Ron Paul’s Revolution: A libertarian education

The Mises Institute, lewrockwell.com, and FFF all had cool articles mixed in with some not so cool stuff, and I stuck with these sites for a while after opening the floodgates. The fact that these sites are more combative, more dogmatic than other libertarian organizations probably played a role in my reluctance to branch out too far into other spheres of influence. I was a product of the public school system and a relatively strict religious upbringing and, as a result, my mind was mush. The combativeness spoke to me. It seized me in its grasp and led me forcefully down a path I knew I needed to take. This personal intellectual journey was complemented by my foray into formal education. My professors, too, were combative but not in the same way as the paleo-libertarian websites I would frequent. They pushed me, hard. The cool thing about Cabrillo College was a combination of the weather, the girls (me and the Banana Slug broke up shortly after our arrival in Santa Cruz), the PhDs teaching there, and the fact that most of the classes shrunk in size to about 12 people (more or less) in a matter of weeks. I was getting a first-rate education from great teachers who happened to be married to the California Teachers’ Union. After one semester at Cabrillo College, I was reluctantly ushered into its fairly challenging Honors program, where a transfer to Cal or maybe even Stanford was all but guaranteed.

My go-to websites began to change. The Independent Institute, where Anthony Gregory was officially employed, and Liberty, which published occasional essays by a French-American scholar who happened to live in Santa Cruz, became more influential. FEE’s smorgasbord of scholars overwhelmed me with libertarianism. Cato’s devout, firebrand non-interventionism emboldened my heart. EconLog and Cafe Hayek were too wishy-washy for me at the time. They had no oopmf. Reason was cool but it was too bubbly, too pop-culture for me. Tyler Cowen’s name began to pop up in places. I also came across Peter Boettke and Steve Horwitz via a brutal intralibertarian squabble at the Mises Institute’s website. These were scholars I earmarked as possible sources of knowledge, but their blogs were too informal for me. They reminded me of my college classes, and I already had enough of those on my plate as it was. I wanted – needed – my libertarianism to be sure of itself, formal, and able to reinforce my thoughts about the world at large. Just like Ron Paul.

I decided to spend the summer of 2009 traveling not around Europe or Ghana, but around the United States in order to attend seminars that various libertarian foundations put on for undergraduate students.

I attended four seminars that summer. The first one was up the road from Santa Cruz in Oakland at the Independent Institute. It was a strange way to be introduced into the world of formal libertarianism. First, they had no idea I was coming. I had signed up for the seminar, and I remember paying for it because I had found out that the Independent Institute offered seminars during the summer long after I had already bought my plane tickets for the other three, so I bummed the money from my dad in order to squeeze in a week at my favorite libertarian think tank. Mary and David Theroux were nonetheless ecstatic to have me there and offered to waive the fee. I politely declined their offer and paid up on the spot. (I was a libertarian now and not some freeloading socialist.) My situation was probably helped by the fact that there were only 4 or 5 other students attending the seminar, and most of them were high school students forced to attend for an assortment of reasons.

I was especially excited about the lineup of scholars the institute had cobbled together. Robert Higgs could not be there (I would see him later, at different seminar), but Anthony Gregory and Fred Foldvary would both be there, as would three guys I had never heard of before: Brian Gothberg, James Ahiakpor, and José Maria J. Yulo.

The two things that brought me into libertarianism was its non-interventionist foreign policy and its internationalist worldview. I have always been attracted to other ways of life, and Ron Paul’s 2008-2009 campaign perfectly encapsulated these two attractive -isms. That James Ahiakpor, an economist from Ghana, and José Maria J. Yulo, a philosopher from the Philippines, were to be teaching me about libertarianism, in person, was perfect. Ahiakpor lectured on Adam Smith, and Yulo on Plato, two dead white guys whose thoughts I had never been introduced to before (though I knew both of their names). Ahiakpor’s lectures were actually a bit of a dud. He was not able to fathom, or entertain, the notion of an economy without a central bank. He appealed to Adam Smith on the matter, and that was that. Dr Yulo’s lectures were quite different. They were rich and socratic. They were peppered with personal anecdotes, both funny and serious. They were conservative, too. Dr. Yulo’s lectures eviscerated my aversion to conservatism. He made conservatives human and worthy of my time and attention. Anthony was Anthony and Fred was Fred. The star of the seminar was undoubtedly Brian Gothberg.

Gothberg’s passion for liberty oozed out into the makeshift classroom (this makeshift classroom was one of the many charms connected with attending the institute’s seminar). Gothberg had been a California liberal, a technocrat rather than a socialist like me, and his intellectual journey sounded, to me at the time, a lot like my own. He used basic economic reasoning to show how prices could help save the environment, and how the Robber Barons captured their rents. Most of all Gothberg used every opportunity he could to engage me personally. I am an introvert and I just showed up on the institute’s doorstep with apparently no heads up. Brian went out of his way to make me feel welcome, to help me voice my thoughts aloud, and to get to know me.

I spent my nights in San Francisco that week, sleeping on my best friend’s couch. I brought him all of the books I would receive from the seminar. My friend and I marched together in San Francisco. He was attending San Francisco State at the time. We had heated but mostly civil discussions about liberty and American politics. He and I went to the same schools in the same town. We both had the same worldview of civics up until Ron Paul crashed the party. Looking back, those discussions represented the flowering of our intellectual capacity to think for ourselves. We were teasing out ideas and confronting stark intellectual challenges to our conceptions of the world. The books I gave him ended up in his garbage can. When I was again sleeping on his couch, in Austin, in 2016, he had voted for Gary Johnson. (During those hot summer nights in Austin, we both revealed what turned out to be a shared disgust in our fellow anti-war protestors. Those people were not marching in San Francisco to protest the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq; they were marching against the Republican Party and, by extension, democratic politics.)

Next up were two of FEE’s venerated seminars, one in Midland, Michigan and the other in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. The Midland seminar, located at Northwood University, was a breath of fresh air. The topic of the seminar was “History & Liberty,” and lecturers included Lawrence Reed, Robert Higgs, Brad Birzer, Burton Folsom Jr., and Stephen Davies. Unlike the seminar in Oakland, this one was well-organized and well-funded. I was put up in a dorm and all of my meals were comped. These were also well-attended seminars. I met people from all over the world, though Midwestern Americans formed a slight majority. My roommate was none other than Vincent Geloso, 2017’s hottest libertarian blogger. In 2009, though, Vincent was already something of a star. A Quebecer, Geloso spent his free time either trying to get into the pants of an outgoing Guatemalan student whose name escapes me or watching Star Trek reruns on his laptop. He organized a boycott of Robert Higgs’ remaining lectures for the week after Dr. Higgs haughtily suggested that World War II was not worth the effort. Vincent also praised Paul Krugman’s academic work while bemoaning his blog at the New York Times, something I was not yet accustomed to libertarians doing. At Mises and FFF (and at the lectures of these summer seminars), Krugman was nothing more than a punching bag, not somebody you could learn from.

Burton Folsom made everybody laugh, and Larry Reed made everybody feel good. Stephen Davies lectured on Paraguay, and its lessons have stuck with me over the years, but Brad Birzer’s intelligence and loquaciousness impressed me the most. Brad Birzer loves history. There are two events I remember most clearly about that first FEE seminar in humid Midland, Michigan. First: I remember seeing Sheldon Richman at a table by himself eating breakfast and reading at the same time. The man lived and breathed liberty. I remember thinking to myself (I dared not interrupt his breakfast) that he was probably reading some obscure work of Böhm-Bawerk or something. Second, I was dropped off at the airport a full day before my flight was scheduled. I tried to find a field to sleep in, but was instead picked up on the side of some god forsaken road by an airport employee on her way home, and she let me meet her family, dine with them, and crash on her couch for the night.

The Irvington-on-Hudson seminar was an introductory course on “Austrian economics.” I don’t remember much about the lectures. Lawrence Reed was there again. He told different stories than the ones he told in Midland, and they were equally good. Sheldon Richman lectured, too. An economist named Paul Cwik lectured. He was funny, but unremarkable. I don’t think I learned anything new at this seminar.

There was an Asian girl from Stanford, an economics major, who attended the seminar. She stood out because she was a she, she was Asian, and she attended an elite school. I remember her asking Sheldon Richman, after one of his forgettable lectures, a question about economics and him becoming flustered by the questions. The Asian girl actually put up her hands at one point and said “woah.” She backed away slowly and I never heard from her again. This seminar had less Midwestern Americans in it. There were more Europeans. I don’t remember who my roommate was at Irvington-on-Hudson but I do remember going to the city not once but twice. The first time I went with a Dane and a Swede, both of whom were business students. The Empire State Building blew them away. I went a second time to the city with two Italians, brothers Claudio and Adriano Gulisano. The brothers stayed out late and pretended to enjoy the nightlife. I could see in their eyes, though, that NY’s nightlife was a perfunctory for them; a duty to be performed as a European in the United States. The Brothers Gulisano were, and are, brooding individualists concerned only with the next move of their enemy (the state), and NY’s shallow nightlife rudely illuminated the chains of their social obligations.

The highlight of the Austrian Economics seminar was not the old FEE building or New York, but Lode Cossaer, a Belgian libertarian whose passion for liberty was unlike anything I had ever seen before. He freely gave the Americans history lessons about their own country. He told the Eastern Europeans to beware of clever authoritarian traps nestled in their Hoppeanism. He explained to the Guatemalans why their university, Francisco Marroquin, was such an important institution for global liberty. Cossaer did all of these things with the worst haircut in the world, too. (He had one of those little boy bowlcuts that just makes you want to puke when you see a grown man sporting it.)

The final seminar of that eventful summer brought me, full circle, back to northern California. The Institute for Humane Studies was an institute I hadn’t heard much about. There wasn’t a lot of writing on its website, but it was obviously libertarian and the seminar had some great topics (I think it was “liberty & economic development” or something along those lines). I had to write an essay and wait around to be rejected or accepted. The seminar was at Cal, a school I still didn’t think I could ever get in to. IHS set itself apart from FEE and the Independent Institute before the summer even started.

The students were different, too. Elite research universities and expensive liberal arts colleges adorned most of the nametags. The majority of the students were from the eastern seaboard or the upper South. There were more Californians; two attended Cal, one attended UCSD (and whose boyfriend was from my hometown), and Rick Weber, my favorite economist-blogger. The lecturers had no public presence that I was aware of, except for one of them, who was officially was part of the Coordination Problem group blog but hardly ever wrote anything there. The IHS seminar had more of a university feel to it, overall, while the other three had more of a Fellowship of the Rings vibe to them. There were more leftists and fewer foreigners. My roommate was an older undergraduate who was attending Georgetown. He had just gotten out of the Navy. The lecturers included an anthropologist, two economists – one from France and one from the United States – and a philosopher.

The economists were forgettable, except for the French one’s contempt for his home country, but the anthropologist and the philosopher were excellent. Susan Love Brown lectured on planned societies and their many failures, and Andrew I. Cohen actually brought leftists to tears with his rigorous logic. So defeated were these leftists that they had no recourse other than to do what their mommies and daddies had taught them to do: cry about it. This was a phenomenon that I had never witnessed before.

The lecturers and the students would party together after dinner. At one point the organizers, the 24 year-olds responsible for overseeing the day-to-day affairs of the seminar, asked us as a group to be aware of the fact that a big-time donor would be at one of the lectures for half of the day. Many of the non-Californian students, as well as the lecturing American economist, ignored me once they learned that Cabrillo College was a community college rather than an obscure liberal arts college in the redwoods. Dr. Cohen reached out to me, as did Dr. Brown, but the overall atmosphere kept the vibe bittersweet. IHS at Cal was nothing like FEE or the Independent Institute in Oakland.

Altogether, the IHS experience was more rewarding precisely because it was more alarming. Berkeley taught me that libertarian people as well as libertarian organizations are fallible, something that I think FEE and the Independent Institute tried to ignore or gloss over. There are careerists in the libertarian movement. There’s an entire cottage industry dedicated to professionalizing libertarian thought, strategy, and outreach. I tried to hitch a ride with one of the Cal students up to Sacramento, where I could take a bus to Placerville, but he didn’t have any room in his car. I took a train instead, from Berkeley to Sacramento, and a bus from Sacramento to Placerville. I spent the next two weeks on my mom’s couch, and then it was back to Santa Cruz for the fall.

Next: from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles

Books I’ve been reading (and elections I’ve been watching)

The elections were pretty decent overall. The GOP actually picked up some seats in the Senate, the Democrats picked up some seats in the House. It was a draw, and now Trump is weaker than he was in 2016 and so are the Democrats. It’s a win-win for libertarians.

Speaking of libertarians, we have a political party here in the States, and it didn’t do too bad in the elections. It looks as if the Libertarian Party has started to run candidates in districts where a representative usually goes unchallenged. So, in heavily Democratic areas like urban Dallas or suburban Denver, or in heavily Republican areas like Wyoming, Libertarians have begun running legitimate campaigns. Jennifer Nakerud won 4% of the vote in suburban Denver, and Shawn Jones got nearly 9% of the vote in urban Dallas. In West Virginia, Rusty Hollen took 4% of the vote in the Senate race. Gary Johnson didn’t do too bad, either, finishing with almost 15% of the vote in New Mexico. He was running for Senate, and he was a very successful governor there, so his losing success was somewhat assured, but still, it’s encouraging. Also encouraging is the re-election of Clint Bolick, a libertarian judge in Arizona (Damon Root reports on Bolick’s victory at Reason, here).

I’ve plowed through a bunch of books recently: Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920), Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty (2010), Nicolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842), the Three-Body Problem trilogy (2014-2016), and Prador Moon (2006), the first book in a long, 15-part science fiction series. They’ve all been richly rewarding, and I’ll be blogging my thoughts about them sporadically throughout the next few months, so be sure to keep checkin’ in on NOL!

Nightcap

  1. Why sadness is better than happiness Adam Roberts, Aeon
  2. Stan wojenny and memories of Poland in the 1980s Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. Macron ramps up EU power play with pitch to liberals Maïa de La Baume, Politico
  4. Is This Gary Johnson’s Last Campaign? Todd Krainin, Reason

A “don’t rock the boat” theory of political change

You’d think that as long as we’ve known Trump and Clinton it would be more obvious which is better (okay, least bad). But here we are. That said, I largely agree with Brandon’s thoughts: Hilary is the better of the two. If we’re thinking about the trajectory of freedom in this country, it’s like we had been climbing an upward path till 9/11 gave military-industrial complex a new project. Clinton is offering to keep leading us down a gentle incline and Trump is saying “let’s go through that thicket of poison oak!”

I stand by my old advice that a vote for the big two parties is a wasted vote.  People will argue that in swing states it might be close and you might regret your vote. Those people are really arguing that you might regret the vote of hundreds-thousands of strangers. Your vote still is not decisive. Even if you convince a thousand strangers in a swing state to vote your way, you’re still highly unlikely to affect the outcome.

I think, in terms of voting, you do much more good by sending a Johnson signal than you do by slightly increasing the margin by which Clinton wins (or slightly decreasing the margin by which she loses depending on your state).

But my advice is given in the context of a world where Johnson is expected to get 6% of the vote. That affects my cost-benefit calculus. What would it mean for the long-run success of liberty if Johnson were to actually win?

To build on Brandon’s third point (“Clinton is a lawyer and she knows how our government is supposed to work”), this isn’t just a competition to get into the white house. It’s a sales pitch that requires buy in from the electorate. If Johnson won the election, he’d be in the position of some newfangled gadget America bought on a whim. He could catch on, like the microwave, or sink like the Segway.

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Onward, to freedom!

Truthfully, I’m not sure that scenario would be that good for freedom–I think Johnson is a pretty good voice for liberty, and a great third party candidate. But if he actually won, I think he might be too different from the environment he’d have to operate in. It could turn people off of libertarianism for another generation.

But then, the point of your vote isn’t to pick the winner, it’s to express your political beliefs. You’ll do a much better job of voting by voting your conscience than by trying to vote strategically. So vote for Johnson, but root for Hillary… this time.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Generals and Political Interventions in American History
  2. they neglect to take account of the experiences of postcolonial states that form the vast majority of members of the international system. “
  3. The U.S. Hasn’t ‘Pulled Back’ from the Middle East At All
  4. No special sharia rules in American courts for Muslims’ wrongful-death recovery
  5. Is Gary Johnson a True Libertarian? American libertarianism has a purge problem
  6. Identity politics and the perils of zero-sum thinking

Class Warfare, Then and Now

These recent developments in labor relations show how changed market conditions offer welcome correctives to the New Deal approach. It is just these changes that are at risk under an Obama administration whose main agenda tracks Roosevelt’s early one: Vilify the rich as unproductive ciphers of society and work toward a progressive tax rate structure; be hostile toward the growth of international trade by denouncing firms that outsource jobs as the enemies of domestic labor; continue to work in favor of extensive agricultural subsidies for ethanol and other farm crops, no matter how great of a disruption these impose on domestic and foreign food markets; and insist upon a rich set of unsustainable healthcare benefits through Medicare and Medicaid.

This is from Richard Epstein. Okay, so Obama is a demagogue, a thief and a murderer. Is Mitt Romney really any better? Really?

I’m voting for Gary Johnson (if I vote at all).

Blissful Ignorance and the Conservative Worldview

I have been mulling over the recent foreign policy debate I had with Dr. Delacroix and have come to a couple of conclusions. The first conclusion is that conservatives have absolutely no evidence to support their foreign policy proposition of world hegemony, so they instead rely on that old faithful tactic of demagoguery.

Dr. Delacroix was once a prestigious scholar and an expert in international affairs, so his arguments are ones that we can use to ensure that no straw man is being built for the purpose of winning the fight. Libertarians maintain that the 9/11 terrorist attacks did not come out of anywhere and that the United States is not an innocent actor overseas. This causes many people on both the Left and Right to ruffle their feathers and denounce libertarians as unpatriotic or worse.

Yet just consider the two points that libertarians do make in regards to the 9/11 terrorist attacks (again, I wanted to pick out the strongest example so that no straw man may be built for the crass purpose of “winning” the argument):

  1. The 9/11 terrorist attacks did not come out of nowhere.
  2. The United States is not an innocent actor overseas.

I don’t see how any sane, rational individual good skeptic can avoid these two arguments. Just look at the evidence in support of both. Al-Qaeda has been around since the Cold War and the CIA had actually worked with them in their operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan. When the first Bush administration (daddy) decided to keep troops in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden and Al Qaeda became an instant enemy of the republic. The bin Laden family is a rival of the Saudi family in the Arabian peninsula, and Osama bin Laden did not like the fact that Washington was now in bed with his hated enemies.

Policymakers in Washington knew that they had irked a potentially dangerous faction in the Muslim world, and the Clinton administration attacked Al Qaeda operations in both Sudan and Afghanistan with precision missile strikes during his presidency. Conservatives and liberals often pretend that the United States was an innocent bystander in the world up until the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and public ignorance is something that cannot be discounted, but intellectuals like Dr. Delacroix have resorted to demagoguery and myths instead of confronting the facts on this issue. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Imperialists cannot even acknowledge that the US had troops in Saudi Arabia at the time of the 9/11 attacks. They cannot admit this because it destroys almost every myth that the God of War depends upon to flourish in the minds of the hoi polloi. Just look at Dr. Delacroix’s images within the cave. Continue reading

Romney and “Defense”

“If you don’t want America to be the strongest nation in the world, I’m not your President.”  Thus spake candidate Romney recently.  Well, I don’t and he’s not.

Sure, you could interpret “strongest” to mean most prosperous, fairest, etc.  But we all know darn well what Mitt, who is pals with the Zionist militant Netanyahu, had in mind: military might.

Of all the urgently needed reforms in this country, I submit that dismantling the empire is #1.  It is bankrupting us, generating enemies for us, and turning our homeland into a police state.

Yes, I said empire.  Depending on how you count, there are as many as 737 US military bases scattered across the globe, about 38 of which are medium- to large sized.  The number of military and other government personnel involved plus private contractors runs into the millions.  The CIA is hated all over the world and for good reasons.  And as Brandon Christensen pointed out, the US defense umbrella weakens incentives for the Europeans, Japanese, et. al., to take care of themselves.

Obama’s record on these matters is mixed.  The good news: the Iraq war has ended (for the present; keep your fingers crossed), Afghanistan is winding down, and cuts in the “defense” budget are coming.  On the other side of the ledger, there have been ominous buildups in Australia and Central Africa.  On the home front, the police state is escalating and the spiral toward bankruptcy is accelerating.  A pretty awful report card in all, yet Romney could make it worse.

No, I haven’t lost my senses.  I will not vote for Obama, who I believe to be hell-bent for fascist dictatorship, in consequence if not by conscious design.  If you forced me to choose between him and Romney I would cross my arms and refuse to choose.  I’m voting for Gary Johnson, who has called for a 43% cut in “defense” spending.

Iraq, War, and the Litmus Test of Rationality: Ron Paul Edition

The Republican Presidential debates have been on TV for the past, what?, five or six months now, and I am proud to admit that I haven’t watched a single one of them.  By definition I am a left-leaning libertarian who thinks that free markets, limited government, and a humble foreign policy are the best tools to achieve social harmony, prosperity, and world peace.

So I had basically made up my mind on who I was going to vote for prior to the whole campaign season: Gary Johnson.  Now, co-editor Fred Foldvary has some very pertinent critiques of Governor Johnson’s tax policy proposals, but on the whole, I still think he is by far the best man to get my vote.

Because Gary Johnson does not have any baggage, a solid record while in office, and a personality that does not attract the worst of the worst to his message, he was essentially dead on arrival when he announced his Presidential campaign.  The media and its horse race would have none of it.  So he bolted the Republican Party and is now fighting for the Libertarian Party’s nomination.

I think this is a big mistake.  I think he should have stayed in the Republican Party and planned ahead for 2016.  Now, he is going to be the next Ron Paul, who also bolted the Republican Party to run as a Libertarian in 1988.  That move has cost him politically, and it is a shame that Johnson was too hot-headed with the national Party apparatus’ dismissal of his campaign. Continue reading

A Libertarian sales-tax party?

Is the Libertarian Party becoming a sales tax party?  The past several LP candidates for president have favored excise taxes.  I don’t recall any of them declaring, “Taxation is Theft!”  Now we have former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson as a leading candidate for the LP nomination for president, having abandoned the quest for the Republican Party nomination.  His tax plan as a Republican was a national sales tax, and that remains his tax plan as a Libertarian.

The main organization pushing for a national sales tax calls it a “Fair Tax.”  That is excellent propaganda, but a sales tax is no more fair or just than a tax on wages.  A sales tax violates free trade, makes products more expensive, and indirectly taxes wages and other incomes.  The advocates claim that a shift from income to sales taxes would not raise prices, since the income tax already raises prices, but they are wrong, because much of the burden of a tax on wages is on labor.  A sales tax has about the same excess burden or deadweight loss as an income tax.  Income taxes punish savings, but sales taxes punish borrowing, and there is no logical reason to favor savings over borrowing.  Savings and borrowing should be voluntary individual choices not skewed by taxes or subsidies.

The “Fair Tax” plan exempts business purchases, putting the burden on households.  That invites massive tax evasion, as folks would claim to be buying stuff for a business.  The response of government would be a sales tax gestapo.  If you did not have a receipt for your purchase and could not prove it was for business, you could go to prison.

If the Libertarian Party becomes a sales tax party, it will be unpopular and get little support.  Historically, sales tax advocacy has been a political loser.  This may well be why Gary Johnson got so little support as a Republican candidate for president.  If the LP nominates a sales taxer, I for one will promote the Free Earth Party (http://free-earth.foldvary.net/) as a truly libertarian alternative.