Category Archives: Liberty

Secession and international alliances go together

It is important to scrutinize the intellectual strength of libertarian ideas about international relations. Here are a few – admittedly only partly systematic- thoughts about the relation between secession and international relations. Or more precise: some libertarians are positive about secession, yet at the same time negative about international alliances. How does that relate?

Pleas for secession can be found in the works of Von Mises, Rothbard, Hoppe and other luminaries of libertarian thought, broadly defined. In an informative chapter on the issue, Mises-biographer Jörg Guido Hüllsman (at mises.org) defined secession as the ‘one-sided disruption of (hegemonic) bonds with a larger organized whole to which the secessionists have been tied’. Recent examples are the bloody secessions of South Sudan or Eritrea. Yet the issue also remains topical in Western Europe, for example in Scotland. It is not my purpose to emphasize the practical failures and wars associated with secession. From a libertarian perspective the principal benefit of secession is that a group of sovereign individuals decide for themselves how and by whom they are governed, and in which type of regime this shall happen. So far, no problem.

Let’s assume a world where secessions take place freely, peacefully and more frequent than in the past twenty-five years, where the number of sovereign states just went up by approximately twenty recognized independent countries. The logical result will be the fragmentation of the world in numerous smaller states, or state-like entities, of different sizes, composed of different groups of people. Perhaps some of these states will comply to an anarcho-capitalist libertarian ideal, so with a strict respect for property rights and the use of military defense only for clear-cut violations of these rights by others. However, it is unlikely that all states will be characterized in this way. Consequently, there remain a lot of causes for international conflict and war. For example, as there are more borders, there are also potentially more border disputes, about natural resources, water, stretches of land, et cetera. Of course humans are not angels, and no libertarian ever claims they will be. It simply means none of the other causes of war are perpetually eradicated in a world of free secession either.

So how to defend oneself in such situation, particularly when your state is much smaller than one or more other states in the vicinity? In such a situation you are unable to defend yourself against the most viable threats. Even if you declare yourself a neutral state it is unlikely this will always be respected. After all, it takes at least two to tango in international politics. Of the many possibilities to defend your property rights and sovereignty, the negotiation of agreements with other countries, or joining an international alliance seems logical and potentially beneficial (of course depending on the precise terms). It would amount to a system of multiple balances of power around the globe, very much like for example former Cato Institute scholar Ted Galen Carpenter favored for the current world. Surely, this would not be ideal, and would not be able to eradicate war either. Yet it will prevent many wars and safeguard the liberties and property rights of the participants.

This differs significantly from the pleas by people who simultaneously favor secession while calling for a non-interventionist foreign policy without alliances, such as Rothbard, Ron Paul (see for example in a column), or many contributors on www.lewrockwell.com.

Admittedly, most of these anti-alliance commentaries are directed against particular parts of current US foreign policy. However, it is still fair to demand theoretical consistency. Either these writers overlook there might be an problem, or they choose to ignore it. Still it is important to acknowledge there is an issue here. It is too simple to reject international alliances while embracing secession at the same time.

Riding Coach through Atlas Shrugged: Chapter 2 – Whistling In the People’s Key.

Part One

50th Anniversary edition pages 20-32

Chapter Summary – We are introduced to Dagny Taggart, brother of James, who reflects on neo-classical music, throws her family name around a bit, cuckolds her brother’s business, and smokes, also Kellogg turns down an offer he can’t refuse.

Dagny is one of the characters who I am somewhat familiar with due to cultural osmosis. Her strong willed antagonism, her intelligence and stubbornness, her anger, her misery, and her smoking. All things that I expected that were confirmed in her first chapter in Atlas Shrugged.

What I didn’t expect however was the amazing paragraphs about Richard Halley’s symphony.

“It was a symphony of triumph…”

the notes of the symphony

“spoke of rising and were the rising itself.

Emphasis mine. The way Dagny is enveloped by the symphony, it consumes her, and just for a moment she can do nothing but feel when she hasn’t in so long.

Then it is revealed that she is merely hearing it being whistled from across the train car by some blond brakeman. If one man whistling one part of that symphony can fill Dagny with such joy then what effect would a full orchestra have on her, on the people, on society?

That feeling is the very thing I hope to gain from this project. The sense of wonder that Dagny is overwhelmed with and a reminder that

“[T]his is why the wheels have to be kept going, and this is where they’re going.”

The brakeman is interesting as well. Rand’s description of him as a worker with no loose muscles was very telling to me. This blue-collar laborer is the one carrying the tune that is Dagny’s hope. This is in stark contrast to the train conductor for example who doesn’t seem to care about the problems he faces and simply hopes everything will work out.

He jerked his head up at the red light. “I don’t think the signal is going to change. I think it is busted.”

“Then what are you doing?”

“Waiting for it to change.”

I almost wonder if this theme of hard working but uneducated versus apathetic educated middle class will continue. I always felt that Rand was somewhat anti-laborer, that those who were not entrepreneurs were merely leaches on the productive members of society but I am beginning to think that impression may have been unfounded.

Speaking of entrepreneurs there were two major economic principles stated in this chapter. First was Dagny exemplifying the attributes of an entrepreneur when she makes the call to use Rearden Metal for the new railroad tracks. When James protests the use of the new metal she tells him that she is making the call using her own judgment, knowledge, and personal experience. She is willing to assume the risk for this venture based on a gut feeling and her own personal belief that it will work. It is important to notice that she doesn’t deflect responsibility or assume some other person or entity will absorb any losses if she is wrong.

The second economic point was in regards to monopolies. A great exchange takes place between Dagny and James that goes as follows:

“It isn’t fair,” said James Taggart.

“What isn’t?”

“That we always give all our business to Rearden. It seems to me we should give somebody else a chance, too. Rearden doesn’t need us; he’s plenty big enough. We ought to help the smaller fellows to develop. Otherwise, we’re just encouraging a monopoly.”

“Don’t talk tripe, Jim,”

“Why do we always have to get things from Rearden?”

“Because we always get them.”

“I don’t like Henry Rearden.”

“I do. But what does that matter, one way or the other? We need rails and he’s the only one who can give them to us.”

“The human element is very important. You have no sense of the human element at all.”

“We’re talking about saving a railroad, Jim.”

“Yes, of course, of course, but still, you haven’t any sense of the human element.”

“No. I haven’t.”

This exchange exemplifies the free market vs anti-property positions on monopolies but misses one crucial point. This anti-monopoly activity is driven solely by the free choice of the individual. Taggart is perfectly able to restrict his business from any source he chooses for any reason he chooses and this is the pure libertarian position on the matter.

Now, don’t get me wrong, he is making a poor entrepreneurial choice since Associated Steel has repeatedly failed to deliver on the contract and from a purely economic standpoint Dagny is correct. From a libertarian standpoint however, both are correct.

James is totally justified running his business into the ground for any reason he chooses and Dagny has every right to seek out new opportunities. Assuming of course she owns part of the company or has been granted the authority to act in the company’s name. The latter is the case here as far as I can tell.

I would also like to point out that other non-humanistic arguments against monopolies are almost universally false. Predatory pricing for example has essentially never happened successfully even in the case that made it illegal.

Now for the negatives.

Primarily I feel like James is a bit too obvious as a villain, he is almost too petulant and whiny. I just don’t buy that anyone would follow him and that the board of directors would have kicked him off years ago. I suppose Rand is pushing the whole feudalism thing. How many nations have fallen because of a weak King or Queen?

Also, I just don’t know how to feel about Dagny yet. The quirkiness is what bothers me the most. Sitting on the arm of the chair, her snarkyness and her general self-importance. I am not sure how much I am going to like her character yet but there is plenty of book to go so we shall see.

Finally I have to give the last story beat in this chapter credit. The final conversation Dagny has with Kellogg was an amazing piece of the mystery that literally gave me chills of anticipation. Where are these people going? Why are the best and brightest suddenly missing but still creating? And most importantly…

Who is John Galt?

Another Liberty Canon: Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French writer on various but related topics of power, knowledge, discourse, history of thought, ethics, politics, and so on. His name to some summons negative associations of French intellectual fashion, incomprehensibility, and refinements of Marxist anti-liberty positions.

However, his influence in various fields has become too lasting, and too much taken up by people who do not fit into the categories just mentioned, for such reactions to be considered adequate. Foucault himself resisted and mocked labels, which was a serious issue for him because in his work he tried to question the absolute authority of any one system of knowledge and the  authority of isolated great thinkers.

He said that once he had written something it was no longer what he thought, which is in part a playful attempt to resist labelling, but also a rather serious point deeply embedded in his thought, about the nature of subjectivity, how it is always more than what we say or more than the identity that power relations impose on us.

It seems to me that any ethics of subjectivity has pro-liberty implications, and despite the image some might have of Foucault as morally irresponsible or indifferent, he increasing developed the idea of  self-invented subjectivity, based on care of the self, the art of existence, and related terms.

The self-invention does not mean that Foucault thought we can arbitrarily will our self to be anything, it does mean that he thought we have possibilities to cultivate ourselves to live in a way that relates to, and challenges our existing strengths and goals.

Despite the image for some of intellectual fashion round Foucault, these ideas were partly developed through study of Ancient Greek and Roman ideas about ethics and style of living, which included interaction with scholars in the field.

Another theme he developed through his interests in antique knowledge and culture was that of ‘parrhesia’, Greek word that refers to free speaking, which in the context of ancient city states, particularly the Athenian democracy, had strong overtones of courage in truth telling before the city assembly, a prince of any other source of power.

The ethic of truth telling relates to Foucault’s own work on the language of knowledge and the history of science, as well his political ideas. He did not believe in absolute final systems of knowledge, autonomous of context, but he did believe that trying to find truths within whatever perspectives was an ethical enterprise connected with the kind of self cultivation he advocated.

Foucault’s own father had been a doctor and on at least one occasion Foucault suggested his own work was a continuation of the doctors work that evidently combines ethical and scientific aspects. It must also be said that Foucault was a great critic of the authority of experts, including doctors, so he might also be seen as struggling with the memory of his father.

The ambiguity and the personal involvement in ideas suggested there is very much at work throughout Foucault’s writing, in its tension and energy. It is part of his ‘difficulty’, which also comes from the philosophical and literary interests he had, which relate to the creative possibilities of linguistic disruption. We can see that in the most obvious way when he quotes literary texts of Borges, Beckett and so on.

The existential commitments in Foucault’s work is clear if we think about the book that made him famous History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation ) and his personal experience of mental ill health and psychiatric treatment, particularly in his student years.

We can also think about his constant critique of power and his individual  willingness to physically confront power, as in the beatings he received from the police at demonstrations for rights in both France and in Tunisia (where he taught for a few years just after becoming a celebrity public intellectual in France).

Returning to the topic of experts and power, one of Foucault’s most pervasive ideas now is of ‘biopolitics’, that is the way that power expresses itself through prolongation of life.  As the state has moved from a basis in the power of death over criminals and other supposed enemies, to a promotion of population, public health and prolongation of life, it has demanded corresponding powers of intervention and control.

At the extreme this means the ‘racial hygiene’ ideas that German National Socialists used to justify the Holocaust, and in a more routine way means expanding state activity justified by public health goals. We can readily see the contemporary significance of Foucault ideas here in relation to ever expanding state and ‘expert’ attempts to limit smoking, drinking alcohol and supersized fizzy drinks, eating sugary and fatty foods , and so on.

The ideas about biopolitics builds on the discussion of modern power in maybe his most widely read book, Discipline and Punish, which deals with the way that the prison becomes the central means of punishment after the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and suggests the dangers of Enlightenment becoming a controlling form of rationalism.

The way the prison works, around observation, or surveillance, of prisoners to ensure adherence to prison routine was the model of modern power for Foucault including factories, schools, and armies, in a model of ‘disciplinarily’. Again Foucault’s intellectual interests correspond with life commitments, as he was a prominent campaigner for prisoner rights, under the inspiration of the man with whom he shared his life, the academic sociologist Daniel Defert.

Foucault’s analyses in Discipline and Punish, and related material, draw on the ‘classical sociology’ of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber with regard to norms and authority, as his views on the emergence of the modern state draw heavily on the ‘pre-sociology’ to be found in the historical and social work of the classical liberal thinkers Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron of La Brède and Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville.

There is some drawing on Marx, but one should be wary of those left socialist inclined advocates of Foucault who emphasise this strongly, since they don’t mention the other points of orientation so much. The same applies to remarks Foucault made about the importance of the twentieth century Marxist theory of the Frankfurt School, as those who emphasise such remarks ignore accompanying remarks about the importance of Max Weber and ‘Neoliberalism’ (i.e. classical liberal and libertarian thought since the Austrian Liberal school of Menger, Hayek, Mises etc).

Strange as it might seem, Foucault suggests we take Marx, Weber, the Frankfurt School, and Neoliberalism together as attempts to explore liberty and power. Maybe it shouldn’t seem so strange, however awful the consequences of Marxist ideas coming in power have been, that does not mean we should ignore Marx and Marxism, which starts by drawing heavily on classical liberalism and does have some noteworthy things to say about constraints on liberty in a capitalist society, even if offering bad solutions.

Certainly Foucault is not your man if you think a pro-liberty position means uncritical embrace of the links between private enterprise and state power, but since the liberty tradition has in a very significant way been concerned with criticism of rent seeking and crony capitalism, of the drives within capitalism to betray itself, then I don’t think we need to reject Foucault in this area. Indeed it is even a part of the liberty tradition to reject ‘capitalism’ as tied to the state and concentrations of power and argue for markets, property, and association rights liberated from state alliances with economic power.

This is the core of left-libertarianism, and even Foucault’s most Marxist leaning fans would find it hard to deny that left-libertarian is an appropriate label for Foucault. Clearly he was a natural maverick and critic of all power, including state socialist power. I suggest his life, his activism, and his writing, can be taken as an inspiration for all liberty inclined people. Even on the more conservative side, Foucault’s thoughts about self-cultivation are a version of virtue theory, of an emphasis on cultivating virtue, so Foucault has a lot to offer to all streams of liberty thought.

Those Foucault texts most relevant to political thought about liberty

Monographs 

History of Madness (also published as Madness and Civilisation)

Discipline and Punish

History of Sexuality (3 volumes: Will to Knowledge, The Uses of PleasureThe Care of the Self)

Collected lectures

(Foucault’s rather early death means that much of his work was in lectures that would have been later revised into published material. The task of bringing those lectures into print is still underway).

Fearless Speech

The Government of Self and Others

The Birth of Biopolitics 

Security, Territory, Population 

Hermeneutics of the Subject 

Society Must be Defended 

Riding Coach Through Atlas Shrugged. Chapter 1: The Calendar Hung Itself.

50th Anniversary Edition pages 11-20*

*Note: The actual chapter ends on page 33 but I am splitting these up based on POV changes for easier digestibility.

Chapter Summary: White-collar worker Eddie Willars runs into a peculiar homeless man, reflects on a decaying city, and attempts to convince his boss of an urgent matter in Colorado.

My initial impressions are all pretty positive. The opening line: “Who is John Galt?” accomplishes everything an opening should and most importantly sets up a mystery to pique the reader’s interest.

Even with my limited knowledge of small parts of this book I was still immediately hooked by the questions presented on the first page: “Who is John Galt?”, “Why does it [the above question] bother you?”, and without missing a beat (or answering those questions) Rand describes the world that frames these questions quite beautifully with several potent, if a bit obvious, metaphors.

The bum as the faceless masses, intelligent but wearied and cynical without the energy to change their station but able to if inspired. “The face was wind-browned, cut by lines of weariness and cynical resignation; the eyes were intelligent.”

It also seems to be relevant that the bum is our introduction to the character of John Galt. The nameless, faceless masses knowing about the coming change almost instinctively and long before the more comfortable and well off middle class.

The city, in my estimation, represents society as a whole. Once beautiful but now decaying and, like the old tree on the Taggart estate, hollow and rotting from within. “…the shafts of skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece.” The seed of beauty and triumph is there but it has rotted from within.

Eddie is who really intrigued me though; he reminded me a lot of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich. A middle man in society who knows something is wrong but doesn’t have the skills to do anything about it. While he cannot identify the sinking feeling that permeates every fiber of his being he does have a stable foundation to latch onto.

“When he was asked what he wanted to do [in life], he answered at once, “whatever is right”…”twenty two years ago. He had kept that statement unchallenged ever since; the other questions had faded in his mind…[B]ut he still thought it self evident that one had to do what was right; he had never learned how people could want to do otherwise.”

As a natural-rights libertarian I believe that there are absolute moral and ethical truths and Eddie’s commitment to a similar personal philosophy deepened my ability to relate to the character. It also stands in stark contrast to more modern interpretations of ethics such as “rule utilitarianism” which will always decay to subjective act-utilitarianism.

“David Lyons argued that collapse occurs because for any given rule, in the case where breaking the rule produces more utility, the rule can be sophisticated by the addition of a sub-rule that handles cases like the exception. This process holds for all cases of exceptions, and so the ‘rules’ will have as many ‘sub-rules’ as there are exceptional cases, which, in the end, makes an agent seek out whatever outcome produces the maximum utility.”

In short, any attempt to prevent the “ends justify the means” outcome of utilitarian ethics, without some sort of higher moral authority, inevitably fails and the system is reduced to one of pure utilitarianism. I was actually under the impression that Rand was a bit of a utilitarian herself so I will be interested to see if this commitment to the universal “right” turns out to be a character flaw in Eddie or whether it remains an ideal to be upheld.

Eddie’s confrontation with James Taggart was also quite inspiring. A man who knows he is stepping out of line but is willing to do so for the sake of his personal convictions is an ideal that many of us could due to imitate. I will save my examination of James until the next installment but the important thing I took from this interaction between James and Eddie was how uncomfortable James grew when Eddie looked into his eyes.

“What Taggart disliked about Eddie Willars was this habit of looking straight into people’s eyes. Eddie’s eyes were blue, wide and questioning; he had blond hair and a square face, unremarkable except for that look of scrupulous attentiveness and open, puzzled wonder.”

If, as I suspect, Eddie is the everyman (or reader avatar) in this story and James is an (the?) antagonist then what I am supposed to take from this is that the villains in this world, and in ours, cannot stand up to scrutiny. They are filled with uneasiness when we examine their actions and question their motivations. If Eddie is an ideal, then his attentiveness is an ideal as well.

Eddie’s relationship with the Taggarts as a whole is something I hope is explored more. It is obvious he admires and respects Dagny since they grew up together and the fact that he still has some sort of respect for James leads me to believe that the latter wasn’t always so insufferable. What made Eddie so devoted to this family? Was it simply their entrepreneurial spirit or was there something more?

I had a few small criticisms but I am going to have to wait to see how they play out. As I mentioned briefly at the start of this entry Rand’s metaphors were really straight forward which isn’t bad in and of itself but simply something I am taking note of and will look for as the chapters go by.

I cringed a bit when Eddie admitted that he was simply a serf pledged to the Taggart lands. The whole feudalism angle is one that I am going to keep an eye on since one of the most common attacks on libertarianism is that it would descend into a neo-feudal corporatist society.

Of course I may be taking the line a bit too seriously since Eddie was simply trying to get James to agree to his requests to support the Rio Norte line. In fact it could very well turn out to be a rebuke of that attack once all is said and done.

Finally I have no idea what the giant calendar is supposed to represent or foreshadow. Perhaps it is simply a literal translation of the city’s days being numbered which would both be very clever and kind of groan-worthy at the same time. Hopefully Eddie shows up again soon to let us know but I have a sneaking suspicion that our protagonist isn’t Mr. Willars despite my initial preoccupation with his character.

Check in next time for first impressions of Dagny, a word of support for monopolies, and our first real look at James Taggart. I wish this was a George R.R. Martin novel so maybe he would be dead before the book was over. Hey, I never said I would be impartial.

Part 2

Into the ear of every anarchist that sleeps but doesn’t dream…

We must sing, We must sing,We must sing…

 

 

There is no libertarian art.

Well, that is a slight exaggeration, but not much of one. Art is a vital part to any social movement and it is one area where libertarians suffer immensely. Sure there are libertarian leaning authors such as Robert Heinlein and modern Austrian economic art like the guys over at www.econstories.tv but for the most part there are few non-academic ways to inspire potential libertarians.

This is a problem I lament when I am feeling negative about the prospects for a free society which, to be fair, is usually the case. Sometimes reading an article about Intellectual Property just isn’t enough to get the passion flowing.

“But Wait!” You say, “you failed to mention the author who brought tens of thousands of people into the libertarian fold. The late, the great, the Ayn Rand!”

 

….yea about that.

 

I don’t like Ayn Rand. There, I said it. Bring out the pitchforks and tie me to a Rearden Steel railroad track if you must but I stand by my statement. Now I know what you are all thinking: “But her works exemplify the individual freedoms that a libertarian society should strive for!” or “Dagny is a strong independent woman who don’t need no government!”

Yes, I am aware, but it isn’t Ayn Rand the author I dislike. Actually it isn’t even Ayn Rand the person that I dislike. I don’t like the idea of Ayn Rand. The metaphysical zeitgeist that surrounds and worships her throughout every circle of the libertarian movement from Walter Block to Milton Friedman to every other subscriber on www.reddit.com/r/libertarian.

All too often I have had to argue about libertarianism through the lens of someone whose only exposure to the philosophy is Ayn Rand and the objectivist selfishness that nearly everyone associates with capitalism. In short, I think she is bad for libertarianism and provides no end of ammunition that can be used against those of us with a more nuanced moral/ethical position.

Here is the kicker though. I have not read a single Ayn Rand novel. Not Anthem, not the Fountainhead, and especially not her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. My knowledge of her works (outside of objectivist philosophy) comes mostly through a bit of osmosis during many diatribes in my conversion to libertarian thought and the first few chapters of Anthem I read in high school before being bored to tears.

I feel that my lack of personal experience with the work of Ayn Rand is a great injustice to someone so influential to many (but certainly not all) of the ideals that I hold so dear and maybe, just maybe, I can siphon off some of the passion that so many others feel when reading her novels.

So it is my objective to spend the next several weeks (months perhaps) reading Atlas Shrugged along with you, the faithful readers here at www.notesonliberty.com, and recording chapter based summaries of my thoughts, opinions, and analysis from a literary, ethical, and philosophical standpoint. These will be full of personal anecdotes and armchair analysis so be prepared for a tumultuous ride through one of the “great?” works of the 20th century.

Part one of many comes tomorrow morning.

Another Liberty Canon: Nietzsche

The political interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is a constantly fraught issue . Amongst other things he has been taken as an anti- or non-political thinker and as responsible for the worst aspects of German politics in the twentieth century. However, that latter view is  not taken supported by any Nietzsche scholars.

The reasons for that include his opposition to the anti-Semites of his time (after a youthful leaning in that direction with regard culture rather than race) and his opposition to the militarist-statist-nationalist  aspects of Prussian and German politics in his time, again after early leanings towards culturally oriented nationalism. The tendency to put culture above the state and and take it as something of a replacement for politics was constant.

The anti-politics is itself not incompatible with some kinds of libertarian and classical liberal thinking, though in Nietzsche’s case it goes along with a constant inclination to talk about power, the state, and other politically charged issues. He was stateless for most of adult life, as he had to renounce Prussian citizenship to  take up a Professorship in Basel, Switzerland in 1869, not long before the King of Prussia became the Emperor of a newly unified Germany, dominated by Prussia. Nietzsche himself was in any case from a part of Saxony, annexed by Prussia early in the nineteenth century.

In any case, Nietzsche did not present himself as a Saxon or a Prussian after leaving Germany and only lived in Germany after after 1889, when he was incapacitated by paralysis, now generally believed to the the result of a brain tumour, and was looked after by his mother and sister.  Nietzsche did not have any citizenship after moving to Basel and though it was easier to travel round Europe in those days  without a state issued passport, it is still a remarkable position.

Nietzsche was not completely free of racist assumptions, but hardly to a degree at all unusual for his time, and he did not see race as a suitable basis for analysing the Europe of his time, since he though races had become completely mingled in antiquity. He was inclined towards various forms of elitism, sometimes in a quite extreme way as when he claimed admiration for the Indian caste system, though in a very brief provocative  way.

On the whole his elitism was devoted towards the self-creation of an individuality of great strength, great plural possibilities and the capacity to unify those possibilities in creation and in a creatively lived life. He had anxieties about mass culture and the rise of democracy, but there is not much to separate his substantive concerns from the general concerns of liberals of the nineteenth century, as in Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and democratic mediocrity in culture in Democracy in America.

Nietzsche is sometimes referred to as the definitive anti-liberal, but a lot of this rests on associating liberalism with egalitarian (i.e. left, progressivist) liberalism. If we look at the classical liberals from Locke to Mill (who is a bit transitional between the two broad liberal approaches), we of course see that egalitarianism at least with regard to distribution of income and property, is not a central goal. There is growing interest in expanding legal and political equality beyond an aristocratic elite to the population as a whole, and criticism of aristocratic, monarchical, guild, and merchant-financial wealth where linked to political-monopolistic-protectionist privileges.

Nietzsche regards threats to personal, intellectual and cultural excellence as a possible outcome of democracy, but is also critical of the traditional state, referring to it sometimes as monstrous, and allows for the possibility of it becoming much reduced through transferring functions to the private economy. He was concerned what liberalism might betray liberty by building institutions which constrain the original liberal ideas. So he was not a complete critic of liberalism, but rather sets out ideals of  self-development and individual flouring which are likely to be constrained by the state.

Though he mentions the possibility of replacing state functions with private economic activity, he was critical of commercial spirit. He feared that  commercial orientation tends to reduce individual capacities, because of the ways in which it leads to individuals concerning themselves with the wants of other individuals. For most pro-liberty people, this is Nietzsche accurately identifying something good about capitalism and then rejecting it, which does at least leave Nietzsche as a good analyst.

Beyond this  though, Nietzsche who never advocates a socialist economy or a return to pre-capitalist economics, is doing something similar to his criticism of liberal political institutions. He is showing that liberal commercial society both sets up an ideal of strong individuality, which it needs and then undermines it through the constraints of economic life. So the reason for a critical attitude towards capitalism is recognition of the tension between the kind of individuality produced by earlier societies which revolves around struggling with nature for survival and often wars with other states, and the kind of individuality produced by working to provide more than the mere means of survival for others in societies based round rising economic prosperity.

This tension was recognised by classical liberal thinkers like Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt.  Nietzsche takes further the concern that individualism requires an individual self-directed struggle for increased physical and psychological capacities, and that the culture of commercial society produces an economic elite that seems hardly distinguished from the mass in its personal style and culture, so fails to provide any example of greatness and excellence in these respects.

A classical style liberal of the twentieth century Joseph Schumpeter (most famous as author of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942) argued that individualistic capitalism tends to undermine itself through the creation of corporate bureaucracies, where commercial constraints may become separate from much decision making, and where individual creativity is stifled. Many liberty oriented thinkers have noted the tendency of capitalists to undermine capitalism by seeking a privileged relation with the state, so accepting the mediocrity of state imposed uniformity.

Nietzsche was hyperbolic and expression and little informed about economics, but the hyperbole has a precise aim in drawing our attention to problems, and Nietzsche’s cultural capacities (including a strong interest in natural sciences) made him sensitive to some features of capitalist and democratic societies, which need to be counteracted if excellence is to flourish.

If one thinks that liberty merely, only, and purely means lack of state constraint, Nietzsche’s thoughts may not seem so meaningful. However, if we see liberty as including not only restraints on state power, but the value of individual pursuit of excellence for its own sake and to produce individuals who are not conformist and state centred, then Nietzsche must be one of the great thinkers about liberty.

As with Kierkegaard, it is difficult to recommend a single major Nietzsche text on political thought. On the Genealogy of Morality tends to be the starting point for discussion of his political ideas, but covers many other topics, and Human, All Too Human contains his thoughts on the possibility of a reduced state in a commercial society. Untimely MeditationsDawnThus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, Twilight of the IdolsThe Anti-Christ, Birth of Tragedy, Ecce Homo, and The Gay Science are the other books of Nietzsche, and all contain passages discussed  by commentators on Nietzsche and politics.

From the Comments: Has the deontological puzzle been solved?

Dr Fred Foldvary (yes, THE Fred Foldvary, the one who predicted the 2008 crash in 1998writes:

It is not clear what the policy consequences are regarding those who lose out due to competition. If we are free to choose our friends, there will be losers who lose someone’s friendship. Should we be forced to stay friends with those we no longer like? If not, then such a loss has no policy implication. Such incidental injuries have less damaging consequences than a law that prohibits ending a friendship. Thus the deontological and consequential effects are complements: Likewise, the consequences of prohibiting economic competition are worse than the losses due to competition. And entrepreneurs should know that the system is a profit and loss system, and anyone in business is vulnerable to losses. The losses due to competition are not torts and they are not coercive harms. They are injuries not deliberately inflicted but incidental to individuals and firms pursuing their happiness.

This is in response to my short post on the ethical divide within libertarianism between deontologists and consequentialists. I don’t think there is too much that we disagree on here; Indeed, it seems as if we are complimenting each other quite nicely (if I do say so myself!).

My one quibble is more of a question than a quibble: Although we cannot predict who will lose out to competition in markets, shouldn’t we be able to make some solid inferences? For example, if the US and Europe were to abolish subsidies to farmers and open up their markets to foreign competition, it stands safe to reason that Western farmers will lose out, at least in the short-run.

The logic behind Dr Foldvary’s comment is relatively clear: abolish protectionist subsidies (which are aggressive legislative acts perpetrated against Western consumers and foreign farmers) and this paves the way for non-aggression. Not only is this logic clear, it is irrefutable. It also shows how deontology and consequentialism are complimentary. However, logic and facts are not very useful when it comes to persuading the public. Philosophically this argument makes perfect sense, and politically and rhetorically Dr Foldvary makes it work, but in the general public sphere (especially the internet) the appeal to deontology has earmarked liberalization for disaster.

I suppose, if we follow Jacob Huebert’s line of reasoning, that the politics and the rhetoric of our ideas should not matter, but on the other hand we live in a world where even in the West libertarians have become a minority. The world will continue to liberalize as long as libertarians continue to be as lucid as Dr Foldvary, but I fear that men of his caliber are in very short supply today.

Deontology versus Consequentialism: The Great Libertarian Divide

I am not a philosopher. In fact, the two courses I took on philosophy in college (Honors courses on ancient Greek ethics and modern ethics) were the two courses where I received my lowest grades ever in college (B+’s). Nevertheless, I have been thinking about the great divide within libertarianism regarding the concept of ‘rights’.

I don’t want to delve into the concept of ‘rights’ here, largely because I have only a superficial understanding of the notion, but for the sake of non-libertarian readers I’d like to briefly explain that, within libertarianism, there is an argument about whether or not deontological ethics (wiki) or consequential ethics (wiki) is the proper framework with which to analyze the world.

Deontological libertarians argue that each and every individual has natural rights and that any sort of aggression upon these rights is inherently immoral. Consequentialist libertarians argue that the initiation of force is not as important as whether or not a policy makes everybody better off. In some ways, you can see these tensions being played out here on the blog.

Under these strict definitions I am a consequentialist, but I don’t think it’s quite right to label me as such. I think that the two ethical systems are complimentary more than they are antagonistic. For instance, I think the deontological framework is important because the urge of those in power to “do something”  for the greater good is often immense. Deontological ethics plays an important role in establishing boundaries that those in power have to respect. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward provides a clear-cut example of what happens when power is unrestrained in the name of a greater good. Ethnic cleansing, famine, and poverty can all be attributed, in one form or another, to the lack of respect for deontological ethics.

On the other hand, deontological ethics is too dogmatic. It is impossible to have a society based completely upon the foundations of non-aggression. Free trade is a perfect example of this impossibility. Deontological libertarians support free trade because in the absence of coercion free trade would be the natural outcome. Yet this does not seem right to me. Free trade is good because it lifts up the overall standards of living for everybody in a society, but there are short-run losers when it comes to free trade. In fact, losers are a natural part of the marketplace as a whole. Without losers there could be no markets. We should all be thanking as many losers as we can, whenever we can (you can start with me; I recently set up a Tinder account).

Free trade, and the losers that it produces, has harmful short-run effects on some individuals and their property. Competition destroys fortunes and job skills alike. Free trade also creates verifiable prosperity for societies, and even the losers – eventually – become better off under free trade. Even the underlying structure of the capitalist order is based on aggressively protecting that “bundle” of individual rights that is so integral to freedom and prosperity (this does not mean that states are a necessity, but only that aggression is unavoidable in social relations).

I am off-base here? Am I knocking down a straw man? It seems to me that the consequentialist position – which is already very deontologically-friendly to begin with – is the better route to take, philosophically, politically, and rhetorically.

Another Liberty Canon: Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is well known for his contributions to philosophical and religious thought, and for the literary qualities of his work in these areas. He has not been so well known as a contributor to political thought, though there is now a growing amount of scholarly commentary in this area.

Generally his politics has been seen as directed by an extreme kind of conservative reaction against changes, and particularity movements of  democratic and constitutional change in Denmark in his own time. The sense that he was conformable with the most absolute and conservative kind of monarchism possible has been accompanied by the sense that he was anti-political, that he just did not like politics, which connected with the supposed conservatism, because if there is no need for change in political structures, there is no need for political discussion and thought.

These positions might have some appeal to some libertarian-conservative fusionists, and do have some basis in some aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought. However, his thought cannot be properly characterised overall in this way, which would connect Kierkegaard at a relatively popular level with the political thinking of J.R.R. Tolkein, or at the more historical scholarly level with Robert Filmer, the English ultra-monarchist criticised at length by John Locke, or the Savoyard (French-Italian) ultra-monarchist critic of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre.

More justified connections can be made with David Hume, for example. Hume was cautious about both political change and claims that the authority of existing political institutions rests on either reverence for the past, or very deliberate conscious popular consent. Hume thought that though societies with political and legal institutions probably did originate with a contract of sorts between government and governed, such contracts cannot bind future generations, and the ‘contract’, or set of relations, between individuals and the state, are open to reform and renegotiation.

Kierkegaard’s comments on the politic currents of his time, suggest that he had a strong understanding both of the belief in the absolute authority of existing institutions, and of the wish to create a new absolute, in a spirit of revolution. His own view is that negotiation and renewal are desirable, and are certainly inevitable, which he saw as the need to revise historical contractual agreements.

Kierkegaard certainly did not wish for individuals to make politics the highest aspect of their lives, as this would detract from the individual relation with God, which was the central interest of this passionately religious man. However, that is not to say that Kierkegaard thought Christianity gives the answer to everything in worldly life, or that Kierkegaard had nothing else driving him. A passion for writing, which has a strong element of self-exploration even if though the medium of fiction and the pseudonyms, which are used in his books, or as fictional authors for many of his widely read books.

The writing and self-exploration converge, for Kierkegaard, in the understanding and communication of the deepest relation of the self with itself as necessarily a relation with God. The recognition of something more than momentary about the existence of the self, leads to a recognition of an absolute aspect of the self, and a struggle with any dissolution of the self into a series of moments. This was Kierkegaard’s way of exploring the value of the individual, and the word ‘individual’ is frequently and frequently orientates his writing. In this, he provided a great way of thinking about the value of the individual for any political thought concerned about the liberty of the individual, and why that should be at the centre of politics.

Kierkegaard saw in the more absolute kinds of political thought a desire for a version of God, and in doing so provided the basis for distinguishing between a politics that recognises limits to what it hopes for from the state and collective action, and a politics that tries to impose itself on society by turning the state into a substitute for God.

Kierkegaard was very critical of the state church, even though his brother had made a career in it, and suggest that dependent on the state weakened religion, as other forms of dependence create other forms of weakness. He did not argue for a pure nightwatchman state, or individualist-anarchism, but he did argue for caution about how much the state does, and for taking individual responsibility for assisting those who have met with misfortune.

In his emphasis on the individual in his understanding of Christianity, Kierkegaard also understood that Christianity places an enormous burden on the individual compared with earlier forms of thinking, in which the individual is primarily thought of as part of a family or state. Kierkegaard was particularly concerned with the ancient Greek and Roman city states in this context, including the literature they produced. He placed value on his own small city of Copenhagen for preserving some of the value of ancient city-state, where the individual can draw strength from connection with others in a very concrete community, without wanting to see the individual subsumed into any kind of communal or collective identity.

For Kierkegaard, the more worldly part of our lives rests on more than living under a state defined  by law or a society defined  by universal rights, necessary though these are. We need engagement with our social world, including its political debates. Though Kierkegaard was a great loner in some respects, he did walk regularly though crowded parts of the city, live near the centre, accept that he would be recognised,  contributed to magazines, and existed as a public figure, which was sometimes uncomfortable for him, but was never a role he excluded.  He was attacked as an eccentric in the press and condemned as a diabolical figure by some of the church establishment, but like his hero Socrates reacted with humour, intelligence and the assumption that the independent, even self-contained, individual deals with difficult public controversies. In his ways of bringing together an antique commitment to public life and a more modern sense of strong individuality, Kierkegaard made a remarkable contribution to themes which preoccupied the major classical liberal thinkers, like David, Hume, Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, and many others.

It is not possible to recommend specific political theory texts by Kierkegaard, and just about everything he wrote can be read with great reward in association with the issues discussed above. A good starting point for a focus on the more political Kierkegaard though is the literary reflections in Two Agesfollowed up by the three masterpieces of 1843 that established his importance. The most immediately readable is RepetitionFear and Trembling is also relatively short. Either/Or is long and complex, but very rewarding and can itself be followed up by reading its sequel Stages on Life’s Way.

Central Banks’ Stock Socialism

Central banks have until recently obtained their income from interest on the bonds they hold. But with interest rates now so low, central banks, like other bond holders, are receiving little revenue. So now, central banks are buying shares of stock to get higher income from dividends and capital gains.

Since central banks are agents of governments, their stock ownership amounts to back-door socialism.

The reason interest is so low now is because central banks around the world have been pushing rates down. The low income from savings accounts and bonds has hurt retired folks and have distorted stock markets. The U.S. stock market averages have been making new highs to a great extent because bonds yields are so low, and also because US companies are borrowing funds at low rates to buy back their stocks.

Governments already tax and regulate economies, and they own industries such as education and much of medical care.  Now they want to own more of the whole economy. Even if a central bank buys shares in an index fund, they artificially raise share prices, and they do it with money they create. Moreover, what happens when the price of stocks has a large drop? Will the central banks contribute to the selling, or buy more?

According to a report by the a report to be published this week by the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, governments and their agencies have already made twenty-nine trillion dollars of market investments. The largest governmental investor is China. The Swiss and Danish central banks have also been buying substantial equities. Central banks have also been buying real estate. Ever more financial and real assets are being acquired by central banks, and thus also by the governments that own and control them.

The ownership of the economy is not what the founders of central banks had in mind. When the Federal Reserve was established in 1913 in response to the banking panic of 1907, its role was to stabilize the banking system as a lender of last resort. For a long time, the Fed purchased US treasury bonds to expand the money supply, as it created the funds it used to buy bonds. But after the recession of 2008, the Fed also bought mortgage-backed securities as well as shares in companies it wanted to bail out.

But now central banks are not buying shares to bail out failing companies, but to increase their income. Ultimately this buying is self-defeating for central banks and all investors, because such massive purchases raise the ratio of share prices to yields, reducing the rates of return.

The pension funds of government employees have, of course, been investing in the stock markets, as well as in bonds and real estate, but these funds can be regarded as belonging to the employees rather than to governments. Governments with surpluses such as from trade or oil sales have set up “sovereign wealth funds” that invest in financial markets, with the potential to manipulate and distort markets. There should be a global treaty to confine sovereign funds to government bonds and global index funds.

It is even worse for central banks to invest in private financial markets because they are creating the money they use for these purchases. This inflation of the money supply is not for stabilizing the currency or helping the banking system, but just to get stock market yield. That monetary inflation will eventually cause price inflation and fuel an even bigger real estate bubble than that which ended in the Crash of 2008.

The ultimate remedy for such asset distortion is the elimination of all central banks. Since that will not happen, we will have to witness a coming financial tragic horror. Just as in the years prior to 2008, we are sitting in boats on a river whose current will take us ever faster the financial waterfall. The most likely year of the next crash will be in 2026, as the 18-year real estate cycle has been the leading cause of the business or interventionist cycle for the past two centuries.

Last time around, government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae helped stoke the boom by packaging and selling real estate mortgages. The financial reforms after 2007 did nothing to stop the basic causes of the real estate cycle. Now, the massive purchases of stocks, in addition to bonds and real-estate related assets, will help make the Crash of 2026 the biggest ever.

“A SWAT team blew a hole in my 2-year-old son ” [SALON]

Not much to add to this one folks.

A few nights ago, my 8-year-old woke up in the middle of the night screaming, “No, don’t kill him! You’re hurting my brother! Don’t kill him.” How can I ever make that go away? I used to tell my kids that if they were ever in trouble, they should go to the police for help. Now my kids don’t want to go to sleep at night because they’re afraid the cops will kill them or their family. It’s time to remind the cops that they should be serving and protecting our neighborhoods, not waging war on the people in them.

A few further remarks on foreign policy and libertarianism

Brandon’s and Fred’s blogs make me want to write a few further remarks on the relation between foreign policy and libertarianism.

1. One should be aware that ‘the libertarian argument’ does not equal ‘comments about US foreign policy’. Libertarianism should be a theory for all people everywhere. Much of the debate on foreign policy among libertarians is about American foreign policy. The US however is the exception, in terms of capacity, defense budget, possible reach of its military operations, the number of military alliances, et cetera. One cannot just say ‘smaller defence’ is better for all countries, as this would entail that many small countries would not be able to defend themselves, and indeed many are not. Even most (rich) West European countries are unable to defend themselves without NATO.

This is not to say one should not criticize US foreign policy decisions, or argue against particular military interventions abroad. It does call for further thinking among libertarians about the position of a great power in world politics. I think, particular in a globalized world, it is too simple to say such a power should retreat as much as possible from international affairs. A power vacuum will be filled, and there is no guarantee this will be beneficial to the US or the West. Indeed, I suspect it will not be.

2. Also, there is not one ‘libertarian idea about international relations’, here it is useful and needed to distinguish a separate classical liberal position, as I have argued in my book on classical liberalism and international relations theory (see the covers to the right) and will further elaborate in Degrees of Freedom, my next book that will be published next year with Transaction Publishers. There are many differences, but a main one in this context is that libertarians argue for defense as self-defense, while classical liberals accept that countries are part of international society of states, which demands a more active role in some areas. Not least a role in maintaining a regional or global balance of power. I think that is completely in line with Hayekian ideas about sponataneous order (pdf).

3. Libertarians lack meaningful thoughts about the dynamics of a world which would (partly) be characterized by libertarian ideas. Most will accept that a peaceful paradise is unlikely to unfold, yet do not think much about the alternative situations. This gap must be filled to make the basic argument more convincing (or not of course).

Another Liberty Canon: Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) might be the least controversial of the list of thinkers who have inspired me on liberty, but are not part of the standard list of thinkers on liberty. He even appears in the extensive collection of the Online Library of LibertyNevertheless there is a need to develop more the nature of his thoughts on liberty, and related subjects, and not just leave his ideas in the hands of commentators who are not liberty oriented, who may be over optimistic about collectivist and state schemes to rectify various forms of dissatisfaction.

Amongst other things, Montaigne offers an ethic of individuality, which is not too tied to some very specific moral theory, and which is neither narrowly egotistical nor a demand for self-denial. He explores his own strengths and weaknesses with sometimes unsettling frankness to establish a form of individuality that is both affirmative and self-questioning.

Montaigne’s life work was his Essays, which are in large part concerned with a life lived through writing and through the reading of books, which inspire Montaigne’s own writing. This came fairly late in life though, after a career as a local judge, and a period of melancholy which may have been connected with the death of his friend Etienne de La Boétie, himself the author of a classic of liberty minded political thought, ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’.

Montaigne spent much of  his time in a tower on the family estate, writing in a book lined study. He did not write a big continuous integrated book, rather he wrote a series of essays of very variable length, which became  the large cumulative classic, Essays. The individual essays range in length from about a page to more than two hundred pages in the case of ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’.

The title and themes of the essay just mentioned can be taken as an illustration of Montaigne’s way of writing. Sebond was minor Medieval philosopher, who seems to have been a follower of Thomas Aquinas, translated by Montaigne’s father, and accordingly the essay has an element of filial piety in its origin. However, the essay has little to say about Sebond’s philosophy as it ranges through the link with his father, the context of writing, numerous philosophical themes largely established in discussion of ancient thinkers, including animal nature, knowledge, doubt, and being.

Montaigne’s explorations in his essays, longer and shorter, are on his own account rambling and contradictory, though they are also written with great literary style and at a high level of reasoning with regard to the difficulties of arriving at consistent positions. Part of this is that his writing is about himself, what is going in his mind at the time of writing, and therefore what reflects his passing moods and ideas.

The result is not a mess of unconnected thoughts, but a simultaneous exploration of how the mind works and the workings of the world in which the mind exists. The emphasis on the self is a confirmation of the moral importance of the individual and Montaigne is one of the major contributors to the idea that every individual perspective and every inner world matters.

The importance of every unique consciousness is expressed in a revulsion at cruelty, in the use of state power,  or in any other kind of context , which is both horror cruelty at others and despair at futile forms of self-sacrifice. Our regard for the world created by someone else exists together with our own determination to prudently preserve  our own world of experience.

There is self-criticism in Montaigne’s account since he had been a judge and was very aware that a perfectly just judgement was not always possible. The judge has duties to follow the letter of the law and the history of interpretations of that law, which do not always harmonise, so undermining the idea of perfect justice. Furthermore, both these requirements may often prevent a judge from acting according to inner conviction about the relevant facts of a case and the moral evaluation of them.

He was painfully aware that the poor tended to come off worse from such constraints. In general he took some pride in an understanding of the condition of the lower classes that his father had encouraged. Though he made no claims to great generosity towards the poor, he does provide an example of thought about how state acts, and other actions, change the lives of weakest and most marginal in unintended ways.

Montaigne does not have a clear suggestion to offer on how to avoid such problems. He does entertain some utopian scenarios in which humans live spontaneously,  according to perfect justice in small self-sufficient communities without a state, and without judges, or ‘expert professionals’  of any kind. Montaigne was sceptical about medicine as well as lawyers, and was an early critic of the idea of imposing ‘rational knowledge’ on communities.

We must also be aware that Montaigne offers a utopia here, and one in which property accumulation  and communication, commercial or otherwise, between communities does not exist. He did not think that would be desirable, so does not offer a consistent non-state vision or vision of pure custom replacing law and imposed expertise. He does offer a powerful sense of how these things can go wrong and the need to temper and contain them, in a way of thinking in which every individual counts, just as nature can create anything, and even the most ‘monstrous’ creations are to be valued as part of the abundant possibilities of nature. 

In some respects, Montaigne is an enigma, and not just because of the shifting point of view he offers. He is evasive on the difficult questions of the time: Was he a republican  or a monarchist? Was he a Christian? Was he a Catholic? He adopts the pose of a moderate monarchist and moderate Catholic Christian, but there are plenty of hints of doubts and leanings towards other perspectives.

I am inclined to think he was a religious sceptic, with strong materialist leanings, and a republican at heart, but there is no certainty about this. Though his prudence on these issues partly reflects the dangers appearing to oppose the state authority and state church of monarchist Catholic France , his capacity for such elaborate and complex prudence shows a capacity for tolerance, understanding, and inclusion, that is its own message.

 

Identity Crisis: An anecdote.

Today is liberalism day. A day where “classical liberals” seek to take back the moniker that was lost to them over the 20th century in an attempt to avoid confusion and to help drive home the ideological difference between modern liberals (who support a strong central government for the purposes of wealth redistribution and social control) and classical liberals such as Bastiat, Locke, and Ludwig von Mises (who advocated for little to no government tyranny and emphasized the rights of the individual over that of “society”).

In my personal experience however there is a far more dangerous muddling of ideology at the core of the libertarian movement. That is to say “when should libertarians betray their own values?” Since I was exposed to the ideas of Mises, Rothbard, Hayek and their intellectual proteges Hoppe, Block, Woods, DiLorenzo, Kinsella, Murphy, Ron and Rand Paul, and so many others I have found that there is a disconnect between the values advocated by these authors and the actions taken by them and their followers. This has often resulted in so called libertarians using remarkably non-libertarian tactics to pursue libertarian goals. First let me describe one of these events from my own personal experience and then I will discuss what I think can be done to help the libertarian movement as a whole.

I was introduced to libertarianism by a friend sometime in late 2008 but it wasn’t until the 2010 Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) that I met other libertarians “out in the wild”. I was still ideologically agnostic at the time but leaned towards a more leftist (not liberal) philosophy. I had voted for Obama in 2008 in my naïve belief that “anybody but Bush” was a valid political stance and I had supported the move towards National Healthcare; but over the next few months I was argued into holding a grudging respect for libertarian beliefs and by the time we boarded the train for D.C. I had read most of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom and listened to a single Thomas DiLorenzo lecture through one half of a pair of headphones but was paying more attention to the other end of those headphones than the lecture droning into my ear.

So as I was walking into the Marriott or Hilton or whatnot I felt less like a fish out of water and more like a lobster in a pot and hearing a page over the loudspeaker for Dick Cheney raised the temperature ever closer to boiling. My compatriot barked a laugh at me when I turned and asked if she realized how dirty I felt being the same building as a war criminal. I was assured that I didn’t need to worry since we wouldn’t be anywhere near the neo-conservatives and would instead be linking up with some friends of hers at the Campaign for Liberty booth. A few awkward greetings later we were directed to a table, given badges with names of people neither of us had ever met, and told to vote in the Straw Poll for Ron Paul and to “do everything we could to not let the badges get punched” which signified that I.D. had been used and was ineligible for further voting. I, always good at following directions, managed with some small sleight of hand to vote and preserve the integrity of the badge, my friend was less subtle and some libertarian woman who was late to the party arrived later that day to find her I.D. already punched and her Straw Poll vote already cast. This small act of fraud was our payment for access to the speeches and Question and Answer later that day.

The speeches were interesting but uneventful. Thomas DiLorenzo on Abraham Lincoln (who else), Thomas Woods plugging one of his books. Rollback, I think, but at this point I own them all and can’t quite distinguish in my memory which one he released that year. The “Southern Avenger” Jack Hunter talked about something that completely escapes my memory though we were seated directly behind him before he went up and my friend’s cellphone going off directly in his ear is one of my fondest memories.

Then we were off to the Q&A featuring Ron Paul, Judge Napolitano with Tom Woods as moderator. At this point I feel the need to point out that throughout the day my friend and I were drinking out of 1 Liter Pepsi bottles that were approximately half Pepsi and half vodka. So at this point her cheeks were more red than Limbaugh’s cheeks and all fear I had of being outed as a “liberal pinko” was removed. In fact I was feeling bold. So as the Q&A reached its midpoint and my friend asked the air “I wonder if Tom Woods is an Anarcho-Capitalist?” I found myself stand up in this room of “right wing nutters” and insert myself into the line of people queued up waiting to ask questions.

Now anyone who enjoys the occasional overindulgence of hops and gets themselves into precarious situations knows the feeling I had at that moment. “Now what am I going to do?” I was in a hall with probably three to four hundred people, a television personality and a United States Congressman on stage in front of me while on camera and I was going to ask the MODERATOR if he had fringe political beliefs that I didn’t really know anything about.

The line in front of me grew shorter and shorter and I swear my blood pressure had to have rose a dozen digits and as I reached the front of the line I stuttered through some thanks to both Ron Paul and Napolitano before turning my gaze onto Woods and requesting his permission to ask him a question instead. At this point I knew I had broken about a dozen rules of etiquette as he mentioned that he would be available after the Q&A and noticeably stepped away from Ron Paul before agreeing to my request. I was in too deep at this point. “Mr. Woods.” I paused still figuring out my phrasing. “Do you think that a Minarchist society could lead to an Anarcho-Capitalist one?” His answer was everything I could have hoped for: “Of course, or else I wouldn’t be pursuing it.” Elated, I returned to my seat and gloated to my friend.

When we returned home I immediately looked for the video on the Campaign for Liberty website. Finding the video was easy enough but for whatever reason my question, and my question alone, was edited out. My only assumption was that it didn’t convey the “party line” that Campaign for Liberty wanted to convey. To me it felt as if I, a pseudo-democrat, was too radical for this so called party of change.

Now I didn’t think about this trip for several years but as I refined my beliefs and found the Rothbardian ideology that I now how hold dear I realized what a betrayal of libertarian beliefs my experience represented. The folks running the Campaign for Liberty booth openly and actively committed fraud in exchange for both personal and political favors while the Campaign for Liberty site runners were actively suppressing the logical conclusion of their belief system in an attempt to pander to the average voter. This was the beginning of my distrust of utilitarianism and of the political wing of the libertarian movement and that distrust has not subsided in the intervening years.

But if not politics then what can we do? I favor a two-pronged approach. The first is obvious: Education. We need to talk about libertarianism as much as possible and that is why I love this blog despite not being able to muster the time to post very often. I personally cannot stand to debate on the internet but some of the comments here and many of the posters make amazing headway into what it means to be a libertarian.

The second is more complex and much more personal. I call it practical (or passive) libertarianism. It is essentially finding it in yourself to embody the ideals of libertarian thought each and every day. Terry Amburgey says that I like to “Quote Scripture” and while he means it in a mocking way it is true that I do look to the writings of Mises and Rothbard for moral guidance. I believe that libertarianism has concrete ethics that help describe what is “right” and what is “wrong” in the world of morality and I make every attempt to live strictly by them.

What does this mean? Well for me it means following the Non-Aggression principle on a daily basis. In other words not committing aggression on persons or property. It means taking personal responsibility for my actions and not attributing blame to society or other abstract groups. It means not doing the obvious things such as stealing or littering but it also means making every attempt to keep money out of the government’s hands and in the hands of individuals by abstaining from buying superfluous goods whose proceeds go directly into the state coffers. This entails not playing the lottery (a bad idea anyway), and by trying to avoid purchasing things with heavy excise taxes.

Does this mean I live like a hermit? Of course not. I have to drive so I am forced into paying the heavy New York State gas tax. I purchase consumer goods as I see fit since sales tax is unavoidable. I am gainfully employed so the Income Tax is removed for me. But I do what I can. I try to minimize the government’s impact on my life. To quote pseudo-libertarian science fiction author Robert Heinlein”

I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”

I suggest you do the same.

Ultra-libéralisme – A French Tale

I am in frequent correspondence with a French retired businessman in his sixties. He is a thoughtful man with minimum formal education but who reads two newspapers a day and watches French news on television several times a day. My informal judgment (as a retired teacher) is that he possesses intelligence well above average. His interest in political matters is through the roof. My French friend is also strictly monolingual. That is, he gets all his information in French.

My friend sent me recently the following email I had trouble understanding, at first. (My own careful translation. My first language is French. I have published in that language.)

“The European Financial Markets Authority (EFMA) has downgraded the three main international credit agencies that, themselves, upgrade or downgrade European and other countries. It’s a just reward*… and a good defense against these agencies which possess no legitimacy at all except from the fact of their existence; agencies that seek to estimate the worth of those countries (and, perhaps, to play the stock market [on the basis of their own assessment]). No an easy issue. Perhaps this is going to calm down the yo-yo effect financial speculators have on the stock exchange…..I even thought a few years ago of sending a personal note to those credit agencies.”
(Bolding mine)

Two salient points in this communication: First, the EFMA is a European Union “authority,” a government agency emanating from the individual EU countries’ national authorities. It’s a complete government body.

The second comment is related to the first, I believe. My friend states categorically that US-based credit agencies (Moody’s, S&P and Fitch Ratings ) have “no legitimacy” because they are not government agencies, precisely. This expresses a mental world whereas all legitimacy flows, can only flow, however indirectly, in however contorted a fashion, from the electoral process. He really thinks that the IFMA’s puerile tantrum is going to change the credit game decisively.

Within an American intellectual context, this sounds almost like the thinking of a madman. Yet, my friend is not mad. I have known him for dozens of year. He acts rationally in every aspect of his life. He is also decisively and loudly critical of French political life in general. The problem is simply that he is French, that he receives all his information from French sources, that his mind has been shaped by French economic thought (or un-thought).

His rage against the credit agencies is not based on a factual analysis of their performance either, which would certainly be a useful exercise after the 2008 world-wide financial crisis. His rage is based entirely on the violation of sovereignty by these non-legitimate bodies.

I often ask myself the rhetorical question, ” How much would I have to be paid to….?” In this case, I can’t come to a figure. I don’t know how I would begin to explain to my French friend the idea that credit agencies get most or all of their legitimacy the from the fact that they are precisely not government agencies. I could not tell him the obvious without being interrupted, I am sure: When economic actors begin doubting the credit ratings these agencies assign to organizations emitting bonds and to governments, they will swiftly collapse on their own. That is, this abstraction, the market grants them all of their legitimacy.**

The concept of markets, counter-intuitive in the best of times, has almost completely disappeared from the French consciousness. In 2012 I watched on French language television in horrified fascination the lively debates preceding the presidential election. That was after an ambitious New York District Attorney had disqualified the most likely winner who was both a qualified economist and a sex maniac. (I mean Strauss Khan, the then-current head of the International Monetary Fund and a very moderate nominal “Socialist.”)

French pre-election debates are both more lively and better staged than their US equivalents. In the first round of a two-round system, the candidates are grilled longer, more directly, more pitilessly than anything I have seen on American television. In this case, these animated and sometimes vicious discussions went on for weeks without the most serious economic questions obviously (to me) facing the country being addressed at all. I mean, of course, a large and fast-rising debt burden and the failure to grow the economy. The attendant permanent high unemployment often came up but I think that no candidate bothered to mention that strong economic growth melts unemployment .

There were ten candidates in the first rounds, including one each from: the New Anticapitalist Party and Workers’ Struggle (Wikipedia’s translation). There was not a single seat at the feast occupied by a conventional conservative party, a Tory party. There was no “liberal” chair at the dinner in the English sense of the word that would prevail in France if the term were used at all. (See below.). If the role of the market in both producing innovation and correcting wrong turns was ever mentioned during the whole campaign (first and second round,) it left no impression on anyone. There were plenty of arguments and proposals concerning taxes. They were all couched in terms of “fairness.” None was about the fundamental fact that taxes, even low taxes limit the virtuous work of the market and therefore shackle economic growth (which has practically ceased to exist in France).

The French candidates also kept their eyes averted from, or dismissed summarily the example of Germany next door which successfully reformed its welfare state in a more market direction ten years earlier.

It’s not that there are no “conservatives ” in France. So-called “cultural conservatives” abound. Large segments of the population become exercised about the right of homosexual couples to adopt and even about host womb fertilization. The puerile excesses of the post-1968 strange, make-believe revolution alone would ensure the existence of such conservatism if it did not have deep roots in the country (see below). Sex hounds like Strauss-Khan have always existed in France but 1968 gave them permission to act openly and more or less brazenly, thereby exciting the Catholic minority’s ire and disgust.

The absence of liberal economic though in France is the result of a historical accident, a major one to be sure. At the end of World War II, the segments of French political society who had taken an active part in the resistance again the Nazi occupation took over. Soon, they constituted nearly the whole of the political class. The two main segments were the Communist Party and a shifting alliance of “Gaullist” parties, with the Socialist Party playing the role of permanent opposition until 1981. The Communists – nominally Marxist though few of their leaders had read any Marx – were obviously not believers either in the efficacy or in the morality of market mechanisms. The fairly large Socialist Party was kept in a permanent state of primitive vulgar Marxism by the necessity in which it found itself to compete with the Communists for its electorate.

The political right was occupied by Gaullists with serious ties to the progressive wing of the Catholic Church. General De Gaulle himself – a venerated figure and a mediocre politician – was thoroughly influenced by the social doctrine of the Church. To summarize it – but not abusively, I believe – the social doctrine views the state in the guise of absolute Ancien Regime kings. Good kings are both fair and powerful. They use the state apparatus unhesitatingly to distribute both justice and charity as needed.

In the post-World War II re-distribution of power, there was thus no room left for non-statist, or for “little- statist” organized opinion. The socialist victory of Mitterand in 1981, followed by a Socialist majority in parliament swept away any remaining free-market voices. It was not done through persecution in violation of democratic rule but largely through a natural swamping motion. Soon, the effect of this Socialist victory were seen in both the major mass media and, especially in French schools at all levels. All arguments about the economy heard were statist arguments: How much government action, where, for how long, whom and what to tax more, by how much, how can the government create more jobs? (The latter is taken literally: The government actually “creates ” jobs, within itself, inside the government bureaucracy.)

After thirty years, statist schooling has done the expectable: There is almost never any mention in public discourse or in private conversation of this simple idea:

Things that need to get done get done mostly well, mostly efficiently if government does not interfere.

This basic idea was never debated and beaten back; it was simply buried. It does not exist in the French consciousness. The fact that the French public is rather inferior in its ability to read other languages – notably English – helps maintain its insularity in this respect as it does in others. (Incidentally, the insularity runs so deep that the French political elite is incapable of seeing the success of the relatively liberal policies of the UK next door even as educated French youth flocks there by its tens of thousands in search of employment.)

If the French had any notion of the sentence above, they would use the word “liberal” in its English meaning. In fact, the word is practically never used in public discourse or in private discourse. When it is, it’s always accompanied by the qualifier “ultra.” The French live in a strange mental world where there are some “ultra-liberals” but no liberals. “Ultra liberal” is clearly an insulting term. It means “heartless, selfish and extremist.” No decent person is an ” ultra-liberal.” I don’t believe I know three French people who would not interrupt me in the middle of the sentence above in casual conversation. “But you are not an ultra-liberal,” they would break in with worry written all over their faces. If I retorted, “Yes, I am” not one of them would believe me.

Failing to possess conceptual language has concrete consequences. Two stand out.

In the absence of adequate terms, it is difficult to legislate regulations for normal economic activities. Many are swept under the rug. The result is that legitimate economic activities may no be performed above board, lobbying, for one. Les lobbys (in French) are illegitimate by definition. Much of what they do is borderline illegal because there is no relevant legislation or because the relevant legislation prevents them from doing their work. Since economic interests have to manifest themselves in connection with the state anyway, there follows a systematic criminalization of political life. With many of their ranking politicians pronounced criminals, ordinary French people have become deeply disaffected with normal politics. The recent (exaggerated) success of the rightist Front National in European elections is one manifestation of this distaste.

More seriously, it’s difficult to reform a polity if there is no word to designate the new direction it should take. (You need a North to navigate.) There is widespread informal agreement in France that the French welfare state is not sustainable: In 2013, half of French households received government cash for a mean of $600 plus/ month. Thus, in a country with a GDP per capita of $37,000 maximum (World Bank, for 2013), half the households receive $7,200 to $7500 annually in the form of government re-distribution (Le Figaro on-line 6/6/14) . In a society where the sentence above may not be used, or used intelligibly, it’s very difficult to state the obvious:

“We need to allow the market to spawn economic growth. We need to do it, if for no other reason, to continue to afford our munificent social (welfare) coverage.”

Instead, the political class disparages itself and destroys its own legitimacy in futile proposals and counter-proposals to cut this rather than that social program, to raise or lower such and such least favorite tax.

In my opinion, the French welfare state will not slowly grind to a halt or fall slowly apart. Rather, I think, it will come to a sudden full-stop, sink into bankruptcy because no one who counts in France is able to mouth the liberal alternative.

*This is a weak translation. The French phrase: “juste retour des choses” implies a morally valid return to some sort of previous equilibrium.

** None of this means that I think credit rating agencies perfect. I am sorry there are only three big ones of them. I regret that they exercise what I call the “tyranny of the written and of the counted.” I mean that their summary judgments tends – in the nature of things – to become substitutes for more sophisticated evaluations. They encourage laziness on the part of bond buyers, including me. Also, they have not lost enough credibility from their bad judgments on the eve of the 2008 crisis.

My book:

Jacques Delacroix: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography

is live in the Kindle Store at:

It will be available on reading devices other than Kindle in about fifty days.

The print copy will be available soon from me at jdelacroixliberty@gmail.com