Archive | January 3, 2008

A Weentsy Fib

I just saw Howard Dean on MSNBC saying “There’s not much difference among the Republicans. All the Republican candidates favour staying in Iraq. All the Republican candidates favour pardoning Scooter Libby.”

The truth just isn’t in these guys.

Encounter Suit

Straczynski I reported in October that J. Michael Straczynski was supporting Ron Paul. Now he has evidently changed his mind. Quoth JMS:

I donated $2K to his campaign, in order to encourage a more moderate voice on the Iraq war.

Then I discovered that he wanted to overturn Roe vs. Wade and a lot of hard-won civil rights legislation.

So much for that.

Seems odd to me to give $2000 to someone whose views you haven’t investigated, but then I am not rolling in money, as JMS reportedly is since selling Changeling.

For what it’s worth, I would prefer President Paul over President Sheridan.

To Paul Or Not To Paul, Part 3

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Okay, so what do I think is the proper libertarian response to Ron Paul’s candidacy? Well, I don’t think there is a single proper libertarian response. Let me say why.

The two best arguments for supporting Paul’s candidacy, as I see it, are these:

1. If Paul were to win, he would produce, on balance, much more libertarian results than any of the other current candidates; in particular, he would bring our troops home and thus save thousands of lives, as well as reducing our attractiveness as a terrorist target.

2. Even if Paul does not win, his campaign is an opportunity to build awareness of, interest in, and enthusiasm for libertarianism.

The two best arguments against supporting Paul’s candidacy, as I see it, are these:

3. Electoral politics is the wrong strategy for the libertarian movement.

4. Even granting the legitimacy of the electoral strategy, Ron Paul’s deviations (e.g. on abortion, immigration, gay rights, constitutional fetishism, or even minarchism itself) make him an inappropriate object for libertarian support.

Let me say a bit more about each of these arguments.

As far as I can tell, (1) is correct in arguing that Paul, despite his deviations, would likely pursue policies whose direct results would be significantly more libertarian than otherwise. (About indirect results, more anon.) His control over military policy would after all be greater than his control over immigration policy or abortion policy. I think that’s a reason to hope he does well, and I do hope he does well. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if there were a button such that pushing it would guarantee Paul’s election, while not pushing it would guarantee the election of Giuliani or Clinton or Romney or Obama or Huckabee or Edwards or McCain or … then I would happily push it.

Ron Paul This case for supporting Paul must be evaluated in the light of his low chances of election, however. Now I agree with the claim, made by Paul’s supporters, that the mainstream media are probably underestimating his chances; in particular I agree that telephone polls probably undercount Paul’s supporters by excluding those (younger, “hipper”) voters who rely primarily on cell phones. However, I also think that Paul’s supporters are probably overestimating his chances. (I suspect both sides are guilty of a bit of wishful thinking.) I don’t believe Paul has a realistic chance of winning in today’s political climate. I could be wrong – and I’ll be following with interest his fortunes in the upcoming Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. But if I’m right that his chances of being elected are small, then the good consequences, if such they would be, of his hypothetical presidency become correspondingly weaker reasons to vote for him.

Yet of course there may often be good reasons to vote for someone you think is unelectable – as indeed I’ve argued elsewhere. A strong showing for Paul, even if it fell short of electing him, might put pressure on the winner to end the war, or if not, might lay the groundwork for a more successful run later on. And of course there’s the general movement-building potential invoked by argument (2).

True enough, but argument (2) needs to be balanced against argument (4). Would the kind of libertarian movement that a Paul candidacy would help to build be a movement deeply entangled with Paul’s anti-immigration, anti-abortion, constitutional-fetishist views? I don’t know; maybe. Those of us who think, on “thickness” grounds (see part 2), that libertarianism requires lefty values for its implementation and/or stability are going to be unenthusiastic about building a right-libertarian version of the libertarian movement.

Defenders of Paul may say: “Okay, but even granting the point about left-libertarian thickness, wouldn’t it be better for a right-libertarian ethos to prevail than for a statist ethos to prevail? And so isn’t that a reason to support a right-libertarian movement in the short run? After all, you can always work on moving it toward the left in the longer run.”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that argument per se. But I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with resisting it. Let me explain. In any movement one has to make trade-off decisions between short-run gains and long-run gains, where the long-run gains are typically greater but iffier. And I don’t think such decisions can be settled by information about probabilities alone. Information about probabilities is relevant, to be sure, but a person’s individual talents and proclivities are relevant too. If Helen has a flair for writing abstract libertarian theory while Klytaemnestra has a flair for preparing position papers on the privatisation of social security, then it might be perfectly reasonable for Helen to specialise in promoting the ultimate triumph of 100% libertarian purity, and for Klytaemnestra to specialise in shorter-term reformist projects. And this reasonable difference in goals might lead them to differ, reasonably, when it comes to trade-offs.

Suppose, for example, that supporting Ron Paul’s candidacy contributes to saving lives by ending the current war and/or preventing new wars – either because Paul gets elected as per argument (1), or because his campaign helps build a stronger antiwar movement as per argument (2). Yet also suppose that the best way to help ensure the long-term triumph and stability of libertarianism – thus saving far more lives in the long run, though at still longer odds – is to work on building a movement that embraces left-libertarian thickness, and that a right-libertarian candidacy would be likely to detract from that project. It seems to me that Helen and Klytaemnestra might reasonably assess these rival options differently. (So am I saying that Ron Paul’s supporters have higher time-preference than his left-libertarian critics? I confess that gives me a chuckle.)

Finally, let me turn to argument (3). How strong is the libertarian case for rejecting electoral politics altogether? The Voluntaryist moral argument that electoral politics involves impermissibly lending one’s sanction to the state I continue to find unpersuasive, for reasons I’ve explained previously. But the Agorist strategic argument is one that I find more convincing than I used to.

The Agorist line is that, given the informational and incentival constraints on state behaviour, the ultimate triumph of liberty is unlikely to come through top-down political action. Hence the more effective strategy is to encourage the withering-away of the state through education, building alternative institutions, and encouraging the withdrawal of support via La Boétie-style mass civil disobedience. But this means that we should be trying to wean people away from the political process – that we should be encouraging them to ignore the state, not to become energetically involved in political campaigns.

anarchist rEVOLution David Gordon writes that “Rothbard scorned those who disdain political action. Interested only in their supposed ideological purity, they retreat to an intellectual pantisocracy and display little interest in actually securing libertarian political objectives.” But this is a misunderstanding, I think. Those who disdain political action in the sense of electoral politics are not necessarily disdaining political action in the sense of action aimed at achieving libertarian political goals; they just think that the best way to do the latter is to resist, rather than to embrace, the former. It’s sometimes said that anarchists and minarchists are headed in the same direction, and so might as well ride on the same train for the time being, with minarchists merely getting off a stop or two before the anarchists do. But if the Agorist argument is right, they’re not really riding on the same train; and the minarchist train encourages a mindset that tends to undermine the success of the anarchist train.

To paraphrase Nietzsche just a tad:

What if a symptom of regression were inherent in libertarian electoral politics, likewise a danger, a seduction, a poison, a narcotic, through which the present was possibly living at the expense of the future? Perhaps more comfortably, less dangerously, but at the same time in a meaner style, more basely? – So that precisely libertarian electoral politics would be to blame if the highest power and splendor actually possible to the type man was never in fact attained? So that precisely libertarian electoral politics was the danger of dangers?

Since the Agorist case against electoral politics is a strategic rather a moral argument, however, it doesn’t have the same kind of exceptionless force that moral arguments aspire to have (at least for us deontologists). As a pragmatic rather than a moral argument, it establishes a general presumption against electoral politics, but not, as far as I can see, an absolute prohibition. On this point I part company with my Agorist comrades. (I also think that, come the Agorist revolution, we’d be well-advised to have some fifth-columnists placed in the state apparatus; that’s another reason Agorists shouldn’t eschew electoral politics entirely. But this point seems to apply to a period when the revolution is imminent, which certainly isn’t now.)

As I see it, there’s no apodictic necessity that a political campaign must lend more support to an electoral mindset than it does to an anti-electoral mindset. Hence a sufficiently strong electoral candidate could be worthy of an Agorist’s vote. Applying this argument to Ron Paul, however, strikes me as problematic, precisely because his strong emphasis on constitutionality, on (in his words) taking his “marching orders” from the Constitution, does seem to be at odds with the kind of strategy an Agorist seeks to promote. (I know there’s dispute in the libersphere as to the extent to which Paul’s constitutional fetishism is sincere versus being a way of selling libertarian ideas to constitution-revering American audiences; but the Agorist worry about such a campaign’s effects will be the same in either case.)

Suppose the Agorists are right (as I think they are) that our best shot for achieving long-term 100% libertarianism is to promote a bottom-up approach of bypassing the state; and suppose they are also right (as again I think they are) that the constitutional-fetishism of Ron Paul’s candidacy is likelier to frustrate rather than advance such an approach. Suppose, too, that the left-libertarian thickness approach is right in holding that the best (both most reasonable and most effective) form for a libertarian movement to take is a left-libertarian one, and that supporting Ron Paul’s right-libertarian candidacy tends to detract from that desideratum as well. Are those decisive arguments against supporting Paul’s presidential bid?

No, I don’t think so. The most that these arguments show is that supporting Paul, while it might bring about some advance toward liberty in the short run, tends to undermine the chances of achieving a thoroughgoing libertarian society in the long run. But that by itself might not be a good enough reason.

Suppose, for example, that you think the chances of ever achieving a thoroughgoing libertarian society are, objectively, so abysmally low that they’re not worth taking into consideration, and that the most one can hope to do is to push back the forces of darkness a little bit and for a little while. In that case the fact that supporting Paul might reduce the odds of long-run libertarian victory from vanishingly small to even more vanishingly small would be irrelevant.

anarchists throwing flowers But once again, deciding such trade-offs needn’t depend on probabilities alone. Whether a long shot is worth pursuing depends not only on the odds that it can be gotten but on how good you are at pursuing such a goal, how fulfilling you would find it, how much weight you place on long-term versus short-term satisfaction, how eager you are to see some success in your lifetime, and what your other commitments are – and these are matters that can legitimately vary from person to person. (Aristotle calls this the “mean relative to us.”)

By analogy, suppose I think that cathedrals are better than gas stations, and suppose I also think that if I use these materials to build gas stations, there’s a good chance that there won’t be enough left over to build a cathedral. Does it follow that I should refrain from building gas stations with the materials at hand? Not necessarily. I might be good at building gas stations and lousy at building cathedrals; or I might recognise that cathedrals take longer to build than gas stations, and value gas stations now over cathedrals later. Or maybe I just like to live dangerously, so I go ahead with my gas stations and hope I’ll still be able to complete my cathedral later. (Between the impermissible extremes of cowardice and rashness lie a range of permissible degrees of risk-aversion.)

I don’t support Ron Paul’s candidacy, then, because my own talents, proclivities, and commitments lie with the Agorist and left-libertarian projects, and I value the promotion of those projects over the short-term benefits that Paul’s candidacy might gain at the expense of those projects. But I can’t see that this preference is compulsory for everybody. Even if every libertarian ought to be an Agorist and a cultural lefty (and so they ought! – there are limits to my Aristotelean pluralism), it seems to me that it does not follow that every libertarian ought to make the trade-off between those long-run projects and the possible short-run gains from Paul’s candidacy the same way I do.

To Paul Or Not To Paul, Part 2

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

As promised, here’s my follow-up post on the exchange between David Gordon and Charles Johnson over the merits of Ron Paul’s candidacy. (To see the context of the following excerpts, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here – apologies if I missed any installments.)

Abortion and Federalism

DAVID: One critic of Ron Paul has admitted that Roe v. Wade is bad law but thinks we should somehow get to the “correct” pro-abortion view. Is this not to surrender the possibility of constitutional limits on the federal government?

CHARLES: Yes. So what? Anarchists don’t believe in constitutional government.

DAVID: Anarchists oppose a monopoly state, but it hardly follows from this that if there is a government, anarchists shouldn’t be concerned with restraining it.

CHARLES: But I do not claim that anarchists shouldn’t be concerned with restraining actually existing governments. … But if constitutional government has no special claim on our allegiance with respect to its legitimacy, then restraining government through the instrument of a written constitution is, at the most, a pragmatic strategy which should be pursued or abandoned in any given case according to its likelihood of success. … But if the question is one of practical prospects, then the strategy of trying to restrain the federal government through the instrument of the United States Constitution has already been empirically tested, and it has already failed. …
Since I am an anarchist, I regard the U.S. constitution as having no color of legal authority, so I don’t much think that there is a “right way” or a “wrong way” to read the Constitution in legal contexts. … To the extent abortion laws are invasions against the liberty of pregnant women to dispose of their own bodies as they see fit, a ruling that repeals those laws is a good ruling, even if it doesn’t line up with a literalist reading of the Constitution.

DAVID: Even if one thinks that women have an unlimited right to abortion, it does not follow that the federal government should enforce this right. People are under no obligation to enforce anyone’s rights, and it doesn’t violate libertarian principles to think that the federal government should be denied standing in this area.

My take: Part of what’s at issue between Charles and David is whether being pro-choice on abortion means favouring federal imposition of pro-choice policies on the states. Certainly David is right that favouring a given policy doesn’t necessarily imply favouring its imposition by the federal government on the states; after all, most of us wouldn’t want the United Nations to be empowered to impose libertarian laws on the U.S. But on the other hand, the case for general decentralisation doesn’t automatically translate into support for turning any particular issue back to the states. Just as whether deregulation counts as a move toward or away from liberty depends on the extent to which the deregulated industry remains the beneficiary of state privilege, so whether turning any particular issue back to the states counts as a move toward or away from liberty depends on the extent to which the states remain entangled with the federal government. As I’ve written elsewhere:

Since neither the central government nor the member states can be counted on to be consistently libertarian, I favour decentralisation simply because it allows for more competition: if Alabama passes a crummy law there’s the hope that I can move to some other State with better laws, whereas if the Federal judiciary imposes a crummy decision on the entire country then my ability to vote with my feet is much weaker. … So as a matter of general policy the Federal government ought to follow a hands-off policy toward State-level legislation. … In the actual world, however, where federalism does not remotely reign as it should, it is by no means clear that refusing to strike down local legislation is the decision we should hope for. … [I]t is an anachronism to think of our State governments as in any serious sense counterweights to Federal tyranny. While Federal and State governments may clash from time to time … for the most part the State and Federal governments are entwined into a single criminal organisation that oppresses us.

Hence I would favour turning abortion back to the states if doing so were part of a thoroughgoing overall shift in power from the federal government to the states. In the absence of such a shift, though, I see the states as little better than administrative departments of the federal government, and if one branch of the Leviathan wants to prohibit abortion, I would prefer to see it checked by another branch. This is one of the many cases where what would be a move toward liberty if implemented completely becomes a move away from liberty if implemented partially. (By the same principle, tax credits for everybody who wants to buy body armor might be acceptable, but tax credits just for cops to buy body armor makes things worse.) Thus one can agree in principle with David’s case for decentralisation and still agree with Charles that as things stand, Roe v. Wade is a good thing.

David Gordon and Charles Johnson What are the implications for Ron Paul’s candidacy? Unlike many Republicans who agree with him in wanting to return abortion to the states, Paul does favour a “thoroughgoing overall shift in power from the federal government to the states” – which makes his abortion policy less objectionable to me than theirs. But would a Paul presidency actually result in such a thoroughgoing federalism? Or would it be more likely, given the political context in which he’d be operating, to result in only a partial federalism of the kind that I’ve argued would make things worse? That’s harder to say.

I’ve heard some Paul supporters say that Paul as president would have relatively little influence on abortion policy, so pro-choice libertarians should have no objection to voting for him. That’s a fair argument, but of course it works both ways; how much influence would Paul as president be able to have on federalism itself? (I suppose that might depend on how many Supreme Court vacancies might arise during his term.) It’s also worth noting that Paul evidently favours banning abortion at the state level. If helping to spread a general libertarian attitude is part of the reason to support Paul (as Paul’s supporters often argue), then worries about spreading a general anti-abortion attitude would logically have to be part of the reason not to support him. How those competing considerations weigh out is a trickier issue.


DAVID: Free immigration combined with a welfare state is a dangerous brew: does it make sense to reject Ron Paul because he cannot accept it?

CHARLES: It may be true that when you combine something fundamentally moral – free immigration – with something completely immoral – a coercive welfare state funded by expropriated tax funds – you’ll get bad consequences from the combination. But that’s a good reason to try to limit or eliminate the immoral part of the combination, by undermining or dismantling the apparatus of taxation and government welfare. It’s certainly not a good reason to try to limit or eliminate the moral part of the combination by escalating the federal government’s surveillance, recording, searching, beating, jailing, and exiling innocent people.

DAVID: He points out that some efforts to restrict immigration use violence against people; and he is right that here lies danger. Libertarians who favor immigration restrictions need to specify exactly what measures they think permissible. Ron Paul doesn’t favor beating and jailing people.

CHARLES: Of course Ron Paul does favor beating and jailing people in the name of his immigration control policy. He favors the creation and enforcement of federal immigration laws, including a paramilitary lock-down of the land borders, aggressive enforcement of the existing visa system, and the continued criminalization (“no amnesty”) of currently undocumented immigrants. He also favors the necessary means to these ends: border walls, paramilitary border patrols, government immigration dossiers and employment papers, internal immigration cops, detention centers, and all the other necessary means to interdicting, discovering, arresting, jailing, and deporting people who try to live and work peacefully in the United States without a federal permission slip for their existence. If you don’t believe that this process necessarily involves violent means, then just try to cross the border without government papers and see what happens to you.

DAVID: I don’t think one should accuse Paul of supporting immoral conduct unless one has clear evidence that he does. Perhaps he disagrees that such measures are necessary to enforce the restrictions he wants. If it turns out that restrictions do require such tactics, why assume that he would use them rather than abandon the restrictions?

David’s position seems a bit odd to me. He is technically correct, of course, that Paul conceivably might favour some noncoercive means to his immigration ends. If Ron Paul were being tried in a court of law (perhaps the sort of tribunal Walter Block fantasises about convening after the revolution), then sure, the burden of proof would lie with those who claim that he must favour immoral means to his ends. But Ron Paul is asking us to entrust to him the supreme executive power of the world’s most powerful nation; in that context surely the burden of proof rests with him and his supporters to show that, unlike just about everyone else who opposes open-borders, Paul favours some unknown and never-hinted-at noncoercive means of securing compliance with immigration laws (perhaps really big signs saying “Immigrants, please go away”?).

DAVID: I do not contend that [closed borders] is the best libertarian view, only that it isn’t clearly unlibertarian. Charles vehemently disagrees. It is clear from his articles on this site that he regards restrictions on immigration as morally abhorrent. If he is right, though, it doesn’t follow that these restrictions violate libertarian principles. Not everything immoral is also unlibertarian.

First, I’m not sure why it matters whether a view is clearly unlibertarian or not. Suppose it is unlibertarian in fact, but not “clearly” so – meaning, I suppose, that the case for its being unlibertarian is complex or not obvious. This might be relevant if we were trying to decide whether Paul is intellectually culpable for reaching the wrong conclusion; but I didn’t think that was what we were doing. (For more on this see here.)

Second, while it’s true that not everything immoral is unlibertarian, a) Charles does argue not just that restrictions on immigration are immoral but that they are unlibertarian, and b) even if they were immoral but not unlibertarian, advocacy of an immoral policy would presumably be a reason not to vote for someone.

Foreign Policy

CHARLES: It’s perfectly likely that at some point in the upcoming years, Congress might pass a declaration of war in the name of bogus “national interests” in order to spread the slaughter into Iran or North Korea. At this point, President Ron Paul has two options:
1. He can fulfill his Constitutionally-enumerated role as commander-in-chief of the military, and prosecute the imperial war that Congress has ordered him to prosecute; or
2. He can refuse to fulfill his Constitutionally-enumerated role, by sitting on his hands and refusing to prosecute the war in any way even though Congress has declared it, on the grounds that there is a higher law than the Constitution ….
Which would he be willing to do?

DAVID: Grover Cleveland said that even if Congress declared war against Spain, he would, as Commander-in-Chief, refuse to enforce the declaration.

Good for Grover Cleveland, but what would Ron Paul do? For the reasons mentioned above, the burden seems to lie with Paul’s supporters to give reason to expect (2) rather than (1).


DAVID: Oddly, some of the same people who condemn Ron Paul for apostasy are themselves so devoted to “left libertarianism” that they subordinate libertarian principles to certain cultural values. They favor gender equality and are concerned lest we think ill of certain preferred minority groups. Libertarianism, they think, will best promote these values, and this fact is for them a chief reason to support libertarianism. … Does not the question then arise, should libertarianism be subordinated to these values?

CHARLES: First, I don’t think that libertarianism should be “subordinated to certain cultural values” such as radical feminism. I believe that libertarianism, rightly understood, is both compatible with and mutually reinforcing with the cultural values of radical feminism, rightly understood.
Second, “libertarianism” is not conceptually equivalent to “actively supporting the most libertarian candidate in a government election.” Libertarianism is a theory of political justice, not a particular political party or candidate. If one invokes feminist, anti-racist, or any other reasons not to actively support Ron Paul’s candidacy, those reasons may be good reasons or they may be bad reasons. But they are reasons for subordinating one particular strategy for libertarian outreach and activism – a strategy which, by the way, has basically zero empirical evidence whatever in favor of its effectiveness – to other concerns. But so what? There’s no reason for libertarians, and especially not for anarchists, to treat government elections as the be-all and end-all of libertarian principle.

DAVID: Johnson correctly claims that the concept of libertarianism doesn’t imply political support for libertarians in elections. I think, though, that if someone who defends political action refuses to support Ron Paul just because he is not a left libertarian, then he is subordinating libertarianism to leftist views.

CHARLES: There is no reason for principled libertarians to treat a candidate’s overall level of libertarianism as the sole or the decisive or even the most important criterion in choosing whether to vote for that candidate, or someone else, or nobody at all. Insofar as voting has any worth at all for anarchists, it is only instrumentally, as a means of defense against government invasions of your own or the liberty of other people you are concerned for. But there’s no guarantee that that end will always be best served by adopting the candidate’s overall level of libertarianism as the sole or the decisive criterion for supporting that candidate.

Part of what’s at issue here is the relation between libertarianism and other values. Charles believes (as do I) that libertarianism is allied to other values by various kinds of “thickness,” such as application thickness (where values other than non-aggression are needed in order to determine how to apply the non-aggression principle), instrumental/strategic thickness (where values other than non-aggression are causal preconditions for the stable implementation of the non-aggression principle), and grounds thickness (where values other than non-aggression are supported by the best reasons for accepting the non-aggression principle, so that one couldn’t reasonably reject them while accepting it). (For more on these and other forms of libertarian thickness, see here and here.) Charles also believes (as again do I) that various values traditionally associated with the left are among those that libertarianism is thickly related to. If any of that is correct, then the fact that a given libertarian candidate does not share those values is going to be not just a lefty reason but a libertarian reason (not necessarily a decisive reason, but surely some, perhaps defeasible, reason) not to support his candidacy – and not a matter of subordinating libertarianism to other values.

DAVID: I maintained that some left libertarians subordinate libertarianism to their leftist views. He wonders whether my remarks were directed against a paper written by him and Roderick Long and defends himself against the subordination charge. My remarks were not about his paper, which is about the compatibility of libertarianism and feminism and doesn’t discuss support for non-leftist libertarians.

I suspect the reason Charles thought David might have had our paper in mind is that in that paper we defend not just the compatibility of libertarianism with feminism, but more strongly their being thickly related; we argued in particular that statism and patriarchy were part of an interlocking, mutually reinforcing system, so that one could not effectively combat one without combating the other. If that’s right, then the fact that a given libertarian candidate is not also, e.g., a feminist candidate is going to be reason (again – not necessarily decisive reason, but surely some, perhaps defeasible, reason) to regard his candidacy as an unpromising method of advancing libertarianism.

There are also questions here about electoral strategies in general, but I’ll save those for part 3.

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