Where the state came from

One of the questions that led me to libertarianism was “what is the state?” More than that: Where did it come from? How it works? What’s the use? Analogous questions would be “what is politics?” and “what is economics?” If my classroom experience serves as a yardstick for anything, the overwhelming majority of people never ask these questions and never run after answers. I do not blame them. Most of us are very busy trying to make ends meet to worry about this kind of stuff. I even sought an academic training in politics just to seek answers to these questions. For me it’s nothing to have answers, after all, I’m paid (albeit very poorly paid) to know these matters. Still, I wish more people were asking these types of question. I suspect that it would be part of the process to review the political and economic situation in which we find ourselves.

Many times when I ask in the classroom “what is the state?” I receive in response that Brazil is a state. In general I correct the student explaining that this is an example, not a definition. The modern state, as we have it today, is mainly the combination of three factors: government, population, and territory. The modern state, as we have it today, can be defined as a population inhabiting a specific territory, organized by a centralized government that recognizes no instance of power superior to itself. Often, in the academic and popular vocabulary, state and government are confused, and there is no specific problem in this. In fact, the two words may appear as synonyms, although this is not a necessity. It is possible to distinguish between state and government thinking that the state remains and governments go through.

The state as we know it today is a product of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age. I believe that this information alone should draw our attention enough: people have lived in modern states only in the last 500 years or so. Throughout the rest of human history other forms of political organization have been used. I am not saying (not here) that these other forms of organization were better than the modern state. I am simply saying that the modern state is far from being natural, spontaneous, or necessary. Even after 1500 the modern state took time to be universally accepted. First, this model of organization spread throughout Europe at the beginning of the Modern Era. It was only in the late 18th century and early 19th century that this model came to be used in the American continent. The modern state spread globally only after the decolonization movement that followed World War II. That is: the vast majority of modern states are not even 70 years old!

What is the purpose of the state? At least in my experience, many people respond by “providing rights” or “securing rights.” People think about health, education, sanitation, culture, security, etc. as duties of the state towards society. It is clear that many people think about health, education, housing, etc. as rights, which in itself is already questionable, but I will leave this discussion for another time. The point I want to put here is that empirically states have only cared about issues like health and public education very recently. In the classic definition of Max Weber (late 19th century), the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In other words, virtually anyone can use violence, but only the state can do it legally. That is: the primordial function of the state is to use violence within a legal order. Other functions, such as providing health and education, came very late and only became commonplace with the welfare state that strengthened after World War II.

I find it always interesting to see how we live in a young world. Basically the entire world population today lives in some state and expects from this state a minimum level of well-being. However, this reality is only about 70 years old. The idea that we need to live in states that provide us with a minimum of well being is not natural and far from obvious. To understand that the modern state is a historical institution, which has not always existed, it is fundamental to question its validity. Moreover, to note that the functions of the state that seem obvious to us today did not exist 70 years ago leads us to question whether it is valid to expect things such as health and education from the state.

My personal perception is that the modern state (defined by territory, population, and government) is better than any alternative that has already been proposed. However, the state of social well-being is only a sugar-watered socialism. Socialism, by definition, does not work, as Ludwig von Mises very well shows. Partial socialism is as likely to function as full socialism. Expecting the state to use violence within legal parameters is valid and even fundamental. But to expect that this same state may successfully diversify its activities entering the branches of health, education, culture, etc. is a fatal conceit.

Once, Cubans were (maybe) richer than Americans

In light of what we see today, this is hard to believe. However, as a result of Castro’s death, I accidentally became interested in the history of this fascinating island and the more I discover, the more shocked I am at “the path” that Cuba has taken. One of these reasons is provided below by Victor Bulmer Thomas in his Economic History of Latin America since Independence. Now, Thomas uses a different approach than the commonly used Maddison data (he believes the assumptions are too heroic). He uses indicators correlated with GDP per capita to fill in the gaps and he finds that Cuba was generally richer than the United States for most of the 19th century (see below):

cubaus

Now, I am not convinced by the figure Thomas presents. However, I am also skeptical of the levels presented by Maddison (where Cuba is roughly 60% as rich as the US in 1820). In between are some more reasonable estimate (see this great discussion in this book as well as this discussion by Coatsworth).  Moreover, there is the  issue of slavery which distorts the value of using GDP per capita because of high levels of inequality (however, it distorts both ways since the US was also a slave economy up to the Civil War).

Nonetheless, this tells you about the “path not taken” by Cuba.

Why did the Pseudo-Libertarians Bring a White Nationalist to ISFLC in the first place?

This weekend I attended the International Students for Liberty Conference in DC, the largest global meeting of libertarian students, professionals, and intellectuals. I was excited to meet a few friends I seldom get to see from across the world, listen to a few exciting talks by some of my favorite intellectual influences, such as Jonathan Haidt, Steve Horwitz, Edward Stringham, Sheldon Richman and the like. It was my third time attending the conference, and I always enjoy myself there.

However on Saturday afternoon, something that I did not want to see at all had reared its ugly face and even more hideous haircut: alt-right pseudo-intellectual think tank head and noted white nationalist blowhard Richard Spencer decided to come and troll us libertarians. I was just walking through the lobby when I looked over and saw him sitting at the hotel bar surrounded by a gang of ostensible thugs wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.

Now at this point, it is worth noting that Richard Spencer was in no way invited to this event by SFL in any official capacity. It is easy to be misled on this point as Spencer, being a complete fraud, had a sign next to him saying “Richard Spencer at ISFLC” as though he were invited. Immediately after seeing Spencer, I walked over to talk to some SFL staff who said he would not be allowed in the conference and, though he had every right to just hang out in a public space outside of the conference, he was in no way allowed in the conference itself.

Instead, Spencer was invited by a group calling themselves “The Hoppe Caucus,” named after noted bigot Hans-Hermann Hoppe. It is perhaps revealing that a bunch of students who want to invite a self-proclaimed white nationalist who does the Nazi salute to Trump and calls for “ethnic cleansing” of non-whites to a libertarian conference give themselves this name. The organizers were originally planning to invite Augustus Sol Invictus (the linked post was deleted) to do a similar event hijacking the conference, but were unable to pay for his travel. (The same Augustus Sol Invictus who was kicked out of a Libertarian Party Senate race for being a “neo-Nazi” who supports eugenics and participating in Satanic goat-sacrificing rituals.)

The “Hoppe Caucus” is nothing more than a Facebook page started by a couple of alt-right crypto-fascists masquerading as libertarians surrounding websites like the oxymoronically named The Liberty Conservative and the grossly misnamed trashy click-bait site  Liberty Hangout. I do have the misfortune of knowing a couple of the people who were involved in organizing Spencer. Only one of whom at any point in any official capacity associated with SFL as a low-level campus coordinator, and is mostly associated with YAL as a state chair and various other alt-right blogs. He shall remain unnamed as, from what I’ve seen, he’s been too cowardly to explicitly associate himself with the group publicly. Notably, he also recently left SFL’s CC program after some SFL staffers were blocking him from bringing Augustus. Another is a former YAL chapter leader who is now doing work with a number of right-wing think tanks in the midwest and writes for the Liberty Conservative, whose name is Mitchell Steffen.

I stood around at a distance observing Richard Spencer and the growing crowd around him, it appeared to me to be fairly standard relatively boring tone of conversations that happen at the conference, just with the notable difference of a fair amount of complete bigotry and Nazism. I went downstairs and decided not to feed the trolls. But about a half an hour to forty minutes later, I heard that Jeffery Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education, a conference speaker who was actually invited there, went upstairs to confront Richard Spencer. You can watch a recording of the exchange here. After the conversation got heated, hotel security intervened and kicked Spencer out of the venue. As Robby Soave notes in Reasonsome have reported that Spencer requested for security to escort him out, though it is unclear if that is the case (there is at least one video, see around 40:33 which seems to suggest Spencer asked for security, though was being kicked out).

Now, to combat further misinformation put out by the same group of complete liars who brought Spencer at the Liberty Conservativeno, Richard Spencer did not “nearly start a riot.” Meanwhile in reality, while Tucker was visibly upset, he did not threaten nor engage in violence at all, nor did any other attendee at the conference. First, Spencer and Tucker talked for nearly twenty minutes without any physical altercation, and Tucker arrived after nearly an hour of peaceful discussion between Spencer and some students. You can watch the videos linked above for proof. If merely getting impassioned in a debate is “nearly a riot,” these Hoppe occultists are the true snowflakes who need a safe space.

Further, Tucker and the other attendees were not upset because Spencer “merely show[ed] up in the Hotel Bar.” We were upset because these frauds dishonestly put up a sign implying that Spencer was invited and was there in an official capacity. In order to attend, one needed to pay a registration fee for the conference, which Spencer didn’t, and needed to be invited to be a speaker, which he wasn’t. He was committing fraud and attempting to disrupt a peaceful private event, if he went unchallenged the press (like Liberty Conservative’s fact-free report implies) would assume he was invited there officially. Additionally, it is a complete lie to say that around fifty attendees was “one of the best attended breakouts” at the conference, of all the breakouts I attended the smallest was around 45 (Stringham’s lecture) and most were well above 150 (eg., Haidt’s lecture and Caplan and Wilkinson’s Basic Income debate). I know you alt-righters love your alternative facts, but just because you can put them on your dumpy little click-bait site doesn’t make them true.

Regardless of the reality of the situation, some pseudo-libertarians have rushed to Spencer’s defense saying Tucker reacted in a hyperbolic fashion and didn’t take Spencer’s right to free speech seriously. Some have even idiotically claimed that the “left libertarians” at SFL (I am one of the few, the majority of the conference attendees are not, by the way) used force to oust Richard Spencer. Somehow, when Tucker asserts the liberty and dignity of all human beings it’s some act of aggression because the fascist snowflakes didn’t like his tone, but if Hoppe fanboys demand that communists get thrown out helicopters and their homeboy Spencer demands the state ethnically cleanse black people, that’s hunky dory.

First, nobody from SFL ousted Spencer, he either left of his own accord because he couldn’t handle Tucker’s debate or the hotel kicked him out, which the hotel is well within its rights to do because of this thing these pseudo-libertarians have apparently forgotten called private property. Spencer intruded on a private event with the intention of misleading everyone about his involvement in it, Tucker cleared up Spencer’s and the Hoppe Caucus’ fraud, and the hotel kicked him off of their private property for trespassing. It’s amazing how these crypto-fascists think “free association” is primary if you’re a bigot who doesn’t want to serve a gay person a wedding cake, wants to “physically remove, so to speak” people they disagree with from society or is a racist who discriminates against black people. But when it comes to an actual libertarian not wanting a Nazi at their private event all of a sudden “free association” doesn’t matter because they can lazily caterwaul “free speech.” It’s almost like they don’t actually believe in free association unless you’re a white, straight Christian fascist like them.

Further, the idea that all ideas always get the same hearing is a gross misunderstanding of the point of free speech and the usefulness of public discourse in a liberal political order. The fact is, there is always an opportunity cost to inquiry. Racism, Nazism, white nationalism and the like were long ago proven to be continuously false and extremely dangerous, and it would be a misuse of intellectual resources to continually need to “engage with them.” This is for the same reason astronomers do not need to continually write academic papers disproving flat-earth conspiracy nutters, medical biologists do not need to continually refute anti-vaxxer cranks, and economists do not need to continually engage with erroneous labor theories of value in their original academic work. The intellectual resources of the community of inquiry can be better used by addressing new ideas that are actually relevant to our current situation, not by continually discussing with dogmatic cranks who spew pseudo-scientific lies about race.

Of course, it is arguable that this principle is not applicable in the current situation because ideas like Spencer’s have gained popularity, possibly in part because of a breakdown in discourse in the United States caused by some on the left refusing to engage in any serious discourse with anything they don’t agree with. This means one ought to write refutations of the odious seeds of the alt-right, like Tucker himself has done. But free speech, and even the necessity of engaging with an intellectual (or in this case, pseudo-intellectual) opponent does not mean you hand him the loudspeaker by inviting him to your conference, and it does not mean you let him defraud and defame you by pretending to be a part of a private event to which he was not invited. Just because a Nazi has the liberty right to free speech does not mean they have the claim right to oblige you to give them a platform for said speech. (The difference between claim-rights and liberty-rights is lost on both Hoppe fans and Hoppe himself.)

Even though I am happy that my libertarian peers stood up to Spencer at the conference, I think this is time for libertarians to engage in serious reflection. These weren’t just a group of odious, intellectually immature, adolescent edge-lords crashing an event. Though they were also that, this was a group of pugnacious kids who were to some extent legitimized by prominent student groups. One made it past the screening into SFL’s CC program, and while it is worth noting he’s one of a very few bad CC’s out of over a hundred across the country and is no longer a CC because SFL was stopping his excesses, the fact that he thought SFL would be a good platform for his nonsense and that he was a CC for this long (about six months) in the first place should cause some concern. Further, he and others involved are prominent in YAL, not only chapter presidents but even state chairs.

Why would a group of pretty overt fascists feel comfortable masquerading as libertarians and naming their fake news sites after the ideas of liberty? Why would they feel think inviting a prominent neo-Nazi to a large libertarian event was a good idea in the first place? Why are pseudo-intellectual occultist hacks, snake-oil salesmen, bigots and conspiracy theorists like Milo, Molyneux, Cantwell, Hoppe, Alex Jones, and the like so revered by self-proclaimed “libertarians” in such large circles? Why, when I mention I’m a libertarian, do I feel the need to disassociate myself with so many other libertarian students who are newer to the movement? I think this points to a series of deep problems with the infrastructure of the “libertarian movement” as it exists, and I will chronicle them one by one: an overly intensive focus on activism, populism, a history of right-wing fusionism of various sorts, and immature contrarianism.

Activism
Activism is clearly something any political movement of any form is going to have to engage on at some level. By activism, here, I mean recruiting new people to your movement, spreading your ideas through popular culture, engaging a little in the political process and engaging in grass-roots movement building with activities like tabling, advertising for and organizing events, and the like. It’s something I’m admittedly not particularly good at nor do I enjoy doing it, so I do have reason to downgrade its importance on some personal level admittedly. However, I still believe that a number of student groups in the liberty movement–particularly YAL and to a lesser extent SFL–have put far more emphasis on it than is warranted, and I think it is doing legitimate damage to their cause.

Activism is all about the numbers–how many chapters did you start? how many emails did you get on your list from tabling? how many attendees do you have at your event? how many votes did your candidate get?–and not about the quality of participation or ideas–do your chapters actually do good work, if any at all? will the people you got on your email list ever actually engage with you? did your attendees at the event get anything meaningful or useful out of your event? did the voters actually vote for your candidate because he was good? Undoubtedly, the numbers are important–part of the reason why libertarianism was stifled for so long was high-quality white papers were just being written by think tanks and nobody would read them. However, lately numbers seem to be all that too many people in the development departments of political activist non-profits and think tanks and too many activists think about it alone. It’s all about quantity, not about quality.

YAL has next to no screening–at least that I’m aware of–for who can start a YAL chapter and who makes it up in their ranks. SFL, meanwhile, does have some screening and an application process for becoming a CC, but it’s still obviously pretty easy for alt-right entryists to make it pass that process. Because what seems to matter most to them–and all that seems to matter for YAL–is that they can brag that they have a hundred CCs and hundreds of YAL chapters. The result: you have a recently-resigned SFL campus coordinator and current YAL State Chair bringing a neo-Nazi to a prominent SFL event. Further, they train their activists to focus on these metrics and not metrics of quality (which they don’t even really provide often) for measuring their goals and success of their activism. The result: YAL presidents are trained not to worry that when they invited Milo to “#trigger” leftists that Milo said nothing even remotely related to libertarianism, or that the attendees of his event got nothing substantive out of it; all that mattered was that YAL scored a media-hit because their rabble were roused and their leftist ideological opponents were upset, and that they got a lot of attendees.

Now the reason for the focus on activism is understandable: it’s the easiest way to prove to your donors as an organization that their money is doable, and it is absolutely true that if you don’t have a readily available way to measure the success of your well-state goals means there’s no way to improve. Things like attendance numbers, number of email registrations, and number of chapters and media hits, are an easy way to do this. But when your activism has deteriorated in quality to the point that you have a bunch of entryist activists who are promoting ideas that are literally antithetical to your cause, when they–while representing your organization–are bringing Nazis to a libertarian event, maybe it’s time to reconsider the usefulness of your metrics. They are such a poor measure of quality and can easily be substituted for things like surveys of the attendees of the event for their perception on the event’s quality (IHS does this a lot, and I see SFL doing it more and more often). Further, why not train your activists not only to be activists but to be legitimately good ambassadors for your ideas, or even to be remotely familiar with the ideas they’re supposed to be promoting in the first place (which far too many activists are not beyond a very superficial level)?

Further, this activist mindset creates an in-your-face attitude almost akin to religious proselytizing. The activist thinks “I have the truth already and am now just looking to spread it” and uses in-your-face style evangelism to do so. That mindset is not likely to produce quality ideological ambassadors, but rather pugnacious little dogmatists. As my fellow Notewriter Brandon Christensen once noted in a Reason Papers article, it is at odds with the humility inherent in the libertarian ethos, but very much at home in morally chauvinist ideologies like fascism which Richard Spencer loves. It’s not surprising that YAL-style in-your-face activism is attracting the undesirables just because the type of social interaction it requires is not at home with the psychological mental state libertarianism requires, but is very at home with crypto-fascists like Hoppe.

Populism
I won’t spend a lot of time on this one since I spent ample time in an article on the dangers of populism to liberty last month. Suffice it to say, the events of this weekend reaffirms what I had to say in that article about how populism inherently will lack principles and turn into something nasty:

Because the main thing driving populist movements are “the people vs. the elites” rather than the core principles the movement tries to espouse, there’s good reason to think the base of that movement will abandon many of those principles as it grows simply on the basis that they have something similar to what “the elites” believe. It’s not surprising that many of the younger pseudo-libertarians who supported Ron Paul have since jumped on either the Trump or Sanders bandwagon, or, even worse, have defected into the crypto-fascist, dark corners of the alt-right (Stefan Molyneux and Chris Cantwell’s occultists are examples of this). Even left-wing populist movements often have abandoned leftist principles throughout history (the Jacobins in the French Revolution, for example).

Now add the pseudo-libertarians who have jumped on the Richard Spencer and Hans-Herman Hoppe bandwagon to the list of evidence for why populism is so toxic.

Right-Wing Fusionism
When libertarianism in its present form was first fomenting in the seventies, the biggest global conflict was between the communist Soviet Union and the United States. Further, at the time the biggest issues in domestic policy were about creeping state economic regulatory policy left over from the progressive era and social welfare programs with Johnson’s Great Society. All these were big issues for libertarian ideology so they formed a coalition with what was currently the biggest political opposition to those: the emerging post-war conservative movement. It was always an awkward marriage, with intellectuals lashing out against each other from both sides, and honestly both making good points about how libertarianism and conservatism were wholly incompatible. But the awkward coalition, it was argued, was necessary to resist the growing state at home and the specter of communism abroad (even though libertarians and conservatives at the time, obviously, deeply disagreed and fought about the Vietnam war and America’s militaristic impulse to resist the Soviets with foreign intervention).

Today, though, it is clear that this alliance is no longer working. The right in the United States, for one, has morphed into something even more incompatible than the old Buckley-Kirkian conservatism with which it was once awkward bedfellows with into an ultra-nationalistic program of protectionist economic planning, opposition to cultural pluralism, and hostility to religious liberty (for non-Christians).

If one knows the history of right-wing libertarian fusionism should surprise no one that modern ideological delinquent libertarians are are inviting a white nationalist to speak at your conference. There was, of course, the odious phase of “paleo-libertarianism” Rothbard and his cult tried to launch in the early nineties embracing Pat Buchanan like the Hoppe Caucus embraces Trump, the toxic fruit of which includes the infamous outright racist Ron Paul letters which read like some of Richard Spencer’s delusions. In fact, there is a direct line from this “paleo” poison and Hoppe himself to Richard Spencer, Spencer and another white nationalist Jared Taylor were invited to speak at Hoppe’s Property and Freedom Society Conference in 2010 and 2013 respectively on the alt-right and race relations. Hoppe started the Property and Freedom Society in 2006 after feeling that the old Mont Pelerin Society, started by Hayek and Friedman in the forties, wasn’t sufficiently racist-friendly for him.

Even one of my personal favorite libertarian thinkers, FA Hayek, fell for the fusionist vial of toxin in his uncomfortably close relationship with a certain Chilean fascist dictator (obviously not that this discredits his stellar academic work). The point is that even our best intellectuals, and obviously sophomoric college kids, wind up being more defined by what they oppose that they are willing to ally with anyone who’s an enemy of their enemy–including those mot opposed to their ideas–at the expense of actually improving anyone’s lives when political alliance is valued over principle.

This does not mean we substitute right-wing fusionism with some left-wing fusionism where we let the likes of Elizabeth Warren get away with saying “The heart of progressivism is libertarianism” like Reagan did. This doesn’t mean we form an alliance with the left and pretend to be ideologically in the same place as politicians from major leftist political parties who poison our ideas by doing things that have nothing to do with our ideology. It would be a fool’s errand to institutionally ally ourselves on as many issues as we can with existing leftist institutions, like libertarians did with right-wing ones in the past. I much prefer the infuriatingly slow, though necessary, process of social and intellectual change through discourse, cultural engagement, entrepreneurship, and resisting state tyranny where we can. If need be, maybe ally with groups like the ACLU or Heritage on a single issue where we may agree with them. But don’t sit there and pretend that the alliance is anything more than a temporary, single-issue co-authorship for expedience. These little alliances should not make you delude yourself into thinking something like “liberaltarian” (in the American progressive sense of liberal) is anymore meaningful than the oxymoronic “conservatarian” and start bringing Stalinists to your conferences.

My point is that, obviously, fusionism has had a corrosive effect on libertarians to the point that it’s not even clear what self-identified libertarians believe at this point, if it claims to support liberty while its members feel comfortable giving a platform to white nationalist neo-Nazis. I understand the need for a movement to be big-tent and not fraction off with infighting, but when your movement includes people who work for self-identified white nationalists while everyone else is trying to claim something from the classical liberal tradition your big-tent is turning into a circus dominated by demented clowns.

Contrarianism
This last point is something pointed out well by Kevin Vallier a few years ago in reaction to one of Hoppe’s more vitriolic racist screeds:

Libertarianism is an unpopular view. And it takes particular personality types to be open to taking unpopular views. Some of these personality types are people who are open to new experience, love the world of ideas and have a disposition for independent thought. However, some of these personality types simply enjoy holding outrageous and provocative views, who like to argue and fight with others, who like insult and and shock. The contrarian is someone of the latter type.

…The worst flaw in the contrarian trap is that it makes libertarians open to views that deserve to be unpopular and despised, including the thinly-veiled racism of the sort the Hans Hermann Hoppe trades in from time to time. The social democratic left can’t just be wrong about the state, they have to be wrong about everything, and obviously wrong at that.

And this applies not just to libertarians, but also to the edge-lord alt-righters who have now successfully co-opted a number of American conservative institutions. In reality, these are just people with the psychological composition and intellectual (im)maturity of a 14-year-old troll in his mommy’s basement posting nonsense on 4Chan who use cartoon frogs to try to thinly veil their odious ideology. They are just contrarians who never grew out of going “No” when their teacher told them to do something in high school, but instead of the teacher telling Pink to “eat your meat” it’s Jeffery Tucker saying “respect the basic liberties of other human beings.” The problem is because libertarianism is still somewhat on the fringe, but just mainstream enough for it to be popular among contrarians, it is attractive to people with that level of immaturity. This is exacerbated by the fact that, for the reasons listed above, the libertarian movement are giving these immature edge-lords a platform.

My main reason for making these points is that while SFL is completely justified in pointing out about how they had nothing to do with Spencer’s presence and opposed it, and libertarians should be happy that we stood up to a Nazi in our midst, we need to remember: not playing footsies with Nazis is the bare minimum for being ideologically tolerable, and not something to be celebrated. We need to recognize that the reason Spencer even felt comfortable showing up and the reason minor leaders in libertarian student organizations felt comfortable inviting him his a symptom of a deeper disease that’s been in the making for quite some time. I do not know exactly how to address this disease, but the first step to fixing a problem is admitting that we have one.

Tour d’Amerique

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


At eighteen, I spent one year in California. At the end of the school year, my group of “exchange students” was treated to a country-wide bus tour.

A big patch of attitudinal European-ness was stripped off me during the summer bus trip. I was in Virginia, the guest of a big-shot Washington lawyer. His family had a spacious, sprawling but elegant house on top of a hill, surrounded by white-painted horse corrals. We had dinner in silverware and crystal, served by a quiet black lady in a white uniform. The lawyer’s two sons, who were my age, lingered outside with me after dinner, smoking cigarettes. We were having an interesting conversation because they were curious about California and Europe, both. Nevertheless, around eleven, the guys announced that they had to turn in. “Why so soon?” I asked. “We have to get up at four.” “What do you do so early?” “In the summer, we have a garbage route; it pays really well.”

I am positive that no son of a rich French lawyer ever worked with his hands in the garbage industry, at any time in French history. Sorry for the cliché, but that brief exchange transformed me. It was a starting point to my turning me into a different person, more adaptable and more capable of the resourcefulness that my subsequent life demanded.

Vulvæ in pornography and culture

I was in a discussion recently on the effects of “porn culture” on young boys and girls. I went back and forth a bit with a debater, until she mentioned the rising rates of labiaplasty, prima facie caused by women’s lack of confidence in their own external genitals after watching pornography (which, according to everyone, is a massive, growing, all-pervasive industry).

Labiaplasty, surgery on the vulva to trim or cut away the labia minora (such that they protrude less than the labia majora) or the clitoral hood, is, indeed, on the rise in the West; it can also lead to complications including pain and infection. The number of girls under eighteen that paid for labiaplasty almost doubled between 2014 and 2015, and the number continues to grow.

Insecurity is a leading factor in many women’s decision to pursue the surgery. Patient satisfaction post-op is about 95%. Labiaplasty improves confidence and happiness and can lead to a healthier sex life. Costs are about $4000 – 5000, which is not terribly expensive for a life-altering operation.

However, the logistics alone are deceiving. Plastic surgery is a relatively young field with ever-improving techniques. To attribute the rise in labiaplasty immediately to the effects of an increasingly pornographic culture is disingenuous. There are other factors, and an analysis of labiaplasty patients shows that 32% of women undergoing the surgery did so for functional impairment, 31% for combined functional impairment and aesthetic improvement, and 37% for aesthetic improvement alone. That is a majority of surgeries for achieving or improving upon physical function. Of course, if you’re thinking of getting a surgery to improve a malfunctioning organ and it comes with visually pleasing benefit as well, you might incorporate this a little into your selection process – thus, it is reasonable to assume that many of the patients in the dual percentage were focused primarily on physical function, with visuals as an afterthought. The authors of the study found that “the majority of patients undergoing reduction of the labia minora do so for functional reasons with minimal outside influences affecting their decision for treatment.” This is an inconvenient conclusion if you want to argue that porn culture is causing these surgeries.

There’s also, as always, much more to the story. Female porn stars have what might be called “tidy” mons pubes, in terms of pubic hair and the conspicuousness of labia. These “designer vaginas” don’t accurately represent the general, mammalian populace of people with vaginas. Yet, as noted by Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College, the reason porn actresses in Australia maintain such kept labia is not male, female or porn-producer preference, but rating boards (which are government bodies). Soft-core porn, in Australia, can only show “discreet genital detail,” which rules out fleshy, extrusive labia. The labia minora is considered “too offensive” for soft-core. Similar distinctions apply elsewhere. In Germany, for instance, one must be at least 16 years old to purchase soft-core material and 18 to buy hardcore; the distinction falls along multiple lines some of which dictate how extrusive the labia are. In Australia, often airbrushers at porn mags apply digital labiaplasty to “heal” vulvas to an acceptable “single crease.”

One of the feminist authors I’ve linked makes the point clear by comparison: what if porn classificatory boards determined the testicles were too explicit? What if the scrotum had to be airbrushed out in order for men’s genitals to appear in soft-core?

Daisy Buchanan at the Guardian observes another reason women are seeking aesthetic “improvement” to their natural organs: the seductive exhibitionism of pornography is not confined to hardcore adult films anymore, it’s everywhere – at music awards, during celebrity photoshoots, in casual advertisements, whatever.

This point could be worded in one of two ways: society is hyper-sexualized, or, our culture is sexually liberated. The second, more optimistic one, symbolizes a social maturity into sexual autonomy. Buchanan exaggerates by claiming we’re “as likely” to see a vulva on a music channel as on a pornographic website, but nonetheless, sex has become a more tolerable phenomenon for more and more people. The labiaplasty rate can be disparaged as a coercive instrument for young women to meet societal standards, or, it can be lauded as the growth of opportunity for women with functional problems and their willingness (and increased ability to afford) to shape their body how they want it.

As detailed previously on Notes on Liberty (here and here), the stifling force of 20th and 21st century censorship has been obsessed with pornography and female pleasure. For those who view labiaplasty as a disturbing, sexist phenomenon, one place to start would be rating boards, often managed by the government.

A very short response to Bruno Gonçalves Rosi’s reflection on Latin American Conservatism

With his “The Problem with Conservatism in Latin America, Bruno Gonçalves Rosi brings to NOL a very interesting debate on politics and history. In the case of Hispanic America the controversy is quite severe: during the 17th-century Spain and its colonies were undergoing an incremental process of liberalization and modernization known as “Bourbon Reforms.” These reforms implied a language unification (adopting Castilian – later named “Spanish” – as the national language), an increasing centralization of political administration, and free trade between Spain and its colonies, among other aspects.

In the case of the Spanish colonies in America, the Bourbon Reforms implied that Spanish-born subjects were preferred over American-born ones to take up public duties, and also that American products could not compete with Spanish ones. Up until then, commerce among Spain and its American colonies was restrained to gold and a narrow scope of goods. Free commerce had been allowed only in cases of extreme scarcity (for example, between Buenos Aires and South Africa) and for a very short lapse of time. The Bourbon Reforms put a severe strain on the incipient local production of the Hispanic American colonies that had flourished as consequence of closed markets. Sometimes inefficient local processes of production were outperformed by more competitive Spanish goods. But in other cases, efficient local industries were banned because they were regarded as a menace to Spanish ones.

Thus, the reactions to the Bourbon Reforms were of two opposite kinds: the Liberals rejected them because they limited the free trade only to Spain and its colonies and the modernization process was too slow. Liberals demanded free trade with all countries. On the other side, the Conservatives sought to go back to the Habsburg era: they rejected Modernity and free trade and demanded protectionism. The Emancipatory process of Spanish America was carried out by the conjunction of the Liberal and the Conservative reaction against the Bourbon Reforms. Once independence was fulfilled, the two parties became acutely antagonist to each other…perhaps up until today.

The history of Latin American Conservatism and Liberalism is worth our attention not only because of political history itself, but because it gives us a model to ponder the processes of departure from political and economic commonwealths that have been seen in the recent years -and perhaps are not closed yet.

The problem with conservatives in Latin America

Shortly after the declaration of independence of the USA, in 1776, several independence movements in Iberian America followed. Basically between the 1800s and the 1820s almost all of Latin America broke its colonial ties with Spain and Portugal, giving rise to the national states we know today, from Mexico to Chile. This disruption of colonial ties, however, was only the beginning of the process of formation of Latin American national states. The borders would still undergo many transformations, and especially there would be a long and tortuous task of forming national governments in each country.

In general there was much influence from the USA and the French Revolution in the formation of Latin American national states. The constitutions that emerged on the continent were generally liberal in their essence, using a theoretical background similar to that which gave rise to the American constitution. However, in the case of Latin America, this liberalism proved to be only a veneer covering the surface. Below it Latin America was a region marked by oligarchy, paternalism, and authoritarianism.

Using Brazil as an example, one can observe how much the French Revolution was a strong influence on Latin America. In the Brazilian case, this influence was due to the fear that there would be a radicalization of liberalism that guided the process of independence, leading to a Jacobinism such as that which marked the period of Terror in France. The fear that a Brazilian Robespierre would emerge at some point forced Brazil’s founders to cooperate in such a manner that the formation of the Brazilian state was more conservative and less liberal.

One problem with Latin American conservatism lies in what it retains in trying to avoid liberal radicalization. There is a conservative Anglo-Saxon tradition identified primarily with Edmund Burke. As in Latin America, Burke was critical of the radicalization of the French Revolution (with the advantage that Burke predicted radicalization before it actually occurred). However, Burke had an already liberal country to conserve. In his case, conservatism was a liberal conservatism. In the case of Latin Americans, preserving meant maintaining mercantilism and absolutism, or at least avoiding a more rapid advance of liberalism.

Another problem with Latin American conservatism is to confuse Rousseau with true liberalism. The ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were behind the most radical period of the French Revolution. Burke criticized the kind of thinking that guided the revolution because of its abstract nature, disconnected from the traditions. But this was not really Rousseau’s problem. His problem is that his ideas do not make the slightest sense. John Locke also possessed an abstract but perfectly sensible political thought. Rousseau does not represent liberalism. His thinking is a proto-socialism that we would do well to avoid. But the true liberalism of John Locke and the American Founding Fathers still needs to be implemented in Latin America.

In short, the problem of conservatism in Latin America lies in what we have to conserve. My opinion is that we still need to move forward a lot before having liberal societies that are worth thinking about being preserved. Meanwhile, it is better to avoid the idea of a Latin American conservatism.