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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Type B, Meet Type B

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R.W. Bradford, the founder of this journal, was an acute political analyst, thoroughly familiar with American history and American life in all its forms. I’ve read a lot of professional commentators on American politics, but Bill Bradford’s chance observations showed more knowledge and intuition than 90% of the commentators show in a lifetime.

Every four years I recur to something Bill said to me one day, almost by chance. He said that there have been two types of presidential candidates: (A) those who had a perennial constituency — in Bill’s words, those “who always had a lot of people who wanted them to be president” — and (B) those who didn’t, those whom “nobody ever wanted to run.”

Crowds of people loved them, honored them, backed them in every attempt at the highest office.

It wasn’t a difference between people with good ideas and people with bad ones, although Bill said that he’d always had a weakness for the old maxim that “the job should seek the man,” not the other way around. The difference had to do with the psychology of the candidates and of their willing or unwilling supporters. Because of that difference, there might also be a difference in the candidates’ campaigns and their performance in office, if they managed to get into office.

I think there’s a good deal of truth in Bill’s idea. I think it provides an interesting perspective on how things work. And I think it’s sadly appropriate to what we see this year.

Think about it. Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Stephen Douglas, Ulysses S. Grant, William Jennings Bryan, Robert LaFollette, Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, Ronald Reagan . . . Crowds of people loved them, honored them, backed them in every attempt at the highest office. These people cheered their victories, mourned their defeats, and convinced themselves that the defeats were victories. Such followers enhance their favorites’ stature. More importantly, they enhance the candidates’ experience of their country and their countrymen. They give them a connection, if they want to use it, to real knowledge of America. And most of those favorites did use that connection.

Now think of Franklin Pierce, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, the two George Bushes, Barack Obama . . . No constituency ever spontaneously decided that these men were inspiring figures, and therefore insisted that they run for office. When they ran, it was because of their own insensate and insatiable ambition (Wilson, Nixon, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama), or because they thought it was somehow an appropriate thing to do (Taft), or because a deadlocked party invigorated a lurking idea that yes, maybe they could make it (Pierce, Harding), or because of some reason I cannot fathom (the Bushes).

Who clamored for Ted Cruz to run for president? What irresistible mob of supporters demanded that Marco Rubio take the field?

In each group, A and B, there are people whom I happen to like or admire, and there are people whom I happen to dislike or despise, usually because of their political philosophy. And there are people whose group assignment we can debate. But it would be hard to say that the Group B folk had the personal stature of the Group A folk, or their connection with the American experience. People in the second group have been candidates of themselves and some political coterie; their experience hasn’t needed to be broader, and sometimes it has been remarkably narrow. Those among them who have been motivated merely by their ambition, or the ambition of their friends and family, have tended to be either twisted souls or kids perpetually too late for the party.

The alarming thing about 2016, from this perspective, is the absence of any candidates from Group A.

Who clamored for Ted Cruz to run for president? What irresistible mob of supporters demanded that Marco Rubio take the field? John Kasich — the subject of what adoration? Jeb Bush — the cynosure of what eyes? None, of course, except those of the Chamber of Commerce and the diaspora of former Bush political employees.

I guess it goes without saying that nobody ever wanted Hillary Clinton to be president, and nobody wants it now. What her supporters desire is somebody who will favor their chosen policies, make the appointments they want to the Supreme Court, give them government grants and favors, employ them (or their relatives) and give them wealth and power. If Krazy Kat had figured out a way to collect gigantic bribes without overtly violating a law, and therefore had a ton of money to throw around, those people would be cheering for Krazy Kat. Who, come to think of it, would be a much better choice than Hillary Clinton, who is zanier than any comic strip character, though without the fun.

Ah, but Donald Trump and Bernard Sanders, what of them?

This is not a puzzling question. Think back to a year or two ago. Do you remember anybody ever saying, “There’s just one person I want to be president, and that’s the senator from Vermont”? No, you don’t. Sanders was and is a nonentity. It was the prospect of Mrs. Clinton’s coronation that made him a public hero. Any other plausible receptacle for leftist nonsense would have done as well, or better.

Of Donald Trump, we may ask a similar question, and find much the same answer. He wasn’t a nonentity, but no broad masses (to use the Marxist phrase) ever begged him to run for public office. He just got up one morning and decided to do it. So he has become the plausible receptacle for most of the justifiable or unjustifiable anti-establishment sentiment in the country. The fact that he has certain curious skills, skills that have made him more successful than Sanders in the political arena, doesn’t mean that anyone ever wanted him to be president.

I guess it goes without saying that nobody ever wanted Hillary Clinton to be president, and nobody wants it now.

I don’t know what Bill Bradford would say about this, but when I look at the major-party presidential contests of this republic, if we can keep it, I find very few examples of a year in which both candidates were in Group B. One example is the Harding-Cox election of 1920. Another is the melancholy contest of 1976 between Gerald Ford (nice guy, but an accidental president) and Jimmy Carter (distinctly not a nice guy, or a guy with any known constituency or capacity for office — a man elected to the seat of Washington by the fact that he was a Southern Democrat).

There have been other contests of B vs. B. But the current election is spectacular for the prominence of two inmates of Group B who are obnoxiously assertive personalities. To paraphrase the words of an advertising man who helped to elect Richard Nixon, “They wake up in the morning with their suits all rumpled and start running around shouting, ‘I want to be president! I want to be president!’”

One of these Type B people will win. The voter’s job is to decide which one is less weird and dangerous. This isn’t Harding vs. Cox. Both were capable men, and the victor, Harding, turned out to be a good president. (Forget the adverse propaganda; read the great book on the subject, Robert Ferrell’s The Strange Deaths of President Harding.) This time, the chances are much greater of getting a president devoted wholly to his or her self-generated ambitions.

Yes, in a republic, private ambition can sometimes benefit the public. Sometimes.




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Alice in Merkeland

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The Europeans, brainy people that they are, have always had a problem understanding the concept of liberty.

It’s one of the simplest concepts in the world. It means being left alone to do what you want. For Europeans, however — and, I regret to add, for many millions of Americans as well — it has always been the concept of doing what the state considers to be good. It didn’t take long for the French Revolution to define liberty as the freedom to destroy Catholicism. It didn’t take long for the German revolution of 1848 to define liberty as freedom for German nationalism. It didn’t take any time at all for the Weimar Republic to define liberty as the government’s taking money from the people and wasting it on social uplift projects.

Now comes Angela Merkel. First she decides, without consulting anyone, to force the German people — and if she had her way, all other Europeans — to liberate the Syrians by taking them in and supporting them all on welfare. Then, mirabile dictu, she discovers that way too many Syrians want to take that deal, and way too many Germans don’t. So to save her face, she decides to bundle up the Germans’ money — again, without anyone’s permission — and give it to Turkey, so that Turkey can keep the would-be immigrants from getting into Germany. Thus her open door policy becomes an invitation for the Syrians to come on in — to Turkey. And stay there, courtesy the Turkish government.

But again she discovers that actions may have consequences. The Turkish president, Recep T. Erdogan, an equally domineering personality, decides that he wants more out of the deal. He wants Merkel to shut up his critics — in Germany.

For Europeans, however — and for many millions of Americans as well — "liberty" has always been the concept of doing what the state considers to be good.

German TV aired a song satirizing Erdogan. Erdogan’s government demanded that the video be removed from access on the internet. A German comedian, or perhaps would-be comedian, then went on TV and recited a poem ridiculing Erdogan. Erdogan therefore demanded that the comedian be prosecuted under a law saying that you can be sent to jail for five years for insulting a foreign leader. There are plenty of laws in Europe decreeing that you can’t say or publish certain things; this is what Berlin, Vienna, Brussels, whatever, call liberty. Go figure. But while you’re figuring, Merkel has already authorized the prosecution.

You see, this screwy law not only threatens you with imprisonment if you say something that some foreign politician doesn’t like, but it leaves the power to decide on prosecution with your own politicians. So, if we had such a law, Obama would be authorizing pleas for someone to be prosecuted for satirizing Castro, and Cruz, or whoever the Republican president might be, would be authorizing pleas for prosecuting someone who satirized Netanyahu. Not only is it an authoritarian law, but it’s a politically arbitrary one.

The result, right now, is that the Erdoganish Turks are saying, as many Europeans always say under such circumstances, that “this has nothing to do with free speech”; Merkel’s supporters are saying that by authorizing the prosecution she is “standing up for the rule of law”; and she herself is saying that her action does not represent “a decision about the limits of freedom of art, the press, and opinion.” She further opines that “in a constitutional democracy, weighing up personal rights against freedom of the press and freedom of expression is not a matter for governments, but for public prosecutors and courts.”

It’s the old story. You have rights, granted. But these rights have to be “weighed” against other rights. You got your “personal rights,” see; but then, on the other hand, you got your “freedom of expression.” Entirely different! And somebody’s got to “weigh” them. So . . . let’s see here. I know! Let’s have the “public prosecutors and courts” do it. After all, they’re not the “government,” are they?

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

The comedian is in hiding. He’s right: this isn’t funny.




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The Year That Was

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With 2015 done and dusted, here’s a list of a few of our favorite articles by many of our favorite people.

And that doesn’t even include Bill Merritt going to see tiny houses and discovering a weed convention; Russell Hasan making the case for a working-class libertarianism (with a further nod to Ayn Rand), Margary Eastvale counting the cost of regulatory red-tape at her small business . . . or so many others!

We've got a lot more planned for the coming year, but we'd love to know: what were your own favorites? And what would you like to see more of?

All of us here at Liberty thank all of you for reading and wish you the happiest of New Years — not just for today, but for all 366 days of 2016.



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What’s So Selfish About Capitalism?

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It is a mischaracterization of the free-market society that is as old as capitalism itself. One recent recycle comes from self-designated “libertarian socialist” and “anarchist” Noam Chomsky: “It’s just, I’m out for myself, nobody else — and that’s the way it ought to be” (Power Systems, p. 157).

Now it is absolutely true that laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” (in the most shallow sense), basically because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things. A man can spend every penny he has on trinkets (from which expanding circles of merchants and others will actually benefit), or he can donate all he owns to charity — or select among all the types of intermediate options. Freedom of property gives people these choices, in the same way as freedom of religion provides them with a smorgasbord of theisms, atheisms, and agnosticisms. The separation of state and religion doesn’t mean that everyone will embrace, say, Seventh-day Adventism, nor does it follow that the separation of state and economics means that everyone will embrace “selfishness” — or any one exclusive behavior.

The fear that freedom of charity — ending redistributive taxation, thereby completing the separation of state and charity — will mean not a diversification, but the utter death of charity, proceeds from the premise that the one thing everyone will do under capitalism is nothing — for or with anyone else. But this contention that individual liberty entails an abject disregard for others corresponds to no social reality. Does freedom of assembly mean that people will never assemble — in any way? Does freedom of trade mean that everybody will in fact stop trading? Does freedom of speech and of the press — an unregulated market in ideas — mean not that we will have a rich and engaging culture, but that nobody will exchange any ideas about anything?

Laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things.

Consider freedom of sexuality. Now it is also absolutely true that capitalism allows someone to indulge in what was formerly euphemized as “self-abuse.” Does that mean that without government control of sex — without a nationalization of the means of reproduction — individuals will do nothing but lock themselves away in their rooms? That there will be no dating, no courting, no marriages? No births, no propagation of the species — is that how “rugged individualism” will “atomize” society? Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” (Engels) degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators? Is that the fate from which only coercion — by a hereditary monarch, a Putsch oligarchy, or the Election Day majority-plurality — can save us?

Forebodings of societal necrosis notwithstanding, there is no conflict between liberty and community — the former is each tree, the latter the forest. By allowing each adult to act on his own choices, liberty empowers consenting adults to interact in various ways within a multiplicity of modes: religious-philosophical, professional-economic, sexual-romantic, cultural-artistic, fraternal-humanitarian, and many more. Hence the profound error of thinking that capitalism — voluntarily funded government limited to the defense of person and property — has any one “way it ought to be” concerning socioeconomic matters (such as Chomsky’s “I’m out for myself, nobody else” burlesque). Its only commandment is political: the prohibition of the initiation of force or fraud — by either state or criminal agents. We may therefore confidently retire verso Engels’ and recto Thomas Carlyle’s “cash nexus” caricature of the open society. Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity — the multifaceted, multihued consent nexus of capitalism vs. the flat, sanguineous coercion nexus of statisms left and right. When some lobbyist hands us the line “If government doesn’t do it, it doesn’t get done,” what he’s really telling us is: it doesn’t get done his way only.

Many of the giants of classical liberalism recognized the affinity of compulsion and conformity. Jefferson wondered: why subject opinion to coercion? His answer: “To produce uniformity.” And Ludwig von Mises, in a survey of paradoxical charges against the free market, observed: “The atheists make capitalism responsible for the survival of Christianity. But the papal encyclicals blame capitalism for the spread of irreligion. . . .” Irreligionists identify capitalism with religion because capitalism (unlike leftism) doesn’t suppress religion, while religionists identify capitalism with irreligion because capitalism (unlike rightism) doesn’t suppress that. Let us put aside the question of whether such behavior — the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself — constitutes “selfishness” in the most destructive sense. What this example illustrates perfectly is the statist projection inherent in linking laissez faire, which neither suppresses nor subsidizes, to any homogenized culture. A “capitalist society” is no more synonymous with “selfish materialism” than with “selfless spirituality.” The only thing everyone in a libertarian political order does — with no one’s mind, body, and property but his own — is act, not for his exclusive “gratification” against any consideration for others, but on his own judgment protected against any violence from others.

With regard to the nature of civil liberties, the freedom to withhold one’s wealth from the state — apparently the gravamen of the charge of capitalist “selfishness” — is wholly like any other human right. The state has no more claim to the individual’s private property than to his private body or his private mind. (Indeed, what a person does with his own property or body is what he does with his own mind — all coercion is “thought control.”) If we do not grant government the ability to more wisely or morally use a citizen’s mind or body, we do not grant it the ability to more wisely or morally use his property. Yet that is exactly what the accusation of “selfishness” wants to guilt us into conceding: that the state (essentially a handful of guys with guns) will manage each and every person’s money “better” than these people (essentially the entirety of the population) will do themselves. Just who is manning this administration — mortals or gods?

Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators?

The importance of private property to political dissent was memorably demonstrated by an unexpected but significant source. In response to President George W. Bush’s launching of the Iraq War, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee issued a public statement entitled “An Appeal to Conscience: In Support of Those Refusing to Pay for War on Iraq,” which upheld a citizen’s right not to pay “all or a portion of one’s federal taxes as a form of conscientious objection.” Among the signatories were many who proudly wore the label “socialist,” including . . . Noam Chomsky. Now here were outright collectivists defending the right of every individual to keep his money from the taxmen, for no reason other than to reflect his private conscience — that is, his personal disagreement with government policy, even when the government was enthroned by the Election Day majority-plurality. (And certainly Bush 2000 won a much greater percentage of the popular vote than Chile’s Allende, whose “democratically elected” credential is repeated by the Left as calculatingly as Castro’s dictator status is not.) The “Appeal to Conscience” didn’t even contain a little pledge that each tax resister would spend his withheld wealth on good things (e.g., children’s charities) and not on bad ones (hookers and heroin).

Since war is a government undertaking, we must note the converse in America today: almost every government project is conceived as some kind of “war” — hence a War on Poverty and a War on Drugs no less than a War in Iraq and a War on Terror. If, as a matter of principle, a citizen may stop giving money to the state as a practical expression of his “conscientious objection” to any particular war — if he can in that manner legitimately protest national security and other policies — we thereby recognize that private property is essential to freedom of conscience. What then is left of any variant of wealth seizure? What are we left with but capitalism in its purest form?

Yet that is the very politics denounced by the Left, including even its antiwar tax resisters, as “selfishness.” One cannot help recalling the scene in A Man for All Seasons where Sir Thomas More, accused of high treason, explains that his believing a “loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing” is a matter of necessity “for respect of my own soul.” Thomas Cromwell, the state’s advocate and More’s antipode in this “debate” — a rigged trial in which the defendant’s life is in peril — tries to undermine this statement of conviction in a common manner, sneering, “Your own self, you mean!” More doesn’t deny it: “Yes, a man’s soul is his self!”

Possibly the “egalitarian” supporters of the “Appeal to Conscience” believed that its broad principles should apply to only specific people — namely, themselves and those sufficiently parallel. That returns to the fore the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself. Said refusal is a good working definition of what many actually champion as the corrective to capitalist “selfishness”: the social-democratic “welfare” state — the mixed economy:

To be capitalist or to be socialist?— that is the question. Precisely what is the mix of the mixed economy? When is it capitalist and when is it socialist? When does it protect property and when does it confiscate it? When does it leave people alone and when does it coerce them? When does it adhere to the ethics of individualism and when does it obey the code of collectivism? And just which is the metaphysical primary — the individual or the collective (e.g., the nation, the race, the class)? The fundamental truth about the mixed economy is that mixed practices imply mixed principles, which in turn imply mixed premises — i.e., an incoherent grasp of reality. With socialism, the chaos was economic; with “social democracy,” it’s epistemological. Ultimately, the latter can no more generate rational policies than the former could generate rational prices. The mixed economy doesn’t present us with a mosaic portrait of the just society, but with a jigsaw of pieces taken from different puzzles.

Unable to provide any philosophically consistent answers, the mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected. One example that virtually suggests itself: while a myriad of voices clamor for censorship, who ever says, “There have to be some limits on free speech, and we should start with mine”? Concerning “economic” issues, do we ever hear, “Y’know what? Give the competition the subsidies. Me, I’ll bear the rigors of the market”? As for intellectual and moral integrity: do we see the National Organization for Women (NOW) and fellow “progressives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the abortion industry — a heresy that elicited a charge of “possessive individualism” from Christopher Hitchens when in office as socialist inquisitor — except, that is, when these “progressives” demand tax dollars for abortions (and deny reproductive rights, the putative sine qua non for gender equality, to males)? Do we see the National Rifle Association (NRA) and fellow “conservatives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the gun culture — a deviation that roused Robert Bork, majoritarian mongoose to any perceived libertarian snake, to attack the NRA via a comparison with the ACLU — except, that is, when these “conservatives” demand that private property owners be prohibited by law from refusing entry to persons carrying firearms?

Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity.

No matter what combination of contradictory positions any particular avatar of the mixed economy advocates on any given day, he is always a libertarian with his own liberty and a capitalist with his own capital, but an authoritarian with the freedoms of others and a socialist with their property. Such is the “idealism” that distinguishes modern liberalism and its special-interest lobbies from the “selfishness” of classical liberalism and its establishment of the same rights for oneself and one’s neighbors.

With social diversity now multiplying the types of special interests in many social democracies, the resulting political conflicts cannot be dismissed, let alone defused — least of all by the bromide that “we all accept that our tax dollars go to things we disapprove of.” No one in fact accepts that. Even though taxation exists to separate people from control of their money, selective tax protests span the spectrum of otherwise pro-taxation pressure groups. We’ve seen collectivists — reputed foes of all private property — endorse antiwar protesters who demand as a matter of individual conscience their right not to pay taxes. Years ago in The Nation, an ad told readers that “your tax dollars” funded what it alleged was Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. Public school supporters, who never voice concern over how many “Americans really want to give tax dollars” to that monopoly, suddenly claimed great concern with what “Americans really want” at the prospect of those dollars going to “school vouchers.” And among traditionalists, tax protests involve everything from abortion to art (if it offends them) to foreign aid (for the countries they don’t like) to free condoms and free needles. Under a system that denigrates the concept of equal rights for all, everyone wants to be exempt from paying taxes for the things he disapproves of, but no one wants — any guesses why? — his neighbors to be exempt from paying taxes for the things they disapprove of.

There’s not a mote of doubt as to what — with the double standard as its only standard — exposes itself as the inherent politics of “selfishness”: the hypocrisy of social democracy. All the warring camps of social democrats brazenly acknowledge that hypocrisy — in the other camps. A snowy day stuck indoors will pass much more tolerably with a back-and-forth Googling of “liberal hypocrisy” and “conservative hypocrisy.” (Each camp also detects tyranny — “fascism” — in only the others; compare Jonah Goldberg vs. Naomi Wolf.)

And what of social democracy’s central claim to “social justice”: its redistribution of wealth from the “most greedy” (richest? most materialistic? least philanthropic?) to the “most needy”? Consider one form of redistribution that no North American or European “welfare” state allows — or ever would allow. Let us stipulate that I have no problems with (a) the government’s taking a portion of my money for the purpose of tempering my “greed,” (b) the idea of those tax dollars going to the “most needy,” and (c) the percentage the state takes. But there is one thing: I don’t consider the current recipients to be anywhere near the “most needy.” My definition does not include my fellow Americans, who even at their poorest are richer than most people on the planet. To get right to it: I believe that the “most needy” — the “least of these” — are undeniably the starving children of the Third World, and I insist that my tax dollars all be sent to them.

The mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected.

Now why is that a problem? I am not declaring a right to withhold my taxes from the government, with no assurance about what I will do with the money — unlike the antiwar leftists who signed the “Appeal to Conscience.” Nor am I trying to control what others’ taxes pay for. All I’m asking is that my money go to those who my independent judgment and individual conscience tell me are the “most needy.” Why should I pay for full medical coverage for all Americans, when the Third World children don’t have any food? Why should I pay for textbooks for American children, when the Third World children don’t have any food? So, why can’tmy tax dollars go to them? Because the Election Day majority-plurality decides that “charity begins at home” (i.e., nationalism trumps humanitarianism)? If the neediest-recipient principle justifies my money’s transfer to my fellow Americans, why doesn’t it justify the money’s transfer from these Americans to the starving Third World children? Isn’t the principle violated by the dictionary “selfishness” of voting other people’s money into one’s own coffer (“tax booty for me, tax burden for thee”)?

The redistribution of wealth in a “welfare” state is not directed by a neediest-recipient or any other principle. It is purely a matter of power. With its rejection of consistent property rights, social democracy forces all people to throw all money onto the table (which some resist more successfully than others) and then allows them to take what they can (with some better able to take than others). That’s right: The money goes from those who are politically unable to hold on to their wealth, to those who are politically capable of grabbing on to that wealth. The former are no more guaranteed to be the “most greedy” than the latter are to be the “most needy.” It would be criminal not to cite Lord Bauer’s denuding of foreign aid: the “transferring [of] money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.” And it would be downright felonious to omit business subsidies. Any redistribution of wealth operates in only one way: from each according to his ability to contract via civil society, to each according to his ability to coerce via the state — a feature applicable (by degree) to both socialist dictatorship and social democracy.

The confusion of limited government with “selfishness” is reflected in the socialistic thesis that such government comprises nothing but the “class self-interest” of the business (“capitalist”) class. This thesis implodes almost immediately when we begin to ask precisely what concrete policies manifest that specific “class self-interest.” If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations? If unregulated commerce leads to monopolization by these “capitalists,” why do real-world businessmen look to state regulation to gift them with monopoly entitlements? And if free trade gives an advantage to this class, why do each country’s business — and union — leaders lobby for protectionism?

The classical liberals formulated their principles of private property, laissez faire, and free trade — rejected by “socialists of all parties” and big business alike — not against the yearning of the have-nots for a better life, but in opposition to policies that favored the few over the common good, that is, the routine of “merchants and industrialists . . . demanding and receiving special privileges for themselves” (in the words of Robert B. Downs). Free-market economics (The Wealth of Nations) and American nationhood both arose as part of the revolt against such mercantilism — corporatism, in today’s parlance. The American “welfare” state, in contrast, began as a neomercantilist reaction against that revolt. “The essential purpose and goal of any measure of importance in the Progressive Era was not merely endorsed by key representatives of businesses involved,” observed Gabriel Kolko; “rather such bills were first proposed by them.” Big business has never stopped being a major driver of big government. Would President Bush’s 2003 prescription drug bill (the “largest expansion of entitlements in nearly forty years,” according to Jonathan Chait) have gone anywhere without its hundreds of billions in industry subsidies? Would Obamacare even exist without the “advice” and approval of the health insurance cartel?

If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations?

Corporate privilege is a raison d’être — not a corruption — of the “welfare” state (aka “corporate liberalism”). Charity is not the purpose of the “welfare” state, much less its innovation. Concern for “the poor and stranger” long preceded its birth and will long survive its death. Like family life or the division of labor, charity is (to quote Paine’s view of society vs. state) “part of that order which reigns among mankind [that] is not the effect of government. It had its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man.” What had its origin in government is the swarm of anticompetitive measures benefitting “connected” entities — the fixed economy of the mixed economy. Without tariffs, for instance, how many people would always prefer to buy domestic goods? And how many would ever write out checks to a multinational conglomerate for nothing in return? Those are the “market failures” that the opponents of a free market fear.

Any state initiation of force exists not for a noble end (which, as Jefferson said of truth, requires no such coercion), but for a sordid one. Regarding military conscription, Ayn Rand pointed out that a “free (or even semi-free) country has never lacked volunteers in the face of foreign aggression.” However: “Not many men would volunteer for such wars as Korea or Vietnam.” Likewise, people will allocate money for the education of their children, sound retirement funds, the less fortunate, and especially the services of a limited government. What they won’t do is give it to “teachers” who can’t teach, Ponzi schemes, Boeing, or Chrysler — or the Taliban, which just a few months before 9/11 received from Uncle Sam a total of $43 million for its “help” in the victory-elusive War on Drugs (a sum that too obviously pales next to the multiple billions handed over to Vice President Cheney’s compadres for the purpose of building infrastructure — in Iraq). Only pursuits of folly and injustice seek the means of force or fraud.

Portraying laissez-faire capitalism as the tailored benefactor of big business is transparently a projection on the part of the mixed economy’s corporate liberals. The consistent socialists, on the other hand, care no more whether commerce is privileged or left alone by government than whether religion is privileged or left alone by government. They want the abolition of commerce, of religion, of a free market in anything, of any independent institution of civil society: the replication of totalitarian theory and history.

Will only the unfettered state stop the virulence of “selfishness”? Ideally yes, asserted Plato, for whom the “highest form of the state” was one “in whichthe private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions. . . .” Reductio ad fundamentum: There will be no more “selfishness” when there are no more selves.

Capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees.

The unfettered market boasts no ability to effect a change in “human nature” — in social reality. There will always be situations in which people compete to get or to keep one position, one prize. But while the market can do nothing about this conflicting “selfishness” (and will do nothing about different parties’ demands for a guarantee of monopoly), it commands the common self-interest that people have in all competition being governed by an equitable rule: a ban on the use of force or fraud by any rival, the only possible such rule. The analogue of the market is not the jungle, but the stadium — more broadly, a network of stadiums and other venues.

Capitalism’s multiplicity of open competitions enables each individual to find the field where he can succeed. The free market’s profit-and-loss dynamic (to quote Adam Smith) “encourages every man to apply himself to [the] particular occupation” most sought after by others. These interactions synthesize the most prosperous social order as defined by the participants themselves — all of them, as opposed to any one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be.” It is an ideal that has been realized to the degree thata market mechanism has been implemented. In contrast, socialism’s “equality” has meant nothing but poverty for all. And in a jarring echo of the Great Depression, the mixed economy’s regulatory sector in recent years orchestrated a general downturn in the US (where the crisis was Orwellianly blamed on “deregulation”) and in Europe (the “PIIGS”). State intervention in production (i.e., one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be”), once heralded as the alternative to the market’s alleged class conflicts, evidently produces only the “common ruin of the contending classes” — to redirect a phrase from The Communist Manifesto. When the prescribed cure for “selfishness” actually afflicts the common good, we must reexamine the diagnosis of the condition.

Preponderant among the essential criticisms of limited government has been the charge that it fails to recognize as natural rights such things as food, clothing, and shelter, to say nothing of education (“from pre-K to Ph.D.”), advanced medicine, and whatever else might be tacked on. The sober reply: these items are not natural rights because they are not natural produce. It costs a man nothing not to coerce his fellow citizens, thereby respecting their rights to worship, speak, etc. But how can he provide everyone’s “right” to all those scarce materials and services? And why should he, when he himself is promised a “right” to those things whether he does any work or not? Realistically speaking, capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees. And the condemners are quite serious in that belief: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Wealth simply exists, and only capitalist “selfishness” prevents its equal distribution to every soul on earth.

Ultimately, the free-market society is guilty only of affirming each individual’s right to control his own mind, body, and property, a conviction that calls for a single sentence: if that is “selfishness,” let us make the most of it.

Recommended Reading

  • Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, 2012.
  • Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America, 2012.
  • David Kelley, Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence, 2003.
  • Robert P. Murphy, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, 2007.
  • Andrew P. Napolitano, It Is Dangerous to Be Right When the Government Is Wrong: The Case for Personal Freedom, 2011.
  • John Stossel, No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed, 2012.



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Hong Kong: Democracy and Liberties

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As I write (October 15), protestors in Hong Kong are still trying to make the city more democratic and to wean it off Chinese government influence.

Protestors were seen cleaning up after themselves and even helping out the police with umbrellas during downpours. Indeed, HK is one of the most civilized places I have been to, and I visit several times a year. Despite its congestion, people respect your space and are hard-working, making it one of the freest, safest, and most competitive places in the world.

China itself is a communist dictatorship, or so it is believed. When the UK transferred the administration of HK to China in 1997, the world was convinced that China would destroy HK’s liberties. Between 1997 and 2003, the HK property market fell between 30% and 50%, and in some areas even more. A mass-migration happened to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK.

Democratic pressures lead to consistent increase in the size of government, as the majority insists on getting more and more from the pockets of wealth-generators.

By 2003, the realization had set in that the Chinese Communist Party had no intention of destroying HK’s liberties. HK continued to boom and stayed as one of the freest places in the world. China not only did not flood HK with continental Chinese, as had been suspected, but it maintained a visa regime like that which had existed before they took over: even today it is Chinese who need a visa to visit, not Indians, the stark enemies of China. Those who had left HK for good started returning. Businesses, the stock market, and the general economy boomed.

Within HK, you could speak, shout, and write against China and the Communist Party, on the streets and in the parliament, and still find yourself feeling as secure as you would have in a similar situation in Canada or the UK.

International observers — from social democrats to believers in the free market — sacrificed their integrity when they refused to admit that their forecasts about what China would do with HK had been proven wrong. They refused to express respect toward China for how well it had maintained HK. Even a criminal deserves fair treatment.

But should HK not get democracy, more liberties, and freedom of speech?

People’s understanding of democracy is utterly twisted, in an Orwellian sense. “Begging the question,” they treat liberty and democracy as synonymous. As defined, “democracy” is a system in which the government is elected, in some form, by the majority of people. By itself the concept says nothing about institutions of liberty and the size of government.

The fanatic believers in democracy, despite the common failure of democracies around the world — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, and more recently in Libya and Egypt — refuse to see the shallowness of their New Age religion. They refuse to see that democratic pressures lead to consistent increase in the size of government, as the majority insists on getting more and more from the pockets of wealth-generators. This invariably leads to overall reduction of liberties and relegates the majority to the culture and mentality of beggars.

The bazaar of bribes was conducted openly, without an iota of fear. People were groveling and pleading. The bureaucrats were demeaning these people and shouting at them.

But what about the freedom of speech and liberties that democracy promotes? As a student in my university in India, I could be beaten up without any moral hiccups if that was what the majority decided. These days, I podcast interviews of people from around the world, to discuss cultures. Most of my contacts feel flattered and are happy to talk. The country with the highest refusal rate for interviews is democratic India. In fact, the rate is close to 100%. In India, you can speak against systemic corruption, as long you do so in vague, broad terms, although what really matters in any fight is to pinpoint corruption of specific institutions. Hardly an Indian will talk to me about specific corruption.

Institutional corruption entangles people, for they must be a part of it even if they hate it, if they want to survive. Last week, I was in a government office in India. There were more private “facilitators,” to help navigate the corruption, than bureaucrats. The bazaar of bribes was conducted openly, without an iota of fear. People were groveling and pleading. The bureaucrats were demeaning these people and shouting at them. Where are liberties and freedom of speech in the world’s biggest democracy?

Should it be so difficult to understand that democracy and liberties are not synonymous?

If you want freedom of speech and other liberties, you must fight for better institutions, preferably private and non-democratic and hence unpoisoned by the majority who care less for virtues and more for material pleasures.

Or let’s consider the world’s second biggest democracy and the most passionate proselytizer, the land of the free, the USA. Americans can talk freely about broad, amorphous subjects. But can they talk about specific ones? How many people can claim to speak their minds openly about race, native Indian issues, the sexual orientation of others, women, etc.? And how many fail to speak freely because they fear they might get into the no-fly list or in the records of the CIA or that an unhappy government might initiate IRS audits? When at American airports, I make sure I don’t utter certain words — even in an innocent sentence — to avoid having a SWAT team descend on me. The lack of freedom of speech has become so institutionalized in the minds of Americans that they don’t even realize what they don’t have.

In comparison, non-democratic Hong Kong is a freewheeling place where people have the freedom to say what they think. There is hardly a country anywhere in the world better in comparison. Only those prepared to fool themselves or incapable of deeper thinking conflate freedom of speech with democracy.

Another way in which the international society, the secular but fanatic believers in democracy, has lacked integrity is their failure to recognize that some of the best improvements in liberties and economic growth have appeared in non-democratic countries: HK, China, Singapore, and Macau. Korea and Taiwan grew the most when they lacked a proper democratic system. So did Japan and Chile. I struggle to find a nation in recent times that has begun to succeed under democracy.

Our lack of integrity is not just a standalone vice. It detaches us from seeing the truth, from weighing the situation properly and assess what must be done to improve society.

But given the liberties and higher intellectual environment in HK — as I concede above — should its people not have the right to vote freely for their own government? Aren’t the students and people of HK — as I concede above — among the most civilized people anywhere?

It is an error to believe that what people say is what they want. The fever of democracy has now been sweeping the world for a few years. This is not a demand for more liberties or improvement in human rights, as they seem to demand, but in essence a demand for a magic wand, to get something for nothing.

People should fight for more liberties and an even smaller government. But “democracy” will take them in the opposite direction.

Collectives and mass movements are based on such desires and it is an error to expect higher ideals from them. Ready to follow unexamined romantic ideas, students of HK are supporting leftist elements. While a parliamentarian, Leung Kwok-hung, a Che Guevara lover, shouts and protests against the Chinese regime openly and without fear while he is in HK, I wonder if he would allow the same liberties to others if he came to power in a democratic Hong Kong.

One of the worst political disasters of recent times has been to give the vote to students. However good they might be, they simply lack the life experience to understand the relationships between ideas and, if they do, to weigh them based on their importance. They lack the experience to comprehend life in its complexities. Formal education at best is about learning the alphabet of life. But life must be lived and experienced to create prose from this alphabet. Moreover, education around the world, including HK and Singapore, indoctrinates students in what must be accepted as beliefs. And it is the “progressive” agenda of those in the West and their wishy-washy Marxist ideology that is now a matter of faith among students around the world. HK’s recent movement is heavily influenced by this.

So, what should Hong Kong do, if not fight for more liberties? HK has perhaps the smallest government in the world and is among the freest societies. Even then it’s worth reducing the size of its government, one hopes to nothing. Yes, indeed, people should fight for more liberties and an even smaller government. But “democracy” will take them in the opposite direction. Moreover, fighting on the street is always a wrong start, for it presumes that the protestor can infringe on other people’s liberties, to somehow gain larger liberties for everyone. Our path must be in sync with our goals. What one sees in HK today is the path backwards.




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Don’t Label — Just Do

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Americans are frustrated.

We all know it, and to prove it, we captured it on film.

Our documentary, 100 Signatures, follows the story of the "All Day Breakfast Party" campaign for Congress while exploring the challenges that independent and third-party candidates face while seeking office. The film explores the obstacles of a "two-party system" and the tools necessary to succeed in it. While producing the film, we spent a lot of time speaking with citizens. From coast to coast, north to south, the majority of people we spoke with say their concerns are not being represented in Washington DC.

Ballot Access News editor and founder Richard Winger said it best, "We aren't solving our problems in this country."

In an age of IRS scandals, NSA spying, and threats to our country's safety and economic security, the average voter is now expert at identifying the problems. In today's economy, trouble seems in excess supply, with an unmet demand for answers. Solutions, after all, take work — real grit.

We showed our own grit (or at least, endurance) with the half-decade of interviews we conducted for our film. Then, when we’d finished it, we started a new conversation about third parties and ballot access. But that's just one issue. What about all the others plaguing the state of liberty?

We were thinking about that when we went to Las Vegas for this year’s FreedomFest. We were there to exhibit our work in the Anthem Film Festival. But we found that it’s at FreedomFest that the thinkers and the doers convene.

The libertarian FreedomFest offers a refreshing break from the usual political rhetoric: real and workable solutions to improve the state of healthcare, education, the economy, and national security with presenters qualified and brave enough to innovate necessary changes. We learned that libertarians are united in a fearless desire to make the US better for all of us.

And talk about representation — we had the chance to meet people from many different ideological positions within the general “libertarian” category. There is actually something for everyone within the group that wants liberty for all. Certainly there is a lot of disagreement, not to mention eccentricity, within that group. But while it's easy to label our challenges, we must be careful not to label and discount the source of solutions.

There's a weird dichotomy in American culture today. Stereotyping is a sin, but if you ask ten Democrats to define a Republican, you're likely to get the same answer, and vice versa. There's a sports team mentality among the supporters of "Team Blue" and "Team Red." After FreedomFest, however, we can say for sure that it's impossible to stereotype libertarians. Maybe that's because instead of clamoring to become a political caricature, they're busy working — building businesses and supporting fair ideals.

Yes, Americans are frustrated today. That's why, as we tried to express in our film, it's important to empower citizens to consider alternatives at the polls and seek their right to run for office. But that’s also why the range of solutions offered by real, working people, real problem-solvers, must never be restricted by stereotypes.




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Logic and Liberty

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A key instrument of political persuasion is the logical argument. Advocates of every ideology back their ethical and political beliefs with arguments based on premises that reflect their fundamental views of the nature of reality and the nature of man.

Libertarians promote freedom-oriented values using closely reasoned arguments based on widely accepted social and ethical norms. Yet few people newly exposed to such arguments become libertarians. Why is this the case? Is it moral failure on the part of the listeners, failure such as envy or the desire for the unearned? Is it a refusal to accept rational arguments, putting faith or feelings above reason? Is it peer pressure, favoring the traditional and conventional?

Or is it something else entirely, something we’ve missed?

To understand why communicating the value of libertarian principles is often so difficult, we need to reexamine the nature of logical argumentation and the role it plays in political and ethical debate. Classical or Aristotelian logic is a powerful tool for grasping and organizing concepts and defining their relationships to one another and to reality. But decades of experience have shown that logic, by itself, is not an effective tool for marketing libertarian ideas. Indeed, when used improperly or in an inappropriate setting, it often achieves the opposite of its intended result.

Decades of experience have shown that logic, by itself, is not an effective tool for marketing libertarian ideas.

A widely held belief among libertarians is that, aside from direct perception, the primary way that people acquire knowledge or beliefs is by using their rational faculties, employing either classical logic or mental processes that are reducible to classical logic. This is not true; and even if it were, the use of logic alone would not be an efficient means of promoting a libertarian worldview. Here are several reasons why.

When dealing with concepts, people construct mental models of these concepts. These models are mental images representing typical examples of the concepts under discussion, based on previous encounters with instances of them. For example, when one is presented with the concept “bird,” the image that comes to mind is likely a “generic” bird such as a robin or a sparrow, rather than a less typical bird such as a penguin or an ostrich.

Once an image has become associated with a specific concept in an individual’s mind, that image becomes the standard by which he or she judges any instances of that concept encountered at a later time. When presented with a logical statement — for example, “if A, therefore B” — a person will evaluate not only whether the statement makes logical sense, but also how well “A” and “B” match his or her mental images. If two or more competing arguments are presented, people usually accept the one most strongly in accord with their preexisting images.

This leads to difficulties in the realm of political discourse. Taking an example from the libertarian playbook, consider the following syllogism: “Taxation is theft. Theft is morally wrong. Therefore, taxation is morally wrong.”

As libertarian arguments go, this one is relatively straightforward, easy to explain and understand. However, a listener’s response to this syllogism and its embedded concepts will be heavily influenced by the images that these concepts generate in his or her mind. For a non-libertarian listener, the word “theft” is likely to conjure up the image of a conventional criminal rather than a tax collector.

By itself, logic cannot successfully compete with emotion-laden appeals to voters’ ingrained beliefs and habits of thought.

Since the argument presented by the libertarian conforms to the rules of logic, the listener will evaluate the validity of the argument based upon the degree to which the image of “tax collector” corresponds to the image of “thief” in the listener’s mind. If the listener’s mental images for “thief” and “tax collector” are too far apart, the listener may conclude that the libertarian is attempting to stretch the definition of the word “theft” beyond its appropriate boundaries, and as a consequence may reject the argument entirely.

This is more than a trivial issue regarding the effectiveness of libertarian outreach. Mental images can be much more influential than logical arguments in shaping and maintaining a society’s character, laws, and customs. The history and political culture of the United States at present provide a case in point.

For many Americans in the revolutionary era, the exemplar of a person fully entitled to liberty was a white male, preferably a landowner and farmer. Native Americans, African-Americans, and women were seen as inferior in various respects when compared to this idealized image, and thus not entitled to enjoy the same rights as white males. These images or mental models were widespread in colonial and revolutionary America, reflected in policies such as expulsion of Native Americans, enslavement of African-Americans, limitations on women’s (especially married women’s) property rights, and exclusion of all three groups from meaningful participation in the political process. The pervasiveness of these mental images partially explains how so many white landowners were able, in their own minds, to justify owning slaves while simultaneously fighting a revolution based on “inalienable” human rights.

Political and cultural images are no less powerful today. Most of them (though not all) help to sustain the perceived legitimacy and effectiveness of government intrusion into all aspects of a supposedly “free” society, even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. Statist politicians take full advantage of these images to bypass rational debate as they advance their agendas. Virtually all political advertising in the mainstream media attempts to influence voters by appealing to their established mental images in order to manipulate their emotions.Experience has shown that such advertising is effective. By itself, logic cannot successfully compete with emotion-laden appeals to voters’ ingrained beliefs and habits of thought; if it could, libertarians would have won the ideological battle long ago.

People assign measurement parameters to qualitative concepts, based on how well particular instances of these concepts match their mental images. The relationship between concepts and measurement is a tricky one. Many concepts, such as height, require some form of measurement when applied to a concrete example. Concepts that are more abstract, such as motivation, can be given descriptive forms of measurement (“highly motivated”, “barely motivated”), allowing specific instances to be compared to one another. Finally, there are concepts, such as “bird,” that apply to a specific set of entities and appear to be purely qualitative and not subject to measurement — either a particular entity is a bird, or it isn’t.

But people apply measurement parameters to qualitative concepts also, in terms of the degree to which a specific example matches a person’s mental image. A penguin may have all the formal characteristics of a bird and yet be too different from a “typical” bird to be considered a full member of the “set” of birds. Faced with this conundrum, people often give only partial or qualified recognition to a penguin’s status as a bird (“a penguin is sort of a bird”).

When qualitative concepts such as “bird” are assigned a measurement component, their inclusion in logical statements becomes problematic. If this type of concept is used in the premise of a syllogism, the measurement component will also carry over into its conclusion, and in some cases will diminish the perceived validity of the entire argument.

Revisiting our previous example of taxation as a form of theft, a non-libertarian is likely to assign the concept “tax collector” only partial membership in the set of conceptual entities denoted by the word “thief.” Depending on the listener’s perspective, the concept “tax collector” will correspond to the concept “thief” anywhere from 100% (if the listener is a hardcore libertarian) to 0% (if the listener is a hardcore socialist who does not recognize any right to private property). Most people will estimate the percentage as somewhere in between, depending upon the degree of legitimacy that each person assigns to the concept of taxation and how reasonable the person considers a tax rate to be. The extent to which a person believes that a tax collector is a thief is the extent to which that person will agree with the libertarian’s position regarding the morality of taxation. Only rarely will such agreement be total.

The higher the level of abstraction, the more widely a population’s mental models of a concept will vary. Higher-level concepts are derived from multiple lower-level concepts. The same holds true for mental images. Each lower-level image varies from person to person, increasing the overall variation in a population’s higher-level mental images. As an analogy, consider a contest among several chefs preparing a meal from the same recipe. The recipe itself is identical for all chefs, but each chef’s interpretation of that recipe will make each final product unique. The more complex the recipe — the more ingredients used and the more steps required in the meal’s preparation — the greater will be the variation in the resulting dishes.

Propagandists for big government find it almost impossible to demonize the phrase “free market.” Both words in this phrase resonate favorably with the public.

Variation among high-level images greatly increases the difficulty faced by libertarians seeking to change people’s minds through the use of logic. Most concepts relating to libertarian principles and values — concepts such as justice, morality, property, and individualism — involve high levels of abstraction. But the more abstract the concepts employed in a libertarian’s argument, the less likely is the listener to share the libertarian’s interpretation of those concepts. To convince people to adopt a libertarian view of high-level abstractions such as justice, one must also convince them to revise their mental models of the lower-level concepts that give rise tothese high-level abstractions. Often this can be achieved only by a complete overhaul of a non-libertarian’s core values. Logical arguments, no matter how elegantly structured, are not sufficient by themselves to accomplish this task.

Because of evolutionary pressures, people are “hardwired” to resist change, an attribute that logic alone cannot overcome. In his recently published book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo identifies a widespread human trait — one that helps explain why it is so difficult for libertarians to be successful in challenging the political status quo. He writes: “The brain lives on a preferred diet of stability, certainty, and consistency, and perceives unpredictability, uncertainty, and instability as threats to its survival — which is, in effect, our survival.”

This universal human tendency — developed in a much more dangerous world to cope with ambiguous threats, and now part of our evolutionary heritage — raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the methods we use to advance our political philosophy. In employing an “educational” strategy using logical argumentation, we are constantly outmaneuvered by the hardwiring of the human brain that craves “stability, certainty, and consistency.” Our political agenda is not an obvious fit in any of these three categories. However, most libertarians do not recognize this as a serious problem, and ignore or downplay voters’ concerns regarding stability, certainty, and consistency, preferring to focus almost exclusively on the advantages of liberty and less intrusive government.

In doing so we make it difficult to gain adherents, because we are urging people to take a leap into the unknown and untried — at least in their experience. The prospect of instability triggers a perception of heightened risk and uncertainty in listeners’ minds. Most people are risk-averse, especially in matters concerning their own survival, their livelihood, and the wellbeing of their families. In times of crisis such as now, they gravitate toward solutions that promise stability, and shun proposals that are fraught with uncertainty, even if such proposals promise a greater level of individual freedom.

Given these reasons why logic alone cannot convince most people to adopt a libertarian philosophy, it might appear that our most potent weapon in the battle for liberty is inadequate to the task. But each of the limitations described above can be overcome by employing logic carefully and in combination with other means of persuasion. Here are a few suggestions in this regard.

If two words or phrases mean substantially the same thing, choose the one that is most likely to evoke the desired mental image in the listener’s mind. For example, defenders of economic liberty often use the terms “capitalism” and “free market” interchangeably. Strictly speaking, the two concepts are nearly identical in meaning. But to the general public, the word “capitalism” evokes a multitude of unfavorable associations and images that do not arise when the term “free market” is used.

For many people, “capitalism” conjures up images of politically connected financial institutions receiving government favors; multinational corporations “outsourcing” American jobs to cheaper and less regulated labor markets abroad; giant retailers crushing helpless smaller competitors; exploitation of conscientious workers by uncaring employers; and the awarding of multi-billion-dollar bonuses to rich Wall Street executives.

Although most of these undesirable events result from massive government interference in the economy, the public at large perceives them as failures of capitalism. This happens because of the pervasive influence of the media and the public education system, both of which are overwhelmingly friendly to “activist” government and hostile to business.

However, propagandists for big government find it almost impossible to demonize the phrase “free market.” Both words in this phrase resonate favorably with the public, and “free market” is familiar to many people as shorthand for a system of voluntary exchange. While “capitalism” can readily be personified and caricatured (“evil capitalist,” “plutocrat,” “exploiter,” “monopolist”), the term “free market” does not lend itself to such verbal distortion — we never hear statists castigating “evil free marketers.”

If our objective is to gain wider support for our views, insisting on unconditional acceptance of our policy proposals is a losing strategy.

When we promote our ethical and political principles through the use of logic, we are evoking people’s mental images as we attempt to appeal to their rational faculties. Our arguments can be much more persuasive if we strive to use words and phrases that evoke the most favorable images and associations in their minds. In this instance, promoting the “free market” rather than defending “capitalism” is more likely to achieve this goal.

Avoid the use of higher-level concepts when lower-level ones will address the issue at hand. For example, in casual conversation with non-philosophers, it is usually not helpful or appropriate to invoke natural rights theory, Austrian economics, or high-level abstractions such as individualism when discussing issues such as Wall Street bailouts and Obamacare. Most listeners will more readily connect with everyday libertarian talking points about freedom of choice and the unfairness of income redistribution.

Demonstrate that our policy proposals promote “stability, certainty, and consistency.” This means toning down the language of “radical upheaval” in favor of the language of “sensible reform.” As noted earlier, most voters are risk-averse when faced with the prospect of major changes in the social or political landscape. Such voters will be more receptive to arguments promoting a libertarian agenda if these arguments are presented in a manner that is reassuring rather than unsettling.

When proposing policies based on libertarian principles, avoid the temptation to insist that such policies be applied in every case. Although principles are not contextual, policies are. For most policies there are exceptional circumstances, such as “lifeboat” situations, that make it appropriate to modify them temporarily, or waive them. If we treat our political principles as axioms and our policy prescriptions as moral absolutes, our arguments become fragile; any real or perceived exceptions will weaken such arguments in the minds of listeners.

In libertarian circles, an unfortunate but common example of this phenomenon is misuse of the non-initiation-of-force principle (really a policy prescription rather than a principle), which states that no one may initiate force against another person. This policy is appropriate in most adult-to-adult interactions. However, in other contexts exceptions come readily to mind, such as dealings with children or persons afflicted with severe mental problems.

If our objective is to gain wider support for our views, insisting on unconditional acceptance of our policy proposals is a losing strategy. We can more effectively promote our principles, and receive a more respectful hearing from a non-libertarian audience, if we do not overstate our case by insisting that our ideas be put into practice regardless of any circumstances that may arise. Libertarian proposals for public policy are aimed at maintaining or defending values, and can legitimately be overridden when higher or more fundamental values are at stake.

Ultimately, our success in promoting a libertarian worldview depends not only on presenting well-reasoned logical arguments, but also on making sure that we employ language and concepts that are appropriate to the particular issue and the particular audience we are addressing. Putting in this extra effort can go a long way toward making libertarianism accessible and attractive to those we seek to reach.




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The Year in Review

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As 2013 comes to a close, we're looking back on the year that was by revisiting the best pieces by some of our favorite writers here at Liberty:

  • Steve Murphy got the year rolling with "Fatal Mistakes," a look at how the massive ongoing failures of the state normalizes incompetence;
  • Lori Heine wrote of the end result of such a process: "The Mediocre Inherit the Earth";
  • World traveler Jayant Bhandari wrote of visits to North Korea in "A Mirror unto Myself,"  as well as back to his hometown, site of the world's largest industrial accident and an equally large governmental malfeasance, in "Bhopal, 1984";
  • Liberty's adventure correspondent Robert H. Miller detailed hiking and gun-smuggling across the Canadian wilderness, as well as the staggering beauty and overwhelming friendliness encountered while biking the Taiwanese coast.
  • Meanwhile, Liberty's entertainment editor Jo Ann Skousen fulfilled a lifelong dream visiting Easter Island, detailed in "The Land Where the Statues Walked" —while also keeping up top-notch film reviews, such as on the Drug War film Snitch, and the difficult but indispensable 12 Years a Slave;
  • Robert Watts Lamon provided a great review of a collection by a titan of the written word, today nearly forgotten: Wolcott Gibbs—as well as an article on how little the self-appointed American Ruling Class cares about anything but its own power;
  • Jon Harrison continued his excellent coverage of matters domestic—such as "The Zimmerman Verdict"—and foreign: see his "Imperium Sinarum Delendum Est" on the growing challenge of an imperial China;
  • S.H. Chambers kept our homepage lively with cartoons skewering our political and economic overseers;
  • In "The Hypocrisy of High Office," Gary Jason reported on the moral character of our esteemed president;
  • And finally, a trio from our editor, Stephen Cox: "O Tempora! O Bama!" dissected our president's "soaring" rhetoric ; "Detroit" reflected on the decline of that great city; and "Words on Trial" joined the keen insight of Word Watch to the delirious fun of the year's great entertainment: the Jodi Arias murder trial.

Which were your favorites? What would you add to the list? We look forward to bringing you much more great material in 2014 and beyond—thanks for reading, and have the best of new years!



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The Kinda-Coolness of Liberty

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There’s a lot of confusion, these days, about who is, and who is not, a libertarian. It has actually become fashionable to apply the term to oneself, sometimes on the most tenuous of bases.

Many conservatives (and some liberals) think that liberty is kinda cool. Because they believe in the kinda-coolness of liberty, and recognize that, especially these days, they don’t have enough of it, they consider themselves libertarians. They don’t realize there’s more to the definition than that.

Most of those who use the libertarian label, based on its hip cachet and kinda-coolness, are conservatives. Liberals who worship at the shrine of statism love to point at them and cry, “See? All libertarians are really big old rightwingers!” Albeit, perhaps, rightwingers who smoke pot or like gays.

When my liberal friends identify libertarian-leaning conservatives as “typical libertarians,” it brings out the English major in me. I diagram the term for them. “Conservative” is a noun, and “libertarian-leaning” its modifying adjective. Therefore libertarian-leaning conservatives are still conservatives. I always hope this helps, though it usually doesn’t.

I understand why, to liberals who find libertarianism threatening, the temptation to confuse us with conservatives is so compelling. It’s a lump in which they may tidily dispose of us. They’ve got an argument they deem satisfactory against every conservative idea, and they don’t want to have to scrounge up a whole set of new ones to contend with us.

Liberals are scared of us. Conservatives don’t necessarily like us much, but they’ll cozy up to us when it suits them.

Some of the things “libertarian” conservatives say, I must admit, can be rather troubling. I recently invited a friend of mine — a gay conservative blogger — to a meeting of our local chapter of Outright Libertarians. We’re a gay and lesbian group, striving to promote libertarian ideals in what is euphemistically termed “the community.” She got into a flame-war, on our website, with some Outright members, and emailed me in an awful funk. Why, they actually committed the heresy of opposing America’s glorious War on Terror!

Her argument against our point of view boiled down to this: “My brother is over in Afghanistan, fighting for your freedom of speech. So shut the hell up!”

What was I to do? As gently as I knew how, I told her she probably wouldn’t be a good fit for our group. That she is not, so far as I can see, in any way, shape, or form a libertarian, I suppose I need to let her figure out for herself. Modern-liberal statists determined to toss all dissenters into the same, convenient dumpster have no incentive to figure it out.

On a blog where I regularly comment, I was told — by a “progressive” who dislikes libertarians — that he was wise to the despicableness of my convictions. His proof? Some college kids, who identified as libertarians, told him they didn’t care if the poor starved. Or something like that.

Why is it that “progressives” can’t believe anything said by those on the right of the political center, on any subject — from global climate change to whether it’s going to rain next Thursday — yet find so credible the name they choose to bear? At least, as long as it’s this particular “L” word. They can be taken at face value about absolutely nothing else, but when they call themselves libertarians, their word is gold.

I think we know the answer to that question. Liberals are scared of us. Conservatives don’t necessarily like us much, but they’ll cozy up to us when it suits them. And if they want to survive the next generation, they’d better do it a lot.

I have learned something rather interesting, however, about liberals. Once I’m able to speak to them, one by one, they’re less hostile to libertarian ideas than I was told they’d be. Rightwingers warn that liberals will never listen to us when they cozy up to our kinda-coolness. But once they find out that many of our beliefs are actually quite similar to theirs, my leftist friends and relatives begin to open their minds.

One special surprise has been that even deep in the woods of Obama’s rule, far more liberals express concern about government overreach and the erosion of our freedoms than I remember conservatives displaying when Bush II was in power. We can, perhaps, tell more about people’s affinity for liberty when their “side” holds the upper hand than we can when they are out in the cold. Outright Libertarians, I know, are attracting far more interest from those to the left of us than we are from conservatives such as my snarling friend with the brother in Afghanistan.

Maybe that’s why dedicated leftwing statists are so afraid of libertarians. The field may be riper for poaching than we realized. That is a very interesting discovery. And for this former progressive Democrat, it is a heartening one.




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