Archive | May 5, 2008

Fear-Fraught Funnies

Jack Kirby once famously admonished (on a cover featuring Superman and the Guardian rushing toward the reader while bearing a photograph of Don Rickles): “Don’t ask! Just buy it!”

In that spirit I offer the following comic. Don’t ask, just read it!

The New Adventures of Batman

Find the Unpatriot

In 1782, Thomas Jefferson, addressing the subject of American slavery, wrote:

Thomas Jefferson Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure, when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice can not sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attributes which can take side with us in such a contest.

In 1865, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed:

Abraham Lincoln The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

In 1968, Martin Luther King opined:

Martin Luther King We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation. But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. The God that I worship has a way of saying, “Don’t play with me.” He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, “Don’t play with me, Israel. Don’t play with me, Babylon. Be still and know that I am God. And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.” And that can happen to America.

In 2001, Jeremiah Wright preached:

Jeremiah Wright No, no, no, not God bless America. God damn America – that’s in the Bible – for killing innocent people. God damn America, as long as she pretends to act like she is God and she is supreme.

I gather from the establishment echo chamber that three of these people are apparently great American patriots we should all revere, while one of them is horribly un-patriotic and un-American and must be denounced. But I’m having a bit of trouble figuring out which is which. Any help?

Montaigne on Profit and Loss

Montaigne famously held that one person’s profit always involves another person’s loss, and this apothegm has won him some hostility from libertarians; see Mises, for example, here, here, and here. But I think Montaigne’s meaning has been misunderstood. When the claim is taken out of context, it is easy to assume, first, that Montaigne is attacking profit, and second, that he is saying that in any exchange one party wins and another loses – so that, in effect, the person who profits does so by causing the other person’s loss.

Montaigne But when read in context, Montaigne’s point turns out to be rather different. Here’s what Montaigne actually says:

Demades the Athenian condemned one of his city, whose trade it was to sell the necessaries for funeral ceremonies, upon pretence that he demanded unreasonable profit, and that that profit could not accrue to him, but by the death of a great number of people. A judgment that appears to be ill grounded, forasmuch as no profit whatever can possibly be made but at the expense of another, and that by the same rule he should condemn all gain of what kind soever. The merchant only thrives by the debauchery of youth, the husbandman by the dearness of grain, the architect by the ruin of buildings, lawyers and officers of justice by the suits and contentions of men: nay, even the honor and office of divines are derived from our death and vices. A physician takes no pleasure in the health even of his friends, says the ancient Greek comic writer, nor a soldier in the peace of his country, and so of the rest.

First of all, then, Montaigne is evidently not attacking profit, since the reason he offers for thinking that Demades’s position is “ill-grounded” is that if it were correct, we would have to condemn all profit – an implication Montaigne obviously finds unacceptable. Second, it is clear from Montaigne’s examples that the loss that Montaigne thinks is linked with profit is not a loss that results from exchange but one that precedes it. His point is that X would not be able to make a profit from Y if Y were not already suffering from some form of need or lack which X then proceeds to relieve. It’s not that Y loses by the ensuing exchange, but rather that Y’s pre-existing ill fortune is what necessitates the exchange.

Admittedly Montaigne does find this situation morally problematic – not, however, because he thinks Y fails to benefit from the exchange, but rather because the dependence of X’s profit on Y’s need gives X an interest in hoping for and valuing Y’s distress, a morally unlovely consequence. And perhaps Montaigne is open to criticism here for not observing that there is a limit to the extent of distress that X can prudently wish upon Y, since, for example, X will not want Y to be so impoverished as not to be able to afford X’s services. But in any case Montaigne is not making the elementary economic mistake that is so often imputed to him.

Rousseau, in discussing Montaigne’s remark, draws from it the following moral:

It will perhaps be said that society is so formed that every man gains by serving the rest. That would be all very well, if he did not gain still more by injuring them. There is no legitimate profit so great, that it cannot be greatly exceeded by what may be made illegitimately; we always gain more by hurting our neighbours than by doing them good.

But this gloomy conclusion seems to me to go far beyond anything Montaigne is saying in the passage in question.


It turns out that Rothbard pushes this line also, in a piece titled “The Skeptic as Absolutist: Michel de Montaigne.” (Even assuming he didn’t ghost-write the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, how anyone could interpret Montaigne as an absolutist is beyond me!) What’s so frustrating about the piece is that Rothbard quotes enough of the Montaigne passage to make it obvious that the anti-trade interpretation of it is mistaken – and then proceeds to give the anti-trade interpretation anyway! I love me some Rothbard, but his bizarre interpretations of his predecessors (Plotinus, Smith, Hayek, etc.) drive me crazy sometimes.

Shadow of the Kochtopus

Check out David Gordon’s valuable article on the “Kochtopus,” that is, the network of libertarian think tanks funded by Charles Koch.

shadow of the octopus My own experience with the Kochtopus is complicated: in the past I’ve benefited enormously from my association with the Koch-funded Institute for Humane Studies, both intellectually and financially; they helped fund my education, they helped convert me to anarchism, and I spent three of my happiest summers in their graduate summer program (the first as a summer fellow, the other two as the director). Nor were they, in those days anyway, invariably hostile toward Rothbardianism; my copy of Power and Market (autographed by Rothbard) was a gift from IHS at my first IHS conference.

But thanks to my experience with IHS I can also testify to the truth of the somewhat anti-intellectual turn that Koch began pushing in the 1990s. I remember when Koch, evidently beginning to despair at the prospects of achieving political goals in his lifetime, became obsessed with a quick fix and decided that IHS needed to have “quantifiable results.” Massive micromanagement ensued (so much for “market-based management” – though as far as I can tell, MBM is just a way of simulating markets à la market socialism anyway). The word was to deemphasise abstract academics and emphasise policy studies instead.

These were the days that my friends and I used to refer to as “the Shadow falling on Rivendell.” First Walter Grinder – the heart and soul of the organisation as far as we were concerned – got axed. Then the management began to do things like increasing the size of student seminars, packing them in, and then giving the students a political questionnaire at the beginning of the week and another one at the end, to measure how much their political beliefs had shifted over the course of the week. (Woe betide any student who needs more than a week to mull new ideas prior to conversion!) They also started running scholarship application essays through a computer to measure how many times the “right names” (Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Rand, Bastiat, etc.) were mentioned – regardless of what was said about them!

Many IHSers protested (I recall Randy Barnett and Emilio Pacheco offhand) but to no avail. (I was at a big meeting where Koch was presenting his new strategy, and Emilio got up, visibly upset, and asked Koch whether the major historical figures of classical liberalism would have received any support under the new Koch policy; I can’t remember what Koch replied, I think he just swanned off. I reckon Emilio is a lot happier at Liberty Fund, where the attitude toward academics and historical figures is rather more congenial.)

All that said, I see from their website that IHS is still offering conferences with readings from the likes of Locke, Hume, Kant, Bentham, Madison, Calhoun, Constant, Bastiat, Spencer, Sumner, de Jouvenel, Mises, Hayek, and Rand; and its lecturers include such hardcore libertarians as Aeon Skoble, John Hasnas, and David Beito. Plus I hear good things from my students about the IHS seminars I’ve sent them to. So it looks as though the triumph of the Shadow can’t have been anything like complete; but I don’t have the inside info I used to have and so don’t know the details.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes