Liberty and pro-choice arguments

Abortion never struck me as a liberty issue. Fundamental ideas that inform libertarian thinking don’t pick a “side” for or against abortion, late-term or otherwise. Abortion is a random issue. But my pro-choice credentials face greater and greater scrutiny as I pal around right-libertarians and conservatives, and I’ve had to re-investigate my own decision-making process here.

I find each political side — abortion jurisprudence — wholly unconvincing. When a sperm and egg becomes “life” is so outside thousands of colloquial years of the word, there’s nothing analytic in the definition to illuminate policy choices; I don’t think medical science is going to answer the philosophical question of the concept of “life” either (“clinical death” violates what should be commonsense notions of death); etcetera. And then, of course, the pro-choice camp (which emphasizes parental choice) rarely cares about parental choice afterward, like in education, and the pro-life camp is an absurdly broad name for their legitimate concerns. The philosophy of abortion is probably interesting — the politics is a waste of time.

Here is what, I think, enforces my libertarian advocacy of choice. I am probably more radically pro-choice than most people I know, but this provides a basic defense.

If the question of whether or not life is “worth it” is a sensible question in the first place, then it is not one that can be answered a priori. Life is an inherently qualitative experience. This is clear enough by the fact that some people would rather choose to have died at age 60 after having lived to age 80, if we take their judgment as the best authority on their own life’s worth (and I do, and I think we should). Therefore, in advance, its not knowable if a person’s life will be worth it. People generally do enjoy living (more than they would otherwise?); this might not be the case if, for instance, the Nazis won and we all were born in camps. This is an accidental property of the current world. We live in a generally worthwhile time period, suggesting life is generally going to be determined to be worth it by each individual.

Since the worth of life is not a priori, the best guess in advance is that from local knowledge. Parents have the most local knowledge about the future of their child’s immediate life, before it gets unpredictable and the knowledge gets divided by millions of individuals who will impact their life and also understand ongoing trends. Therefore, parents are the best option to make a judgment call about whether or not their child’s life will be worth it — if they can care for it, if they will have a genetic problem, etc. Not politicians. Not voters. Not interest groups concerned with in utero life in the abstract.

Thus, parental choice.

It’s been said this is an “anti-human” argument. Lots of us came from lower income or impoverished households, myself included. Our lives are still found worthwhile. Why strawman, as if we’re in countries with terrible childhood obesity, malnutrition, drug addiction, gang violence?

It’s true that in general life is found to be worthwhile. But there’s no Leibniz-like principle that it must be. Nor does the aggregate data that people do, often, qualify life as worth living, mean that random individuals overcome parental ownership of the best localized knowledge.

This, I think, is a libertarian argument for choice. It depends on the point that abortion is a unique sort of event — we’re not talking about an old man’s caretaker, who must have the best local knowledge about whether or not we should pull the plug. The question need not arise about who makes important choices once someone is cognizant and autonomous. The argument rides on the point that there’s a vacuum in decision-making autonomy for fetuses by their very intrinsic nature, and we have to make proxy choices in advance.

We give parents plenty of other choices by law. When we are debating potential- or possible-beings still in the womb, before our language game definitively identifies them as “alive,” choice should default to the parents, and I should have no right to the woman’s body to make choices for her about a possible-being I will never see, feed, care for or otherwise worry about except to force the woman to take care of it for nearly two decades.

“If you work for peace, stop paying for war”

The most omnipresent slogan of libertarianism in the digital age is the one that argues, or maybe just declares, taxation is A, theft is B, and A is B. Everyone has a gut feeling about being stolen from or coerced into losing his or her property, and so whether it’s extortion or theft anyone is apt to understand what “taxation is theft” means on a primitive level.

Even if anyone can understand what it means, it seems there’s little agreement about what it encourages — since, “the government’s up to no good again” doesn’t really have a telos behind it and pitching a preferred state of arrangements is useless without appropriate connected action.

I was thinking about this, and ran into a short essay by Gina Lunori that looks to answer the question, with the same frustration.

I heard someone praise a conscientious objector who refused
to fight in Iraq, and I asked him if he was still paying taxes. He told
me that the government hadn’t created a “conscientious objector”
category for taxpayers, so he was sorry to say he wasn’t able to
stop paying. As if you only have a conscience when the
government issues you a permit for one!

I told him I know people who’ve stopped paying their taxes
without waiting for permission, just by lowering their income and
living below the tax threshold. He told me that he wasn’t prepared
to make that kind of sacrifice. If I had a pocket calculator I could
have told you the maximum price of his conscience. If I had a
quality postal scale I probably still couldn’t discern its weight.

Like Walter Mitty these armchair peaceniks burn their draft
cards in their daydreams, meanwhile the people who serve in the
military in their place are equipped, and shipped, and paid for by Walter Mitty’s tax dollar.

The biggest obstacles to change aren’t the few who are
abusing the government, but the many who are submitting to it and
facilitating the abuse.

A government that loved liberty would be trying at every
opportunity to expand and protect that liberty. Our government
tries everything it can to evade the few protections that have
survived since its founding. Look at how shamelessly it has
whisked people off to Cuba — Cuba! — in order to sweep them out
from under the protection of the Constitution.

A person who loves liberty would not shovel coal into a
tyrant’s engine just to earn a higher salary. Why does a person in
the United States who claims to love freedom, and who is
intelligent enough to understand that the government is freedom’s
enemy, still feel that it’s worthy of respect to be a taxpayer, and the
more salary — and therefore the more taxes — the more respect?
If you love liberty, if you hate war, you should at once withdraw
your support from the government. Withdrawing your moral
support isn’t enough — it’s your practical support that the
government feeds on — it doesn’t give a damn what your opinions
are.

This is something you must do because you know the
difference between right and wrong and you know, when you look
the facts straight in the face, that when you willingly give practical
support to the government you participate in its wrongs. But this is
more than a matter of personal integrity.

Imagine the power of this statement. What if every person
who felt that the government had lost their moral support also
withdrew their practical support? What if only one in ten did? It
would be the beginning of the end. It would be that nonviolent
revolution we’re praying for.

Maybe the best tests of intellectual integrity are consistency and hypocrisy. How do the people that swear off voting as aggression feel about funneling taxed income to the government to enable its aggression? How do the people that mantra “taxation is theft” feel about surrendering their goods, each and every year, in a way they would never, ever tolerate from a burglar?

What should young libertarians do?

(Continuing the tradition of not finishing a draft and instead creating a whole new post.)

Several months ago I was able to present an essay at symposiums in Georgia and Utah, confident that I was entering the academic world, beginning to make connections. My academic references are even better than my professional. I know I would like teaching because I love tutoring, and I can guess with mild confidence that I wouldn’t get bored with the same material.

Four years of college seemed to be moving me toward grad school and teaching. But now, I’m part of a pool of internship concurrent- and post-students working academic programs, and I couldn’t imagine their lives. I’m one of few activists in the group, where my job is talking to non-libertarians, and theirs is all too often preaching to the choir. Programs like these build our professional skills and cultivate young leaders for the philosophy, but near everyone chose to go the route of policy instead of activism. Why? Is ground work too manually exhausting? Do libertarians lack good people skills? (I don’t even need to ask that, really.) Is activism considered “lowly,” and policy work prestigious? Are there not enough liberty-aligned activism groups and an imbalance of policy/media organizations?

Our project at my group right now is getting good people elected. That requires doorknockers to talk to people. Where are all the young libertarians to get out the vote? Waiting in line for a policy job, it seems. This is not to reject division of labor and say that the academic side isn’t contributing to the success of liberty — we’re winning all the time, about as much as we’re losing. It’s to say that the kid in the classroom who’s always arguing, obnoxiously and persistently, the libertarian case, is suspiciously missing out in the field. The people who can quote Mises and Hayek ad nauseam aren’t prepared to help get a candidate elected who isn’t Mises or Hayek. They are prepared, however, to read more Mises and Hayek.

In politics, nothing moves unless it’s pushed. We need movement, bodies, material, out in the neighborhoods and city blocks; words on a page can only do so much. And maybe this anti-intellectual cynicism will extinguish as the time grows since I last read Feyerabend. But for now, young libertarians are highly frustrating. I’ve tasted victory. And the thing preventing new victories is nothing but a lack of people.

Philosophy of science and free speech

Here’s a link to an article I wrote just published in FEE.

I consider this part of an ongoing, gradual effort to incorporate Paul Feyerabend into the liberty canon. It’s probably a mistake, but I’m doing it anyway.

I also want to give a shoutout to the person that commented I’m “pretending that Ayn Rand didn’t exist.” Of course I know what Ayn Rand is, that’s the island next to Great Britain.

Between anarchy and minarchism: the redistributive state

While sometimes we think of ideologies in strict terms of left and right, more frequently we look at political schemes that incorporate a statism dimension. Big government is possible for both conservatives and progressives; so, maybe, is minarchy. If minarchy is possible, and achievable, it must attain popular support less it be thwarted by revolution or contrarian voting. From this, maybe it makes sense that a minarchism utilize fundamental values from each side, in order to be pragmatic and achieve democratic (and thereby stable) ends. Here there may even be room for an ultraminarchy.

In Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick defended a minimal state slightly more restrained than traditional classical liberalism. This minimal state arises through natural market forces from statelessness, and serves to enforce contracts and produce monopolistic law. Nozick, although countering his fellow academic Rawls, was also responding to the natural law anarchists, who criticized coercive states for violating human rights — which, in many interpretations, boil down to rights of property.

However, before arriving at the minimal, night-watchman state, Nozick articulates an ultraminimal state, i.e. a private protection agency that claims exclusionary right over the use of force for a given geographical area. It has its voluntary clients; the extension of coverage to others makes the agency a “state” as it introduces taxation.

In ASU the state is an entity formed from an invisible hand to produce heavily libertarian functions of government like protecting rights. Because of this, the minarchist state was a refuge for archist libertarians to claim as their own, relatively consistent with centuries of Western liberal thought. Accordingly, in response, the anarchists question the viability of a lasting minimal state — cue David Friedman in Machinery of Freedom:

“It took about 150 years, starting with a Bill of Rights that reserved to the states and the people all powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government, to produce a Supreme Court willing to rule that growing corn to feed to your own hogs is instate commerce and can therefore be regulated by Congress.”

Government grows; modern government grows really, really fast. Minimalism hasn’t seemed to last. So the question is, what sorts of minimal governance could last?

The traditional ultraminimal and minimal state are concerned with, as stated, traditionally libertarian public functions such as police, the judiciary, and possibly roads and maybe even national defense. The problem with these utilities is that they feel wildly inadequate to the modern American used to entitlements, welfare, or a president. The privatization of nearly all federal departments is seen as wild enough for John Oliver to entertain millions of viewers, at the blight of Gary Johnson, and make hardcore libertarianism a losing electoral program. The contemporary world is too complicated, or our enemies are too powerful, or the market is too corrupt for the reinstitution of laissez-faire in the 21st century.

Nevertheless we want a smaller government, or no government, and losing to the tide isn’t a good death; we’d rather fight, and we’d rather win. A lasting minarchism satisfies the purposes of limited governance — liberty, protection, and preserving the benefits of the market — while sufficiently completing basic democratic demands, lest it erode into statism or collapse internally. (Keep in mind that anarchism, at least this week, is not a winning platform.)

Here’s what I think lies between anarchism and minarchism: the redistributive state. We can make a couple assumptions which are likely true: (1) every public service currently offered by the state could be provided (and, maybe, could be provided better) by the market and non-coercive communities instead, and (2) the entitlement theory of distributive justice offered by Nozick is correct, i.e. holdings are just if acquired by peaceful initial acquisition, voluntary exchange or gifting, or rectification of a previous unjust acquisition. Taking these assumptions, and leveraging the fact that the American populace will not currently settle for brutalist governance, the redistributive state (RS) seeks only to collect tax revenues and redistribute money progressively.

Instead of offering vouchers, EBT, or public options like housing, schools, security and roads, a RS would only tax its citizens and reallocate revenue based on some progressive variables like income, net worth or consumption. (These details are less important, for now.) The only administration is something like an IRS, Census Bureau and investigation unit suffused together, with over ninety percent of the current staff eliminated, with tax escapees adjudicated in private courts and sent to private prisons or some other form of punishment.

An RS violates rights based on a Lockean conception; it also does something which sounds pretty socialist to right-wing circles. For this reason, though minarchist, it may not be libertarian. However, the pragmatic element is also highly utilitarian, which may interest bleeding-hearts; and, being essentially one big welfare program, it may intrigue American leftists currently eyeing universal healthcare and socialized education. We would do well to keep in mind that Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were not averse to basic income either — a redistributive state keeps a UBI and abandons the active functions of the state. I think it is obvious that, in a situation where we are already giving a person $X in the form of schools, transfer payments, utilities, roads, defense, firefighters, planning, retirement funds, mail service, etc. etc., instead we should just give that person $X to spend however they see fit. If anyone disagrees, they are probably too authoritarian to consider minarchism in any scenario.

The RS has many benefits over our contemporary goverment. In the first case, the reductionist perspective of right-wing anarchists — that the state is essentially a conquer-tax-and-redistribute machine — is validated, and a lot of the mysterious machinery and bootlicking, ivory-tower political philosophy is dissolved. (And mindless political science about the Rousseauian general will collapses.) And, for the Marxists, their critique of the state as a tool of the capitalist class expires, since the state now greatly serves labor more than capital. Some of the income of the upper classes is directly allocated to the lower classes. Also, the state ceases to be paternalistic — it no longer chooses what food is available through SNAP, or issues health and safety warnings; it just straight-up hands out the money without assuming value for consumers. It doesn’t determine what is taught in schools, or what color the roads are, or what country gets bombed on Tuesday.

Perhaps best of all the RS almost completely eliminates bureaucracy. With one small administrative branch which functions like a hyper-specialized agency, there is little room or need for massive proliferation. Likely, all seats will be elected positions along with some underlings, with the marginal tax brackets pre-established constitutionally. But, that can all be figured out later.

Now, there are some obvious flaws for an RS. First of all, the very wealthy have little incentive to stay in a redistributive state. Their money is seized without visible benefit for themselves, like roads or security. They have to buy those things on their own dime. The only solution to this I can think of is that, in a society with less state involvement, community ties will be closer — the rich will want to pay their “fair share.” This is the Hoppean trust in private charity, except that it’s now “forced private” charity. Also, taxes would be much, much lower than the current situation and hopefully tolerable. The taxes are also going directly to other citizens instead of politician’s wallets, oil tycoons and potassium chloride. Furthermore, they’re paying to live in — the government still has a coercive monopoly on land — the freest nation in the world. An RS is significantly freer than the other statist regimes, and less stressful. Government plays no role at all in everyday life.

One other flaw — maybe an inherent flaw of government brightly illuminated by a raw redistributive state — is what Murray Rothbard saw as an eternal tension between net tax-payers and net tax-consumers. To the extent that the RS administration is elected, and to the extent that politicians have platforms, a lot rests on whether or not taxes will be raised/redistribution will increase or not. The left will continually be concerned with income inequality, regardless of whether or not the poor can afford sustenance. The goalposts might keep climbing. Dialectically, the very wealthy will want to keep the maximum amount of their money, regardless of my arguments above. Raw societal tensions like these require a dynamic form of governance, with fluctuations in party dominance, but the RS is too minimalist to feature such parties or other contrivances. The only hope here, I guess, is that the tension will be less than in the current system. And very likely it will be. (Also, the market will correct much of the gratuitous wealth diparity.)

In conclusion, a redistributive state would be baldly organized around theft (in a libertarian interpretation) and using people as means rather than ends. To that extent it is hardly libertarian. It achieves Nozick’s end of minimal government but distorts the typical functions we correlate with small government. Still, it’s ultraminarchical, preserves innovation, balances right-wing virtues like liberty and industry and left-wing virtues like equality and positive freedom, and, for a radical populace not quite keen on revolution, politically viable. It serves welfarist functions demanded by 21st century citizens without the authoritarian, corporatist monster of the present. Also, no one starves. For all of this, even if a redistributive state is not perfection incarnate, it seems far better than the current system, and provides such a culturally-celibate political framework to possibly achieve acceptance in totally disparate societies from the United States. I don’t advocate a redistributive state quite yet, but I think it’s a useful, radical place to look for bipartisan solutions to a complicated and overwhelmingly statist world.

I’m pretty sure I’m the first one to suggest a state organized singularly around redistribution of citizen wealth, either because it’s too stupid or it’s too grossly unattractive, so I welcome all feedback. But, if voluntarist institutions are possible at all, this implies all the state is is a redistributor anyway. The idea of an RS just accepts this conclusion and makes it efficient. Keep in mind I haven’t elaborated on the many complications of UBI, which is an entire field to articulate more extensively. For now the only question is would it work.

Campaign life

I’m working on (not with) a state assembly campaign right now, traveling, meeting people, grinding. Two months ago, post-graduation from Chico State, I roadtripped to Portland and Seattle and above, burned out the last of my apartment lease — fighting one last Waterloo against a bedbug armada, dipped to San Jose, said why not and flew to Greece and Italy (just to strangle the guy directing the Suspiria remake), stayed in Athens, Mytilini, Eressos, Corinth, Olympia, had a disaster flight into Sicily, finished in Rome and returned to Silicon Valley, slept two nights and drove to Santa Barbara … got a call “Hey, can you be in Wisconsin on Monday?” … slept a night and drove back to San Jose, American Airlines’d to Green Bay and beat my feet for two weeks of calluses and drove to the swamp, YALCON for four days in Virginia, drove back and now it’s back to knocking doors until the mist rolls in.

Travel is fun. Campaigns are fast. Ringing doorbells in humid Wisconsin is the opposite of tutoring logic in an air-conditioned Californian college. I majored in political science and philosophy, and learned more about philosophy from reading independently than studying in university. I learned more about American politics from listening to Non Phixion than listening to a professor. And now, amidst all the blood, sweat, tears, pus and cum that go into a political campaign, I can learn more about how politicians win, and how power gets distributed, than generalizations about voting patterns, polls and platforms. Life is a lot of fun — sterile dreams of grad school seem very distant, if only for the moment. Redbull and protein bars look and taste and feel much closer. Greetings from the road!

Feyerabend: Westernization and culture

There is a short thought, quoted by Paul K. Feyerabend in “Notes on Relativism”, that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Paul, ever critical of Western rationalism, is commenting at length on the expansion of (Western, capitalist) industrial scientific society to the margins of the developing world and minority cultures. He quotes François Jacob from The Possible and the Actual:

In humans … natural diversity is … strengthened by cultural diversity, which allows mankind to better adapt to a variety of life conditions and to better use the resources of the world. In this area, however, we are now threatened with monotony and dullness. The extraordinary variety which humans have put into their beliefs, their customs and their institutions is dwindling every day. Whether people die out out physically or become transformed under the influence of the model provided by industrial civilization, many cultures are disappearing. If we do not want to live in a world covered with a single technological, pidgin-speaking, uniform way of life — that is, in a very boring world — we have to be careful. We have to use our imagination better.

Prima facie, I want to say, the general message is correct: the world is slowly homogenizing, and homogeneity is boring. People no longer just consult their local markets and preserve culture organically; we buy and sell all over. Although Dallas and San Francisco have very different cultures, to some extent Los Angeles looks like Seattle looks like St. Louis looks like New York City… looks like Athens looks like downtown Rome, etc. This doesn’t explain what we should do — neither Jacob as quoted, nor Feyerabend in his entire book explain how we should “use our imagination better” (which is what makes this paragraph so unsettling). Feyerabend offers some views in other writings, e.g., using the state to intervene with the success of the sciences.

Feyerabend can be interpreted in a plethora of contradictory ways. Though co-opted by the political left (perhaps to their own detriment), far-right nationalists, primitivists and humanists can all find theoretical support in his ideas. He seems to have written surprisingly little specifically about capitalism, although there are plenty of implications in his anthropology; maybe understanding his views on political economy could provide the path to extracting a substantive political philosophy. In any case, the concern of Jacob and Feyerabend is a consequence of, to a large extent, the West’s powerful free markets, globalizing trade, science and universalistic liberalism. And, I want to say, their concern is not only prima facie correct but a growing left/right critique of Western capitalism/liberalism, and therefore one worth addressing.

There may not be a market approach to preserving cultural diversity; maybe all we can say is that so long as homogeneity is a result of the free interactions of individuals it is not undesirable. Here are a few responses anyway, which may or may not be satisfying.

  1. The process of homogenization predates capitalism, and is really just a function of multicultural nations living side by side and competing and trading. Cultures grow, die and are subsumed ad nauseam, some survive well past the initial spawning phase and become hegemonic but eventually these too face extinction or subsumption.
  2. Homogenization in a free world means that the “best of the best” is accessible for societies which, though previously they may have maintained unique non-Western cultures, were far worse-off before the commercial tsunami. Firstly, the people in these societies didn’t consider the expatriate cultural elements “boring” when they arrived, and secondly, they would prefer “boring” Western/industrial culture than their previous dilapidated state. (We may want interesting tourism destinations, but does that take precedent over human well-being and free choice?)
  3. With the success of industrial, liberal society, science has grown and actually developed better preservation technology (and projection tech, like 3D modeling underground structures). Ancient artifacts from long dead cultures are able to survive longer to be appreciated, and living cultures are better able to create and preserve in the present.
  4. Globalization/Westernization means that we discover living cultures we would never have known otherwise. Under the eye of Western society they are opened up to the melting pot process, but discovery is mutual. We take and they take, and therefore,
  5. Another response could be to actually reject Jacob’s story. We are not trending toward a single McWorld, because although Starbucks can be found nearly globally, it functions alongside original cultural products and cuisine, and at the same time foreign cuisine thrives in the West and impacts our identity.

Evaluating the consolidation of cultural diversity sits at an uneasy crossroads between rights concerns, utilitarianism and aesthetics. I’m not sure these responses would be satisfying to those that buy Jacob’s argument, but it’s likely I’ll be returning to this subject at length in the future.