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.

Warren Harding’s Fiscal Cliff

The economy is in rough shape right now but suppose it were even worse: unemployment at 12% rather than 8%; GDP falling at a 17% annual rate rather than rising slowly.  A close advisor to the President counsels an array of interventions to stimulate the economy but is ignored.  Instead, the President cuts Federal spending in half and engineers drastic reductions in income  tax rates for all groups.  Meanwhile the Federal Reserve, rather than cranking up the printing presses for a round of monetary stimulus, snoozes through the whole year.

Now there’s a fiscal cliff for you.  If today’s thinking about the fiscal cliff of Jan. 1, 2013 held true, surely such policies would tank the economy big-time.

The foregoing scenario actually happened.  The year was 1920, the President was Warren G. Harding and his close advisor was none other than Herbert Hoover, who as President from 1929 to 1933 would have his way – raising taxes, jawboning wages, and slapping a killer tariff on the economy, thereby doing a great deal to turn the rather mild downturn of 1929-30 into the Great Depression which, with lots of help from Franklin Roosevelt, would plague the nation for another decade.

So what happened in Harding’s time?  Things were pretty rough for a while but by the summer of 1921, signs of recovery were already visible.  The following year, unemployment was back down to 6.7% and hit 2.4% by 1923 (source: Thomas Woods, “The Forgotten Depression of 1920″).  A budget surplus arose resulting in a noticeable decline in the national debt.  Business confidence soared and the 1920’s boom was off and running.

President Harding has gotten a bad rap from history because of the scandals that erupted during his administration as well as his chronic womanizing and his passion for the bottle.  But in the countdown of 20th century Presidents that I might do for this blog should I ever get ambitious, I will start with Harding as the least bad President of that sad century and work my way down from there.  I’ll let you  guess who I will honor as the Worst President of the Century.

How does the looming fiscal cliff compare with the policies of 1920?  In case you’ve been hiding under a rock lately (not a bad way to ride out the election campaign!), the fiscal cliff is the set of automatic tax increases and spending cuts that were agreed to when the debt ceiling was raised in 2011.  Congress decided to force its future self to act by lighting a time bomb that it would surely – surely! – defuse before it could go off.  The fuse has now burned to within 1/8 inch of the bomb.

The bomb’s tax increases and spending cuts would reduce the deficit by an estimated $600 billion in one year.  That may be the most accurate estimate but it’s only an estimate.  Congress can set tax rates but tax revenues depend on the size of the tax base.  If highly productive people, those who would take the biggest hit, decide to Go Galt, the tax base could shrink.  And as Jeff Hummel likes to point out, tax rates, particularly the top marginal rates, have varied drastically over the years and yet tax receipts have not varied much from 20% of GDP, excepting the World War II years.

Not only might tax receipts fall short, but expenditures could rise if additional welfare payments such as unemployment benefits or food stamps were to rise.

But let’s assume the fiscal cliff happens and the deficit is indeed reduced by $600 billion. Using figures for the fiscal year just ended, we would still have a $400 billion deficit which would have to be financed by borrowing.  As always, this would be new borrowing, on top of the borrowing needed to roll over the daily stream of maturing debt.  And we mustn’t forget the Social Security Trust Fund which until last year has mitigated the deficit by “investing” its surpluses (FICA tax revenues minus benefit payments) in Treasury securities.  Those FICA surpluses have now turned to deficits which for the present are offset by interest payments on Trust Fund holdings but will eventually require the Trust Fund to stop rolling over maturing securities and, should the trend continue, to deplete its holdings entirely.  All of these developments exacerbate the main federal deficit.  The same applies to the much smaller Medicare Trust Fund.

So I say, with a glance over my shoulder at 1920, bring on the fiscal cliff!  Let the cuts happen, thereby ending a lot of wasteful and harmful spending – particularly “defense” spending.  Let tax rates rise; people will work around them.

But it won’t happen because too many special interests will rise up to prevent it:

  • There are enough military personnel, military contractors, their suppliers, relatives and hangers-on to prevent significant cuts in defense spending.
  • The 27% cut in Medicare physician fees will lead doctors to brush away their Medicare patients like flies, sending those patients hobbling off to howl at their their Congressmen.
  • Millions of middle class people will gasp when their tax preparer tells them they’ve been caught in the dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax trap.  Others will escape the trap only to find that their ordinary income tax rates have risen substantially.
  • Still more millions will see their FICA (Social Security) tax rate revert to the 2010 rate of 6.2% from the current 4.2% “stimulus” figure.

The fiscal cliff won’t happen, at least not all of it, except perhaps for a brief period in January which will be fixed retroactively.  And so, though I hate to say it, I think the longer-term odds of pulling out of our fiscal death spiral are pretty slim.  Many think the government will resort to the time-honored remedy of the printing press, but Jeff Hummel has made a solid argument as to why this option won’t work and why there will be a default on Treasury securities instead.

Hummel also urges economists to do whatever they can to warn people not to count on government largess.  Most young people have written off Social Security for their future and that’s a good thing.  (Not so good for Social Security recipients like me who are increasingly unemployable yet hope to live another 25 years.)  We must take responsibility for our own health care, first by watching our health habits and second by cultivating a personal relationship with a physician, perhaps offering him or her cash payments.  We should be leery of Treasury Securities or of banks, mutual funds, etc. that rely heavily on these securities.  Sock away a few gold and silver coins.

We’re in for a rough ride, I fear, over the next few years.  But the sun will still rise and tangible assets will remain.  Provided enough of us have taken precautions, social unrest will be manageable and maybe, just maybe, the cancer that is called Social Democracy will be shaken off once and for all.