A Futile Controversy


Everything that exists or happens results from earlier conditions or events. Only chance loosens causality. Everything that a person is or does or thinks is determined by his biology, experiences, and good or bad luck. This is the determinist doctrine. It denies that people have any scope to make decisions that are genuinely their own.

Controversialists on both sides agree that chance operates on both subatomic and human levels. One cannot say that everything since the Big Bang was fated to happen. Frederick III, briefly German emperor in 1888, was married to a daughter of Queen Victoria and imbued with classical liberalism. He met an early death and was succeeded by his authoritarian and militaristic son William II. In 1931 both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were struck by cars, one in Munich and the other in New York. In February 1933 an assassin’s bullet narrowly missed President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. How might the course of history have turned out if chance had altered some detail of any of these events? Anyway, chance no more establishes a person’s free will than freedom from causation would.

James B. Miles (The Free Will Delusion, 2015) finds the free-will doctrine false but appealing, not only because it seems to describe what people themselves feel but also because it lets fortunate people congratulate themselves on their own characters and accomplishments while blaming others’ poverty or criminality or even handicaps on avoidable weakness of their wills. The doctrine excuses indifference to the fate of the less fortunate. It encourages archconservatives, anyway, to rejoice in blaming the poor for their plight. Thus, Miles continues, it is a profoundly immoral doctrine. It also appeals to many because it absolves God of responsibility for human nastiness. (But what about earthquakes and hurricanes and disease?) God himself, if he exists, cannot have free will (Miles, p. 223).

In 1931 both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were struck by cars, one in Munich and the other in New York.

But determinists hold no monopoly on morality. Free-will adherents also recognize that biological inheritance, physical and human environments, events, reading, preachments, earlier thoughts — all profoundly influence major and minor choices. But not totally. They and determinists alike can sympathize with offenders whose unfortunate biological inheritance and early upbringing have led to a life of crime. Despite this sympathy, determinists and free-will adherents alike can agree that protecting the public may require locking the most dangerous criminals up, even for life (and, arguably, deterring others by even crueler punishment for the worst crimes).

Could a man who shoots his uncle to inherit his money have refrained from this act? No, says a consistent determinist, because the murderer was driven by biology and circumstances and so forth, over none of which he had control. Agreed, history cannot be undone; but future wickedness can be made rarer by greater attention to morality in private and public life and by dependably imposed legal penalties.

The concept of responsibility goes along with the concept of freedom. The question of holding someone responsible for something concerns reward or punishment. We do not hold an insane person responsible, for he offers no point for applying a motive (Moritz Schlick, Problems of Ethics, trans. 1930, chapter VII).

How might the course of history have turned out if chance had altered some detail of any of these events?

Someone who denies free choice risks contradicting himself when urging others to accept his position. Argument presupposes that listeners or readers, although free to accept or reject it, ought to accept it without being fated or compelled to do so. In academic controversy, is every book and article, every reply, and every rejoinder predetermined in detail, except as loosened by chance? Why take part in such a charade?

In reply each controversialist might think that he is contributing to a sound intellectual environment for his fellows. Or he might recognize that he is helplessly predetermined to think and write as he does. Similarly, if Clarence Darrow argues against convicting a criminal because he could not help what he did, the jurors might respond that they had no freedom to acquit him.

James Miles emphatically condemns blaming unfortunate people for their plight. Yet he repeatedly and with gusto heaps blame on philosophers unfortunate enough to propagate erroneous doctrines. He comes close, at least, to denigrating the personal characters and morality of philosophers whom he names, especially Daniel Dennett. Is there some inconsistency here?

The determinist doctrine is irrefutable in the bad sense explained by Karl Popper: it carries built-in immunity to any adverse evidence. Whatever anyone says or does, however astonishing, is explained as the consequence of biology, experiences, and chance. The free-will position is better, though not much, regarding built-in immunity to contrary evidence. If a large random sample of persons who had thought that they had freely willed some action could be shown in convincing detail just how their action had been totally predetermined, the free-will doctrine would indeed be shaken. Conceivably, also, free will might have “emerged” from other conditions, rather as human consciousness evolved from the more primitive brain or even as life itself emerged from inanimate matter. This possibility supports the free-will doctrine, but not much without evidence.

Someone who denies free choice risks contradicting himself when urging others to accept his position.

The rival doctrines do not contradict each other on moral principles, on how anyone should live his life, or on public policy. Any difference between them is not operational. Sometimes I think that my choice is mine, free from total compulsion. My will is mine, just as my tastes in food, music, clothing, cars, or houses are mine and just as I can choose accordingly, regardless of how my will and tastes themselves may have been shaped by external causes. (On consumers’ tastes, see F.A. Hayek, “The Non Sequitur of the ‘Dependence Effect,’” Southern Economic Journal, April 1961.) Anyway, my decisions still take place, along with their moral and practical justification, if any.

The history of philosophy has left us stuck with the two terms “free will” and “determinism.” People drift into thinking that if a term is in use, it must have a referent, some thing, event, arrangement, attitude, argument, or whatever that it refers to. (This confusion of labels with things is called “hypostatization” or “conceptual realism.”) Sometimes, further, we drift into seeking knowledge of the essence of the referent by brooding over its label: what is Virtue, Honor, Democracy, Truth—whatever? Karl Popper condemned such a style of investigation or argument as “essentialism.” Joseph Schumpeter (History of Economic Analysis, 1954, p. 898) also identified “the deplorable ‘method’ of trying to solve problems by means of hunting for the meaning of words.” The terms “free will” and “determinism” exemplify these errors, and in contexts suggesting that they label opposite states of affairs.

Over the centuries philosophers have failed to specify what observations could distinguish between the states of affairs labeled “free will” and “determinism.” Both doctrines have built-in immunity to counterevidence, which, as Karl Popper might say, deprives them of scientific status. We therefore should not let their labels cloud how we perceive or describe reality. We perceive that biological and environmental conditions, along with luck, strongly affect our choices and behavior. No one denies that. Still, we have a strong sense of weighing some decisions and making choices. Even the determinist philosophers among us, to judge from their polemical writings, also have such a sense. The prevalence of two contradictory terms does not indicate that one or the other of two distinct states of affairs exists.

We might better discard those terms and describe what we actually observe. This conclusion is not some compromise (called “compatibilism”) between distinct doctrines. If we can invent a new word that aptly labels perceived reality, fine. If not, we will have to continue using a string of words. But let us not persist in empty controversies.

Share This

The Sickening Seven


The current remake of The Magnificent Seven with Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt in the roles developed in 1960 by Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen seemed promising. But this new film is anything but magnificent, especially as it opened while riots fueled by police shootings raged in cities across this country. The Seven demonstrate some of the same “shut up or I’ll shoot” sensibilities that we’ve been seeing on the news, and that makes it difficult to identify these Seven as heroes.

Several plot points have been updated to correlate with contemporary issues, to the detriment of the film. In the 1960 film, Mexican villagers seek relief from a bandit named Calvera (Eli Wallach) who has been plundering their community for food and supplies; in the modern version, the Mexican villagers have become Euro-American farmers, and the bandito Calvera is now robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), played to the hilt as a melodramatic, two-dimensional, mustache-twirling villain. Instead of demanding food and water (which modern audiences might consider reasonable), he is set on forcing the farmers to sell him their land for a mere $20 a parcel, because gold’s been discovered in them thar hills.

The Seven demonstrate some of the same “shut up or I’ll shoot” sensibilities that we’ve been seeing on the news, and that makes it difficult to identify these Seven as heroes.

I sort of liked this nod toward the evils of eminent domain, but instead of simply securing a government mandate to make the farmers sell him their land, (which is what the robber barons did in order to build their railroads) Bogue shoots a few townsfolk and burns down the church to make his point. I half expected him to tie a young maiden to a railroad track. Another problem is that we never see any evidence of farms anywhere, despite numerous long shots of the area around the town. Moreover, gold is usually found in mountainous areas, not in fertile plains. But oh well. That’s Hollywood.

In the 1960 film the Mexican villagers cross the border into Texas to buy guns and ammunition with which to protect themselves, but a gunslinger, Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) convinces them that it would be cheaper and safer to hire professional protection. I’ve always liked this libertarian solution to their problem. The villagers don’t have much money, but they are willing to give all that they have, every penny, to a good cause, echoing the New Testament story of the widow’s mite. Moved by their determination and personal sacrifice, Chris agrees to gather a group of gunslingers to help them, even though he knows that he and his men are likely to die in the process. (I think there’s something significant in the anti-hero’s name being Chris.)

I needed some heart in this movie — and not the kind that Sam Chisolm and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) share from the body of a freshly gutted deer.

In the new film, Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) is touched by the same gesture, and as he agrees to help the villagers he says, “It isn’t a lot of money, but I’ve never had anyone offer me everything they have.” But that’s where the similarities between the two films end. Instead of a gunslinger, Chisolm is a warrant officer (one step above a bounty hunter, and a government representative), whom we first meet when he enters a saloon looking for a fugitive. No one else in the saloon knows he’s a warrant officer, so they all put their hands on their guns, worried by what is about to happen. Soon everyone in the saloon has either skedaddled or died except Sam and John Faraday (Chris Pratt), who had been playing poker when the mayhem started. I know we’re supposed to be impressed by Chisolm’s cool, calm, skillful dispatching of everyone who had the drop on him, but I’m outraged instead. The bartender might indeed have had a warrant out for his arrest, but the others were simply reacting to a stranger threatening their friend with a gun. And isn’t the bartender entitled to a trial before his execution? Surely there was a simpler, less deadly way to serve the warrant. Chisholm should at least have identified himself for the benefit of the rest of the crowd.

And then there’s Faraday. Everyone else has left the poker table, so he checks their cards, scoops up all the money, and sidles out of the saloon, where two brothers he has evidently swindled in a previous card game surprise him, take his guns, and shove him toward the entrance of a mine shaft. Soon one of them is dead and the other one is missing an ear, and Faraday’s flippant excuse is, “He shouldn’t have touched my guns.” Really? That’s why he killed the man? I know there was a Code of the West regarding horses, hats, and guns, but it also forbade cheating at cards, right? That makes Faraday at least as guilty of violating the Code as the brothers, so Faraday gets no sympathy, or approval, from me.

Next we meet Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), who make their money by competing in a kind of human cockfight. Here more people end up dead, just for the fun of it. But it’s OK, I guess, because these victims have stupidly entered the ring of their own volition. After that there’s Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), who makes his screen entrance by flinging an axe into someone’s chest. Please! Give me Steve McQueen stealing scenes by fiddling with his hat and Charles Bronson stealing the hearts of three little boys in the town so that our hearts are broken in the end.

Bogue shoots a few townsfolk and burns down the church to make his point. I half expected him to tie a young maiden to a railroad track.

I needed some heart in this movie — and not the kind that Sam Chisolm and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) share from the body of a freshly gutted deer. One thing I can say: the film has diversity covered, with a black, an Asian, a Native American, a Mexican, a Southerner, two whites, and a woman, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, as the town resident who hires the so-called good guys to avenge the death of her husband).

Mayhem continues as the Seven enter the town they’ve been hired to liberate. Bang, bang, pow, pow, twang, twang — and everyone who was standing outside is now dead, with some pretty fancy shootin’ there, pardner. But how do the vigilantes know who’s a bad guy? They’ve never been to this town before, and no one is wearing a uniform. This kind of shoot-now, assume-you’re-right attitude just didn’t sit well with me when my heart was grieving for the many people whose lives have been senselessly cut short by nervous, trigger-happy policemen and the rioters who think it gives them the right to loot and kill other innocents in response. The timing of the release of this film could not have been worse.

And if you set aside the timing, it still isn’t a very good film. It’s all about shooting, exploding, and killing, with very little character development. In the 1960 version, director John Sturges took the time to develop relationships among the gunslingers and the families in the village they have chosen to help. As a result, we sense that these men are laying down their lives for their friends. In this film, by contrast, Sam and Emma are driven by revenge, and many others are driven by a wanton enjoyment of murder and casual disregard for life. That cause isn’t noble enough for me. I came home and watched the 1960 version on Amazon Prime, just to wipe away the stench.

Editor's Note: Review of "The Magnificent Seven," directed by Antoine Fuqua. MGM, 2016, 132 minutes.

Share This

Internal Deliberations


Share This

Moral Minority


Share This

Back in the Lab


chambers sciencechambers science

Share This

Irreconcilable Differences


Like their counterparts on the statist Left, social conservatives use words not to clarify thought but to stir emotion.

In America, the contemporary political Right essentially consists of two factions. Ordinarily one is called social conservative and the other libertarian, though a more accurate way of distinguishing them would be to describe the former as big-government conservative and the latter as small-government conservative.

The only thing that brings the two together — into the marriage of convenience that unites the Right today — is a shared opposition to the statist Left. The Obama administration has kept them together as perhaps nothing else could. It may be all that prevents them from getting their long-overdue divorce. Once Romney is elected, if that indeed happens, all the counseling in the world won’t be enough to save this marriage.

As far back as the ’80s, President Reagan seemed to understand that this was strictly a shotgun wedding. Those who opposed Communist expansionism had to stick together to win the Cold War. There must always be a grand cause — an archenemy to defeat. At the moment, Barack Obama fits the bill.

I, very frankly, am getting tired of being told that I must vote for whichever unprincipled empty suit the Republican Party has chosen to carry its baton. Mitt Romney is particularly hollow. He seems willing to say anything, do anything, pander to anybody, betray anybody to get elected. As the aim is clearly only to wrest power away from the Democrats, this seems to be acceptable to the GOP, which has surrendered all but the flimsiest pretense that it has any principles whatever.

This probably suits big-government conservatives just fine. They are all about power, power, and more power, totally in the thrall of the delusion that if they just get enough of it, they can hang onto it forever. Their small-government counterparts, on the other hand, may just want to think again. How can it further our principles to trust in a party that has none?

We are being told that the Obama administration is a threat to America of apocalyptic proportions. But it hasn’t stopped so-called social conservatives from playing chicken with the rest of us on their favorite issues. To gain the blessing of the GOP establishment, candidate Romney must, for example, voice support for the Federal Marriage Amendment: a poison pill if there ever was one. Its passage would violate at least three, and possibly four, existing constitutional amendments. It would, essentially, make the Constitution contradict itself, thereby weakening it and accelerating its eventual destruction.

So we already know that Mitt Romney cannot be taken seriously. Even before getting the chance to take the oath of office for the presidency, he has as much as admitted that he would damage it. One cannot “preserve, protect, and defend” something that one has indicated a willingness to help destroy.

Romney’s claim to champion small government is also dubious, considering the fact that while he was governor of Massachusetts, he raised taxes every year. Oh, he called them other things — “tax-fees,” the closing of loopholes on an internet sales tax, new laws permitting local governments to hike business property taxes, and a new tax penalty soaking both individuals and small businesses. He claims to be an economic conservative, but that claim can attain credibility only if big-government devotees on the political Right manage to drain the term of meaning in the way they have drained “social conservative.” Defining what any sort of a conservative he is seems a lot like determining what “is” is: an interesting parlor game.

I suppose part of my problem with “social conservatives” is their apparent unwillingness to think through what they mean by using that term to describe themselves. I frequently ask friends who call themselves that to explain it to me. The hostility this evokes is puzzling. It appears that they’re not sure what they mean, and they don’t like having their confusion exposed.

I’m perfectly willing to explain, to anyone who asks, why I call myself a libertarian, or a small-government conservative. I see little sense in using a term — repeatedly — to describe myself, but becoming resentful when asked to elaborate. Social conservatives seem to claim that name not as a descriptor but as a dog-whistle. Like their counterparts on the statist Left, they use words not to clarify thought but to stir emotion.

“Either you are giving your opinion of yourself,” I tell them, “or you are saying something about your philosophy of government. I don’t care about your opinion of yourself . . . that’s your concern, not mine. I may or may not share it, and it’s rather narcissistic of you to assume it interests me as much as it does you.”

If, on the other hand, they are saying something about their philosophy of government — that force should be used, by the state, to make other people comply with their views about how people’s lives ought to be lived — then that is of tremendous concern to me. But I would prefer they drop the self-congratulatory veneer and simply call themselves what they are: advocates of big government. For if they do believe that government should do such things, the task is impossible unless government is big and intrusive. Other than serving as a smokescreen, the term “social conservative” accomplishes nothing, because it reveals nothing. If language does not reveal, then it serves no meaningful purpose.

It is dishonest for the Republican Party to go on pretending that big-government conservatives and small-government conservatives belong in the same political party. Their aims are so fundamentally at odds that they cancel each other out. It would be impossible for both to succeed, because a victory for either would inevitably be a defeat for the other. No organization can simultaneously move in opposite directions. As long as it tries to appease both factions, in the misguided notion that this gives it greater power, it will remain what it has become: an incoherent mass of acrimony.

But there's another bad thing to mention. The GOP's lack of clear purpose leads its opposition into further intellectual laziness and moral decay. Instead of the parties' improving each other and, by extension, the country — the very reason the two-party system is supposed to exist — everyone gets dragged down. It’s a race to the bottom all the way.

Libertarians and true small-government conservatives are telling the truth about the cause of our national demise and what must be done about it. Big-government conservatives — whatever they want to call themselves — are lying about it. That many of them believe that lie can be chiefly attributed to their lack of willingness to examine whether it’s true. But when one side in a conflict tells the truth and the other lies, there should indeed be a decisive winner and loser.

Truth is not such a relative matter after all. “Social conservatives” fervently claim to believe that. Too bad their behavior so often says something altogether different.

It is dishonest for the Republican Party to go on pretending that big-government conservatives and small-government conservatives belong in the same political party. Their aims are so fundamentally at odds that they cancel each other out. It would be impossible for both to succeed, because a victory for either would inevitably be a defeat for the other. No organization can simultaneously move in opposite directions. As long as it tries to appease both factions, in the misguided notion that this gives it greater power, it will remain what it has become: an incoherent mass of acrimony.

Share This

Prostitution and Coercion


I was recently thinking about why prostitution is illegal. As a libertarian I think that it should be legal, as an extension of people’s absolute right to own their own bodies. But many Americans disagree. If there is a rational, persuasive argument against the legalization of prostitutes (or “sex workers,” as they should be called) it is that a need for money would coerce poor women into becoming sex workers and selling their bodies. Poor women who need money to buy food and pay bills would feel economic pressure to become sex workers, this argument goes, so we need to protect them from coercion by denying them the opportunity to sell their bodies.

Some version of the coercion argument underscores a great deal of anti-libertarian sentiment: poor people will be coerced into selling their organs and body parts, which justifies denying them the right to do so. Poor people are coerced into accepting dangerous, low-paying jobs such as coal mining, or are coerced into working long hours for wages that are lower than what they want. They are coerced into buying cheap high-fat fast food, or are coerced into buying cheap meat, packed at rat-infested plants, and so on. The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

An example of the grave seriousness of the coercion myth is legal scholar Robert Lee Hale’s famous law review article “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923). Hale brainwashed generations of law students with his argument that capitalist employers exert coercion upon workers, and socialism would not produce more coercion or less freedom than capitalism. The coercion argument goes far beyond the issue of prostitution; it is crucial for the integrity of libertarian theory that we have a definitive refutation to offer the public. This essay presents two strategies for refuting the coercion argument. I will focus on sex work to develop my ideas, but my arguments extend by analogy to every application of the coercion myth.

Assume that there is a poor woman (or man) who cannot pay utility bills and grocery bills and healthcare bills, and does not want to sell her body, but if she becomes a sex worker will earn enough money to pay the bills. Is this coercion? There are two approaches to arguing that it is not. The first approach is to argue, as a matter of deductive logic, that economic pressure can never amount to coercion, and therefore this scenario does not satisfy the definition of “coercion.” The second approach is to argue that economic pressure can be coercion but that capitalism is better than socialism at preventing the situation in which a poor woman has to do work she hates in order to have enough money. This involves showing why libertarian economic policy will create an abundance of economic opportunity for American working-class women.

In the remainder of this essay I will offer my thoughts on how to use each approach, focusing on the analytical approach first and the empirical approach second. I will argue that economic pressure is not and can never be coercion, because economic pressure does not fit the definition of “coercion.”

What is coercion? My 1998 Oxford Dictionary of Current English identifies it as the noun form of the verb “coerce,” which it defines as “persuade or restrain by force.” Dictionary.com defines “coercion” as “the act of coercing; use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance.” A serious question is whether coercion requires, by definition, physical force or the threat of it. I don’t feel it’s necessary to answer that question. I think a good common-sense definition of coercion is “threats of physical force or psychological intimidation that pressure someone into doing something he doesn’t want to do.”

The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

To make my point, permit me to present what academic philosophers call a “thought experiment.” Imagine an English sailor in the late 1700s who is marooned on a desert island after his ship was blasted apart by cannon fire from a pirate attack. This person washes ashore, explores the island, and finds that he is the only human there. There are some animals and plants and trees, and some land that he thinks could be farmed. This sailor faces a choice. Either he hunts for animals or farms vegetables and perhaps gets enough food to support his life, or he starves and dies. He could choose to seek food, which would require doing a lot of sweaty labor, or he could choose to be lazy and sit around and wait and eventually die. Work or death is the choice that he faces.

Few people would say he was coerced into working the job of hunter or farmer. Why? Because the thing that forces him to work is the nature of reality and the circumstances of the desert island. Coercion is typically regarded as an action, as something that one person does to another person to force the latter to conform to the former’s wishes. Where there is only one person there can be no coercion. Reality can be such that you must do something or face an unpleasant punishment, such as hard work, but reality has no mind capable of intentions and therefore has no intent to pressure you to obey some sort of scheme or plan.

It seems counterintuitive to say that reality coerces you, or that the aspect of reality called a desert island coerced you. It is the nature of reality, of humanity in the state of nature, that you work or die. If the sailor resents being forced to work by the human need for food, in a situation where it is obviously reality itself that poses this requirement, then he is rebelling against reality and the nature of human life. The demands of reality are not coercion; they are merely human existence.

This sheds light on the phenomenon that I call “worker’s rage,” a rage that most people feel sometimes and some people feel most of the time — a fear-fueled hatred of the fact that material success requires hard work and entails the risk of failure. I think that many socialists are motivated at a deep psychological level by the feeling that a strong socialist government could somehow create a magical utopia where there is no risk of failure or any need to do work in order to enjoy material comforts. Money and capitalism have come to symbolize the need to do work in order to survive. But as the desert island thought experiment suggests, the “work or die” condition of human existence is the result of humanity in the state of nature. It cannot be the result of capitalism if it exists someplace where there is no economic system. Thus “work or die” is perfectly natural; it is the condition of humans in the state of nature. The actual cause of worker’s rage is reality and not capitalism.

But now let us change the scenario slightly. Suppose that two sailors are shipwrecked on an otherwise desert island. One sailor, let’s call him John, finds a plot of land and sows some fast-growing fruit seeds and produces an orchard (or, for simplicity's sake, let's say a crop) of edible fruit. This sailor also builds a fence around his land, topped with sharp spikes. This fence cannot be scaled without serious risk of death. The second sailor, James, just sits on the beach, doing nothing but watching the waves.

Now James faces the same situation that the sailor in the first thought experiment faced: either he works or he dies of starvation. The new wrinkle is that if John were to give some of his fruit to James, then James would have a third option, to eat John’s fruit, not work, and not starve to death. Let us assume that James asks John to give him some fruit, and John says “no” and refuses to open the gate to his fence to let James in. Has John coerced James?

Here, for reasons similar to those of the first hypothetical, it's difficult to say that John has done anything to James that constitutes “coercion.” In the first place, there isn’t anything that John wants James to do. Therefore there is no intent or plan of John for James to conform to. We can hardly say that John coerced James into doing something when there is nothing that John wanted James to do.

The demands of reality are not coercion; they are merely human existence.

In the second place, if James dies from starvation, it will not have been John who killed him. Everything bad that could happen to James (such as starvation), will have been caused by the island, by the circumstances of not having an abundance of free food waiting to be taken, and by James’ own decision not to work. There is no threat from John directed at James, and any harm that befalls James will not have been caused by John. James’ death by starvation will have been caused by his own decision, combined with the nature of reality and of human beings, and the laws of physics and biology. Of course, John can prevent James’ death by giving him free fruit, but if he doesn't, he has still not taken any direct action toward him, so it can’t truly be said that John caused anything that happened to James.

“Ah, but John built that fence, and in so doing he murdered James!” the hardened socialist will say. If you don’t believe that anyone would seriously claim that the protection of private property constitutes coercion against the poor, let me inform you that the Robert Hale essay used precisely that argument.

My reply is that, in the first place, coercion requires the use of force or threats, at the very least to reduce freedom of choice. James’ freedom of choice has not been reduced. He is free to hunt, farm, sit on the beach, or do anything else he wants to do. John has done nothing to interfere with James’ freedom. Coercion is what would happen if John aimed a gun at James’ head and said, “Sing and dance or I will shoot you in the head.” That is what the government does when it gives orders to be enforced by the police and the army. John's staying behind his fence, farming and minding his own business, while James does whatever he wants on the other side of the fence looks nothing like coercion. John is not doing anything at all to James, and therefore is not “coercing” him.

The only thing that John prevents James from doing is invading his land and stealing his fruit — actions that are not properly within James’ scope of freedom. It strains credulity to think that protecting property that you have the right to own is coercion against people who try to steal it from you. If James were to steal John’s fruit, then James would be feeding off John as a parasite, and John would become James’ slave. James would be using force to steal from John. John’s attempt to prevent him from doing so, by building a fence, is not the aggressive initiation of force; it is merely self-defense. Self-defense protects the defender’s own freedom of action; it in no way pressures or controls the attacker. As can be seen from this example, James’ freedom of action and his ability to survive are in no way impeded. The only thing the fence does is prevent James from stealing from John. Even if John had fruit to spare, which he could give to James without missing it, the fact remains that John has done nothing to control or pressure James. If James cuts a hole in the fence and steals fruit from John, then one might say that James used violent force to coerce John into growing fruit for James to eat, and that James is trying to force John to stand between James and reality so that James can escape from the fact of having to work or starve. But it is reality and the desert island that punish James for his lazy choices.

John faced a risky situation. If he had chosen to reap his crop too late in the summer, a tropical storm might have wiped it out and condemned him to death. James wants to avoid the risks of having to make such choices. He wants to steal the bounty of John’s good choices, acting on the ground that John does not need all the fruit, but he himself does. This is robbery. For John to build a wall to prevent James from robbing him does not force James to make any of the choices available to him. The fence merely prevents James from exploiting John’s choices. Thus, John’s fence cannot reasonably be interpreted as a form of coercion.

Coercion is what would happen if John aimed a gun at James’ head and said, “Sing and dance or I will shoot you in the head.”

Now consider a third thought experiment. Assume that John and James are both stranded on the island, and that John has grown crops and built a fence, while James lies on the beach and enjoys the cool breeze in his hair. James asks John to give him some fruit, and John says "no." But now, with this third and final fact pattern, let us assume that John tells James that he would be willing to give him some of his fruit if in exchange for it James would be willing to do something for him. Here at last we have some elements that suggest the possibility of coercion: John has some purpose or intent that he wants James to fulfill, and James can avoid death by starvation, at least for a few days, if John gives him that fruit. The socialist would say that John has the power to coerce James with the threat of not giving him the fruit, and therefore John can pressure James into doing what James does not want to do. This is the heart of the coercion argument.

But let us look more closely. John does not want James to obey him blindly. John is proposing a trade whereby James does something for John (some sort of sex work, let us assume), and in exchange John gives something of value to James. This would be a free trade of value for value. John does not really want James to “obey.” He wants James to make a rational economic decision in which he gives John something of value to John, in exchange for something of value to James. When a baker gives twenty pizzas to a mechanic and receives a bicycle repair in return, both sides receive something that they wanted or needed more than the things that they traded away, so both sides end up happy. In a free trade both sides are always better off, at least in the sense that they always get what they want or what they choose, because if you don’t think you will be better off from making a trade you simply walk away from it.

But the socialist says that James cannot simply walk away. He says that James has no other choice than to make this deal, because John is the only farmer on the island and so owns all the fruit, and James might die if he refused John’s terms. But if we look at the scenario carefully, we see that nothing has fundamentally changed from the first and second scenarios. What will kill James is the desert island and starvation, not John; there is no aggressive physical force used by John against James. James is free to go off to another part of the island and build his own farm, and John is not restricting any of James’ abilities, with the single exception of his ability to steal. John owes nothing of his fruit to James. He would therefore be fully justified in not giving any of it to him.

Having established that James has no right to John’s fruit, we can see that it is good for James that John offers to trade some fruit in exchange for some work. Unless John chooses to give some of his fruit to James, there is no reason why James should be entitled to any of John’s fruit, so it is perfectly right and ethical for James to have to come up with some value he can give to John in order to make John freely and voluntarily give some of his fruit to James. It simply isn’t true that John is threatening James or trying to intimidate James, because James’ danger of starvation is caused by the island and not by John, and John is not doing anything to prevent James from going off and doing anything he wants, including starting his own farm.

Capitalist freedom is the only kind that lets you make your own decisions rather than having someone else run your life.

Whether or not there is “unequal bargaining power,” as socialist lawyers like to say, is irrelevant. The fact remains that John has every right to make a proposal that James is free to accept or reject. John is free to accept or reject James’ request, and James is free to accept John’s offer or reject it and face the consequences of the dangers of life on planet Earth.

James’ freedom to choose is real and substantial. The socialists say in a capitalist system a poor person’s freedom illusory. Actually, however, capitalist freedom is the only kind that lets you make your own decisions rather than having someone else run your life. This freedom benefits everyone, rich and poor alike. When the socialists say that James’ alternative to accepting John’s offer is death, what they mean is that they don’t want James to have to do the work and take the risk of starting his own farm. They want to use their guns to tear down John’s fence and let James steal from John so that James won’t have to face risk and make choices, as is proper for a human being trying to cope with the harsh problems of life on earth.

My inquiry thus far has been about whether John is coercing James, not whether John should give James charity voluntarily and out of compassion. Obviously he should; in most cases it is a sin to let other people die, especially if you can help them without putting yourself in danger and they have not committed any morally repugnant crimes. And in a real market economy there is always competition, so no businessman can ever have the kind of monopoly on trade that John does. But I stand by the arguments presented above, which show that John’s offer of money for sex is not coercion. Leftists equate the mugger’s “your money or your life” with the employer’s “work for me on my terms or I won’t pay you, in which case you might starve.” The difference is that the former is a threat of murder, whereas the latter is merely the expression of “work or die,” a reiteration of the natural condition of human life. To say that in practical terms the cases are identical is to ignore every word I wrote in this essay. And where there is no threat there can be no “coercion.”

I will now shift gears and present the second approach to refuting the coercion myth, which is the empirical factual approach. This approach allows that economic pressure might be coercion, but libertarianism would actually produce less economic pressure than statism and would therefore be preferable.

The first step is to frame the question properly, in this way: assuming that economic pressure is coercion, which is the economic system that produces the least economic coercion and the most economic freedom? Is it the capitalist libertarian system, which would legalize prostitution, or is it the socialist, protectionist, statist system, which criminalizes prostitution and uses either central planning or a welfare state? Also, assuming that neither capitalism nor socialism has the ability to erase all poverty (poverty being, after all, a relative term), the question is not which system will eliminate coercion; the question is which system will minimize coercion, because that is the achievable goal.

The logic of this argument must begin with a key observation. Even if prostitution is illegal, poverty will still put pressure on poor women to become sex workers. Criminalization makes prostitution more dangerous and therefore a less attractive choice, but it does not completely prevent poverty from coercing women into becoming sex workers. The widespread existence of sex workers in America proves just how ineffective the ban is. Therefore, whether or not prostitution is illegal doesn’t factor heavily into this analysis; the crucially important question is whether capitalism or socialism is more efficient at creating jobs for poor women.

So long as poverty exists and sex work is a way to make money, there will be economic pressure for women to become sex workers, so one might think that legalization of prostitution would necessarily increase coercion. But libertarianism is not the reason why sex work is repulsive to some women — or why it frequently pays well. That has its roots in human nature and the nature of sexuality. Assuming that the availability of other jobs is the best way to decrease economic pressure, it is perfectly reasonable to examine libertarianism and statism to try to determine which one would be better at providing more choices for women. We can say that a system in which most poor women are not forced to become sex workers is one that is not generally coercive.

The question is not whether it is capitalism or socialism which will eliminate coercion; the question is which system will minimize coercion, because that is the achievable goal.

The explanation for why, under laissez-faire capitalism, there will be more opportunities for the poor than under socialism is that in a capitalist system the entrepreneurs and business owners depend on the skill, talent, intelligence, and hard work of their employees in order to compete. The manager can’t do everything, so if the employees do a bad job, the business fails. Thus, management must always be searching for people who will do a good job, and seeking them wherever they may be found. An employee who is smart and works very hard is valuable. Employers will hunt for and abundantly reward productive employees. If a poor woman chooses to work hard and be a good employee, under capitalism she is likely to find a non-sex-work employer who will hire her. The public education system traps the poor in poverty by giving bad educations to children who can’t afford private schools; but privatization of education, using a voucher system, can solve this problem, and we can assume this as a feature of the libertarian system we are considering. We can also assume that wealthy people would support banks willing to give student loans to well-qualified poor people in order to develop the workforce necessary to compete with rivals.

More wealth in an economy and a higher average standard of living create more opportunities and career choices for everyone, including poor women. Capitalism is simply more efficient at producing wealth than statism, because it is better at providing the incentives that motivate people to be productive. Because free-market capitalism will create more career choices for poor women than statism, they will actually feel less economic pressure in a libertarian society than they would under socialism. Banning prostitution, on the other hand, simply eliminates a way to make money. A ban does nothing to solve the problem of poverty or to reduce the pressure to take unpleasant jobs.

One variation of the coercion argument is that a woman might choose to become a sex worker, but she would not want to if she had a choice (or, to be more precise, if she had money), and therefore the government should make her choice for her. This argument claims that protectionism actually increases freedom by giving people the situations that they would have chosen if they had been free to choose. But no one's choices can be predicted; the human mind is too complex for that. The only way to know what choice someone would make is to give her the freedom to choose, then see what choice she ends up making.

Outlawing prostitution does not magically solve the problem of poverty or help poor women pay their bills.

If a woman (or, again, a man) is horrified by the idea of becoming a sex worker, in a libertarian society she would be free to seek another job and persuade some employer that she would be a good worker and should be hired. F.A. Hayek's famous argument in The Road To Serfdom is that when people face a difficult choice (such as whether to become a sex worker or else have money trouble), they often want the state to eliminate this choice; but if the state destroys their freedom to choose, it has not eliminated the problem of a difficult choice. It has merely made that choice for the people instead of letting each person choose for herself. The poor woman who does not want to become a sex worker but who faces money problems must sometimes make a difficult choice, but outlawing prostitution does not magically solve the problem of poverty or help poor women pay their bills. It merely deprives women of the possibility of becoming sex workers if they wish.

There would probably be a sharp increase in sex work if prostitution were legalized. But there is no reason to assume that such an increase would be caused by coercion, not by the freedom accorded to women who would view sex work as comparatively easy money. There are some human beings who view sex as a physical act devoid of emotional or spiritual significance and who would view sex work and washing dishes as comparable. The idea that no woman could possibly want to become a sex worker is rooted in a very conservative, old-fashioned religious ideology. The state has no right to take the religious views of some people and force them upon others, particularly in light of the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

Looking beyond prostitution to broader issues of coercion, it is also worth remembering Hayek’s classic argument that when government makes people’s choices for them, there is but one authority that everyone must depend on, whereas in free-market competition there are hundreds of thousands of employers and millions of sales and deals happening constantly. The government has the power to coerce you by using its guns to force you to obey, but no capitalist can own every business or control every job. A worker under capitalism always has options and choices. If a woman faces poverty and hates the prospect of becoming a sex worker she is free to seek another job, and if one employer refuses to hire her then she can apply for positions with fifty others. The number of employers it is feasible for any one person to seek employment from, and the costs and sacrifices that any person must make in order to find a job, are real factors, real, empirical questions that vary for each individual. Some people may need to move to find a job, or to make other adjustments in their lives, just as they often do when seeking a spouse, getting an education, and so forth. Generally, however, in competitive capitalism there will be many more choices than in a socialist system.

To conclude: economic pressure is not coercion, but even if it were, libertarianism would produce less coercion than statism. Opposing arguments are common in American culture, especially among leftist or Marxist intellectuals and people influenced by them. The coercion argument is the foundation of many socialist illusions. It is the justification for laws that attempt to protect people from the tough choices that they would feel pressured to make in a free market. The truth is, however, that when the government tries to protect us by eliminating our freedom, that action is coercion. Libertarian capitalism, in which people can make whatever choice they want, is freedom, and freedom is a good thing. I hope that this essay’s framework — a double-barreled shotgun approach to refuting the coercion myth, with one barrel comprised of analytical deduction and another barrel coming from empirical fact — is a step in the right direction on the path toward replacing the state’s coercion with the people’s freedom.

Share This

Weiner Words


I admit it: I doted on Anthony Weiner. I followed all the news about him; I was horrified when he resigned; and I miss him terribly, even now. He was wonderful entertainment.

But like certain other kinds of entertainment, which Weiner himself would probably enjoy, this was not something you could discuss at every opportunity. On hearing me prate ecstatically about the latest Weiner news, most of my friends muttered things like, “Oh, you mean that congressman who sent out pictures of his crotch?” Yeah, well, that’s the one I mean. The congressman who did that, then told lies about it — gross, elaborate, stupid lies — and tried to get others to lie for him, too.

The truth is, I loved the spectacle of a pompous windbag falling on his face, then prying himself back onto the rostrum, then falling on his face again, and every time slipping and falling because he had tied his own shoelaces together. The sex part didn’t matter to me; I liked the sheer humiliation.

Of course, I had to find good, moral reasons for being interested in this, and I did. And they actually happen to be good, moral reasons. One of them has to do with the appropriate punishment (humiliation) for the kind of person that Anthony Weiner is — a parasite, a bigot, and an aggressive fool.

Let’s take those in order.

Parasite: According to the uncontested findings of Wikipedia, as soon as Weiner left college he went into politics. Since then he has been continuously supported by his “work” as a partisan political activist. In his entire adult life, he has never had a wealth-creating or even a wealth-maintaining job. To everyone’s surprise, he turned out not even to be a lawyer.

Bigot: Before the scandal, Weiner was famous for one thing: relentlessly slamming people who disagreed with his “progressive” legislative agenda (e.g., fully socialized medicine). His constant rhetorical preference was to accuse those people of sinister motives and interests. When his scandal started, he assured political donors that the whole thing was the creation of “a vast rightwing conspiracy.” Yes, hackneyed and derided as that bigoted phrase has become, that’s what he said.

Aggressive fool: Don’t bother looking again at the press conference where he lied about his sexual transmissions. Consider his congressional website, where he offered, by actual count, 275 videos of speeches given by (can you guess?) himself. How much of a fool do you have to be . . . ?

So, that’s one high-minded excuse for my delight in Weiner Agonistes: he deserved to be humiliated, and he was. Here’s another: his scandal allowed us to study the bad qualities, not only of Congressman Weiner, but of many other people who are currently being paid to abuse the English language.

Let’s take, for example, people whose default language is the vocabulary of sickness. Where would they be without it? They can excuse their friends for anything they do: they are merely sick. And they can damn their enemies for anything they do: they are really sick.

On June 11, at the height of the scandal, a spokeswoman for Weiner announced that he had left Washington for an undisclosed location, “to seek professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person.” Note the lack of parallelism: She didn’t say a "better person"; she said a "healthier person." Weiner, the real Weiner,was fine; he just needed to have more wellness.

But Weiner’s silly “health” claim tended to confirm the silly statements of his critics. He said he was sick; they said he was a “sicko.” From thousands of instances, I’ll select just one: the conversation of Sean Hannity with Karl Rove on Hannity’s TV show, June 8.

Hannity referred to the “perverted transcript” of Weiner’s conversation with one of his inamorata. This illustrates Hannity’s peculiar way with words: no matter how “perverted” the conversation may have been, the transcript itself wasn’t perverted; but that’s the way Hannity pictured it. On a more conceptual level, I fail to see why it was “perverted” for Weiner to write little notes to people about getting aroused by them, or even about his fantasies of having sex with them. It might be tasteless; it might be stupid (and oh Lord, it was); but perverted? Talking about sex? By that standard, only Shirley Temple comes out clean.

On hearing me prate ecstatically about the latest Weiner news, most of my friends muttered things like, “Oh, you mean that congressman who sent out pictures of his crotch?”

There’s more. Referring to Weiner’s picture of his virile member, Hannity insisted, again and again, that it was a “pornographic picture.” “He’s sick,” Hannity said. “He’s sick and needs help,” Rove agreed. Then Rove made some priggish remark about how Weiner could have been conversing about sex with underage women and wouldn’t even have known that he was.

All right. Let’s look at these words of Rove and Hannity. Was the picture pornographic? To me, it was about as pornographic as the Mona Lisa, and I suspect that my view is shared by hundreds of millions of people around the world. To some, I know, any picture of a naked sex organ is pornographic, in the sense that it arouses their sexual desire. (Why arousal is supposed to be bad in itself, I have no idea.) Nevertheless, you might as well say that a medical text is sick and pornographic, because somebody might get off on one of the diagrams. And I’m told that some people do, just as my eighth-grade friends got off on the pictures of naked natives in our school’s collection of National Geographic. But maybe the “sickness” lies in the beholder of these “perverted” (as opposed to crass, dumb, or tasteless) situations. Don’t you think that may be possible?

Now let’s consider the “underage” issue. There’s no indication that Weiner was trying to seduce 17-year-olds. The notion that everyone has to govern his or her communications according to the rule that nothing must be said or shown that could have an unhealthy effect on an underage person, whether underage persons are present or not . . . what kind of notion is that? If an underage person sneaks a look at an erotic movie, that isn’t the responsibility of the producers. Period. And if Weiner conversed with some underage person, and didn’t know that he did, how would that be evidence of a perverted sex interest in Weiner?

But really, what are we talking about? We’re talking about some sex talk and some pictures of a penis. I remember an episode of the early TV series, Our Miss Brooks. The title character, played by the all-time master of dry wit, Eve Arden, was the English teacher at Madison High School. She was in love with the biology teacher, the shy, prudish Mr. Boynton. One day, Mr. Boynton admitted to conducting experiments on the reproductive capacity of lilies. He blushed when he admitted it. “That’s all right,” said Miss Brooks. “I once saw the word ‘lily’ written on a fence down by the railroad tracks.”

In other words, suppose that somebody sends out a picture of his penis. What then? Nothing.

I’m not portraying Anthony Weiner as an apostle of sex education. He evidently had no interest in discussing anything with underage people. And it’s mildly repulsive to me that he had an interest in discussing anything with anyone, or that anyone had an interest in him, sexually or politically. That’s my own aesthetic evaluation. But let’s get some perspective on this. We know that lack of perspective is a leading symptom of mental illness. Bearing that in mind, it’s easy to see that Hannity and Rove (who flew into delirium about Weiner’s perversity) had less perspective on the situation than Weiner (who was merely behaving as a man of nature, an unreconstructed son of the soil), and therefore showed themselves sicker than Weiner. But that doesn’t make them bad people. They’re just not healthy.

As soon as Weiner left college he went into politics. In his entire adult life, he has never had a wealth-creating or even a wealth-maintaining job.

At this point, let’s reflect on what is sacred in our political culture. From time to time there’s a controversy about some disgrace to the flag, or to the pledge of allegiance, or to the national anthem. Yet the true Ark of the Covenant is, apparently, the congressional gymnasium. This is the evidence, from an AFP report of June 2:

“The latest batch of photos, including the fact that he [Weiner] used the House gym as the backdrop for his sexual deviance[!], appeared to be too much for Democratic leaders.

"“This is bizarre, unacceptable behavior,’ said number two House Democrat Steny Hoyer.

"‘It seems to me extraordinarily difficult that he can proceed to represent his constituents in an effective way given the circumstances this bizarre behavior has led to,’ Hoyer told CBS's ‘Face the Nation’ program.”

So, when Weiner demanded that the United States government nationalize the entire healthcare system, or when Weiner, Hoyer, and several hundred other members of their party spent trillions of dollars that weren’t their own to bail out failed economic enterprises and “stimulate” still more failures, that wasn’t “bizarre, unacceptable behavior.” But when Weiner took a picture of his penis in the gymnasium of the House of Representatives, that was bizarre.

Lower down in the report we see:

“Democrats consider the scandal all the more sad because Weiner is married to Huma Abedin, a hugely popular aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”

Did you ever see that phrase before — “all the more sad”? If you haven’t, I’m not surprised. It’s one of those expressions that today’s journalists use when they need to get around the fact that they don’t know grammar. “More sad” means “sadder,” in your grandmother’s untutored but accurate vocabulary. The difference is that your grandmother knew how to form a common English comparative and therefore didn’t have to invent cumbersome phrases to circumvent the obvious.

So journalists are naïve about grammar — so what? Well, ex ungue leonem: they are also naïve about the rest of the world. Do you believe — does anyone believe — that Democrats went into terminal depression because of their sympathy for Huma Abedin, or that more than ten of them had ever heard of Huma Abedin? “Hugely popular”? Who’s buying this stuff? Hillary Clinton isn’t “hugely popular” — so how should Huma, her assistant, be? And are we supposed to believe that a top aide to one of the Clintons is to be pitied for her association with a sex scandal?

Ah yes, the wronged woman.You can never be out of tune in America, plunking on that string. It’s another sign of our strange attitudes about sex, its nature and its relative importance.

Routine was the sympathy, the warm, intense, sticky, gooey sympathy, that the media showed for Weiner’s presumably distressed wife, Huma. And sympathy is certainly due to a spouse who finds that his or her significant other is making digital love to foreign entities. But I can’t see why learning that one’s husband has been exchanging sex talk with people he met online would be worse than learning that he was a cheap, obnoxious, grandstanding, ignorant, cynical, arrogant grubber for votes, whose every public utterance was enough to make thinking persons consider smashing their TV screens. And the evidence that Huma’s husband fitted that bill was richly available to Huma, long, long before she married him. As an employee and close friend of Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, however, Mrs. Weiner had probably gotten used to a lot of things that the rest of us don’t have to put up with.

But now comes Kirsten Powers, a modestly successful journalist, who couldn’t resist the opportunity to stage multiple interviews about the fact that several years before the scandal she had had a romance with Weiner. This should have been enough to disqualify her from any comment on anything, but she was not deterred. A loyal Democrat, she deplored her former boyfriend’s conduct but said that it didn’t o’ershadow the effulgent light of his contributions to the republic. She went on and on about that on television. Then she changed her mind and wrote a long essay calling for Weiner’s resignation. It had finally penetrated her thick skull (she didn’t put it in exactly those words, but that was her meaning) that the man had lied. The man was a liar. But again, was that news to the rest of us?

What was news to me was Powers’ other approach to the problem of Weiner’s moral guilt. The thing that really anguished her, she said, was his “misogynist view of women,” his “predatory” “trolling" of "the Internet for women — some half his age." And the things he said to them! Dearie, you can’t imagine! He actually pictured himself entering themand . . . and filling them until they . . . ! So he was clearly sick, sick, sick.

That’s one high-minded excuse for my delight in Weiner Agonistes: he deserved to be humiliated, and he was.

I’ve seen a lot of amateur sexology, but I concede that this bit floored me. I mean, Powers’ analysis ravaged me. It was too much for me to take. I felt like a victim of her power. I was stunned and may never be able to recover from the awesome force of her enormous statements. I gagged, literally gagged, on this evidence that there are actually people in the world who think that the shopworn sexual fantasies in which men — and, I hear, women too — indulge themselves when they are, shall we say, warming to the subject, are to be taken as literally as fundamentalists take the first chapter of Genesis. No doubt Powers believes that when a man kisses his wife and tells her, “I love ya, babe,” he is infantilizing the poor, helpless creature, and burdening her with his “love.” It’s tantamount to rape, and child rape at that! No doubt she thinks that when man or woman declares, “You’re mine! All mine!”, this constitutes a clear violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God. What would the Declaration of Independence say about that? And I suppose that if Powers ever visits the theater, she will rush on stage to stop Macbeth from killing the King.

Incidentally, this latter-day Cotton Mather (but that’s a bad comparison; Mather was a pretty good writer) seems never to have heard of the concept of consenting adults, or even of adults. To her, it seems shocking that a 21-year-old woman might do something that a 46-year-old man might do, such as type her sex thoughts into a computer. Half his age, indeed! Clearly, we should have laws prohibiting sex talk between any two adults who are different in age, because the younger will surely be hurt in some way that she (or he) will be unable to avert or even to understand.

The fact that this sort of nonsense isn’t given the ridicule it deserves is yet another proof that there are two cultures — not the two famous, supposedly antagonistic, cultures of science and the humanities, but the two cultures of the adult world and the world of the nursery school.

Living in the adult world are people who have had sex and admitted that they enjoyed (or hated) it; old-fashioned hookers; old-fashioned politicians; raunchy homophiles; any preacher who has actually read the Bible; any person who was ever actually concerned about his soul (as opposed to his “mental health"); any person who has ever actually affirmed or denied traditional values as values, and not as prescriptions for some kind of insipid “well being”; and any person who has ever argued that people should be free, and take the consequences for what they do with their freedom. To this list I will add your grandmother, who knew much more about a lot of things than Kirsten Powers appears to fathom.

As an employee and close friend of Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, however, Mrs. Weiner had probably gotten used to a lot of things that the rest of us don’t have to put up with.

Living in the world of the nursery school are all the disciples of the nanny state, all the apostles of the “appropriate,” all the people who believe that gay people will be fine, so long as the state is willing to bless their unions, all the people who pretend that "politics" is synonymous with “public service,” and all the people who believe that they themselves are entitled, by virtue of their ability to write a series of 800 words and get it published, to decide what is right and healthy for other adults to do. Notice: these people never say, "What the hell! Go ahead and do what you want (you tasteless S.O.B.)! Thank God, it’s none of my business." They always say, "I'm not sure that your behavior is appropriate,” which means, “I would have you arrested if I could.”

Isabel Paterson talked about another bifurcated age, like ours — the early 20th century, in which she came to maturity:

"This country used to be at once rigidly respectable and wide open. Novelists scarcely hinted at reality; and with saloons on every corner, it was very bad form and meant being dropped from invitation lists if a young man became intoxicated at a party" (New York Herald Tribune "Books," June 25, 1933).

Paterson might have mentioned something she knew very well, from her life as a journalist in turn-of-the-century Vancouver and Seattle — the fact that all large North American towns had a lively red-light district a few blocks from the quarters of the nice people, just as, today, cable TV displays the raunchiest kind of comedy shows, one or two clicks from the solemn mainstream media channels whose function is to tell you what is good for you to know. Today’s novelists more than hint at “reality” (meaning sex); but meanwhile, for every person who reads a serious novel there are 100 people learning wellness from Oprah.

So who are the superintendents of the nursery school?

They are people like Kirsten Powers, who apparently believes that you can be any kind of idiot you want to be, so long as you are a member of the right political party and your sex play doesn’t involve telling somebody that you want to do various explicit things.

They are people like Sean Hannity and Karl Rove, who treat tastelessness as if it were prima facie evidence of dementia.

They are the mainstream media, who never questioned Congressman Weiner’s assertion that he was battling for the middle class against the demonic forces of the Republicans and their vile puppet masters, the corporate authorities of America, or his desire to use that crusade to make himself the mayor of New York — until it was shown (by the non-mainstream media) that his principal crusade at the moment was being conducted on behalf of penis-awareness among nubile women. Then: “Oh horrors! This man is a fool. Why didn’t somebody tell us that before?”

Finally, the rulers of the nursery school are such cross-sections of the political class as Weiner himself, who was forced to resign from Congress because he lied, and counseled others to lie, but delivered a resignation speech in which he represented himself as a success, according to the best nursery school values. He thanked his wife (who was conspicuously absent) because “she has stood with me.” He thanked his parents (also absent), “who instilled in me the values that carried me this far.” (Uh, question, please, Mr. Congressman. Uh, I mean, uh, which values? Which values were those? Mr. Congressman? Mr. Congressman?) He also thanked the members of his staff, who worked long hours in his office, thereby “defin[ing] the notion of service.” In the nursery school world, service means working your tail off for a power-sucking congressman, so that maybe you’ll get to be one, too.

No traditional politician would have dreamed of saying things like this, but traditional politicians didn’t grow up in a nursery school. Yet the worst thing is that no one in the mainstream media said what my local talk-show host immediately came out with: “What does this guy think he’s doing — accepting an Academy Award?”

Yes, that’s an obvious remark. But to hundreds of thousands of our well-brought-up fellow citizens, it’s not obvious at all. To them, such comments are the products of envy and “rightwing” hatred. That is because they are living in a different world from the one inhabited by you and me. They are either nannies or the nice children studying to take the nanny’s job.

I’ve saved the best for last. According to the Associated Press (June 10),“U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said Thursday he wished Weiner would resign ‘to get that story off the front page.’ He said the controversy distracts from pressing economic issues.”

So here is a supposed political enemy, one of the right-wing Republican congressmen whom Weiner routinely reviled, maintaining that the economy is endangered by the public’s distracting interest in Weiner’s sexual embarrassment. Tony! Tony Weiner! Pull your pants up! You’re distracting everyone. It’s time for teacher to tell us about economics!

You can’t get much creepier than that.

Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.