TGIF: Fins Left, Right, and Center

Th[e] central question is not clarified, it is obscured, by our common political categories of left, right, and center.

–Carl Oglesby, Containment and Change

You got fins to the left, fins to the right
And you’re the only bait in town.

–Jimmy Buffett, “Fins”

Champions of individual liberty and its prerequisites can’t help but be disheartened by today’s political landscape. For decades the Respectable Center has delivered perpetual war, domestic surveillance and secret police, a national vice squad on steroids, uncontrolled spending, soon-to-be-insolvent “entitlement” programs, sky’s-the-limit borrowing, Fed monetization, alternating inflation and recession, at-best-sluggish economic growth, impediments to economic mobility, and other bad things.

That’s what the “adults in the room” have given us, and that’s what they will keep on giving us. The remarkable improvement in living standards that has reached virtually all levels of American society has occurred demonstrably in spite of, not because of, the government.

No wonder many people are looking for an alternative. So what about the most prominent alternatives? Those would be the nihilist identitarian left and the angry populist, or class-oriented, right and left. The outlook is no less good there.

We can dispatch the identitarians quickly. This is the group whose members think that what matters most about people is their membership in tribes defined by unchosen incidental characteristics. Actual liberals — those who favor individualism and individual freedom  — can muster no enthusiasm for a program that holds the pseudoscientific category of race, the reality-based categories of sex and sexual orientation, or the abused and worse-than-worthless category of gender as central both to personal identity and social status.

So let’s turn to right and left populism. Class leftism may seem promising, but when class analysis comes from ignorant prejudice against commerce and contract, it’s fraught with danger. Class populists (left and right) have never learned that the bogey “corporate power” requires the state‘s power and can’t exist without it. I call it “the most dangerous derivative.” (See my “Wall Street Couldn’t Have Done It Alone.” For an alternative, pro-market class analysis, see Social Class and State Power: Exploring an Alternative Radical Tradition.”)

If populism simply meant the rejection of rule by elites, what sensible person could object to it? Over the last few years we’ve seen what elites with political power can do when they control public health.

Unfortunately, we cannot judge political movements only by what they oppose. What do they favor? Aye, there’s the rub. The populists on both sides will say they favor freedom and democracy, but those two standards clash with each other. If the majority rules, what happens to the minority’s rights and freedom? The populist might concede that some matters ought to be beyond the reach of the majority — political expression, for example — but what and how many matters? The committed democrat will want to keep those matters to the barest minimum — in the name of freedom. It’s a scam.

So again, what about the freedom of the minority, the smallest of which is the individual? Populists evade the question by resorting to what the classical liberal Benjamin Constant called the “liberty of the ancients.” In his 1819 essay, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Liberty of the Moderns,” Constant pointed out that our notion of liberty has changed since antiquity. For the ancients, liberty consisted exclusively of the freedom to participate directly in the political process. As Constant went on:

But if this was what the ancients called liberty, they admitted as compatible with this collective freedom the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community. You find among them almost none of the enjoyments which … form part of the liberty of the moderns. All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion. The right to choose one’s own religious affiliation, a right which we regard as one of the most precious, would have seemed to the ancients a crime and a sacrilege. In the domains which seem to us the most useful, the authority of the social body interposed itself and obstructed the will of individuals. Among the Spartans, Therpandrus could not add a string to his lyre without causing offense to the ephors. In the most domestic of relations the public authority again intervened. The young Lacedaemonian could not visit his new bride freely. In Rome, the censors cast a searching eye over family life. The laws regulated customs, and as customs touch on everything, there was hardly anything that the laws did not regulate.

The world of 1800s modernity, Constant continued, had a different notion: liberty consisted not only of the freedom to participate in governance but also of the right to live a private life, including the right to use one’s property unmolested. As he put it:

First ask yourselves, Gentlemen, what an Englishman, a French-man, and a citizen of the United States of America understand today by the word “liberty”. For each of them it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and 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.

Clearly, the populists subscribe to the ancient notion of liberty, and they may not take umbrage at that statement. Whether left or right, they prefer the coercive communitarian politics of antiquity to the individualism and voluntaryism of Enlightenment liberal modernism.

So no wonder they support restrictions on imports and exports, which interfere with our freedom to trade with whoever is willing to trade with us; immigrant restrictions, which interfere with non-Americans’ freedom to improve their situation and Americans’ freedom to associate with them in all kinds of fruitful ways; and antitrust prosecutions of private tech companies, which interfere with freedom of enterprise and private property.

In each case the populists reject the proven bountiful spontaneous order of markets in favor of collectivist answers both to real and imagined problems. That is, instead of opposing government policies that create and exacerbate problems that are mistakenly attributed to free trade, the free movement of people across arbitrary national borders, and Big Tech as such, they propose that “we” directly address those problems at the ballot box and in the halls of Congress and the offices of unaccountable regulatory agencies. It’s social engineering plain and simple.

However, contrary to populist fantasies, there is no “we” that actually rules. For one thing, who is to be included in — and excluded from — the “we”? That’s a political, not a metaphysical, decision. At best, it’s an exercise in question-begging.

Moreover, the voters’ diverse views and feelings are always filtered through politicians and bureaucrats, whose frame of reference is partly defined by well-connected special interests. Those are the people who will say what if any products we may buy from and sell to non-Americans; which non-Americans we may and may not socialize with, hire, sell to, and rent to; and what disfavored private companies may do with their own assets.

In other words, populism in the end resembles elitism — except, as Bryan Caplan argues, at least elites tend to be more economically literate than the masses and so might be “the lesser poison.” In public opinion polling, the more-educated respondents are more likely to be favorable to trade with foreigners and immigration. Caplan credits elites with watering down the masses’ most extreme demands for protectionism and closed borders, if not quashing them entirely. As he once tweeted, “Elites’ problem isn’t being ‘out of touch’ with masses. Elites’ problem is denying how irrational masses really are.” For any card-carrying populist, this is heresy. (See Caplan’s book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. I review it here.)

To their credit, the populists of left and right support free political speech (although they erroneously apply the same standard to the government and to private firms) and oppose foreign military intervention. But this group — which comprises such otherwise diverse people as Batya Ungar-Sargon of Newsweek, Glenn Greenwald of System Update, Brendan O’Neill of Spiked, and Tucker Carlson of Fox News — would have the government spend the savings due to a noninterventionist foreign policy domestically rather than leaving it in the pockets of the taxpayers, who after all are the ones who earned it through the production of wealth for consumers.

Contrary to the populists, the alternative to democracy is not some flavor of authoritarian elitism. It’s what’s F. A. Hayek called the market order, which is rooted in individual freedom — in a word, libertarianism.

Triangulating a Definition of Libertarianism

There was a time when the word “liberal” meant something closer to what we currently mean when we say “libertarian.” This should not be surprising, since the root word of both is “liberty.” Unfortunately, the definition of “liberal” has drifted—and various liberal ideals have drifted along with it.

Take rights, for example. Liberals from John Locke to Thomas Jefferson have always been known for their advocacy for people’s rights. In their time, the word “rights” referred to things that it is wrong to forcibly prevent someone from doing. Nowadays, the word often refers instead to anything the speaker wants the government to provide.

To see this change clearly, consider the U.S. Constitution’s “right to bear arms.” It was never taken to mean that the government should buy you a gun. It meant that neither the government nor anyone else is justified in forcibly stopping you from peacefully acquiring one. Compare this to modern advocacy for “the right to healthcare.” This is commonly taken to mean that the government must provide people with healthcare, and is justified in forcibly taxing non-consenting citizens to do so. Because of this shift, many people today describe themselves as “liberals” while advocating for illiberal ideas like government controlled healthcare, secure in the belief that they are simply standing up for people’s rightsjust like Jefferson and Locke!

To the average American, “liberal” now means what “progressive” or “socialist” once meant. Ironic, since those groups were always among the primary enemies of liberalism. It is not clear whether this was a deliberate infiltration and corruption of the movement, or simply an accident of linguistic evolution. Do modern liberals not know that they are using the word “rights” differently from Jefferson and Locke, or do they just not care? Either way, it is clear that the change has heavily hampered those in favor of liberty. Classical liberals spent a long time developing a good name for themselves, only to have it stolen by their enemies—intentionally or not.

The liberal movement had to rebrand itself as “libertarian.” Or, perhaps the true, hardcore liberals created an offshoot movement known as “libertarianism” when the original movement died out. It is hard to say whether it is still the same movement after a generation of development and a name change—it’s a Ship of Theseus problem, compounded by the Athenians renaming the ship. But if the ship of liberalism can still be said to exist, its bow now reads Libertarian.

There is a danger that our new label may succumb to the same fate as the old one. Language changes. Any other words we use to establish clearly what we mean by “libertarian” can simply be twisted by the unscrupulous or ignorant to use our label while rejecting our philosophy.

To see how this might happen, let us look at some definitions provided by important libertarian figures, and see if we can corrupt them. Many consider Murray Rothbard to be the quintessential libertarian, so we shall start with him.

“The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else.”

-Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty

This is trivial to corrupt. I could claim that trespassing on your property is not violence, but forcibly ejecting me from your property is. Therefore, defending your property from trespassers is against libertarian values. I would, of course, need to ignore what Rothbard would say about this interpretation, just as modern “liberals” ignore Locke. It would be a perversion of the original meaning of the author, but if libertarianism becomes successful, there will be significant incentive to pervert it. Many will want to use the label for social or political reasons while rejecting—or even violating—libertarian ideals. Once the incentive to pervert our language has had enough time to do what incentives do, the definitions of “physical violence” and “aggression” will change, and it will no longer seem like a perversion.

In the libertarian sphere, Rothbard’s opposite is probably David Friedman—a dichotomy which Rothbard himself endorsed in his essayDo You Hate The State?” By quoting both, we will hopefully cover as broad a range of libertarian views as is possible with two examples.

“The central idea of libertarianism is that people should be permitted to run their own lives as they wish. We totally reject the idea that people must be forcibly protected from themselves.”

-David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom

This, too, is easily corruptible. There are multiple ways of interpreting “permitted.” I could say that by publicly criticizing your choices, I am applying social pressure, thus not permitting you to make them. Therefore, libertarians oppose criticism of personal choices. Again, it is obvious to us that this is a distortion of the author’s intent. Again, it will not be so obvious after a little linguistic drift.

Tackling this problem may seem hopeless, but fortunately it has already been solved by the Global Positioning System (GPS).

A single GPS satellite does not know where your phone is, only how far away it is relative to the satellite. This narrows down your location to somewhere on the border of an imaginary sphere surrounding the satellite. Because we can assume you are on the surface of the Earth, this sphere’s intersection with the Earth forms a circle of possible locations. It takes two more satellites to pinpoint your location accurately enough to be useful. The second satellite narrows it down to two points—where those two circles intersect—and the third narrows it down to one of those two intersections. This is often called “triangulation,” but apparently that is a misnomer, and it should be referred to as “trilateration.”

This is, of course, a huge oversimplification of how GPS works, but the principle is what is important: When you have information on something’s proximity to a certain point, you can narrow its location down further by considering its proximity to additional points.

By analogy, it is possible that we can reduce the uncertainty in the definition of libertarianism by defining it not just once, but three times, all while making it clear that all three definitions amount to the same thing. It is easy to shift the meaning of one definition. It is much harder to shift the meaning of three different yet synonymous definitions while maintaining synonymy.

With all that out of the way, here are three ways of defining libertarianism, all of which are not obviously synonymous unless you understand them in the way that current libertarians do:

  1. A libertarian is someone who advocates for liberty.

Liberty is the right to freely act without being interfered with by others, so long as you do not interfere with the ability of others to do the same.

      2. A libertarian is someone who advocates for private property rights.

Private property rights mean that control of things is allocated to individuals. I control my property, you control yours.

      3. A libertarian is someone who advocates for voluntary interaction.

An interaction which is voluntary is one to which all parties involved consent.

Read definition one again, and consider this: If liberty only covers actions which do not prevent others from exercising their own liberty, what do we make of the mutual exclusivity of action? When I drink a beer, you can no longer drink it. When I play a guitar, you can not play it at the same time in the same way. When I do anything, I prevent you from doing something. Does a commitment to liberty require that we never do anything, lest we impede the liberty of others? In fact, even doing nothing would fail to solve the problem, because by standing still, I am preventing you from standing in the same spot!

This is why the concept of liberty is useless unless without some concept of property. Once we define liberty within the bounds of property rights, then whether you are violating my right to drink that beer when you drink it yourself depends on whose beer it is. If it is your beer, then you are not violating my right to drink it; because I have no such right. However, if I drink your beer without your permission then I am violating your right to drink it; because you do have such a right. In definition one, being “interfered with by others” means having your property rights violated.

Furthermore, property rights are inherently individualistic (or private) because if two people are said to both own the same thing, then it has not been established who takes precedence when they both want to use it for mutually exclusive purposes. Whatever you use to establish who does have the right to use it is your true concept of property.

That is how definitions one and two are the same. Saying that private property rights must be upheld is the same as saying that people must have liberty. Both mean that we have the right to do what we will with what is ours.

This is also the same as saying that all interaction should be voluntary. As per definition three, an interaction which is voluntary is an interaction in which everyone involved consents. In this context, “everyone involved” means the owners of the property involved. When I take a taxi ride, this involves three property owners: I own my body and my money, the taxi driver owns his body, and the taxi company owns the car (we’ll ignore the road for now; I don’t want to trigger my libertarian readership). If all three of us consent then the interaction is voluntary by a libertarian definition. A rival taxi driver might not consent, but that does not matter, because he does not own any of the property involved. If we did not make this distinction, then the only interactions which would be classed as voluntary would be interactions with which everyone in the world agreed. Thus, libertarians understand that to have any usefulness, voluntary interaction must be defined by individuals exercising their liberty with respect to their own private property.

Some may try to claim that by their definition, our taxi hypothetical is not really voluntary. A socialist, for example, might say that the taxi driver will starve if he does not do the job, and that for an action to be truly voluntary it cannot be a decision made under such conditions. Therefore, the socialist argues, the hypothetical transaction is anti-libertarian. He may then even argue that, by extension, all of capitalism is anti-libertarian as well. Capitalism is simply libertarianism applied to capital goods, so a corruption of our definitions which classifies capitalism as anti-libertarian is a dire corruption indeed. How does our trilateration approach deal with it?

First of all, it is ridiculous to posit starvation under capitalism. If someone actually starved to death due to poverty in even a relatively capitalist country, this would be big news. We do not see such news, indicating that it simply does not happen. But we will put that to one side. The important point here is that even if he would starve, the interaction remains voluntary.

Perhaps the socialist definition of “voluntary” requires that nobody will starve if they do not participate, but the libertarian definition does not. This is not to say that we are indifferent to people starving, only that it is not part of our definition of voluntary. To libertarians, voluntary interaction is just another way of looking at liberty or private property. My money is not the taxi driver’s private property, therefore it is not a violation of his liberty to withhold it until he performs the job, and therefore the interaction is voluntary.

For another example, consider a Republican arguing that eminent domain is consistent with libertarian values, because once the government declares ownership of some land, it is the legitimate property of said government. Furthermore, argues the Republican, the previous owner was compensated for the land, thus the government acquired that property in a legitimate exchange. This is certainly a concept of property, but it is clearly not the libertarian concept of property. A legitimate transfer of private property is determined not by compensation, but by voluntary interaction. It does not matter what you give someone in exchange for taking his property. If he does not voluntarily agree to relinquish it, then the property still belongs to him, and he has the liberty to refuse the offer. Again, all it takes to understand that the Republican is misrepresenting libertarian values is the premise that advocacy for private property is synonymous with advocacy for liberty and voluntary interaction.

This is not the same as the current strategy of simply referring to a definition provided by an important libertarian figure to expose the misrepresentation of a word—the words in that definition can always just be misrepresented as well. Instead, we are referring to three definitions (or a single definition with three parts) all of which are declared to be synonymous, and which thereby mutually hold one another in check.

It is possible to imagine the definition of “private property” drifting to include anything the government declares ownership of, the definition of “voluntary interaction” drifting to require interactions to include alternatives which are sufficiently desirable, and the definition of “liberty” drifting to require people to be free of any social pressure. But once these drifts happen, our three definitions of libertarianism are no longer synonymous.

You may be able to misrepresent the locations of the GPS satellites to some degree, but the further you misrepresent them, the greater the chance that the circles of possible coordinates will no longer intersect, exposing the misrepresentation.

This defense is not perfect. If you’re looking for a flawless method of using words to pin down other words, you’ll be searching until the end of time. Mere words can not replace the need for eternal vigilance by those within the movement. But that is different from saying that good definitions do not help at all. So if you want a definition of libertarianism that is less susceptible to corruption, try this one: A libertarian is someone who advocates for liberty, private property, and voluntary interaction, and sees all three as fundamentally the same thing.

Rage Against the War Machine (Together!)

The war in Ukraine has trundled on for nearly a year now, and it is hard to see an end in sight—barring nuclear conflagration. Stunningly, an increasing number of political leaders seem to believe that the outcome of the conflict will be “worth it,” to invoke the phrase used by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in assessing the hundreds of thousands of dead children caused directly by U.S. foreign policy in Iraq in the 1990s. The difference in this case is that the victims of the mistakes made by “my missile is bigger than yours” politicians will affect not only the pocket books but the existential future of the very people who pay their salaries. How have we arrived at a place where ordinary citizens permit the siphoning off of billions upon billions of their tax revenue to fuel and expand a conflict which could, given the nuclear capacity of Russia, lead to the end of their very own lives? (And why, pray tell, did Henry Kissinger change his mind?)

Charitably, I would say that most of the people who display Ukrainian flags in front of their homes or on their social media platforms, like those who tied yellow ribbons around trees all over the United States in 1991 in a maudlin show of solidarity with the soldiers sent to “liberate” Kuwait (note: still a monarchic state), have not fully processed the range of plausible endgames in the present case. It is one thing when the world’s sole superpower sets out to take down the tinpot tyrants of third world outposts—Saddam Hussein, Moammar Qaddafi, the Taliban (note: who rule Afghanistan again today, millions of lives and trillions of dollars since the 2001 U.S. invasion)—and quite another when the targeted regime possesses a nuclear arsenal which, with the push of a button, could initiate World War III and the instantaneous annihilation of human beings on a scale not seen since 1945.

Russia possesses all means necessary to retaliate to the Nord Stream sabotage, though to date it has displayed restraint. But President Vladimir Putin’s patience continues to be tested by taunting U.S. statesmen who recklessly endanger the lives of their constituents, most of whom have no way to protect themselves should they be unlucky enough to live somewhere to come under nuclear attack. New York City put out a public service announcement about what to do in the event of a nuclear war, but the truth is that elites themselves are the only persons with access to effective fallout shelters. Yet the populace continues, along with their oligarchic leaders, to cheer on this senseless conflict to the point where it could very well trigger a ricochet of nuclear missile launches set in motion by whichever fallible individual with the power to do so becomes exasperated first.

Under the circumstances, provoking Russia, through repeatedly informing Putin that his end is near, makes about as much sense as it would for—well, to be perfectly frank: nothing is more senseless. It is not only dangerous and irresponsible to do such a thing, it is in fact incompetent as a basic policy position. The fact that so many people continue to support this madness—with Germany having recently agreed to send tanks to Ukraine, bringing the European Union into the chaotic fray—does not bode well for our collective future.

With the ongoing provision of more weapons and money to Ukraine, soldiers and civilians alike are being effectively sacrificed to the military-industrial complex (MIC). The for-profit companies directly involved in arming governments abroad—crony capitalist corporate giants such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, et al.—have enjoyed significant increases in stock values over the past year, even as the rest of the market founders. The populace paying for the policy-generated death industry windfalls is either blithely unaware or else has been propagandized to believe that somehow the profit motive is irrelevant.

Ignoring economic reality, and the role played by figures such as former Raytheon board member turned current Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the useful idiots who continue to agitate for war appear to believe that, despite the well-documented corruption of the Ukrainian government, they are somehow defending “democracy.” This tried-and-true trope also worked wonders to galvanize and maintain support for the “liberation” of Afghanistan, which continued on for a full decade after Osama bin Laden had been eliminated. Given the corruption, destruction and death sown throughout that land, and the fact that the Taliban is once again in charge, it would be difficult to deny that two decades of the application of military force left Afghanistan worse, not better off.

Do the persons whose lives are now being curtailed in Ukraine know that they have become cannon fodder for the very same voracious military machine as they march toward their all-too-imminent demise? Given the mercenary forces clearly driving an otherwise insane policy, it is time to pause to consider how it came to be that so many people holding no stocks in Raytheon could willfully support an initiative which flagrantly undermines their very own interests.

A clue can be found in a recent text by David Swanson, the great antiwar activist who has opposed every war waged by the U.S. government in recent history with unparalleled vigor and intellectual clarity. Swanson recently issued an apologia for his decision to consort with libertarians at the upcoming antiwar rally “Rage Against the War Machine,” to be held in Washington, DC, on February 19, 2023. Apparently to placate his largely progressive (or at least self-styled progressive) readership, he penned an essay, “How Dare I Oppose War Together With Libertarians?” Swanson was understandably perturbed by the barrage of criticism he had received for agreeing to close ranks with, of all people, a coalition of libertarians, many of whom—adding insult to progressive injury—are social conservatives. He paraphrased the concern of his critics as follows: why would I team up with or even be seen with people who oppose war because it costs money?

That characterization of libertarians needless to say caught my eye and frankly surprised me, given how evidently astute Swanson is. For those unfamiliar with his work, it will suffice to read any of his inimitable books to recognize immediately that David Swanson is nothing like the useful idiots who parrot regime talking points. But that libertarians oppose war “because it costs money” is indeed a regime talking point, and that’s only the opening salvo of the establishment’s wide-ranging campaign to discredit libertarians. We have seen former CIA director John Brennan and other supposed “experts” trotted out on mainstream media go much further, by “informing” viewers that libertarians are among the gravest dangers to the United States today, forming a part of an evil alliance of “domestic extremists” and “potential terrorists.”

Anyone who falls for such a line obviously has no idea what libertarianism is. True, libertarians may disagree about the specific policy implications of their political allegiance, but they share a commitment to the principle of non-aggression (NAP). The reason why war is wrong, according to libertarians, is not because it costs money, but because it exacts violence upon innocent persons, maiming and terrorizing some of them, while wiping others completely from the face of the earth.

I am not convinced that Swanson himself actually believes that libertarians oppose war only because “it costs money.” But I would be surprised if many of his MSNBC-saturated readers did not believe such a thing, and so he may simply have opted to take them on their own terms in explaining why he is linking arms with libertarians for the protest in D.C. The problem with such an approach is that it plays right into the regime’s hands. For the government propaganda machine wants nothing more than to convince the populace that the most consistent and persistent, the most articulate and outspoken opponents to war are in fact a group of “nutcase” extremists who need to be prevented from wreaking havoc in the homeland à la other radical factions, which should and will likely call to mind Al Qaeda, ISIS, et al.

In other words, by playing along with the propaganda line according to which libertarians are a menace to democracy and freedom (irony of ironies…), Swanson helps to perpetuate the very sorts of falsehoods which in fact explain why today the Republican and Democratic parties form an impenetrable War Party duopoly. If the only opponents to the endless wars are “nutcases”—take your pick: either hopelessly quixotic hippies and pacifists, or alt-right white supremacists—then self-styled normal people will be even more inclined to go along with the dominant party line (bombs away!), for fear that they themselves may otherwise be lumped together with the enemies of society.

The antidote to pro-military regime propaganda cannot be to accept their talking points: that war opponents are either cowardly and unrealistic, or else lunatic fringe domestic terrorists. By commencing from the line of attack being used against principled war opponents who self-identify as libertarians, by pretending that the only reason they oppose war is because they are selfish and niggardly, Swanson can only reinforce the very war-mongering which he himself works so tirelessly to expose and oppose. But how, his readers want to know, can he claim to be a fine upstanding progressive while simultaneously giving speeches on a stage shared by people who believe such “inanity” as that “taxation is theft?”

The solution, I believe, inheres in recognizing that in the current circumstances, where the very real chance of a nuclear war increases with each new infusion of arms and cash into the Ukraine-Russia  border dispute, we must set to one side all of our disagreements on everything else. Libertarians and progressives needless to say disagree about many issues. But libertarians, too, disagree among themselves about all sorts of topics—to give one salient example: abortion.

I myself believe that abortion is a genuine moral dilemma, given the various interests at stake and the reality of consequences likely to ensue should women not be permitted to make decisions about their future life and that of their potential offspring. Yes, we should all be grateful that our own parents did not choose to eliminate us, but that alone does not, in my view, resolve the deeply vexing moral dilemma of abortion.

Nor is the case settled by the fact that well-meaning antiwar progressives, who obviously are not murderers, have often rallied for a woman’s right to choose. Some of us are right about abortion, and others are wrong, if in fact morality is absolute. My own position is that it may be the case that abortion is wrong, but it is a case where, given the complexity and infinitely debatable issues involved, morality neither should nor can be effectively legislated. To say that abortion cannot be effectively legislated is to observe that women will continue to seek and obtain abortions, whatever the current law of the land happens to be. But making it dangerous, and even deadly, for poor women to do so, while wealthy women will simply travel to a place where the procedure is legal, is not a satisfactory solution to the dilemma.

I may of course be wrong about all of this, and libertarians do not, as a group, hold a univocal view on abortion, above all, because the moral personhood status of the fetus is itself open to quasi-infinite debate. While I therefore agree with progressives on the policy position of allowing women to possibly commit what could be viewed by some as murder (although I reject the evil intention ascribed by some pro-life activists to women who seek abortions, particularly in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the mother’s life), I disagree that this is an easy or obvious choice. Having an abortion is not, for most women, just another form of birth control, nor is it similar to getting a hair cut.

War, in contrast, indisputably involves ending the lives of already existent, fully developed, and conscious moral persons. For those who oppose acts of aggression against nonthreatening persons, there is no real place for debate in this case. This is why libertarians, while often disagreeing about other matters, agree as a group that wars of aggression cannot be condoned, and indeed must be opposed. The U.S. government should never have invaded Iraq, and the Russian government should never have invaded Ukraine. To say that the leaders of either government had “good intentions,” wishing only to defend their people’s own interests is beside the point. War is never a case of retributive justice because most of the victims have absolutely nothing to do with the acts which precipitate retaliation. The fact that 3,000 people were killed on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, in no way justified the slaughter or degradation of the lives of millions more innocent people throughout the Middle East.

Similarly, the fact that Russia made the mistake of invading Ukraine—whether provoked or not by legitimate security concerns—in no way justifies subsequent policies which ensure that even more death and destruction will ensue. But from the libertarian’s principled non-aggression stance, the wrongness of the U.S. and Russian invasions has nothing whatsoever to do with money. Progressives believe that the trillions of dollars spent on the feckless “Global War on Terror” might have been used to fix the nation’s infrastructure, to cut student debt, to solve the homeless and opioid crises, among a long list of other wishlist items. Libertarians are far more likely to support a reduction in taxation, allowing individuals to do with their money as they see fit, including, should they wish, to use it for charitable endeavors. But what makes the wars wrong, for libertarians, is not that they were a waste of money which might have been better spent.

War is wrong because it involves the destruction of innocent persons and along with them the annihilation of their rights and values. Through waging war, select groups of politicians, acting as oligarchs, pay for their geopolitical projects in human coin, and this is always and everywhere wrong. Disagreements between different human beings, including political leaders, inevitably arise. Negotiation is always and everywhere available, and it will in fact eventually be used at the end of every military conflict. The only question for warmakers is this: how many people should we allow to be killed before agreeing to roll up our sleeves and sit down at the negotiation table to iron out our differences?

The powerful pro-intervention forces controlling the mainstream media today, and censoring social media as well, have remarkably succeeded in persuading much of the populace to believe that somehow diplomatic measures are weak. In reality, war is the most tyrannical and intellectually impotent of means. The marketplace of ideas is essential to democracy because none of us is right about everything. War terminates the very possibility of dialogue among those who are killed, thus refuting claims by the propagandists to be defending democracy.

Whether we oppose war because it is anti-democratic, because it is a lie, because it is a delusion, or because it is a moral abomination and a crime against humanity, we should seek to recognize the light of truth shining in our fellow antiwar allies’ eyes and charitably ascribe to them the best, not the most ignoble, of intentions. What matters more than anything else at this perilous and decisive moment of history is that all of us who oppose the practice of state-inflicted mass homicide, which invariably kills entirely innocent people, set our other differences aside for a time and come together to stop what is starting to look like the inexorable march to nuclear war. If we do not succeed in this quest, then there will be nothing left for us to debate. We will no longer be able to bicker over Social Security, healthcare, retributive entitlements, abortion, or anything else. We will have allowed amoral, mercenary forces to destroy our world and ourselves along with it.

What is the White Pill? Ep. 245 with Keith Knight

Patrick joins Keith Knight to discuss Michael Malice’s The White Pill. 

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Show Notes:

The White Pill by Michael Malice

Michael Malice on Twitter

Keith Knight on Twitter

TGIF: Don’t Blame Wokeism on the Unfinished Liberal Revolution

The National Conservatives are not only wrong about genuine liberalism — that is, libertarianism — they also apparently haven’t bothered to read up on what they think they’re attacking. Take Yoram Hazony, author of Conservatism: A Rediscovery, who recently appeared on the YouTube show Triggernometry. As Hazony makes clear, for him it’s straw men all the way down.

Throughout the interview he uses the word liberalism for the philosophy he blames for saddling the West with wokeism. That’s unfortunate because people use that term in many ways. What definition does he have in mind? I think we can infer that he means something like libertarianism (and not, say, Nancy Pelosi’s “liberalism”) since he faults the philosophy for its powerful commitment to free markets. Although he’s not thoroughly opposed to free enterprise, he favors a government strong enough to step in when the “national interest” (ascertained by whom?) requires it. National conservatism without a commitment to government power to override the free market would be like a square circle.

Like other right-wing critics of libertarianism, Hazony believes that Western societies are in the woke soup because Enlightenment liberalism is intrinsically prostrate before its leftist adversaries. Why would that be? In his eyes, it’s because liberalism’s only message is this: do your own thing. He told Frances Foster and Konstantin Kisin:

If you [liberals, presumably] raise children and you tell them, “Look, do whatever you want. Do whatever feels good. Use your own reason, exercise your own thinking, and come to your own conclusions, and you don’t give them anything else, a great many people, maybe the majority, end up stuck and unable to make the decisions among, you know, what exactly is it I’m supposed to do and what is it I’m supposed to believe.

I have no idea why Hazony thinks that liberalism teaches people to do whatever feels good, or that, as he says elsewhere, that freedom is “all they need.” One of the first things liberal parents would teach their children is to respect other people’s rights: specifically, don’t hit other kids and don’t take their stuff without asking.

By the way, “do whatever feels good” is hardly the same as “use your own reason, exercise your own thinking, and come to your own conclusions.” How does Hazony not see that?

Further, using your own reason does not mean: don’t read history, don’t learn from others’ experiences, don’t absorb the moral and political lessons of those who came before. Liberalism is not about the individual’s starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel. Rather, it means that you shouldn’t blindly accept what others tell you. Use your head. We have much to learn from other people and other ages. So what’s Hazony’s real beef with liberalism?

As this makes clear, he clearly doesn’t know what liberalism is, but he’s certain he knows what it has wrought:

Liberalism is what brought woke neo-Marxism. Every single institution that the woke neo-Marxists are running now was a liberal institution 15 years ago. So if liberalism had the antibodies, if it was enough to say let’s just be free, if that was strong enough to be able to defeat woke neo-Marxism we wouldn’t be where we are today….

Liberalism brought Marxism.

Have you noticed how everything the woke left favors these days — to be sure, genuinely abhorrent stuff — is reflexively condemned by the right as “neo-Marxist” — even when the idea in question has nothing to do with the material forces of history and economic classes? You’d think Marxism was the only evil in the world. Actually, It’s not.

Sometimes, when Hazony thinks he’s scored points on liberalism, he sounds a bit like a liberal, such as when he reminds us that each individual is born into a culture, which ought not to be automatically rejected. The reason he doesn’t realize that liberals can agree with this is that he thinks — wrongly — that liberals are Jacobins, who aspire to wipe the social slate clean and start over. Some liberals have occasionally sounded like they’re saying something like that, but to suggest that Jacobinism or utopianism is intrinsic to liberalism is to do a disservice to an honorable and valuable — yes — heritage.

While Hazony concedes that it might be okay to reject some inherited traditions, he seems uncomfortable with that prospect. As he puts it, your forebears “hand[ed] down things [and] you have a responsibility to fight for those things.” Why? Because they were handed down?

I prefer Thomas Sowell’s take: another culture may well have features that are better than one’s own — superior at dealing with an aspect of life.

The entire history of the human race, the rise of man from the caves, has been marked by transfers of cultural advances from one group to another and from one civilization to another….

Cultures exist to serve the vital practical requirements of human life — to structure a society so as to perpetuate the species, to pass on the hard-earned knowledge and experience of generations past and centuries past to the young and inexperienced, in order to spare the next generation the costly and dangerous process of learning everything all over again from scratch through trial and error — including fatal errors.

Cultures exist so that people can know how to get food and put a roof over their head, how to cure the sick, how to cope with the death of loved ones, and how to get along with the living. Cultures are not bumper stickers. They are living, changing ways of doing all the things that have to be done in life. [Emphasis added.]

Every culture discards over time the things which no longer do the job or which don’t do the job as well as things borrowed from other cultures. Each individual does this, consciously or not, on a day-to-day basis. [Watch the video; read the text.]

Problems with change occur not when people are free to adopt “the stranger’s ways” (the supposedly scary phrase is from Fiddler on the Roof); they occur when those who favor change have access to state power — especially when government controls or strongly influences education, the media, and other commanding heights. Then some people, however well-meaning, can potentially impose their preferences on the rest.

Without access to power, people are free to adopt changes for themselves and try to persuade others, but then they would have to wait to see if the new ways catch on. Change, under those circumstances, tends to happen at the margin, although exceptions can’t be ruled out. (Social contagion is possible.) But even then, free people would have peaceful consensual ways to protect themselves and their children from unwanted change. This is where freedom of association kicks in.

In general it seems reasonable for individuals to provisionally defer to tried-and-true ways because they have apparently passed the cultural natural selection test. Yet one also ought to remain open to demonstrations of better alternatives. Liberalism delivers the best of both: stability without stagnation and dynamism without chaos. But individual rights must be respected.

As a national conservative, Hazony of course favors nationalism. If all he means is that a world of many nation-states is preferable to a global empire, then libertarians stand with him. If we can’t get rid of power, at least let’s disperse it among small competitive jurisdictions. But he means much more than that since he and his fellow National Conservatives favor trade restrictions and other forms of welfare-state industrial policy. And I presume he would oppose secession, at least from nation-states he approves of. (He is an Israeli.)

Hazony commits a major blunder when he says that liberalism is inherently imperialist and that nationalism is inherently anti-imperialist. How does he figure that? Since liberals believe they have identified universal principles, he says, it is committed to imposing those principles on everyone. If you fail to see his logic, I imagine you’re not alone.

Contrary to Hazony, liberalism doesn’t says it has the one true way for everyone to live. Rather, it says all people ought to be free to decide how to live. Liberalism, which seeks to limit state power, doesn’t entail imperialism because that would expand state aggression both domestically and abroad. Thus “liberal imperialism” is a contradiction in terms. Nationalist imperialism, however, is not.

While I wouldn’t expect Hazony to be persuaded by what I’m about to say, I will point out that the alarming and long-standing decline of liberalism can be plausibly explained by its initial incompleteness politically, economically, legally, and even morally. Twentieth-century liberal writers, scholarly and popular, pointed this out repeatedly and tried to do something about it. That’s why they wrote so much. These included Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Leonard Read, Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, and most fundamentally, Ayn Rand, who argued persuasively (to me at least) that as long as a secular or religious ethics of self-sacrifice predominated in a culture, the political-economic-legal system rooted in individualism and private property would never be whole-heartedly embraced because it would be tainted by the alleged sin of “selfishness.”

Even the doctrine of limited government kept liberalism from fully blossoming because, as we’ve learned so often the hard way, limited governments don’t stay limited. (See my article “Anthony de Jasay on Limiting Power.”)

Thus liberalism didn’t yield because it was inherently weak. It yielded because it was fatally compromised from the start. That’s my answer to Hazony’s question of why wokeism has succeeded. We don’t need illiberal national conservatism to win back our freedom.


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