Tag Archives | Democracy

Greensleeves Was All My Joy

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

My passing mention earlier this month of the possible merits of a Green/Libertarian alliance has raised discussion here, here, here, and here. Let me address some of the concerns that have been raised.

Kermit the Frog Much of the discussion has focused on the Greens’ “ten key values” – which I claim are worthy goals, consistent with libertarianism, though often sought by Greens via un-libertarian means. But it’s worth keeping in mind that there is no canonical statement of these ten values. Each branch of the Green Party is free to tinker with the wording, and of course the result is that one group’s specific formulation of a certain value will be consistent with libertarianism while another group’s specific formulation of that value will not be. It’s the values themselves, not any one specific formulation or implementation of them, that I’m advocating, so we shouldn’t get too hung up over wording.

Still, I think many of the libertarian criticisms of these values make the same mistake that many Greens make – namely, envisioning only a statist implementation of values that in fact have perfectly good libertarian implementations.

Jason Kuznicki writes:

I take issue in particular with the following value:

All persons should have the rights and opportunity to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment.

This is just the sort of egalitarianism that libertarians have always opposed. It is not merely dangerous to a libertarian politics; the two are antithetical. 

What does it really mean, after all, for all persons to have “the rights… to benefit equally… from the resources afforded us… by the environment?” It means constant, massive redistribution of resources. It means an enormous and intrusive state to do the dirty work. It means the end of the free market and the beginning of socialism.

Well, it’s certainly true that that’s how many Greens would propose to implement that value. But is that really what the value means? Is that the best, the most defensible interpretation of that value? Are statist means really the most effective way of realising the aspirations it embodies? I deny it.

In his Economic Harmonies, Bastiat argued that the irresistible tendency of the free market is to increase the common realm at the expense of the private realm – because economic progress continually decreases the amount of human effort needed to produce a given result, and thus makes its benefits more widely available:

Wealth (taking this word in its generally accepted sense) stems from the combination of two kinds of operations, those of Nature and those of man. The former are free of charge and common to all, by divine gift, and never cease to be so. The latter alone possess [economic] value, and consequently they alone can be claimed as private property. But in the course of the development of human intelligence and the progress of civilization, the action of Nature plays a larger and larger role in the creation of any given utility, and the action of man, a proportionately smaller one. Hence, it follows that the area of gratuitous and common utility constantly increases among men at the expense of the area of value and private property. …

[T]hat portion of utility which, as a result of progress, ceases to be onerous, ceases to have value, but does not on that account cease to be utility, and falls eventually within the domain called common to all and free of charge ….

What is free of effort is held in common, for all men enjoy it and are permitted to enjoy it unconditionally. … What is acquired by effort is private property, because taking pains is prerequisite to its satisfaction, just as the satisfaction is the reason for taking the pains. …

This recourse to pains implies the idea of an obstacle. We may then say that the result sought comes closer and closer to the condition of being gratis and common to all in proportion as the intervening obstacle is reduced, since, according to our premise, the complete absence of obstacles would imply a condition of being completely gratis and common to all.

Now, since human nature is dynamic in its drive toward progress and perfection, an obstacle can never be considered as a fixed and absolute quantity. It is reduced. Hence, the pains it entails are reduced along with it …. But the utility remains constant. Hence, what is free of charge and common to all is increased at the expense of what formerly required effort and was private property. …

[I]t is characteristic of progress (and, indeed, this is what we mean by progress) to transform onerous utility into gratuitous utility … and to enable all men, for fewer pains or at smaller cost, to obtain the same satisfactions. Thus, the total number of things owned in common is constantly increased; and their enjoyment, distributed more uniformly to all, gradually eliminates inequalities resulting from differences in the amount of property owned. … A greater amount of gratuitous utility implies a partial realization of common ownership.

One can find a similar argument in David Schmidtz’s Limits of Government, where he argues that the effect of private property is to prevent the public benefits of private resources from being depleted, and indeed to increase those benefits.

Orion Slavegirl from Star Trek Is this what most Greens have in mind when they speak of people’s right to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment? No, usually not. But what I claim, with Bastiat and Schmidtz, is that economic libertarianism practically realises that ideal far more fully than any statist arrangement could. Thus the libertarian’s quarrel with the Greens on this point is, as I said, over means, not ends.

Jason continues:

So anyway… If Kevin Zeese shows what we’d get from a libertarian-Green alliance, I have to say I’m not interested. Pot legalization is great; ending the war is great. If I were a legislator, I’d happily vote with the Greens – on those issues. But I can’t go further than that.

Here I want to distinguish two issues. First, given Greens as they (mostly) are and Libertarians as they (mostly) are, what sort of political cooperation is possible between them? I would say that for the average Libertarian and the average Green, the benefits of cooperation will largely be confined to narrow, single-issue causes – though I think even here the potential benefits could be considerable. (I’m largely sympathetic to John Walsh’s proposal here for an alliance of Greens, Libertarians, and antiwar Demopublicans specifically on the issue of Iraq.)

But of course I also think we should be trying to change “Greens as they (mostly) are” and “Libertarians as they (mostly) are.” Libertarians have a good understanding of the value of private property, the effectiveness of competitive, for-profit modes of association, and the dangers of governmental forms of oppression; Greens have a good understanding of the value of the commons, the effectiveness of cooperative, non-profit modes of association, and the dangers of non-governmental forms of oppression. But each group tends to be weak where the other is strong; each group tends to see only the other group’s shortcomings, and to cling all the more firmly to its own shortcomings by way of reaction. Each group thinks – wrongly, in my view – that a concern for values from one set automatically negates concern for values from the other set. The Green/Libertarian coalition for which I would ultimately like to work (and I’m not talking just about the political parties here, but also the two worldviews in general) is a coalition of Libertarianward-moving Greens and Greenward-moving Libertarians. That coalition will be able to cooperate effectively on far more than single-issue causes, though it would have to be, at least initially, a much smaller faction or caucus (or, ideally, leaven) within the larger, more narrowly focused Green/Libertarian coalition.

Aeon Skoble runs through some more of the Greens’ key values and likewise finds them wanting:

1.Grassroots Democracy
“Every human being deserves a say in the decisions that affect their lives; no one should be subject to the will of another.”

This is self-contradictory. I agree that no one should be subject to the will of another, but that’s exactly the objection to democracy, under which we are all subject to the will of another anytime we’re outnumbered.

Martian Manhunter Well, yes, but of course “democracy” is a contested concept, and among radical left-wing proponents of “grassroots democracy” and “participatory democracy” it has been a frequently emphasised theme that political democracy as generally practised amounts to the rule of some over others, rather than being an embodiment of self-government. The radical left conception of democracy is, for that reason, precisely not usually majoritarian; after all, minority rights has arguably been the left’s defining issue for the past half-century at least. (It’s more often right-wingers, of the Borkist stripe, who are to be found extolling a majoritarian conception of democracy.) Now to be sure, left-wing democratic theorists have not reached agreement on exactly what a non-oppressive form of democracy should look like (will it require consensus? if so, does that mean unanimity? or can that requirement be avoided through decentralisation, letting each subgroup do its own thing? – take a look at the history of the New Left for sustained discussion of these issues), but they are certainly asking many of the right questions.

I’ve argued previously – drawing on Mises, Rothbard, and David Friedman – that libertarianism is the best embodiment of the left-wing democratic ideal, so rather than rehearsing those arguments here I’ll simply link.

Aeon again:

2. Ecological Wisdom
“Human societies must operate with the understanding that we are part of nature, not separate from nature. We must maintain an ecological balance and live within the ecological and resource limits of our communities and our planet. We support a sustainable society that utilizes resources in such a way that future generations will benefit and not suffer from the practices of our generation.”

Ok, but what are the resource limits? And what is the meaning of “sustainable”? That’s typically code for regulation and the precautionary principle.

“to this end we must have agricultural practices that replenish the soil; move to an energy efficient economy; and live in ways that respect the integrity of natural systems.”

“Must have” here seems to suggest (although I concede it need not) imposed rules.

Aeon’s objection here seems to be that this wording, while not inherently requiring statist methods, could be, and is indeed likely to be, interpreted by Greens as requiring such methods. Yes, of course. That’s not an objection to my position, it is my position: that Green values don’t require statist implementation but are nonetheless thought by most Greens to require statist implementation.

3.Social Justice and Equal Opportunity
“All persons should have the rights and opportunity to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment.”

As Jason has noted, this economic outcome-egalitarianism is not at all consistent with libertarianism, or even Rawlsian liberalism for that matter, and reveals an underlying assumption that “society” is the true “owner” of all resources.

Aeon reads far more precision into this than I think is plausible. I doubt that the the author paused to ponder over the precise shade of difference between the Rawlsian “equal opportunity to benefit” and the un-Rawlsian “right to benefit equally” in constructing his or her hybrid phrase merging equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. And since every Green branch gets to word its key values as it chooses (one solution to the democracy problem), pondering the precise wording of this particular formulation as though it were some canonical text isn’t very productive. What’s being expressed here is not a rigid rule but a general aspiration, and I’ve already said why I think libertarianism in fact fulfills that aspiration.

“We must consciously confront in ourselves, our organizations, and society at large, barriers such as racism and class oppression, sexism and heterosexism, ageism and disability, which act to deny fair treatment and equal justice under the law.”

I know that this is the move Roderick wants to make about thick-versus-thin libertarianism, and I know that this is a key source of intra-libertarian dispute, even here at L&P. For now, though, let’s just note that the way it’s expressed here is sufficiently vague that we can’t tell whether it’s consistent with liberty or not.

I assume that in saying this principle is “vague” Aeon means that it could be implemented in either libertarian or un-libertarian ways (which of course it can). But I can’t see that that makes it vague; it just makes it generic. Because being a mammal is compatible with being either a cat or a horse, does it follow that the term “mammal” is too vague for us to determine whether being a mammal is compatible with being a cat?

4. Nonviolence
“It is essential that we develop effective alternatives to our current patterns of violence at all levels, from the family and the streets, to nations and the world. We will work to demilitarize our society and eliminate weapons of mass destruction, without being naive about the intentions of other governments. We recognize the need for self-defense and the defense of others who are in helpless situations. We promote nonviolent methods to oppose practices and policies with which we disagree, and will guide our actions toward lasting personal, community and global peace.”

This doesn’t seem too bad, although again the vagueness is worrisome. Does “demilitarize our society” mean we stop invading other countries, or that the 2nd Amendment can be disregarded? Generic “nonviolence” positions are worthless if they don’t make the moral distinction between aggression and defense.

Witch from Wizard of Oz movie Aeon writes as though in order to assess this principle we have to determine the original intent of the individual (or, more likely, committee) that drafted it. But I continue to think, with Spooner and Lyons, that what matters for meaning is not authorial intention but rather the intention of the instrument. The nonviolence principle is vague only in the same way that the Constitution’s “just compensation” clause is “vague,” namely not at all. Once again it’s simply generic, and the “right” way of specifying it is not “what the authors intended” (if indeed all the authors intended the same thing, which is often unlikely) but rather whichever way of specifying it is objectively most defensible.

5. Decentralization
“Centralization of wealth and power contributes to social and economic injustice, environmental destruction, and militarization.”

Yes, largely due to the state and the ways in which wealth buys political power. In a radically libertarian society, this would be mitigated, and in any case, this conclusion:

“Therefore, we support a restructuring of social, political and economic institutions”

is radically inconsistent with liberty;

What? How? Don’t libertarians “support a restructuring of social, political and economic institutions”? Gee, I thought we did!

again, there is the tacit assumption that markets are bad and that society is the proper owner of all resources, which may then be “distributed” in such a way as to achieve “social justice.”

“away from a system that is controlled by and mostly benefits the powerful few,”

That’s an argument against states, not wealth.

If Aeon’s claim is that most Greens are likely to think that the implementation of this principle requires coercive interference with the free market, then he’s not objecting to my position, he’s simply restating it, since in my original post I said “The Greens’ ten values are perfectly consistent with libertarianism, though the means chosen to achieve them may not always be.” So focusing on the already-agreed fact that Greens sometimes adopt statist means is a red herring. (A Green herring?)

On the other hand, if Aeon’s claim is that this principle could only have a statist implementation, that no defender of private property could endorse the concerns embodied in this statement, then his own comments seem to show otherwise.

In general, the chief problem with Greens is that often they can’t think of any non-statist way of implementing their ideals. It seems rather self-defeating for Libertarians to agree with them about this and say “Yeah, we can’t think of any non-statist way of implementing your crummy ideals either.”

“Decision-making should, as much as possible, remain at the individual and local level, while assuring that civil rights are protected for all citizens.”

Well, that’s the real trick, isn’t it? Reconciling democratic decision-making with robust respect for rights (and here we see some artificial distinction between civil rights and property rights) has always been a tall order, and it only makes matters worse if you also think there should be egalitarian resource distribution.

First, as I’ve argued, it is precisely in the free market that democratic decision-making and robust respect for rights can be reconciled. Second, nothing in the text entails any distinction between civil rights and property rights. 

6.Community-Based Economics

I’m already lost. All economics is community-based. What theory of economics are we talking about here?

“We recognize it is essential to create a vibrant and sustainable economic system, one that can create jobs and provide a decent standard of living, for all people, while maintaining a healthy ecological balance. A successful economic system will offer meaningful work with dignity, while paying a “living wage” which reflects the real value of a person’s work.”

Oh, now I see: a Marxist theory.

The Incredible Hulk Oh really? So non-Marxists are necessarily for meaningless work, without dignity, at a nonlivable wage? If Aeon really believes that, he’s just given a ringing endorsement of Marxism!

But I’m afraid I don’t share Aeon’s apparent enthusiasm for Marxism. I think one can be a libertarian and still favour meaningful work, with dignity, for a living wage. And I would add that the tendency among libertarians to react with knee-jerk aversion to such phrases is a large part of what contributes to the perception on the left that libertarians are cold-hearted shills for the ruling class.

“economic development that assures protection of the environment and workers’ rights, broad citizen participation in planning, and enhancement of our “quality of life”.”

Citizen participation in “planning”? That’s the market. Unless we’re talking about command-economy planning.

If Aeon is wondering what the authors of this principle were picturing in their heads when they wrote it, I would reckon that neither the free market nor the command economy was precisely in their minds. Instead I would reckon that they, or most of them, were envisioning some vague amalgamation of New England town meetings and café discussion groups. But I’m not interested in what pictures were going through the authors’ heads. As Aeon says, properly understood there’s no conflict between libertarianism and “citizen participation in planning.” My point exactly.

“We support independently owned and operated companies which are socially responsible,”

Socially responsible meaning what? Not, I presume, in the Milton Friedman sense.

I should hope not, since I think Friedman’s position is indefensible. Even if Friedman’s imaginary contracts with shareholders existed, they would not relieve the contracting parties of their moral obligations.

So then they must mean that companies are only permitted if they mesh with the politically correct set of values and outcomes.

How on earth do we suddenly get from “we support X” to “only X is permitted”? Not by any rule of inference I know.

It’s important not to confuse the following two facts. They’re both true, but they’re distinct:

(1) Left-wing political programs often propose governmental means for achieving goals that libertarians think should be sought only by nongovernmental means.

(2) Left-wing political programs often set out a wide variety of social goals and ideals to be sought by a variety of means, not confined to governmental means.

When libertarians see a given goal listed in a left-wing political program, they tend to assume that the meaning of this must be that the goal in question is going to be pursued via statist means. Now given (1), this is certainly a possibility; with the left as it (mostly) is, statist means are usually at least on the table. But given (2), the appearance of a goal on the list certainly doesn’t entail that it is to be sought via statist means either. When such lists of lefty goals are drawn up, their authors usually don’t pause to sort out which are to be sought via legislation and which by education or nonstate organising.

As libertarians we often tend to assume that everyone else is as obsessed as we are with the choice between governmental and nongovernmental means. But for those who are prepared to regard either sort of means as potentially appropriate – which, alas, describes the left as it (mostly) is – this question is bound to seem less salient. Thus when Aeon asks, concerning this point or the others, “does this mean doing this by governmental means or nongovernmental means,” the answer usually is that it doesn’t mean either one. The leftist is generally open to either sort of means – and since the left hasn’t absorbed the libertarian understanding of the weaknesses of state provision and the strengths of market provision, the leftist will in practice tend to choose statist means fairly often – but the statism isn’t essential to the goal.

7. Feminism
“We have inherited a social system based on male domination of politics and economics. We call for the replacement of the cultural ethics of domination and control, with more cooperative ways of interacting which respect differences of opinion and gender. Human values such as equity between the sexes, interpersonal responsibility, and honesty must be developed with moral conscience. We should remember that the process that determines our decisions and actions is just as important as achieving the outcome we want.”


Another Orion Slavegirl Now if Aeon really thinks that the appearance of a goal on this list automatically entails that it is to be sought by statist means, then he shouldn’t say “Ok” to this. (I suspect on this point Aeon was just thinking “oh jeez, I don’t want to get into another wrangle with Roderick about feminism; let it pass.” ) Anyway, I here repeat my mantra: Is the average Green likely to choose statist means (or a set of means including some statist means) to achieving this goal? Yes. Is statism therefore essential to the concern expressed in this goal? No.

Incidentally, the line “the process that determines our decisions and actions is just as important as achieving the outcome we want” shows that Greens aren’t indifferent to questions about means; they just haven’t yet understood the libertarian case for one particular restriction on means.

8. Respect for Diversity
“We believe it is important to value cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, religious and spiritual diversity, and to promote the development of respectful relationships across these lines.”

Sounds good, but let’s see where they go with it:

“We believe the many diverse elements of society should be reflected in our organizations and decision-making bodies”

Ah, so if the society is 37% Minority A, then 37% of all CEOs and surgeons and Senators and college professors must be Minority A?

Well, that sort of rigid formulaic approach is certainly one way of implementing the goal in question. But one can certainly share a commitment to ensuring greater diversity without being committed to that sort of silliness. (Of course if one wants to achieve this goal by state-mandated means, then rigid quotas and so on are the only way to do it. But: repeat mantra here.)

“we support the leadership of people who have been traditionally closed out of leadership roles.”

I think they mean “people from ethnicities other members of which have in the past been closed out of…”

Jolly Green Giant I very much doubt that. I don’t see any Greens (despite their name!) plumping for greater representation of Irish people on the grounds that the Irish were previously discriminated against in the U.S. Their concern is pretty clearly for groups that are currently disadvantaged, discriminated against, or under-represented.

This is an anti-individualist way of thinking of people.

Why? If a doctor says she wants to help people with cancer, should she be labeled “anti-individualist” because she referred to a group characteristic? I don’t get it. It’s oppression and discrimination, not those who combat these things, that apply to individuals as members of certain groups.

“We acknowledge and encourage respect for other life forms and the preservation of biodiversity.”

While I think Spock was right not to want to kill the Horta, was not the Vampire Cloud also the only one of its kind? Some life forms are a threat to humanity. When respect for biodiversity becomes misanthropic, I draw the line.

I agree. But the passage Aeon is reacting to didn’t say “respect for other life forms and the preservation of biodiversity must take precedence over all other values including human life.” And while some environmentalists would sign on to the latter formulation, the vast majority would not.

9. Personal and Global Responsibility
“We encourage individuals to act to improve their personal well being and, at the same time, to enhance ecological balance and social harmony. We seek to join with people and organizations around the world to foster peace, economic justice, and the health of the planet.”

Sounds good, but there’s that expression “economic justice” again, which they seem to interpret not in free market terms but in terms of egalitarian redistribution.

“Economic justice” is of course a contested concept – not just contested between libertarians and lefties, but contested within the left itself. On my own view economic justice includes, but is broader than, respect for libertarian rights. (Aristotle’s distinction between general and special justice is relevant here – but getting into that would take a post of its own.) Most Libertarians would confine economic justice to libertarian rights alone, while most Greens would take economic justice to require departure from libertarian rights (sometimes because they build un-libertarian aspects into the concept of justice itself, sometimes because they regard un-libertarian means as necessary to achieve justice, and most often not distinguishing clearly between these two possibilities); I think both are one-sided on this question.

10.Future Focus and Sustainability

“Our actions and policies should be motivated by long-term goals. We seek to protect valuable natural resources, safely disposing of or “unmaking” all waste we create, while developing a sustainable economics that does not depend on continual expansion for survival. We must counter-balance the drive for short-term profits by assuring that economic development, new technologies, and fiscal policies are responsible to future generations who will inherit the results of our actions.” 

“Our” policies? Command economy? And how do we “assure” outcomes as prescribed here?

Aeon writes here as though advocacy of collective action can only mean coercive or state action. But I doubt he can really think this, since he participates in the libertarian movement, which is precisely a group effort to get large groups of people to change their minds about how to behave.

As Charles Johnson and I wrote in our libertarian feminism article, there’s a difference between forms of voluntary action that seek to “address a question of social coordination through conscious action … by calling on people to make choices with the intent of addressing the social issue” and those “in which the intent is some more narrowly economic form of satisfaction, and any effects on social coordination (for good or for ill) are unintended consequences.” The latter is clearly “market” activity, while state legislation is clearly “political” activity; but the former might be described with either label. In any case, the former has no necessary connection with violence, and nothing in this 10th value says anything about violent means.

That’s 1 out of 10. I fail to see how this platform can even remotely be shoehorned into libertarianism. The author of this platform fundamentally fails to see how markets work, or how liberty is indivisible, or how democratic institutions are in conflict with rights, or what it means for rights to be compossible.

Piccolo from Dragonball Z Well, if every time you see a goal listed that could in principle be implemented via statist or nonstatist means, you always interpret it so as to build the choice of statist means into the goal, then of course you’re going to get something incompatible with libertarianism. But I’m mystified as to why a libertarian would employ such a statist principle of interpretation. It would surely be more productive to use the decentralisation and nonviolence planks as wedges against statist interpretations of the other planks.

If Roderick can convince someone who holds all these views to actually respect individual liberty and not be aggressive, he’s the best salesman since Ron Popeil.

Well, that’s easy. I hold all those views, I subscribe enthusiastically to all the values on that list, and I’m a libertarian. So I’ve convinced at least one such person.

But moving beyond the first-person case, I can certainly say this much: I know plenty of people with broadly Green values who were initially hostile to libertarianism because they associated it with the knee-jerk anti-leftism prevalent among the only libertarians they’d encountered; and while they didn’t necessarily become libertarians they became much more friendly and open-minded toward libertarianism once they found out about the existence of the flavour of libertarianism I espouse. Click here for an example of the sort of thing that is thankfully becoming more and more common.

In any case, it’s puzzling for Aeon to put up so much resistance to the combination of Green and Libertarian values when he shares with me an attachment to what might initially seem the still more daunting alliance of Libertarianism with Aristoteleanism.

Anthony Gregory writes:

Greens believe all sorts of things, with anti-conservatism being their main, unifying purpose. The ten core principles appeal to a wide variety of people precisely because they are so vague and even self-contradictory. You get more anarchist-leaning Greens as well as ambitious central planners, and, because of the culture war and obfuscatory left-right divide in American politics, they all get along relatively well with not much more of a common belief than that the Republicans are the root of all evil and the Democrats are not much better.

Some Greens will be open to libertarian arguments and are potential converts. Others are a lost cause.

As usual, I agree with Anthony (except for the part about the ten core principles being self-congradictory).

Gus diZerega writes:

A great many Greens/environmentalists who once were skeptical of market based solutions are much less so now. My own work made a difference for some, including some fairly important ones, or so they have told me.

On the other hand, orthodox libertarians and their allies such as PERC and so-called classical liberals have generally refused to enter into good faith dialogue with Green points of view.


My second example is the utter garbage published on the right about global warming. … Rather than taking a nuanced view or seeking to find the least coercive approaches to adddressing the problem the general response among classical liberals has been to make ad hominem attacks on scientists’ motives. Just as they do with enviromentalists.

Again, amen. On the issue of global warming I remain agnostic because I suspect both sides are taking their positions for the wrong reasons (see here and here), but I’m sick of seeing each side malign the other side’s honesty.

The common ground libertarians and greens can find will not be found in pushing pure market institutions because such institutions are geared to feedback entirely originated within the relations of consumers and producers, disconnected from natural cycles. But it is a strange definition of freedom that finds it beginning and ending there.

Where there IS common and fruitful ground to explore concerns institutions rooted in civil society, such as land trusts, community based watershed restoration groups, and other voluntary organizations that can make use of but are not subordinated to market price signals.

Here too I agree. Many libertarians will reach for their revolvers at Gus’s rejection of reliance solely upon “pure market institutions,” but remember the distinction I cited above between forms of voluntary association that aim at social coordination through conscious action and intent and forms that aim at profit and promote social cooperation only indirectly. There is a broad sense of “market” in which both these forms count as market forms, and a narrow sense of “market” in which only the latter does. Gus’s suggestion that we shouldn’t rely solely on “pure market institutions” needn’t be read as an invocation of the state; it need only mean that market approaches of the latter sort need to be supplemented by market approaches of the former sort – and that I certainly agree with.

Of course Gus and I have a longstanding disagreement as to whether Madisonian democracy counts as a nasty “state” (says I) or a benign “spontanoeus order” (says he), so we would probably disagreement about the implementation of our area of common agreement; but disagreement about implementation doesn’t negate the principle.

The real issue to my mind is that Greens are ultimately issue oriented – which is why they are willing to entertain market friendly approaches when they hear them expressed in a way showing respect for their concerns – whereas most on the classical liberal/free market/PERC side have little sympathy with Green concerns and seek only to make converts to their ideology by weaning them away from taking these issues seriously. Greens are not stupid.

She-Hulk Again, amen. And the point that “Greens are ultimately issue oriented” goes along with my claim that for most Greens, while statist means may be chosen in pursuit of their goals, statist means are not built into the goals.

Anarcho-capitalism depends on a legal system that relies on enforcing property rights being able to internalize all significant negative externalities. Otherwise some are aggressed upon by the actions of others against which they have no legal recourse.

It can be hard to do this well, but it can be hard for government to do this well too. I don’t see why market anarchism is at a disadvantage in this area.

If the seriousness of the impact is what matters, it does not matter whether I am injured by the collective emission of one person with enormous power to pollute, or the collective emissions of millions, perhaps billions, of people each of whom has an insignificant power to pollute, but whom collectively can do real damage. They can also injure not only innocent others, they also can injure themselves. But if, knowing this, any individual stopped emitting CO2 pollution, it would have no impact because every individual’s impact is negligible. This is the ultimate free rider problem. … For the life of me, I can think of no solution to this issue in a anarcho-capitalist world.

Gus seems to assume that no market anarchist order would prosecute people for making tiny, incremental contributions to harmful results. But I don’t see why not. Market anarchists disagree with one another as to whether such lawsuits would be legitimate; there’s no “orthodox” or “canonical” position on this matter. And real-life stateless or near-stateless legal systems have often allowed for class-action suits, or suits on behalf of the public – legitimately so, in my opinion. So assuming arguendo that drastic reduction of CO2 emissions is necessary to avoid catastrophic global warming, I don’t see why an anarchist legal order couldn’t handle the problem as well as government. Better, in fact, since with government there’s only one legal agent that the polluter needs to bribe to escape accountability, whereas under anarchy there are prohibitively many.

Democracies are not states, except in a purely legal sense. This is why they do not act like states internationally. Most importantly, democracies do not fight other democracies, nor do they kill large numbers of their own citizens.

Fredric Brown's Martians Go Home Well, democracies do a pretty good job of acting like states in their relations with non-democracies. One reason they don’t attack each other as much is that democracies tend to be more prosperous than non-democracies so it’s riskier to attack one; I think Hoppe is largely right about that. Still, it happens; most of the “non-democratic” participants in World War I, for example, were in fact largely democratic. Many of the third-world countries in which the U.S. has intervened were also largely democratic, or at least more democratic before the intervention than after. And then of course there’s the U. S. Civil War. If you regard the Union and the Confederacy as separate nations, then we have a war between two democracies. If you regard the Confederacy as an unsuccessful aspirant to separate status, then the Union was a democracy that killed large numbers of its own citizens. Also, a democratic regime can vote itself into non-democracy and then kill lots of its own citizens, as in the transition from the Weimar Republic to the Nazi regime. So I remain unconvinced by the democratic peace hypothesis.

Robinson Crusoe didn’t need property rights till Friday came along.

Maybe he didn’t need them, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have them.

But if courts compete, why should both side to a dispute be compelled to agree as to which court they go to? Courts presumably need to dfifferentiate themselves to market their services, and in the differentiation, canny litigants can guess where they will receive a hearing most to their liking. Two canny litigants are therefore unlikely to agree as to which court to consult, especially if one benefits from the status quo. And if they do not agree, doesn’t the possible aggressor win by default?

If they are forced to go to a particular court, isn’t that the equivalent of a government? … On what grounds can an accused person be incarcerated when he or she claims innocence, unless it be by the equivalent of government action that is indistinguishable from government?

Hashing out the merits of anarchism would unduly expand this already swollen post; but on the issues Gus raises, see my debate with Bidinotto here, here, and here.

For example, Murray Rothbard’s “solution” to air pollution was either too stringent (ban ALL pollution and thereby closing down industrial society because our bodily boundaries were violated by someone’s emissions) OR useless (ban only pollution where an individual polluter could be located and sued, making CFCs and auto pollution incapable of being effectively addressed due to prohibitive organizing and information costs.

Rothbard’s concept of the “relevant technological unit” (for discussion see B. K. Marcus’s piece here) forestalls the first option; I don’t see why the costs involved in the second are more prohibitive than in the governmental case, especially given the perverse informational and incentival constraints driving up costs in the latter sphere.

Otto M. Kerner says (to Gus):

[I]t sounds as if you want radical libertarians to moderate their positions. But, this is not the sort of alliance that I’m interested in

Maybe Gus does want that, but I don’t.

Okay, this is a very long post. I’ll stop now.

In Defense of Voting (sort of), Part 2

Ten years ago I wrote a four-part article in which, inter alia, I criticised some of the standard Voluntaryist arguments (particularly George Smith’s) against electoral politics. I’ve never seen any response to my arguments from anti-electoral libertarians, but I’d be curious to see some, which is why I’m now re-posting some excerpts from that article:

Some libertarians – many calling themselves “Voluntaryists” – hold that it is inappropriate for libertarians to seek or to exercise governmental power under any circumstances, even with the intent of using that power to diminish or abolish governmental power. 

I am sympathetic to this objection, but in the end I think it is a mistake. Let me explain why.

The Voluntaryists’ objection comes in two forms – a Pragmatic Objection and a Principled Objection. The Pragmatic Objection claims that dismantling the state from within is unworkable. The Principled Objection claims that even if such a project were workable, it would be morally wrong to attempt it. …

Let’s consider the Principled Objection first. I think this is an important objection, and I want to do justice to it, so I here quote at some length George Smith’s defense of the Principled Objection:

Political power – the capacity and legal sanction to aggress against others – is integral to political office. … I don’t want anyone to have political power, regardless of his supposed good intentions. I object to the political office itself and to its legitimized power. … The issue of trust is quite secondary. … I may trust a particular libertarian politician, but I still don’t want him to have political power over me. … Libertarians should oppose this injustice in principle. …

George H. Smith ‘Elect me to office,’ proclaims the libertarian politician, ‘give me enormous power over you and your property, but rest assured that I shall abstain from using this power unjustly.’ I reply: You have no right to such power in the first place – and as a libertarian you should know this. You should be denouncing the very office to which you aspire. … [But] if the institution of senator is wrong in itself (because of its built-in political power), then how can you, in good conscience, ask us to make you a Senator? … What does it mean, in this society, to be a Senator? Among other things, it signifies the legal privilege to formulate and enact laws without any necessary regard for the justice of those laws, and it permits one to dispense massive amounts of stolen money. Such powers, inherent in the office of Senator, are incompatible with libertarian principles. … One cannot deny the legitimacy of the Senatorial office, as libertarians must logically do, and simultaneously advocate someone for that position. …

This is not – I repeat, not – an issue of strategy. … I am not merely asserting that the political method is inefficient in pursuit of this goal. Rather, I am arguing that the political means is inconsistent with libertarian principles …. One cannot consistently denounce the State as a band of criminals while attempting to swell the ranks of this criminal class with one’s own cronies. … To be elected to public office is to gain the legal sanction to aggress. … To vote a person into office is to give that person unjust authority over others. … When an LPer [i.e., Libertarian Party supporter] enters the voting booth, he is attempting to place in office a person who will have unjust authority over me. But, claims the LPer, his candidate will not use that power. I reply that this, even if true, is immaterial. The legitimized power embodied in the political office is not his to give in the first place. …

I accept libertarianism, and this very acceptance compels me to reject political action. Therefore, when I am told that political action is a good strategy to achieve libertarian goals, I can only reply: Even if that were true (which I don’t accept), it would not change the rightness involved. … You accuse me of purism. I reply, ‘So what?’ If ‘purism’ means anything, it means the refusal to budge on matters of principle even at the expense of apparent short-term gains. What is the alternative?

(George H. Smith, “Party Dialogue,” ….)

… I am in accord with the Voluntaryists [in holding that] we are not justified in engaging in aggression, even in order to bring about greater liberty for all. But I disagree with the Voluntaryists’ claim that political activity by libertarians is necessarily a form of aggression. …

Some libertarian theorists (e.g., Robert LeFevre) have rejected as illegitimate any use of force, even in self-defense. … But Voluntaryists, while philosophically indebted to LeFevre, are not for the most part LeFevrean pacifists; they recognize the legitimacy of using force to defend oneself or other innocent parties. I contend that, in attempting to seize political power in order to dismantle the … state, our libertarian politicians are engaging in the legitimate project of defending the [populace] from governmental aggression.

George Smith considers this argument, only to reject it:

To your plea of self-defense, I reply: Fine, defend yourself, but leave me alone. But voting is wrong precisely because it does not leave me alone. If you elect your candidate to office in the name of self-defense, his power will not be restricted to you and to those who voted for him. He will have power over me and others like me as well. … You presume that you have the right to appoint a political guardian over me – a benevolent one, you claim, but a guardian nonetheless. Now as one libertarian to another, I must repeat my question: Where did you get such a right?

(“Party Dialogue,” p. 23.)

Smith claims that the very act of taking political office, or of authorizing others to do so, constitutes aggression against the populace. But is this really so? Imagine that Lex Luthor is riding his evil Juggernaut Beast toward the town of Smallville, preparing to trample it and its helpless inhabitants into smithereens. Lana Lang heroically proposes to save Smallville herself by leaping onto the Juggernaut’s back, kicking Lex Luthor off, and seizing the reins in order to divert the Juggernaut Beast into the nearest tarpit. Lex LuthorBut Clark Kent lectures her disapprovingly: “Tsk, tsk, Lana! Don’t you realize that if you end up riding the Juggernaut Beast, its reins in your hand, then you’ll be in just the same position as Luthor is now! Of course, you say that once you’re in charge of the Juggernaut, you’ll send it toward its doom rather than toward Smallville; and I believe you. But your benevolent intentions are beside the point. The fact remains that once you’re on that creature’s back you’ll have the power to kill us all; and no one has the right to assume such power, whether or not they intend to use it. Evil Juggernaut monsters with ravening jaws and the ability to crush entire towns are a bad thing, and I don’t want anyone riding them around.” Lana is convinced by Clark’s incisive logic, and refrains from putting her plan into operation. Smallville is thoroughly demolished, and Lex Luthor gleefully heads his Juggernaut Beast on to the next defenseless town. (Clark Kent, being invulnerable, of course survives. Lana and the town’s other residents are not so lucky.)

What’s wrong with Clark Kent’s argument here? Its fatal flaw is that it regards the mere capacity to inflict harm as itself a form of aggression. This is the same logic as that employed by gun control advocates, who regard my mere possession of a gun as an unrightful threat against my neighbors, because having a gun gives me the power to blow their brains out, whether or not I in fact exercise it in this way. But on libertarian principles, it is surely not the capacity for aggression, but the exercise of that capacity, that is forbidden; hence I may own anything from man-eating tigers to rocket launchers, as long as I use them responsibly. The libertarian politician who assumes office in order to dismantle the state will also acquire great power, at least for a while; but as long as he or she uses it solely against aggressors rather than against the innocent, the fact that this power could be used against the innocent does not make the libertarian politician into an actual aggressor.

But Smith would probably object that there is an important disanalogy between the government case and the Juggernaut case. If Lana Lang seizes the reins from Lex Luthor, she acquires only power – whose mere possession is morally permissible, so long as it is not used against the innocent. But if libertarian politicians seize the reins of the … government, they acquire not only power but legal authority. Political power carries with it not only the ability to aggress, but the right to aggress (the legal right, that is – not, of course, the moral right).

You admit that even the libertarian politician will have this power after he is elected, but you stipulate that it will be used for beneficent purposes. You prefer to emphasize the (presumed) motives of libertarian politicians – their honorable intentions; whereas I prefer to stress the reality of what political office entails. … Frankly, I don’t give a whit about the psychological state of the politician. …

But couldn’t a libertarian accept a political office while being fully aware that the legal power inherent in that office is illegitimate? He need not exercise the options legally available to him, after all. …

You confuse the subjective with the objective. A person can believe just about anything. A libertarian Senator may believe that he is faking it, that he doesn’t really take the authority of his office seriously. He may convince himself that, although an agent and employee of the State, he is really and truly anti-state. … But the facts remain. The office of Senator is defined independently of the desires of individual Senators. The powers of political office do not depend upon the secret desires of the LP politician, nor do they change because the politician keeps his fingers crossed while taking the oath of office.

(“Party Dialogue,” pp. 10-13.)

Since a legal right to aggress is illegitimate, Smith argues, it follows that no one has the right to assume it, and anyone who does so is ipso facto an aggressor.

But is this true? What, after all, is a legal right? It is not something tangible; rather, it is a convention. My having a legal right to do X consists in various facts about the beliefs, practices, dispositions, and institutions of a particular group of people. So let us now suppose that Smallville is menaced, not by Luthor’s Juggernaut Beast, but by a violent religious cult calling itself the Minions of Moloch, who have announced their intention to invade Smallville and slaughter the unbelievers. Each Minion of Moloch wears a Ha-Ha Hat, which from the Minions’ perspective symbolizes their right to inflict torture on anyone who refuses to venerate Moloch. Lana Lang (mysteriously reincarnated since her encounter with the Juggernaut) proposes to disguise herself as a Minion of Moloch, Ha-Ha Hat and all, and to infiltrate the enemy camp in order to spy on them, learn their plans, and steal or sabotage their stock of weapons. Once again Clark Kent seeks to dissuade her: “Tsk, tsk, Lana! Don’t you realize that in order to disguise yourself as a Minion of Moloch you’ll have to wear the Ha-Ha Hat? You know what the Ha-Ha Hat stands for; according to the conventions of the Minions, it signifies the legal right to torture unbelievers. By putting the Ha-Ha Hat on your head, you will be taking on that legal right. But the legal right to torture unbelievers is clearly illegitimate, and if you assume it you will in effect be aggressing against us all.” Once again Lana is convinced, and abandons her plan; soon she and her fellow townspeople are dying slowly at the hands of the Minions of Moloch. (Even Clark succumbs this time, since the Minions have managed to get their hands on some kryptonite.)

What’s wrong with Clark Kent’s argument is that the convention associated with the Ha-Ha Hat is accepted only by the Minions of Moloch. It is true that, according to that convention, when Lana dons the Ha-Ha Hat she thereby assumes the right to torture unbelievers. But Lana does not accept that convention; on the contrary, she is working to bring that convention to an end.

The same holds true for the libertarian politician. The legal rights of aggression that are associated with political office exist only within the conventions of statist culture; the libertarian who assumes such office rejects those conventions, and so does not recognize any such legal rights. Smith would say that this is only a subjective psychological fact about the libertarian politician, and has no effect on the “objective” fact of “the powers of political office.” But if by “the powers of political office” Smith means legal authority, then this too ultimately consists only in subjective psychological facts about the attitudes of participants in the statist culture, attitudes our libertarian politician does not share. And on the other hand, if by “the powers of political office” Smith means actual capacities, we’ve already established that no aggression is involved in the mere possession of unexercised capacities for aggression. Hence I cannot see that there is any ethical basis for the Principled Objection to libertarians’ holding political office ….

Anti-political libertarians sometimes pose the following query: “Look, we libertarians all agree that, no matter what the problem, top-down, government-based solutions – the ‘political means’ – are bound to be less effective than bottom-up, market-based solutions – the ‘ economic means.’ Right? So when it comes to the problem of dismantling the state and achieving a libertarian society, why should we suddenly reverse ourselves and place our confidence in a top-down political approach, like electing libertarian congressmen and passing libertarian legislation? If government is so lousy at everything else it attempts, why should we expect it to be any good at creating a free society? Why not remain true to our fundamental insight – the practical superiority of the market sector over the state sector – and abandon political campaigning in favor of a bottom-up, grass-roots campaign to undermine political authority from below, through a combination of education and counter-economics? Once enough people simply withdraw their support and obedience, the state will collapse. If there is widespread grass-roots support for libertarian ideas, top-down reform is ineffective; on the other hand, if there is no such widespread grass-roots support, top-down reform is doomed to fail. Thus top-down reform is bound to be either unnecessary or insufficient.”

George Smith, for example, speaks for the Voluntaryist position when he asks:

“Hasn’t it ever struck you as paradoxical how libertarians who are innovative when it comes to free-market alternatives, can be so pedestrian and orthodox in the area of political strategy. I mean, libertarians never tire of outlining plans for free-market roads, sewers, utilities, charities, schools, police forces, and even courts of law. … But now comes the issue of political strategy, and the imaginative libertarian suddenly turns slavishly orthodox. ‘How can we change things,’ he asks, ‘without political action? …’”

(“Party Dialogue,” p. 25 ….)

What can be said to this kind of objection? I agree that no libertarian reform that is completely top-down has any hope of succeeding; there must be a bottom-up component. I also agree that the ideal scenario for establishing a libertarian society would be completely bottom-up. Thus far, then, I am in sympathy with the objection.

Abolition of Serfdom by Mucha So where do I disagree? Well, it seems to me that in situations where a bottom-up component does exist, but still falls far short of being powerful enough to undermine the state unaided, a top-down component can serve to fill the gap, to make up the difference.

“But wait,” the critic may protest. “This is just another version of the soft-socialist argument that the market can do some good, but where it falls short it needs to be ‘corrected’ by government intervention. How can a libertarian sign onto this? What happens to our faith in the free market?”

My answer is that my faith in the power of the free market is undiminished – but in case you haven’t noticed, we don’t have a free market. What we have is a deeply regulated and crippled market, and it is that in which the Voluntaryists are asking us to have faith. Grass-roots education to undermine allegiance to the state is hampered by the fact that most of our audience has been indoctrinated in state-run schools. Counter-economic strategies to build alternatives to the state are hampered by the fact that most of them are illegal, and prospective participants are not unnaturally afraid of being sent to prison. (Even those that are legal are so severely regulated that many are discouraged from participating, and the ardor of those who do participate is somewhat quelled by the knowledge that Big Brother is looking over their shoulders.) Surely it would be absurd to argue as follows: “We libertarians claim to recognize the superiority of private over public solutions, but when we drive to work in the morning we use the public roads. How unimaginative! When we are so boldly and consistently libertarian in other areas, why do we pick such an un-libertarian strategy for getting to work? Don’t we know that private roads are better than public ones? All right then, from now on, if we really believe what we preach, we should use only private roads for driving to work.” Of course private roads are a superior strategy for getting to work – but the power of government has created a severe shortage of private roads, and has thus prevented us from making use of the best strategy. The same applies to purely non-political strategies for dismantling the state.

I do not wish to underestimate the power of bottom-up strategies; they are vitally important, and no liberalization program can possibly succeed without them. I support and participate in a number of such bottom-up projects; and I have little patience for those who criticize anti-political libertarians for “doing nothing.” Moreover, I agree with the Voluntaryists that a purely bottom-up approach could succeed, whereas a purely top-down approach could not. Where I part company with the Voluntaryists is in thinking, first, that a mixed approach – partly top-down, partly bottom-up – could also succeed, and second, that this mixed approach is more likely than the purely bottom-up approach to be practicable in the foreseeable future.

The Voluntaryists seem to assume that top-down and bottom-up approaches to libertarian activism are in competition, even in conflict, rather than being essentially complementary. Yet throughout history, every successful liberatory movement I can think of – from the abolition of the slave trade and the end of British rule in the American colonies to the emancipation of women and the triumph of the Anti-Corn-Law league – has won the day through a combination of top-down and bottom-up strategies. I see no reason to expect the triumph of libertarianism to be different. …

[Another] pitfall against which anti-political libertarians warn us is that participation in political action will damage libertarians’ credibility in the eyes of the public, who will see such participation as inconsistent with libertarian principles.

Those who press this version of the Pragmatic Objection are typically proponents of the Principled Objection as well. They thus assume that the public will be correct in convicting libertarian politicians of inconsistency. But if my critique of the Principled Objection … has been correct, then this third pitfall really involves a misperception of libertarian politicians on the part of the public; the danger is that they will believe, falsely, that political activism is a betrayal of libertarian principles, and so will erroneously condemn libertarian politicians as hypocrites.

But if that is the problem, then it seems to be simply one more facet of a general public misperception of libertarianism, of a piece with such more common errors as the misperception of libertarian economic proposals as cold and heartless toward the poor, or the misperception of libertarian opposition to victimless-crime laws as stemming from a commitment to moral relativism. And the way to correct such misperceptions is through education.

Voluntaryists often argue that by engaging in political action libertarians are sanctioning the state:

To run for or support candidates for political office is to grant legitimacy to the very thing we are attempting to strip of legitimacy. … The hypocrisy is there for all to see. … Political power is legitimized through the electoral process. … The vote sanctifies injustice. … The vote is the method by which the State maintains its illusion of legitimacy. There is no way a libertarian organization can assail the legitimacy of the State while soliciting votes.

(“Party Dialogue,” pp. 19-20.)

But this critique is ambiguous. Does it mean that political action counts as an actual endorsement of the state by libertarians, or only that it is likely to be misperceived as such? The former alternative, that political action signifies genuine endorsement, is reminiscent of those tacit-consent theories for which Voluntaryists ordinarily have only contempt. Lysander SpoonerLysander Spooner, one of the Voluntaryists’ own favorite authorities, disposes of this notion nicely:

To take a man’s property without his consent, and then to infer his consent because he attempts, by voting, to prevent that property from being used to his injury, is a very insufficient proof of his consent to support the Constitution. 

(Lysander Spooner, No Treason No. VI: The Constitution of No Authority ….)

On the other hand, if the worry is that the public will misperceive libertarian political action as sanctioning the state, I reply with a tu quoque; for the public is equally likely to misperceive the strategy of the anti-political libertarians, mistaking their principled renunciation of electoral politics for apathy and defeatism.

Indeed, the anti-political strategy may even be perceived, perversely enough, as yet another sanction of the state! As Herbert Spencer trenchantly observed, regarding the theory of tacit consent:

Perhaps it will be said that this consent is not a specific, but a general one, and that the citizen is understood to have assented to everything his representative may do when he voted for him.

But suppose he did not vote for him, and on the contrary did all in his power to get elected someone holding opposite views – what then? The reply will probably be that, by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority.

And how if he did not vote at all? Why, then he cannot justly complain … seeing that he made no protest ….

So, curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted – whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine, this.

(Herbert Spencer, Social Statics ….)

Since both the political and the anti-political libertarian strategies are liable to misperception and misrepresentation, the solution, it seems to me, is once more education – a bottom-up strategy, to be sure, but one that in this instance may serve to vindicate the top-down approach as well. What is called for, I think, is an up-front approach. We should tell the public: “We libertarians are all committed to changing society through education and the like. But some of us also seek to work through the political process. There is a friendly disagreement, both ethical and strategic, among libertarians as to the legitimacy of this approach. Some libertarians condemn any association with the state as inappropriate. Others consider it a permissible defensive option to try to take over the state and dismantle it from within. We invite you to join us in this conversation.”

Voluntaryists insist that libertarian political action sends the wrong message:

You wish to work directly through the political process. I maintain that this reinforces the legitimacy of that process. You tell people, in effect, that the way to assert their natural rights is to ask the government’s permission. When the government gives you permission to keep your earnings, or to teach your children, or to live a particular lifestyle, then it’s O.K. to do so. It’s all very proper; the game is played by the State’s own rules.

I maintain on the contrary, that libertarians should breed a thorough and uncompromising disrespect for the government and its laws. … We wish people to look elsewhere than government for their freedom. We wish them to view government with contemptuous indifference. This cannot be achieved through political action.

(“Party Dialogue,” pp. 26-28.)

Well, maybe so and maybe not. Political action on the part of libertarians can send a message. But what libertarians say as they engage in such action can send a message too, and the content of this second, verbal message can influence the reception, and guide the interpretation, of the first, non-verbal message.

Voluntaryists may protest that “actions speak louder than words.” But those who make this reply are still assuming that political action has an intrinsically state-sanctioning meaning, that it cannot have the meaning of legitimate defense of the innocent. If this is wrong, as I’ve argued, then political action taken in its own right is genuinely ambiguous, and words by libertarian politicians expressing contempt for the government and rejection of its authority can help the public acquire the appropriate conceptual framework for interpreting libertarian political action as legitimate defense rather than a sanction of the state. (I must add that I’ve never met anyone, outside the libertarian movement itself (where many still adhere to the strange and much-abused Randian notion of “sanction”), who interpreted libertarian political action as a sanction of the state; on the contrary, it is those libertarians who reject political action that are most likely, in my experience, to be misinterpreted.)

One version of the credibility objection appeals to the fact that libertarian politicians may have to take an oath of office committing themselves to upholding the authority of the state. I don’t think there is any moral problem here – any more than Lana … infiltrating the Minions of Moloch in order to protect her hometown, compromises her integrity or undertakes any undesirable obligation by mouthing the Oath to Moloch. The oath of office, as taken by a libertarian, may simply be a justifiable lie.

But there may well be a public-relations problem. If a libertarian running for office is asked by a potential voter whether she intends to lie or not when taking the oath of office, what is she to say? If she answers “Yes,” people’s reaction may be: “Oh, so she thinks it’s okay to lie when taking a solemn oath before the people! No way am I going to vote for her!” On the other hand, if she says “No,” the reaction may be: “Oh, so she really intends to uphold the authority of the state! So much for her commitment to libertarianism. No way am I going to vote for her!”

If I were a libertarian politician, and someone raised with me the issue of the oath of office, I would answer as follows: “When I am sworn in, I will take the oath of office honestly and sincerely, and will fulfill it to the best of my ability. Naturally, however, I will also respect the common consensus, universally acknowledged since the Nuremberg trials, that no oath to uphold the law can justify any agent of the government in engaging in or sanctioning criminal aggression.” This is an honest answer, and the wording strikes me as sufficiently politic: it affirms the sincerity of the oath, as public opinion may require, while at the same time placing on that oath, and on its attendant obligations, a limitation that public opinion is committed to acknowledging. If the voters still don’t like it, they’ll have to vote for someone else.

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.

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.

The Randian Vote

Ayn Rand on the roof How should a good Randian vote?

The Randian Right is mostly supporting the Democrats (see Leonard Peikoff, Diana Hsieh, John Lewis, and Craig Biddle), though Robert Tracinski (a rare ARI dissident from the Peikoffian party line) and Robert Bidinotto (a Center-Randian by institutional affiliation but a Right-Randian in terms of recent advocacy and attitudes) favour the Republicans.

The Randian Center (see Ed Hudgins and Neil Parille) seem neutral but with a slight leaning toward the Republicans.

And the Randian Left (see Chris Sciabarra and Arthur Silber) are crying for a pox on both houses.

Rand’s own first vote was cast for FDR, so who knows?

I guess I count as a Left-Randian; and tomorrow I’ll be voting for LP candidates Loretta Nall and Dick Clark.

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