Five Years After

Five years ago today, four planes were hijacked as part of a terrorist operation that handed the u.s. government one of the juiciest Higgs crises it has ever enjoyed. In the years since, the government has exploited this bonanza enthusiastically, launching wars abroad (wars that have long since claimed far more innocent lives than were lost on 9/11) and chopping away at civil liberties at home – all in response to an incident that u.s. government policies led to in the first place.

The ever-increasing hassling of airline passengers in the wake of 9/11 is far from being the worst of what the government has been doing. Hell, it’s probably not even 20th worst. But it’s an apt illustration of the dynamic of statism.

World Trade Center The 9/11 hijackers used sharp objects, so government security starts confiscating nail clippers. A later would-be airline bomber tries to ignite a bomb in his shoe, so passengers have to start taking off their shoes. Some bozoes in Britain may have talked about using airline bombs involving gels, so passengers are relieved of their hairspray and water bottles.

The pattern is clear: each time the terrorists use a new tactic, the government imposes a new restriction on the rest of us, a restriction designed to combat that specific tactic; so the terrorists switch to a different tactic, followed by new restrictions. If the terrorists switch to targeting trains and buses, more restrictions will be imposed on people riding trains and buses – until the terrorists switch to standing on overpasses and dropping bombs on cars as they pass.

By the logic of the situation, government restrictions will always increase. When restriction A makes one tactic more difficult, the terrorists switch to a different tactic, so the government imposes restriction B – but, of course, doesn’t remove restriction A. Given the massive variety of tactics for terrorists to switch among, this process has no natural endpoint short of total government control over every aspect of life. What Mises showed with regard to price controls applies equally here.

Part of what makes this process possible is the externalisation, the socialisation, of the costs of governmental decisions – the separation of the decision-makers from the burdens their decisions impose. When the cost of a new restriction is not borne by those who make it, the demand for such restrictions will be artificially high. If there were a competitive market in airline security, passengers could decide for themselves whether to choose a low-security or a high-security airline: the gels-or-no-gels decision would then get made by the people who bear the costs either way.

Besides this institutional perversity, another factor that helps to make the government-ratcheting-to-infinity dynamic possible is ideological: the tendency to imagine that passing a law magically brings about its desired result. This comes across clearly in the interviews that were broadcast with long lines of delayed passengers in the wake of the Gel Terror. “I’m willing to put up with the inconvenience in order to be safe,” they kept saying (or at least, that’s what the passengers the networks chose to broadcast kept saying). The problem is that this describes the trade-off inaccurately. Confiscating everybody’s liquids doesn’t move passengers from a dangerous condition to a safe one; at best it shifts their chances of being killed in a terrorist attack from already-very-low to very-slightly-lower. But when a government policy is advertised as Preventing the Gel Terror, it is seen as Preventing the Gel Terror; the ideological mystification that sets up the state as external to the social relations it attempts to govern enhances its perceived effectiveness far beyond its actual effectiveness.

The real lesson of 9/11 is, or should be, the ineffectiveness of state action. On 9/11, the danger came not from a well-armed, well-funded state military but from a small group of passengers armed with box-cutters; and the most effective defense (on flight 93) was likewise not a well-armed, well-funded state military but another small group of passengers armed with fists and hand luggage.

The state is incompetent to protect us. What it’s good at is, first, dragging us into crises, and second, using those crises as an excuse to expand its control over our lives, and over the lives of people around the globe – wading through blood in the process. But even this ability depends not on its inherent powers but on our own acquiescence.

Withdraw your consent!

Four years ago today, I started both this blog and the Molinari Institute. This month sees a major retool of the blog; and this coming winter will see both the launch of the Institute’s periodical The Industrial Radical (are you writing for it? have you subscribed? if not, how can you bear the bleak desert that is your existence?) and the third symposium of our daughter organisation, the Molinari Society. Our quest for world domination continues apace!



Follow the Rules!

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Ludwig Wittgenstein My article “Rule-following, Praxeology, and Anarchy,” which I presented last April at the PCPE in Prague, has just been published in the Liberální Institut’s journal New Perspectives on Political Economy. I argue that Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox has implications both for Austrian methodology and for anarchist theory. Czech it out.

In a recent column, Sheldon Richman, citing my article, suggests some implications for our understanding of the Constitution as well.

Medieval Evil

Chaucer versus the Snake Have you ever spent sleepless nights pondering that immortal question, “What would Snakes on a Plane be like if it had been written by Geoffrey Chaucer?”

Well, of course you have; who hasn’t?

But wonder no more; I see that this question has now been gloriously answered.

And reading the above link reminded/inspired me to dig up this old piece of mine from grad school, addressing that other immortal question, “What would supermarket tabloids be like if they were written by Thomas Aquinas?”

More Memed Against Than Meming

I’ve been memed again! Twice this time – by Wally Conger and Matt Jenny. Okay, here goes: 

after Camus, what?One book that changed your life: The God of the Machine by Isabel Paterson

One book that you have read more than once: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

One book that you would want on a desert island: Primitive Wilderness Living and Survival Skills by John and Geri McPherson

One book that made you laugh: The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy

One book that made you cry: The Face Beside the Fire by Laurens van der Post.

One book that you wish had been written: To Lorne Dieterling by Ayn Rand.

One book that you wish never had been written: Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger

One book that you are currently reading: Making It Explicit by Robert Brandom

One book that you have been meaning to read: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

Now tag five more people: Can’t make me. The meme* has crossed the event horizon of my blog and will never rise again.

Heywood and de Cleyre Texts Online

Two more anarchist classics added to the Molinari Institute’s online library:

  • Garrison and Heywood William Lloyd Garrison and Ezra Heywood were united in their opposition to war, slavery, patriarchy, and the State. But when the Civil War came, Garrison, along with many of his followers, decided it was worth compromising a bit with war and the state by supporting the Northern cause, in the hope that a Union victory would bring a quicker end to slavery. Heywood, by contrast, stuck to his antiwar position. In his 1863 address “The War Method of Peace” (a title Garrison professed to find “somewhat paradoxical,” thus apparently missing the point), Heywood, quoting Garrison past against Garrison present, attacked the Garrisonians for betraying their former pacifist principles. Garrison graciously printed Heywood’s critique in his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator – but refused to answer or debate Heywood, on the grounds that wartime was not the appropriate occasion for discussing the antiwar position. (I guess one should protest a war only after it’s over?) As far as I can tell, after that one appearance it was never reprinted again, even in Heywood’s Collected Works – until now.

    In James J. Martin’s history of individualist anarchism in America, he writes that despite the “considerable vigor” with which Heywood had combated slavery during the antebellum years, as an “opponent of violence” he “disassociated himself from the cause of negro freedom with the outbreak of hostilities,” although “he continued to deprecate slavery, and inconsistently, to rejoice in later years at its destruction by the means which he most deplored.” I cannot agree with Martin that there is any inconsistency involved here; why can’t we be glad of a result while disapproving of the way in which it came about? For example, if our ancestry could be traced far enough back, most of us – perhaps all of us – are at some point the descendants of rape. Can’t we be glad we exist without thereby approving of rape?

    Heywood’s pacifist position is more extreme than mine, however. My take on the Civil War is closer to Spooner’s: no to forced Union, but yes to fomenting and abetting armed insurrection against slaveholders. Nevertheless, Heywood’s analysis of the destructive effects of wars of liberation on liberators and liberated alike is still all too timely today. And while he was mistaken in anticipating that the Emancipation Proclamation would be reversed after a Union victory, he was certainly correct in fearing that any emancipation secured by Lincoln’s troops would be emancipation on white-supremacist terms and within a white-supremacist framework. (Another point in favour of the Spooner position, incidentally: emancipation won by the slaves themselves, culminating in well-armed free blacks in rightful possession of the plantations, could not have been followed by a century of Jim Crow.)

  • Voltairine de Cleyre As I’ve discussed before (see here and here), the American individualist anarchist movement of the 19th century was divided between “egoists” and “moralists.” In her 1891 article “The Philosophy of Selfishness and Metaphysical Ethics,” Voltairine de Cleyre attempts to transcend the entire dichotomy. According to de Cleyre, there are two different ways of going wrong about ethics. One way is the morality of obedience, of duty, of submission to an incomprehensible external authority. For de Cleyre this was the essence of religious ethics (she’s arguably wrong about that – what about Aquinas? – but never mind), and is no longer believable once its theistic metaphysical basis has been discarded. Nevertheless, de Cleyre holds that there was some core of truth to the ethics of duty, underlying its authoritarian trappings, and it is this core that she seeks to recover. 

    The opposite way of going wrong is the perspective of egoism, which she rejects on the grounds that, as she understands it, such a perspective renders morality subjective, arbitrary, a matter of whim and caprice. The egoist is right to reject an ethics based on external authority, but wrong to replace it with an ethics of pure subjective will. (So the rejection of pure subjective will was the core of truth in religious ethics.)

    I think de Cleyre is on to something important here. Aristotle’s attempt to avoid both the otherworldliness of Plato and the vulgar conventionalism of the materialists and Sophists; Wittgenstein’s critique of both Frege and psychologism; Rand’s upholding of the category of the objective as an alternative to both intrinsicism and subjectivism; my own attempt to steer a path between the reflectionist praxeology of Rothbard and the impositionist praxeology of Mises – all of these represent, in different ways, a striving to avoid conceiving normativity, whether ethical or logical, either in purely external or in purely subjective terms. One advantage of the ancient Greek approach to ethics, I’ve argued (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here), is precisely that it allows for internalism without subjectivism.

    De Cleyre is also right, I think, to look to a reconceptualisation of the true nature of the self in order to ensure that the demands of morality are neither objectionably external to the self (the “duty” deviation) nor objectionably circumscribed by what we presently will (the “caprice” deviation). It was in just this spirit that Aristotle argued that since “it is our reasoned acts that are felt to be in the fullest sense our own acts,” it follows that “a man is or is chiefly the dominant part of himself,” i.e. his reason, so that the virtuous person, who “values this part of himself most,” thus turns out to be “a lover of self in the fullest degree.” (Nicomachean Ethics IX. 8.) While de Cleyre’s suggestion of a single collective self for all of us (if that’s what she means) strikes me as a move in quite the wrong direction, at least she sees the kind of move that is needed here.

    I also think de Cleyre’s view that oppressive institutions were formerly justified as expressions of a more limited stage of social development is an error – one she unfortunately shares both with Marx and with many 19th-century libertarian thinkers, including Proudhon, Spencer, and Molinari. (But, to his credit, not Bastiat!) What perhaps helps mislead her into this error, though, is her correct internalist insight: she sees that it makes no sense to condemn a practice unless some case against it can be made from the standpoint of the practitioners themselves. Where she goes wrong, I would say, is in thinking of that standpoint in psychologistic rather than in Socratic, reflective-equilibrium terms; thus if the practitioners feel no psychological discomfort (even if quickly repressed) regarding their practices, de Cleyre too quickly concludes that there’s no case as yet to be made to them against those practices, whereas Socrates would inquire whether – regardless of how they may happen to feel – they are logically committed, by their present beliefs and desires, to condemning those practices.

The Rule of Names

Ursula K. Le Guin The documentary film Anarchism in America, which features interviews with Karl Hess and Murray Bookchin among others, is advertised as containing footage of sf author Ursula Le Guin as well. But a number of viewers have reported, with disappointment, that Le Guin is nowhere to be found.

I’m not so sure. In track 3, titled “International Symposium on Anarchism,” there’s a frustratingly brief clip of an unidentified woman saying: “I think anarchism to most people does mean bomb-throwing, at first. But they don’t know that it’s an idea at all, and a whole political philosophy, and a moral philosophy.”

Is that Le Guin? I think it might be. (Even if so, admittedly an insufficient basis for including her name in puffery for the film. Still, it’s an excellent film, worth a watch.)

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