What does it take to turn an ordinary person into a monster? To create a mass shooter, a terrorist, a Joker?
According to Joker himself, “One bad day.”
That’s how he tells his own story in Batman: The Killing Joke, a 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. This classic origin story heavily influenced the controversial new Joker film.
Once, Joker was an ordinary man. He was trying to be a good husband, preparing to be a father, and striving to make it as a stand-up comic. But his jokes were bombing and his family was trapped in poverty. He felt like a failure. He was overwhelmed by humiliation and guilt.
Then a criminal gang offered him a way out. If he helped them with just one crime, he’d be rich. Desperate to turn his life around, he accepted.
But then, the “one bad day” happened. On the day of the planned heist, his pregnant wife died in a freak accident. He tried to back out of the criminal scheme, but the gang wouldn’t let him. Then the heist went bad. Batman showed up. Trying to escape capture, the man jumped into a pool of toxic waste. He emerged looking like an insane clown. Then he started acting like one. And he never stopped.
One bad day broke him. One bad day drove him to madness and murder.
You can imagine what a day as bad as that would do to you. I’m guessing it wouldn’t turn you into a supervillain or a serial killer. But, it might lead to serious mental health problems. Maybe anxiety. Maybe depression. Maybe worse. For a few, a major life tragedy can drive them over the edge.
Joker, Meet JBP
This raises important real-life questions. What can we do in the face of tragedy? How can we reduce suffering? How can we prevent evil?
These are challenges that Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has thought about his whole life. Peterson is a clinical psychologist, a college professor, and a YouTube superstar. Many young people say his talks have changed their lives for the better.
He has also studied evil very deeply. He has read the diaries of school shooters and researched genocides and totalitarian dictators.
What if Jordan Peterson met Joker? Imagine Dr. Peterson working as a psychologist at Arkham Asylum, where Joker spends most of his time when he’s not killing people. If Joker was Jordan Peterson’s patient, how would the real-life psychologist analyze the fictional psychopath?
The Killing Belief
First of all, Dr. Peterson would diagnose Joker with a severe case of nihilism. The dictionary defines nihilism as a rejection of “moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless.” Peterson identifies nihilism as one of the roots of much evil.
In his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life, Peterson wrote that suffering leads some to believe that life is a “joke being played on us.” This makes them resentful toward society, life, even existence itself. For some, this worldview has motivated “mass murder, often followed by suicide.”
For example, Peterson noted that nihilism and resentment motivated Eric Harris, one of the perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. Harris and his partner murdered ten fellow students before killing themselves. The day before the massacre, Harris demonstrated his nihilism when he wrote in his journal:
It’s interesting, when I’m in my human form, knowing I’m going to die. Everything has a touch of triviality to it.
And his overwhelming resentment was on display when he wrote:
“I hate you people for leaving me out of so many things (…) You had my phone, and I asked you and all, but no, no no don’t let that weird looking Eric kid come along I HATE PEOPLE and they better . . . fear me.”
Suffering leads some to embrace nihilism and resentment. And some have used their nihilism and resentment as excuses for monstrous acts.
In The Killing Joke, that is exactly what the Joker did. He used his “one bad day” as an excuse to embrace nihilism and wallow in resentment. He proclaimed:
It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… It’s all a monstrous, demented gag!
Joker also ranted about “life, and all its random injustice” and “the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random and pointless.” He deliberately chose to go insane, because, “In a world as psychotic as this… any other response would be crazy!”
Joker tried to justify his choice by performing a monstrous experiment. He tried to drive an ordinary man insane by giving him his own “one bad day.” He kidnapped Police Commissioner James Gordon and gave him the worst day of his life. (I’ll spare you the gruesome details.) He wanted to “prove a point”: that the only response to the tragic comedy of life was nihilism and madness.
But Peterson would tell Joker he’s wrong. Ordinary people can maintain morality and sanity even in the face of tragedy. Indeed ordinary people do so every day. As Peterson wrote:
I knew a man, injured and disabled by a car accident, who was employed by a local utility. For years after the crash he worked side by side with another man, who for his part suffered with a degenerative neurological disease. They cooperated while repairing the lines, each making up for the other’s inadequacy. This sort of everyday heroism is the rule, I believe, rather than the exception.
In The Killing Joke, Commissioner Gordon also proved Joker wrong. In spite of being tortured physically and emotionally, Gordon retained not only his sanity but his high ethical standards. After Batman rescued him, Gordon insisted that Joker be arrested “by the book” (legally). Even after everything he went through, Gordon did not fall into overwhelming resentment against the world, or even his tormentor. He held firmly to his code and called, not for vengeance, but for justice and the rule of law.
When Batman confronted Joker, he reported his failure to him.
Incidentally, I spoke to Commissioner Gordon before I came in here. He’s fine. Despite all your sick, vicious little games, he’s as sane as he ever was. So maybe ordinary people don’t always crack. Maybe there isn’t any need to crawl under a rock with all the other slimey things when trouble hits. Maybe it was just you, all the time.
According to Batman, ordinary people can turn away from the dark path of nihilism and resentment, even in the face of tragedy. Jordan Peterson would agree. He wrote:
Some people degenerate into the hell of resentment and the hatred of Being, but most refuse to do so, despite their suffering and disappointments and losses and inadequacies and ugliness, and again that is a miracle for those with the eyes to see it.
A Real-Life Super-Hero
Everyday heroism is indeed miraculous. And yet the human spirit is capable of even more. For example, Peterson wrote of the famous Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who:
…had every reason to question the structure of existence when he was imprisoned in a Soviet labour camp, in the middle of the terrible twentieth century. (…) He had been arrested, beaten and thrown into prison by his own people. Then he was struck by cancer. He could have become resentful and bitter. (…) But the great writer, the profound, spirited defender of truth, did not allow his mind to turn towards vengeance and destruction.
Instead of taking the path of nihilism and resentment, he chose the path of self-improvement, even while sick and imprisoned. That path led him to write a book about the horrors of the Soviet prison system called The Gulag Archipelago. This book was so powerful, so influential, that it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Russia still has political prisoners suffering abuse, but probably far fewer thanks to Solzhenitsyn.
Such a heroic response to tragedy would baffle Joker. In The Killing Joke, he said he could tell that Batman must have also had his own “one bad day.” So why, he asked, didn’t Batman “get the joke” of life? “Why aren’t you laughing?” Joker demanded.
“Because I’ve heard it before,” Batman answered, “and it wasn’t funny the first time” (and then threw Joker through a funhouse mirror).
As we all know, Batman did have “one bad day.” When he was a child, his parents were murdered right before his eyes. But unlike Joker, he refused to give in to resentment and hatred. Like Gordon, he retained his human decency. And he went even beyond that. Like Solzhenitsyn, he held himself to even higher moral standards and heroically saved others from suffering the kind of tragedy that he suffered.
Responsibility Is the Key
What’s the difference between Batman and Joker, between Solzhenitsyn and the Columbine killers? Why does suffering turn some people toward heroism and others toward monstrosity?
The biggest difference is responsibility.
Eric Harris surely had to endure some suffering and injustice, perhaps especially at school. But rather than assume any responsibility for his situation, he chose to place all the blame on others.
And Joker’s “one bad day” was largely of his own making. But he took no responsibility for it. Instead, he blamed “the world” and chose insanity as way to suppress such memories altogether.
Batman had a much better excuse to not take responsibility for his own “one bad day.” After all, he was only a child when his parents were murdered. But he assumed responsibility anyway. The memory of that night drove him to do his utmost to save others from such a tragedy.
Solzhenitsyn had a similar response to tragedy. While unjustly imprisoned, he also had a plausible excuse to only think of himself as a victim. Instead, he embraced a level of responsibility many would consider extreme. As Peterson wrote:
During his many trials, Solzhenitsyn encountered people who comported themselves nobly, under horrific circumstances. He contemplated their behaviour deeply. Then he asked himself the most difficult of questions: had he personally contributed to the catastrophe of his life? If so, how? He remembered his unquestioning support of the Communist Party in his early years. He reconsidered his whole life. He had plenty of time in the camps. How had he missed the mark, in the past? How many times had he acted against his own conscience, engaging in actions that he knew to be wrong? How many times had he betrayed himself, and lied? Was there any way that the sins of his past could be rectified, atoned for, in the muddy hell of a Soviet gulag?
Solzhenitsyn pored over the details of his life, with a fine-toothed comb. He asked himself a second question, and a third. Can I stop making such mistakes, now? Can I repair the damage done by my past failures, now?
That was the mindset that empowered him to not only survive but to change the world.
To return to the original question, what does it take to turn an ordinary person into a monster?
“One bad day” is Joker’s answer. But he’s only partly right. As Jordan Peterson tells us, it all depends on how one responds to tragedy and suffering.
If a person responds by fleeing responsibility, by sinking into nihilism and resentment, that can indeed lead to monstrous acts that perpetuate tragedy. Even if it doesn’t get that bad, that path can still make ordinary people miserable.
But if we respond by embracing responsibility, we can help prevent unnecessary tragedy and find true meaning in life.
Responsibility is what it takes to turn an ordinary person into a hero.
 In The Killing Joke, Joker said:
Remember? Ohh, I wouldn’t do that! Remembering’s dangerous. I find the past such a worrying, anxious place. (…) So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness. Madness is the emergency exit. You can always step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away forever.
Jordan Peterson would tell Joker that was a bad idea. As he wrote:
Memory is a tool. Memory is the past’s guide to the future. If you remember that something bad happened, and you can figure out why, then you can try to avoid that bad thing happening again. That’s the purpose of memory. It’s not “to remember the past.” It’s to stop the same damn thing from happening over and over.
Recurring memories are trying to teach us something. If, like Joker, we run away from bad memories, especially ones fraught with guilt, we can never learn their lessons.
The Federal Reserve is a key component of the US government’s wealth redistribution apparatus. Under the guise of “macroeconomic management,” it redistributes vast amounts of wealth on an ongoing basis through inflation. The victims of these transfers are ordinary Americans. The beneficiaries are the government and its elite cronies.
The Fed masks the nature of this surreptitious taxation and corporate welfare by performing a simple shell game that is just complicated enough to confound the general public.
First, let’s imagine the government performing this kind of inflationary transfer without the shell game.
Let There Be Money
Imagine Uncle Sam sitting at a desk, representing the Federal government. His right hand is the Treasury. It has the government’s main bank account, represented by a ledger on the desk. Uncle Sam also has revenue collecting powers, represented by a gun resting on the desk, which he uses to extort taxes from the public. Whenever he confiscates money, the cash balances of the public decline, and Uncle Sam’s ledger increases by the same amount.
Now let’s say Uncle Sam wants to raise $200 million for current expenditures: bureaucrat salaries, weapons purchases, welfare payments, etc. The problem is, the public has a limited tolerance for overt taxation. So, at a certain point, if Uncle Sam simply gestures to his gun again to levy the funds, he might face a tax revolt.
So let’s say instead of using his taxing power, Uncle Sam uses his fiat money power: his ability, based on the government’s monopoly control over the money supply, to inflate (defined here as monetary expansion). As the God of the Bible could say, “Let there be light” (in Latin, fiat lux) and it was so, the modern omnipotent State can say, “Let there be money” (fiat money or fiat pecunia) and it is so. With his right hand, Uncle Sam adds $200 million to his Treasury bank balance by simply writing it on his ledger. Voilà, he now has $200 million, simply because he says so. He can then transfer the new money to his workers, contractors, and dependents.
It would seem the public wasn’t taxed at all. Uncle Sam’s balance increased, but the cash balances of the populace did not diminish. So no skin off the backs of the people, right? Does anybody lose when the government gains in this magical way? When you think about it, somebody must lose. After all, it’s not really magic.
The true wealth of society—what actually sustains human life and makes it more comfortable and delightful—is the stuff we buy with money; not money itself. It’s the food, clothing, housing, smartphones, mountain bikes, and other consumers’ goods. It’s also the farmland, factories, robots, raw materials, labor, and other producers’ goods used to make those consumers’ goods. I covered this point in detail in my article, “How Inflation Drinks Your Milkshake.”
Creating new money does not create any additional stuff to go around. So if creating money got the government more stuff, that means others sharing the same world of scarcity must have less stuff. It’s a zero-sum game; a win-lose situation. If the government wins something through inflation, somebody has to lose. So who loses?
Well, what if the government did not have the money needed to hire the bureaucrats? Then that labor would have had to enter the private market. And what if the government couldn’t afford its weapons purchases? Then that capital would have been liquidated, even scrapped, and would have also been reallocated to the private market. So the losers include the private market actors that would have acquired the labor and resources, had they not been outbid by the government’s inflation-enhanced purchasing power.
But the government paymasters are not the only one who gained from the inflation. The bureaucrats and contractors themselves did too because their wages and selling prices were bid up higher than otherwise. And then since the government suppliers also have more money to spend, their own workers and suppliers benefit similarly.
Does that mean that as the new money filters through the economy’s supply chains, everybody’s selling prices get bid up? Yes, that’s an alternative definition of “inflation”: the general rise in prices caused by monetary expansion. But does that make everybody better off? That is impossible because, again, that would mean more stuff had been created when it wasn’t.
The new money reaches some people early and some people late. By the time the new money reaches the late receivers, bidding up their selling prices, it has already bid up the prices of the things they buy to an even greater extent. So the late receivers get poorer, while the early receivers get richer. (In economics, these are called “Cantillon effects.” For more about this process, see my inflation essay mentioned above.)
The Art of Plucking the Goose
And the earliest receivers always include the government and its partners, while the late receivers are usually workers and small business owners who don’t have such lofty connections. So these “commoners” are effectively taxed for the benefit of the government-connected elite. But, since the taxation was effected through inflation, the public doesn’t realize that. They know they are poorer, but not why. They never saw a tax bill or had to cut a check. They just see their wages and revenue fail to keep pace with the rising costs of living and costs of doing business. And as a result, they see their ability to get actual stuff diminish. But they don’t see the government’s role in it.
Instead of obnoxiously demanding that the public hand over its wealth, the government just quietly siphons it away. This way it avoids public outrage and resistance, and so is able to maximize the loot. As Jean Baptiste Colbert (finance minister to King Louis XIV of France) put it, “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to get the most feathers with the least hissing.” With inflation, the geese hardly hiss because they think they are simply molting and are unaware they are even being plucked.
Yet, it is in the hands of central bankers that the art of taxation truly nears perfection. The inflation tax is sneaky, but by itself, it’s not quite sneaky enough. Even with inflation’s quiet method of wealth transfer, the jig would eventually be up if the government simply kept adding to its own account. Even if people don’t realize how they are losing, they can see that the government is simultaneously gaining, which would be suspicious. That correlation needs to be blurred somehow, else the more astute geese will start honking. That’s where Uncle Sam’s shell game comes in.
The Game’s Afoot
Let’s say instead of the Treasury creating the $200 million, it borrows it from an investment bank, like Goldman Sachs. Let’s see if, working together, Uncle Sam and Goldman can inflate, and both come out richer with a stroke of a pen, at the expense of the public, without it being clear that they did.
To borrow the funds, Uncle Sam’s Treasury right hand writes on a piece of paper: “IOU $200 million.” That represents a bond issue. Goldman lends the government money by purchasing the bonds. $200 million transfers from Goldman’s ledger to Uncle Sam’s. And in return, Uncle Sam gives Goldman a transferable IOU which gives the holder the right to collect $200 million from Uncle Sam later, plus interest. Then, the Uncle Sam transfers the newly borrowed $200 million to his bureaucrats, contractors, and dependents. And now the Treasury owes Goldman $200 million plus interest.
But that’s where Uncle Sam’s left hand finally comes into play (shell games usually require two hands). His left hand is the Federal Reserve. In the US government’s real-life arrangement, it is the Fed, not the Treasury, that has the power to create new money.
Now the Fed goes shopping for government debt. Lo and behold, it finds that Goldman Sachs is selling $200 million in Treasury bonds. Let’s say the Fed then pays $205 million for the bonds, giving Goldman a tidy profit. But, of course, the Fed has its own peculiar way of paying. Uncle Sam just reaches over with his Federal Reserve left hand and credits Goldman’s account $205 million by simply writing it directly on the investment bank’s ledger. Keep your eye on the ball! That money was conjured out of thin air. That is where the inflation occurs in the slightly more elaborate process. “Fiat pecunia!” says Fed Chair “Hermione” Yellen. For all its technocratic jargon, this sleight-of-hand is pretty much the only “magic” trick the Fed knows.
It Owes It to Itself
Now let’s review. Who benefits? Goldman Sachs has $5 million in profit. And Uncle Sam was able to pay off his crew. At what cost? Well, the Federal Reserve has $200 million in Treasury IOUs. But that only means the Treasury owes the Fed $200 million plus interest. In other words, Uncle Sam’s right hand owes his left hand some money. But it’s all Uncle Sam; it’s all the same government. As Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff has pointed out:
Yes, the Treasury pays interest and principal to the Fed on the bonds, but the Fed hands that interest and principal back to the Treasury as profits earned by a government corporation, namely the Fed.
Uncle Sam gave up nothing. There are no costs for the government or its buddies. They are simply enriched. And again, inflation cannot enrich early receivers of new money without commensurately impoverishing the late receivers. The monetary expansion simply aggrandized the government, its bureaucrats, its contractors, and (now) its banking buddies at the expense of the general public, just as it did in the simpler example.
But that is not clear to most observers, because they get distracted and confused by the Treasury/Fed/private bank shell game that Uncle Sam plays. The thinking goes: “Well, the Treasury isn’t getting something out of nothing, because it’s just borrowing, which means it’ll have to pay it back. And Goldman Sachs is getting new money, but that’s not for nothing either, because it’s selling a bond; it makes sense that they would accrue a profit. And the Fed is doing the money creation, but that’s not going directly to government spending. It’s just compensating Goldman Sachs for its investment. Also, I heard on CNBC that the Fed’s open market operations stabilize the price level and minimize unemployment. Anyway, it’s all very complicated and technical. But they’re the experts, and I’m sure they’re just looking out for us.”
It’s all a con and a cheap one at that. Unfortunately, sometimes the most successful con artists are the ones who keep it simple. Retrieved from FEE.org.
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith famously wrote of humanity’s “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” Smith noted that trade is a characteristic mark that distinguishes humankind from all other creatures:
“It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any other species of contracts. (…) Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that.” [Emphasis added here and henceforth.]
In the blockbuster 2015 book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari pointed out that our species has conducted intergroup trade for tens of thousands of years, but that other species of hominids never did:
“Archaeologists excavating 30,000 year old Sapiens sites in the European heartland occasionally find there seashells from the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. In all likelihood, these shells got to the continental interior through long-distance trade between different Sapiens bands. Neanderthal sites lack any evidence of such trade. Each group manufactured its own tools from local materials…”
He argues that this is what gave homo sapiens a decisive competitive advantage over our distant cousins, who in some cases actually had bigger brains than us.
However, Harari is not the first to make this argument. In his 2010 book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Matt Ridley made and elaborated on the same point and the same argument. Ridley also noted the archaeological evidence of far-flung trade networks among homo sapiens.
Ridley helpfully distinguishes between true trade and the other kinds of reciprocity that occur throughout the animal kingdom:
“I am not talking about swapping favours — any old primate can do that. There is plenty of ‘reciprocity’ in monkeys and apes: you scratch my back and I scratch yours. (…) Such reciprocity is an important human social glue, a source of cooperation and a habit inherited from the animal past that undoubtedly prepared human beings for exchange. But it is not the same thing as exchange. Reciprocity means giving each other the same thing (usually) at different times. Exchange — call it barter or trade if you like — means giving each other different things (usually) at the same time: simultaneously swapping two different objects. In Adam Smith’s words, ‘Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want.’”
Inventing inter-band trade was quite an achievement, Ridley remarks, especially given:
“…the homicidal relationships between tribes. Famously, no other species of ape can encounter strangers without trying to kill them, and the instinct still lurks in the human breast. But by 82,000 years ago, human beings had overcome this problem sufficiently to be able to pass Nassarius shells hand to hand 125 miles inland.”
Ridley compares the trade networks of our ancestors to the isolationism of Neanderthal bands:
“This is in striking contrast to the Neanderthals, whose stone tools were virtually always made from raw material available within an hour’s walk of where the tool was used. To me this is a vital clue to why the Neanderthals were still making hand axes, while their African-origin competitors were making ever more types of tool. Without trade, innovation just does not happen. Exchange is to technology as sex is to evolution. It stimulates novelty.”
“The remarkable thing about the moderns of west Asia is not so much the diversity of artefacts as the continual innovation. There is more invention between 80,000 and 20,000 years ago than there had been in the previous million. By today’s standards, it was very slow, but by the standards of Homo erectus it was lightning-fast. And the next ten millennia would see still more innovations: fish hooks, all sorts of implements, domesticated wolves, wheat, figs, sheep, money.”
Neanderthals were individually stronger than us and had bigger brains. They were clever enough to make tools and weapons, to speak, to think conceptually, to create art, and to develop culture. But, they were incapable of trade relations outside the familial band, and that doomed them to many millennia of economic and technological stagnation.
Ridley also discusses another hominid species who used basically the same hand axe technology for a million years:
“By the time of the Boxgrove horse butchers, their ancestors had been making it to roughly the same design — hand-sized, sharp, double-sided, rounded — for about a million years. Their descendants would continue to make it for hundreds of thousands more years. That’s the same technology for more than a thousand millennia, ten thousand centuries, thirty thousand generations — an almost unimaginable length of time.”
“Not only that; they made roughly the same tools in south and north Africa and everywhere in between. They took the design with them to the Near East and to the far north-west of Europe (though not to East Asia) and still it did not change. A million years across three continents making the same one tool. During those million years their brains grew in size by about one-third. Here’s the startling thing. The bodies and brains of the creatures that made Acheulean hand axes changed faster than their tools.”
Ridley characterizes the rise of Homo sapiens as follows:
“Then there appeared upon the earth a new kind of hominid, which refused to play by the rules. Without any changes in its body, and without any succession of species, it just kept changing its habits. For the first time its technology changed faster than its anatomy. This was an evolutionary novelty, and you are it.”
For this reason, Ridley nicknames us Homo dynamicus. This dynamism did not come from our large individual brains, which again was not unique. According to Ridley, our massive “collective brain,” the spontaneous-order quasi-intelligence that emerged out of vast trade networks. This giant collective brain may in turn, however, be a product of an evolutionary “non-size” upgrade in our individual brains that gives us the capacity to make “this-for-that” exchanges.
Trade among homo sapiens led to the first-ever division of labor among strangers, which fostered intense specialization, and thus expertise. This expertise, this large-scale economic cooperation among strangers, and the intergroup exchange of technological ideas across far-flung networks of minds stimulated and maintained a rapid accumulation of technologies that, for the first time ever, persisted across generations.
Our ever-improving toolkits, plus the productive efficiencies of the division of labor itself, led to the first appearance of “progress” on the planet. For the first time in the history of life on earth, cultural evolution outpaced biological evolution.
And it all stems from our capacity to trade. Adam Smith was onto something. Trade is what makes us human. Perhaps the most apt name for our wondrous species would be Homo cattalactus.
This article was originally published at FEE.org. Read the original.
undreds of liberty-loving students, professionals, and entrepreneurs recently gathered in Atlanta for the first-ever FEEcon, an event celebrating the ideas of freedom and free enterprise. Judging from attendee feedback, it was a smashing success.
But it raises an interesting question. A skeptic might ask, “Isn’t a gathering of individualists a contradiction in terms?” Such a critic might have been even more flabbergasted had he attended. The conference was successful, not only because of meticulous planning (perhaps another shocking word in this context), but because of the communal spirit of the attendees.
Here were freedom-minded individualists following instructions and schedules, adhering to rules, moving in groups, and behaving conscientiously toward each other.
Here were apologists for capitalism generously sharing ideas and their precious time with one another, generally without the promise of pay.
Many of those who shared most generously were admirers of Adam Smith, who famously wrote of the importance of self-interest, and of Ayn Rand, who explicitly denounced altruism and even wrote a book titled “The Virtue of Selfishness.”
What explains this seeming paradox? How can adherents of a philosophy so preoccupied with the prefix “self” (self-interest, selfishness, self-ownership, self-reliance, etc) be so considerate and solicitous toward others? Wouldn’t you expect them to be narcissistic and misanthropic, miserly and hermit-like?
The truth is, the self-interest-centered individualism of the centuries-old classical liberal tradition has never been antisocial. Indeed, from the beginning, one of its main objectives has been to explain and promote human communities.
Adam Smith, one of liberalism’s founding fathers, analyzed the effects of “self-love” for the purpose of explaining how a market society works. He famously wrote in the Wealth of Nations (emphasis added):
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.”
Smith explained how, through the market, the private “selfishness” of the individual inadvertently advances the public good:
“Every individual… neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”
Many consider this aspect of the market society to be excessively calculating, even cynical, leaving no room for authentic fraternity. Some go so far as to demand the abolition of capitalism in favor of socialism in order to fully restore benevolence and the intentional promotion of the public interest in the hearts of humankind.
Others grudgingly concede the necessity of self-interest in economic matters, but want to keep it quarantined in the marketplace, and even there to have its excesses mitigated by “public-minded” governmental and moral regulation. They seek to exclude toxic self-interest from the non-commercial aspects of society: from matters of friendship, family, civil society, etc. In these realms, altruism must reign, lest self-interest breed destructive antagonism.
As some skeptics of the free market have eagerly pointed out, even Adam Smith regarded selfless benevolence as an essential part of the human condition. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, he wrote:
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”
20th Century Selfishness
Yet, Ayn Rand and her protege Nathaniel Branden (who co-authored The Virtue of Selfishness) would have none of such half-measures. Rand’s Objectivism was not merely a political and economic doctrine, but a thoroughgoing life philosophy. And according to it, altruism was an absolute vice, and selfishness an unmixed virtue.
And Harry Browne, in his popular book How I Found Freedom In an Unfree World, also advanced a profoundly self-oriented life philosophy. His idea of personal freedom entailed a complete psychological emancipation of the individual from the demands of others, and a careful avoidance of what he called “the unselfishness trap.”
These 20th-century strands of individualism were even more radically self-oriented and anti-altruistic than their 18th-century predecessors. Many consider them to be a bridge too far: perhaps several bridges. To them, Smithian self-interest was already unpleasantly calculating, but Randian selfishness goes to noxious and antisocial extremes. Many blame such schools of individualist thought for the Reagan-era rise of capitalist greed that, to this day, threatens to sink the world economy in a whirlpool of rampant fraud and predatory business practices.
Are these concerns well-founded? Does selfish individualism need to be tempered by the imposition of at least some selfless collectivism, lest the Gordon Gekkos of the world drive the world to destruction while spouting “greed is good”? Does the wild ego need to be tamed, if not by governmental checks, at least by moral hectoring to guilt-trip individuals into considering the well-being of the tribe?
Rand, Branden, and Browne certainly didn’t think so.
As Ayn Rand wrote:
“Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights…”
Nathaniel Branden pointed out that:
“Contrary to the belief that an individualistic orientation inclines one to antisocial behavior, research shows that a well-developed sense of personal value and autonomy correlates significantly with kindness, generosity, social cooperation, and a spirit of mutual aid…”
And Harry Browne clarified that:
“An efficiently selfish person is sensitive to the needs and desires of others. But he doesn’t consider those desires to be demands upon him. Rather, he sees them as opportunities — potential exchanges that might be beneficial to him. He identifies desires in others so that he can decide if exchanges with them will help him get what he wants.”
Self-Interest and Honest Business
As individualists have long emphasized, self-interest draws individuals toward mutually advantageous exchanges: toward “doing business” with one another.
Moreover, contrary to the caricature of the greedy businessman who would sell his own mother down the river for an extra buck, self-interest also draws individuals toward doing honest business with each other.
And this is not mainly because they are self-interested in staying out of jail. As Edward Peter Stringham demonstrated in his book Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life, what keeps businesspeople honest is not regulation (which actually fosters moral hazard), nor even primarily the government enforcement of contracts or laws against fraud. What primarily disincentivizes commercial criminality is what Adam Smith called “the discipline of continuous dealings.” As Stringham wrote:
“According to Smith, with repeated interactions people have an incentive to follow through with their contracts or else others will not want to deal with them.”
And such reputational concerns are a matter of self-interest: of the realization that, for the sake of one’s own interests, “honesty is the best policy,” as is justice in general.
Self-Interest and Human Society
Indeed, human society itself originated out of self-interest, and not, as some claim, out of a human capacity for pure, selfless benevolence. As Ludwig von Mises wrote in Human Action:
“Within the frame of social cooperation there can emerge between members of society feelings of sympathy and friendship and a sense of belonging together. These feelings are the source of man’s most delightful and most sublime experiences. They are the most precious adornment of life; they lift the animal species man to the heights of a really human existence. However, they are not, as some have asserted, the agents that have brought about social relationships. They are fruits of social cooperation, they thrive only within its frame; they did not precede the establishment of social relations and are not the seed from which they spring.”
In other words, society is a prerequisite for, not a result of, selfless benevolence. The ultimate source of society, according to Mises, is the human individual’s pursuit of his own improved sustenance, security, and flourishing through the division of labor:
“The fundamental facts that brought about cooperation, society, and civilization and transformed the animal man into a human being are the facts that work performed under the division of labor is more productive than isolated work and that man’s reason is capable of recognizing this truth.”
This is necessarily the case since:
“But for these facts men would have forever remained deadly foes of one another, irreconcilable rivals in their endeavors to secure a portion of the scarce supply of means of sustenance provided by nature. Each man would have been forced to view all other men as his enemies; his craving for the satisfaction of his own appetites would have brought him into an implacable conflict with all his neighbors. No sympathy could possibly develop under such a state of affairs.”
Only the abundance offered by the division of labor could have ever led pre-humanity to extricate itself from the dog-eat-dog law of the jungle, the Hobbesian war of all against all, the state of “nature, red in tooth and claw.” And only to the degree that such an escape was made was the luxuries of friendliness and a spirit of community extending beyond the pre-human pack even conceivable. Again, Mises:
“What makes friendly relations between human beings possible is the higher productivity of the division of labor. It removes the natural conflict of interests. For where there is division of labor, there is no longer question of the distribution of a supply not capable of enlargement. Thanks to the higher productivity of labor performed under the division of tasks, the supply of goods multiplies. A preeminent common interest, the preservation and further intensification of social cooperation, becomes paramount and obliterates all essential collisions.”
Humans become “socialized,” not by sacrificing their own interests for the sake of a deified abstraction called society, but by pursuing their own self-interest through harnessing the division of labor, which is almost always more productive than isolated labor owing to the Law of Comparative Advantage. As Mises put it:
“If and as far as labor under the division of labor is more productive than isolated labor, and if and as far as man is able to realize this fact, human action itself tends toward cooperation and association; man becomes a social being not in sacrificing his own concerns for the sake of a mythical Moloch, society, but in aiming at an improvement in his own welfare.”
Man is, as Aristotle said, the social animal, not because he is kind-hearted and community-minded. Homo sapiens is social, kind-hearted, and community-minded precisely because he is sapient: wise enough to understand that his own interests are better served through cooperation and peace than through isolation and predation.
And according to Mises, the pursuit of self-interest through the division of labor not only explains the origin of society, but its continued evolution:
“The factor that brought about primitive society and daily works toward its progressive intensification is human action that is animated by the insight into the higher productivity of labor achieved under the division of labor.”
Economic partners will not want to continue dividing their labor with you if you murder their brothers, abduct and enslave their children, or raid their storehouses. Thus the self-interested pursuit of the division of labor fosters the discipline of continuous dealings, which in turn drives the development of such basic societal norms as the general renunciation of murder, kidnapping, and theft (also known as the rights to life, liberty, and property). It also drives the development of less-fundamental norms like manners, which further grease the gears of cooperation and decrease social friction.
Self-Interest and Education
This explains the rise of friendly norms in broad strokes, but how does it actually occur on the individual level?
The individual’s basic character—the way she habitually deals with fellow humans, including her basic moral principles, her manners, and her other social virtues—is formed in childhood through education.
By “education,” I do not mean “schooling.” Education is social learning: learning from others, whether through listening, observation, or interaction. Education occurs with or without school. (In fact, virtually all schooling has been an outright hindrance to education.)
Many assume that the way to educate and “socialize” a child is by conditioning her to suppress her self-interest: to foster in her due regard for others through paternalistic controls, exercises, rewards, and admonishments. The idea is that, without being inculcated into a certain degree of selfless benevolence and concern for the collective, a child’s natural, unchecked self-interestedness will make her narcissistic, cold, cruel, and in some cases even sociopathic.
“Social play (that is, all play that involves more than one player) is, by its very nature, a continuous exercise in cooperation, attention to one another’s needs, and consensual decision-making. Play is not something one has to do; players are always free to quit. In social play, each player knows that anyone who feels unhappy will quit, and if too many quit, the game ends. To keep the game going, players must satisfy not only their own desires but also those of the other players. The intense drive that children have to play with other children, therefore, is a powerful force for them to learn how to attend to others’ wishes and negotiate differences. Research in our culture has shown repeatedly that even preschool children engage in enormous amounts of negotiation and compromise in the context of play…”*
In free play, playmates have the right to quit, just as in the free market, potential economic partners “reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” So the self-interested pursuit of play, like the self-interested pursuit of the division of labor, fosters the discipline of continuous dealings, which in turn cultivates the childhood development of morality and manners. Playmates will not want to continue playing with you if you hurt their bodies with blows or hurt their feelings with cruel words.
It is through the experience of actually socializing, and not through adult finger-wagging, that children truly learn what kind of behavior is prosocial (that which wins, preserves, and builds relationships with playmates) and what kind of behavior is antisocial (that which drives playmates away). Children are naturally play-loving, so they have every interest in adopting pro-social/pro-play behavior. When this behavior becomes habitual it becomes what we call the child’s burgeoning “character” and “personal code of conduct.”
The self-interested pursuit of free social play is how children learn morality and manners, in order to win friends and influence playmates. Tragically, for over a century, the compulsory schooling movement has been waging an ever-growing war on free social play. This war has fully enlisted parents as well, as manifested in the present-day ubiquity of helicopter parenting. The decline of play has contributed to a wide range of emotional and psychological problems, especially among young people today.
Self-Interest and Generosity of Spirit
In the 1930s, Dale Carnegie wrote a book that has, ever since, informed adults about the basic social principles they could have learned as a small child through enough free social play, and that could have been reinforced by later work experience (which has since been all-but abolished for minors).
Anyone who has read Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People knows that the book basically counsels the reader to be abundantly friendly, kind, considerate, and solicitous toward others. Such advice might be found in any book of morals. But what has made Carnegie’s book such a perennial bestseller and such a life-changing read for generations of people is that, through case study after case study, he convincingly shows how such conduct is exceedingly good for business and leads to a flourishing, happy life. The convincing presentation motivates readers to actually try out Carnegie’s advice, and they invariably discover that it works like a charm.
There is no unit of account for social capital.
As Carnegie’s readers see confirmed by experience, behaving in a friendly and generous way toward others they encounter in their lives is in their own self-interest, because it builds good favor, or what is known today as “social capital,” and such social capital generally yields exceedingly good returns. For people who try it long enough, being friendly and generous eventually becomes a habit, and even a source of immediate pleasure, and thus an end in itself.
The universal effectiveness of Dale Carnegie’s teachings should put to rest the concern that self-interest, unchecked by governmental regulations or moral dogmas, would at worst break down society, and at best create a coldly calculating one. There is no unit of account for social capital. And one can’t be consistently friendly and generous without learning to love it and without it becoming second nature.
The Paradox of Self-Love
Thus, it makes perfect sense that a conference full of self-interested, commerce-oriented individualists and entrepreneurs would go so swimmingly. While others may strive for self-aggrandizement through the exercise of power (perhaps excused by posing as victims) and through vanity-infused virtue signaling, individualists are more likely to seek self-advancement through voluntary exchange, which includes not only formal trades, but the loose reciprocities of courtesy and friendship.
When it is not simply a matter of neurotic and compulsive obedience to expectations (and there is nothing commendable about compulsory virtue), conspicuous altruism is often paradoxically a vehicle for a posturing and self-righteous moral narcissism.
The flipside of this paradox is that what Adam Smith called “self-love” is actually the only solid bedrock for an authentic love of one’s fellow humans, as well as the only firm foundation for a friendly and flourishing society.
*Gray cites the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky to further elaborate how morality emerges out of play:
“Play is freely chosen activity, but it is not free-form activity. Play always has structure, derived from rules in the player’s mind. (…)
To play is to behave in accordance with self-chosen rules. (…)
…every form of play involves a good deal of self-control. When not playing, children (and adults, too) may act according to their immediate biological needs, emotions, and whims, but in play they must act in ways that they and their playmates deem appropriate to the game. Play draws and fascinates the player precisely because it is structured by rules the player herself or himself has invented or accepted. The student of play who most strongly emphasized play’s rule-based nature was the above-mentioned Vygotsky. In an essay on the role of play in development, originally published in 1933, Vygotsky commented on the apparent paradox between the idea that play is spontaneous and free and the idea that players must follow rules:
‘The . . . paradox is that in play [the child] adopts the line of least resistance— she does what she most feels like doing because play is connected with pleasure— and at the same time she learns to follow the line of greatest resistance by subordinating herself to rules and thereby renouncing what she wants, since subjection to rules and renunciation of impulsive action constitute the path to maximum pleasure in play. Play continually creates demands on the child to act against immediate impulse. At every step the child is faced with a conflict between the rules of the game and what she would do if she could suddenly act spontaneously. . . . Thus, the essential attribute of play is a rule that has become a desire. . . . The rule wins because it is the strongest impulse. Such a rule is an internal rule, a rule of self-restraint and self-determination. . . . In this way a child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action and morality.’
Vygotsky’s point, of course, is that the child’s desire to play is so strong that it becomes a motivating force for learning self-control. The child resists impulses and temptations that would run counter to the rules because the child seeks the larger pleasure of remaining in the game. To Vygotsky’s analysis, I would add that the child accepts and desires the rules of play only because he or she is always free to quit if the rules become too burdensome. With that in mind, the paradox can be seen to be superficial. The child’s real-life freedom is not restricted by the rules of the game, because the child can at any moment choose to leave the game. That is another reason why the freedom to quit is such a crucial aspect of the definition of play. Without that freedom, rules of play would be intolerable.”
Why did human beings slaughter each other by the thousands during World War I, a conflict of unprecedented mass savagery in which an entire generation of young men decimated itself and inflicted atrocities on civilian populations full of women, children, and the elderly?
In the movie Wonder Woman, the heroic Amazon princess Diana believes that an evil god is to blame.
Ares, god of war, is the son of Zeus, king of the gods and creator of the human race. Ares loathes his father’s creatures and throughout history has striven to eradicate them by pitting humankind against itself in ceaseless, internecine wars. Before dying at the hand of his son, Zeus created the Amazons to thwart Ares and bring peace to humanity.
God of War
In 1918, Diana learns of the Great War from Steve Trevor, an American spy she rescues from drowning in the waters surrounding the hidden island home of the Amazons. Trevor immediately informs Diana that he is one of the “good guys,” and the Germans chasing him are the “bad guys.” Diana readily swallows this simplistic characterization of World War I, as do the filmmakers.
Diana becomes convinced that the Germans (and the Germans alone) are under the supernatural sway of the god of war. She resolves to fulfill the destiny of her people by destroying Ares, thus freeing the Germans, and humanity in general, from his baleful influence: from the grip of war. She believes doing so will end the Great War, which would truly make it “the war to end all wars,” as Trevor calls it, and as many of its real-world “progressive” proponents (including Woodrow Wilson and H.G. Wells) promised it would be.
Warning: Spoilers below.
Later, Diana’s worldview is shattered when she finally encounters Ares, and he reveals to her that he was never responsible for humanity’s bloodlust. The only part he played was to subliminally transmit ideas for new, deadlier weapons to key generals and scientists. He gave them the designs for weapons, but humans decided on their own to make them and use them on each other.
Humans, Ares tells Diana, are inherently warlike, because they are “selfish” and “weak,” which is precisely why he is hellbent on their extinction. Humans, he insists, are unworthy of Diana’s valorous protection; she should instead join forces with her fellow god to exterminate them once and for all. Then the earth, so long despoiled by mankind, will again belong to the gods alone and can be renewed as the paradise it was meant to be.
Although she at first despairs at learning the truth, Diana refuses his offer, proclaiming that whether humanity “deserves” her heroic help is irrelevant; she offers it out of unconditional love. She accepts that humanity may be forever warlike, but she will at least mitigate the harm it can inflict on itself by slaying the god who is whispering weapons schematics into their ears.
The big “lesson” of Wonder Woman resonates with a common tendency to identify weapons themselves as the key problem to be dealt with in matters of violence.
With violent crime, many blame the availability of guns, and so advocate domestic policies ranging from registration, to “gun-free zones,” to outright civilian disarmament.
And with war atrocities, many see the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) as the problem, and so advocate foreign policies ranging from sanctions, to strikes, to invasions of countries that possess or seek WMDs.
In 2003, for example, the primary justification for the invasion and occupation of Iraq was the false contention that its government still possessed WMDs and was seeking to manufacture more. Hussein had long been cast as a Hitler-like villain for gassing rebellious Iraqi Kurds in the Halabja Massacre of 1988. After Saddam’s overthrow, his cousin, nicknamed “Chemical Ali,” was tried, convicted, and condemned to death for the attack. No such trial was held for any of the Reagan administration officials who had helped provide Saddam with the chemical weapons used in the attack in order to aid Iraq in its bloody invasion of Iran.
In more recent years, hawks have called for military intervention in Syria based on unproven allegations that its government possesses WMDs and has used them against rebels and civilians in that country’s civil war. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have declared the use of chemical weapons to be a “red line.” Obama nearly enforced that red line in 2013, after an alleged sarin gas attack by the Syrian regime, and in April of this year Trump launched airstrikes following another such allegation.
Gas weapons are also the chief threat throughout Wonder Woman. Steve Trevor’s mission from the beginning was to prevent the Germans from developing and using a new weaponized gas that can eat through Allied gas masks: a chemical WMD formulated by the disfigured scientist Isabel Maru (aka “Doctor Poison”) under the supervision of the evil General Erich Ludendorff.
While Trevor is focused on the WMD, Diana believes that the hostility inspired by Ares (whom she thinks is disguised as Ludendorff) is the underlying issue, and so wants to focus on finding and destroying him.
Later it is revealed that both Maru and Ludendorff got their weapons ideas from Ares. Thus, Steve and Diana were both right in a sense. Ares was largely to blame, but in his role as a weapons-provider, not as an embodiment of belligerence.
Bleeding Heart, Bloody Sword
As the film clearly depicts, Diana’s determination to destroy Ares and bring an end to war is motivated by a heart that bleeds for war’s victims. In an Allied trench, she learns of the suffering of civilians in a nearby German-occupied village. In defiance of Trevor’s insistence on continuing the mission without delay, Diana springs into action, leading an assault that overruns the German trenches and liberates the village.
Diana’s humanitarian intervention is reminiscent of the “idealistic” adherents of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) foreign policy doctrine, who righteously denounce “realists” for refraining from intervening to prevent atrocities for the sake of long-term strategic objectives.
The most strident champion of this doctrine is Samantha Power, author of the R2P bible A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide (which condemned America’s failure to prevent atrocities in Iraq, Rwanda, Kosovo and elsewhere) and the Obama administration official who, along with Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, led the charge in Washington for America’s humanitarian war in Libya in order to prevent an allegedly imminent “genocide.” (See my profile on Power, “The Hell on Earth Paved by Samantha Power’s Good Intentions.”)
Wonder Woman, who throughout the film racks up quite a body count of conscripted German youths, is not so much a princess of peace as she is a valkyrie for “humanitarian” war: a Samantha Power with super-powers and a magic sword.
The moment in the movie when Diana’s heart bleeds most profusely is when she fails to prevent a German gas attack that completely massacres the village she had just liberated. The sight of the victims is tactfully obscured by gas clouds, but Diana’s anguish is nonetheless evocative of the all-too-understandable distress felt by Americans (including, momentously, Trump himself) upon seeing images of Syrian gas victims show up in their Facebook feeds.
These heartstrings are played with relish by a warmongering media that neglects to inform the public of Washington’s own role in bringing about these atrocities, or about the innocent suffering and death that would result from increased intervention: especially all the non-Sunni Muslims who would likely be beheaded and otherwise ethnically cleansed if the radical-Islamist-dominated, US-supported rebels were to overrun the entire country.
Responsibility to Regime Change
After beholding the bodies of those she had a Responsibility to Protect, Diana turns in anger on Steve Trevor. He had obstructed her at the last second from assassinating General Ludendorff, which she believes would have prevented the atrocity.
Similarly, real-life R2P hawks lay the thousands of victims of the Syrian civil war at the feet of the realists and non-interventionists who obstructed efforts to overthrow the gas-wielding butcher of Damascus, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. They seem to intentionally forget that after Saddam Hussein was hanged and Muammar Gaddafi was gunned down in the street, both Iraq and Libya descended into even greater war and chaos, involving even worse humanitarian disasters than what had transpired under their dictatorships: for example, the ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Sunnis, a war of terror against Iraqi Shias lead by Al-Qaeda (and later ISIS), and anti-black pogroms and slave markets in Libya.
Blaming Peacemakers for War
The big twist in the movie was that Ares turned out not to be the bellicose German general Ludendorff who demanded war until the bitter end and even resorted to gassing his superiors when they spinelessly turned toward peace. Instead Ares had been masquerading the whole time as Wonder Woman’s benefactor, Sir Patrick Morgan: a British cabinet official who adamantly championed a negotiated armistice with Germany.
The filmmakers even put into Ares/Morgan’s mouth, “Peace at any price,” the slogan long-associated with much-derided promoters of appeasement, like Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister whose insufficiently-confrontational policies are often blamed for Hitler’s march through Europe and for World War II.
Ares’s diabolical plan was to negotiate an armistice that could not hold, and that that would somehow lead to even greater war and ultimately the annihilation of humanity. That’s right: a war god furthering war by seeking peace.
In actual history, there was no negotiated peace in World War I, but a policy of unconditional surrender and total war pursued to the bitter end. It was this warmongering, not peacemongering, that led to the immiseration and humiliation of Germany, the rise of Nazism, and an even deadlier World War: not to mention the communist revolution in Russia, the eventual hand-over of half of Europe to Stalin, and the advent of weapons truly capable of annihilating the human race.
And yet, the anti-appeasement “lesson of Munich” is to this day thrown in the face of those who resist fully confronting such modern-day Hitlers as Milosevic, Hussein, the Iranian mullahs, Assad, and Putin.
How to Stop War
In the movie’s climax, Steve Trevor sacrifices himself to destroy the entire stockpile of poison gas WMDs before it could be used on civilian populations, while Wonder Woman destroyed the villain responsible for such a wicked weapon. Anti-proliferation, humanitarian intervention, and eliminating a “Hitler” all coalesce in an eruption of digital pyrotechnics celebrating the triumph over war by… war.
Yet it was during one of the film’s quiet moments that the true remedy for war was hinted at. In an intimate interlude, Diana tells Steve Trevor that she has learned to speak hundreds of languages, as all Amazons do to fulfill their role as “bridges” between peoples and facilitators of peace.
It is true that humans are imperfect, as Ares says, and thus capable of war and atrocity. But such violent impulses cannot be countered by allowing the similar impulses of super-elites to run rampant under the self-righteous mantle of “humanitarian heroism.”
The urge to war can only be overcome through understanding the folly of indulging that urge and realizing the much greater prizes to be had through peaceful production and trade.
The answer to “bad guy” war is not “good guy” war, but communication and commerce, liberty and the arts of peace. Practitioners of these arts and champions of that peace are the true heroes of the world.
If the filmmakers had conceived of heroism as something more than leaping through the air and smashing “bad guys,” they might have had Wonder Woman use her super-human translating ability, not to crack enemy cryptography, but to bridge the language divide between the young, frightened men in opposing trenches. They could have even had Diana facilitate the real-life Christmas Truce of World War I, depicted in a touching and beautiful ad by Sainsbury’s.
Thankfully, the heroic lads of the Christmas Truce didn’t need any super-human help to cross the barbed wire and the language barrier: just enough human sense, decency, and courage to defy their superiors and, at least for a day, to renounce “the war to end all wars.”
Long before Donald Trump became a controversial political figure, he was a household name famous for his phenomenal ego.
He first rose to fame as a larger-than-life real estate tycoon. By cultivating the media, Trump became the poster boy for the gilded, go-go 80s: a brash, ostentatious capitalist antihero who plastered his name on skyscrapers, plazas, hotels, casinos, and resorts. At one point he even sought to rename the Empire State Building after himself, calling it the Trump Empire State Building Tower Apartments.
And in the 2000s, with his hit reality show The Apprentice, he became the godfather of the “famous for being famous” celebrity culture of that period.
Even now that he is President of the United States, his public persona is characterized, not only by his filter-free utterances and his divisive policy positions, but by his egomania: his braggadocio and his “I-alone-can-fix-it” self-importance.
His fans would disagree, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant that his ego is indeed a character flaw. Is the problem really that his ego is too big? Or is it actually too small?
The Fragile Self
As Nathaniel Branden, the late psychotherapist who pioneered the psychology of self-esteem, once wrote on his blog:
“…sometimes when people lack adequate self-esteem they fall into arrogance, boasting, and grandiosity as a defense mechanism—a compensatory strategy. Their problem is not that they have too big an ego but that they have too small a one.”
“Sometimes self-esteem is confused with boasting or bragging or arrogance; but such traits reflect not too much self-esteem, but too little; they reflect a lack of self-esteem. Persons of high self-esteem are not driven to make themselves superior to others; they do not seek to prove their value by measuring themselves against a comparative standard. Their joy is in being who they are, not in being better than someone else.”
If anything, Trump is not self-oriented enough, but rather far too other-oriented. He is unhealthily preoccupied with receiving from others favorable comparisons to others. This is exhibited in his tendency toward vanity: his fixation on receiving due credit from the media and the public for the relative size of his hands, of his crowds, and of his “ratings” (as if his presidency was just an extension of his career as a reality TV star).
It is a fragile ego, and not a strong one, that so urgently needs external props.
Such weakness of ego is especially dangerous in a commander-in-chief of a superpower’s armed forces. The media exacerbates that danger by only giving Trump the adulation he craves whenever he threatens or attacks “rogue nations.” As Gene Healy wrote after Trump authorized a missile strike against the Syrian regime:
“His drive-by bombing has already earned him strange new respect from neoconservative #NeverTrump-ers, who appear to believe that the mercurial celebreality billionaire is at his least frightening when he’s literally blowing things up. Centrist pundit Fareed Zakaria echoed that grotesque logic on CNN: “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States [that] night.”
As much as he disdains the media establishment, Trump revels in this sort of praise. It may not be long before he free-associates about it in interviews: “my airstrikes – which got terrific ratings, by the way….” And when the glow fades, he may be tempted to light it up again.”
Some of Trump’s biggest fans also evince fragile egos, especially the growing fringe of white nationalists.
As Branden wrote:
“It would be hard to name a more certain sign of poor self-esteem than the need to perceive some other group as inferior.”
“The overwhelming majority of racists are men who have earned no sense of personal identity, who can claim no individual achievement or distinction, and who seek the illusion of a “tribal self-esteem” by alleging the inferiority of some other tribe.”
Of course, it is not only the political right that suffers from ego-deficiency. The identity-politics left, like the “identitarian” right, is also preoccupied with collectivist comparisons. The left dwells on an inverted sort of superiority based on group victimhood. Social justice warriors participate in the “Oppression Olympics” as a way to win what Rand called “tribal self-esteem” to make up for their lack of individual self-esteem: to shore up their small, weak egos.
But since the individual self is the only true self, “tribal self-esteem” is a poor substitute for the real thing. A spiritual diet that relies on such ersatz fare results in malnourished egos, as expressed in the pained, frantic screeching of many campus protestors.
These millennial “snowflakes” are condemned as narcissists. But if anything, they too are excessively other-oriented: obsessed with their group identity (defined by their similarities with others), with the inferior societal position of their group compared to other groups, and with receiving due recognition from others about the social injustice of that state of affairs.
The Strong Self
Branden characterized self-esteem as “the immune system of consciousness, providing resistance, strength, and a capacity for regeneration.” He wrote:
“The question is sometimes asked, ‘Is it possible to have too much self-esteem?’ No, it is not; no more than it is possible to have too much physical health or too powerful an immune system.”
The ugliest aspects of today’s politics largely stem from a problem of emaciated egos, not overweening ones. If we would but reclaim what Branden called “the disowned self,” we would become more enterprising and resilient, less emotionally needy, less prone to wallow in resentment, less reliant on demagogues offering political solutions to economic frustrations at the expense of others, less dependent on group identity as our source of individual self-worth, and, contrary to caricatures of individualism, more civilized and sociable.
Did the Deep State deep-six Trump’s populist revolution?
Many observers, especially among his fans, suspect that the seemingly untamable Trump has already been housebroken by the Washington, “globalist” establishment. If true, the downfall of Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn less than a month into the new presidency may have been a warning sign. And the turning point would have been the removal of Steven K. Bannon from the National Security Council on April 5.
Until then, the presidency’s early policies had a recognizably populist-nationalist orientation. During his administration’s first weeks, Trump’s biggest supporters frequently tweeted the hashtag #winning and exulted that he was decisively doing exactly what, on the campaign trail, he said he would do.
In a flurry of executive orders and other unilateral actions bearing Bannon’s fingerprints, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, declared a sweeping travel ban, instituted harsher deportation policies, and more.
These policies seemed to fit Trump’s reputation as the “tribune of poor white people,” as he has been called; above all, Trump’s base calls for protectionism and immigration restrictions. Trump seemed to be delivering on the populist promise of his inauguration speech (thought to be written by Bannon), in which he said:
“Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed.
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
That all changes — starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.
It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.
What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.
Everyone is listening to you now.” [Emphasis added.]
After a populist insurgency stormed social media and the voting booths, American democracy, it seemed, had been wrenched from the hands of the Washington elite and restored to “the people,” or at least a large, discontented subset of “the people.” And this happened in spite of the establishment, the mainstream media, Hollywood, and “polite opinion” throwing everything it had at Trump.
But for the past month, the administration’s axis seems to have shifted. This shift was especially abrupt in Trump’s Syria policy.
Days before Bannon’s fall from grace, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley declared that forcing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power was no longer top priority. This too was pursuant of Trump’s populist promises.
Trump’s nationalist fans are sick of the globalist wars that America never seems to win. They are hardly against war per se. They are perfectly fine with bombing radical Islamists, even if it means mass innocent casualties. But they have had enough of expending American blood and treasure to overthrow secular Arab dictators to the benefit of Islamists; so, it seemed, was Trump. They also saw no nationalist advantage in the globalists’ renewed Cold War against Assad’s ally Russian president Vladimir Putin, another enemy of Islamists.
The Syrian pivot also seemed to fulfill the hopes and dreams of some anti-war libertarians who had pragmatically supported Trump. For them, acquiescing to the unwelcome planks of Trump’s platform was a price worth paying for overthrowing the establishment policies of regime change in the Middle East and hostility toward nuclear Russia. While populism wasn’t an unalloyed friend of liberty, these libertarians thought, at least it could be harnessed to sweep away the war-engineering elites. And since war is the health of the state, that could redirect history’s momentum in favor of liberty.
But then it all evaporated. Shortly after Bannon’s ouster from the NSC, in response to an alleged, unverified chemical attack on civilians, Trump bombed one of Assad’s airbases (something even globalist Obama had balked at doing when offered the exact same excuse), and regime change in Syria was top priority once again. The establishment media swooned over Trump’s newfound willingness to be “presidential.”
Since then, Trump has reneged on one campaign promise after another. He dropped any principled repeal of Obamacare. He threw cold water on expectations for prompt fulfillment of his signature promise: the construction of a Mexico border wall. And he announced an imminent withdrawal from NAFTA, only to walk that announcement back the very next day.
Here I make no claim as to whether any of these policy reversals are good or bad. I only point out that they run counter to the populist promises he had given to his core constituents.
“The forgotten men and women of our country” have been forgotten once again. Their “tribune” is turning out to be just another agent of the power elite.
Who yanked his chain? Was there a palace coup? Was the CIA involved? Has Trump been threatened? Or, after constant obstruction, has he simply concluded that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em?
The Iron Law of Oligarchy
Regardless of how it came about, it seems clear that whatever prospect there was for a truly populist Trump presidency is gone with the wind. Was it inevitable that this would happen, one way or another?
Michels argued that political organizations, no matter how democratically structured, rarely remain truly populist, but inexorably succumb to oligarchic control.
Even in a political system based on popular sovereignty, Michels pointed out that, “the sovereign masses are altogether incapable of undertaking the most necessary resolutions.” This is true for simple, unavoidable technical reasons: “such a gigantic number of persons belonging to a unitary organization cannot do any practical work upon a system of direct discussion.”
This practical limitation necessitates delegation of decision-making to office-holders. These delegates may at first be considered servants of the masses:
“All the offices are filled by election. The officials, executive organs of the general will, play a merely subordinate part, are always dependent upon the collectivity, and can be deprived of their office at any moment. The mass of the party is omnipotent.”
But these delegates will inevitably become specialists in the exercise and consolidation of power, which they gradually wrest away from the “sovereign people”:
“The technical specialization that inevitably results from all extensive organization renders necessary what is called expert leadership. Consequently the power of determination comes to be considered one of the specific attributes of leadership, and is gradually withdrawn from the masses to be concentrated in the hands of the leaders alone. Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective will, soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control.
Organization implies the tendency to oligarchy. In every organization, whether it be a political party, a professional union, or any other association of the kind, the aristocratic tendency manifests itself very clearly.”
Trumped by the Deep State
Thus elected, populist “tribunes” like Trump are ultimately no match for entrenched technocrats nestled in permanent bureaucracy. Especially invincible are technocrats who specialize in political force and intrigue, i.e., the National Security State (military, NSA, CIA, FBI, etc). And these elite functionaries don’t serve “the people” or any large subpopulation. They only serve their own careers, and by extension, big-money special interest groups that make it worth their while: especially big business and foreign lobbies. The nexus of all these powers is what is known as the Deep State.
Trump’s more sophisticated champions were aware of these dynamics, but held out hope nonetheless. They thought that Trump would be an exception, because his large personal fortune would grant him immunity from elite influence. That factor did contribute to the independent, untamable spirit of his campaign. But as I predicted during the Republican primaries:
“…while Trump might be able to seize the presidency in spite of establishment opposition, he will never be able to wield it without establishment support.”
No matter how popular, rich, and bombastic, a populist president simply cannot rule without access to the levers of power. And that access is under the unshakable control of the Deep State. If Trump wants to play president, he has to play ball.
On these grounds, I advised his fans over a year ago, “…don’t hold out hope that Trump will make good on his isolationist rhetoric…” and anticipated, “a complete rapprochement between the populist rebel and the Republican establishment.” I also warned that, far from truly threatening the establishment and the warfare state, Trump’s populist insurgency would only invigorate them:
“Such phony establishment “deaths” at the hands of “grassroots” outsiders followed by “rebirths” (rebranding) are an excellent way for moribund oligarchies to renew themselves without actually meaningfully changing. Each “populist” reincarnation of the power elite is draped with a freshly-laundered mantle of popular legitimacy, bestowing on it greater license to do as it pleases. And nothing pleases the State more than war.”
Politics, even populist politics, is the oligarchy’s game. And the house always wins. For the people, the only winning move is not to play.
Why is America today so politically charged and polarized, to the point that people are regularly clashing in the streets? As James Carville used to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Americans still haven’t got their economic mojo back since the financial/housing crisis and Great Recession of 2007-2009. And today’s public agitation is largely an extension of the protest movements that emerged in the wake of that downturn.
On the right, the Tea Party movement arose in 2009 largely out of disgust that big banks and big business had been bailed out by big government with newly printed money, high taxes, and deficit spending, while homeowners, workers, and small business owners were left to shift in the wind.
On the left, the Occupy movement of 2011 blamed rising inequality and hardship on the corruption of Washington by crony-capitalist Wall Street. The fact that none of the politically-connected bankers considered responsible for the economic crisis had ever been prosecuted was their Exhibit A against the so-called 1%.
The power elite were sweating under the hot lights of public scrutiny and populist outrage. Then, just when it seemed the jig was up, their fat was pulled out of the fire by American democracy.
Populism Co-opted and Corrupted
By 2015, many Americans were at the end of their rope, having endured eight straight years of economic frustration and humiliation. So when the presidential primary campaigns began that year, they were emotionally susceptible to the corrupting influences of political “hate season.”
On both the left and the right, the populist movements fully succumbed to the politics of resentment, envy, and avarice. The prospect of having vast presidential power wielded on their behalf drew their attention away from the elite authors of their misfortune and led them to turn on each other: to cast hungry eyes on whole subpopulations, great swaths of regular people and fellow victims of government oppression. The populist candidates of 2015 served these classes of people up as sacrificial scapegoats, heaping upon them the blame for the economic troubles of their constituents.
How Occupy Got Berned
Bernie Sanders, who inherited the populist energy of Occupy, shifted the focus away from corruption and impunity, and toward scapegoating the productive and affluent for not paying their “fair share.” There was still some talk of a “rigged economy,” but what really drove Bernie’s movement was a simple, shameless, and sordid clamoring for prizes extracted from others, like free college, debt-forgiveness, and single-payer healthcare.
The candidate who sermonized most stridently against “greed” was the biggest greed-monger of them all. The grassroots anti-cronyism of Occupy degraded into the demagogue-stimulated envy and unvarnished redistributionist socialism of the Bernie Revolution, as idealists were enthralled by the lure of legal loot.
Upper middle class millennials with loads of debt, few marketable skills, and zero job prospects dreamed that everything would finally turn around for them if those rich bastards would just cough up enough money to provide them a free 4-7 year postponement of the burdensome realities of the working world, so that on graduation day, they would be awarded a golden ticket to cushy jobs and shelter-for-life from any responsibility to provide for their own medical upkeep.
How the Tea Party Got Trumped
Meanwhile, Donald Trump, who inherited the populist energy of the Tea Party, shifted the focus away from “Taxed Enough Already” and “End the Fed,” and toward scapegoating Mexican workers and Chinese manufacturers for “stealing” American jobs. There was still some railing against the Washington elite, but what really drove the Donald’s movement was an ignoble demand for economic warfare to be waged on others in order to shelter his constituents from the responsibility of keeping up with the market.
The candidate who thundered about Making America Great Again led many Americans to think of themselves as so small and weak that they needed big daddy government to protect them from economic competition. The grassroots resistance of the Tea Party degraded into the demagogue-stimulated jealousy and unadorned exclusionist nationalism of the Trump Revolution, as patriots were goaded into base tribalism by the promises of a would-be warrior chief.
White native-born blue collar men who had been struggling to make ends meet and suffering rising mortality rates dreamed that if jobs could be reserved for “true Americans,” then maybe their humiliation would end and they could look their wives and children in the eyes with pride once again.
And single, unemployed young white men whiling away their days gaming and meme-posting in their parents’ houses dreamed that if “God-Emperor” Trump were able to seize power, he could drain the swamp of the degenerates holding them back from greatness.
Scapegoating and the spirit of aggrandizement were part of the Tea Party and Occupy movements from the beginning, and probably would have eventually eclipsed the more principled aspects anyway. Both were political movements, and politics is fundamentally about factional aggrandizement at the expense of principle. But the demagoguery of Sanders, Trump, and the election season itself greatly accelerated that eclipse.
The Clash of Hungry Hordes
Seemingly against all odds, Trump did win. The Trumpenproletariat were elated and emboldened, parading around in flag-wear and demanding that The Wall be built without delay.
Meanwhile, the Hillary-Bernie-bourgeoisie plunged into deranged panic, with “Resistance” protesters marching around in genitalia hats, campus social justice warriors screeching at anyone exuding even a whiff of Trump’s anti-PC predilections, and middle-class Marxist “anti-fascists” committing arson and beating up Trump fans.
Trumpists have taken to fighting back, and now lightly-armed street brawls between crowds of politicized belligerents—with nothing better or more remunerative to do, thanks to the moribund economy—are becoming a regular occurrence, with Berkeley, California being the battlefield of choice.
The street combatants on the left and right claim to be fighting, respectively, for free speech and against fascism. But at bottom, they are really fighting to conquer and hold advantageous ground for use in a larger economic war, waged through politics.
The state has impoverished its subjects through its ruinous burdens and meddling, and it has used democratic demagoguery to shift the blame and pit its victims against each other. It has divided America up into rival ravenous tribes, and the crowds we see facing off in the streets of Berkeley are the vanguards of those hungry hordes.
Muh Economic Pie
Both sides are convinced that the fundamental problem is that their tribe is not getting enough of the economic “pie.”
For the left, productive and affluent Americans are hoarding too much of the “wealth” pie, which must be re-sliced and redistributed. That is the only way all those angsty middle-class millennials can finally get past their “failure to launch.”
For the right, productive and poor immigrants and foreigners are taking slices of the “jobs” pie that aren’t rightfully theirs. Those slices must be restored to their rightful owners by means of The Wall and trade barriers. That is the only way all those humiliated heartland Americans can finally get their lives back on track, and all those frustrated internet edgelords can finally get girlfriends.
The socialist left loathes the right for countless political and cultural reasons, but what brings the antipathy to the point of violent rage is not the fear of goose-stepping goon squads constructing gas chambers. Rather, it is the perception that Trump supporters are threatening their ability to wage redistributionist economic warfare on the productive and affluent. That is why mobs of Bernie Revolution veterans have even taken to storming free market think tanks.
The nationalist right reviles the left for many reasons too, but what really gets them in a fighting mood is not the fear of homegrown Maoist student Red Guards building re-education camps. Rather, it is the perception that lefty obstructionists are threatening their ability to wage exclusionist economic warfare on the non-native industrious and poor.
Many of the other preoccupations of the left and right are largely a validating veneer for this underlying economic warfare.
Due to the spectacular failures of communism across the world, economics-focused orthodox Marxist rhetoric is no longer viable. But university-bred cultural Marxism serves as an effective vehicle for class warfare since most conspicuous capitalists are cisgendered white men who can be economically harassed and bullied on “social justice” grounds.
And right-wing hand-wringing over the alleged propensity of immigrants to commit various heinous crimes, such as rape, terrorist attacks, and voting Democrat, is largely an excuse for excluding them from “our jerbs,” to quote South Park. So is the demographic panic of today’s new wave of white nationalists.
Doctrines of War
Both socialism and economic nationalism are variants of what Ludwig von Mises called warfare sociology. Both the socialist left and the nationalist right consider warfare to be necessary and inevitable. Their chief difference is over where to draw the battle lines.
Classically, the socialist left draws them between classes, while the nationalist right draws them between various demographic “tribes.” As Mises wrote, ”Nationalist ideology divides society vertically; the socialist ideology divides society horizontally.” However, now the left is also preoccupied with demography, and the right has its own ways of waging class warfare against the poor.
The democratic state cultivates warfare sociology by offering all subpopulations corrupting access to its machinery of power, which can be used to perpetrate what Frederic Bastiat called “legal plunder” against other subpopulations, whether through direct expropriation (the Bernie method) or through persecuting economic competitors (the Trump method). This has the effect of dividing its subjects into warring, mutually plundering tribes or “interest groups.”
In calmer times, this economic warfare is waged in an “orderly” fashion through the mechanisms of politics and bureaucracy, with the state taking a cut of the loot from each act of legal plunder. But in lean times, the strife can start spilling out into the streets. That’s what we’re seeing today.
Aside from institutional factors, warfare sociology is also cultivated by an ideological factor. Both the left and right believe that society is suffused with fundamental and unavoidable conflicts of group interests. Mises called this fallacy the Montaigne Dogma: that no individual, or tribe, can gain except at the expense of another. This zero-sum fallacy is the root of the socialist left’s obsession with how the “wealth pie” is divvied up as well as the nationalist right’s preoccupation with how the “jobs pie” is apportioned.
The Philosophy of Cooperation and Peace
Both fail to understand, or have never even encountered, what Mises called the “classical harmony doctrine.” This is the understanding, developed by free-market economists and classical liberals, that society is actually characterized by a harmony of rightly-understood interests, and that free association redounds to the benefit of all.
The socialist left doesn’t understand that the capital accumulated by capitalists redounds to the benefit of labor, because capital investment increases the productivity of labor, and so leads to a continual rise of real wages. Such a capital-enhanced stream of wages is many times more profuse and sustained than any trickle they can hope to wring from the bourgeoisie by force.
In general, the socialist left doesn’t realize all the myriad ways in which taxes, regulation, and the welfare state impoverish and debilitate everybody, including college kids, and especially the poor.
The nationalist right doesn’t understand that free competition in trade and labor, irrespective of birth or nationality, redounds to the benefit of native workers, because it expands the sphere of economic cooperation and allows and incentivizes workers to find their role of greatest comparative advantage in the division of labor. Such a fluid, dynamic market yields an abundance of consumer services and commodities, to be purchased with ever-rising real wages earned through new, more efficient, and less-backbreaking kinds of work.
In general, the nationalist right doesn’t realize all the myriad ways in which protectionism, economic exclusion, and autarky impoverish and debilitate everybody, including and especially the native-born working class.
And the American people in general, thanks to having their initiative and innovation stifled by an entire childhood and young adulthood of regimented schooling, are bereft of the spirit of entrepreneurial individualism that would empower them to defy, escape, and transcend government-imposed economic stagnation. Thanks to the rise of e-commerce, the gig economy, the sharing economy, telecommuting, etc, opportunities to forge a thriving non-traditional career and livelihood abound like never before.
Most are blind to this exciting state of affairs, and so instead of finding entrepreneurial solutions to their economic problems, they waste their time and energy chasing political solutions. Instead of using the internet to make money, they use it to grouse about politicians, inveigh against enemy political tribes, and spew hostility toward enemy classes and demographics. Instead of focusing on improving their own lives, they join mobs on the web and on the streets to demand that government fix their problems for them at the expense of others. Instead of making productive connections, they sow destructive divisions.
The Way Out and Upward
Neither side can “win” in the burgeoning civil strife afflicting America. Stubborn efforts to do so by trying to overwhelm tribal enemies, whether by storming the voting booths or storming the streets, will ultimately only lead to an outright civil war in which everybody loses big time. And using government or paramilitary force to try to crush the most thoroughgoing socialists and nationalists isn’t the answer either, because that will only cause the war to intensify and spread.
To alleviate our civil strife, we must understand that its roots are economic. Americans are locked in economic civil war, because they are enthralled by socialist and nationalist fallacies, and because they do not comprehend, or are simply unfamiliar with, the truths of liberalism and sound economics.
The only way to win this fundamentally economic war is not to fight it: to renounce conflict, collectivism, group scapegoating, legal plunder, and the corrupting pursuit of political power and influence.
And the only way we can lastingly stop others from waging economic warfare is by spiritually attacking the socialist and nationalist fallacies that drive it. Socialism and nationalism feed off of violence, and so cannot be overcome through violence. Socialism and nationalism can only be dissolved by the ideas of liberty and peace, cooperation and harmony, independence and individualism.
The economically frustrated, and especially the young, can indeed turn things around, but only if they stop wallowing in resentment and dependence. The escape route from humiliating, idle loser-dom is not through politics and tribalism, but through individual self-improvement and enterprise.
Auburn, Alabama is nicknamed “the loveliest village on the plains.” But ugliness threatened to descend on it last Tuesday when outsiders came looking for a fight. Thankfully, residents and Auburn University students refused to oblige, much to their honor and wisdom.
The occasion was a speech on campus by white-nationalist provocateur Richard Spencer. Spencer’s representatives had booked the space ahead of time, but the university tried to rescind. Spencer intended to deliver the speech anyway, but a federal court settled the matter by forcing the school to fulfill the contract on First Amendment grounds.
In a stroke of brilliance, student groups, including AU’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, organized a music concert for students to attend as a peaceful protest, and generally encouraged all to be civil. This creative and constructive response proudly stands in stark contrast to the screaming fits and vandalism that has met right-wing speakers on other campuses throughout the country. Through its cool, rational, and moral leadership in the affair, the AU Young Americans for Liberty distinguished itself as a true representative of the spirit of classical liberalism.
However, outside groups also came into town, with decidedly non-peaceful intentions. It was the usual suspects: leftist agitators including Antifa and rightist pro-Trump activists ready to confront them.
The Washington Post inaccurately reported that “violence erupted,” only to later edit their story, admitting that they had grossly exaggerated what happened. There was only one momentary exchange of fisticuffs between two out-of-towners that was immediately broken up by local police.
Militants on both the left and the right are probably disappointed that significant political violence didn’t actually erupt in Auburn, as it has three times this year in Berkeley, California. Each Berkeley brouhaha has been more violent than the last, with Marxists pepper spraying, swarming, and beating nationalists, and nationalists punching and clubbing their assailants in response.
Both sides are itching for a fight. With the left, this is manifest in the fact that they are typically the ones to strike first. They self-righteously posture as “anti-fascists” (thus, “Antifa”), yet they employ the decidedly fascist tactic of using violence to try to silence their political enemies.
But many on the right are looking for trouble as well. They claim to merely be asserting their right to free speech and protecting that right through self-defense. And for many, that claim is genuine. But for the militants among them, it’s far more than that.
Many on the populist, nationalist right clearly relish the prospect of mixing it up with the left, or in the case of chest-puffing Internet Warriors, of goading others into doing so on their behalf. They make this quite explicit in their proclamations on social media, blogs, and comment threads. They exhibit, not just a resolute “guardian” mentality, but a pugnacious “warrior” mindset.
Many self-styled “patriots” believe that a civil war is coming: indeed, that the early stages are already upon us. The truest-believers among them seek to accelerate that conflict, so that it can be decided in their favor all the sooner. Some even believe that massacres will be necessary. To show that I’m not being paranoid or making things up, this is how an “anti-communist” activist on Facebook responded to my previous article on this topic:
“Oh and I don’t think this is possible to resolve without violence. The left is so unbelievably radicalized. I tried to talk with them and after trying to speak to them for almost 12 hours, one person actually engaged me while everyone else just screamed Nazi at me. They, by and large, are incapable of reason. When reason fails, what other options do we have? I would prefer secession, but I think we all know that the parasites won’t let us leave peacefully. It’s going to end in war one way or another. I fear we may even need to conduct mass exterminations of the left. They’ve become almost a difference species to us. How do you deal with that kind of gap? They’re literally a Satanic horde of barbarians driven to psychotic behavior.”
In other words, “They unreasonably call us Nazis, therefore we must behave like Nazis.”
If you know where to look, or if you write an article that rustles the right jimmies, you can find, or be found by, comments approaching this level of savagery all around the internet: the self-righteous warmongering, the rhetoric of dehumanization, the recourse to extermination.
As Christian individualist Will Grigg wisely warned shortly before his recent passing, this kind of thinking is fomented by political street violence: even the low-level, posturing, somewhat silly clashes we’ve seen thus far:
“…through political cosplay people can become habituated into thinking in eliminationist terms: The “other side” is not merely gravely mistaken, but irreducibly evil, and since reason is unavailing the only option that remains is slaughter.”
For still other radicalized nationalists, not just leftists, but other “less-than-American” demographic groups (especially Muslims) are also to be expelled or exterminated en masse.
Rules for Radicals
Many militant nationalists welcome and encourage these left/right face-offs in the streets, because they want matters to be brought to a head. They hope the successive brawls will continue to escalate, culminating in the outbreak of a full-on civil war that will decide the issue once and for all.
But they face the fundamental problem that besets all extremists in times of relative civil peace: they are a numerically tiny fringe. They can only hope to launch and win such a climactic war if they can induce large numbers of moderates to join the fight. The standard way militant extremist fringes have dealt with this problem has been to precipitate and/or instigate political violence in a bid to swell their ranks by radicalizing moderates.
When sympathizers see pictures of men and women draped in American flag apparel and MAGA hats with pepper spray in their eyes and blood in their noses after having been brutalized by leftist hoodlums, it incites them to lend their own muscle to the next flashpoint. Each battle, if sufficiently sensationalized, serves as a recruitment drive for the next. This explains the otherwise bizarre phenomenon of a right-wing agitator at Berkeley gleefully grinning on camera after having been beaten up, obviously ecstatic over having his bloodied face broadcast far and wide.
Each Battle of Berkeley recruited for the next. Now rightwing firebrand Anne Coulter is threatening to defy her dis-invitation from UC Berkeley and show up to give a speech there next week. Not only veterans, but viewers of the previous Battles of Berkeley, both left and right, might be eager to join Round Four.
Not only does sensational conflict provide militant extremists with more allies, but it wins them more followers. As conditions become more warlike, the leadership of political movements tends to fall into the hands of the most antipathy-driven and aggressively violent factions.
For example, after the Arab Spring protest movement in Syria was militarized by US shipments of weapons, supplies, and money, leadership of the resistance was quickly seized by Al Nusra (Syrian Al Qaeda) and ISIS.
This “vanguard effect,” as we might call it, is almost certainly why Antifa is so eager to incite and instigate clashes as well. The militant right and the militant left feed off of each other in a symbiosis of savagery.
Thus a writer for a major white-nationalist web site, in an article about the recent events in Auburn, seemed to be just as disappointed as the strife-mongering Washington Post over the anticlimactic way it panned out, again thanks to the leadership of AU’s Young Americans for Liberty. He expressed frustration that not enough libertarians were entering the fray, either in word or in deed. After enumerating a litany of national grievances against the left, he whined that:
“Each of these should be enough to make a real friend of liberty grab a stick and join the fight against the antifa.”
Yeah, Well They Started It
For many of the right-populist demonstrators in Berkeley, letting the left throw the first punch has been a matter of principle. But many of their militant allies and supporters have no moral compunctions against initiating violence against Marxists like the Antifa, as their online discourse indicates.
Just as the militant left shares memes about sucker-punching Nazis WWII-style, simply for believing in Nazism, the militant right has its own memes about throwing Communists from helicopters Pinochet-style, simply for believing in Communism. For pretend-militants, this is only 4chan-style dark humor. But for the many actual militants, it is a laughing expression of a deadly-serious belief.
Both sides speciously rationalize such violence as preemptive or defensive on the grounds that their political enemies have already initiated violence by supporting rights-violating policies. Such a breezy renunciation of the principles of free speech/thought and proportional defense/justice is nothing but civil war propaganda masquerading as moral philosophy.
So, for the “Helicopter Right,” letting the left lash out first is clearly not a matter a principle. For them, it is a cynical strategy of war. Unlike their less-disciplined leftist counterparts, the militant right realizes that such restraint gives them a plausible claim to the moral high ground, which in turn aids recruitment by contributing to the perception that their cause is just. If the militant right ever takes the lead of a force with real heft, the moral high ground would rapidly become more strategically costly than beneficial. Once that happens, don’t expect them to observe such non-aggression-principle “niceties” indefinitely.
Accelerate the Crisis
Throughout history, sowing conflict and precipitating crisis are how fringe militant political movements have gained prominence and power out of proportion to their numerical size. In calmer times, their extremist ideas are considered noxious. But if they incite or instigate strife, they can make moderates more open to extremism by triggering intense intra-group collectivism and inter-group hostility.
Thus interwar Austrian Marxists staged false-flag attacks in order to “sharpen the contradictions” between capital and labor and to accelerate the great class war in which they would be the vanguard of the unified proletariat in the final struggle against the bourgeoisie.
Similarly, the express purpose of ISIS’s terrorist attacks is to “dwindle the gray zone” between the West and the Muslim world and accelerate the great holy war in which they would be the vanguard of the unified “Camp of Islam” in the final struggle against the “Crusader Camp.”
The populist, nationalist, militant right basically agrees with both the commies and the jihadis. Like their champion in the White House Steve Bannon, they too believe that a climactic battle is coming, and that Marxists and Muslims will be among their mortal enemies in that inevitable Ragnarök. They only differ over whose will be the last tribe standing.
Now Bannon seems to be on the outs, and so the direct influence of his worldview on Trump has seemingly dwindled. Instead of populist-nationalist mayhem with a complementary dose of establishment-globalism, Trump is now continuing the long presidential tradition of afflicting the world with establishment-globalist mayhem with a complementary dose of populist-nationalism.
For Bannon’s fellow “winter is coming” nationalists, their felt loss of influence in Washington will make street action all the more crucial in hastening the final reckoning with the left and the left’s constituents. So we can expect the militant right to be even more focused on sowing civil strife.
The Case for De-Escalation
The ideas of the militant left are vile, and just as dangerous as those of the militant right. I don’t counsel against physically fighting the left out of any kind of sympathy with their causes. Quite the opposite really. I surely have more beliefs in common with “Based Stickman,” the Alt-Right Leonidas who loves Ron Paul and preaches self-defense and restraint on the battlefield, than I do with “Moldylocks,” the Antifa Joan of Arc and self-styled scalp-hunter. The same would probably be true about any left/right pair of Berkeley belligerents picked at random.
I only dwell on the dynamics of the nationalist right, because, tragically, more liberty-minded people have been drawn to that militant-collectivist camp than to the militant-collectivist camp of the socialist left. If there is any hope of reversing this dangerous escalation of political street violence—of nipping it in the bud while it is still in its incipient stages—it will involve right-leaning professed liberty-lovers stepping away from the brink of civil turmoil, which always lifts up anti-liberty militant factions, including that ultimate anti-liberty faction, the state.
The Deep State, and perhaps the Donald himself, would just love to use mass civil unrest as an excuse to grant itself emergency powers. And sufficient civil strife will frighten the broader American public enough that they would be eager to accept that excuse. Escalating political violence could elevate tensions to the point that it would only take a single sensational terror attack to bring us to the martial-law tipping point. People tire of Nazi comparisons, but the Weimar collapse is an indispensably vivid illustration of a highly predictable pattern: nationalist-communist political violence, Reichstag Fire, Reichstag Fire Decree, the death of German liberty. Look it up.
To actual liberty-loving veterans of the Battle of Berkeley, some of your militant-nationalist allies might actually welcome such a development, especially with Trump in office, but would you? Do you really think such a state will only crush the freedoms of your political enemies, and not eventually come for your own?
As American freedom is snatched away completely by enemies wielding a public mandate and military-grade weapons, as opposed to a widely-reviled gaggle of ragamuffins wielding trash cans and flagpoles, will you take comfort that, at the beginning of it all, at least you stood up to those damn dirty lefties, and that they were the ones who started it anyway?
There are countless ways to promote liberty, but civil strife is not one of them. And it’s never too early to de-escalate. The Non-Battle of Auburn, and not any of the Battles of Berkeley, demonstrated how to truly champion liberty.
Just how close are we to repeating the political violence of interwar Germany? How bad is it, and how bad can it get?
Populist-right demonstrators and radical-left protesters clashed in Berkeley, California yesterday. The belligerents used such weapons as fists, feet, rocks, pepper spray, smoke bombs, barricades, and a trash dumpster/battering ram. There was one reported non-lethal stabbing.
Arrayed on the right were members of the Alt-Right, Oathkeepers, Proud Boys, and non-affiliated Trump supporters, and the left was led by Antifa (Anti-Fascist Action) and BAMN (“By Any Means Necessary”).
At one point, the left-radicals ill-advisedly threw a smoke bomb while they themselves were standing downwind. The smoke wafted back in their faces causing them to flee. Today, right-populists are crowing online about having “won the Battle of Berkeley,” because, after a concerted charge, they managed to seize and hold a major downtown street.
Berkeley has become a favorite battleground for these budding political street warriors. Two months ago, a scheduled speech at UC Berkeley by Alt-Right darling Milo Yiannopolis speech was canceled due to riots, arson, and assaults on Milo-supporters. Weeks later, a “March 4 Trump” was held off-campus in Berkeley, and this too was attacked by militant leftists, using metal pipes, baseball bats, two-by-fours, and bricks.
Yesterday, the occasion was another pro-Trump rally in Berkeley celebrating “Patriot’s Day.” As usual, it was the leftists who were the main instigators. That doesn’t alter the fact that these gradually-escalating street conflicts signal a two-pronged threat to liberty.
Nationalists Versus Communists
The brawls seem like a half-hearted, semi-play-acting reenactment of the street fights of Germany’s Spartacist uprising of 1919. The “Spartacists” were Marxist insurgents who sought to overthrow the new Weimar government, take power themselves, and expropriate the bourgeoisie. The government, which itself was made up of milder Marxists, relied on nationalist militias called Freikorps to crush the uprising. Then, as yesterday, nationalists trounced communists in the streets. Yet this did not yield a happy ending.
As Ludwig von Mises points out inOmnipotent Government, when theFreikorps first arose, they were modeled after the armed bands of communist revolutionaries that they would later suppress.
“The November Revolution brought a resurgence of a phenomenon that had long before disappeared from German history. Military adventurers formed armed bands or Freikorps and acted on their own behalf. The communist revolutionaries had inaugurated this method, but soon the nationalists adopted and perfected it. Dismissed officers of the old army called together demobilized soldiers and maladjusted boys and offered their protection to the peasants menaced by raids of starving townsfolk and to the population of the eastern frontiers suffering from Polish and Lithuanian guerrilla invasions. The landlords and the farmers provided them in return for their services with food and shelter.”
The Freikorps, like today’s budding right-wing street militias, arose in response to leftist aggression. That didn’t make them any less dangerous. Mises continued:
“When the condition which had made their interference appear useful changed these gangs began to blackmail and to extort money from landowners, businessmen, and other wealthy people. They became a public calamity. The government did not dare to dissolve them. Some of the bands had fought bravely against the communists. Others had successfully defended the eastern provinces against the Poles and Lithuanians. They boasted of these achievements, and the nationalist youth did not conceal their sympathy for them.”
The Road to Nuremberg
These Freikorps were then integrated into the army, and the problem of rival armed bands subsided for a while, although it did not disappear. As Mises wrote:
“War and civil war, and the revolutionary mentality of the Marxians and of the nationalists, had created such a spirit of brutality that the political parties gave their organizations a military character. Both the nationalist Right and the Marxian Left had their armed forces. These party troops were, of course, entirely different “from the free corps formed by nationalist hotspurs and by communist radicals. Their members were people who had their regular jobs and were busy from Monday to Saturday noon. On weekends they would don their uniforms and parade with brass bands, flags, and often with their firearms. They were proud of their membership in these associations but they were not eager to fight; they were not animated by a spirit of aggression. Their existence, their parades, their boasting, and the challenging speeches of their chiefs were a nuisance but not a serious menace to domestic peace.
After the failure of the revolutionary attempts of Kapp in March, 1920, that of Hitler and Ludendorff in November, 1923, and of various communist uprisings, of which the most important was the Holz riot in March, 1921, Germany was on the way back to normal conditions. The free corps and the communist gangs began slowly to disappear from the political stage. They still waged some guerrilla warfare with each other and against the police. But these fights degenerated more and more into gangsterism and rowdyism. Such riots and the plots of a few adventurers could not endanger the stability of the social order.” [Emphasis added.]
But then, feeling threatened by the continued existence and activity of nationalist armed bands, the embattled socialist government created a new armed force consisting of loyal Marxists. As Mises explains, this caused many in the public to throw their support behind Adolf Hitler’s personal militia, the Nazi Storm Troopers.
“But these Storm Troopers were very different from the other armed party forces both of the Left and of the Right. Their members were not elderly men who had fought in the first World War and who now were eager to hold their jobs in order to support their families. The Nazi Storm Troopers were, as the free corps had been, jobless boys who made a living from their fighting. They were available at every hour of every day, not merely on weekends and holidays. It was doubtful whether the party forces—either of “the Left or the Right—would be ready to fight when seriously attacked. It was certain that they would never be ready to wage a campaign of aggression. But Hitler’s troops were pugnacious; they were professional brawlers. They would have fought for their Führer in a bloody civil war if the opponents of Nazism had not yielded without resistance in 1933.” [Emphasis added.]
And the rest is History Channel programming. Once in power, the nationalist brawlers proved to be just as deadly foes to liberty as the communists they trounced in the streets and drove from power.
It’s Never Too Early to De-Escalate
We’re a long way from Weimar. The Alt-Knight and his merry band are a far cry from the brutal Storm Troopers. And the black-clad waifs of Antifa are a pale shadow of the homicidal Spartacists. In fact, there is distinctly ridiculous and even comical vibe to the scuffles, which the late, great Will Grigg aptly described as “political cosplay.” But these things have a way of escalating. The foot soldiers of the Spartacists and Storm Troopers may have gone through a harmless, posturing early phase as well. As Grigg wrote:
“…through political cosplay people can become habituated into thinking in eliminationist terms: The “other side” is not merely gravely mistaken, but irreducibly evil, and since reason is unavailing the only option that remains is slaughter.”
He also warned:
“Unlike the wholesale violence that our country saw in the late 1960s and early 1970s, contemporary street-level political conflict is heavy on posturing and pretense and light on actual bloodshed – but it does whet degenerate appetites that will grow to dangerous proportions as times get leaner and meaner.”
Just as the right-populists were not content to accept their “defeat” in the First Battle of Berkeley, the left-radicals will not just lick their wounds after the Third Battle of Berkeley. The right is reporting chatter among the left of bringing firearms next time. Such militarization will only breed more polarization and radicalization on the left and the right, both which are driven by a desire to wield state power. And it will provide the police state with a welcome excuse to further assault our already-decimated liberties.
The left-wing combatants claim to be anarchists, and yet are furthering the state. The right-wing combatants claim to be for liberty, and yet are putting liberty in danger. If these conflicts continue to escalate, no matter which side “wins,” liberty will lose.
EDIT (4/18/17): Some of the interesting responses to this article made me realize one of the key problems. Too many people are more anti-leftists and anti-communists than they are anti-leftism and anti-communism. For them, it’s more about the enemy tribes that hold pernicious ideas than the pernicious ideas themselves. This breeds a tribal warfare mentality that will only make things worse.
In 1755, the Portuguese city of Lisbon was struck by a massive, deadly earthquake. As Deirdre McCloskey recently wrote, in the century that followed, three big ideas swept through Europe that would also shake the world. One of those ideas was fantastically fruitful, while the other two proved to be disastrously destructive.
First to sweep through was the bright idea of, in the words of Adam Smith, “allowing every man to pursue his own interest in his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.” In the first half of the 19th century, this idea became known as liberalism.
Then, just as liberalism began to transform the world, two pernicious ideas began to vie with it. Nationalism and socialism began to capture the imaginations of intellectuals and would eventually displace liberalism completely in the hearts and minds of the West.
Liberalism unlocked humanity’s creative potential, yielding the first ever rise of widespread abundance through industrial mass production. Nationalism and socialism unleashed humanity’s capacity for destruction, unleashing the first ever rise of industrial-scale mass murder.
The twin banes of nationalism and socialism followed the boon of liberalism remarkably quickly. To understand why, we must consider a fourth big idea that historically links the other three: the idea of the people’s state.
Liberty, the People’s State, and the Glorious Revolution
The ideas of individual liberty and of the modern people’s state emerged in close conjunction, because the two had a common enemy: the hereditary, divine princely state. In the old order, kings claimed absolute authority over their subjects by hereditary and divine right: by inheriting his crown from his predecessor and having his rule blessed by the church on behalf of God.
In 17th-century England, the proto-liberals called the Whigs challenged these pretensions, both with arms and arguments. The great manifesto of the so-called “radical Whigs” was John Locke’s 1689 work Two Treatises of Government. Against royal authoritarianism, Locke advanced the individual’s rights to life, liberty, and property. And against royal autocracy by divine and hereditary right, Locke drew an alternate picture of government as merely an instrumental institution, created by the people and for the people: that is, empowered by the public for the sole purpose of securing their individual rights.
According to Locke, the state is not the royal family’s private property. Whether democratic or not, proper government is a public institution: what we might call a people’s state. Anything else is not legitimate rule but tyranny.
In Locke’s view, the state is a servant of the people with a specific job. If that servant is not performing its function, or worse still, if it is deliberately trampling on the very rights it was tasked to protect, then it has broken the “social contract”: the terms and conditions upon which it was hired. In such cases, the people may exercise their right of revolution: the right to fire (abolish or secede from) their government and hire (establish) a new one. This contractual, business-like notion of government was easy for the town-based, largely bourgeois Whigs to grasp and accept.
It was a short step from wanting a “government by the people and for the people” to wanting a “government of the people.” After all, what better way to keep the state on task and remind it who’s boss than for the people to actively oversee and guide the government? Indeed, after the Whigs overthrew King James II in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, the chief result, aside from the liberal English Bill of Rights, was the empowerment of Parliament over the new constitutional joint monarchy of King William III and Queen Mary.
From Locke onward, the cause of liberty was bound up with the cause of the people’s state. Indeed, the bond was so tight that they were considered a single cause: the people’s state (and eventually democracy in particular) was considered an essential plank of liberalism. Liberals considered the people’s state, or “political liberty,” to be an indispensable guardian of individual liberty, just as much as they considered the unaccountable princely state to be a standing threat to freedom.
The American Revolution
By the Enlightenment decades of the 1760s and 70s, the Lockean ideals of individual liberty and the people’s state had crossed the Atlantic to the American colonies, where they became the creed of the founding generation. So strong was their love of liberty and intolerance for despotism that they rose in resistance to an arbitrary tax regime that today would be considered miniscule. After Britain tried to overcome that defiance with lethal military force, resistance turned to revolution.
Throughout the Declaration of Independence that announced and justified the American Revolution in 1776, Thomas Jefferson echoed, even paraphrased, Locke’s second Treatise. King George III had not only failed in his duty to protect the rights of Americans, but had actively violated them. And these infringements were so recurrent as to demonstrate “a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.” As Locke had explained, these were precisely the conditions that called for revolution.
King George had broken the terms and conditions of the social contract. So the American people no longer had any obligation to keep him on as their security provider. He was fired, and the Declaration of Independence was his pink slip. George didn’t take his firing well, so it took the Revolutionary War to escort him off the premises.
The founders had so much faith in the people’s state as a guarantor of liberty that they then went beyond England’s example of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary government. After exiting the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government had been created. He answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.” A republic is a people’s state by definition, derived from the Latin respublica, or “concern of the people.”
The French Revolution
The dream of a people’s state for liberty next travelled to France. The monarchy in France was so autocratic that the Estates General (France’s parliament) hadn’t convened in 175 years. But in 1789, the cash-strapped Bourbon king Louis XVI resuscitated the institution in order to raise desperately needed funds. The French Revolution started when members of the Third Estate (representing French commoners) broke away from the session, formed an independent National Assembly, and vowed to give France a constitution.
A Parisian mob gathered in support of the Assembly, stormed the Bastille, and seized the weapons cache within to give the budding people’s state a military upper hand over the demoralized monarchy. In a portent of wider brutality to come, the mob also decapitated the commander of the Bastile and paraded through the city with his head on a pike.
After a brief abortive period of constitutional monarchy, France too became a republic, even more thoroughgoing than the American one. Whereas the American republic was constituted as a federal government with a bicameral legislature and strictly limited suffrage, France’s First Republic was a national government with a unicameral legislature and, for a time, universal adult male suffrage. To secure the new republic against a return of the monarchy, the deposed king was beheaded.
At first, the theory of the people’s state as a champion of liberty seemed to work out in practice. The earliest legislative acts of Revolutionary France were predominantly liberal. Because of peasant resistance, feudalism had already been declining under the monarchy. But the National Assembly finished it off by abolishing serfdom outright. Then it passed a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which contained the Lockean pronouncement that, “The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”
But the French soon learned that a people’s state can be even more oppressive and absolutist than an autocratic monarchy, and even less likely to brook any resistance.
The Revolution had been precipitated by the monarchy’s bungling efforts to address a financial crisis caused by its own profligacy. Yet the National Assembly’s attempt to solve the problem proved even more inept. It enacted a paper money scheme that caused rampant inflation and devastated the economy, especially for the poor.
The primary cause of the monarchy’s looming bankruptcy had been its expensive wars. Yet within three years of the Revolution, the new French government preemptively declared war on Austria. This was followed by 22 years in which France was almost constantly at war, ostensibly to secure and export the Revolution: to, as Woodrow Wilson might have put it, make the continent safe for republicanism.
Food prices had already been high due to the paper money fiasco, but the costs of war made the situation even worse. The poor working classes rioted in the streets. With the mob support of these sans-culottes, as they were called, a radical faction known as the Jacobins seized control of the Republic.
The Jacobins instituted the General Maximum, a regime of price controls that eventually covered all foodstuffs and a long list of other basic goods. Violating the Maximum was punishable by death. This of course caused widespread shortages and famines. The Republic responded by sending troops into the countryside to seize crops from farmers to feed the capital. The people’s state that had freed the peasantry from their parasitic feudal masters had itself become for them, in a few short years, an even more voracious parasite.
The new Committee of Public Safety, under Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre, then initiated the Reign of Terror: a wave of political violence, including prison massacres and thousands of beheadings, that made the political repression of the overthrown regime look tame in comparison.
Around the same time, the Republic also instituted the levée en masse, an unprecedented war mobilization of the entire French population, including a military draft of all young, unmarried men. The people’s state had abolished the corvée (a serf’s obligation to his master of unpaid labor) only to then institute universal state servitude.
The Republic’s worst single atrocity was the War in the Vendee. An anti-revolutionary rural population revolted against Paris’s attempt to conscript their sons into war. In crushing the insurrection, the Republican government killed as many as over a quarter of a million peasants. Rebel prisoners—men, women, and children—were executed in mass crowds by gunfire and drowning. A state massacring its own people at such a scale was at that time almost unprecedented.
The Republic had promised, as the revolutionary slogan said, “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Instead it delivered conscription, subordination, fratricide.
The dreamt-of French people’s state was to be the ultimate safeguard of French liberty. In reality, the Republic ended up violating “the rights of man” more rampantly and atrociously than Louis XVI would have ever been capable of.
The Revolution inflicted all of this, only to finally elevate one of its own sons as a despot. The chronic wars and crises of the Republic led to the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, who waged war throughout Europe and forged a new continental empire under a new dynastic monarchy blessed by the church. The French Revolution had lived up to its name by coming full circle.
Collective Power Versus Individual Liberty
After the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, one of France’s leading liberals addressed the question: what went so wrong? Benjamin Constant answered that many of the Revolution’s “evils” stemmed from a confusion between two kinds of liberty. In an 1819 essay, he discussed, “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns.”
According to Constant, the liberty of the modern world was individual freedom. This was the idea of liberty that emerged from the European towns with the rise of private commerce and industry. As Constant defined it, modern liberty was the right of the individual:
“…to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.”
On the other hand, Constant explained, the liberty of the ancient world, “consisted in an active and constant participation in collective power.” This was the idea of “political liberty” in a people’s state that first arose in the ancient Greek democracies and was cherished in the Roman Republic. In these classical civilizations:
“…the individual, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in all his private relations. As a citizen, he decided on peace and war; as a private individual, he was constrained, watched and repressed in all his movements; as a member of the collective body, he interrogated, dismissed, condemned, beggared, exiled, or sentenced to death his magistrates and superiors; as a subject of the collective body he could himself be deprived of his status, stripped of his privileges, banished, put to death, by the discretionary will of the whole to which he belonged.”
As Constant explained, the revolutionaries betrayed modern liberty by trying to resurrect an ancient system that:
“…demands that the citizens should be entirely subjected in order for the nation to be sovereign, and that the individual should be enslaved for the people to be free.”
Among the most radical French republicans, this demand went to totalitarian extremes. For example, Constant said this about Abbé de Mably, a prominent writer of the period:
“…to him any means seemed good if it extended his area of authority over that recalcitrant part of human existence whose independence he deplored. The regret he expresses everywhere in his works is that the law can only cover actions. He would have liked it to cover the most fleeting thoughts and impressions; to pursue man relentlessly, leaving him no refuge in which he might escape from its power.”
Enthralled by classical literature, the leading revolutionaries tried to set the French people free by giving them untrammeled collective power. The liberals among them believed the objectives of collective power and individual liberty to be beautifully complementary, even identical. In practice, collective power waged war on individual liberty almost from the outset.
The revolutionaries’ devotion to collective power came, not only from their classical reading, but from their fascination with the political ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a protege of Mably. Rousseau redrafted the social contract and reconstituted the people’s state in a more radically collectivist direction. In his version of the great contractual exchange, the individual offers total submission to “popular sovereignty,” which is the collective power of the people’s “general will.” In return, the individual as part of “the people” gains total power over every other individual through his participation in government. This, to Rousseau, was true freedom. As he put it:
“If then we discard from the social compact what is not of its essence, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms—
‘Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.’
At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains votes, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will.”
Some deal! It’s rather like if the Borg Queen from Star Trek told Captain Picard, “Let the Hive Mind assimilate and negate your individuality, and in return “you” (which won’t actually exist anymore) will get to assimilate and negate everyone else’s individuality.”
Tellingly, France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was just as Rousseauan as it was Lockean, even down to its terminology. Article VI proclaimed that, “The law is the expression of the general will.”
The State Is Us
A Frenchman didn’t need to read Rousseau, Mably, Plato, or Livy to get caught up in the Revolution’s collectivist frenzy. All he had to do was fully buy into the notion of the participatory people’s state.
This was much easier to do, thanks to the Revolution. The state was no longer a prince who ruled by Grace of God or accident of lineage: like the “Sun King,” Louis XIV (1638-1715), a pompous dandy who said, “The State, it is me,” (L’Etat, c’est moi) and paraded around his Versailles Palace amid resplendent tax-funded finery, attended by aristocratic sycophants, while mercenary armies fought his wars of personal, dynastic ambition.
Such a parasitic, pious fraud was relatively easy to detect, especially after the Reformation and the Enlightenment made divine right such a dubious claim. It is no wonder, then, that his successors, Louis XV and XVI, faced such stiff resistance from the French people, and thus were unable to get away with nearly as much depredation as their grandiose predecessor.
But now, the state was no longer a distinct set of “others”: a king, his aristocratic courtiers, his servile church clerics, and his administrators. The post-Revolutionary devotees of the French people’s state basically believed, “The State, it is us” (L’Etat, c’est nous). (In 2013, US President Barack Obama explicitly invoked this sentiment, saying, “But government can’t stand on the sidelines in our efforts, because government is us.”) The people’s state blurred the delineation between the rulers and the ruled, leading the individual to emotionally identify with his state and to think of the state’s interests as his own.
This analysis should not be interpreted in the slightest as any kind of endorsement or celebration of the princely state. To understand why, consider the following: if an abolitionist were to say that “public” chattel slavery (i.e., slaves working in the state mines of ancient Rome) was even more brutal than “private” chattel slavery (i.e., the personal slaves of Roman patricians), that would in no way be a claim that private chattel slavery was at all good or “necessary.”
Nationalism in the French People’s State
The spiritual amalgamation of people and state is what we call a nation: a number of individuals who affiliate with one another as a political community centered around a state (or a would-be state). Devotion to one’s state-centered political community is nationalism.
The people’s state (whether actual or prospective) gives rise to nationalism, because nothing inspires more devotion to a state-centered community than a state that the individual feels is his creation (government by the people), that serves him (for the people), and that he’s a part of (of the people). Allegiance to a crown just can’t compare. This explains why the French Revolution burned so brightly with nationalism, especially as compared to the ancien regime.
Nationalism is a particularly avaricious and belligerent kind of community spirit, simply because it is centered around a state, which is (contra Locke and Rousseau) an institution predicated on the use of power for aggrandizement. We may wish and hope for a state that limits itself to protecting liberty, but the inescapable fact of the matter is that a territorial monopoly of violence is capable of so much more than that. Access to power corrupts, and popular access to power is no exception.
The Revolution transferred the military capacity of France from the crown to “the people” (or so the people felt). The intoxication of military power infected the French people with avarice for national conquest and glory. No longer was war a private affair of the king, which the masses paid for and suffered grudgingly. Now war was an affair of the people, an enterprise to be embraced wholeheartedly as one’s own.
Napoleon did little to break the romantic spell of the French people’s state, and did nothing to dampen the fighting spirit of the new French nationalism: quite the opposite. Even after he intimidated the Pope into crowning him as Emperor, Napoleon’s true source of power and legitimacy was not in divine or hereditary right, but in the glorious victories and territorial conquests he won for the French nation. Even when he was a sole dictator, Napoleon was, like the Kaiser during World War I and the Führer during World War II, a national leader of a people’s state: a state that relied on its reputation of being “for the people,” if not “of the people.”
Nationalism is also a particularly collectivist kind of community spirit, because successfully exercising collective power and violence greatly depends on group unity and strength in numbers: especially in war. In wartime, nationalist collectivism goes into overdrive. Randolph Bourne, having himself suffered greatly from rabid nationalism in America during World War I, described the phenomenon with great eloquence:
“The moment war is declared… the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves. They then, with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men. Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.
The patriot loses all sense of the distinction between State, nation, and government.” (…)
“War sends the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest levels of the herd, and to its remote branches. All the activities of society are linked together as fast as possible to this central purpose of making a military offensive or military defense, and the State becomes what in peacetimes it has vainly struggled to become — the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men’s businesses and attitudes and opinions.”
In Revolutionary France, the collectivism and belligerence of nationalism combined to foster a rampant disregard for individual rights, leading to policies like the levee en masse, which treated the nation as a great collective hive and individuals as mere drones to be mobilized. Even more importantly, it weakened the intolerance of individuals for being abused in this way. In fact, for many it engendered fanatical enthusiasm and pride for being a mobilized drone: for following orders, marching, killing, and dying for the national hive. And finally it unleashed atrocities like the War in the Vendee, in which “loyal” drones ruthlessly liquidated stubbornly individualistic “traitors” who refused to be assimilated: again, all for the good of the national hive. Hive uber alles, as Nazi bees might say.
Again, this kind of fanatical, selfless, ruthless devotion could never have been inspired by the ancien regime, but only by a people’s state.
The Return of Tribal Collectivism and Savagery
Nationalism replaced the wars of kings with the wars of peoples. This was not an advance, but a reversion to the savagery of the original people’s wars: the wars of savage tribes.
Ludwig von Mises described the wars of kings as “soldiers’ wars”:
“In the soldiers’ war… the army does the fighting while the citizens who are not in the armed services pursue their normal lives. The citizens pay the costs of warfare; they pay for the maintenance and equipment of the army, but otherwise they remain outside of the war events themselves. It may happen that the war actions raze their houses, devastate their land, and destroy their other property; but this, too, is part of the war costs which they have to bear. It may also happen that they are looted and incidentally killed by the warriors—even by those of their “own” army. But these are events which are not inherent in warfare as such; they hinder rather than help the operations of the army leaders and are not tolerated if those in command have full control over their troops. The warring state which has formed, equipped, and maintained the army considers looting by the soldiers an offense; they were hired to fight, not to loot on their own. The state wants to keep civil life as usual because it wants to preserve the taxpaying ability of its citizens; conquered territories are regarded as its own domain.”
In stark contrast, tribal wars, like nationalist wars, were total wars. As Mises continued:
“Total war is a horde on the move to fight and to loot. The whole tribe, the whole people moves; no one—not even a woman or a child—remains at home unless he has to fulfill duties there essential for the war. The mobilization is total and the people are always ready to go to war. Everyone is a warrior or serves the warriors. Army and nation, army and state, are identical.”
Total war is, as described above, characterized by intense collectivism. It is also characterized by horrific brutality. As Mises continued, in tribal warfare:
“No difference is made between combatants and noncombatants. The war aim is to annihilate the entire enemy nation. Total war is not terminated by a peace treaty but by a total victory and a total defeat. The defeated—men, women, children—are exterminated; it means clemency if they are merely reduced to slavery. Only the victorious nation survives.”
This level of brutality was approached, and in many instances reached, in the nationalist World Wars of the twentieth century: attempted genocide, the caging of entire racial populations, the firebombing of civilian populations, the nuclear annihilation of whole cities, and the fanatic resolve to continue killing and dying until the enemy was either eradicated or totally prostrate.
The nation-state is the spiritual resurrection of the barbarian tribe, the “horde on the move,” whose savagery is only made more rigorous by bureaucracy and more efficient by the technologically advanced civilization upon which it feeds.
Socialism in the French People’s State
Besides nationalism, the people’s state stimulates yet another kind of belligerent, avaricious, and collectivist spirit: what Karl Marx called “class consciousness.” In Revolutionary France, just as nationalism drove foreign international warfare, class consciousness drove domestic class warfare.
Policies like the General Maximum and the plundering of rural peasants to feed the urban proletariat were implemented by the Jacobins in order to appease the working class sans-culottes, who flexed the strength of their numbers both through street mobs and voting.
For even more radical revolutionaries, Rousseauian equality demanded that, not only the peasants, but the bourgeois middle classes be expropriated. On behalf of the poor, a “Conspiracy of Equals” plotted to take over the Republic, abolish private property, and seize the wealth of France for equal redistribution. The conspiracy was detected and its leaders were guillotined.
And upper-class intellectuals like Henri de Saint-Simon dreamt up utopian schemes in which the welfare of the poor working classes would be guaranteed by central planning. These dreamers came to be known as socialists, referring to their concern for broad “social” concerns, as contrasted to the “narrow” individualism of the liberals.
By the 1840s, Paris was abuzz with socialist agitation. Frédéric Bastiat, the leading French liberal of the time, recognized socialism as a threat to liberty that was just as severe as autocratic royalism, if not more. In addition to skewering the sophistries of socialism, Bastiat insightfully explained the political dynamics that led to its rise.
Bastiat, like Locke, believed the true purpose of “the law” was the security of the people from having their lives, liberties, and property ravaged. But the law had become “perverted”; instead of preventing such plunder, it came to systematically perpetrate it. Bastiat called this “legal plunder.”
Under the ancien regime, legal plunder was perpetrated by the king and his cabal and inflicted upon the masses. Bastiat termed this “partial plunder.” In the Revolution, the victims of this regularized robbery rose up and overthrew their kleptocrats. But then, instead of abolishing legal plunder, the new Republican government, by creating popular access to the machinery of legal plunder, invited the masses to partake in it. In the new people’s state, “partial plunder” was replaced by what Bastiat called “universal plunder.” As Bastiat wrote:
“Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter — by peaceful or revolutionary means — into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.
Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among the mass victims of lawful plunder when they, in turn, seize the power to make laws! Until that happens, the few practice lawful plunder upon the many, a common practice where the right to participate in the making of law is limited to a few persons. But then, participation in the making of law becomes universal. And then, men seek to balance their conflicting interests by universal plunder. Instead of rooting out the injustices found in society, they make these injustices general. As soon as the plundered classes gain political power, they establish a system of reprisals against other classes. They do not abolish legal plunder. (This objective would demand more enlightenment than they possess.) Instead, they emulate their evil predecessors by participating in this legal plunder, even though it is against their own interests.” [Emphasis added.]
Bastiat encapsulated his taxonomy of legal plunder as follows:
“It is absolutely necessary that this question of legal plunder should be determined, and there are only three solutions of it:
1. When the few plunder the many.
2. When everybody plunders everybody else.
3. When nobody plunders anybody.
Partial plunder, universal plunder, absence of plunder, amongst these we have to make our choice. The law can only produce one of these results.
Partial plunder. This is the system that prevailed so long as the elective privilege was partial; a system that is resorted to, to avoid the invasion of socialism.
Universal plunder. We have been threatened by this system when the elective privilege has become universal; the masses having conceived the idea of making law, on the principle of legislators who had preceded them.
Absence of plunder. This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, conciliation, and of good sense, which I shall proclaim with all the force of my lungs (which is very inadequate, alas!) till the day of my death.”
The last sentence referred to the fact that Bastiat was dying of throat cancer as he wrote these brilliant words.
“The present-day delusion is an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal under the pretense of organizing it.”
And elsewhere, Bastiat wrote:
“Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Just as popular influence over the state’s ability to project power abroad foments among the people the international avarice and belligerence of nationalism, popular influence over the state’s ability to exercise power domestically stirs among the people the interclass avarice and belligerence of socialism.
And class warfare breeds collectivism and mindless conformity for the same basic reason that international warfare does: overwhelming and plundering enemy classes (whether in the streets or in the voting booths) requires group unity and strength in numbers. So, just as nationalists demand rigid “national allegiance” and rail against “national traitors,” socialists demand rigid “class solidarity” and inveigh against “class traitors.”
As Mises insightfully wrote:
“Nationalist ideology divides society vertically; the socialist ideology divides society horizontally.”
Mises referred to such doctrines as types of “warfare sociology.” He brilliantly identified the intellectual fallacies of warfare sociology as the philosophical basis for the 20th century quasi-religion of “etatism”: faith in and devotion to the omnipotent state.
What Mises didn’t fully realize was that it was the institutional incentives of the people’s state (which he too thought was a necessary bulwark for liberty) that made warfare sociology—nationalism and socialism—so alluring.
Revolutionary France was the birthplace of the thoroughgoing modern people’s state. Because of that, it was also the cradle of modern nationalism and socialism.
Throughout the 19th century, all four earth-shaking ideas—liberalism, the people’s state, nationalism, and socialism—spread like wildfire through the minds of Europe. And the flames chiefly emanated from Revolutionary France.
For example, starting in the 1800s, nationalism spread from France to Germany, in part by way of Napoleon’s impact on Fichte. And starting in the 1830s, socialism spread from France to Germany, in part by way of the Saint-Simonians’ impact on Marx.
And in the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s invasions, over the course of a hundred years, one monarchy after another teetered or toppled, as parliaments were empowered and republics were established.
Yet, in the very century that liberalism had begun emancipating humanity from servitude and poverty and filling the world with modern marvels, nationalism and socialism were laying the ideological groundwork for turning those modern marvels against humanity and inflicting upon the world unprecedented levels of oppression, mass killing, and manufactured deprivation.
At the beginning of the 20th century, nationalism eclipsed all else, culminating in the nationalist Ragnarök of World War I. The Great War was unprecedented in its brutality, rang the final death knell of liberalism, and accelerated the political rise of socialism throughout Europe, most significantly in Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, but also democratically in the interwar republics. With liberalism vanquished, nationalism vied with socialism until the two merged, most significantly in the—initially democratic—rise of Nazism (National Socialism) in Germany. Under “fathers of the people” like Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, the most inhuman atrocities were inflicted upon individuals in the name of the nation, the workers, the people. The beautiful civilization of Europe, birthplace of modern liberty, was marred with slave camps, death camps, gulags, man-made famines, and all the horrors of total war described earlier.
Liberals hoped the people’s state would secure liberty. Instead, it gave rise to nationalism and socialism, which in turn gave rise to most totalitarian, murderous regimes in human history.
What Went Wrong
Again we must ask, as Constant did two centuries ago: what went so wrong? It all goes back to the reliance of the original liberals on the people’s state. Locke’s notion of a hireling, representative government simply misunderstood the nature of the state. Legal plunder is not a “perversion” of the state, but its actual, primary function. As liberals came to discover through their pursuit of “legal plunder” theory, the state is and has always been a parasitic protection racket. It doesn’t tax in order to protect, but “protects” in order to tax. Like in the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man,” the state’s “social contract” is not a service agreement, but a cookbook. “To protect and serve,” indeed, Mr. Policeman writing me a $200 ticket.
The true basis of whatever amount of liberty we manage to retain and reclaim stems, not from the state but in spite of it: from our growing realization (whether as a vague sense or a full understanding) of the state’s kleptocratic nature, and our stubborn intolerance of depredation that results from that realization.
That all-important realization is precluded by the belief in the people’s state: by the conceit that “the State is us.” But the State is not us. There is no such thing as “rule by the people,” because there is no such thing as “the people.” There are only individuals. There is no such thing as a “general will.” Only individuals have wills. “The People” is an incoherent abstraction: a fictional, willful entity that we have been inculcated into believing in, even though we cannot comprehend it. The revolutions from 1688 to 1917 replaced one superstitious basis of state legitimacy with a new one. The king and state clergy graced by an incomprehensible god have been supplanted by a commander-in-chief and technocratic bureaucracy graced by an incomprehensible entity called “the people.” The new superstition is even more powerful and dangerous than the old, because it involves the tempting delusion of self-service through participation in state power.
It is also more powerful and dangerous because it is a superstition that feeds, and feeds on, avarice, belligerence, and collectivism. It provides an easy lever for the state to use to divide and rule. Simply declare a foreign war, and nationalists will rally around the people’s state to achieve the national unity necessary to overwhelm and plunder foreign enemies. Simply declare a class war, and socialists and other class warriors (social justice warriors, crony capitalists, etc) will rally around the people’s state to achieve the class unity necessary to overwhelm and plunder domestic enemies. By extending an open invitation to participate in legal plunder, the people’s state divides its subjects into warring factions that are too committed to fighting each other using the state to recognize that its true enemy is the state.
The perils and evils of nationalism and socialism did not end with collapses of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. They haunt us still. The war atrocities and geopolitical crises we are afflicted with today are driven by nationalism, as is the rise of paternalistic demagogues like Donald Trump. And the economic dysfunction and stagnation we are afflicted with today are imposed by the underlying conceits of socialism, as is the rise of demagogic paternalists like Barack Obama.
As young university-bred cultural Marxists and the new insurgent movement of young populist nationalists both continue to radicalize and face off with ever greater hostility, it becomes ever more important to discard our misplaced faith in the people’s state that fosters the conflict and collectivism driving such movements.
Of course this does not lead us to the foolish notion of returning to the princely state. It does not mean abandoning the new superstition to return to the old one. It simply means dispelling superstition altogether and pursuing liberty through a moral revolution of individuals, and not through state revolutions or the incremental revolutions of people’s-state activism.
Such moral progress, and not the structure of government, has been the true source of the triumphs of liberalism all along. As Thomas Paine wrote, “It is wholly owing to the constitution of the people, and not to the constitution of the government that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.”
A non-state-centered revolution in minds and morals is what we need to truly shake the world and to finally shake off the chains of oppression, war, and poverty that bind us.
William Norman Grigg died this afternoon. He was a journalist, broadcaster, editor, musician, father, husband, and a self-described Christian Individualist. He was also my hero.
Will’s main beat was stories about individual victims of the state: particularly Americans who have been unjustly imprisoned or wrongfully assaulted by government officers. His research for each article was exhaustive. From his home in Idaho, he traveled all around the northwest to get the story in person. He would get to know each subject personally, and seek face-to-face interviews with their powerful persecutors. His tireless work has saved several innocent lives from being slowly drained away in prison. He wrote so many pieces about Christopher Tapp, a man who has spent two decades in prison for a murder he did not commit, that the Libertarian Institute, where he was managing editor, will publish a whole book collecting them.
Each essay he wrote was a masterpiece of erudition and eloquence, precision and passion. He did not hurl invective. He simply described each official injustice exactly, stripped of all euphemism, as one would a crime committed by any “mundane” outside of the “punitive priesthood” and devoid of “blue privilege,” to use three of his many incisive coinages. He would illuminate the matter by drawing fascinating parallels from his expansive knowledge of history, literature, and popular culture: especially science fiction, which he loved. And he would slice to pieces the officious justifications of official victimizers with his razor-sharp reason. He was, bar none, the best writer in the liberty movement. And in his painstakingly produced podcast Freedom Zealot and his many interviews with Scott Horton, he seemed to craft final-draft prose as he spoke.
As his colleague Sheldon Richman wrote upon his passing, Will Grigg was, “Principled. Committed. Indefatigable.” It’s true. More than any other writer, Will represented moral true north for me. He suffered much financial hardship for his adamantine insistence upon saying what was right and true.
One of his many fans summed him up as, “Fearless. Loving. Genuine.” Also spot on. He made some very powerful and vindictive individuals very angry in his struggles for justice. It only made him fight harder. His sign-off for every essay and podcast was “Dum spiro pugno: While I breathe, I fight.” And indeed, he fought magnificently for justice and liberty until he breathed his last.
Yet, he was also the sweetest, most gentle man you’d ever meet. He was a warm, adoring father to his children, about whom he wrote moving tributes on Facebook, and a strong, caring husband to his wife. He was a virtuoso on the electric guitar, on which he performed his own soundtrack for his podcast. And his many friends would share videos of adorable animals to his Facebook profile to see what kind of reaction they’d get in the comments from Will, who would always find a new humorous way to express his utter devastation at the sheer cuteness of the creature.
He was just a wonderful, wonderful man.
Time is fleeting. Use it. Live, love, create. Like Will did.
To help support Will’s large family, you can donate to his family fund.
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