Would You Like Angst With That?

Can you identify this literary character?

What means this life?He paused a moment, idly listening to his friend’s retreating footsteps, which fell hollowly on the tiles. And as if the empty sound struck a kindred chord in his soul, a rush of revulsion swept over him. His mirth fell away from him like a mask, and his face was suddenly old, his eyes worn. The unreasoning melancholy … fell like a shroud about his soul, paralyzing him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavor and the meaninglessness of life. His … pleasures, his fears, his ambitions, and all earthly things were revealed to him suddenly as dust and broken toys. The borders of life shriveled and the lines of existence closed in, numbing him. Dropping his … head in his mighty hands, he groaned aloud.

See whether you guessed right.


Passages

Milton Friedman I’m saddened to learn of Milton Friedman’s death. I didn’t know him personally (though I’ve met his son and corresponded with his grandson; my sympathy to them both), and his flavour of libertarianism wasn’t mine, but he was an articulate, influential, and charming defender of liberty, and wasn’t afraid to take un-Republican stands on issues like military conscription, corporate welfare, and drug prohibition. I have pleasant memories of watching the original full-length version of his Free to Choose miniseries on PBS during my high school days. See Richard Ebeling and Sheldon Richman’s tribute here.

Ayn Rand On a happier note, I’m pleased and honoured to note that I’ve been added to the editorial board of Chris Sciabarra’s Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. (Now the Right-Randians can add another organisation to their list of classical liberal institutions that have been infected by the whim-worshipping, chaos-fomenting taint….)

I’ve spent the past four weekends giving talks at, respectively, the Alabama Philosophical Society in Tuscaloosa, the Mises Institute Supporters’ Summit in Auburn, the Murphy Institute in New Orleans, and Revoluticon in Asheville. Which means I’ve been even more pressed for time than usual. I hope to get a chance to blog about the above over Thanksgiving.

Don't taser me! In the meantime, here are two recent pieces of mine, now online:

My talk at the Mises Institute conference on imperialism, What Empire Does to a Culture (see discussion here and here); and my Center for a Stateless Society op-ed on last Tuesday’s UCLA tasering incident, What Makes Police Brutality Possible? (see also Charles Johnson’s post).

More soon!


Good Riddance to Rumsfeld

Rumsfeld trying to use Force lightningJust saw this. Well! So the Democratic victory has had at least one good result already. Amazing to see this administration responding for once to a reality external to their own minds.

President Bush warns against misinterpreting his long-overdue decision to boot Von Rumsfeld: “To our enemies: Do not be joyful. Do not confuse the workings of our democracy with a lack of will.”

Sorry, Mr. President; but as one of the enemies of your lawless regime I can’t help being a little joyful. I wish it had happened sooner; I wish you were accompanying your grinning, murderous lackey out the door; but it’s a start.


Hitchens, Left and Right

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Since Christopher Hitchens gave up socialism, I’ve ironically enough gone from disagreeing with him 40% of the time to disagreeing with him 80% of the time. I used to look forward to his mordant skewerings of the mighty, but lately he seems to have morphed into a mean-spirited shill for the establishment.

Christopher Hitchens But at last comes a Hitchens editorial I can happily endorse; despite his having fallen to the neocon/prowar dark side, he makes a good case against executing Saddam Hussein. (Conical hat tip to Christopher Morris.) I share Hitchens’ misgivings both about the death penalty in general, and about the legitimacy of the vanquished being tried by the victors rather than by a neutral court.

While I’m on the subject of Hitchens, though, I also want to comment on something he said about libertarianism in his Reason interview a few years back. While this was after the beginning of his rightward shift, it’s basically a left-wing criticism, and like most left-wing criticisms of libertarianism it’s partly right and partly wrong:

I threw in my lot with the left because on all manner of pressing topics – the Vietnam atrocity, nuclear weapons, racism, oligarchy – there didn’t seem to be any distinctive libertarian view. I must say that this still seems to me to be the case, at least where issues of internationalism are concerned. What is the libertarian take, for example, on Bosnia or Palestine?

There’s also something faintly ahistorical about the libertarian worldview. When I became a socialist it was largely the outcome of a study of history, taking sides, so to speak, in the battles over industrialism and war and empire. I can’t – and this may be a limit on my own imagination or education – picture a libertarian analysis of 1848 or 1914. I look forward to further discussions on this, but for the moment I guess I’d say that libertarianism often feels like an optional philosophy for citizens in societies or cultures that are already developed or prosperous or stable. I find libertarians more worried about the over-mighty state than the unaccountable corporation. The great thing about the present state of affairs is the way it combines the worst of bureaucracy with the worst of the insurance companies.

Part of being a left-libertarian is that on the one hand you’re constantly trying to prod fellow libertarians into moving farther left, while on the other hand you’re constantly trying to show fellow leftists that libertarianism is already farther left than they realise. This is certainly an occasion for both responses.

Hitchens is certainly right to say that libertarians have often been less concerned about issues like racism, oligarchy, and corporate power than they should be – that they have stressed the evils of state oppression but often turned a blind eye to nonstate forms of oppression. On this general topic see this recent post of mine and this recent post of Wally Conger’s.

But at the same time Hitchens is certainly mistaken in supposing that libertarians have neglected these issues entirely. I need hardly point out to the readers of this blog that there exists, for example, an enormous libertarian literature both on war and on corporate power, and indeed on issues of class generally; in fact libertarians pioneered modern class analysis. (One suspects Hitchens hasn’t spent much time poring through Left & Right, Libertarian Forum, New Libertarian, or the JLS.) And he is also right to worry that his inability to “picture a libertarian analysis of 1848 or 1914” or other such historical events may stem from “a limit on [his] own imagination or education,” since here too there is plenty of such analysis available.

Thus I close with the ringing slogan, proudly inscribed on the streaming banners of the left-libertarian vanguard: Libertarianism: Less Left Than It Should Be, But Lefter Than You Think.


Meet the New Boss ….

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Let a smile be your umbrellaYesterday’s election brought high points and low. It was a relief to see the unbearable Rick Santorum go down to defeat in Pennsylvania, but not so delightful to see the despicable Elliot Spitzer gain the governorship in New York. On the whole, though, I’m glad to see the Republicans get trounced as they deserve. And divided government is one step closer to no government.

The real question now is whether the newly empowered Democrats will stand up to Bush on questions of war and civil liberties, or whether they will merely take the opportunity to indulge in their usual programs of job destruction (a.k.a. “minimum wage laws”), victim disarmament (a.k.a. “gun control”), etc.

One reason for pessimism is the way the Democrats abjectly rolled over for Bush in the wake of 9/11. Another is the way they’ve been endlessly coy about whether they want to end the war or just fight it better. Still another is this observation that “[m]any of the newly elected Democrats come from the moderate to conservative wing of the party. They are national security hawks in the main and most do not favour a quick withdrawal from Iraq. Many of them are social conservatives and protectionists ….” Oh, goody.

On the other hand, one reason for optimism is that antiwar sentiment nonetheless clearly played a central role in bringing about yesterday’s Democratic victories. Thus the Democrats may have to throw some sort of antiwar bone to their constituents. We’ll see.

In longer-term electoral politics, what I’d really like to see is a Green/Libertarian coalition. The Greens’ ten values are perfectly consistent with libertarianism, though the means chosen to achieve them may not always be. I’m largely in agreement with this piece by Dan Sullivan, though I favour a different solution to the land question – and I also think making agreement on any one solution to the land question a precondition for Green/Libertarian cooperation is strategically self-defeating. (In practical terms the best solution for disagreements over land policy is decentralisation. Kick the disagreement downstairs and tussle over it at the local level; that way no one solution gets imposed on everybody else.) For some other Green/Libertarian proposals see here, here, here, and here. (One approach to Green/Libertarian cooperation that I don’t favour is this one, which I initially thought was a joke – but apparently not.)


In Defense of Voting (sort of)

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I say “sort of” because I don’t really think voting is terribly important. And I certainly don’t think there’s a duty to vote – Athena forfend! Moreover, the usual arguments in favour of voting (like “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain” – which Spencer nicely disposed of in 1851) are generally much worse than the arguments against. Still, there are some common (in libertarian circles) arguments against voting that don’t convince me. Let me briefly say why.

A HAPPY VOTER The voluntaryist argument is that by voting one immorally and imprudently lends one’s sanction to the state. I’ve responded to this argument a decade ago (see here and here), and don’t have much to add.

Another common argument, especially popular with economists, is that voting is irrational, because (barring the overwhelmingly unlikely possibility of the election’s being decided by a single vote) the outcome will be the same however, or whether, one votes. Even if one’s aim in voting is not to get one’s candidate elected but merely to increase the candidate’s vote totals for strategic reasons, still whether that result happens is independent of whether one personally votes or not – so why vote?

But if that were a good argument against voting, it would be an equally good argument against contributing to any cooperative effort whose success depends on other people’s cooperating also. And so, for example, it would be an equally good argument against being a libertarian activist of any sort – since no one libertarian activist’s contribution is likely to make the crucial difference as to whether libertarianism triumphs or not.

I would even say that we have a duty to make a contribution to public goods. But it’s an “imperfect” duty in Kant’s sense, meaning that we need only contribute reasonably often to a reasonable number of public goods; we’re not obligated to contribute to every public good on every possible occasion. Hence one has no duty to vote (despite Peikoff’s bizarre assertion – which I’d love to see him try to make to Howard Roark – that “anyone who … abstains from voting in this election has no understanding of the practical role of philosophy in man’s actual life”), since it’s a matter of choice which goods one contributes to and when; but one is certainly free to pick voting as one of the occasions for the exercise of this duty.

I VOTED for some doofus In response to this reply John T. Kennedy writes that my comparison between voting and other forms of libertarian activism, such as blogging, would be correct only “if the expressive power of your vote were equal to the expressive power of your writing.” But in fact, he argues, “[t]he difference in leverage between the two actions is so overwhelming that it would clearly be counter-productive to waste time voting when that time could be better employed improving your next blog entry.” I would note, however, that this response is a retreat from the standard economic argument against voting to a weaker position, namely that voting makes a smaller contribution to the ultimate triumph of libertarianism than other forms of activism (though participating those other forms probably won’t make the decisive difference either). Well, then, should I specialise in whichever one form of activism I think will make the greatest overall contribution? Should I focus on scholarly articles and forget blogging? Or should I focus on blogging and forget scholarly articles? It seems to me to make more sense to diversify.

A third objection to voting, the agorist objection, is one I have more sympathy with. On this view, the best strategy for achieving a libertarian society lies not with an attempt to seize the reins of power (whether by electoral or revolutionary means) but rather with an attempt to encourage people to withdraw consent to the state through mass disobedience, and this strategy involves education and building alternative institutions, but not necessarily electoral politics. Indeed, so runs this argument, trying to get people to vote is counter-productive, since we should be discouraging rather than encouraging people’s attachment to the rituals of the state.

Now I certainly agree that as libertarian strategies go, education and building alternative institutions are much more important than electoral politics. And I also agree that the danger of reinforcing people’s attachment to the state is a count against urging people to vote libertarian. (I say “vote libertarian” rather than “vote Libertarian” because the Libertarian candidate is not always the most libertarian candidate – especially in light of the recent unpleasantness in Portland. On the other hand, I don’t think the “don’t waste your vote” argument against voting Libertarian is any good; see once again here.) But I also think voting can be useful as a means of self-defense in the short run; and while the ultimate revolution will be preimarily from the bottom up, it will certainly go more smoothly, and with less danger of a violent crackdown from a government desperate to maintain power, if we’ve got some support on the inside too.


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