I like to listen to youtube banter to help “catch” my tendency to get distracted from boredom while doing tedious work. A lot of libertarian-orbit commenters are now coming out hard against “post-modernism”. What they mean, effectively, is what used to be called “SJW”. However, I believe Jordan Peterson – a not so bad guy, but who has major flaws and is overrated – has popularized the use of “post-modernism” as the label for our bogeyman here. Others have taken the chance to reconnect this label to the discussions of the Frankfurt School which were common in the 2008 hey days (remember Glenn Beck?).
Thaddeus Russell, on the other hand, is intent on convincing libertarians that post-modernism is a good thing, and a libertarian thing. I think his voice is probably being drowned out for the moment. I think that this is probably a bad thing, for specific reasons. I don’t know if my understanding of this is sound, but I want to lay it out in defense of Thaddeus Russell.
The issue is that there’s “post-modernism,” and then there’s “neo-marxism”. As far as I can tell, these are distinct ideologies. Post-modernism seems to come out of some French social thinkers in the 60s as they rejected society’s imposition of norms and roles on people because of their identities. This is in a sense a philosophy of anti-collectivism. You are saying that it is improper to attach a label to someone because they are a member of a group (a group they are assigned to against their will, in many cases). In this sense, it is libertarian philosophy. Before presenting the counter-argument, I’ll reference what I think “neo-marxism” is.
Neo-marxism is the “SJW”, “critical social theory” ideology that seems to be the source of frustration lately. It’s called neo-marxism, because it in fact fundamentally differs from Marxism. Let me explain.
Imagine a female tv show host complaining that of the top 100 companies in America, only 4 of them have female CEOs. She might complain that this is an injustice. The neo-marxists would demand equal representation, equal pay, every measure to erase any kind of gender difference or hierarchy or advantage. Consider, however, the following:
The ratio of male top 100 CEOs to female is 100:4. However, the ratio of male top 100 CEOs to American males who are not CEOs at all is 100:149,998,000. Which of these two inequities is more profound?
The Classical Marxist would of course want all men and women of the working class to have solidarity and drop concerns over gender in order to focus attention on the wealthy. They’d lambast this female tv host for totally missing the point. What changed?
The Nazis happened.
Germany – particular from the vantage of West German Jewish Marxist intellectuals – was an epiphany. This was the most industrialized nation of the Continent. This was the most intellectually sophisticated nation of the Continent. Germany should have been ground zero for the communist revolution. But it never happened. Moreover, horror of horrors, the evil Nazis took over (most of us find the Nazis to be bad, but to some their worst crime was preventing communism). How could this happen?
In the intellectuals’ minds, the Nazis’ power base was of course the working class (the National Socialist Workers’ Party). Instead of finding solidarity with all workers internationally, these workers found solidarity even with capitalists and aristocrats on the basis of ethnic identity. See, Marxism said that communist revolution was inevitable – it was supposed to just be automatic. So all Marxists were eventually stuck having to explain why it didn’t happen.
The Frankfurt school – as far as I can tell – concluded that these lines of distinction: race, ethnicity, gender, etc. were far more important than Marx had realized. That exploitation wasn’t just between rich and poor, but along these social identity lines as well. Thus, the Nazis.
Therefore, in order to fix the problem and finally have the Marxist revolution, you need to abolish all lines of social identity from the consciousness of humanity, and then, only then, will the distinction between poor and rich be clear enough for the communist paradise to emerge from revolution.
Ironic – a Rousseauean state of nature where the lack of social distinctions represents a paradise, then man, in his first act of absolute infamy, engages in the original sin of making distinctions: woman, man, black, white, tribe A, tribe B, and thereby creates civilization; but civilization is a corrupt hell for most by this original sin; only by perpetual self-abnegation on the part of the exploiters (white men) can the sin be reversed, and paradise reclaimed – a bunch of Jews creating a secular near Calvinism.
Thus neo-marxism’s goals differ distinctly from classical Marxism. Neo-marxism seeks to destroy all categories, so that the revolution can finally occur.
I find it interesting how closely this vision conforms to the classic abusive brainwashing paradigms present in ancient cults and modern secret intelligence services alike. Your identity – who you are – is the problem, it can’t be trusted, you must utterly self-abnegate. And then who picks up the slack after the individual neuters himself? The state, of course, or at least the neo-marxist intellectual – the priest.
So I suspect that the neo-marxists found post-modernism to be useful. It was a set of good arguments and methodology for deconstructing identity. Their use of post-modernism is perhaps behind its taint in the mind of the modern libertarian. I myself don’t blame post-modernism, but I don’t know if I can adequately defend it in light of its relevance to – at least – the neo-marxist political program.
I have some additional personal perspective to bring clarity to the question. I’m a common sensist. Common sense philosophers reject the theory of ideas. There is no such thing as an apple, no platonic form sitting in some other realm, no special kind of mental unit or discrete, maybe permanent, set of percepts to define it. Rather, an apple is just a category of certain observed differences between things. Classical common sense thinking holds that there must be (I find the question a bit more nuanced) an underlying natural reality. There are real relationships and forces which are not only oftentimes consistent, but which form the basis of our observations. The things we call apples have a real presence out there, and thinking of them as apples is tremendously useful, but there is no central unit or form which defines what “apple” is.
My take on post-modernism is that it is flawed but necessary (from my common sense perspective, that is). I hold that it’s appropriate to presume underlying, consistent patterns in reality that are external to my consciousness. For example, I hold that there are consistent enough mechanical reasons why females – not wanting to sit all day upon zippers and so forth – generally don’t prefer the idea of peeing standing up as much or as consistently as males. And it has nothing to do with gender norms. On the other hand, it’s not completely impossible for any body – male or female – to perhaps accomplish “the necessaries” in new ways. Japan, for instance, has these little hygeinic spray device in their toilets which – trust me – are a revelation and totally outside of American habits.
So as much as it really is quite appropriate to presume differences between males and females, and then translate these into different social outcomes, it’s also quite inappropriate to insist upon the absolute nature of a gender norm. Again, as a common sensist I don’t hold to the existence of ideas. There are no genders! But perhaps biological and social phenomena that give rise to behaviors and thus convenient categories that let us economize in the face of consistent phenomena.
I’m no essentialist, but it seems to me a stretch too far to get rid of all distinctions. Prejudice – as some conservative libertarians sometimes argue – is an economic necessity. Economics proves that humans engage in trade and commerce by means of conceiving of categories which arise from observed patterns, which relate them. And, in economics, there are no “fixed” prices. Labor theory of value, for instance, doesn’t reject the “theory of ideas” as strongly as does the Austrian school.
I think it’s a matter of being careful about our prejudice. Of being conscious of really how limited our prejudice is functionally, and how it’s little more than a highly contingent tool of temporary judgment in the face of limited data. Time, resources, additional data – these all would necessarily work against prejudice. And yet, all of our ideas are most likely nothing more than prejudices.
Thaddeus Russell has taught me some things. A recent podcast of his discussed motherhood with a woman obsessed with her birth bile. It was the first time I wanted to just stop listening. Even though he was there making the point that people don’t want to hear about this, and especially men would rather be indifferent, there I was just exactly feeling that way. I didn’t feel guilty either: disgust is what it is. If a thing isn’t my problem, I don’t have to make it my problem just to be a good person on the issue. But this led to a broader thought that reached its apogee tonight when I saw all the anti-postmodernism youtube offerings available.
“If Thad Russell is right that people need to listen to this pregnancy stuff, in this case, what’s the reason?”
My knowledge of “natural reality” is but the set of prejudices I hold as a consequence of data collected from my experiences. My beliefs are neither right or wrong, but rather reflect what I have experienced. If I will then take the leap, and presume an underlying natural reality informing those prejudices, then I must be forever committed to the idea of collecting more data!
My knowledge – my prejudice – is a fragile thing. It shatters with the lightest wisp of wind. It’s strength and continued existence gains life only in renewal, in light of further experience.
I must know what it is that people who are different than me feel and believe. The very premise that I can conceive of there being a difference at all had to have first depended on this acquisition of conditional knowledge. The perceived difference is the imperative to – though maybe not reconcile – understand the difference and embrace its deeper meaning. There’s also a need to let go of categories once they can no longer apply. This takes courage and wit.
Postmodernism heavily focuses on the social realm. Libertarianism, an individualistic philosophy, conceives of a division of labor, economic relationships, and individual rights. Social interaction within libertarianism is a voluntary prospect which comes after law and basic economic norms (the property right) are established. Thus, postmodernism and libertarianism simply have very different areas of emphasis, and might suffer from taking each others’ focus for granted.
Libertarianism, taking the social realm for granted, would be wise to integrate some postmodernism into its social thinking. If the market really does what libertarians claim, then why do we need to fuss over traditional values and gender pronouns? Maybe all-gendered bathrooms, it turns out, are a fine idea. The point is, the degree to which deconstructionism-run-rampant imposes costs on society is the degree to which the market can measure and adjust to those costs. Maybe we should let the market work, and not try to centrally plan our social values?
Whatever are the “real” phenomena of gender and race, etc., the market will surely reflect these and adjust accordingly.
And, for what its worth, I think most libertarians are pretty solid on this. I think that’s why Thad Russell gives us so much leeway when it comes to accepting our economic paradigm. The market is pretty indifferent to the will of the essentialist and central planner alike.
I like to listen to youtube banter to help “catch” my tendency to get distracted from boredom while doing tedious work. A lot of libertarian-orbit commenters are now coming out hard against “post-modernism”. What they mean, effectively, is what used to be called “SJW”. However, I believe Jordan Peterson – a not so bad guy, but who has major flaws and is overrated – has popularized the use of “post-modernism” as the label for our bogeyman here. Others have taken the chance to reconnect this label to the discussions of the Frankfurt School which were common in the 2008 hey days (remember Glenn Beck?).
This article will contain plot spoiler content for the new Star Wars movie. Also, the US Government is using your tax money to help kill thousands of innocents across the Earth. But, anyway, spoiler warning.
I just saw the new Star Wars movie. The plot is a mess, but that’s a discussion for another forum. What I find most interesting about the plot is how it tickles public perceptions about war. There are some serious problems here that need to be unravelled
When George Lucas made the original Star Wars, he deliberately referenced many real world themes in his tale of cosmic conflict. Specifically, he conceived of a group of ragtag freedom fighter rebels opposing a vast military empire in order to represent his views about the United States military adventurism in places like Vietnam (this nypost article is very interesting, noting that Lucas viewed American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now, and Star Wars as a thematic trilogy – he was involved with each – commenting on the impact of the war on American society). Nevertheless, cinematically, Lucas borrowed imagery from movies about WWII in order to present his story of space combat. Thus, the “good war” which justifies American power in the world is used to invoke the idea of righteous soldiering, and yet the object – the adversary – to that soldiering is US power itself. This small irony metastasizes in the most recent Star Wars movie.
The most recent film, The Last Jedi, is directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper). I don’t know his politics.
Before explaining the problems with the movie, I have to cover the plot background.
The original Star Wars trilogy was about a small group of rebels who overthrew a Galactic Empire which ruled through military might. The hallmarks of the Empire’s power were large space battleships with laser canons which could annihilate continents, and a Death Star super station which had the ability to destroy entire planets. The trilogy ended with the unambiguously evil Emperor (literally, a magic space wizard using the powers of darkness) being killed, and the Death Star and much of the Imperial fleet destroyed.
George Lucas added to this trilogy, about 15 years ago, by introducing a trilogy of prequel films. These movies contributed a notion of galactic politics and conspiracy. It turns out, the Chancellor who was using emergency war powers to fight a threat (cough – Iraq), was actually a bad guy who had orchestrated the emergence of that threat and controlled it behind the scenes. This Chancellor made his war powers permanent, to become the Emperor.
And now, two years ago, Disney corporation took the reigns of the property, and have made a sequel trilogy following up after the events of the original. This sequel trilogy proposes that after the defeat of the evil Empire, somehow, some remnant of it ran off to consolidate power and reform, and reemerge. The “good” republic which emerged after the Empire’s defeat is summarily defeated with little fanfare in the first of these movies. The movie which just came out is the second in the trilogy.
Two movies into this trilogy, very little information is given about this new evil threat. They are called the “First Order”, have big, mean looking ships, and seem to just be a rehash of the old Empire. They were painted as an emergent threat just one film ago, but now it seems they are treated as the uncontested rulers of the galaxy. Like I said, the plot is a mess.
What has been said of this adversary, is that they’re “basically the Nazis”.
The good guys of the new films are called “the Resistance”, which I suppose is something different than a rebellion. In the first film, it’s stated that the republic is officially neutral concerning this new, evil empire. Appeasement is what I assume they are trying to criticize. Therefore, these new copy and pasted “rebels” (copied from the plot of the original trilogy) aren’t sanctioned by the official government, despite being on their same side (hence, “resistance”). However, at the start of this new film, the official government is defeated, and the Resistance itself is no more than a half dozen ships and a few hundred people.
The movie does strange things to advance the plot of this situation. First, it doesn’t give context for this new order. Do they have an ideology? What is it? How many ships do they have overall? Does all of the galaxy obey them? What was the point of fighting a war against the Empire in the original trilogy anyway? It didn’t seem like a very long-lived victory.
A brief mention is given to the fact that many people are getting very rich supplying arms to the new order. An even briefer mention suggests that the same arms companies are supplying both sides of the conflict and it’s all a big sham.
The only explanation for how the defeated Empire could reemerge after their defeat last time around is that they have a new, all-powerful space wizard leader now (more powerful than the last, I guess). He is surreptitiously killed in this film, with little explanation as to who he was or what his motivation was. The goals and motivation of the new order, who their leadership is now, and so forth, are equally unclear. As I said, this is two full movies into a three movie plot arc.
There’s more to complain about pertaining to the plot, but it has little to do with politics or war.
A notable scene at the beginning involves a “bombing run” against a space battleship. The bombers and their crews are set up to look very much like you’d imagine an old B-17 flying over Europe to appear. The ships don’t look that way, but the way they move, swerve, the way bombs fall from them – it all evokes the imagery of the mighty 8th. So, it’s fightin’ the Nazis again, I guess.
But what’s the point? That’s what’s problematic about this movie. It invokes war themes, and evokes war imagery, but to what end?
I suppose this could be a simple matter of that thing where “millennial SJW” writers have a hard time connecting to adult ideas. Star Wars is about war right? Or something or other? People, like my great uncle, they care about that stuff right? Didn’t my teacher say Nazis were bad. I heard people care about fightin’ Nazis.
And so, from that, they wrote a plot that they imagined people would care about.
By the end of the film, almost everyone from the Resistance is dead. There are about two dozen people left. The “First Order” is left with an impulsive, uncertain madman at the helm, still with an unclear overall purpose (impose order?) – but apparently they rule the galaxy.
Why did all those people have to die?
In theory, the background politics of Star Wars is fairly sophisticated. The political bodies of the galaxy don’t control the galaxy per se. What they control are access to the hyperspace trade routes to the known parts of the galaxy (Suez, Panama canals). It would be far too costly and impracticable for a political entity to control each and every planet itself with a direct police presence. This is why, in the original trilogy, the Empire needed a Death Star. Planets needed to police themselves, in their compliance with Imperial mandates. The Death Star was a threat to the few who willfully disobeyed.
In this new Star Wars, who exactly is it that this new order controls? Planets directly? Trade routes? The films do briefly mention the use of child slavery. So, is it that they do this at all, or is the problem that they seek to impose it on the whole galaxy?
My impression, reading very deeply between the lines, is that it would be likely that most planets in the galaxy have shrugged their shoulders and said, “fine, we’ll pay a tax and fly your banner from our statehouses,” but are otherwise left alone by this “order”.
See, it’s important how it actually works. The idea of two opposing sides of a battlefield meeting, and clashing, is very primal for human beings. It triggers a mess of different emotions. But, what is rarely asked is: what’s the point?
The real life Hitler had military ambitions which were – just economically – above and beyond anything his military machine was capable of supplying through spoils of war. The only exception would have been if some of the conquered areas welcomed Nazi rule. If you look at Belarus, some of the Soviet defectors, and the Baltic States, you see examples of people oppressed by the Soviet power who sided with the Nazis to gain liberation. Frankly, a limited nationalist state in Russia, comprised of friendly Slavs, was completely consistent with Nazi geopolitical aims. In Latvia today there are still memorial marches where locals dress as the Waffen SS. Maybe I could compare this to the way Texans view the Alamo.
Let me pause to discuss where I’m going here. In my opinion, Nazi ideology was beyond offensive. Specifically, and I mean specifically, the problem was that Nazism seeks to use state power to achieve social order and progress. Everything bad about it derives from that. If you’re a political problem, then the solution is a bullet through your head. See? What wasn’t as deep of a problem, with Nazism – in my opinion – was its ideological trappings. Sure, racism is offensive and sucks. But racism doesn’t kill people. State assertion of power is what kills people, and racism is just a vector.
People on the left today say: “punch a Nazi”. This means that we shouldn’t allow Nazi ideas to be openly preached. Why? Because that’s how you prevent Nazism. That’s – ostensibly – how Nazism was defeated in the 1940s. But this is so wrong. Nazism emerged out of a political environment in which many groups from both sides of the spectrum were using political street violence against each other. Many of them declared an end to speech. You defeat Nazis by defending free speech, not by banning discussion of Nazi ideas.
And this brings us to the idea of using Nazi stand-ins as the object of one’s war violence. What are “resistance” fighting? Against the charging of overly high tariffs on trade corridors – which then goes to fund slavery? Against the phenomenon of some planets being turned into labor colonies? Because in context, there are different ways for societies of people to react to different repressions.
War is political. Politics involves the coordinated interests of groups of people, and where they align and/or clash. War fits into that spectrum awkwardly, like a proverbial elephant.
War imagery evokes emotional responses. But there’s little sense which follows from it.
In the latest Star Wars, I don’t know who they’re fighting, what this enemy’s purpose is, what the scope of its power is, what the specific grievances are, what the Resistance’s purpose is, what its goals are, what it will do once it wins (since the last victory seems to have been short lived).
Totally absent from the spectacle of The Star Wars is any meaningful dissection of war itself and what its purpose is.
We can take for granted that there are always “good guys and bad guys”, who must inevitably fight. And that’s all war is. But man – look guys – I’m not an ancient Babylonian warrior priest, okay. That kind of thing isn’t my religion, and so I find it hard to accept with a straight face.
Star Wars is really popular. So, it has to affect how people think about war – especially kids. What do think this new film is trying to say about war? I can hardly tell. Bad guys kill people? Good guys believe in themselves?
Underneath it all is a commentary that says: hey kids, war just happens you know, can’t control it, it’s just part of the fabric of life, just be a good guy and punch Nazis if you can.
Can you imagine if political correctness wasn’t a thing? We’d have a “new order” of the evil Allahu Akbarians terrorizing the mighty and free New Republic of the Galaxy. Liberals, for all their hypocrisy, have at least suppressed cheap cultural war propaganda during this terror war.
The one glimmer of hope in this new Star Wars story comes from a character who briefly mentions the exploitative nature of war as a scam and charade. Perhaps the final movie of this new trilogy – due to release in just two years – will conclude the story on this note. Perhaps the “good guys” will realize that fighting war is rather pointless, and will instead struggle for their values through means other than industrial conflict killing.
I don’t know how they’d pull it off at this point, but that would be something.
This article is the second in a series of three on new approaches to politics for libertarians. The three approaches can be thought of as a pyramid, where the third approach is the most common and the base, and the first approach is the narrowest and least common. Part one of the series discussed the narrow approach: pragmatic engagement in electoral politics. Part two will now deal with the question of political organization and activity outside of the apparatus of the state.
Libertarians constantly stress over how to reduce the power of the state, and thereby increase individual freedom. As a consequence, libertarians engage in the political process as necessary to achieve a reduction of state power. Unfortunately, conventional electoral politics offer few meaningful pathways to the reduction of state power. Perhaps another approach could be followed. Perhaps there are other ways of understanding and exercising power.
One writer who conceived of power differently was Hannah Arendt. To her, power didn’t lie with violence, but instead with action. From a paper discussing her views:
“Hannah Arendt reproaches our tradition of political philosophy for reducing politics to domination, and for so concealing the central political phenomenon, i.e., power (section one). Since Arendt’s own concept of power is an extension of her concept of action, she understands power in a both non-hierarchical and non-instrumental way, as much distinct from domination as from violence. Furthermore, by stressing the essential relational and potential character of power, she shows the impossibility of human omnipotence (section two). Section three sketches Arendt’s analysis of violent action as an instrumental, mute and solitary activity, which can destroy, but never generate power, and which, therefore, can never be more than a poor substitute for acting together.”1
To Arendt, power is collective action, not domination. The key to power isn’t violence, but the exercise of consent. This viewpoint is highly libertarian. Libertarians discuss human action in terms of how humans make willful choices to engage in economic activity. Deliberate action is the means of human survival and flourishing. Deliberate action is how humans survive in harsh climates, and develop technologies that make life better. Why can’t we conceive of politics in the same way?
Libertarians have a habit of ignoring politics. We favor the idea that the market provides the functions of social organization. Leftists, on the other hand, don’t think the market generates what they consider to be moral social outcomes. They seek a more deliberate mode of social organization, and are therefore more focused on political theory and methodology. Even so, there are reasons for libertarians to pursue political organization.
What is the difference between politics and economics? I argue that politics is economics, rather the economics of conflict. Organized violence has a cost, but can be used to obtain resources. Politics are the means by which we deal with this question of conflict and violence. Libertarians uphold the law as the only morally legitimate means of dispute resolution. Everyone else admits into their world view an allowance for a little bit of conflict.
All societies require, rather, naturally engage in politics. Even a libertarian political solution has to be assented to by those involved with it. We have to go out to each other, talk, confirm what the mutual standards are, test them out, prove them, demonstrate their persistence, and exclude other alternatives. More practically, even as it pertains to electoral politics in an ostensible democratic republic, what matters more than voting is collective action.
Voting doesn’t change laws. Behavior does. When enough people find a law unnecessary or offensive, it will change. And that starts with civil disobedience, willful action, a withdrawal of consent to that law.
True political organization isn’t inside of political parties which raise money then waste it on candidates that won’t win, or otherwise will sell out. True organization allows people to “state craft”. This involves building organization that can defy the state through effective civil disobedience, but also building institutions that serve as substitutes for state functions.
The power to ignore the state, is the power to transcend the state.
The principle of civil disobedience must be familiar to libertarians. In terms of economics, civil disobedience can be thought of as a power auction between the state and its subjects. Enforcement of the law takes resources. If people act, and act collectively – Hannah Arendt’s true power – then the state must use resources and violence to suppress that action. Enough action will prohibitively increase the costs of enforcement. Systematic civil disobedience can represent the “death by a thousand cuts” of at least some of the core paradigms of state power.
Once upon a time it was assumed that monarchy was necessary for government. Resistance to monarchy led to the concept of democracy – the modern state’s dominant paradigm. So, would it be so wrong to challenge the modern democratic paradigm in favor of something even more liberal? To systematically resist the state isn’t anarchy – not that libertarians find that to be a bad word. It’s just more liberalism, or, a continuation of progress. The idea that the state has to be persistently and systematically challenged in a critical concept. The state will always want to create a bubble of safety and stability for itself, but a truly liberal state would accept that its legitimacy must always hang by a thread.
If America is a liberal country, it should have no trouble accepting the idea of the people’s right to constantly challenge the government. If managed responsibly, a persistent engine of civil disobedience could be a new keystone of American politics.
This is what I’m proposing for libertarians to create.
The Radiant Government
Political theory discusses the existence of a “shadow government”. While this sometimes refers to an official “backup government” to take power in the event of catastrophe, it unofficially refers to a nefarious “dark” government. That is, there is a notion of politics which suggests that true power in government rests with a non-transparent political process among the elites. The elites and their networks and politics, not democracy, determine most outcomes that trickle down to government.
What if there was a force of government that stood in opposition to this darkness? A “radiant” government? In this case, “radiant” refers both to the transparent nature of this organization, but also its mode of organization.
The Radiant Government would be an organization of people outside of the state. In order for an organization to exercise power, it has to meet two requirements. First, it has to have organization: it needs a mode of decision making and information sharing. Second, it needs to compel action. The difference between the Radiant Government and conventional government is that the former compels action not through coercion, but through consent.
The people who will act according to the prescriptions of this radiant organization are the people who make it up. The organization would have no power to coerce, so it must reflect the will of those who create it, and earn through effective and consistently good decision making the support of its power base.
A Radiant Government would be organized in a subsidiary fashion. Local political clubs would appoint representatives to regional conferences, which then would have state or national, even, international colleges to discuss and vote on matters. The votes of these bodies would represent the will of these voluntary organizations concerning what “ought” to be done. It is then completely the responsibility of each individual person to follow these prescriptions or not.
If people are enthusiastic and principled, they can achieve powerful results through such an organization. For example, if 30% of Americans chose to forgo payment of taxes, wouldn’t the government collapse? Of course, this would provoke more challenges than it would be worth – most likely. But, a principled organization could negotiate with conventional government for concessions using the threat of non-payment as a bargaining chip. Granted, just by saying this I’m probably inviting the inevitable COINTELPRO infiltration of any such organization. So let’s just say I’m speaking academically.
The purpose of the Radiant Government isn’t just to exercise power against the state. It could be a means to resist state abuses. Police abuse power: what if the Radiant Government was nothing but an organization which could bring resources to bear to demand justice and fairness in the upholding of the law? Even “mundane” activities could justify such an organization. And wouldn’t it be nice for libertarians to have collective power against the state? The state will never represent us, the “Libertarian Party” will never be a meaningful actor within electoral politics. And the many piecemeal civil society organizations are nice, but what if “their powers were combined?”
Thus, the Radiant Government isn’t just an open and transparent government that relies on consent, it’s a governance that grows and expands from the local to national level, penetrating into diverse organizations, and emerging from civil society as a brilliant power.
Libertarians favor the historical phenomenon of state nullification of federal law. These same principles can apply more generally. If government – in the American tradition – requires the consent of the governed, then ought not the people be able to withdraw their consent? If a few do this, naturally they’d be treated as criminals. However, if enough do this, then the state’s power will collapse. The state will have to reorganize on different terms to regain consent. Targeted or small-scale versions of this could apply.
Libertarians need to consider the invocation of “popular nullification” by way of civil disobedience, through the power of a “Radiant Government” organization. Civil society unions of political intent on the basis of liberty.
Such unions and societies would have to be pragmatic as necessary, but could retain a much stronger commitment to principle than engagement in electoral politics would require. Indeed, the two wings could work together.
However, the real value of extra-state political organization comes not from how this organization can resist the state, but rather from how this organization can build a strong civil society.
Should libertarians succeed in building political organizations outside of electoral politics, they must use these to build robust civil society institutions.
A modern society requires advanced social organization. Much of this could be provided by the market. In reality, the state inserts itself into many public functions in order to create relevance for itself. There’s also a need for deliberate social organization. We don’t live in a world where 100% of social, personal, and familial needs are met by the market. So, if we want to rob the state of its reason for existing, we need to try to provide those functions in the civil society.
I believe that the market could provide any function. A sufficiently wealthy and advanced human society would be able to afford ecological preserves for their mere novelty. Short of that future, there might be some who find intangible value from preservation. It is up to them to create organizations that spend money and own property towards the aim of preservation. Otherwise, the state will defend its right to define and maintain national forests.
Normally, these organizations could exist piecemeal and independently. However, with the state in play, it would behoove them to organize to defend each others’ rights against the state. There’s a need to represent the civil society itself as an institution and defend its prerogatives vis-à-vis the state.
Distinctly Libertarian Organizations
In addition to general civil society institutions, there could be a benefit to organizing a union of libertarian institutions to defend their common interests. Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom is a great tool of liberty education. There’s also Ron Paul’s homeschool curriculum. Finally, organizations life Jeffrey Tucker’s Liberty.me and LibertarianInstitute.com, not to mention the venerable Mises Institution all serve to advance liberty education. Couldn’t they all “go in” together on a common effort. It doesn’t have to be pure, it doesn’t have to hold power. But, wherever possible it would make sense to occasionally “combine powers”. This is because these institutions represent, collectively, an “institution” of civil society: the liberty educators.
Libertarians don’t normally like this kind of organization. Let individuals and entrepreneurs do their thing. Guilds can suck. But I’m not proposing a guild. Just an effort at voluntary and limited cooperation where possible.
What about a Liberty Scouts? The Boy Scouts is a great organization, but at its heart is a cardinal sin: that liberty comes from the state. So, libertarians need something else. How about a character-building organization that emphasizes non-aggression, individual confidence and creativity, respect for uniqueness and individuality, but which promotes socializing and group organization in the context of individuality?
Libertarians could construct and promote many institutions of this nature. Many already have created “agorist” institutions, but these are disperse and diluted. There could be a benefit to organizing and combining efforts.
Libertarians, for all the effort we put on the “political debate”, for all the sore feelings from feeling misunderstood by conventional people, could devote our energy and attention to productive organization among ourselves. We could become powerful by ignoring the state. But, it would take effort. We have to be deliberate in our organization as society capable of collective action – and therefore power – against the state.
In part three of this series I will discuss what I consider to be the simplest, and most common mode of politics libertarians should engage in: defending the renegades. Simple, person level civil disobedience. Defying conventions.
1 – http://www.ethical-perspectives.be/viewpic.php?TABLE=EP&ID=1105
Libertarianism has come to a point where it must embrace pragmatic solutions like never before. The stakes are high: the possibility of nuclear war, technology that could liberate the earth or otherwise lead to permanent tyranny, the cusp of a potentially unprecedented economic disaster and the resultant social chaos. These issues demand the sound guidance of libertarian wisdom for Earth to make it through the coming challenges successfully. Humanity needs libertarian wisdom, even if it refuses to agree with libertarians. If humanity rejects our ideology, it remains paramount that we still use our ideas to save humanity – and ourselves. This means that libertarians must be willing, but also able, to act pragmatically to employ our wisdom in support of our values.
This article is part of a series about potential new approaches to political activism for the libertarian movement. These solutions can be thought of as a pyramid. At the top is the most visible and politically active of the approaches, but also the narrowest in scope. At the bottom is an approach with unlimited potential and variability, but it is also the most diffuse and oblique of the approaches relative to political power. This article discusses the approach which represents the top of the pyramid. It is a very narrow approach, and represents the smallest portion of the action and activism the liberty movement should be engaging in. It is my suggestion for how libertarians should engage with electoral politics. In some cases, libertarians may choose to completely abandon electoral politics. I suggest, if we do engage, that our approach be fundamentally pragmatic.
Any libertarian embrace of pragmatism must be framed carefully within clear philosophical guidelines. I am proposing a new principled pragmatism for Libertarianism. Consider that the worst offenses of the state are wrapped in the flag of principles. Libertarian theory provides a moral basis to claim that the state itself has no moral legitimacy. No state policy, no use of coercion, can be justified by invoking principles. Therefore, assuming libertarians could accommodate coercive state policies for reasons of the practical outcomes they effect, any slightest deviation from the proposed outcome would be an excuse to denounce a policy. When libertarians critique policies from the vantage of our ideological principles we are condemned by people who don’t agree with our ideology for being ideological. But, if policies are critiqued only on the basis of their practical ineffectiveness, it creates a public discussion about the state which takes a significant amount of oxygen out of the state’s fire.
In embracing pragmatism, the goal is not to reject principle. Principles, knowing them, and having them, provides the means to act pragmatically. Pragmatism begins when we enter the space which requires a conscious acknowledgment of having moved beyond our principles. That may sound like the horrible expediency of a leftist or modernist, but this is not what I’m proposing. I propose that libertarians keep our traditional libertarian principles, and that we live and teach them in our personal and local lives. I only propose that we discover the limits where our principles can’t apply, and there, only there, be willing to engage in pragmatic activity. Specifically, the limits of libertarian principles are where other human being refuse to agree with them. The value of pragmatism is that it represents a conscious acknowledgment of moving beyond principle, and removes from our activity any sense of conviction. Pragmatism allows us to act in the difficult middle, without setting us up to cause more harm than good.
Pragmatism comes into play when disparate groups of people with sets of values whose common premises get “lost in translation” need to come together to reach a common understanding. For example, American left-liberals almost seem to live in a different universe than American conservatives or libertarians. Their political preferences are grounded in an understanding of historical and economic fact that differs substantially from their counterparts on the right. This means that sometimes it seems as if nobody can come to a mutually satisfying political consensus in America.
Of course, one solution is to seek understanding. Couldn’t we just have a debate about history and economics and bring up the facts to harmonize our worldviews? Surely, in light of factual evidence we could all come to believe the same way in the end? We would all change our opinions if their base premises were to be factually invalidated, wouldn’t we? Keep dreaming. This is where pragmatism comes in. We have to assume that even with the most vigorous amount of persuasion, not everyone will ever come to a mutual understanding of the “truth”. So what do we do?
If I know that I must compromise with people whose values differ from my own because what they believe to be true is incompatible with what I believe to be true, then I must choose to be pragmatic. Libertarians, with our strong emphasis on principles, are loathe to compromise our values. Our entire philosophy and its principles already represent an emphasis on compromise. A deviation from our principles could almost be thought of as deviation from compromise itself. Our philosophy seeks to draw private property boundaries, to enable us to live and let live. But our own “fatal conceit” is that enough people in human society will agree that compromise itself is a prime value for them to accept libertarian values. More recently, some have assumed that sequestering ourselves into little communities will save us from the interference and scrutiny of the state and its sycophants. It’s a very moral proposition, but I have doubts about its practical efficacy.
What then, should we throw up our hands and give up on the world? No! If one side of an argument wants to compromise, and the other doesn’t, must the two conflict? Traditionally, yes. But libertarians are smarter than that. There is such a thing as one-sided compromise, in which the compromiser can still receive benefits from their willingness to avoid conflict.
Shouldn’t we be the ones leading efforts at compromise? What we need is a key, a method or mode of compromise that allows us to do it without abandoning our principles. This is what I propose. It is not an embrace of expediency, but a methodology of principled pragmatism.
Let us imagine an issue: schooling. Libertarians are completely against the idea of a state curriculum and public schooling. Liberals, on the other hand, believe in its absolute necessity.
To liberals, public schools serves three key imagined functions:
First, it provides equal opportunity, generating at society’s foundational level the conditions of justice they value. To them, differences in outcome are more tolerable if there is equality of opportunity.
Second, schooling is a necessary investment in what is considered a commons. We’re all better off if more of us are educated, but the education of the public at large is a commons, a public good that only the state can produce.
Third, without a common public education, we’re liable to splinter off into subcultures whose realities diverge so drastically that balkanization and violence would be inevitable. Public education is a liberal (”non-coercive”) way of keeping us together.
I don’t write this to defend the liberal point of view. My purpose is to lay out what it is that they believe. I’m also proposing that, hey, libertarians: we’re not going to convince the liberals that they’re wrong no matter how hard we try. If we’re pragmatic, though, we can deal with liberal concerns without abandoning our values.
Here are the liberal concerns:
1) Public education is a must, because it must guarantee:
2) equal opportunity
3) an educated public, and
4) a common, “liberal” (non-violent), political culture.
As libertarians, we can admit that left-liberal premises are deeply flawed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t “pay tribute” to the barbarians. What if there were ways to have all four of the above values as outcomes, but in ways that were more effective than the dismal unionized (and unequal – hello property taxes hypocrisy) school districts that liberals constantly defend? Maybe libertarians could be the voice of reason. Moreover, what if these “other ways” also laid a foundation for a freer, more dynamic and diverse mode of education for the nation? What if it moved us in a direction closer to the ideal of libertarian principles? This is the essential argument for pragmatism.
The process of pragmatism would be as follows:
1) Bring our principles to the public forum, with the intent to persuade.
2) Find the limits of common understanding in the public forum (where principles aren’t compatible).
3) Discern the pragmatic outcomes the other “sides” desire, ignoring their principles except where awareness of them is strategically necessary.
4) Propose the most effective means of achieving those outcomes, without the baggage of ideology.
5) Find compromises that also practically advance society in the direction of our preferences.
6) Where policies don’t achieve the stated outcomes, contest them from a pragmatic, not ideological, vantage.
Here’s how this applies to education:
1) We argue that state propaganda in schools has led to horrible wars and is much more harmful than whatever supposed “Balkanization effect” might occur without it.
2) Next, we learn that liberals won’t budge. In effect, they fear Southern religious conservatives and their independence from liberal propaganda. Here’s where we could try and overpower the liberals through politicking and a coalition with conservatives. In my view, this is a bad idea. Politics is war by other means and engaging in coercive, competitive politics is a dangerous path.
3) Instead, let the two sides reach their own equilibrium – then come in as deal makers. If the equilibrium has room for pure libertarian principles, all the better, otherwise, be the agent of compromise.
4) Whatever political leverage libertarians do have, we can use to give either side what they want, but
5) Gaining concessions that favor our preferences, and
6) Demanding explicit statement of desired outcomes, requiring policies to reasonably achieve those outcomes.
The key is to continue to try and persuade on outcomes by appealing to their unbudging values. Win them with pragmatism.
“You want equal opportunity? So do we. But look guys, these public schools are hurting kids. What if we had public charter schools – they’d still be sanctioned by the government, we’re not trying to abolish public education like those conservatives – the empirical data shows that these charter schools can work. And hey, maybe we could also make a little room for more homeschooling and some private charters if a few people want to do that too?”
You just might persuade some liberals with the right amount of concessions made to their worldview, enough that they might concede to bits of ours. The key is that we aren’t conceding to their principles. We are making concessions to their desired outcomes. We are saying: “look we’ll give you what you want, we don’t agree with why you want them, and we just want a little something too.”
The power of this approach lies with its volatility, that is, dynamic flexibility. The second a proposed solution fails to achieve the measurable outcome it was meant to, not only could we abandon it, but we’d be left with a powerful argument against it. If we support a school reform and it doesn’t work, no one can claim our reasons are related to ideological obstinacy. We’d be diverging from competing ideologies on the basis of good faith, not on the basis of ideological conflict. It would be tough to keep the public’s faith when discrete, specific outcomes are empirically falsifiable.
This sort of approach could even work with war. Any war would be a horrible idea, but what if a war required:
1) A clearly defined set of goals.
2) A clear authorization to use force in pursuit of those goals.
3) A clear process for evaluating the achievement of those goals, and
4) A means to revoke the authorization to use force should the goals not be achieved.
5) Or, a need – at least – for discrete new goals to be set if the war is to continue.
A libertarian politician could say: “Hey, I’m against any war, and all war, but my caucus is a distinct minority and the national security state – which I oppose – is a thing that’s not going away anytime soon. So, here’s the deal. Me and my caucus won’t vote ‘no’ against a war so long as the above five requirements are met. I’ll raise holy hell, and make it my central purpose to oppose a war if they’re violated.”
This method won’t stop all wars, or even make a dent in many bad wars. However, it would cast a lot of our foreign policy in a new light wouldn’t it? That’s the essence of pragmatism – moving beyond principles in order to focus on outcomes. You can argue day and night about principles, but bad outcomes are harder to defend.
Libertarianism is well suited to pragmatism. It’s not just a matter of it being a good strategy. It’s not even a matter of our philosophy’s predilection to compromise and mutually beneficial deal making. Really, libertarians have good, but non-conventional ideas. Our understanding of economics and politics is rather sophisticated and, I believe, in many cases in advance of the mainstream. Bringing those ideas into the policy realm – all else being equal – would be a good idea by itself.
What I recommend is that Libertarianism begin to conceive of a role for our movement in politics and electoral politics using this pragmatic method. I have to be clear that I’m not recommending that we make this our single-minded purpose. There are many avenues of activism besides electoral politics. If we do engage in politics, I recommend this is how we should approach it. We should probably not have a libertarian party, which is only a money hole, a sink, a black hole for energetic activism. We probably shouldn’t count on another Ron Paul, that is, someone who vaguely straddles the line between conventional and libertarian principles. From now on, we should only engage in electoral politics if and only if we do so with a purely pragmatic strategy. One reason is that there is value for preserving the purity of our principles from the rot of politics.
I believe that past libertarian efforts to engage in politics have failed. A “Libertarian Party” is meant to enact as policy libertarian principles. This is an irreconcilable contradiction, and we must abandon this counter-productive path.
Some politicians, such as Ron and Rand Paul (in particular the latter), have employed the sort of pragmatism I’m referring to. Not insisting on libertarian principles has helped Rand Paul take meaningful stances on privacy and more. And yet, I’d criticize Rand. His pragmatism borders on expediency, in that he “pretends” to be a conservative Republican. He may actually be that, but assuming we had a pure libertarian who was “lying” for pragmatic sake, this contradicts what I propose. I propose a principled pragmatism, and that means you absolutely cannot concede to the principles of the other side even if you have conceded to their desired outcomes.
Instead, let me propose a new approach with a new name: “New Liberalism.”
Libertarians could form the core of a “New Liberal” party. The premise of this party is that we would acknowledge that politics and government are areas where there are no inherent principles. Principles and values are held and expressed at the personal and local levels exclusively. New Liberalism seeks to maximize where possible the freedom of individuals and localities in the face of central power of both government and business. These are general platform principles, not philosophical arguments. The anchor of this movement lies with the principles of the individual participants, and the glue of unity between them is a compromise pragmatism.
That is, the only principle of New Liberalism is this: to the extent politically achievable, power should devolve to communities and individuals. Otherwise, New Liberalism would declare that no government policies whatsoever ought to be defended on the basis of principle. New Liberalism’s policy platform would be that we need to do what is pragmatically optimal to achieve whatever outcomes are compromised upon by the various parties, and that New Liberalism’s basis for compromise is any outcome that moves in the direction of devolution of power over time.
New Liberalism can support “Constitutionality” in the US if it’s pragmatic and helpful in the long run. On the other hand, New Liberalism would have no attachment to petty mythological “Constitutionality”.
For example, why can’t Massachusetts have gun control? It’s not my problem, because I don’t live there. The vast majority of people there want it. Only the incorporation principle of the 14th amendment – not an originalist position – forces “blue” states to obey the 2nd amendment (which is meant to apply only to the federal Congress). I would be very upset if Texas, which very much is against much gun control, were to be forced by the federal government to enact it. Pragmatically, giving an inch might mean the other side taking a mile, I concede. But, if there’s no threat of that, why couldn’t Massachusetts have their strict gun laws?
Would New Liberals honor the Constitution? Hell no!
Libertarians know that, first of all, the US Constitution is dead as a doornail. The skeleton of rights guarantees remaining – such as free speech or due process rights – are “nice”. But they’re on flimsy ground, and the federal government has long been structurally top-heavy. New Liberals would support free speech and due process everywhere all the time, where possible, but we would not support these rights on the basis of them having been granted by dead British colonial aristocrats on a piece of paper. Moreover, libertarians know that the US “republic” itself is a loathsome nationalist cancer, a centralization of powers many of the framers, in fact, sought to avoid. Libertarians, as New Liberals, would not exactly be “Constitutionalists” the way protest GOP voters are.
This is the essence of pragmatism: the real world is so horribly out of tune with our basic moral and political values, that trying to harmonize the two is a lost cause. Instead, it’s a fight to achieve – and solidly achieve – that which realistically advances our interest.
New Liberalism, therefore, would never countenance the idea of policy based in principles. New Liberalism would never accept the idea that “national public education creates equal opportunity, and the principle of equal opportunity is a national priority.” There are no national priorities! However, if there are those in society who desire the outcome of equal opportunity through national public education, well, then New Liberalism wouldn’t mind acquiescing to practically effective policies that work towards that outcome – if it advances in some capacity the freedom of individuals and localities over the long run.
Again, this should be the only mode of engagement with electoral politics that any libertarian should bother with. It supports both left-wing anti-establishment goals, and even the right-wing localism proposed by libertarians at the Mises Institute. It also contrasts radically with the “cut all the taxes on my business, but don’t stop bombing brown people” politics of the Beltway Koch-funded “libertarians”. And it shows how pointless the idea of a “libertarian party” is.
Pragmatism doesn’t only mean getting along with other ideologies. Libertarians know the deep state and power elite play a huge role in politics. Why can’t we bargain with them? Why can’t we make deals with corrupt businesses and unions. They’re going to lobby for cheese anyway. I’d rather pay Lockheed Martin $4 trillion to build a boondoggle Moon base and space station, then kill people in the Middle East. I’d rather a government program with a explicit paycheck tax to fund the healthcare of the poor than a sneaky bureaucratic web that greases health insurance company palms in exchange for ostensible universal coverage.
Don’t make a deal with the devil, they say. But these people aren’t The Devil, even if they might be devils. They’re just people, operating in a complex political “market” that manages violence and wealth. They have discrete interests. Their power, even when vast, isn’t unlimited. Let us deal. Some of these power brokers, though stubborn and infinitely arrogant, might be at least a little sincere. We shouldn’t compromise our principles to them, but our pragmatic deal-making could and should include them.
I am one who believes that “our country” (the USA) should make deals and not war. Deal with the Taliban, stop trying to kill them all. We should have dealt with Hitler, fighting him hardly saved millions of Jews. And how many millions more were killed by the war and its aftermath?
So why not deal with the power elite? They’re “Hitler” in our own country. They’re not good, but are we going to win if we fight them? How about accept them for what they are and bargain for gains, and trust that “we’re right” and will prevail in the long run because ours are the better values?
In addition to the “practical” argument, I believe we are philosophically obligated to be pragmatic.
True pragmatism means doing something because it appears to temporarily work, rejecting that which appears not to. You can’t die or kill for pragmatic values. You can’t attach a higher purpose to pragmatic solutions. You can’t pull wool over someone’s eyes assuring them that your pragmatism is leading to a better world. Pragmatism doesn’t mean realism, it does not mean expediency. It means choosing an action that appears, among the set of what is practically possible, to best advance one’s values. In other words, the pragmatism I’m advocating has to do with a deep understanding and pure commitment to our own principles, and identifying where and when society is unable to deal with those principles. It does not mean having principles of convenience.
In order to defend this pragmatic approach, and also explain its nuances, I have to prove why politics and society is pragmatic by definition. The epistemology of social interaction conforms to the epistemology of pragmatic philosophy. The proof is simple enough. I may personally believe in objective reality. I would have my reasons for believing in the metaphysics I do, and would have a personal epistemology to get there. However, I cannot transfer that process of discovering truth into the mind of another. I can only translate it into discrete language. It is now up to the other person to take the language I have communicated to them, receive it, understand it, interpret it, and only possibly reproduce in their own mind the same truth process I personally followed. Two people are capable of communicating a common metaphysical world view, that is, one can convert the other to his worldview. Moreover, it’s also possible to suspect with high probability that you and other people all experience a common objective reality. However, these conclusions must, at best, be a pragmatic guess. The best confirmation of understanding you receive from others is also discrete language, which you then must interpret according to your own mental processes. Put another way, without telepathy, the best we can do is guess what life and its experience might be for other people – assuming of course we are certain about the nature of our own life experience.
For the more grounded libertarian minds out there, what I’m saying is that even the best worded argument still has to pass from paper into mind. There are plenty of jerks out there who simply will not take what you have put onto paper, and end up in their own mind with ideas remotely consistent with the ones you intended. Indeed, raw stupidity is one prominent factor inhibiting understanding. When I discuss these philosophical abstractions, part of what I’m referring to are simple phenomena like stupidity and bias.
What I am doing here is stepping to the side of the common conclusions of post-modernism and traditional pragmatism. I’m leaving room for the possibility that both philosophies are objectively wrong. However, I am acknowledging that the nature of social interaction – the communication of knowledge between people – conforms to the epistemological limits pointed to by anti-objective philosophies. There’s just no way to communicate an idea to the rest of the world and guarantee that every person will come to the same understanding you have. The best we can do is try and persuade. If the other party is obstinate due to pure personal flaws, there’s nothing we can do to force their accession to our ideas. Even if we use physical force, the best we can do is coerce their behavior or psychology. We cannot create understanding through coercion.
The limits of our ability to understand each other purely is where I’m conceding that our human life conforms to elements of pragmatic epistemology. The market, law, politics, governance, norms, human civility, culture – all these require a coming together of minds to reach mutual understanding. Therefore human society, especially political society, is necessarily the product of a pragmatic process of obtaining knowledge. This is even in a world in which you personally can become appraised of objective truth.
When I communicate an idea about oughts or norms to another person, I only hope they understand. When they attempt to communicate understanding, we are both only hoping we understand each other. These limits are why the legal profession is so lucrative. There’s a lot of value brought from mechanisms that bring clear objective lines to human understanding. Even so, the inanity of legalisms can often frustrate “normal people” who possess no malicious intent, but nevertheless get caught up in a dispute resulting from misunderstanding.
What we’re doing when we create social norms or political rules is that we are “guessing” what sort of standards best represent our values in the social environment. It’s an act of pragmatism. We don’t know that this law or that law perfectly represent the common values, but we are hoping that ourselves and everyone else involved all have developed the best possible mutual understanding.
Libertarians should recognize that social interaction necessitates pragmatism. In fact, we’re the best ones to do so due to our moral commitment to non-coercion. What matters is that we understand that pragmatism does not mean expediency. Pragmatism is framed through our individual principles, and does not represent an effort to put them aside.
The next article of this series will explore libertarian engagement in politics outside of elections and state power. That is, what can libertarians achieve through that dreaded left wing principle of collective action? Since we hold the state to be illegitimate, then shouldn’t more of our politics orient to organization outside the systems of the state, than those having to do with the state?
The principle of collective action is an important building block in my proposed new direction for libertarian politics. While our engagement in electoral, or formal, politics should be pragmatic, that pragmatism is counter-balanced by principled collective action. Pragmatism should not apply to our collective action. We should stand up for each others’ rights! We should defend our principles! Coming in part 2.
In a previous article, I discussed a theory of conflict framed by economics. I suspect that my thoughts touch on Rothbard’s elusive category of Praxeology: the “Theory of Hostile Action”.
I stumbled upon the idea that economic analysis can be applied to conflict after reading Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World, and also while trying to answer leftist complaints about how libertarians define property norms. Though scholars have applied economic reasoning to warfare and conflict, as far as I know none have done so systematically.
Schell’s application of economic reasoning to warfare compares the acquisition of nuclear weapons as a phenomenon of diminishing marginal returns on weapons development. Military power “purchases” access to resources. As far as I know, this is derived from Marxian ideas that equate industrial and political power. As far as I know, the basic thrust of this analysis isn’t wrong.
What I’ve discovered is that most modern scholarship which applies economic analysis to war takes the state for granted. A state can “act like” a business. That such language is employed reveals to me that scholarship in general has not properly broached this idea. Why do we take the state for granted? We shouldn’t. The state is the 10,000-pound elephant in the room. Was the state uncreated? Moreover, can our modern existence be described in any possible way without referring to the role of the state?
I’ve realized that the traditional methods of Austrian Economics can be applied to conflict. The conclusions, in my opinion, would redefine what we know about what conflict is, how politics works, where the state comes from, and what functions it serves.
The essential consideration is this: exchange refers not only to voluntary trade, but a person can exchange military costs for the capital of others, or more particularly, exclusive access to resources. Military power is a good, with discrete costs. It can purchase resources.
The chief difference between voluntary exchange and military exchange is that military exchange treats other human actors as natural resources, rather than trade partners (so perhaps there’s a better way to categorize this phenomenon than to call it an exchange). Human actors, as a category, contrast from natural resources in that the latter category can be extracted through fixed costs. Human actors can reciprocate the actions of aggressors, leading to an escalation of costs required to be successful in combat.
To the “entrepreneur”, there is no reason to engage in voluntary trade when the costs to trade for a resource exceed the costs of maintaining military power. Military and power considerations, then, factor into the economics of a stateless society.
In this sense, I fear that libertarians have fallen into a trap of taking the state for granted. The state is immoral, but it does fulfill a function. The monopolization of power into the state makes voluntary trade the default economic action available outside the boundaries of the state. Taking the state for granted means assuming that if the state’s coercive power disappeared, that norms of voluntary trade would remain. Of course, libertarians aren’t naive. Protection firms, market-based solutions for dealing with aggression, assume that the costs of naked aggression would exceed the costs of following the non-aggression principle. This could be true, but it also could not be true. Maybe the economics of the market would price aggression out of the equation. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Philosophy and morality could affect the market, but base material costs are likely to dominate moral considerations.
Analyses I’ve read account for military power in terms of risk. I don’t think that’s accurate. Risk would be a factor for a single person in a war. You might live, or you might die. If you die, price is meaningless. So risk tolerance is how you price your “soldier’s wage”.
This isn’t the case for a military entrepreneur who may not fight in the battles he commands. For such a “gang boss”, each “merc thug” he employs represents a discrete salary. The purchasing power of his gang will be established by the market. In Queens, 1932, 10 goons will get you a block. 40 a neighborhood. 1000 for the borough. Of course, periodic conflict is necessary to test, by “auction”, these price levels. Nevertheless, if you’re a good boss running good cheese – cards, prostitutes, booze and olive oil – you can afford the right number of goons to accommodate the rest of your business. If you can afford 20 goons, you get two blocks. That is, the right to sell your product to two blocks worth of homes, maybe even take a protection fee. The guy with 15 goons from the next block over won’t challenge your turf, he won’t bother. If you run out of money, maybe he’ll buy off 5 of your goons and take your block with it.
The feudal politics of Central Europe during the Medieval period conform almost perfectly to this sort of politics. Those politics translate very well, after the presence of industry, into the best example of the most deliberate formation of a modern state: Imperial Germany.
Military power, primarily, purchases access to resources (plunder and theft are not productive, since you’re stealing capital, preventing its reinvestment – optimized taxation at the base of the production chain, however, is much more efficient). Private property norms, and voluntary trade, then, represent an alternative means of organizing access to resources and capital.
The modern state is probably a phenomenon of gangs transforming and transcending into something more. This “more” is an entity which affords to monopolize violence by substituting where possible the “auction of conflict” with law and property rights. By devoting violence to their enforcement instead of trying to use it to hold total control over all capital, the state makes property norms affordable for the public at large, in order to make conflict less cost effective for the state’s non-state competitors (i.e.: violent gangs).
The state seems to be a new phenomenon, different than mere gangs. The discipline of political economy should apply to it more so than the economics of conflict. However, given the genealogy of the state, political economy can incorporate petty competition for resource access as a basic premise (adding to it tax, tribute, public choice, voting, and finally control over financial instruments, justice, and intelligence/media assets).
This conclusion is an arrow through the heart of some of conventional libertarian theory. First of all, the state is not itself a gang. It is a different sort of thing, albeit one evolved directly from what a gang is (and in some senses morally equivalent). Second, property norms may have emerged because of the advantages they provide the state in its effort to monopolize power. If true, that’s a bitter pill for Libertarianism.
Of course, nothing I’ve written validates statism or even “minarchism”. In a sense, I’ve proven the expediency of Hoppean micro-minarchism as a more practical goal than pure statelessness. If anything, this is an understanding Libertarianism might need. It complicates our activism and idealism. It also causes us to confront an uncomfortable reality (it might be a long time before the stateless society, and our own agency in effecting it might have severe limits). But it might also launch us infinitely closer to reality, and solve some of the elusiveness of “relevance.”
Left-liberals seem to implicitly accept this notion of the state as a suppressor of immoral aggression, an a necessary one at that. And yet, they are held up with ideological biases that don’t conform to reality. Money, the organization of society imposed by economic conditions no one controls, is called greed when liberals’ preferred outcomes don’t magically appear. The bureaucracy, one of the most hierarchical and self-interested organizations in society, is held as the silver bullet solution to society’s moral imperfections. Whatever flaws we have, they pale in comparison to the shortfalls of left ideology.
There is still hope for Libertarianism, however. By pursuing an application of Austrian Economic analysis and methodology to the economics of violence as I described it, we can find room for our libertarian future. I’ve said that economic development is probably the answer, since it would change the cost calculations concerning the use of violence. There are diminishing marginal returns on the use of nuclear weapons, for example, thanks to their inability to spare people, resources, and capital from obliteration during their use. Also, wealth and robust property norms means that the costs of voluntary exchange could conceivably be much lower than costs of even the pettiest violence.
The market may be ready to adjust its norms – its “price for conflict” – already due to base economic conditions that are untested. Maybe we libertarians could innovate the norms and standards that prove the test, and contribute to lowering the potential of aggression and conflict going forward.
On the other hand, if the state is our enemy, and some aspect of Orwell’s nightmare is the future we face, then all the better we understand it properly – rather than simply whining about the things it does that we don’t like.
To reiterate: we can understand the state better than we do, better than anyone else, if we apply Austrian Economics to the political more than what’s been done.
And let me know if I’m retreading ground!