A Subtle Distinction

Recently Jeffrey Tucker wrote an excellent piece for The Freeman describing what he perceives to be a schism in the libertarian movement between “brutalism” and “humanitarianism”. While I find myself leaning more in the direction of what he describes as humanitarian, I have to admit to feeling some pull toward the brutalist side of the argument. Perhaps it’s a bit over-simplistic of me, but I truly do believe that part of the essential nature of liberty is the liberty to be an asshole.

What I believe is missing from Mr. Tucker’s argument is something else that libertarians believe very strongly in: the power of markets. Markets both in goods and in ideas. Both have a place in bringing people together and tempering the worst impulses of humanity. The desire for more and better goods and a higher quality of life for ourselves and our families drives many toward civility, particularly as they mingle with others they otherwise might not be exposed to and find they are not so different from themselves. Those who cannot be led by this carrot can be chased by the stick of ostracism; they will not be forced to conform, but others will not conform to them, and they will find the world can be a difficult place for the man without a community.

Is there a chance that people will exercise en masse the “right to disassociate” as Mr. Tucker phrases it? Absolutely. But I believe there are two viable counter-arguments to that: the positive one is to point out that in doing so they deny themselves the benefits of the free market and specialization, which, having seen what others are gaining thereby, they are likely to want again for themselves. The negative but still undeniably true answer is that, short of coercion to the contrary, people do this anyway. Cliques, sects, factions, parties, cults, denominations, splinter groups – whatever they choose to call themselves, by legal means or not, formally or informally, people are constantly setting themselves off from others, erecting borders around themselves so as to define quite clearly whether you are one of “us” or one of “them”. A humanistic philosophy won’t change that.

Ultimately I suppose I differ from Mr. Tucker in one key way, which is this: his humanistic approach lists out all the benefits that human society as a whole, and the individuals who comprise it, reap from liberty, and sees that as the reason liberty is a value. I see humans, each individually, as the highest value in themselves, and as such I cannot conceive of any course but liberty to guide them. It is a subtle distinction, but an important one.


The NSA Knows

The NSA Knows

(Sung to the tune of “Anything Goes” by Cole Porter)

Times have changed,

As I’m sure we can all agree,

Since the Americans rebelled

And they created a country.

If today,

They should list several Rights of Man,

Instead of answering the call,

They would be tossed into the can!


In olden days the Fourth Amendment

Was looked on as something sacred,

But Snowden showed,

The NSA knows.


You thought your email, text and Facebook

Were safe from some spook taking a look.

Under your nose,

The NSA knows.


The world has gone mad today

And good’s bad today,

And black’s white today,

And day’s night today,

When warrants today

Are issued today

By secret courts today

And though I’m not a philosopher

I know that it’s unpopular

When you propose,

The NSA knows.


When grandmama whose age is eighty

In night clubs is getting matey with gigolo’s,

The NSA knows.


When something’s done in South America

Particularly Brazil and Mexico,

The NSA knows.


If driving fast cars you like,

If low bars you like,

If old hymns you like,

If bare limbs you like,

If Mae West you like

Or me undressed you like,

Watch for agents in plainclothes!


Your Google drive

Has tax returns

Or your Flickr account shows your friends in nude photos?

The NSA knows.


If saying your prayers you like,

If green pears you like,

If old chairs you like,

If back stairs you like,

If love affairs you like

With young bears you like,

Watch out for privacy’s foes!


And though I’m not a philosopher

I know that it’s unpopular

And I propose –

The NSA goes!

Nobody’s Forcing You

So I’ve heard more than a little bit of grumbling about how libertarians don’t care about the poor, and the truth is if you read some of the more out there screeds *cough*Atlas Shrugged*cough* I can see where you might get that impression. And the truth is there’s a lot of distance between even the most bleeding heart libertarian and “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. That being said, I still believe there is an argument to be made that not all libertarians are looking to throw the baby out with the bathwater if the baby didn’t pay for the bath first.

Now I’m no philosopher (as has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion), and I’m certainly not an economist (as has also been pointed out to me on more than one occasion), but I think somewhere between the two disciplines we might be able to find an answer that, if not perfect, at least gets to a reasonable engagement of the issue at hand. While I’m not big on addressing the notion of social justice as such (that ground has been tread quite thoroughly by stronger minds than mine), I would like to address one small slice of the view: the question of the use of force as coercion, and specifically whether it is possible to use economic force as coercion.

Now obviously I think every libertarian (and most everyone else) would agree that violence is bad (mmm’kay?). More specifically, either the express or implied use of force is what we object to. Because government usually has a monopoly in a given geographical area on the use of force it tends to be the target of libertarian ire, but contrary to what you may have been told I don’t know any libertarians who give a free pass to corporations or private individuals who utilize force to get their way either.

But is violence the only kind of force? What about economic pressure? After all, the government uses economic pressure in the form of sanctions on other countries all the time, so there has to be something to it, right? And if that’s the case, how is that any different from Wal-Mart threatening to fire employees for joining a walkout or working in sweatshops?

My coworker and I had a talk about this at lunch, and I came up with a theory that, while by no means unassailable (see my caveats re: my status as philosopher and economist above) seems to be a good starting point. It goes something like this. In order for a situation that does not involve direct physical violence to be considered coercive, it must meet two criteria:

(1)    The next best option is catastrophically bad.

(2)    The fact that the next best option is catastrophically bad is not a direct result of an improvement in station caused by the current situation.

So for example, if your current job requires you to work 16 hours a day, and your next best option is no job and starvation, then yeah, I’d say that’s catastrophically bad. But if you were unemployed and starving before you got your current job, then a threatened return to that state isn’t coercive. By the same token, if your next best option is to make less money but still get by (which is most Americans), then again, bad but not catastrophically bad.

Does this justify all kinds of horrible behavior? Certainly not. At no point am I saying that anyone should be subject to violence or assault as a precondition for keeping their job (and I do include unwanted sexual advances in that category). But I think it may help to frame the discussion about whether or not corporations are coercing their employees to work long hours or whether “sweat shops” are coercing their employees to work there at all, among other discussions.

I welcome honest and respectful debate on the matter. As I said, I am sure the theory could use some work.

No Secrets Allowed

It’s been all over the news, and it keeps popping up. It certainly seems to be President Obama’s latest headache, and I would argue for good reason: it seems the NSA, despite agency head Gen. Keith Alexander’s protests to the contrary, has been spying on the American people. Oopsie. At the risk of sounding like one of those crazy, far-out there civil libertarians, I have to ask, did anybody not see this coming, for sheer irony if nothing else?

This follows so closely on the heels of other revelations of domestic spying by our own government that even the New York Times has started to call out the Obama administration. While it’s nice to see that there’s something besides the Justice Department seizing phone records that can ruffle the media, it’s almost gilding the lily at this point. If things follow their usual pattern, there will be an outcry, perhaps even a Congressional investigation which will bog down in cheap political point scoring, and both Republicans and Democrats will focus on getting the upper hand in the next election. It almost feels like déjà vu all over again.

Now it’s well known among magicians that the worst thing you can do in front of an audience is to make a big deal about how unremarkable an object is. “Just an average, every day, perfectly normal handkerchief, nothing unusual or exceptional about it.” This draws suspicion, makes people wonder what’s going on here, there must be something hinkey. This goes to President Obama’s insistence that “Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.” (I have to believe he’s regretting that particular turn of phrase right about now, considering how often it’s been thrown back at him by now.)

The problem is with each new revelation those voices that warn of tyranny sound just a little more like they might be on to something, and I think it’s important to focus on another part of that passage as well: “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems.” Note that’s not one specific administration, one particular party, or one named ideology. The current problems began under the Bush administration, or (arguably) even further back. Government writ large, as an entity, is what the warning cry is against. It is Leviathan the voices cry against, the absolute power that Lord Acton warned corrupts absolutely.

The primary purpose of power, before any other, is to aggregate unto itself more power. That power does not then exist simply to exist – it exists to be used. The more people demand security the more security theater we’ll get, but in addition the more (quietly, behind the scenes, when we’re not looking) we’re going to get the things we didn’t want. Will they ultimately make us safer? Marginally, perhaps. But at what cost?

And if anyone ever says “security at any cost”, think very long and hard about the Faustian bargain they’re proposing. There are times in our recent history (for example the 1950s and the McCarthy hearings as well as the Japanese internment during WWII) when we have pursued “security at any cost”, and it is all too easy to see that we are headed down that road again. With very little effort any person of imagination can conjure scenarios of costs that vastly outweigh the benefits that might accrue, even if we were willing to set aside the cherished institutions and beliefs of our country.

Even those without imagination can conjure a vision of what “security at any cost” would look like, and what the down payment would be. All they have to do is watch the news.

A Bad Week for Government Isn’t a Good Week for Liberty

There are more than a few people I know, particularly among Libertarians and libertarians (the former being the political party, the latter being the philosophy and its adherents; there actually is a difference), who are quite thrilled about the problem and scandal-riddled week the Obama administration has had recently. Between increased allegations of misconduct in the Benghazi attack, the IRS improperly (and perhaps illegally) investigating conservative groups, and the Justice Department seizing Associated Press phone records, this hasn’t been an easy one for the administration. Being overturned for the second time by an appeals court on recess appointments did nothing to improve the week from a governmental standpoint. Even Slate.com and The Daily Show, hardly a pair of right-wing nutjob pandering organizations, are piling on. So why am I not dancing in the streets with everyone else?

In short: been there, done that.

I’ve seen too many examples of “big government chicanery exposed” to start celebrating, certainly just yet. While I am a little too young to remember Watergate (I was born about a month before Nixon left office), there have been plenty of scandals, real and manufactured, since then. Abuse of power is practically endemic to government, and the worst abuse tends to happen in the hands of those who believe they are doing it for the right reasons. It’s always easiest to justify doing the bad things when you have good reasons.

As examples, I offer “Scooter” Libby and the Valerie Plame affair, Lawyergate and the Bush White House email controversy, the Ambramoff scandal, the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal… and those were just during the younger Bush administration. There’s also the entire Monica Lewinsky affair (excuse the pun), the Whitewater controversy (including Travelgate, Filegate, and Vince Foster), and the Iran-Contra affair.

If you look at these different scandals across decades and administrations, there’s a striking pattern of similarities. First, in almost every case those who perpetrated the misconduct believed they were doing the right thing at the time (and may even try to defend their actions today if cornered on the subject). Second, the abuses are almost exclusively a matter of using government power to benefit one’s friends or hurt one’s enemies; it’s never a value-neutral thing that one can look at and honestly say “well they were definitely doing what was best for the country, even if I might happen to disagree.” And third, each abuse expands the reach of government; there’s nothing here that says “I have too much power, I better find a way to restrict how I or other manage to use it”, except perhaps in the most backhanded, Orwellian sort of way.

Oh, and in case you didn’t notice: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The abuse of power stretches across five administrations (If you include Reagan in Iran-Contra, which you should) and almost three decades. And I didn’t even bother to include Watergate or any other scandals from administrations back before Reagan (or most of Reagan’s scandals), because I wanted to keep it to stuff I actually remember. Let’s face it; I have more than enough ammunition to condemn both sides.

The problem, as I may have mentioned before, lies not in our politicians but in ourselves. The disconnect between what we are promised and what we receive is based on two things. First, there is the cognitive disconnect that people want the government to provide for them BUT also expect the government to leave them alone. The second is what I refer to as “My Guy Syndrome”: it must be okay as long as “my guy” is doing it. A couple prime examples of this would be the Medicare Modernization Act, the largest expansion of Medicare to that point in the programs history… passed in 2003 by Republicans, and the denial of basic Constitutional rights to a terrorism suspect… in 2013, by a Democrat. Things like this would be unconscionable if the other side did it, but since it was being done by “My Guy”, their respective mouthpieces (particularly within the government, but also in the media) tend to spin and do damage control, and the people who vote for them find ways to justify it in their own minds: “well, sometimes you have to do the politically expedient thing… you gotta break a few eggs… you have to compromise…”

And it is that exact sort of thinking that is likely to prevail in the end, despite the latest string of scandals, unless we change our culture. I don’t mean to suggest that no heads will roll; there may be a token sacrifice, and it may even be enough to get a Republican elected in the next election cycle (for all the good that will do). But until we stop allowing “the politically expedient thing” to happen, until we start holding every politician accountable, and most importantly, until we as a society acknowledge that even if Lord Acton was wrong and absolute power does not in fact corrupt absolutely, that sometimes it’s not a question of corruption but simple out of control idealism that’s the problem, it will never be a good week for liberty.

Special Bonus Post: Free Freedom (That’s Really Free!)

Full disclosure: The following is a personal endorsement for the Institute for Humane Studies Summer Seminars. I love them so much I actually spend my days promoting them. That being said, this is a personal blog, and has nothing to do with IHS. All of the ideas and opinions expressed herein are my own. Seriously, any attempt to tie any of my personal views to IHS would be inaccurate and could have very bad consequences for me personally and professionally. So don’t do it.


I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love liberty. But what does that mean? It’s a good question, and to be honest it took me a long time to sort it out for myself. I’ve spent the better part of a lifetime working on it, and it wasn’t until I got to IHS that I finally started developing a cohesive philosophy of liberty. One of the best resources for that has been IHS Summer Seminars.

If you’re a college student interested in the ideas of freedom, or you know someone who is, I highly suggest checking them out. They’re a full week of fun, discussion (oooh, discussion!), and ideas. There’s great faculty and students at every seminar and an open atmosphere of investigation and exploration.

If you’re looking for specific recommendations, I would have to point you toward either the Liberty & Society seminar at Chapman University July 13-19, where you can enjoy the company of the always fantastic Tom W. Bell, or the Exploring Liberty seminar June 15-22 (also at Chapman University) so you can get to know my good friend (and brilliant economist) Mario Villarreal-Diaz, the only man who could ever manage to explain marginal value in a way I could understand.

The application deadline is March 31, so make sure to apply today!

Anarchy X: The Ninth Amendment

“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

At last we come to what I have to admit is my favorite amendment. If for no other reason, I love this amendment because it is the final answer to every question asked by most of the self-proclaimed “strict constitutionalists” I have met. In most cases these would be people who are looking for excuses to legislate their own petty meanness on the rest of the world, and when you call them on it, they have a standard fall back: their shield, their shelter, their raison d’étre almost universally seems to consist of “where do you find that right in the Constitution?”

Right here. Here it is. In the same way that the justice system lays the burden of proof on the prosecution, and for many of the same reasons, so too is the burden of proof that the government, that we the people have the right to take an action against other people. For my money this is the defining feature of the Bill of Rights, and in many ways the Constitution itself.

It is worth noting that the Ninth Amendment only exists in large part because of the debate about the Bill of Rights itself; by the very notion that there should be no need to specifically enumerate rights that would accrue to the people in a country where the powers of the government would be spelled out quite specifically, and the government would have no further or additional powers beyond those that had been granted to it by the very document that was being amended. It’s a nice thought. Any student of history, classical or modern, political or otherwise, should know it’s also a naïve one. So should anyone who has read Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.

Call me cynical if you must, but it is my belief born out of study and experience that any human system built for managing people will do two things: grow and accrue more power unto itself. It is not (necessarily) some corrupt plot, it is simply the spontaneous order of human systems. Governments are designed to govern; that is their purpose. They can only do that so long as they are either stable or growing. No system can remain viable if it is stagnant. Therefore, for a government to remain viable it must continue to grow, and the only way for a government to grow is to become more powerful, and thereby more intrusive.

Having delineated specific areas and ways in which the government can’t grow in the first eight amendments, there are two possibilities left. The first is the Federalist assertion of a sort of “gentleman’s agreement” of government, that the rights of the people would be implicitly protected simply by virtue of having delineated the powers the government has. Which has worked so well up to now. The second possibility is finding new and interesting ways to interpret the powers granted by the Constitution, including simply ignoring any rights people might reasonably expect to enjoy, including those grounded in the common law tradition from which the Constitutional government evolved.

The modern upshot of this is widespread. As society has evolved, we have changed in our expectations of what it means to be a part of that society; we have even (thankfully) changed in our attitudes and beliefs about what it means to be human. We have recognized and defended rights along the way that are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, but that are grounded in the same tradition as the other rights that are. One example is the right to privacy, which is often assailed by the aforementioned “where do you find that right in the Constitution?”

Let me be clear: I believe that all the rights that are defended and provided for by the Constitution, regardless of what philosophical approach you may take to it, derive from the following:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union,
establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common
defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to
ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the
United States of America.

That having been said, I see nothing that runs counter to a right to privacy. On the contrary, privacy in one’s person and effects seems to me to be eminently just, promotes tranquility, adds to the common welfare, and is one of the greatest blessings of liberty I can imagine. If you don’t believe me on that last point, throw wide the settings on your Facebook profile and wait five minutes.

Not everything people claim as a right truly is one; I get that. But to say that it must be spelled out to exist is absurd. The law is and always has been a lagging indicator of the culture at best, and a drag on the culture at worst. Far better to put the burden on those who would control us than on those of us who would be free.