What’s So Bad About Flag Burning?

[cross-posted at C4SS and BHL]

President-elect Donald Trump’s recent call for a year’s prison term or loss of citizenship for those who burn the American flag – incidentally a reversal of Trump’s previous support for flag-burners on the Letterman show two years ago – leaves me with some questions. Four questions, specifically: two for Trump’s conservative supporters, and two for his liberal critics.

My first question for pro-Trump conservatives is this: In the past I seem to recall hearing quite a few of you (though admittedly not Trump himself) speaking pretty loudly in favor of free expression when the issue was laws in Muslim countries criminalizing speech or writings that “disrespect” Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. How exactly do the arguments you gave then, not apply to Trump’s proposal now?

Second, I also recall that you conservatives used to talk a lot about government’s duty to protect people’s private property rights (although admittedly eminent domain poster boy Donald Trump was never really in your camp on that issue either). Well, if I buy an American flag with my own honestly earned money, or make one with my own cloth and thread, it seems like it’s then my property, the product of my labor; and I don’t see why I shouldn’t have the right to burn my own property, if I do it without endangering anyone else. If the government claims that it, rather than myself, is the one who gets to decide what I do with my flag – that it is, in effect, the real owner of the flag I bought or made – doesn’t that sound more like communism than like a free market?

Next, I have a couple of questions for the liberals who’ve been criticizing Trump’s proposal for its excessive harshness toward flag burners. First: It’s great that you’re calling Trump out on his contempt for freedom of expression; but how many of you were offering similar howls of outrage just over a decade ago when Hillary Clinton was supporting the Flag Protection Act of 2005, which likewise called for one-year prison terms for flag burners?

Finally, a question especially for those liberal critics who say that they support the right to burn the flag but disagree with the flag burner’s message. What exactly is supposed to be wrong with the flag burner’s message?

Even if the flag were legitimately a symbol of freedom, a ban on flag burning would be an odd way to honor the flag – sacrificing the reality of freedom to the mere symbol. But is freedom what the flag really stands for?

It’s now becoming more widely accepted that the Confederate flag, however much its supporters may revere it as an icon of freedom, is inextricably associated with the cause of slavery and white supremacy. But how is the American flag – the symbol of the Federal government – any more defensible?

The Confederate flag flew over slavery for five years. The American flag flew over slavery for nearly a century, and then flew over Jim Crow and similar slavery-like restrictions for another century after that. (And the Federal government didn’t move against Jim Crow until the grassroots civil-rights movement had grown strong enough to be worth co-opting rather than ignoring.) And even today, the American flag flies over a country where blacks are disproportionately likely to be killed or imprisoned by agents of the state.

The same flag flew over the slaughtering of American Indians, the kidnapping of their children, and the theft of their land; and that theft still continues today, as for example in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline. That flag also flies right now over a land where the state records our phone calls, tells us how we can and cannot medicate ourselves, and maintains a regime of privilege that props up the crony corporate elite at the expense of everyone else.

To be sure, American citizens enjoy a higher degree of freedom than do citizens in many other countries, and it is this fact that leads so many to view the American flag as a symbol of freedom. But such liberty as Americans enjoy was hard-won, in the main, by grassroots efforts that eventually prevailed against government resistance. Honoring the flag, the symbol of the Federal government, doesn’t celebrate our freedoms; it celebrates the central authority from whom those freedoms were heroically wrested.

Around the world, too, troops bearing the Americsn flag have too often propped up dictators and bombed civilian populations, from Asia to Central America to the Middle East. American bombs have killed dozens of civilians in the past several months just in Yemen alone. Is it any wonder that millions of people around the world view the American flag with fear, seeing it not as a symbol of freedom but rather as a harbinger of terror and death? In the face of that reality, defensive insistence that the flag “really” means something else rings as hollow as the neo-Confederate’s claim of “Heritage, Not Hate.”

We’ve begun, as a nation, to relinquish our blinkered reverence for the Confederate flag. It’s high time that reverence for the American flag followed it into equally well deserved oblivion.

They Love Us When We’re Dead

[cross-posted at C4SS]

I made this comment on Facebook a few weeks back, but I thought it was worth repeating here:

One thing that (many) social anarchists and (many) ancaps have in common is that they recognise anticapitalist individualist market anarchists as valuable comrades (albeit erring ones) as long as they’re dead 19th-century figures like Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, and Voltairine de Cleyre, and even include them in their favourite anthologies, but as soon as they encounter actual living 21st-century examples of anticapitalist individualist market anarchists, they cringe in horror and shriek either “capitalist!” or “commie!” depending on the direction of deviation.

iRad II.1 in Print, iRad I.4 Online

[cross-posted at C4SS and BHL]

After a couple of years’ hiatus (for financial reasons), The Industrial Radical is back! The fifth issue of the Molinari Institute’s left-libertarian market-anarchist magazine goes in the mail to subscribers this week. (The Molinari Institute is the parent organisation of the Center for a Stateless Society.)

The page files for this issue have been ready to go for a while, being originally intended for our Autumn 2013 issue – which means that some of the references to current events are a bit dated. (The next issue will be up to date, with all new content.) But the theoretical content remains timeless.

Issue II.1 features articles by Sebastian A.B., John Ahrens, Paul Buchheit, Kevin Carson, Dawie Coetzee, Nathan Goodman, Charles Johnson, Irfan Khawaja, Thomas Knapp, Jennifer McKitrick, Skyler Miller, Grant Mincy, and Sheldon Richman, on topics ranging from border security, technological design, prison abolition, jury nullification, police misconduct, overpopulation, and the Keystone XL pipeline, to the persecution of whistleblowers, feminist and antifeminist censorship, civil strife in Egypt and Syria, torture, necrophilia, and the economic structure of state capitalism.

Industrial Radical II.1 (Autumn 2016)

With each new issue published, we post the immediately preceding issue online. Hence a free pdf file of our previous issue (I.4, Summer 2013) is now available here. (See the first, second, and third issues also.)

Want to write for The Industrial Radical? See our information for authors and copyright policy (which, incidentally, will change from CC BY-SA to the less restrictive CC BY starting with the next issue).

Want to subscribe to The Industrial Radical? Visit our online shop.

Want to give an additional donation to the Molinari Institute (and help to prevent a future hiatus)? Contribute to our General Fund.

R.I.P. Leonard Cohen

R.I.P. Leonard Cohen

I don’t think anyone’s music has been more important to me over the past two decades than Cohen’s.

Farewell, maestro.

The Benefits and Hazards of Voting

[cross-posted at BHL]

Conventional wisdom has it that a) you have a duty to vote, and more specifically that b) at least in winner-take-all two-party electoral systems like the u.s., you have a duty to vote for whichever you regard as the least bad of the two major candidates (as opposed to “throwing away your vote” on a third-party candidate).


According to a contrary argument, one that enjoys some popularity in libertarian circles, c) voting – for anyone – is irrational, since the outcome is overwhelmingly likely to be the same whether you vote or not.

I think all three of these positions are mistaken.

(I’m not going to talk in this post about the argument that voting is immoral; but see my discussions here and here.)

Think first about (c), the argument that voting is irrational. If that argument worked, it would also prove that contributing to a Kickstarter is irrational – at least in cases where the total amount needed to be raised is significantly larger than the amount of one’s contribution. An example would be the Veronica Mars movie project, which raised five million dollars on Kickstarter; the average donation size was reportedly around $60. The odds that an individual’s personal $60 contribution will make the difference to a multi-million-dollar movie’s being made or not is vanishingly small; hence if not making a difference to the outcome is a reason not to vote, it’s also a reason not to contribute to a Kickstarter (except when the amount to be raised is small enough, or the amount one can personally contribute is large enough, that one’s contribution can significantly alter the probability of the project’s being funded).

Yet I suspect that among libertarians sympathetic to argument (c), few will be willing to issue a similar rejection of Kickstarter (or similar services). After all, Kickstarter is a libertarian’s dream; in the words of Reason editor Nick Gillespie, it “allows creators and funders to escape conventional financial, ideological and aesthetic gatekeepers who have long suppressed heterodoxy in media, business, the arts and more.” The ability to evade such gatekeepers is obviously a major benefit to libertarians and other politically heterodox thinkers.

Worse yet, if argument (c) worked against voting, it would also tell against being a libertarian activist as such, since (as noted elsewhere) “no one libertarian activist’s contribution is likely to make the crucial difference as to whether libertarianism triumphs or not.”

The truth is that civilisation depends on people contributing, in thousands of small ways every day, to practices whose maintenance will not stand or fall with any individual such contribution. Thankfully, people contribute to public goods all the time – and do so voluntarily, rational-choice arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. (See, for example, “Covenants With and Without a Sword: Self-Governance Is Possible” by Elinor Ostrom, James Walker, and Roy Gardner.)

And the same is true at an individual level; my success at any personal project depends on my reliably contributing to it over and over, even though success does not depend on any one of those instances, and so each individual contribution can look irrational. But if it were indeed irrational, then it would likewise be irrational to undertake any project that can’t be completed instantaneously – which is absurd.

The crucial fact to recognise is that we have an imperfect duty to contribute to public goods. (For a defense of the claim that we have such a duty, and that it is an imperfect duty, see my article “On Making Small Contributions to Evil.”) An imperfect duty, remember, is not optional or supererogatory; it’s a full-fledged duty. But it’s a duty that can be satisfied by performing the relevant action merely regularly rather than at every opportunity, leaving the agent with a free choice as to the occasions on which she discharges that duty. A duty to contribute to public goods, then, is not a duty to contribute to any and every public good that comes along; one can choose which ones to support.

Suppose I think that of two major political candidates, one of them (say, Hilnald Clump) is a bit less bad than the other (say, Donnary Trinton). Then I might regard a Clump victory as a public good, and might accordingly choose to vote for Clump as one of the instances in which I fulfill my duty to contribute to public goods. Hence the mere fact that the outcome of the election will not be affected by my individual vote does not render voting irrational.

To be sure, this argument does not generate a duty to vote, contrary to position (a). After all, even if one regards a Clump victory as a public good (given the alternative of the even more odious Trinton), the duty to contribute to public goods is an imperfect duty, and one need not choose this particular occasion as one to count toward fulfilling that duty. All the same, the argument does show how voting could be a way of fulfilling a duty, and so does give some aid and comfort to the pro-voting side, supporting a weaker version of position (a).

But it may give less support even to the weaker version of (a) than meets the eye. And in particular it may not give much support to (b). Let’s look closer.

Suppose there’s a third-party candidate – perhaps Gill Stohnson or Jary Jein – whom you regard as less bad than either of the two major candidates, but the third-party candidate has no chance of winning. Is voting for the least bad of the major candidates, rather than for the third-party candidate, the best way of fulfilling your duty?

Not obviously. After all, if you vote the way you’d prefer everyone to vote, as though you were choosing for everyone, then you should choose the third-party candidate. And if someone responds that it’s irrational to act as though you’re choosing for everyone, since in fact everyone else is going to vote however they’re going to vote regardless of what you do, that argument proves too much, since it’s an equally good reason not to vote at all; in fact it’s just the same voting-is-irrational argument (c) over again.

And once one considers what other results one might be contributing to besides someone’s simply getting elected, the case for voting third-party looks even stronger. After all, the larger the margin by which a candidate wins, the more that candidate can get away with claiming a mandate, thus putting him or her in a stronger political position to get favoured policies enacted. So if one thinks that both of the major candidates would do more harm than good if elected (even if one is worse than the other), then making the winning candidate’s totals smaller becomes a public good to which one might choose to contribute – perhaps by voting for a third-party candidate (though also, perhaps, by voting for whichever of the major candidates one thinks is most likely to lose).

Moreover, if you think that higher vote totals for a third-party candidate are a good thing even if that candidate doesn’t win (e.g., by garnering more publicity for alternative candidates and thus helping to build future support for a political movement you favour, sending a message of disenchantment with the political establishment, etc.), then voting for that candidate contributes to a public good other than just that candidate’s getting elected. Plus your total percentage contribution to the desired end will be greater, both because the number of voters you’re cooperating with will be smaller and because the result is incremental rather than all-or-nothing. All other things being equal, it seems plausible that the case for contributing to a public good gets stronger as the degree of impact of that contribution increases.

So whatever pro-voting case can be extracted from my argument seems more favorable to voting for third-party candidates (when they’re better than the major candidates) than to voting for a major candidate. There seems to be no strong case for position (b).


But in fact the case for voting third-party is not all that strong either; indeed, the problems with (b) turn out to be problems for (a) as well. Suppose your favoured third-party candidate, while better than either of the two major candidates, is still fairly lousy (in your view). Then the message you’re sending, and the cause you’re supporting, are a muddled mixture of good and bad. You might well contribute more effectively and unambiguously to the public good you seek by writing a clear and compelling op-ed or blog post rather than voting for a mixed-bag candidate.

Finally, suppose you’re an anarchist (as you should be). Trying to achieve anarchy via the route of electoral politics seems a lot less promising strategically than the agorist approach of building alternative institutions and trying to win people’s affiliation to those institutions and away from the state; the former requires convincing 51% of the electorate in order to accomplish anything, while the latter makes room for incremental success at the margin. Moreover, just as high vote totals for the winning candidate will be interpreted as a mandate for that candidate, so high vote totals in general will be regarded as a mandate for the system – whereas what we as anarchists should be seeking to do is to deligitimise the system.

In the light of those considerations, refraining from voting, thereby doing one’s part to deemphasise the importance of electoral politics in the wider culture, starts to looks like a better contribution to a public good than voting does.

And that’s why I’ll be boycotting the vote this Tuesday.

Anarchism/Minarchism Anthology Now in Paperback

Anarchism/Minarchism:  Is a Government Part of a Free Country?

[cross-posted at BHL, C4SS, and Public Reason]

I’m pleased to announce that the 2008 anthology Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?, edited by the late Tibor Machan and myself, is about to be released in paperback from Routledge (formerly Ashgate). It’s scheduled for the end of November, but can be pre-ordered now at Amazon (US here, Canada here, UK here).

At $55 it’s still a hefty pricetag, but it beats the hardback cost, which varies between $100 and $150.

The contents:

  • Lester Hunt: “Why the State Needs a Justification”

  • Roger Lee: “Libertarianism, Limited Government, and Anarchy”

  • Adam Reed: “Rationality, History, and Inductive Politics”

  • William Thomas: “Objectivism Against Anarchy”

  • Tibor Machan: “Reconciling Anarchism and Minarchism”

  • Aeon Skoble: “Radical Freedom and Social Living”

  • Jan Narveson: “The State: From Minarchy to Anarchy”

  • John Hasnas: “The Obviousness of Anarchy”

  • Roderick Long: “Market Anarchism As Constitutionalism”

  • Charles Johnson: “Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism”

Here are a couple of reviews of the original hardback edition:

This volume is a much needed revival of a debate critical to Libertarians, but also of significance to political theorists generally. The issue itself goes to the heart of what it means to do political philosophy, and the contributions found here skillfully keep those basic concerns in sight. In addition, I found the writing lucid and fair minded – something often missing in scholarly debate anthologies. I have no doubt that this volume will become a standard reference source for those interested in this particular debate and among the sources one consults when considering the foundations of the state generally.
                   – Douglas J. Den Uyl, Liberty Fund

The forceful philosophical and historical challenges to the state presented in this volume should be read not just by libertarians, but by everyone who believes that government is either necessary or legitimate.
                   – Elaine Sternberg, London School of Economics

I’m glad the essays in this volume will now be likely to reach at least a slightly larger audience.

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