Posts Tagged With: libertarianism

Libertarian Blind Spots on Gay Marriage

Some spokesmen for a group called “Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry” have an op-ed in The Daily Caller making the libertarian case for gay marriage. They write:

As conservatives and libertarians, the three of us believe that we’d all be better served if government extricated itself from the business of marriage altogether, leaving it as a private contractual matter. Government is already big and intrusive enough, and too invested in telling ordinary Americans what is right and wrong. And as Senator Rand Paul said last week, getting government out of marriage would also take away the time-worn opposition talking point about efforts to “redefine marriage.”

However, for the time being, getting the government out of marriage is not a realistic possibility, especially given the many legal issues tied to marriage today. The next best thing, then, is for the government to act equitably in its involvement in marriage, and that means allowing all committed couples the freedom to marry and to have their marriages recognized by all levels of government.

This is an argument you often see on the libertarian left. I wonder, though: is there any other issue where libertarians would say that the cure for a government entitlement is to expand and federalize it, so that it involves more people?

You would never hear a libertarian say, “I believe that we should end foreign aid. But until we end it, it’s only fair that each country gets an equal share.” Most people would realize that, far from ending foreign aid, a program of “aid equality” would just increase the demand for it.

So why is gay marriage any different? If it is “unrealistic” to imagine the government leaving the marriage business today, won’t it be even less realistic when millions more people are entitled to federal marriage benefits?

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Ron Paul and The “Virtue” of Compromise

Our newest blogger, Radagast, begins his commentary at Beyond the GOP with a criticism of Ron Paul. He brings up an important point when he writes:

 [Ron Paul] is neither an ideologue nor a narcissist . . . but his uncompromising commitment to his principles is politically objectionable in my view. . . The “games” of American politics are utterly corrupt and broken, but the game is the game. It is not a concession to choose to play it when you know you can’t win everything. Compromise is not a dirty word – it is a necessary element of a just and enduring order.

First of all, one might reasonably ask: if the game really is “utterly corrupt and broken,” why continue to play it?

But the crux of Radagast’s argument comes later. He asserts that Ron Paul wrongly sticks to “moralism in an imperfect world.” Rather than doing that, Paul supposedly needs to learn from Machiavelli and Bill Clinton—he needs to learn to get his hands dirty to achieve what he wants. According to Radagast, a successful politician needs to adopt morally grayer means to achieve his (good) ends.

The issue of reconciling political means to ends is one that constantly reoccurs, especially in marginalized and relatively powerless groups like our own.

Yet, as in much else, I think the best discussion of the issue comes from Murray Rothbard, who argued that there really is no conflict between the two. Every end requires means to attain it, so the means can only be justified to the extent that the end can—and if an end can’t be justified, then no means can either. Conversely, if a particular means is bad, that can only mean that it is inconsistent with a more important end.

To bring this down to earth: I see nothing wrong with Ron Paul voting for a 1% tax cut, even though I would prefer a 50% or—best of all—100% decrease. My end is to roll back the government until it can drown in a teacup—the quicker we can accomplish that the better. Still, the 1% decrease might just be the best we can get at the moment, so it would be pointless to hold out for more if more were not forthcoming. Here there is no conflict between means and ends; the means are less than we might like, but they are still consistent with the ultimate goal.

On the other hand, Paul would be unjustified if, for instance, he threatened to murder the congressional Democrats unless they agreed to a bigger tax decrease. Murder is even worse than taxes, so by threatening it Paul would be acting inconsistently with another important end. He would also be unjustified if he promised his support for, say, ethanol subsidies in return for tax cuts—the classic “one step forward, two steps back.”


But just because sometimes a half-way measure is the best we can realistically accomplish, that doesn’t mean that compromise is somehow a good in itself. As G.K. Chesterton memorably put it, “Compromise used to mean that half a loaf was better than no bread. Among modern statesmen it really seems to mean that half a loaf is better than a whole loaf.”

It appears that many of Ron Paul’s critics take the “modern statesman’s” approach and value compromise for its own sake. But if they do, then they have little to worry about. Most everyone who doesn’t write for Mother Jones understands that the Republicans are nowhere near adopting laissez-faire purism. Those of us who can remember back to last month might recall how the Republicans ultimately capitulated to tax increases and then agreed to a truce over the debt ceiling. Those of us who follow politics a little more closely might also remember the Ron Paul-endorsed Kerry Bentivolio call himself “not really a Ron Paul person” after he was elected. Or the supposedly “libertarian” senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee’s attacks on Chuck Hagel’s non-aggressive foreign policy during the recent confirmation hearings. And of course, Rand Paul’s own deviations from his father are well-documented. If anything, the “uncompromising” politicians quickly start compromising once their careers begin. Despite what Radagast might fear, Machiavelli is alive and well in Washington.

By contrast, Ron Paul is so popular because he stands out from the crowd. He doesn’t compromise, while everyone else does. Does anyone really believe that he would have made more of an impact if he conducted his career like Lamar Alexander? Sure, he hasn’t had many political successes, but he did open up a whole generation to libertarian ideals. That’s a huge accomplishment. As for Lamar Alexander . . . well, you can look him up on Wikipedia.

Nevertheless, Radagast is correct that the Right needs to do more than just nay-saying. Ron Paul has done great things, but we need something more if we eventually want to win.

The problem is that most of the solutions offered essentially constitute a surrender of principle—they are inconsistent with ultimate goals. We hear incessantly, for instance, that Republicans need to make their peace with the welfare state or accept mass immigration. But if that’s what it takes to win, then what’s the point of winning? Just being able to say “We won” is small consolation for embracing and ratifying destructive political principles. To take a less dramatic example being willing to “vote trade”—swapping a vote for higher taxes in exchange for spending cuts—is almost as bad. If our ultimate goal is rolling back the government, it is hard to come up with a non-sophistical justification for how higher taxes will accomplish that.

So what then to do?

I’m not exactly sure. But I do see some promising options. For instance, I have written here before about “bleeding heart libertarianism” and about the states’ rights/Tenth Amendment movement. Though the two movements seem very different, they are both strategic, political means of advancing good ends without violating higher principles. They’re both about making libertarian or conservative ideas appeal to a wider array of normal, working people. As such, I think they offer much more promising avenues for change than some fuzzy “compromise.”

They are both incomplete and wouldn’t lead to any kind of victory overnight. But they are still helpful in the long-run by re-branding libertarian goals while staying true to libertarianism. I’m sure there are many other options too. Off the top of my head, opposition to war and support for breaking the state’s intellectual property grants are two other issues where pure libertarianism could be widely popular.

Above all, we just can’t lose sight of principle. I fear that Radagast’s proscriptions would do just that. They would turn the Republican Party into a party of Lamar Alexanders, not a party willing to fight for the principles we share.

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Blessed are Those Who Win Elections, for They Will Be First in the Kingdom of Heaven

“And I will give children to be their princes, and the effeminate shall rule over them.”- Is. 3:4

For some reason, Jesus never said this about elections. There are plenty of reasons why He never said such a thing, but one is that Jesus’ followers were to set a brilliant example of just the type of program that social conservatives and libertarians need to embark upon right now and it doesn’t matter who is in power via elections to work. As the Apostles spread out to preach the Gospel Acts shows life in the first Churches to be a mix of communitarian living and performance of works of mercy both inside and outside of the community. The Church exploded in the Empire and by the time of Julian the Apostate’s rule Christians were known so well for providing what we would call today “social safety nets” that central to the Emperor’s plan to reinstate paganism was the idea that he would provide charity and out compete the Christians. Despite the backing of the Imperial treasury and official state support, Juliancare failed.

What made the social program of the Apostles so successful are exactly the reasons why private enterprise tends to be more successful at delivering services compared to the government.  Charity was provided directly to the needy by motivated workers through a process that was voluntary engaged in for mutual benefit from funding to distribution. Because those distributing alms were directly concerned with where they came from (themselves or their fellow community members, who were brothers and sisters in Christ), there is a powerful feedback system in place to hamper fraud by both recipients and distributors. After all, the first example of a Christian using funding sources inappropriately didn’t end so well for Judas.

Conservatives and libertarians who oppose the mentality so prevalent today of “seek ye first the Federal Government,” need to better present alternatives to today’s problems. No one really can say that our health care system or the mess that is health insurance is either economically efficient or just. Healthcare is a mess. The poor face horrible choices every day in this country when it comes to treatment. Countless babies are murdered because the poor are told that they will not be able to afford to care for them.

We must face this reality. The problem is that the medical field is highly specialized and highly regulated keeping out competition to a large degree. It doesn’t seem likely that we can have free clinics and hospitals starting up as happened in the middle ages to solve the problems. More likely to succeed (although, I fully expect the Feds to move to stamp this out too) is the mutual aid solution: health sharing programs. These are programs where members share the medical costs of other members directly. If I were to incur a bill, then the program would split the bill’s total up and ask other members to send me money to pay off the expenses. It is not insurance and there is no absolute guarantee that any expense will be covered. As far as I am aware, all such programs are ministries of Christian groups and driven by the mentality of the early Christians of sharing each other’s burdens.

Needless to say, with Obamacare coming down the pike, membership in such groups has soared. More are being created, but it seems that the law prevents any new groups from forming, which poses problems for any future expansion, especially if a group wanted to start up that was unable to agree to the religious tenants of existing programs. Of course, this is intentional. The State cannot stand competition whether it comes from the family or from groups such as these which show that we do not need the government to live or to help improve our fellow man. Mutual aid societies in the spirit of the first Christians seem a perfect way to go…and for now, they’re legal.

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The Perils of Top-Down Reform

Being both a law student and a libertarian, I often wonder what I can do to advance libertarian ideals once I start practicing law. And, broadly, I see two basic methods for libertarian legal reform.

The first is the “top down” approach of Randy Barnett and the Institute for Justice, which tries to persuade judges to come to libertarian decisions through “public-interest” litigation. Such was the strategy in the Obamacare case—with mixed results. The second is the “bottom up” approach of groups like the Tenth Amendment Center, which tries to convince the masses to adopt libertarian ideals through education and grassroots activism. Of course, from a lawyer’s perspective, only the top-down method offers the chance for respectable legal work. The bottom-up method relies on activism skills that no one needs an expensive law degree to work at. Moreover, convincing a majority of five highly educated Supreme Court justices of the correctness of certain abstract principles is a much more tangible and achievable goal than swaying some amorphous “mass” of uninterested Schmoes to libertarian ideals.

But Murray Rothbard offers an interesting cautionary tale against the top-down approach in the first volume of his massive Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (which I’ve been working my way through this winter break). During the reign of the autocratic and mercantilistic French King Louis XIV, a group of laissez-faire scholars (“the Burgundy Circle”) hoped to bring freedom to France by tutoring Louis’s grandson and would-be successor to the throne, the Duke of Burgundy, in the ways of laissez-faire. Once he became King, the Circle expected that the Duke would repeal his grandfather’s authoritarian policies.

For 22 years, they faithfully tutored him in free-trade thought. The plan was going perfectly . . . until the Duke suddenly died of the measles. He never became king and two decades of painstaking work came to nothing. Rothbard concludes:

The tragic end of the Burgundy Circle illuminates a crucial strategic flaw, not only of the Burgundy Circle, but also of the physiocrats, Turgot, and other laissez-faire thinkers of the later eighteenth century. . . . The idea, in short, was to get into court, influence the corridors of power, and induce the king to adopt libertarian ideas and impose a laissez-faire revolution, so to speak, from the top. If the king could not be persuaded directly, then a new king’s ideas and values would be formed from childhood by liberal preceptors and tutors.

Reliance on the good will of the king, however, suffered from several inherent defects. One, as in the case of the Duke of Burgundy, was the reliance on the existence and good health of one person. A second is a more systemic flaw. Even if one can convince the king that the interests of his subjects require liberty and laissez-faire, the standard argument that his own revenue will increase proportionately to their prosperity is a shaky one. For the king’s revenue might well be maximized, certainly in the short run and even in the long run, by tyrannically sweating his subjects to attain the maximum possible revenue. And relying on the altruism of the monarch is a shaky reed at best. For all these reasons, appealing to a monarch to impose laissez-faire from above can only be a losing strategy. A far better strategy would have been to organize a mass opposition from below among the ruled and exploited masses, an opposition that would have given laissez-faire a far more solid groundwork in adherence by the bulk of the population.

(From Volume I, pp. 266-67. Emphases added.)

Even though monarchism is dead, we can see the same problems in today’s strategy of top-down litigation. Of course, just as the Duke of Burgundy could suddenly and unexpectedly die, so too could Clarence Thomas—and his replacement during the Obama administration would likely lead to the unravelling of even the extremely modest gains in antitrust, gun rights, and the Commerce Clause that libertarians have made over the past decades.

Nor can we really count on libertarianism to appeal to Supreme Court justices, any more than it would to French kings. For one thing, the legal profession (where all the justices got their start) benefits from having a complex and far-reaching administrative state to keep up the demand for lawyers’ services, so we can expect that (present and former) lawyers as a group will be generally more hostile to libertarianism than non-lawyers. There will of course be exceptions, but the group culture will tend to frown on anti-government thought.

Moreover, as many people have noted, Robert Bork’s confirmation fiasco discouraged later presidents from nominating ideological outliers to the Supreme Court. The people who do get nominated may fall on different points on the ideological spectrum, but none of them are really radical, as a libertarian would be. For instance, when the Court had the opportunity to essentially gut the EPA, it declined, in a unanimous Scalia opinion, to do so. And of course, because the justices must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the fact that there are virtually no libertarian senators and certainly no libertarian presidents means that it is highly unlikely that a libertarian justice could be selected.

All of which is to say: libertarian lawyers would do well to listen to Rothbard’s story. If litigators want to help the libertarian cause, they might best leave the real work to educators and activists. I don’t really like that conclusion, but I see little way around it.

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Calvin Coolidge, Morality and Economy

The Acton Institute has an interview with Garland S. Tucker, III the author of The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election. The book is interesting because it examines the two major nominees in the 1924 election, the last time that both parties nominated conservatives. On why modern conservatives should know more about Calvin Coolidge, Tucker says,

Modern conservatives need to understand Calvin Coolidge because he is the only modern president who actually implemented the complete conservative agenda. Coolidge sharply reduced taxes, while also sharply reducing government spending, the national debt, and the regulatory scope of government. At the same time, he earned the approbation of a huge majority of the American electorate. In the face of a severe postwar recession in 1920, the Harding administration began to implement conservative policies, but the major implementation came under Coolidge (and Mellon) in 1923-1928. The result of lower tax rates and reduced government spending was the greatest sustained decade of economic growth in U. S. history.

But Coolidge is important not just for his economic views, but for what he sees as the connection between the economy and morality.

Coolidge once said, “I favor economy in government not just to save money, but to save people.” He not only believed strongly in the economic efficacy of free markets, individual initiative, and limited government , but he understood these economic principles were undergirded by moral principles. He saw the debilitating dependency created when citizens depend on the government rather than on themselves and their fellow citizens. The Washington Post commented, “Few persons, probably, have considered economy and taxation as moral issues. But Mr. Coolidge so considers them, and his observations give a fresh impression of the intensity of his feeling on this subject. He holds that economy, in connection with tax reduction and tax reform, involves the principle of conservation of national resources. A nation that dissipates its resources falls into moral decay.”

Well, that’s something to which conservatives and libertarians should pay attention.

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Bestiality and Libertarianism

Often in gay marriage debates, the question arises: If we allow gay marriage, what next? Bestiality? Conor Friersdorf—who supports gay marriage—thinks this is silly, and claims that because an animal cannot consent to sex with a human, then libertarians should not worry about the ethics of criminalizing bestiality.

Here is a good reply by Samuel Goldman at The American Conservative, which very effectively refutes Friersdorf’s point. Sure, animals don’t consent to sex—but nor do they consent to being killed and eaten, or being trapped in a house as pets, and most people don’t worry about that.

But what does this mean for libertarianism? Goldman believes that “libertarians can offer no principled defense of laws prohibiting bestiality” and that, therefore, the continued existence of bestiality laws “will be because human nature revolts against the implications of libertarianism.”

It seems correct to say that libertarians certainly cannot come up with a principled defense of anti-bestiality laws. At least, I haven’t heard one or thought of one. But I do not take that to be at all opposed to human nature.

There are two issues that Goldman’s argument mixes together.

First is the question of whether “human nature revolts” at the thought of bestiality. I think most people would say yes.

But the more important question is whether bestiality should be something that the government punishes through the criminal law. Libertarians would say no, even if they answered yes to the first question.

And how does human nature revolt against non-punishment? I don’t see lots of people clamoring to throw “zoosexuals” in prison. I don’t even see them believing that the only just response to man-on-donkey sex is that the man suffer punishment. It’s not as though people have a “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” response to bestiality, as they would for, say, theft or murder. More likely, normal people just don’t want to deal with others who have sex with animals—which, of course, they would be able to do in a libertarian society.

I’m sure Conor Friersdorf’s heart is in the right place. But I don’t think he does his cause any good when he tries to argue that, really, liberals and libertarians can find a way to criminalize bestiality. To do so blurs the line between social mores and government action, so that they are treated as essentially the same thing, and then allows the opposition to say that your position somehow “shocks the conscience” if it doesn’t allow government action to preserve social mores, as though a failure to punish bestiality amounts to support for bestiality itself.

This is important because statists use this same argument against libertarians not only for bestiality, but also when discussing things like drug use, discrimination, child labor, or prostitution—all of which libertarians want to legalize but do not necessarily condone.

Just because someone believes that something should be legal does not mean that person likes it. What really shocks my conscience is that some people would add to an already over-crowded prison system for something as frivolous as bestiality.

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Are Hipsters Natural Conservatives?

The New York Times recently published this article trashing hipsters. Like every other red-blooded American, I also hate hipsters. And indeed, the classic hipster traits that the author points out—the constant use of irony, the listening only to vinyl records, the posting pre-washed digital photos—are easy fodder for ridicule.

Still, as the author herself intimates, “hating hipsters” is itself becoming a hipster pastime. That is, the reason that hipsters love, for instance, finding bands that no one else has heard of, is because it makes them feel like they are somehow elevated above the rest of the vulgar masses. But that same desire to cultivate an aura of intellectual aloofness is now working against hipsterism itself. As more people join the search for that perfect Brooklyn-dive-bar-with-the-extra-hoppy-microbrews, hipsterism becomes an act of conformity. To feel like a non-conforming intellectual, it becomes necessary to disdain the same crowd that you once belonged to. It’s an eternal cycle: you always want to be cool, but now to cling to the thing that used to be cool is itself uncool, just because so many other people think that it is cool. And so it goes.

This same phenomenon has a lot of significance in the political realm, especially as we debate, here and elsewhere, on the futures of libertarianism and conservatism. When leftism first took over the college campuses, it was something new and edgy that could tap into young people’s desire to be different and rebellious. This is certainly no longer so. Is there anything more trite than listening to some college kid tell you how he is “tooootally okay” with all his gay friends? In the 1970s, that might have been shocking. But now it is as nearly orthodox as you can get; to “not be okay with your gay friends” is probably grounds for expulsion under most campus speech codes.

The left-wing has never really given up its 1970s understanding of itself as some embattled, idealistic vanguard. But when the last Republican president signed into law a huge expansion of Medicare, adopted a policy of “spreading democracy” overseas, fought for open borders and amnesty for illegal immigrants, oversaw a then-unprecedented increase in federal spending and national debt, and appointed the Justice who wrote the Supreme Court opinion upholding his successor’s healthcare mandate, it is hard to see leftism as anything but the establishment. And—of particular importance to the college-age hipster crowd—when 95% of college students and nearly 100% of college professors are much further to the left than anyone you’ll ever meet off campus, no reasonable person can deny leftism’s omnipresence over your life.

This means that, if you want to be edgy and intellectually different, your natural home is on the Right. In part, this might explain the high prevalence of hipsters within the Ron Paul movement. Or how Eastern European punk rockers helped spark a libertarian rebellion against communist rule behind the Iron Curtain, even while their trendy American counterparts celebrated Che Guevara and complained about the bourgeois lifestyle.

Regardless, on a college campus, nothing rocks the boat more than to say “I support laissez-faire economics” in your Intro. to Sociology class. When I did it, as a college freshman, the professor politely ordered me to stop talking.

Hopefully, as more people see leftism as a form of conformity, we will see a trend rightward among the young. As countless hipsters have noted, it is fun to be a non-conformist. The intellectual joy that I felt when I first discovered Hans-Hermann Hoppe is much like the hipster’s joy at finding some band unknown to everyone else. And, for people who really enjoy non-conformity, the derision they receive from their professors and fellow students can only be a sign that they are doing something right.

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No Compromise!: More Election Thoughts

In 2008, I was happy to see the Republicans lose. I hoped that a crushing defeat would force them to reevaluate the direction that the Party had taken during the Bush years, and to finally turn against war, the surveillance state, and economic interventionism.

Needless to say, that reevaluation never occurred. If anything, the Romney campaign represented a doubling-down on Bush’s foreign policy–a doubling-down that reached its most absurd when, in his RNC acceptance speech, Romney darkly denounced President Obama for simply “talking to,” rather than attacking, Iran.

Likewise, on the economic front, Tea Partiers are a definite improvement over the rank-and-file from the Bush years. But even still, they tend to only envision a rolling back of the regulatory state to the level it was at in, say, 1982, rather than engaging in a fundamental rethinking of the entire post-New Deal philosophy. They may dislike Obamacare, but they don’t like to question its predecessor, Medicare, too deeply. And their rush to embrace Mitt Romney, who enacted the same healthcare plan in Massachusetts that the Tea Party denounces on the national level, should give any consistent conservative or libertarian pause.

My old hope, then, that the Republicans would reevaluate themselves turned out to be totally misplaced. But if the Republicans refused to reevaluate themselves after 2008 (or 1992, 1996, or 2006), then what reason is there to think that they’ll do so after 2012?

Indeed, even if they did reevaluate and suddenly returned to being the laissez-faire, non-interventionist party of Robert Taft that I’ve been waiting to see, I am not at all convinced that that would bring them any more electoral success than they actually got. However difficult it may be for some of this blog’s intended audience to accept, the masses of people who opposed Mitt Romney did not do so because they thought he was just a watered down version of Barack Obama (as many of us did). Instead, it seems that they voted against him because they actually bought into the Democrats’ caricatures of Republicans slashing government programs, or waging a “war on women,” or something–however little these caricatures actual correspond to the reality of Romney’s political career.

Yes, it is tempting to believe that everything would go swimmingly as long as the Republicans adopted my own beliefs. But I don’t see any evidence to believe that, at this point in time, my own beliefs are nationally popular (despite smaller-scale, encouraging signs).

Many commentators take this electoral rejection of libertarian principles as evidence that the Republican Party needs to give up its appeals to the “anti-government” crowd and go back to being the “moderate” party of Eisenhower and Nixon. Apparently, according to such people, the two-party system already gives voters too many choices–what we really need are two parties that offer only oh-so-slightly different variations of the same liberal platform.

But the argument for moderation misses the hugely important fact that the choice between, for instance, increasing or decreasing taxes on the rich is not simply a question of whether the majority gets to implement its will. Indeed, what is at stake is not really a question of will at all; it is a question of economic law, which can no more be defied than can the laws of gravity.

If the majority believed that the way to achieve social prosperity was to jump out of tall buildings and flap your arms until you fly away, then people who understand physics are duty-bound to demonstrate that the majority program is doomed to failure, regardless of whether people want to listen or not. The same is true regarding economic issues, whether taxation, debt, inflation, or Obamacare. People who understand economics and fear for the fate of their neighbors should not give ground and adopt their enemies’ program. Rather, if they really care about their neighbors’ well-being, then they should continue to expose the fallacies of the majority even more vigorously than before. It was in this spirit that the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises identified as his life slogan, from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito.” (“Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it!”)

As far as economics is concerned, whether the Tea Party decides to moderate its rhetoric or whether Barack Obama can claim a mandate for higher taxes is entirely beside the point. Actions have consequences that democratic majorities cannot abolish. Higher taxes will stifle savings and investment, and therefore economic progress, regardless of whether voters want them. As Mises proclaimed, a failure to understand the economic consequences of certain political actions “will not annul economics,” but will instead simply lead to general destruction and impoverishment. (Human Action: The Scholar’s Edition, p. 881.) (For more detailed arguments on why taxing the rich is economically destructive, see, e.g., herehere, and here.)

Of course, there is little hope that the Republican Party will become an effective vehicle for these ideas. If after eight years of Bush and four of Obama the best they could give us was Mitt Romney, then I take that as ample evidence that they are incapable of changing. That’s not to say that we should neglect the opportunity to elect a Rand Paul or Justin Amash if the chance arises, or even to search for and recruit other like-minded candidates who are yet unknown. But I do believe that placing our hopes for the future on reforming the Republican Party is an enormous waste of time.

Rather, the long-term interests of libertarians and conservatives can only be served by looking “beyond the GOP.” Ultimately, politics is only the manifestation of underlying cultural and ideological forces–what people on this blog call the pre-political. If you can change people’s hearts and minds, then they will cease supporting awful people like Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, and politicians will have to adapt in turn.

Thankfully, culture is the area where libertarian ideas are meeting with their greatest success. Ron Paul became popular among the youth not by channeling Richard Nixon, as the cheerleaders for moderation would recommend, but by presenting a refreshing and radical alternative to the status quo. This is the same phenomenon that catapulted The Road to Serfdom to #1 on the Amazon bestseller list, eighteen years after its author’s death, and that made the fledgling Ludwig von Mises Institute–a tiny think-tank in the Alabama hinterlands, with no source of federal funds–a vibrant and hugely popular educational source for libertarian students and scholars all over the world.

In a sense, it is disheartening to know that there is no viable political party that represents our ideas. But the times that we live in are doing much of our recruitment for us. The manifest failures of statism are becoming clearer and clearer. As people begin to realize that persistent problems of economic stagnation, higher prices, and falling living standards are not going away, they will start looking for non-mainstream political alternatives. We see this now in Europe, although, there, popular dissatisfaction has been translating into support for fascistic parties like the Golden Dawn in Greece and for real, flesh-and-bones socialists in France.

Nevertheless, “more statism” need not be the only alternative to Obama or Romney’s middling interventionism. Our job must be to promote a plausible and humane option that people can turn to as a credible means of improving their lot. Such educational promotion doesn’t have the luster of an election campaign, but, with the political world as it is, it is the only permanent cure for statism.

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Re: The Impossibility of a Libertarian Government

I am sorry if I misconstrued John’s previous post. The mistake wasn’t an important part of my argument, but I appreciate the clarification.

That said, I don’t see any contradiction between the libertarian positions that John identifies. The idea that “big government” is in certain people’s rational self-interest is hardly novel. As far back as the Federalist Papers people understood that libertarian goals could only be achieved by not allowing personal self-interests to direct government policy.

In fact, for John’s argument to succeed, we must assume that libertarianism requires a clear majority of people–welfare dependent and rugged individualist alike–to ultimately ratify a libertarian order. But while such majority acceptance would indeed be a good thing, I don’t know of anyone who believes it to be an absolute necessity.

Constitutions, limited powers, states’ rights, nullification, secession, and privatization are all more or less successful tools of cordoning off certain realms of human existence as not subject to the numerical majority’s will. For instance, if constitutions function as they are supposed to, it doesn’t matter whether libertarians can convince enough people to forego welfare benefits, because a welfare state might not even be permissible in the first place.

Only in absolute democracies, where nothing is off limits as long as the majority wills it, does John’s argument hold. It may be that libertarians will be never be able to convince a majority of voters to join against the state. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have other, non-majoritarian means at their disposal, just as the 1960s civil rights activists did not have to convince every Klansman of their cause in order to be successful. And it certainly doesn’t mean that people aren’t driven by rational self-interest, which is a fact of existence to be proven or disproven by empirical analysis, and not by simply claiming that it leads to bad political outcomes.

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I Love the ’90s, But I Live in the Present: Post-Election Analysis, Part 1

One of the great, failed movements of the twentieth century was the attempted “paleo” alliance between libertarians and conservatives. In the mid-1990s, such libertarian intellectuals as Murray Rothbard, Hans Hoppe, Justin Raimondo, and Lew Rockwell joined forces with conservatives like Russell Kirk, Paul Gottfried, Sam Francis, and Tom Fleming to fuse conservative arguments on the importance of traditional and localized culture with libertarian critiques of the state. As Hoppe wrote in his masterpiece Democracy: The God That Failed, statism is highly corrosive of traditional, bourgeois values, which are much more likely to thrive if people are left free to order their own lives in the way they see fit. Therefore, “conservatives must be antistatist libertarians and . . . libertarians must be conservatives.” (p. 189)

Though in a strong sense elitist (the movement centered around the John Randolph Club, whose namesake famously stated, “I am an aristocrat–I love liberty, I hate equality”), the paleos also had a broad populist strain. They based much of their power on appealing  to “Middle American Radicals” (MARs): middle-class, middle-aged, largely white voters in flyover country who felt dispossessed by the bureaucratic and politically-correct federal leviathan.

Ultimately, of course, the movement fell apart, in large part due to its leaders’ outsized personalities. Hoppe gave a speech in the ’90s denouncing then-presidential candidate Pat Buchanan’s economic policies and calling Sam Francis a “national socialist.” As late as 2010, emotions were still rancorous enough that Tom Fleming would write a response to Hoppe with gems like, “I know personal loyalty does not mean much to libertarians, but that is one more sign of their insanity,” and adding that, ever since the libertarians (“impoverished dead beats”) left the Randolph Club, the club could afford to host its events in nicer hotels.

In a sense, the death of the paleo movement is disappointing. But, though I personally wish it had flourished, the election results from Tuesday make me question whether a libertarian-conservative alliance can be politically beneficial at all and whether, even if it were not for personal squabbles, the movement could have realistically lasted much longer than actually it did. (Such an alliance may, however, be culturally beneficial. I’ll have a post up in a few days on the election’s cultural/ideological significance.)

Since election day, many commentators have noted that this country isn’t what it used to be. Mass immigration of Democratic voters, combined with a marked liberalizing of younger voters on issues like gay marriage and abortion have created a sizable voting bloc for socially-liberal candidates like Barack Obama–a bloc that seems impervious to the economic arguments against him. The MARs, by contrast, do not have the voting power they once had, even as recently as the 1990s, when they gave respectable showings to Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot.

In another sense too, libertarian successes in the past few years have materialized from throwing off past affiliations with the paleo-conservatives. Though Ben recently defended Ron Paul’s “conservatism” on this blog, the Paul campaign caught fire primarily through Paul’s libertarian positions on economics, the Fed, war, and civil liberties, and by downplaying his conservative opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and open immigration.

Moreover, the people fueling his campaign’s energy were emphatically not the Middle American Radicals that the ’90s paleo movement thought would lead to a rebirth of antistatism. In fact, from my personal experience, the people most hostile to Ron Paul are those very same white, middle-aged MARs, like the members of my local Tea Party. On the other hand, the people most sympathetic were socially-liberal–or at least socially-indifferent–cosmopolitan college-age kids. Even among Cornell law students (not a demographic receptive to right-wing ideas), people generally treat me with respect when they find out that I’m a Ron Paul supporter. (“Yeah, he’s a Republican, but at least he voted for Paul instead of Bachman or Santorum”). And when Ron Paul came to speak on Cornell’s campus during the primary campaign, he filled up our entire hockey stadium, with at least a thousand or so people left outside. The people who lined up to see him were not the culturally conservative MARs that Sam Francis envisioned.

Pile that on top of the disparity between libertarian election victories and mainstream Republican election victories that I pointed out yesterday and the cultural renaissance that Austrian economics and certain classic libertarian books have been undergoing since 2008. Libertarianism isn’t yet any kind of political steamroller. But nor is it the “political masturbation” that John David derides. It has achieved real progress in recent years, and it has done so with very little help from conservatives, whose star seems ever on the decline.

All of this is to say that, when looking at Tuesday’s election results, it is hard to see how an explicit libertarian-conservative alliance is an effective political path to smashing the state, as Rothbard and Hoppe hoped it would be. I wish this weren’t so. My personal values are much more in line with those of the John Randolph Club members than they are with the average college hipster. But politics should be the art of the possible (as long, of course, as achieving the possible doesn’t contradict your ultimate goal, as would be the case, say, with voting for the statist Mitt Romney). So if libertarians are to continue their political progress, then, demographic changes being what they are, a too-close affinity with conservatives seems more harmful than good.

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More Good Election News

Yesterday, I said that conservatives and libertarians should take heart in the progress we’ve made since 2008. Today, there’s more good news.

Eight out of the twelve candidates endorsed by the Ron Paul-affiliated Young Americans for Liberty won election or reelection. I don’t know much about a lot of these candidates, and suspect that I might doubt some of their libertarian bona fides. But what matters for electoral purposes is how they are branded, and for a group of people branded as libertarians to do so well speaks volumes.

For comparison, note that Cornell Law School’s own William Jacobson compiled a list of mainstream Republican “rising star” candidates to promote. Of these, only three out of eighteen actually won, with one more in a recount. (But note also that one losing candidate, Barry Hinckley, is included in both lists.)

Hopefully, this is a sign that, as the Republican Party founders, other authentic voices of the Right need not.

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Can You Spot the Free Marketeer?

Let’s play a game.  Reading the two quotes below, can you guess which one is by New York governor Andrew Cuomo, the liberal son of a prominent Democratic governor, and which one is by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, the budget-slashing Republican who was celebrated by the Cato Institute?

Quote 1:

We will not hesitate to impose the strictest penalties on profiteers who, in direct violation of our consumer protection laws, seek to capitalize on the misfortune of others in the midst of a crisis and recovery period.

Quote 2:

“Do not try to take advantage of [our citizens],” he said, stating that if the state believes public energy and transport companies are not being diligent or doing the right thing, they could lose their certification.

Click on the links for the answer.

We might call this phenomenon “the Chris Christie effect.”  That is, it is very nice to talk about the beauty of free markets when you’re speaking to a room full of avid Republican convention delegates.  But what really matters is how you act when you actually have the opportunity to pursue a genuinely libertarian response to a real crisis.

Chris Christie has shown that, whatever he thinks of the theoretical value of free markets, he won’t trust them in practice.  I have the feeling that most other Republican politicians would do the same, if they were faced with a similar option.  But as I’ve mentioned earlier, theory is meaningless if it doesn’t lead to beneficial practical consequences.  It doesn’t matter how you talk; all that matters is how you act.

So remember Chris Christie–convention-hall libertarian, governing statist–if you’re planning on voting tomorrow for the lesser of two evils.

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Write in Ron Paul- The Only Conservative Choice

There is a peculiar hypocrisy that has been going around conservative circles in recent weeks and months: scores of genuine conservatives have dutifully lined up to vote for Mitt Romney, all the while lamenting the state of the political culture generally and the Republican Party in particular. They are convinced of two things above all else: 1) that they have no option other than voting for Romney and 2) that someone else is to blame for this sad state. They blame the mainstream media, the ever-declining culture, big business, party elites, and each other; seemingly, however, none of them stop to consider that blame lies most directly on those who continue to lend their support to a system that has shown so many times that it cannot work. If conservatives continue to vote for the Republican Party, no matter who they put forth, they have no one to blame but themselves.

Despite what you may have heard, conservatives do have a choice next week: a choice to either be on the side of the Constitution and traditional conservative values and a choice to be against them. Actually, two choices to be against them: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are actually on the same side on this issue, like virtually every other issue of any long-range consequence. Mathematically speaking, the practical effect your vote will have is negligible- it is more symbolic than anything else.

In the long run, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference which one of the two major candidates wins. The U.S. will remain on the fast track to bankruptcy. Our foreign policy will still wreak havoc abroad and fuel imperial delusions at home. The economy will eventually improve from the current depression, but the Fed will continue to cause economic turmoil in the future. Millions of unborn lives will continue to be sacrificed every year to the pagan god of “individual choice.” More and more economic and political power will be sucked into the vacuums of Wall Street and Washington, DC. More and more Americans will become reliant on an entitlement system that will become more and more untenable. Worst of all, the Constitution will continue to hemorrhage political meaning as it is undermined by Republicans and Democrats alike. If John Roberts’ decisive vote to uphold the Individual Mandate tells us anything, it is that so-called “strict constructionism” is dead on the Supreme Court.

In short, the system will continue along its current unsustainable trajectory.

There is a way out of this mess, albeit one that would require us to turn our backs on the path that both major parties have become hell-bent on walking. In order to save America in this late hour, we can no longer afford to compromise. Our national debt cannot sustain another Reagan or Bush, to say nothing of an Obama or Johnson. After decades of unsuccessful attempts at changing Washington from the inside, maybe it’s time for conservatives to finally realize that the answer to our present political crisis will not come from Washington, but from another source. In our constitutional system, the next most likely candidate for political action has always been, and will continue to be, the several states.

The question then becomes: will either of the candidates bring us closer to a country that lets the states take the lead on matters of national governance? Will either candidate be the first President in over a century to restore respect for the Constitution? Has either candidate shown any sign that they recognize the precarious position that the current trajectory has placed us in? I think not.

If my vote is to be purely symbolic and nothing else, I want to be sure that my vote will not be misidentified. Jill Stein may have some positive decentralist qualities, but overall stands for more statism than either major party candidate. The Constitution Party, as a whole, seems to be on relatively firm footing, but in selecting a candidate as mainstream as Virgil Goode, they demonstrate that they are willing to compromise political integrity in order to gain a few (and I mean a VERY few) votes. Gary Johnson has always leaned more toward the libertine side of libertarianism.

The one candidate that I can vote for without my voice being misconstrued is Congressman Ron Paul. For the past five years, he has been the most dependable national proponent for the constitution, for federalism, and for tradition- all of the values that traditionalists hold dear. He considers himself “libertarian,” but emphasizes an attendant personal moral responsibility more than Johnson does. That, combined with a lifelong demonstration of personal character, more than outweigh any distaste I might otherwise have for the misappropriation of the term “Revolution.” When I sent in my absentee ballot,  I voted for Ron Paul.

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The Great Traditionalism Debate, Part 73

The debate on this blog over rationalism vs. traditionalism has been fun so far, even though at time it has kind of an esoteric quality.  I don’t have a lot more to say on it, because I think that most of what needs to be said has already been said, and also because I don’t think my position is really as far from Ben’s as some of these posts might make it seem.  That is, we both agree on most of our substantive political goals and, as I will discuss below, I am certainly no armchair “ideologist,” as in Ben’s caricature of rationalism.  I believe that it is important to understand your own tradition, but, unlike Ben, I do not believe that doing so is the only way to be rational.

Nevertheless, there are still a few points to clean up.

First, Ben keeps arguing that reason can’t be separated from tradition.  The actual evidence for this, beyond mere assertion, is only contained in a few pithy examples.  For instance, he notes in an earlier post that if it weren’t for John Locke, the Magna Carta, and the Scottish Enlightenment, I would not be the thinker that I am today.

Okay, sure.  But so what?  The fact that I am not able to conjure up an entire, completely correct philosophy out of whole cloth is surely no argument against rationalism.  Everyone is dependent on the people who came before them–Isaac Newton famously stated that he could only as far as he could because he stood on the shoulders of giants.  But that isn’t an admission that physics is governed by tradition.  Far from it; Ben admits as much when he states that the same law of gravity that applies to us also applies to primitive tribes.  (Although admittedly, tribesmen do have a tradition of falling when they stumble over logs.)

Understanding this point also shows the error behind Ben’s insinuation that libertarian rationalists must believe that “Murray Rothbard was the first rational man,” because otherwise they couldn’t possibly explain why libertarianism wasn’t all thought up at once, centuries ago.  Of course, I don’t know of anyone who believes anything close to this.  Indeed, because libertarians tend to value the division of labor–Ludwig von Mises called it the “fundamental social phenomenon”–they easily grasp the point that Ben has missed.  Just as no one person could live entirely cut-off from society and maintain a modern standard of living, so too no one person can simply deduce the entire corpus of knowledge all on his own.

Indeed, Rothbard was heavily influenced by the Spanish Scholastics, the French classical liberals, and the American Old Right.  But, once again: so what?  That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t engaged in a rationalistic project.  Just like the physicist who deduces real-world phenomena, the social scientist can deduce the nature of man and therefore the society that is best for man without being bound by any historical tradition.  The fact that every social scientist is influenced by those who came before him is true, but does not change the nature of the project that the social scientist engages in.

Continue reading

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Traditionalism and “Transcendent Truth”

In a recent post, Joe questions whether traditionalist conservatives such as myself necessarily rule out the existence of any kind of truth that “transcends history.” Kelse, in response, gives a helpful example in asking whether traditionalists would deny the existence of universal economic laws, such as that minimum wage laws encourage unemployment.

Both Joe and Kelse seem to be taking traditionalism as saying that no universal truth can be known. If this is indeed the case, then conservatism of this sort would indeed have relatively little to offer the world. If traditionalists believed that every law of nature was subject to a random process of historical development and held no bearing over the laws of nature existing in any opposing tradition, this would be a rather dubious set of beliefs indeed. Such a philosophy would be rightfully subjected to charges of moral relativism by those who attempt to find some objective standard existing wholly outside history. For the sake of argument, let’s call the proponents of this anti-traditionalism “ideologists.”

This portrayal of traditionalism, however, misses the point by a wide margin. In turning to history, traditionalist conservatism does not deny the existence of an objective standard by which to judge particular traditions. On the contrary, the pursuit of universal truth is of ultimate importance. The key difference between traditionalists and ideologists (on both the Right and the Left) is that traditionalists attempt to locate universal truth within history, while ideologists attempt to find it existing outside of history. Traditionalism holds, as my colleague Edmund Babbitt argues quite eloquently in a separate response to Joe, that: “Universality is manifested concretely and intelligibly in the best of tradition, custom, and precedent produced through human action over time. Stated differently, universality requires particularity or historicity for existence and particularity or history requires universality for eternal meaning.”

A good example of this relationship can be found in Christianity. According to the Christian faith, God is a transcendent being and divine law exists outside of history. In order for humans to understand divine law, however, it was necessary for God to enter history in the form of a man: Jesus of Nazareth. The transcendent became historical and our understanding of divine reality is thus a thoroughly historical one. Once an element of universal truth is uncovered within a tradition, it can be applied more generally outside the tradition, although its historical nature must always be kept in mind.

All of that to say: there are some truths that the traditionalist recognizes as having universal validity. Gravity, for example, is no less of a physical reality in an indigenous tribe that has never heard of Isaac Newton. Or, to take Kelse’s example, the connection between decreased employment and minimum wage laws is no less of an economic reality in any country that favors Keynesian to Misesian economic theories.

Kelse’s minimum wage example, however, requires further examination. Although we now know that minimum wage laws lead to higher unemployment, it still remains to be proven that they should not be enacted. After all, are there economists out there who support minimum wage laws specifically because they are thought to be a good way of increasing employment? I hardly think so. Rather, the proponent of minimum wage laws might argue that they are necessary to prevent the exploitation of workers, that their benefits to those who are employed outweigh the detriments to those who are not, etc.

Eventually, in order to make a faithful argument against minimum wage laws, the libertarian will have to address the elements of a particular culture in order for his economic arguments to carry any weight. Some cultures might be conducive for startup competitors to enter the marketplace, others might not. Some cultures might have strong cultural proscriptions against mistreating your employees, others might not. Some cultures might feature a social safety net that will protect the most vulnerable members of a society, others might not.

The point here is not to argue that minimum wage laws should be enacted in some cultures; personally, I’m not sure that the benefits will ever outweigh the harm they cause. Rather, my point is that truth divorced from historical context is not necessarily true at all. “Human nature” is unchangeable and universal, but the interplay between what is generally human and what is unique to a particular culture- between nature and nurture, if you will- is far more complex than the ideologists acknowledge.

For, in eschewing history and focusing only on ahistorical “laws,” the ideologists are in constant danger of mistaking genuine cultural idiosyncrasies for universal truth. They observe some truth about human nature- a truth that is entirely contingent upon cultural and environmental factors- and from there assume that it is a truth about human nature generally. They are, in more Voegelinian terms, mistaking the “existence of order” for the “order of existence”: assuming that because a particular order exists in one culture, that this truth must “transcend history” and represent the order of all reality.

Let’s return to the example of Christianity provided above. A Christian might reasonably say, looking at the life of Christ, that “it is a universal truth that all men must love one another” or “it is a universal truth that all men need a divine Savior”; on the other hand, saying “it is a universal truth that that Savior must speak Aramaic” or “it is a universal truth that that Savior must die on a cross [a method of execution peculiar to its time and place]” would be confusing the instantiation of truth with the essence of truth.

Truth as we know it always has a historical character. We may, over time, get closer to understanding the true “order of existence,” but we do so, not primarily on the strength of our own individual reason- which is feeble and necessarily bound by our historical circumstances- but by relying on the historical truth embedded in the best of our cultural heritage. This reliance is the true essence of traditionalism.

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Should Libertarians Oppose Inconsequential Laws?

An interesting question came up yesterday that challenges my position from a previous post that libertarians should be utilitarians.

Yesterday I had a discussion with a friend over one of the ballot initiatives in Massachusetts, the so-called “Right to Repair” law.  The law forces car manufacturers to allow competing repair shops to buy technology from them which will allow the repair shops to read code generated by a customer’s car’s internal computer.  This allows the shop to diagnose vehicle malfunctions.  As it is now, only the manufacturer has the ability to read this read this code.

I stated that I oppose the law for several reasons, mainly based on the facts that the law undermines contracts between individual dealers and manufacturers, makes it less profitable for dealers to enter into exclusive relationships with manufacturers in the first place, and discourages manufacturers from incurring research and development costs to create new technology that can then be bought up by competitors.  Each of these would lead to a poorer market for consumers.

But to be fair, the real-world impact that the law would be likely to have in any of these areas is probably very small.  My friend said that, even if she accepted all of my arguments, the costs that the new law imposes on car manufacturers is so remote to her that it would still be worth it to vote “yes” to the new law.  After all, most people only enter the retail market for cars around once or twice a decade.  But they got to repair shops much more often.

How does this affect my position on utilitarianism?

Well, if we judge restrictions on freedom by their negative consequences, what about those laws, like this one, that have not much of any consequences at all?  What, for instance, should a libertarian say about the birth control ban in Griswold v. Connecticut, which was on the books but never enforced?  What about a rent control ordinance that caps rent so far above the market clearing price (say, $5 million/month) that no one would ever violate it?  Or a law regulating a dying industry like the absbestos or quill-pen industries?  If we judge laws by their consequences, does that mean we can’t make any judgments about laws with few, if any, bad consequences?

I don’t think so.  Indeed, I think everyone should oppose all the laws I’ve mentioned.

Before we start judging the utility of individual regulatory laws, it makes sense to first judge the utility of the entire concept of the regulatory state itself.  To state a few of the most obvious problems, government regulations distort the market by substituting the choices of bureaucrats for the choices of free consumers and therefore make people worse off then if they were left free to pursue their own ends.  By their involuntariness, regulations also introduce social conflict into what was once free and mutually beneficial exchange (as in subsidies or tariffs, which direct consumers’ money away from where the consumers want it and toward government-favored industries).  The fact that they can be changed at will makes it harder for people to predict the future and disincentivizes people from entering long-term contracts, given that those contracts could be negated at any time by a change in the law.  The regulatory states’ enforcement mechanism also consumes huge amounts of tax money which could otherwise by invested in more productive areas.  Moreover, taxation itself leads to a decline in net income, which means that people have less money to invest or to put toward their own futures.

When we understand this destructive nature of the regulatory state, it is no longer necessary to judge each new regulation on its own terms, entirely independent of the rest.  Rather, we can understand that, though the new car law probably won’t have a huge effect on the market, to support it is to support a principle of interventionism that has been and will continue to be hugely destructive of civilized society.

Of course, it may be difficult to find the terms to oppose seemingly inconsequential laws in any given case.  But if we fail to do so, then we risk giving up necessary ground to the interventionists.  The burden should be on them to prove why any given law is so necessary that we should support it, rather than on us to show how each of their new machinations will be harmful in any given case.

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“Why I Am a Utilitarian,” or “A Round-About Response to Ben David”

Reason magazine published a review of some new book about the Tea Party, edited by two Berkeley (!) sociologists (!!).  I haven’t read the book, but one passage from the review stands out:

Postel, the author of The Populist Vision, asks whether Tea Party groups are authentically “populist.” Setting the tone for the book, he argues that the Tea Parties cannot be legitimately understood within the late 19th century populist tradition, which he characterizes as “a democratic movement for economic justice,” because they stand fundamentally opposed to many of the original populist reforms. Instead, he says, the movement has to be understood within a right-wing history that includes the likes of the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. Authentic populists would address the concerns of the middle class, he continues, while Tea Partiers are free-market fundamentalists in league with a corporate elite, struggling to dissolve what remains of a middle-class safety net. “In this time of crisis of political economy,” he writes, “where is the populism in a movement that demands hard money and to revert to the gold standard?” (Emphasis added.)

This type of argument should be familiar to anyone who has ever spent time on a college campus.  It is also, in my opinion, one of the Left’s most annoying conceits.  It is an effort to win a debate by simply defining terms in your own favor and thereby pigeonholing the other side.  Briefly, the argument (in an admittedly cleaned-up and idealized form) goes something like this:

  1. I support Social Security because it helps the middle class.
  2. You might not support Social Security, and that’s fine, to each his own.  But if you don’t support Social Security, that means you don’t think that helping the middle class is a big priority.  Maybe you think that “only the strong should survive” or maybe you believe in some abstract right to be free from taxation.
  3. Given the above, people who support policies that help people will support Social Security, whereas people who believe in following some abstract philosophy, regardless of the horrible impact it might have on the most vulnerable classes, will oppose it.

Admittedly, conservatives and libertarians often don’t do themselves any favors in these debates.  Often, they will reply with something like, “Sure, Social Security helps people, but ‘helping’ some people by extorting the taxpayers is still immoral!”

I’m not saying that that reply is wrong (in fact, I’m fairly sure that I believe it to be right).  But the vast majority of people won’t find it convincing–most people are practical consequentialists rather than philosophers.  So in defining terms this way, the leftist almost always wins.

One of the most important projects for conservatives and libertarians, then, is not to frame arguments in terms of morality or deontology, but rather in terms of consequences and utility.  It was in this vein that Ludwig von Mises wrote (as I recall) to Fritz Machlup to say something along the lines of: “Socialism is not wrong because it is a form of theft.  If socialism were beneficial we should all hurry to embrace it.  The reason we oppose socialism so harshly is because it is destructive.” (Quoted in Jorg Guido Hulsmann, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism.  I can’t find the page number–it’s a very long book!)

In a sense, this is what conservatives have been doing all along (though they might not like the term “utility”).  Edmund Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was based primarily on the bad consequences that he thought (correctly) the Revolution would engender.  But libertarians tend to get caught up in some of the abstract rationalism of philosophers like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard and start to miss the point of what they should be arguing all along.  They think that, if they can prove that Social Security is theft, then they have refuted all the arguments in favor of it.

But in so doing, they misapprehend why we oppose theft in the first place.  Theft is not wrong just because it is theft; rather, it is wrong because its acceptance would undermine the basic values necessary to a functioning society.  To a certain extent, this proposition is so basic that it doesn’t need restating.  But it is important to remember it, because, when we phrase things this way, we can easily see that if it were possible to think up a form of theft that actually led to beneficial consequences, it is not at all clear that we should oppose it.

Moreover, I think that this understanding of “utilitarian” libertarianism is pretty much in keeping with Rand and Rothbard’s basic methodology (even if many of their other followers would disagree).  Both of their philosophies are essentially variants of natural law theory, whereby we can deduce both the nature of the human being and the nature of his or her environment, and thereby understand what kind of society is best for human beings.  Rand and Rothbard both concluded that a society that prohibits coercive force is best.  I certainly agree.  But the key point for our analysis is not the coercion is per se wrong.  It is that coercion leads to bad consequences, and, given the nature of humans and of the world, its rejection will leave people better off.

On this note, there is an exciting new undercurrent in libertarian thought–“bleeding heart libertarianism“–which attempts to use the methodology of left-wing statists like John Rawls (most notably, the idea that justice requires that all social institutions should be judged by whether they benefit a society’s least well-off members)  to reach libertarian conclusions.  I plan to have a post on this sometime soon.  Moreover, John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness is excellent exposition of this new development–particularly the “Hit Parade” section of chapter 5, where he shows how most of the greatest libertarian thinkers throughout history have been motivated by a desire to help society’s most vulnerable.  The chapter even includes Ayn Rand! (The “everyman” character Eddie Willers of Atlas Shrugged ends the book stranded in the desert after the world has fallen apart, which demonstrates how rejection of Rand’s libertarian philosophy tends to hurt everyone, not just the brilliant and heroic.)

Well, this is a lot to say in reply to a review of an inconsequential book.  But I think it also answers some of Ben’s criticisms of my own rationalism–or at least clarifies what I mean by “rationalism.”  Whereas Ben seems to think of people like Descartes and Diderot when he thinks of rationalists (that is, people who think they can deduce the entire world of knowledge by pondering in their studies), I base my rationalism on natural law theorists following in the tradition St. Thomas Aquinas as well as the later “practical” utilitarians.  That is, I take reason as my means of understanding human beings and understanding the world around them, and then applying that understanding to deduce what kinds of social arrangements are best suited to human beings’ needs.

This analysis will be inherently utilitarian.  And by its very utilitarianism, it also exposes the conceit of certain campus leftists who believe that caring for the poor or worrying about real world consequences inevitably lead one to embrace the nanny state.

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Murray Rothbard on George McGovern and Libertarian Populism

Charles Burris at posted a withering critique by Murray Rothbard on the late George McGovern today–written back in October 1972.

The true reflection of McGovernite “populism” is the statistic that no less than 39% of the delegates to the Democratic convention have attended graduate school! What we are seeing then is a naked grab for power on the part of an eager new elite of graduate students and upper-middle-class “reformers” (those who used to be called “parlor pinks.”) It is a drive to fasten a new Mandarin class of self-styled intellectuals upon the country, a class that would reach for absolute power and the crushing of other groups and indeed of the bulk of American citizens. Our current ruling classes, as reprehensible as they are, at least allow for a great deal of pluralism, and for relatively secure status for most of the groups in the population. We can see from the ruthlessness of their quota system that the McGovernite elite would be far more totalitarian and hence far more dangerous in their wielding of State power. The sooner and the more completely that the McGovernite movement is crushed to smithereens, the more viable will be the long-run climate of individual freedom in America.

The McGovernite movement is, in short, in its very nature a kick in the gut to Middle America. And yet the libertarian movement, in its program for getting the government off the backs of the individual, aims to be the fulfillment of the aspirations of that same Middle America. When Middle America, therefore inevitably responds in November by its kick in the gut to the McGovernite movement, it behooves libertarians to stand and cheer. (Emphasis added.)

Before reading this article, I would have thought that Rothbard would have supported the pro-peace McGovern.  And I’m not sure that others, who see McGovern as a conservative populist, are all wrong.  But Rothbard’s perspective is illuminating as it relates to the so-called “paleo” alliance of libertarians and conservatives, which I mentioned here before.

That is: Given that (1) libertarians want to kick the State out of each individual’s life, so that each individual may order his own life as he sees fit, and that (2) outside of a few coastal enclaves, broad swathes of the country are dispositionally very conservative, does it make any tactical sense for libertarians to ally with the modern-day McGovernite Left, if the typical “Middle American” conservative would never associate with them of his own free will?  If society is generally conservative, then a libertarian society would also be conservative, because a libertarian society would reflect the freely-chosen preferences of its component parts.

The general distaste with which most people viewed the Occupy movement provides a good case in point and indicates that, despite the country’s leftward shifts since 1972, libertarians still have little to gain by allying with the fringey Left, regardless of its views on war and civil liberties.  “Common sense” conservative populism–the kind associated with flyover country–is likely to still be the libertarian’s natural ally.

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Replicating American Libertarianism

Kelse’s response to my post “Traditionalism and Statism,” suggests that my defense of traditionalism over some kind of rational libertarianism was off-base because I focused only on the tradition that he and I share, not on traditionalism as such. Kelse suggests that, were we to focus our attention on a different culture (he gives the example of Saudi Arabia), my argument would have much less to offer it. There are three points I would like to make in response to this: 1) libertarianism as Kelse knows it is inextricably tied to a particular historical context, 2) traditionalism offers more hope for the libertarian-minded individual in Saudi Arabia than Kelse suggests, and 3) that this form of tradition-infused libertarianism actually has more to offer than does a purely reason-based libertarianism, if one can be said to exist.

Kelse readily acknowledges that his own libertarian beliefs fit relatively well into the broader Anglo-American tradition. He stops short, however, of recognizing that this is because the Anglo-American tradition gave birth to libertarianism.

Without the Magna Carta, without a Hobbesian conception of social atomism, without a Lockean understanding of property rights and religious toleration, without the Scottish Enlightenment, Kelse wouldn’t be the same thinker he is today. It is important then to note that Kelse’s beliefs do not arise “in a vacuum independent of tradition” as he argued in an earlier post. Either libertarianism is not as “reason”-based as Kelse suggests, or else reason is not as easily divorced from tradition as we are prone to believe. Either way, libertarianism has slowly grown and evolved within a particular historical context (borrowing, here and there, from minds outside the Anglo-American tradition).

Why was it not rationally deduced all at once? Did people just not think hard enough? Was Murray Rothbard the world’s first fully rational man? On the contrary, the history of philosophy would suggest that, whatever the differences in our individual reasoning capacities, all humans are in some way bound by the limits of their own tradition’s worldview: there are certain things they can and cannot see from their own particular historical vantage point. The Enlightenment notion that we have already achieved the pinnacle of human wisdom from which no further growth is possible is, from this point of view, laughably hubristic. One might then say that Anglo-American libertarianism is the best political philosophy heretofore known (which is improbable but conceivable), but one cannot say that it is the best that will ever exist.

As a traditionalist, I am proud of my culture’s accomplishments and believe that elements of its tradition have much to offer the modern world today. Yet, I do not believe that my own tradition represents any kind of grand advancement in human development. The value of my tradition is the same as the value of every other tradition: it conveys a universal truth about humanity. If a tradition has endured over hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, it must have some degree of staying power. Thus, although I might have serious spiritual, cultural, and political differences with members of the Muslim world, I would have to acknowledge that there must be something worthwhile within their tradition to allow it such longevity.

This is not to suggest that there are not aspects of every tradition that do more harm than good to a society. My primary cultural identity comes from being born in the American South. And while there are many aspects of my culture that I love deeply, there are also some unfortunate aberrations from that tradition: slavery, discrimination, and racial prejudice to name a few. Did slavery exist for so long because it conveyed some deep truth about human nature or encouraged human excellence? Obviously not. So, as a Southerner, I must make a conscious choice to emphasize some aspects of my tradition over others. In order to make this distinction, I admittedly must have some understanding of a higher good that transcends my particular historical tradition. In a sense, perhaps this is similar to what Kelse means when he talks about “reason.” That being said, I would maintain that universal truth can only be understood through historical tradition.

This leads to an important point I was attempting to make, perhaps somewhat awkwardly, in my previous post: as a traditionalist, I am not trying to perfectly recreate an instantiation of universal truth that has already existed in the past; I am attempting to reformulate that truth to fit new circumstances. In the process, I am also constantly trying to improve my own tradition.

The libertarian-minded individual living in Saudi Arabia has the option of doing the same thing. If he were to look back at his own culture and see that theocratic Islamist statism does indeed lead to human excellence, he might begin to reconsider his previous attachment to libertarianism. If, on the other hand, he finds within his own tradition some kind of cultural precursor for limited government, for individual liberty and property rights, then he has the option of building upon this tradition and pointing his culture toward the type of society he sees as best encouraging human flourishing.

Ostensibly, a distinctly Saudi Arabian form of libertarianism won’t look exactly like the Anglo-American libertarian tradition that Kelse is familiar with. Nor should it. Libertarianism in America itself originated within a particular culture. Why should Saudi Arabian libertarianism not? Or alternatively, why should we hold out hope for Anglo-American libertarianism thriving in Saudi Arabia?

Libertarianism, to the extent that it has been separated from its original cultural moorings, has proved to be a more destructive than positive influence. If the Saudi Arabians want a more libertarian culture, then they should develop one within their own cultural context.

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Not Taking the Easy Way Out

Ben’s reply to my post (which linked traditionalist conservatism with left-wing statism) focuses in large part on the benefits of the “greater” old Anglo-American tradition.  Ben argues that traditionalists like Burke actually had many libertarian inclinations, such as supporting constitutionalism and opposing imperialism.  It is in reference to the greater tradition, Ben believes, that we can recognize statism to be an aberration.

These kinds of arguments are often made by traditionalists.  I even made similar arguments myself once.  But those were just the follies of youth.  After all, what college kid hasn’t gone through an Edmund Burke phase?

I reject these arguments now, as I see that they fall into the trap of what we call, in law school lingo, “fighting the hypo.”  For example, imagine that a professor poses to me the following hypothetical question: “If you are driving drunk and hit a jaywalker, can you get the jaywalker’s lawsuit against you dismissed for contributory negligence?”  I would be “fighting the hypo” if I replied, “Well, I wouldn’t drive drunk in the first place so this situation wouldn’t arise.”  By focusing on the idiosyncrasies of one particular driver (me), I’m missing the broader principle that the hypothetical was originally posed to uncover.

Therefore, it is no defense of traditionalism to claim that the Anglo-American tradition has lots of good aspects to it.  I freely admit that, as a libertarian, the Anglo-American tradition has all the best stuff and is the best tradition to be born into.  But that’s only a nice coincidence, where my rationalist political beliefs just so happen to align with the broader tradition that I was born into–just like it is nice that, because I don’t drive drunk, I personally won’t have to worry about the jaywalker’s contributory negligence.

The real question is whether traditionalism itself is a better guide to conduct than rationalism itself.  To answer this question, it makes the most sense to look to some harder cases.

To take one such case: what if, instead of being born in Massachusetts, I had been born in Saudi Arabia?  Suppose also that I decide to spend my life in Saudi Arabia, rather than moving somewhere else and adopting a new tradition  Does that mean that, since the “greater tradition” that I was born into and live under has no hints of respect for liberty or for strong property rights, I should be an Islamist theocrat instead of a libertarian?

If so, isn’t it a problem that our answers to really important political issues–like the individual’s relationship to the state–depend on accidents of birth?  Why should my political beliefs be constrained by what tradition I happened to be born into in the first place?  If I can figure out while living in America that government power is destructive of the values necessary to a functioning society, why can’t I do the same in Saudi Arabia (assuming access to the same books as the American, translated into a language I can understand, etc.)?

Conversely, if I shouldn’t be an Islamist theocrat, then why not?  Is it because we realize that doing so would be socially and politically destructive, even though it would also be totally within the mainstream of Arabian culture going back to Biblical times?  But if that is the reason, then it seems that we have abandoned traditionalism and are now judging beliefs rationalistically.

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Conservatism and the Paul Krugman Paradox

In response to my post calling Paul Krugman a traditionalist conservative, Joe wonders whether there’s anything wrong with that.

I’m not sure whether conservatism is actually, in Joe’s words “worse off” if we consider Krugman a member. But I do believe that the argument over whether Krugman is a conservative exposes the glaring weaknesses in traditionalist conservatism that led me to my ultimate rejection of it.

There are only two resolutions to the question.  The first leads to a conservatism that I find very unattractive, and the second leads to one that I consider nonsensical.

First: we can call Krugman a conservative.

But to do so, we have to take “conservatism” to only mean, as Michael Oakeshott believed, “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, . . . the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant. . . .”  It is in this spirit that the self-described Burkean Sam Tanenhaus considers Obama’s healthcare policy to be “pure Disraeli” (The Death of Conservatism, p. 117), while the Tea Party is full of “antigovernment militants . . . [who] pine for an America that neither they nor most other living Americans can recall” (125).

But this is unsatisfactory.  Though conservatives like to point out the limits of reason, I can’t understand how reason is so limited that it would prevent us from engaging in any critique of prevailing traditions.  For instance, protectionism is one of the oldest methods for the U.S. government to collect taxes, whereas it was generally frowned on in nineteenth century Britain.  Does that mean that I should support protectionism if I live in the U.S. but not if I live in Britain?  If I can understand its bad economic effects, and understand the injustice of prohibiting trade between freely consenting parties, then why should it matter what culture I was born into?  Why can’t I say as an American that, yes, pure free trade has never been tried here (NAFTA and the IMF are more about managed globalization than free trade per se), but that if it were tried it would radically improve society and raise our standards of living, and therefore it should be tried immediately?

I see no reason why not.  I might need to be pragmatic about how I proceed, but I don’t see why human reason is incapable of picking one policy over the other, in a vacuum independent of tradition.

Alternatively: we can say that Krugman actually isn’t a conservative.

To do this, we would have to try to give conservatism a more substantive definition than the one above.  Thus, for some, being conservative means supporting a government of limited powers.  For others, it means having a government that enforces a particular conception of morality.

But either way, I don’t see how tradition plays much of a role in the outcome.  The more libertarian conservative has to argue, for instance, for limits on the federal government’s powers that haven’t existed since the New Deal–that is, which haven’t existed for the most recent third of American history.  Conversely, statist conservative, on the other hand,  might support an aristocratic politics that hasn’t been part of American history since the old Virginia planters lost political power in the early nineteenth century.

I’m not saying that either libertarian or statist conservatism is necessarily wrong.  In fact, I think that they are much more philosophically profound than Oakeshott’s conservatism.  My point is that they don’t depend much (or at all) on tradition.  Rather, they are both manifestations of abstract theory that rely for their proof on appeals to abstract reason.  And that being the case, it is hard to understand how they are really forms of conservatism at all.  They aren’t “libertarian conservatism” and “statist conservatism.”  They are just “libertarianism” and “statism,” and each one can be weighed on its own merits without the confusing appeals to tradition.

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Some Cultural Skepticism

Ben David kicked off this blog with a post on “cultural renewal.”  There’s a lot in that post—much with which I agree and much with which I don’t—and hopefully one of the themes of this blog will be to draw out some of the many implications for cultural conservatism discussed in that post.

For my part, however, I am skeptical of the entire project of “cultural conservatism” itself.

To start, it seems that in discussing “culture,” Ben is assigning an objective value to what is in fact a subjective phenomenon.  That is, it makes no more sense to me to say, “culture should follow such-and-such pattern,” than it does to say “you should like to eat lobster” or “you should enjoy Nicki Minaj’s music”—each is just a personal taste which cannot be rationally proven or disproven as right or wrong.

Continue reading

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