselves like that. I like to think that only statists think that way. But to most people of any political stripe, it seems inadequate simply to be themselves. It’s as if they’re little kids, trying on different superhero costumes at the department store. Which color cape, tights, and boots do they want to wear? What sort of special superpowers do they aspire to possess?

Tyranny makes war on the individual. That means that it makes war on each and every one of us.

I have reached that settled point in middle age where my main concern is how I believe I should live. How can I be the best individual human being I’m capable of being, based on my own priorities in life? Flashy capes and go-go boots do nothing for me (as probably everyone who could visualize me in them would agree). Living my own, ordinary, non-superheroic life is pretty much a full-time job.

Perhaps our society’s fascination with superheroes springs from the notion that we, ourselves, as individuals, are woefully insignificant. To many people, minding their own business and living their individual lives as best they can is simply boring. Being masters of themselves and wielding power in their own lives doesn’t strike them as enough.

But the truth of the matter is, that’s all we’ve got. Each of us can do, in our lives, only whatever it is given us to do. If our liberty to live as we see fit is not impeded, and we accomplish this, then at the end of our lives we can be satisfied that we’ve reached our full potential. It could very well be that the reason big government and political power have become so important in our society is that few of us understand that.

Our society’s fascination with superheroes may spring from the notion that we, ourselves, as individuals, are woefully insignificant.

Many people feel the burning need to tell others how to live. They aren’t content unless they’re wielding power over as many other people as possible. Because they don’t see themselves as enough, they feel they must join some entity larger than themselves, wear a fancy label, and function as components of a collective endeavor. Planning their own lives is not nearly as exciting as planning everyone else’s.

We wear labels in order to influence other people. To mind our own business, we need no label. A life of quiet integrity leads by example. Few of us ever learn that this is the deepest and most profound influence any human being can ever wield.

It’s possible, of course, that those of us who are libertarians would win more converts if we donned colorful costumes with tights and capes. Instead of “The Justice League,” we could call ourselves “The Liberty League.” Ours would need to be more effective than the old American Liberty League of the 1930s. After all, we wouldn’t want to be one-picture wonders. To endure, we must have an entire franchise.

If Hollywood did make movies about us, liberty would become — as the kids say — a thing. But under those conditions, my own wish would be to possess Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. I could stride into D.C. brandishing that magical weapon and drive every politician and ideologist, of whatever kind, out of town. I can imagine no service I might perform for my country that would be more superheroic.




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We’re Here!

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Thirty years ago, the first issue of Liberty appeared. It was dated August 1987, and it emerged from an old house high on a hill in the little town of Port Townsend, Washington, overlooking the Puget Sound.

Liberty was born at the moment when technology was making it possible to create a national magazine in one’s own home — if you were willing to perform the backbreaking effort necessary to get it to other people’s homes. R.W. Bradford and Kathy Bradford, who lived in the house on the hill, were willing to do that. Timothy Virkkala was their learned assistant in the project. And this, I suppose, is where I come into the story. I was Bill Bradford’s old friend from Michigan, our home state, who was privileged to become an editor-at-long-distance.

From the start, we had attracted most of the great names in the libertarian movement, and we continued to attract them, from Murray Rothbard to John Hospers to Milton Friedman.

One of Liberty’s first gifts to me was a svelte little plastic fax machine into which I could feed my handwritten copy (or copy embodied in a bad, bad computer printout), so it could be transmitted to Liberty HQ and retyped for publication. I spent many happy nights hand-feeding paper into the clicking, purring, squeaking machine with the cheerful blinking lights, then calling Bill to make sure he could read the results unrolling from his fax.

Within a few years, all copy became digital, human and financial costs-per-word decreased, and Liberty was being mailed to thousands of readers, all over the world. We started at six big issues a year, then went to 11 or 12 big issues. From the start, we had attracted most of the great names in the libertarian movement, and we continued to attract them, from Murray Rothbard to John Hospers to Milton Friedman. We also attracted debate, hostility, admiration, and friendship (often of the much-prized “I disagree with what you say but I like your writing anyway” variety) from libertarians and others.

It was our job to promote a play of ideas, and if we disagreed with what an author said, we helped him or her to present the disagreeable ideas in the most accessible and attractive way.

One of my most vivid memories is a conversation I had with Bill Bradford, who was a very great man, about whether we should publish a certain article. I said no, the subject wasn’t very important, and what the author said would only provoke anger from certain friends of Liberty. “Well,” he said. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” So we published it.

That’s not a unique instance. And I used to say that Bill published more articles that he disagreed with than otherwise. It was our job to promote a play of ideas, and if we disagreed with what an author said, we helped him or her to present the disagreeable ideas in the most accessible and attractive way. The one thing we wouldn’t stand for (still won’t) was an error of fact. In the days before the internet and during its infancy and adolescence we spent many days checking out purported facts about the history of South American railways, the origin of dogs, the use and regulation of helium in America, and other topics that turned out to be so interesting that we were happy we had disputed our authors’ facts.

But there were millions of facts that Bill didn’t need to look up. I suppose that nobody ever knew more about American political history than he did, or more about American and world geography. Sometimes my phone would ring at 1 a.m., and I would hear Bill’s voice, reporting on his current interests.

“Say, do you know what’s the tallest mountain in the world?”

“Mt. Everest?”

“Of course. From one point of view. But shouldn’t mountains be measured from where they start? I mean, if a mountain starts from the ocean floor, shouldn’t it be measured from the ocean floor? Well, in that case, the candidates are . . .”

Well,” Bill said. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” So we published it.

I think it was in that conversation that Bill introduced the topic of where you can see farthest on the surface of the earth, and developed a mathematical formula for calculating how far away a peak of such and such a height can be seen. He got the formula, which he supposed was the same as the one he had learned but had misplaced. Then he found that formula and discovered that it was different from his own, “but both of them work.” Not surprisingly, Bill wanted Liberty to encourage, not just articles about politics, but articles about the whole wide world. The journal should offer the best writing about liberty, or by libertarians, about anything . . .

Once, in the early days, Bill and I attended a libertarian convention called “The Culture of Liberty.” It was held in a typical conference center with a ballroom and breakout rooms, and in one corner of the ballroom there were six or seven paintings by some libertarian artist. Bill looked at them and laughed: “I guess that’s it; that’s the ‘culture of liberty.’” We both thought that if libertarianism was about getting the political power to leave people alone, so they would be free to do all the colorful and creative things they were able to do, then a libertarian journal should be warmly interested in those things; it shouldn’t stop with politics. Liberty never has — and if you want to see a magnificent exponent and exemplar of this idea, follow the contributions of Jo Ann Skousen, our entertainment editor.

When Bill and I were growing up, there were a few conservative journals, with National Review as their undisputed chief; an orthodox Objectivist journal; and a scattering of libertarian publications. At one end of that spectrum was The Freeman, an outreach publication with good analyses of economic questions. It was mailed out free, and it never, ever, reviewed a book it didn’t like. At the other end was Libertarian Connection, a cheeky product of early technology: you wrote whatever you wanted, mimeographed it, and mailed a ton of copies to the publisher, who stapled them together with other people’s mimeographed pages and mailed them out to everyone. Bill and I often hung out and discussed the latest Connection. It gave us a lot of laughs at some of its authors, and a lot of friendly feelings toward the others (and toward the first group, too).

If libertarianism was about people being left alone, free to do all the colorful and creative things they were able to do, then a libertarian journal should be warmly interested in those things.

In the late 1960s came Reason, which is still going strong, thank God, with a large foundation behind it, and a strong political agenda. And then came Liberty. Now — again, thank God — there are hundreds of libertarian online publications, pursuing various kinds of political agendas.

But Liberty was never that way. Bill was proud of the fact that, as he said, “Liberty has never advocated a single political position. Our authors have, but Liberty itself has not.” Don’t be mistaken: this is an important distinction, one of the most important in the world of journalism.

There is nothing wrong, and many things that are right, about publishing a journal whose purpose is to advocate certain specific ideas. Great political progress has resulted from the focused influence of libertarian, conservative, and civil-libertarian organs of opinion. But what is gained in influence may be lost in fun, and sometimes in trust. Liberty has never failed to publish something that’s unusual, attractive, or interesting, just because it wouldn’t help to produce the correct kind of political change.

And when you read Liberty, you may be bothered by many things, but you won’t be bothered by what I call the Church Bulletin Problem. Everything that’s written in the church bulletin may be true: the church may be doing great deeds; Satan may be on his last legs, and sinking fast; among the membership, all may be harmony and peace. But you know that if this were not true, the unfortunate fact would never appear in the bulletin. It just wouldn’t fit the agenda.

Liberty has never failed to publish something that’s unusual, attractive, or interesting, just because it wouldn’t help to produce the correct kind of political change.

Even the good stuff, the really individual stuff, the really inspiring stuff I see in some of the political sites and journals I enjoy, can make me wonder: is that really true? If not, how could I tell? And do the authors actually believe it’s true? With Liberty there has never been any question about that: our authors may have the wrong perspective, they may be making the wrong deductions, they may, at times, be riding their deductions over a cliff, but they believe exactly what they’ve written. This is especially noteworthy in cases in which libertarians are brave enough to challenge some libertarian “line.” You don’t do that unless you mean it.

But enough of preaching. The rest of the history (so far) is this. In December 2005, Bill died in his house on the hill, after a long and heroic struggle with cancer. One of his last concerns was the future of Liberty. We talked on the phone, a couple of weeks before his death, and I agreed to take the job as editor in chief. The good thing about me was that I had been an editor from the start and had been the only person, besides Bill himself, who had written something for every issue. The bad thing was that I lacked Bill’s gargantuan energy, his intimate knowledge of everything libertarian, and his . . . just everything that distinguished him as a great human being. For me, the good thing about my new job was that I got to collaborate with the amazing people who did the real work: Kathy Bradford, Mark Rand, Patrick Quealy, and Drew Ferguson.

In 2010, Liberty passed into its third technological era. Print journalism was on its way out. Fewer people wanted to wait for Liberty to arrive by mail. Bill had once been proud that we had subscribers in virtually every real country in the world, but changes in postal rates had nearly eliminated our worldwide audience. We needed to make a change, and we did: in late 2010, we became an online journal.

The effects were both good and bad. Good: we reclaimed our international audience. We became much more timely than a monthly print journal can be. We could link and be linked. We could make everything we publish and have published accessible for free. (OK, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You still have to spend time reading what we write. But you don’t have to pay any money. Although donations are always very acceptable.) Bad: we lost the wonderful heft and feel and smell of print, and with it many of our readers, who delight (as I do) in the enjoyment of words on paper.

Once we had subscribers in virtually every real country in the world, but changes in postal rates had nearly eliminated our worldwide audience. We needed to make a change.

So, we’re different today from what we were before, but we’re still the tough little boat in Captains Courageous, the “We’re Here.” We’re so substantially here that when I went looking through our online archives to find the locations of articles that I especially enjoyed, so I could recommend them to you, I got lost — lost in enjoyment of so many things I had read, and loved, and “forgotten,” and then discovered again, as fresh as the day they were written. You’re invited to go to the Liberty Archive and push the Search button and see for yourself. Substantial writing is writing that endures, and I think you’ll find that the great majority of the writing we’ve published retains its interest in a way that journal writing ordinarily does not.

I wanted to say, “If you follow this link, you’ll see the best writing by this author or that author.” But that idea was a nonstarter. There was just too much of the best, both of authors and of articles. And while I’m talking about the “best,” here’s the interesting thing about the authors of Liberty: every one of them is really an individual — which means that attempts at comparisons among them are all comparisons of apples and oranges.

Bill Bradford wanted writing that wasn’t valuable simply because of its subject or its political opinions. He wanted writing that showed you what individual people can do with words.

That is exactly what Bill Bradford wanted — individuality. A fervent admirer of H.L. Mencken — I can see Bill now, glowing with pleasure as he told me about one of the high points of his life, his visit to the Mencken house in Baltimore, where he sat in Mencken’s chair, behind Mencken’s desk — he wanted writing that wasn’t valuable simply because of its subject or its political opinions. He wanted writing that showed you what individual people can do with words.

I’ll speak for myself: If anyone asks me to identify my favorites among all the things I’ve written for Liberty, I’ll mention two items about animals: my Word Watch column on the death of Tatiana the tiger (April 2008, pp. 19–20), and my Reflection on the death of Adwaitya the tortoise (June 2006, pp. 9–11). I think those pieces are interesting because of what I did with them, not because I was expressing predictably libertarian sentiments. I also think they’re interesting because neither of them could possibly have appeared in any other journal. They are modest examples of what Liberty has always done to give liberty to its authors.

If you want more of the story of Liberty, I urge you to visit our March 2006 issue and read “A Life in Liberty,” our symposium on the life of Bill Bradford. Much of our history is conveniently available in our 20th-anniversary issue (August 2007), which offers accounts of the journal’s history written by Bill and me and the inimitable Bruce Ramsey. I hope you like what we’ve always tried to do. If you like it, please raise a glass to both Liberty and liberty. The second is always cause for tumultuous celebration. As for the first . . . we hope that it continues to merit a tumult, too.




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A Novel Attracting Attention

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Blythe is the debut novel by John Kramer. Because it has received considerable praise and interest from readers across the philosophical spectrum, but especially among libertarians, Liberty’s entertainment editor, Jo Ann Skousen, interviewed Kramer about story’s themes and popularity. Set in a nondescript village in an undisclosed time period, it begins with the strange disappearance and reappearance of several local residents wracked by a strange disease and marked by a strange branding. When the story’s title character, Blythe, is led into an underworld kingdom that proves to be the source of the disease, she must find a way to survive while her love interest, Aaron, must find a way to rescue her.

* * *

JAS: Blythe is set in a timeless and nameless world that is familiar in its human relationships and topography, yet unfamiliar in its lack of technology and its Dantean underworld located just outside the city. It could take place in the past, or in a postapocalyptic future. What were you trying to accomplish with your setting and character conflicts?

JK: It was a challenge to write Blythe in a way that was timeless; as you correctly point out, the story could be taking place today or it could have taken place 600 years ago or it could take place in the future. The only temporal reference is to Dante. But for that, Blythe is truly a timeless tale and that was important to me because its themes are timeless: good vs. evil, self-determination vs. captivity and oppression, and the ideas and ideals of faith, freedom, and forgiveness. Readers are used to being told stories with concrete facts — with recognizable places, set in a specific time and with detailed descriptions of the characters. Blythe is purposefully light on all of that, and once the readers figure out that they have the control to create this world and these characters in their own minds, it is empowering for them. I remember watching a video of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” for the first time, back in the 1980s. I was so disappointed by the casting of John the bartender and other characters. They were nothing like the characters my mind had conjured. Outside of what I considered characteristically essential observations, many of the details in Blythe will be created by the reader.

Blythe's themes are timeless: good vs. evil, self-determination vs. captivity and oppression, and the ideas and ideals of faith, freedom, and forgiveness.

JAS: Your title character, Blythe, is an artist who uses her own blood in her work. Art has a specific healing and protective power in the story. You’re a painter as well. Is Blythe the character with whom you most identify?

JK: I admire Blythe and her growth throughout this story. Even in her true-to-life frailties, she manages to hold herself to a high standard. But there are other characters I identify much more closely with, most specifically Augustus. Throughout this story, Augustus never speaks; he acts. And he always acts in a way that helps his good friend Aaron. That’s my kind of person. He was modeled on Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus, who in the entire Bible never speaks a word. He just does the right thing to look out for those he loves even when it seems like a fool’s errand. And Joseph’s actions, like those of Augustus, are essential to the story’s outcome.

JAS: For me, the best part of the book is the thought-provoking aphorisms containing libertarian ideas — sentences such as “Every manmade disaster begins when one man thinks for another. However benevolent they begin, the ultimate outcome is tyranny” and “Take liberties you shouldn’t and you’ll find your liberties are taken from you.” It reminds me of reading Emerson’s journals, which he relied on frequently as a source for his essays. What is the source of the quotable passages in your book, and how did you use them in creating the story? Did you collect them first and build the story around them, or did they rise of their own volition out of the story-writing process? Which are your personal favorites?

The need to act to stop injustice has been a driving force in my life from as early as the age of three

JK: Emerson has a special place in my life. I lost my father when I was two, and my Uncle Joe, who was a surrogate father, urged me time and again to read Emerson’s essay on “Compensation.” When I finally had the maturity to read it, it hit home, both in the sweep of its message and in its unique and memorable turns of phrase. I’ve since read all Emerson’s essays four times or more and I hope to never stop reading them over the course of my life. Both Emerson and Benjamin Franklin inspired me to create unique, true, carefully crafted, and memorable turns of phrase throughout Blythe. Nearly all of the quotes and all of the poems are my own creations. The quote that most closely reflects my aspirations and actions is the one I used as Blythe’s one-line prologue: “One of mankind’s greatest sins is inaction in the face of injustice.” The need to act to stop injustice has been a driving force in my life from as early as the age of three. I’m grateful to have worked over the past 25 years at an organization that allows me to turn that insight into action on behalf of individuals whose rights are being violated by the government. I can’t think of a better way to earn an honest living.

JAS: Blythe has been described as a story that defies genre. It focuses more on its themes of love, faith, forgiveness, and redemption than on traditional story tropes. Your protagonist, Blythe, is strong, willful, talented, and independent. Her love interest, Aaron, is also strong, loyal, and likeable. Through a series of choices — some hers, some Aaron’s — Blythe ends up inside a dark and despotic place where she and a growing number of villagers are imprisoned, perhaps forever. Blythe doesn’t seem to belong there by the rules of traditional forgiveness and redemption tales — unlike Edmund, for example, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she hasn’t deliberately chosen an evil path, hasn’t harmed anyone, and in fact she does whatever is possible to avoid harming others. In terms of your story trope, why is Blythe confined to this prison, and why does she need forgiveness and redemption? Why isn’t Aaron held equally responsible for his actions leading to her capture? You mention betrayal in the story; who has betrayed whom?

JK: I concluded a poem many years ago with the lines, “We are bound to make mistakes, but it’s what we do from there that can bring us back to God, and the life He wants to share.” We all make mistakes. We all sometimes take the wrong path even though we know better. Like Blythe, we can even have the self-awareness to point this out to ourselves as we are doing it, but we sometimes still continue to move in exactly the wrong direction, often at the urging of people we know we should not trust. That is what Blythe experiences. And following someone in such a way never leads to a good or happy place or experience. We should trust our instincts. Once Blythe is drawn into that other world, she not only has to figure out how to survive but how to preserve the better angels of her nature. When she enters, she is a broken person inside, but this new and threatening place acts as a crucible of sorts, purifying her, and — even as it works to destroy her — helping to make her good and whole. We are all individually responsible for what we do, and Blythe is not immune to that fact. So Blythe escalates Aaron’s betrayal, and, in that twist, she is betrayed by her rival, who herself is betrayed to an even greater extent. The lesson here is that when we ratchet up what we know is wrong, it only makes our lives and our worlds a worse place to be in. By recognizing and living up to the power of forgiveness, we can improve not only our own lives, but the world around us.

We all make mistakes. We all sometimes take the wrong path even though we know better.

JAS: You subtly suggest that evil is contagious, or at least that it loves company, when those who want to leave their imprisonment and return temporarily to the outside world must bring someone back with them or else suffer an agonizing, torturous death. Eventually whole communities succumb to the underworld. Is this a metaphor for social and political philosophies that seem to spread like a virus from person to person? Or is it a demonstration of the destructive power of peer pressure? Or am I reading something into this that wasn’t intentional?

JK: So many forces in this world are contagious: evil inspires more evil, but courage, love, and forgiveness can and should also be contagious; it merely requires an individual to stop, even in the midst of harm, and say, “No. I won’t continue or expand this harmful cycle. I am going to be the one to change this trend.” I grew up in a home with a lot of joy, but there was also a lot of hair-trigger violence. I knew it was wrong even as I was seeing it happen, and I vowed to myself that it would not happen in a home I would make my own someday. Each member of my family would feel safe in our home. My nephew, who stayed with us for a summer, described our home as “relentlessly positive.” I like that humorous description. It is what I’ve worked to build. We are free to pursue destructive paths, but all we’re left with when we’re done is destruction. On the other hand, one can decide to be a positive force. Others are looking for those examples, especially in our world today. And when one person stands and defends the defenseless, others are inspired to join, or do their own positive variation on the theme. Misery loves company, but so does joy. What you read was certainly a purposeful choice on my part with this story.

JAS: Is it significant that most of the early victims who succumb to the plague you describe are young men? Your description of the mysterious pustules that cover their bodies, the phlegmy cough, the wasting away, and the incurable nature of the disease reminded me immediately of the 1980s, when young men began wasting away and dying from an inexplicable and incurable form of pneumonia that eventually became diagnosed as the final symptom of AIDS. Eventually the connection between the kingdom and AIDS becomes explicit in your story. What is your point with this part of the story, and how does it fit with the underlying theme of choice and accountability, love, faith, forgiveness, and redemption? Did you mean to imply that sex outside of marriage is inherently evil and needs to be punished? Do you agree with the 1980s statement made by several orthodox Christian leaders that AIDS was a punishment from God? Why is HIV at the center of this Dantean world?

When one person stands and defends the defenseless, others are inspired to join, or do their own positive variation on the theme.

JK: You caught a commonality that has slipped by a lot of readers, certainly on the first time they read Blythe. In the early days of the AIDS crisis, its victims were largely limited to young gay men — social outcasts who operated outside of society’s mainstream. It wasn’t until AIDS crossed the gender line that suddenly the vast majority of people and especially the media started to take notice. Blythe follows this same turn of events. Complicit in this during the AIDS crisis, and in my novel, were those in authority who saw what was transpiring, but who said nothing publicly and did nothing officially because they didn’t agree with the life choices of those individuals. It was not, however, their place to pass such judgments, and they did so with disastrous effects across entire swaths of our world. In art, as in life, such errors in judgment must be paid for, which indeed is the case for one of the authority figures in this story who allows this plague to rise and take hold. For a time, it makes his life easier, but he pays very personally and in many different ways he could never have anticipated.

And just as AIDS doesn’t kill its victims, but weakens their resistance to other illnesses that take their lives, those in the kingdom who are going to die are sent away to die elsewhere, typically in what were once their homes.

To be clear, because some have asked me: I do not believe HIV is a punishment for sinful choices. (One ancillary character suggests that, but the more central and more persuasive character refutes that belief.) Ending up in the underground kingdom may happen as a consequence of the choices characters make or others make for them, but I do not see it as a punishment for the choice. To me there is a difference between a consequence and a punishment; the latter implies God’s judgment, and I don’t believe God would will that on His own creations; the other team would. As you once put it in an exchange with me, natural consequences are not divine punishments; God doesn’t make bad things happen, but He allows natural consequences to occur.

Just as AIDS doesn’t kill its victims, but weakens their resistance to other illnesses that take their lives, those in the kingdom who are going to die are sent away to die elsewhere.

JAS: The separate world of captivity you created for Blythe and the others is unusual in that the inhabitants are able to see and speak with their loved ones on the outside. I was reminded of Eurydice, alive and aware even after death, while Orpheus pleads with the gods to free her from the underworld. Blythe isn’t scary like a horror story and it doesn’t have the tension of a spy thriller or the panic I imagine of hell. In fact, this kingdom you create seems more like a leper colony than a prison. What was your intent in allowing this kind of ongoing communication between the villagers and those held captives in that kingdom?

JK: The structure of the kingdom and of this story is based on HIV/AIDS, and how it operates and how it spread throughout our society. So, in this sense, those who are infected with HIV are, by necessity, separated in many ways physically from those they love. They can be present and communicate with each other, but there is that separation, which provided some of the more poignant moments involving Blythe and Aaron — calling out and responding to each other across that vast separation that could only be crossed if Aaron forfeited his future — a line Blythe would never allow him to cross.

JAS: I noticed many traditional Christian morals and values within your story. Do you consider this book to be a Christian allegory?

There are many libertarian Christians out there who feel like they need to apologize for living in both camps. We need to stop apologizing.

JK: Blythe is a Christian libertarian work of literary fiction and yet it has been rewarding to hear from agnostic and atheistic readers who are inspired by Blythe for its focus on human freedom and self-determination.

One reader recently came up to me at a conference and said with a great deal of excitement: “This is the book I’ve been looking for! I’ve never understood why you couldn’t have both faith and reason. That’s what I’ve felt in my own heart — I can be led by both.”

I couldn’t have agreed with her more. There are many libertarian Christians out there who feel like they need to apologize for living in both camps. We — and I’m speaking as one of those people — need to stop apologizing. Both philosophies, when properly practiced, should reinforce the dignity of each person, when they act as free and responsible individuals.

We can and should be driven by reason. We should use the good sense that God gave us. Our reason should be nurtured and cultivated, and within our lives we must discern if what our faith leaders are saying and doing conforms with our personal knowledge of God and what he wants for us and our world.

And we should likewise nurture and cultivate our spiritual life. I’ve seen so many genuinely miraculous things in my life — here in the physical world — that cannot be explained by reason alone; they can only be explained with faith and trust in a Higher Being who loves us.

That combination of reason and faith — continually considered in such a way that it drives you to demonstrate love for those around you, hope for the future, and an ever improving and freer world — that should be the end result. This, I believe, is what God wants for us. As one character said, “Too much reason limits man to the physical world and blinds his imagination to the greater things that may be. But too much faith blinds him from curing the human suffering in this world. Men with too much faith accept suffering; they expect it and even seek it out.”


Editor's Note: Interview on "Blythe," by John E. Kramer. Freedom Forge Press, 2017, 420 pages.



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Race to the Top

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What might it look like if the libertarian vision prevailed over that of the “progressive” Left? If the Democratic Party, and the statist Left in general, is to be repealed and replaced, then something must take its place. Merely repealing it, with no replacement, won’t get rid of it. As long as people believe that it fills a need — no matter how badly it may accomplish that — they will at some point, and in some form, welcome it back.

The Libertarian Party has a platform that answers every Democratic crusade with a superior solution. We really can offer those in poverty the hope that they might enjoy a better life instead of a life sentence in their present condition. Our vision of human rights, based on the understanding that we all derive them not from the circumstances that differ but from the humanity we share, would elevate our status beyond that of pawns on a political chessboard. By concentrating on responsible behavior instead of a phobic obsession with drugs or guns — anything inanimate and utterly harmless unless abused — we can stop banning everything and encourage people to stop abusing one another. When we liberate education from the grip of the teachers’ unions and offer real choice to parents and kids, the lessons in liberty they will learn can turn the tide of human thought toward freedom.

Studies show that of the overall population, about 20% are on the hardcore Right and 20% on the equally hard Left. These people will never be moved. That leaves 60% somewhere in the middle. It is these folks who determine the outcome of elections and other decisions affecting us all. The statist Left survives because a majority of those 60% think it performs a necessary function. They may not all think it does its job well, but they at least tolerate its existence, and endure its idiocies, because they can’t imagine anything taking its place.

Libertarians really can offer those in poverty the hope that they might enjoy a better life instead of a life sentence in their present condition.

Statist leftism and liberalism — the latter being the openness to new discoveries, trust in rationality and belief in individual freedom that has given libertarianism its name — are two different concepts entirely. That mammoth standard-bearer for the Right, Rush Limbaugh, evidently ignorant of the difference, bellows about destroying “liberalism.” That isn’t going to happen, and it wouldn’t be a good thing if it did. Liberalism is as much a part of our Western, Judeo-Christian tradition as conservatism. To speak of lopping off half of our tradition is as foolhardy as it would be to advocate the extraction of half of our chromosomes.

Until we figure out how to make the Left obsolete, we will never repeal and replace the Democratic Party. As long as there are marginalized and discontented people — even though the Democrats are largely responsible for their marginalization and discontentment — the donkeys will never be sent out to pasture. Leftism has always been a powerful influence on the modern Democratic Party, and during the Obama years it tightened its stranglehold. Post-Obama, it has throttled the life out of every moderating philosophy.

There truly is a difference between how libertarians might pursue objectives formerly monopolized by the statist Left and the way “progressives” have done so. If every attempt we might make is blasted by our own side as “capitulation,” we need to recognize the message that will send. It will be an admission that the leftists are correct when they lump us all into the “far Right” and claim that they alone can move society forward. Those who have had it drilled into their heads that without their Democratic champions they’d be friendless and hopeless will be more convinced than ever that they can’t live without the authoritarians who supposedly care more about them than they do about themselves. Our lack of interest in replacing what we want to repeal — and in clearly articulating how we can do it — will be taken as an admission of defeat.

To speak of lopping off half of our tradition is as foolhardy as it would be to advocate the extraction of half of our chromosomes.

A crucial difference between libertarianism and the statist Left is our approach to social problems. Contrary to what our adversaries so often assert, many of us do understand that these problems exist, and we are by no means unconcerned about them. But we believe that problems are to be solved, not used as a basis of political employment. Because they think that if those problems disappeared, they themselves would no longer be needed, “progressives” merely perpetuate them. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty must never be seen to diminish. The strangeness of a political movement that can never take credit for its successes — because it dares not admit that any real progress has been made, yet keeps insisting that progress is direly needed — never occurs to its adherents.

Libertarians will always be needed, because liberty will always need to be defended. Problems are impediments to freedom, unless they are solved. But libertarians have no incentive to perpetuate misery into infinity. People who are free to find solutions to their problems are happy, and not susceptible to “progressive” quackery.

The notion that liberty can only be defended by waging war is now widely shared by Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps the most important contribution a Libertarian challenge to the GOP could make would be an end to perpetual war. We would spread American ideals through peaceful trade. Instead of offering the world death and destruction, we might help it to attain a higher standard of living. What if the terrorists held a recruiting drive and nobody came?

The only political war worth fighting is the war for freedom. Government is the number one perpetrator of violence and the biggest threat to liberty. All it knows how to do is force people to conform to its dictates, so no political party dedicated to increasing its power can defend liberty. The political struggle in our country must include one major combatant that fights for freedom — because even if the Democrats magically vanished overnight, the Republicans would still be authoritarians. The GOP must be substantially and consistently challenged by a rival committed to uncoerced cooperation, based on mutual trust.

Perhaps the most important contribution a Libertarian challenge to the GOP could make would be an end to perpetual war.

We can trust that our fellow human beings are not idiots, and that they truly can govern themselves — even when they’re not like us. Each of the big-league political parties portrays the members of its opponent as vile — almost subhuman. They are comic-book villains: godless commies or gun-crazy deplorables. Political contests have degenerated into races to the bottom. Like manic limbo dancers, each side feels compelled to compete with the other by seeing how low it can go.

As it abandons faith in every principle but force and fraud, the Democratic Party is unraveling. If the Libertarian Party were to reach major-league level, it would bring its principles with it: faith in peaceful persuasion, respect for every individual human being, and optimism about our country’s future. Instead of a race to the bottom, competition between the Libertarians and the Republicans might become a race to the top. The repeal and replacement of the Democratic Party could herald a whole new direction for America.




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Repeal and Replace the Democratic Party

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In my previous essay, I made a suggestion that would once have been unthinkable. I said that the country would be better off if the Democratic Party were bumped down to minor league status and replaced on the top tier by the Libertarian Party.

Since then, I’ve taken an informal poll of the people in my social sphere. Almost unanimously, the Republicans think it’s a fine idea. I doubt that this comes as any bigger surprise to our readers than it has to me. What would have been surprising to Americans just a few short years ago is that even an overwhelming number of the independents I polled also expressed a desire to see this big shift happen. Independents now outnumber those in either “major” party by a significant margin. Almost nobody who isn’t a Democrat can stand the donkey party anymore. That a huge swath of the population at least hates the GOP less than the Democrats became evident this past November.

I was almost tempted to peek out my window at the night sky to see if the planets were in some weird new alignment.

Even some Democrats can’t stand the Democratic Party. As I was writing my notes for this essay, I was talking on the phone with a very liberal friend who lamented his party’s takeover by the blowhards, crybabies, and troublemakers of the social justice warrior set. He actually spoke favorably of a novella by Ayn Rand. I was almost tempted to peek out my window at the night sky to see if the planets were in some weird new alignment. The political planets are realigning, indeed.

My reasons for hoping that a realignment might happen go beyond simply wanting big-league status for the Libertarians. Though I was a Democrat for most of my adult life, I have since moved considerably to the right. Despite the buffooneries of the GOP, it is the “major” party to which I’m ideologically closer. A rivalry between that party and ours would likely do less harm to the country than the current rivalry between it and the Democrats.

A good friend in our local chapter of the gay organization Outright Libertarians appears to see himself as something of an evangelist to the Left. He toils mightily to persuade his fellow progressives to love liberty. I wish him a lot of luck, but for the sake of my mental health, I had to abandon that mission. I’m afraid it’s a lost cause, because most leftists strike me as impervious to reason. When they lose an argument (and against us, this happens constantly), they tend to be as petulant and abusive as three-year-olds being dragged away from the toy aisle at Target.

A very large part of the reason I left the Left was that I felt it had become a fraud.

What would a big-league rivalry between Libertarians and Republicans look like? Quite contrary to my Outright friend, I would hate to see our party become a standard-bearer for the Left. But I think the dynamics of the American political scene would drastically change. Very likely the entire left-right paradigm would be shaken apart. Instead, the conflict would probably be between liberty and authority.

Would a head-to-head match between Libertarians and Republicans improve the GOP, or bring out the worst in it? I don’t claim to know. It might be taken over by the neocons, theocons, and crony capitalists to a far greater degree than it already has been. Or it could possibly be motivated to lay down the weapon of government force and engage us in the arena of ideas. Most likely it would have the former effect on some and the latter on others.

As far as I have traveled from the statist left, I still care about some of the causes it claims to espouse. I’m a woman, a bisexual, and a member of the working class, so I have a stake in several of those groups’ concerns. A very large part of the reason I left the Left was that I felt it had become a fraud. Progressives used to say that the end justified the means — now they very much appear to see the means as an end in themselves.

The Libertarian Party might change the game. If the game were played by our rules, perhaps the American people would finally win.

They push people around, threaten them, deceive them, steal from them, and try to shut them up for the sake of their supposedly holy causes; and they do these things simply because they can. In fact, they give every indication that doing them is far more important than achieving the objectives for whose sake they’re allegedly being done. To much of the Left, making noise and trouble has become a bigger priority than making sense. The only genuine good they ever did was to persuade people that their causes were right and just. Now, however, they’ve given up on making sense, thereby abandoning nearly all attempts at rational persuasion.

And Democrats bring out the worst in Republicans. As the latter become more like the former, they increasingly see their scheming, lying, self-indulgently emoting identity politicking and moral panicking as necessary. These grievous faults — in which so much of the statist impulse is rooted — are rationalized as merely the rules of the game. The Libertarian Party might change the game. We operate by a completely different set of rules, and if the game were played by our rules, perhaps the American people would finally win.

Conservatives talk as if all that’s needed to save the country is a complete repeal of progressivism. Obamacare — the Left’s prized pet, which has morphed into a monster — certainly should be repealed, and with no replacement. But I believe there are certain crucial tasks conservatives simply cannot perform. Every healthy society must have progressives as well as conservatives, just as every functioning vehicle needs both a gas pedal and a brake. Under the proper conditions, those motivated to advocate what once were considered progressive causes might arise in both parties, and many former independents might very well choose to join them.

Instead of being reduced to political footballs, issues could then be debated on their own merits. Reason might take the place of aggression. Even if the lion can’t be persuaded to lie down with the lamb, perhaps it can be kept from killing it.


Editor's Note: The author is interested in hearing readers' comments, after which she will continue this essay in a second part.



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The Year That Was

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For many, 2016 has become a byword for a bad year, an annus horribilis even, thanks to an interminable presidential race as well as threats to liberty both domestic and foreign. But for Liberty, it was a year of tremendous writing and libertarian thought. Here's my highlights—what were yours?

And that's not to mention Jon Harrison on whether "normal" is a thing of the past, Steve Murphy on New Deal nostrums, Ross Levatter on paradoxes and philosophy, Scott Robinson on the real lesson of Robin Hood, Bruce Ramsey on libertarianism and the bourgeoisie . . . and much more to discover in our Archive!

We look forward to bringing you more great stuff in 2017 and beyond. If you feel up to it, you can donate to the Liberty Foundation to support our work, and 100% of your tax-deductible donation will go toward the costs of bringing you more reflections, reviews, and feature articles of all sorts. But what we really hope is that you'll keep reading, and keep fighting alongside us for the cause of freedom. Thanks, and we'll see you on the other side!



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President Blunderbuss

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I have a confession to make. Some of our readers won’t like it. In other quarters, it might lose me friends. But even though I didn’t vote for Donald Trump — in fact, I argued in these pages for a Libertarian vote — I’m glad he won.

On election day, I was downcast. All the self-proclaimed experts predicted a big win for Hillary Clinton. Under the current and blessedly soon-to-be-past Democratic administration, my financial prospects lurched from bad to worse. I wasn’t sure where I’d be after four to eight years of the Queen Presumptive’s rule.

Then came that rollercoaster evening of election returns. As more and more of the mainstream media’s pundits beat their breasts and wept, my mourning turned to gladness. Or, at the very least, to relief. The lesser of two evils may indeed, as the maxim says, still be an evil. But unlike the evil of a Hillary Clinton presidency, this one is unlikely to destroy our country.

On Facebook, I am happy to have many libertarian friends. Some, like me, are happy that Trump will be the next president. Others thunder that they warned us not to sully ourselves by voting, and that even rooting from the sidelines for either of the contending “Republicrats” gave aid and comfort to aggression. That being a thing to which any good libertarian must, by ironclad principle, stand opposed.

Well, I frankly disagree. In fact, I think these folks would do well to reexamine our cherished nonaggression principle in the cold light of present reality. Certainly it opposes the initiation of force against others. But it accords us every right to self-defense.

Do I want thugs to break into my house and brutalize and rob me? That’s what the Democrats have done for the past eight years. It’s what they would undoubtedly have continued to do, if the coronation of Hillary Clinton had gone on according to plan.

By every sane interpretation of the nonaggression principle, if I am sitting peacefully in my living room recliner, and thugs break through my door, I have every right to grab my gun. Now, my weapon of choice happens to be a Lady Smith .357 Magnum. But that particular Lady didn’t happen to run for president this year.

The weapon that ran, and won, is more of a blunderbuss. Donald Trump is noisy, crude, and uncouth. His buckshot singes the whiskers of everybody near him — friend as well as foe. When he takes aim, though he usually hits his target, it’s seldom with great precision. But in a pinch, when our backs are against the wall and our enemies are closing in, a blunderbuss is a mighty good thing to have handy.




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Let’s Sing a Song About Three!

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I haven’t seen Sesame Street for years. I don’t know if they still do those counting songs to teach kids about numbers. But as this year’s election draws to a close, something like that would sure be helpful.

How is it that so many voters can count no higher than two? It seems to this third-party supporter that they could use a tutorial from Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, or The Count. If I hear one more half-witted, addle-pated admonition that I must “vote for Trump so we won’t get Hillary” or “vote for Hillary so we won’t get Trump,” I swear I’m going to scream, “Three banana cream pies!” and plaster somebody smack in the face with them.

Of course I wouldn’t actually do that. I’m a libertarian. I don’t believe in violence against my fellow Americans. But boy, sometimes I’m tempted. This year, I’ve been tempted like never before.

If I hear one more half-witted, addle-pated admonition that I must “vote for Trump so we won’t get Hillary” or “vote for Hillary so we won’t get Trump,” I swear I’m going to scream.

Why is it so hard for people to wrap their minds around the concept that they have additional choices? To me, and to other reasonable people, the suggestion comes as a welcome relief. But legions of others react to it with hostility. They recoil as if from a barrage of banana cream pies. The thought seems to cause them physical pain, as if they were being prescribed a bad case of influenza.

I’ve heard “journalists” lament the cold-heartedness of libertarians who think that giving consumers actual options in a free market is somehow a ruthless philosophy that would doom orphans and widows to starve in the streets. We’re supposedly too idiotic to run our own lives, but veritable Solomons when it comes to running the lives of others. That would require making choices, too — but don’t tell our betters that. It would only give them a headache.

I intend to go on gleefully counting to three. I’d love to deliver my lesson through the cartoon lips of the lady who used to sing it on Sesame Street. But I’ll continue challenging my fellow Americans to count higher — and aim higher — in any way I can. I’ll also keep those pies ready, just in case.




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