Identity Crisis: An anecdote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suggest you do the same.

A Liberal: To Be or Not To Be (Happy #LiberalismDay!)

What’s in a name?

Dan Klein and Kevin Frei recently decided to launch a campaign dedicated to spreading awareness about the original meaning of the word ‘liberal’. At first I was a bit ambivalent about the project because a) I don’t mind using the term ‘libertarian’ to describe myself or the policies I favor, and b) I am normally very careful about classifying Leftists as such, rather than referring to them as ‘liberals’. In my mind, I’m doing everything right so why on earth should I spend time on really driving home a semantic point?

As I was thinking about this issue, Dr Gibson sent me an email of an interview Dan Klein gave with the London-based Adam Smith Institute. Here is how Dr Klein debunked my thoughts on semantics:

The word liberal is powerful. It relates to liberty and toleration, reflected in to liberalize. Words have histories that a generation or two cannot undo. A word has cognates and connotations that make our language cohere, more than we know, more than dictionary definitions can tell.

We need a wider understanding of the semantic changes of the 1880-1940 period. In a way, semantic issues are the momentous issues of our times; semantics tell who and what we are, our selfhood; they condition how we justify our everyday activities.

I can’t argue with this, so instead I have been asking myself how I can go about identifying myself as a liberal rather than a libertarian, and what exactly is the difference between a liberal and a libertarian if the semantics fight is one that should occur between individualists and collectivists (Jesper answers this second question quite well, by the way).

In a way, #LiberalismDay makes Will Wilkinson’s old essay on “bleeding-heart libertarianism” much more pertinent than ever before. Maybe I’m just a plain ole’ liberal, especially if the definition of libertarian being put forth by some individuals in our quadrant continues to gain traction. Maybe most of us are just plain ole’ liberals.

At the end of the day, and after thinking about this for quite some time, I think I’ll try to refer to myself as a liberal for the next little while. After all, as Klein and Frei point out, the term ‘liberal’ has increasingly come to mean the continued “governmentalization”of society so referring to myself as a ‘liberal’ while advocating policies that don’t conform to American conceptions of the term is basically an affront to the theft of the word in the first place.

Calling myself a ‘liberal’ while advocating for more restriction upon the state sounds better and better as I talk myself into it.

I know, I know, I didn’t explain how or why the term ‘liberal’ morphed into what it has here in the States. I outsource to F.A. Hayek on this matter (pdf).

Here are some more thoughts on #LiberalismDay (many of them do a great job of explaining the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ as well):

Ultra-libéralisme – A French Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My book, I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiographyis live in the Kindle Store.

Liberalism Unrelinquished: Some Tactical Thoughts

Today is #LiberalismDay. My friend Dan Klein of George Mason University along with his colleague Kevin Frei have launched a project called “Liberalism Unrelinquished.” An impressive list of economists and others have signed their petition which declares that they “affirm the original arc of liberalism, and the intention not to relinquish the term liberal to the trends, semantic and institutional, toward the governmentalization of social affairs.”

Other bloggers will presumably rehearse the tale of how that storied term lost its original meaning, at least in the U.S., as it has been appropriated, since at least the 1930’s, by statists.  (Example: George Leef’s fine piece). I just offer a few thoughts on some tactics that may be appropriate to this battle.

  • We must stop using the word liberal to denote present-day statists. This should be easy since they themselves have largely abandoned the term in favor of “progressives.” (Note that modern progressives hate progress of the material sort more than anything. That’s an issue for another time.) I have nothing better than “progressives” to denote these folks except perhaps a qualified “so-called progressives.” I hope “governmentalists” doesn’t get started. That would be too big a mouthful.
  • Speaking of which, there must be a better term than “governmentalization,” another mouthful. Perhaps just “government takeover” which is more forceful and easier to say.
  • “Liberalism unrelinquished” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue either. How about “liberalism restored?”
  • Our task will often be easier if we say “classical liberal” rather than just liberal.
  • The term libertarian has entered the mainstream of U.S. politics. We should take advantage of this progress. We can use phrases like “the libertarian position, or as I like to call it, the classical liberal position …”
  • We must understand the price we pay when we call ourselves or our positions “liberal” or “classical liberal.” The price consists in the time and energy required to make clear to our audience what we mean when we use the term. Whether the price is worth paying depends on circumstances.
  • In academic writing, speaking, or debating there is usually sufficient time to preface our arguments by explanations. Attention spans are long enough that the price paid for explaining why we say “liberal” will not be significant.
  • The last place to take this fight would be political campaigns or debates. Attention spans are minute, audiences are unsophisticated, and we will just confuse people by using the term in its classical meaning prematurely. We can, however, try to disavow the tired old “liberal-conservative” spectrum that is currently entrenched in the media. “I’m aTime permitting, we could say classical liberal, and that means I agree with conservatives on some issues and with progressives on others. All my positions are grounded in the notion of liberty.”
  • In letters to the editor where every word counts we can say “libertarian (or classical liberal)” or the other way around.

I congratulate Dan and Kevin on the response they’ve gotten so far and I hope the momentum continues.

#LiberalismDay: Calling all classical liberals and libertarians

The following is a message I got from Warren via email:

Hello again! You were recently gracious enough to endorse Liberalism Unrelinquished, a project I’ve been working on with Dan Klein.

I wonder if you’d be willing to help keep the ball rolling by participating in related initiative, #LiberalismDay. Liberalism Day is an internet event aimed at amplifying a simple message: the word “liberal” used to mean something different than it does today.

To participate, all you have to do is write a blog post, tweet, or anything else on or around June 16th that contains the hashtag #LiberalismDay. (The hashtag is what ties everything together in search engines.)

You can add as much or as little nuance as you’d like. You can link to a favorite article (e.g. Milton Friedman’s essay “Liberalism, Old Style”), make a meme, write a blog, or even just tweet about the event to your audience.

From my vantage outside of academic circles, I’d guess that maybe 1% of the population has ever learned that the word “liberal” ever meant something else. I believe if we can boost that fraction a bit, it could spread organically. Merely knowing that 19th century liberalism was more akin to modern libertarianism will help correct a lot of false narratives, e.g. that Lincoln Republicans were really modern Democrats, or that libertarian ideas are a modern invention.

Again, all you have to do to help is plug the event with the hashtag #LiberalismDay and make a comment or share a link on liberalism. Our friend Mike Munger has already chimed in on his blog, and Richard Epstein has offered to rep it on his twitter feed, too. 🙂

Feel free to let me know by email or by leaving a comment on if you plan to participate and I will add a link to your blog or website!



Aside from Dr Gibson, I know that Dr Delacroix, Adam, myself and Dr van de Haar are going to be participating in this project on this blog. Any other bloggers out there thinking of doing this? It sounds pretty cool, and if there was any way to wrestle the term ‘liberal’ away from the American Left I’d be more than willing to do it. This may make a small impact in doing just that.