A Radical Take on Science and Religion

An obscure yet still controversial engineer–physicist named Bill Gaede put out a video last year, inspired by Martin Luther, spelling out 95 theses against the current scientific consensus in physics. I’m in no position to evaluate his views on physics, but I find his take on the difference between science and religion fascinating. In this post I’ll try to condense some of his views on that narrow topic. You can watch the whole video here. Fair warning: his presentation style is rather eccentric. I find it quirky and fun, you may feel differently.

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A description is a list of characteristics and traits. It answers the questions what, where, when, and how many.

An explanation is a discussion of causes, reasons, and mechanisms. It answers the question why.

An opinion is a subjective belief. What counts as “evidence”, “proof”, or “truth” is an opinion.

Science is the systematic attempt at providing explanations. Why do planets orbit stars? Why are some people rich and others poor? Why is there something instead of nothing? All questions that can be answered (to varying degrees) with science.

Note well that the experiments and observations per se are not science. The scientist takes those results for granted: they form his hypothesis—literally, that which is without a thesis or explanation. Technicians and assistants may carry out the observations and experiments. But the actual science is the explanation.

Religion is the systematic attempt at shaping opinions. Religion is not mere faith—the belief in things without evidence. Religion works through persuasion—the use of science and faith to appeal to your subjective beliefs about evidence and proof and truth.

Science is not be about persuading the audience. Good science is about providing consistent, logically sound explanations. An individual may have many religious reasons for their incredulity. But religious skepticism is not the concern of the scientist. The scientist is only concerned about logically valid explanations.

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How to fix the journal model? 

Disclaimer: I am not (yet!) published in any peer reviewed journals.

A companion recently posed an interesting proposal to improve the academic journal model: have referees publish their reviews after X period of time. I am sympathetic to the idea as I have always found secrecy to be a strange thing in decision making. What’s the point of ‘blind’ reviews anyway? From conversing with those with more experience in the field, it is rarely a ‘double blind’ process but a de facto one way ‘blind’ process. This seems to be the case more so outside the major journals.

My counter is: why not just get rid of journals altogether? Why not just publish via SSRN and similar websites? Journals seem to have maintained their existence in the digital age as a means of quality insurance, but there’s still lots of junk in the top journals. Surely we can come up with better ways than relying on a few referees? Even relying on citation count would be a better measure of a paper’s value I think.

#microblogging

North Korea, the status quo, and a more liberal world

The tension on the Korean Peninsula can be felt throughout the entire Pacific Rim right now. North Korea, a dictatorship with a shaky grasp on its populace, has nuclear weapons and is launching non-nuclear missiles over Japan and threatening South Korea and the United States. To make matters worse, the only state in the region that Pyongyang deems worthy of dialogue, China, refuses to engage in much multilateral work to defuse the situation.

If I were South Korea and China I would have an advanced missile shield system right on the border of North Korea, and if I were Japan I would have an advanced missile shield system spread all along my massive coastline. However, China is engaging in trade sanctions against South Korea for trying to build a missile shield along it’s border with North Korea, ostensibly because such a missile shield would threaten Beijing’s territorial integrity. This is a huge strategic mistake on China’s part. North Korea is ruled by the son of a brutal dictator who is in the midst of remaking the People’s Republic in his image. Pyongyang is launching missiles over wealthy democracies and threatening perceived enemies with nuclear annihilation. China is ignoring all of this, and undertaking policies designed to underwhelm multilateral efforts at containing North Korea because Beijing wants North Korea to serve 3 purposes: 1) a useful buffer state (but read this), 2) a hostile reminder that it considers Taiwan as part of China, and 3) as a good bargaining chip when dealing with the United States in the region.

Given that the United States is not geographically a part of East Asia, and given that Washington figures prominently in not one, not two, but all three major reasons why China refuses to engage robustly in more multilateral actions against such a destructive neighbor, we must ask ourselves: Why is the United States still in South Korea? The answer is that Koreans want them there.

Check out the latest results of a Pew Survey asking people what they think about the United States:

blog Pew American 2
(source)

75% of South Koreans have a favorable or somewhat favorable view of the US even after the election of Donald Trump. That’s higher than the other baseball-friendly countries like Italy (61%) and Japan (57%), and much higher than next-door neighbor Mexico (30%) and longtime NATO partner Germany (35%).

China is wrong to believe that an American withdrawal would suddenly make North Korea a breezy member of the international community of states. Kim Jong Un’s regime depends on foreign enemies to survive. James Madison put it best:

The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending have enslaved the people.

North Korea would bully Seoul and Tokyo and cajole Beijing even moreso because Washington would not be there to bear the burden of Liberal Hegemonic Boogieman.

But I’m not a Chinese citizen and this is a post about a more liberal world, so I’d like to switch gears and focus on something that all libertarians are secretly obsessed with: money.

What kind of deal is the US getting by having troops stationed along the 38th parallel? I know the US is a target of a dictator’s nuclear arsenal because of troops along the 38th, and I know the US has to expend considerable resources on the Korean Peninsula to protect Seoul, so costs are understood, but what about benefits? What about payment? What does US get in return for protecting South Korea?

Trade – a big aspect of libertarian foreign policy – is not that big of a deal for either country: the United States makes up about 14% of South Korea’s exports, and South Korea makes up nearly 3% of the United States’ exports. This means that China, for example, is a larger, more important trading partner to both countries than either is to each other.

One of the benefits I’ve found is South Korea’s participation in multilateral military actions undertaken under the umbrella of US military leadership. South Korea has provided troops for dozens of current UN missions in sub-Saharan Africa and post-British Asia, and also participated in the US-led invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq (Seoul’s troops left Iraq in 2008 and Afghanistan in 2014). I also learned that South Korea deployed 325,000 soldiers to South Vietnam from 1964-1973, losing roughly 5,100 soldiers and welcoming home another 11,000 wounded soldiers.

Seoul’s participation in Vietnam was a shocking discovery for me. It forced me to reassess America’s relationship with South Korea. The status quo is actually a decent trade-off. The status quo is cooperative, not coercive. The status quo isn’t so bad from a libertarian standpoint: There is a trade-off with mutually beneficial exchange involved, there is a cooperative rather than coercive relationship between both sides, and tens of millions of people are freer than they otherwise would be because of it.

We can still make the alliance marginally better, though. We can still take small steps to a much better world. Consider federation between the two countries.

On the face of it, such an event is ludicrously radical and completely anathema to liberty and cooperation. I would have had the same reaction just a couple of years ago, but two books have fundamentally changed my mind about this: Daniel Deudney’s Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village and David Hendrickson’s Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding. Both scholars are American political scientists and, as far as I can tell, card-carrying Democrats.

Deudney’s book uses theory and history to show that, among other things, republican security theory is, and always has been, from antiquity to the present day, the most important question that scholars of international relations have had to grapple with. For centuries, republics started out with the best of intentions, the best of circumstances, and always managed to decay into despotism or succumb to conquest by neighboring despots. The United States, Deudney goes on,  managed to get out of this trap through federal union and, because of its peculiar geographic situation, a full-fledged republican security bargain was able to come to full fruition.

Deudney bases this part of his argument on Hendrickson’s little-known but immensely persuasive book. Hendrickson argues that the newly independent 13 states and their eventual federal union should best be viewed in an international relations framework. In order to protect themselves not only from powerful empires but more importantly from each other, the 13 states entered into a federal union that held them responsible for a limited number of shared responsibilities (such as international security and ensuring republican government in their domestic realms) and left plenty of space for each of them to exercise policymaking as they saw fit. In order to avoid a race to the bottom – where the 13 states formed security blocs between themselves and used Spain, France, and the UK to undermine their rivals – the 13 states built, piece-by-piece, a cooperative international system and called it a federation.

With America’s domestic liberties under increasing assault, largely because the current situation places so much emphasis on certain checks and balances over others, adding additional “states” in the form of South Korea’s provinces would breathe new life into all of the institutions necessary for both security and republican domestic governance.

The inevitable Korean bloc

The biggest fear that such a federation would bring about is the fear of a Korean bloc, or the disintegration of the precarious balance of power between the two parties in the US. Although partisans on both sides no doubt loathe that their side is even with the other in terms of influence and numbers, most Americans are very happy with the two party status quo (if they weren’t happy there would no longer be a two party status quo).

Admitting 5 to 7 new “states,” former Korean provinces, makes it seem like this delicate two party balance would be quickly destroyed with the advent of a Korean bloc which has no interest in traditional American politics. I assure you there would be no Korean bloc. Look at the most recent Korean elections:

blog korea elections map
You’ll notice there’s 5 parties instead of 2 like in the States. That’s because South Korea uses proportional representation whereas the United States uses the FPTP system. The end result of both systems is the same: a center-right bloc and a center-left bloc. In South Korea’s case, the red and the grey districts are right-wing, and the other three colors are left-wing. (source)

There is a Left-Right divide focused on policy and to a lesser extent ideology rather than an ethnic one, just like here in the States.

The Korean Left would line up nicely with Democrats (it even has an anti-American streak that isn’t anti-American at all, only anti-GOP, just like the Democrats!). The conservative wing of South Korea might form a Korean bloc but it would be ineffective in the House and Senate because of its small number.

Libertarians are often dissatisfied with the status quo, even though they’re often the first to point out that life in Western states continues to get better and better. The status quo relationship between South Korea and the United States is great. But it could always be a little bit better.

Is it Thanksgiving without the turkey?

I was recently talking to a friend about Thanksgiving dinner. He was complaining about the difficulty of cooking turkey and asked how my household dealt with the issue. My response? We just serve chicken instead. It’s cheaper, easier to make, and frankly turkey isn’t significantly better.

That begs the question though: can you have Thanksgiving without the turkey? What makes Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving? Being around loved ones is necessary, but not sufficient. We’re, presumably, around loved ones for most holidays. What distinguishes today from other days?

I think it’s the pumpkin pie, but what about my fellow note writers?

#microblogging

More on the trap of college debt

I’m writing this short note to point to John Elliott’s article about how student debt is changing the American family. He has mentored young students at both the Institute for Humane Studies and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

The article at times seems to play the idea of going to college against starting a family as two incompatible choices.

Some time ago, though, I wrote a piece on how to avoid student debt, get a degree and even focus on more important things such as work and family.

The article was published here, but as a summary I’m pasting below the “cheap college tips” again:

1. Do well enough at school to get a substantive merit-based scholarship

2. Don’t count on athletics scholarships

3. Start at a community college and transfer

4. Try distance learning at a fraction of the cost

5. Go to a local college and stay with your parents

6. Do your college abroad through distance learning

7. Move abroad and pay much less tuition

8. If abroad, you can still study for a while in America through student exchange

9. Do credit-awarding exams to cut corners – and costs

10. Do French and German for reading (this will save you time and money at Graduate School)

Libertarianism, Classical Liberalism, Right Wing Populism, and Democracy

An interesting exchange has occurred between Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center and Ilya Somin writing for the Washington Post on the issue of the influence of libertarianism over the modern Republican Party’s erosion of liberal democratic norms. In his initial piece, Wilkinson seemed to argue that the Libertarian view of absolutism in regards to property rights which was a way to offer an emotionally gratifying alternative to socialist redistribution was responsible for the Right’s adoption of a populist outlook which eroded democratic norms, for example, policies like Voter ID and Gerrymandering. Ilya Somin responded by pointing out that the libertarian “absolutist” conception of property rights had next to nothing to do with why many libertarians Wilkinson cites are skeptical of democracy. Wilkinson responded by saying his initial argument was confusingly stated, not that absolutist property rights is driving democratic erosion on the part of the right, by trying to clarify his distinction between “libertarian” and “classical liberal.” Somin pointed out that this response undermines the force of Wilkinson’s initial argument and took issue with some of his other points.

I wish to contribute to this debate because, even though Somin is largely right that Wilkinson’s argument is weakened by his clarification, I think both have missed that Wilkinson has fundamentally misunderstood what right-wing populism is and why it is a threat to democracy. Modern right-wing populism does not try to erode majoritarian democracy, even if it erodes some of the institutional norms which make it possible for modern liberal democracy to function. Rather, populism, in its many forms, weaponizes democratic rhetoric which is premised on the very notions which libertarians and classical liberals critical of democracy seek to challenge. Attempts to tie such criticisms to the modern right is absurd and distracts us from confronting those aspects which are actually threatening about the right’s pathologies. Afterwards, I will comment on some of the other minor confusions into which I believe Wilkinson falls.

Populism and Folk Democratic Intuitions

In Wilkinson’s genealogy, the root of modern libertarianism is an attempt to weaponize classical liberalism’s defense of property against the desire for socialist redistribution. As he tells it, classical liberals like Hayek and Buchanan sought to put trigger locks on democracy in the form of constitutional constraints on majority rule whereas radical libertarians like Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard sought to disarm democracy altogether from violating property rights. This conception leaves no room for any analysis of or support for democratic decision-making. Since the end of the Cold War, the right has continued to believe this absolutist property rights argument was extremely important even after the Red Menace had been slain and so is willing to do anything, including throwing democracy under the bus, to defend property rights. As Wilkinson puts it:

And that’s why ideological free-market conservatives tend to be so accommodating to, if not exactly comfortable with, populist white identity politics. In their minds, mundane left-right differences about tax rates and the generosity of the welfare state are recast as a Manichean clash between the light of free enterprise and the darkness of socialist expropriation. This, in turn, has made it seem morally okay, maybe even urgently necessary, to do whatever it takes—bunking down with racists, aggressively redistricting, inventing paper-thin pretexts for voting rules that disproportionately hurt Democrats, whatever—to prevent majorities from voting themselves a bigger slice of the pie.

In his follow up, after Somin pointed out that irrational factors like partisanship are more likely to influence a voter’s decision than complicated moral theories such as property rights, Wilkinson attempted to make this argument more plausible by giving the hypothetical example of a white working-class republican voter who, while not fully libertarian, uses his thin knowledge of libertarian property rights absolutism as a form of motivated reasoning justifying his erosion of democratic norms:

Burt is a moderately politically engaged mechanical engineer with ordinary civics-class ideas about democracy, as well as a strong distaste for paying his taxes. (He wants to buy a boat.) One day Burt picks up Atlas Shrugged on the recommendation of a friend, likes it a lot, and spends a few weeks poking around libertarian precincts of the Internet, where he encounters a number of libertarian arguments, like Rand’s, that say that taxation violates a basic, morally inviolable right. Burt happens to find these arguments extremely convincing, especially if he’s been idly shopping for boats online. Moreover, these arguments strongly suggest to Burt that democracy is a dangerous institution by which parasitic slackers steal things from hyper-competent hard workers, like Burt.

Now, none of this leads Burt to think of himself as a “libertarian.” He thinks of himself as a Lutheran, a moderate Republican, and a very serious Whovian. He’s suspicious of “free trade.” He’s “tough on crime.” Burt would never disrespect “our troops” by opposing a war, and he thinks legalizing drugs is bananas. Make no mistake: Burt is not a libertarian. But selective, motivated exposure to a small handful of libertarian arguments has left Burt even more indignant about taxes, and a bit sour on democracy—an altogether new attitude that makes him feel naughtily iconoclastic and a wee bit brave. Over time, the details of these arguments have faded for Burt, but the sentiments around taxation, redistribution, and democracy have stuck.

Ayn Rand and the other libertarian thinkers Burt encountered in his brief flush of post-Atlas Shrugged enthusiasm wanted him to be indignant about redistribution and wanted him to be sour on democracy. He drew the inferences their arguments were designed to elicit. The fact that he’s positively hostile to other elements of the libertarian package can’t mean he hasn’t been influenced by libertarian ideas.

Let’s suppose that, a few years later, a voter-ID ballot initiative comes up in Burt’s state. The local news tells Burt that this will likely make it harder for Democrats to win by keeping poorer people without IDs away from the polls. Burt rightly surmises that these folks are likely to vote, if they can, to take even more of his money in taxes. A policy that would make it less likely for those people to cast a ballot sounds great to Burt. Then it occurs to him, with a mild pang of Christian guilt, that this is a pretty selfish attitude. But then Burt remembers those very convincing arguments about the wickedness of democratic redistribution, and it makes him feel better about supporting the voter-ID requirement. Besides, he gives at church. So he votes for the initiative come election day.

That’s influence. And it’s not trifling, if there are a lot of Burts. I think there are a lot of Burts. Even if the partisan desire to stick it to Democrats is doing most of the work in driving Burt’s policy preference, the bit of lightly-held libertarian property rights absolutism that got into Burt’s system can still be decisive. If it gives him moral permission to act on partisan or racial or pecuniary motives that he might otherwise suppress, the influence might not be so small.

The problem here is not just, as Somin says, that this dances around the issue that people like Burt have become less libertarian over time and so it seems silly to blame libertarianism for his actions. It sounds as if Wilkinson has never actually talked to a populist-leaning voter like Burt. If you do, you will not find that Burt is skeptical of democracy or sees himself as defending some important ideal of laissez-faire capitalism against irrational socialist voters who are using democracy to destroy it. It is more likely that you will find that Burt sees himself as defending the “silent majority” who democracy should rightly represent from evil liberal, socialist and “cultural Marxist” elites who are undermining democracy, and how Trump will stop all the elitist liberals in the courts and media from alienating the common man with common sense by “draining the swamp.”

Read, for example, Rothbard’s original call for libertarians to ally with nationalist right-wing populists. In it, you’ll find no mention of how small “d” democracy attacks property rights because voters are rationally ignorant, and you won’t find, to quote Wilkinson, skepticism towards “a perspective that bestows dignity upon democracy and the common citizen’s democratic role.” Instead, you’ll find that the “grassroots” of the right-wing common man like the secessionists and neo-confederates who are defending property rights against the “socialist tyranny” of the “beltway elites,” Clintons, and the Federal Reserve. Modern adherents to this Rothbardian populist strategy define populism as “a political strategy that aims to mobilize a largely alienated base of the populace against out-of-control elites.” It sounds more like a radically majoritarian, Jacksonian screed about how the voice of the people needs to be truly represented.

Importantly, what the libertarian populists are trying to do is take the folk democratic intuitions which populist right-wingers have, intuitions upon which most peoples’ beliefs in the legitimacy of democracy rely, and channel those intuitions in a more thinly “libertarian” direction. Unfortunately, this is why many modern right-libertarians in the style of Ron Paul are impotent against white supremacists and often try to cozy up to them: because an important part of their strategy is to regurgitate the vulgar democratic rhetoric in which populists believe.

By contrast, modern skeptics of democracy in libertarian circles (or “classical liberal” or “cultural libertarian,” whichever semantic game Wilkinson wants to play to make his argument coherent), such as Ilya Somin, Bryan Caplan, and Jason Brennan, fundamentally undermine those folk democratic intuitions. While right-wing populists believe that the “common man” with his “common sense” knows better how the world works than the evil conniving academic elite does, the libertarian skeptic of democracy points out that the majority of voters know next to nothing and fail to be competent voters due to their rational ignorance. While populist voters believe that the voice of the majority should rule our governing structure, public choice tells us that “majority will” is mostly an illusionary concept. While populist voters believe that the “trigger locks” like courts are evil impediments to the people’s will and regularly attack them, libertarian skeptics of democracy view such institutions as the last line of defense against the irrational and ignorant mob of hooligan voters.

In fact, if people listened to folks like Somin and Brennan, populism of the sort that we’ve seen on the right would be an impossible position to maintain. This is partially why Rothbard largely rejected the public-choice analysis on which scholarship like Somin’s depends.

To try to link modern public choice-inspired skepticism of democracy with populism of any form, even in its most pseudo-libertarian form of the late Rothbard, is to grossly misunderstand populism, classical liberalism, and libertarianism. It seems rather odd to blame Somin and company for the rise of a political ideology which their arguments render incoherent. A Nancy MacLean-like conspiracy to undermine majority rule doesn’t have much of anything to do with the modern right when they think they are the majority who’s being oppressed by elites.

Neither is this some trivial matter of simply assigning blame incorrectly. The problem with populism on the right which has eroded American democracy is not that it thinks democracy is wrong, most populists naively have a lot of folk intuitions which imply some sort of vague proceduralist justification of strongly majority rule. Rather, they’ve taken the majoritarian, quasi-Jacksonian rhetoric (rhetoric to which libertarians other than Rothbard and classical liberals alike have mostly been opposed) which democrats often use and weaponized it in a manner that undermines the non-majoritarian norms on which liberal democracy is dependent for functioning. For someone like Wilkinson, who defends liberal democracy vigorously, misunderstanding the very nature of the threat seems like a particularly grave error as it renders his arguments impotent against it.

Democratic Majoritarianism versus Democratic Norms

In part, I think Wilkinson falls for this trap because he makes a conceptual confusion between the non-majoritarian liberal ideals on which democracy depends—towards which most libertarians are sympathetic—and democracy’s institutional form as majority rule. I’ve described this as a distinction between “institutional democracy” and “philosophical democracy” in the past, and have argued that one can uphold philosophical democratic norms while being skeptical of the current institutions in which they are embedded. Wilkinson argues, citing an article by Samuel Freeman, that libertarian absolutist conception of property is inherently illiberal as it implies a sort of propertarian, feudalist order. Of course, Wilkinson neglects to mention a response to Freeman by Peter Boettke and Rosolino Candela claiming that Freeman misunderstands the role property rights play in libertarian theory.

I am not an absolutist natural property rights-oriented libertarian at all, however in their defense, it is wrong for Wilkinson to think that belief in absolutist property rights—even to the point that one becomes an anarchist like Rothbard—means one is necessarily willing to do anything to undermine democracy to defend property rights. As Somin mentions, not all libertarian absolutists in property completely disbelieved in government like Nozick, but more importantly one can be an anarchist who is strongly skeptical of democracy for largely propertarian reasons but still believes, given that we have democracy, certain norms need to be upheld.

Norms such as equality before the law, equal footing in public elections (which Gerrymandering violates), and equal access to political power (which Voter ID laws violate). Just because one believes neo-Lockean arguments about property rights are valid does not mean one cannot coherently also endorse broadly Hayekian accounts of non-majoritarian liberal norms which make it possible for democracies to function (what Wilkinson calls “trigger locks”), even if in particular instances it might result in some property rights violations.

In other words, one can be skeptical that institutional democracy is moral for libertarian reasons while still embracing a broadly philosophically democratic outlook, or simply believe it is preferable to keep some democratic norms intact given that we have a democracy as an nth best possible solution.

What Wilkinson takes issue with is how the modern right attacks the sort of norms which make democracy work, norms with which no libertarian ought to take issue with given that we have a democracy as they are precisely the “trigger locks” which Hayek called for (even if libertarians want much stronger trigger locks to the point of effectively disarming governments). To think these norms are identical with how many libertarians think the specific voting mechanisms which democracy features are flawed is a conceptual confusion.

An Alternative Account of the Relationship between Libertarianism and the Right’s Pathologies

To me, it seems that Wilkinson’s attempt to shoehorn the somewhat nuanced (by the standards of electoral politics, if not by the standards of academic philosophical argumentation) philosophical arguments of Nozick and Rothbard into an account of the rise of Trumpian politics seems fundamentally inconsistent with the way we know voters act. Even if voters sometimes use indirect intellectual influences as a way to reason about their voting preferences in a motivated manner likes Wilkinson imagines, it’s not really explaining why they need to use such motivated reasoning in the first place. Here’s an alternative account:

During the Cold War, as Wilkinson notes, libertarians and conservatives had a common enemy in communism and socialism. As a result, fusionism happened and libertarians and conservatives started cheering for the same political team. After the end of the cold war, fusionism continued and libertarians found it hard to stop cheering for the “red” team for the same tribalist reasons we know non-libertarian irrational voters remain fiercely loyal to their political parties. Today, even though the GOP is becoming extremely less libertarian, some libertarians find it hard to stop cheering for the GOP for the same reasons New England Patriots fans still cheer for Tom Brady after the deflation scandal: old tribalist affiliations are hard to break.

The only real link between libertarians and modern right-wing pathologies are that some voters who have vaguely libertarian ideas still cheer for populist right-wingers in the GOP because they’re irrational hooligans who hate the left for tribalist reasons. This accords better with the fact voters aren’t all that ideological, that they (unlike Burt who’s interested in just lowering his own taxes selfishly) vote based off of perceived national interest more than self-interest, and how we know generally voters behave in partisan tribalist patterns. But this doesn’t make libertarianism any more culpable for the rise of the modern right’s erosion of democratic norms any more than (and probably less than given its limited influence) any other ideological current which has swayed the right to any degree.

How does this make sense of Wilkinson’s only real, non-hypothetical evidence of libertarian influence on the modern GOP, that some right wing politicians like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul sometimes cite Ayn Rand and Rothbard? Politicians sometimes use intellectual influences haphazardly to engage in certain sorts of motivated-reasoning to cater to subsets of voters, even though they overwhelmingly disagree with those thinkers. This why Paul Ryan first praised Ayn Rand, to get some voters who like Rand, and then later emphasized how much he rejected Rand. This is why Rand Paul cites libertarians simply to virtue-signal to some subset of libertarianish voters while constantly supporting extremely un-libertarian policies. Ted Cruz has said that conservatives “should talk about policy with a Rawlsian lens,” but nobody thinks that Rawls has been particularly influential over Cruz’s policy decisions. All politicians do when they cite an intellectual influence is try to play to cater to the tribalist, pseudo-intellectual inklings of some nerdy voters (“I read the same guys as you do, therefore I’m on your team”), it usually doesn’t mean they really were deeply influenced by or even understand the thinker they cite.

Libertarians and Classical Liberals

Let me conclude this article by addressing a side-issue of how to parse out the distinction between classical liberals and libertarians. One of Wilkinson’s ways of clarifying his disagreement with Somin was by claiming that there is something fundamentally different between “libertarianism” and “classical liberalism.” As Wilkinson puts it:

Absolutist rights-based libertarianism isn’t really part of this conversation at all. It’s effectively an argument against liberalism and the legitimacy of liberal political institutions, which is why it’s so confusing that the folk taxonomy lumps libertarianism and classical liberalism together, and sets them against standard left-liberalism. The dispute between liberalism and hardcore libertarianism concerns whether it’s possible to justify democratic political authority at all. The dispute within liberalism, about the status of economic rights and the legitimate scope of democratic decision-making, is much smaller than that.

Thus, Wilkinson seems to think that libertarians think political authority can’t be justified given that property rights are absolute and that classical liberals just think economic liberties should be included as liberal liberties. However, in my view this taxonomy of ideologies is still confused. Many who typically count as “libertarians” do not fit neatly into such a schema and need to be ignored.

You need to ignore significant portions of libertarians who still endorse property rights but think they are insufficient to a full conception of liberty and endorse other liberal freedoms, like the aforementioned Peter Boettke paper. You need to ignore intuitionist libertarians who do not endorse an absolutist conception of property rights but still dispute that political authority is justified at all, like Mike Huemer. You need to ignore consequentialists who do not embrace absolutist property rights as a philosophical position but think some sort of absolutist property-based anarchist society is desirable against liberal democracy, like David Friedman and Don Lavoie’s students. You need to ignore “thick” left libertarians like Charles Johnson and Gary Chartier who endorse libertarian views of rights yet think they imply far more egalitarian leftist positions. Further, you’d need to claim that most people the public readily identifies as some of the most influential libertarians of all time, like Hayek and Milton Friedman, are not actually libertarian which obscures rather than clarifies communication. Basically, the distinction is only useful if you’re trying to narrowly clarify disagreements between someone like JS Mill and someone like Rothbard.

I agree that there are distinctions between “libertarians” and “classical liberals” that can be drawn and the folk taxonomy that treats them creates a lot of confusion. However, it seems obvious if one talks to most libertarians, there is more going on in their ideology than just “property rights are absolute” and that there is a strong intermingled influence between even the most radical of anarchist libertarians and classical liberals. It is also true that there are a small minority of libertarians who are thoroughly illiberal (like Hoppe), but it seems better to just call such odd illiberal aberrations “propertarian” and still treat most libertarians as a particularly radical subset of classical liberals.

Ultimately, however, I think this taxonomical dispute, while interesting, isn’t particularly closely related to the problem at hand: the relationship between right-wing populism and libertarianism.

Remembering school

For reasons both inexplicable and ordinary much of my prepubescent memory is off-limits. I can remember leaving Washington for Northern California, in limbo in the back of what might have been a Toyota Highlander, watching streetlights illuminate every fifth second. I remember combing through my mom’s boyfriend’s horror collection, and then biking breathlessly through my neighborhood, conjuring up xenomorphs, Yautjas and Predaliens on my tail for a few hours every day. I remember capturing lizards and salamanders outdoors, sneaking them into my room and losing them in the house, never to be found again.

And, just recently, I remember being extremely bored.

Most of my friends could quote me as claiming that I never get bored. Apparently, I used to be. But it was only one thing: I was bored with school. It got a little better when my teacher suggested I skip third grade. (And a little better recently, when my sister took a year-long break from studying in Santa Barbara: we will now graduate the same year although she’s two years older. I expect to never let her forget it.) But by and large, I wanted out.

I remember excelling on my tests but having essentially zero interest in what the board had determined to be necessary cirricula. And the classes that they pressed on me, I only wanted to snoop the outskirts. Although math is probably my weakest subject now in middle school it was my best. My professor, Mr. Sharp, would play Apocalyptica until everyone took their seats. He wanted to expose us equally to the Pythagorean theorem and the versatility of the cello. I would challenge him to explain the philosophy behind what we were learning, to just below his breaking point. In the beginning I would ask questions because I thought mathematics was too abstract to be saying anything at all useful or real; in the end, I would ask questions mostly because my classmates got a kick out of it. Much of the time I was trying to understand the context of the formula, an approach which, I think, made reading Thomas Kuhn so fulfilling to me later. Mr. Sharp both loved and loathed me. Once a week we wouldn’t complete the lesson. Nothing quite compared to that environment and I haven’t enjoyed a math class since.

What I remembered just this morning was the real sense of a lack of freedom. Not only in school but in pre-adolescence as a whole. I was allowed to watch R-Rated films, sure, and go on the computer to play Neopets. I could ride my bike at night sometimes, and if I wasn’t allowed I could sneak out. But what I wanted was that radical freedom, the kind that Sartre says I already had. There were too many authority figures and not even the freedom to choose between them. Choice is limited, and American democracy itself didn’t extend to me. And where were my representatives? I couldn’t vote for them. They governed me regardless of my input.

Maybe it’s a good thing that 9 year olds don’t vote. That would be a massive voting bloc for whichever candidate is willing to promise an extra hour of television before bed. Yet I remember feeling powerless as a kid, and astonished that no politicians were out trying to represent us. I realized that people must forget as they get older, and they must think, erroneously, that it’s good that children don’t have the same set of freedoms as the adult population once they join the latter. I remember promising myself with as much moral force as I could muster that when I became an adult, I wouldn’t forget: I would represent kids and fight for their freedom from the servitude of parents and teachers.

Well, I forgot. Until now. And my younger self was right — it now seems perfectly right to me that the youth be granted less freedom than the elder. Does this make me a class traitor of sorts? So be it.

But, what I do see now is that the education system is not serving young people very well. The people in my classes still do not want to be there. The incentives are all messed up for test-taking. Although I went to a very creative and nurturing high school, much of my time in higher education has been “unlearning” things I was taught in lower levels and am being taught concurrently. This has not been so much learning that what I was taught was false, though there has been some of that, but moreso learning that what I was taught was an incomplete picture, open to questioning, and often tainted with ideological bias. The things I have studied outside of class have made me better informed and, I would say, more genuinely knowledgeable than the textbooks inside of class.

The story David gives about “unschooling” his children provides one alternative to the standard model. I have friends, though, that demonstrate the non-universality of this option. Part of the solution lies in fostering an independent mind, and part of it on behalf of the child. David describes learning more about English from reading Kipling’s poetry in his free time than in class. I had read the entire Stephen King pre-2011 corpus before entering high school, and I don’t think any sort of class on writing could have improved on that. David also criticizes the idea that there is a single subset of knowledge that ought to be taught to all people, as our education system performs now. For a more extensive criticism of this, and even more radical, I suggest Feyerabend.

I don’t share the sentiment of my much younger self in radical freedom for children. I have effectively broken that promise, but a promise to oneself is, I have to think, less binding if one person is 10 and the other is 20 and the two persons are the same. The solution to the problem, though, at least of boredom in education, is much clearer now. Though of course, the clarity came from reading material outside of school.