Wherein I refute a charge of libertarian nastiness, then ramble about the thick-thin debate

Last month at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Kevin Vallier took a measured view of the thick versus thin libertarianism debate. In a reasonable and mostly fair piece, he points out that both sides take their arguments a step too far:

Thick libertarians go too far when they insist there is only one or a very small set of justificatory and motivational routes to liberty. This is one reason I’m very hesitant to tie libertarianism to feminism too tightly. And one reason I disagree with the thick tendencies of many of my co-bloggers.

Thin libertarians go too far when they insist that any justificatory or motivational route to liberty is acceptable or fine. This is one reason I’m very keen to criticize libertarians friendly to racial discrimination and who cannot see that resisting racial discrimination is a corollary of libertarian commitments.

I would offer another way each side goes too far. Where some thick libertarians, as Vallier says, become too sure of their preferred route to liberty, some thin libertarians go too far in the opposite direction–they are so dedicated (and rightly so) to the non-aggression principle that they argue from NAP even regarding purely moral, non-political questions. That is, their worldview is liberty and they try to answer non-political questions politically. I have in mind not seasoned philosophers or writers, but simply the typical libertarian-in-the-street here, so this is not a criticism of the good people at LewRockwell.com or the Mises Institute.

A way in which thick libertarians go too far is demonstrated in Vallier’s following paragraph:

I prefer thick libertarians in part because they are fighting the good fight against the morally nastiest parts of the liberty movement. I agree with thick libertarians that some prominent libertarians ultimately frustrate the goals of the liberty movement by insisting on libertarianism’s radical neutrality, such that liberty is compatible with fundamentally “brutalist” impulses.

The Jeffrey Tucker link notwithstanding, this paragraph unintentionally shows Vallier’s cards and commits the same assumptive error as his thick colleagues. The assertion about moral nastiness in the liberty movement is itself unfair and, as Christopher Cantwell argued, an evidence-free myth. Sex and the State blogger Cathy Reisenwitz, whom I criticized a couple posts (i.e. many months) ago, infamously perpetuated this myth and was forced to apologize for doing so recently after people called her out. It is frustrating that left-libertarians like Vallier innocently criticize more radical libertarians for their supposed “nastiness” and in the same breath admit that these libertarians are “radically neutral.” If we radical libertarians are radically neutral, then we can’t possibly be nasty, at least not qua libertarians. At worst, we radical libertarians refuse to define actual nastiness out of a political philosophy that has nothing to say about nastiness. That may make Vallier, fellow BHLers and Tucker uncomfortable, but it doesn’t make us nasty.

On Tucker’s controversial “humanitarian” versus “brutalist” piece and think versus thin more generally: the argument that classical political liberalism is conducive to social non-political liberalism (or vice-versa) is appealing but short-sighted. While Tucker’s vision of a “beautiful anarchy” is inspiring and thoughtful and probably true, it does not follow that a free world has no place for illiberal social and moral conventions. He writes about “brutalists”:

To them, what’s impressive about liberty is that it allows people to assert their individual preferences, to form homogeneous tribes, to work out their biases in action, to ostracize people based on “politically incorrect” standards, to hate to their heart’s content so long as no violence is used as a means, to shout down people based on their demographics or political opinions, to be openly racist and sexist, to exclude and isolate and be generally malcontented with modernity, and to reject civil standards of values and etiquette in favor of antisocial norms.

This is a narrow view of the “radically neutral” libertarian, but even accepting this account, Tucker betrays his own vision for liberty. Is there no room in his “beautiful anarchy” for the market to experiment with socially harsh, even bigoted or demeaning customs, as well as more progressive and inclusive ones? Is there no room in his “beautiful anarchy” for the market to test traditions like chastity and even slut-shaming in one community, while forward-thinking free spirits and floozies openly craft a community of promiscuity and open sexuality? To the contrary, what is beautiful about anarchy is the idea that there is room for everyone; the difference being that we have rid ourselves of the institution whereby some small number of people among us claims massive power and authority to commit violence against the rest of us. Just as respect for freedom of speech requires that we accept and even encourage the expression of unpopular–even hateful–speech, to truly respect a system of anarchy means we must be open to the possibility that everything we know about morality and society is wrong. As long as we have the freedom to challenge differing ideas, this possibility should not scare us.

There have been both thick and thin arguments conflating the sphere of politics with the spheres of social mores and morality. On the former side, we have heard that liberty leads to feminism and racial equality and acceptance of homosexuality; on the latter side, we have heard that it is okay to slut-shame or libel or borrow copyrighted work without attribution, just because these things do not violate the non-aggression principle. Libertarians should recognize that the question of aggression, i.e. who may rightfully initiate force, is a political question and should be limited to the political sphere. There are at least thousands of interesting questions that libertarians–and non-libertarians–might find interesting, and as thinking individuals, they should pursue the answers to those questions. But when they do so, they should be honest and pursue this knowledge not as a libertarian, but as something separate.

The list of things I would change about people to make my world more beautiful–and, I humbly suggest, more free–include much better taste in music, more car color choices, less glorification of the alpha male in school, and less small-talk among new acquaintances. However, I would never claim that a good libertarian has a profound appreciation for the Coen brothers or can effortlessly strike up a conversation with a total stranger. While my preferences appear to me obviously conducive to freedom, others almost certainly disagree, and it would be arrogant of me to claim that my vision of the beautiful society captures best the thrust of the purpose of liberty, as Tucker claims “humanitarianism” does. It might be a little depressing to consider that anarchy might have room for racism, evangelical Christians with little tolerance for homosexuality, and people for the unethical treatment of animals. In fact, a free society initially might appear little different than the current state society, besides being much more prosperous, peaceful and efficient. The only attribute a libertarian can confidently claim about a free society is its lack of tolerance for the state and other forms of aggressive violence between persons. That does not mean that we should not care about racism, heterosexism, poaching and global warming. We probably should, but unless aggression against property rights is concerned, we should not claim these issues as important to the political philosophy of libertarianism. It is a philosophy with limited scope, but that does not limit the philosopher’s scope.


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The Right to Remain Out of Prison

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Sloppy libertarianism

Cathy Reisenwitz, whom I have not read before this, is a rising libertarian blogger about whom I have heard nothing but good things. She runs Sex and the State and, apparently, Thoughts on Liberty. I wish I could report that my first experience with her had been more positive (hey-o) but here we are. Her latest post at the latter blog calls into question either her motives or her understanding of liberty, and I hope it is the latter.

The post is titled “Shaming Others Is Unjustifiable Coercion,” and besides the sloppy title (I promise it is possible to justify this or almost any type of coercion; the president made a speech last night justifying, if you can believe it, unprovoked bombing of Syria!), there are several errors. These are errors from a logical standpoint, a libertarian one, or both.

We may as well start with the word coercion. As noted professional libertarian Stephan Kinsella pointed out in Reisenwitz’s comment section, libertarians are not opposed to coercion. If I get jumped on the way to the corner store and I take a swing at my attacker, I am using coercion. Libertarians have no problem with this. Libertarians have a problem with the initiation of coercion, of which only the attacker is guilty. So it is really a poor choice of words that muddies libertarian theory.

Using a word in an unclear manner is a forgivable offense; completely misusing it is another thing. Reisenwitz argues the libertarian’s aversion to state coercion should also apply to the crime of slut-shaming. She starts, “Somewhere we’ve decided that the tools the state uses to influence behavior are ‘coercion’ while the tools non-state actors use are cooperation.” This is partially correct. Yes, anything the state does is coercion because that is the only tool a state has–force or the threat of it. However, non-state actors are not limited to cooperation. This view is a complete misunderstanding of libertarian theory; one of the basic premises behind the non-aggression principle, for example, is that state actors are not to be treated differently from private actors. A state actor who engages in aggression is no more or less just in his action, from a theoretical standpoint, than a private actor who engages in the same act. Thus, for example, taxation is theft. But Reisenwitz’s strawman argument is that libertarians think non-state actors are incapable of coercion. Not so; libertarians denounce, or should denounce, aggressive coercion by everyone. It just happens that the state is a big priority.

Reisenwitz’s thought continues [bold in original]: “Where is the justification for this? I didn’t sign a contract with slut-shamers any more than I did with my government. I may find complete ostracism much more oppressive than a small fine.” First, oppressive? As an English major, sloppiness and incoherence bother me greatly but when they result in damage to liberty by appealing to the emotional left I start to lose it. There very well may be an alternative use for the word “oppression” as it applies to your mental state or social circumstances, just as “freedom of the mind” or “freedom from want” may be appropriate at times. However, these usages should never be part of a libertarian argument. The clearest and most useful way to discuss libertarian theory is to discuss the appropriateness of force, and being “oppressed” by ostracism is a different class from  oppression in the way a libertarian understands it. That is, now matter how small the fine may be, a state actor who imposes one on you with the backing of violent force is oppressing you. That’s why we’re all in this fight, or so I thought.

Second, Reisenwitz’s argument from contract theory is baffling. She wants us to accept that we should sign a contract any time we want to sling verbal abuses at each other? Is my blog post coercing her in some way, because of the shame she might feel after reading my criticism of her logic (I realize this example would work better if my blog approached the popularity of hers)? If Reisenwitz’s rightful rejection of social contract theory were to become the law of the land, she would be disappointed to find that the free society that resulted would continue to include slut-shamers and slut-shaming.

Her sloppy libertarianism continues: “What right then does anyone have to coerce me by threatening to criticize, ridicule, shame or ostracize me?” Once again, some libertarians see liberty through a different lens than others, but no libertarian who recognizes rights would argue that “threatening to criticize, ridicule, shame or ostracize” is some kind of violation. A layman’s wording of the non-aggression principle would go something like, “an individual has the right to do whatever he likes, as long as he does not harm anyone else (i.e. violate another’s rights).” On what grounds is criticism, ridicule, shaming or ostracizing coercion, let alone merely threatening to do these things? One is coercing a woman by threatening to call her a slut? Coercing her maybe in an abstract sense, the way Reisenwitz feels “oppressed” in an abstract sense by ostracism.

Reisenwitz wraps it up by pleading with the reader to gently persuade her instead of “threatening” her with criticism, shame, etc. Once again, why is the threat worse than the actual criticism? Is she using the word “threat” because it sounds like something that her readers might consider aggression, e.g. a credible bomb threat? Anyway, gentle and friendly persuasion might be the better way to persuade someone to change her ways, but this has nothing to do with liberty, no matter how much Reisenwitz might want it to. The question is whether it is in line with liberty for a libertarian to criticize, shame, ridicule, or ostracize people for bad behavior, or even threaten to do so. If the answer is no, the word “libertarian” has no meaning.

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Glenn “Kane” Jacobs on political compromise

The wrestler Kane, real name Glenn Jacobs, has written a spot-on condemnation of political compromise over at LewRockwell.com. He would be an excellent choice to run against Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, as is rumored. The article follows:

A letter which was recently signed by a number of Tennessee conservative groups is causing quite a stir, especially in the left-wing blogosphere. The letter urges Tennessee’s incumbent Republican senator, the proudly moderate Lamar Alexander, to forego the rigors of another campaign and retire with dignity, or, as the media puts it, face a challenge from “the Right.”

The portion of the letter which has received the most attention reads: “During your tenure in the Senate we have no doubt that you voted in a way which you felt was appropriate. Unfortunately, our great nation can no longer afford compromise and bipartisanship, two traits for which you have become famous. America faces serious challenges and needs policymakers who will defend conservative values, not work with those who are actively undermining those values.”

I was the one who suggested this particular passage in the letter.

I never dreamed, however, that the Left would latch onto it with such frenzy. In hindsight, however, this reaction makes perfect sense as compromise is the primary implement in the Left’s toolbox.

Nor did I think that it would be used by Establishment political commentators as an example of the naiveté of those of us who stand on principle. According to them, when it comes to government, you must leave your principles at the door. Governing is for grown-ups; political philosophy is for children.

My, oh, my, aren’t the grown-ups doing such a marvelous job?!

By the way, while the rest of us see politics as Left versus Right, the Establishment sees it as Them (the rightful rulers) versus Us (the unwashed, ignorant masses). See this editorial in the New York Times for evidence of that attitude.

America is lurching from one crisis to the next. Once great cities are going bankrupt. The current economic “recovery” is a tragic parody. Debt keeps piling up. Young people graduate from college with no job prospects, but the albatross of student loan debt around their necks. A record number of people are on food stamps. The underclass is often sentenced to a lifetime of poverty, yet the financial elites keep getting richer. The US–the Land of the Free–has the highest incarceration rate in the world. And it seems that nearly every week a new scandal unfolds in Washington, DC.

Is all of this normal, as the Establishment would have us believe? If not, how did it happen?

I believe that it has happened because too many folks lack guiding principles when it comes to government. As the saying goes, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Instead of contemplating political philosophy, we celebrate personality. Instead of admiring integrity, i.e., being true to one’s philosophy, we worship power.

This pragmatic approach to politics means that our only concern is if the trains run on time. We don’t usually think about where the trains are headed.

Our fear that the trains will stop and everything will fall apart has played right into the political class’s hands.

The Left’s strategy of incrementalism and its use of the Hegelian Dialectic has been very effective. The process is simply. The Left stakes out an extreme position. Anyone who disagrees with them is demonized as an “extremist” or an “obstructionist.” Fearing that the train schedule will be disrupted, moderates compromise on their previous position and move to the Left. This new position is the starting point for when the whole process starts again.

Thus, with a few notable exceptions, our vaunted two-party political system is not an oppositional one. It consist of one party which seeks to grow the government at an extreme rate. The other party is simply comfortable growing the government at a slower rate.

Those of us who want to shrink the government are labelled as “out of the mainstream” and relegated to the “fringes” of the political debate.

Isn’t it ironic that in every other facet of our lives except politics, the term “no compromise” means of “the highest quality?”

Despite what the political class would have us believe, compromise is not a virtue. When it comes to our interpersonal relationships, we would never accept a little theft or a small beating. Why is it that we don’t hold the state to this same moral standard? I guess a little bit of deadly poison is okay in some cases.

When it comes to your freedom, compromise does not benefit you. It only benefits the politicians. As Harry Browne once said, ‘whenever politicians talk about “compromise” it always means compromising away our liberties and property.’

Copyright © 2013 by LewRockwell.com.

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Speed Limit Tyranny

Eric Peters, often featured on LewRockwell.com, has a new post up about speed limit laws that captures brilliantly the immorality of such ostensibly reasonable laws. Even ardent limited-state libertarians will defend speed limit laws on the grounds that they are imposed by local governments, as opposed to the state or federal polities. While not quarreling with the assertion that local governance is generally less harmful, I hope defenders of “limited government” can see that “local” does not necessarily equate to “limited”:

The law accommodates the least common denominator – and punishes anyone who rises above it and dares to assert it.

Punishment no longer correlates to harm done – or even plausibly threatened. It is enough merely to fail to abide by whatever collectivized, least-common-denominator edict is promulgated by the authorities. To disobey “the law.” That is all that matters.

Just like laws against intoxicated driving, laws against speeding treat the citizen as a child, unable to determine without guidance how to conduct himself in the company of others. So the state scolds him like an embarrassed mother at the grocery store. Some wise, loved, bleeding-heart bureaucrat draws a line at some number she decides no one should ever exceed, and anyone who disagrees with her judgment will have to live with it. Why? Because it is “the law.” What is the law? We are not supposed to ask; we are supposed to obey, and if we do not, we go to jail. This is apparently how adults make decisions in the 21st century in the United States of America, the freest democracy of all time.

A Montana speed limit sign that almost comes close to reasonable. (Via flickr)

Most people will object at this point, “Be reasonable. It’s not a perfect system, but without it, we would have chaos. Without speed limits, there would be teenagers racing up and down the street, and pedestrians would be in constant danger of flattening.” This is paranoia; reality shows otherwise. Motorists will drive at whatever speed they decide is safe, and artificially changing the “speed limit” does not change that. Because bureaucrats are usually sensible enough to conform their “speed limits” to however fast most drivers are already going, the harm they cause is diminished somewhat. Still, as in all other areas of human action, central planning of speed limits does not work. No matter how much the bureaucrat knows, she cannot possibly arrive at a more accurate solution than the motorists will arrive at voluntarily and organically. There is nothing “reasonable” about allowing the police to extract money from motorists for expressing different preferences or judgment than our wise bureaucrat. This is anything but reasonable; it is theft from one individual at the behest of another who has more political power. Even if it was “reasonable,” and even if central planning “worked,” speed limits would still be illegitimate. Peters explains:

As a reformed minarchist conservative, one of the last intellectual obstacles I overcame was coming to accept that any use of force prior to actual harm done is always and necessarily illegitimate – and the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. What begins as “reasonable” restrictions or prior restraint soon become anything but reasonable. And why? Because if you cannot establish definitively that an actual harm has been done – then you have opened the door to the idea of punishing people for things not actually done. Victimless “crimes.”

The essence of tyranny.

One can make an argument that harm is done by speeders, or for that matter drunk drivers, but the argument cannot hold water unless one can show that all speeders and drunk drivers cause this particular harm. If one is to defend speed limit laws, one must then show that it is just to punish all speeders or drunk drivers for the results of isolated cases. For the speed limit apologist’s claim to be legitimate, he must prove that it is just to extract some petty amount of money ($150 for the speeding cameras in Washington, D.C., or double if the violator does not pay up immediately) from every individual who exceeds a speed which a particular government official has decided is dangerous. If he cannot show that it is just for the local government to take this money for its own purposes, he must accept the conclusion that Peters has accepted: speed limit laws are tyrannical.

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Video: Ron Paul’s Exit Interview

Retiring 12-term congressman and three-time former presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas did an “exit interview” with The Washington Post today. He had little new to say, but the tidbit at the end was rather striking, particularly in its relevance to this blog’s mission: “The people who, in a way, admit they’re inconsistent, get to run the legislative system.”

If that doesn’t summarize everything wrong with what passes for law in modern society, it at least highlights the pervasive corruption in America’s political system. Dr. Paul appears hopeful that someday consistent people–that is, people with actual coherent principles, will “run the show” if the young people catch on to his message. Let us hope his wisdom holds as true on this as it has in the past.

For now, however, Washington, D.C. is a city which incentivizes inconsistency. It rewards people who, once in office, betray every well-meaning intention and good-faith promise on which they were elected. The misplaced values of compromise and bipartisanship ensure a least-common-denominator government, one which necessarily strays from freedom and toward centralized power. Unfortunately for everyone, even those who disagree with his policies, today’s federal government is a harsh and unwelcoming environment for steadfast do-gooders like Dr. Paul.

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Tough on Crime or Cruel and Unusual on Punishment?

What did these folks and the other 80% of Californians miss?
(via The Sun)

I stumbled into a debate with a classmate, who fancies himself a progressive, over some of California’s ballot initiatives. We agreed referendums and initiatives suck; that surprised me because progressives seem to prefer direct democracy over republicanism. There’s a reason California has so much of the former.

Anyway, the initiatives in question were all related to crime and punishment. One was a repeal of the death penalty, one was a softening of the infamously harsh Three Strikes Law, and one was an anti-human trafficking proposition. To my slight surprise, I came out sounding like the bleeding heart leftist on all three.

There was no big debate over the death penalty; I was bemused he voted against repeal, but did not press him on it (after all, what difference would his vote have made?). Rarely is capital punishment the least controversial topic of conversation.

We the Californians decided, back in the ’90s, to avenge the horrible murder-kidnapping of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by getting Tough on Crime™. From now on, we collectively murmured, California would take the no-bullshit route to crime prevention—and to show we were serious, we invoked America’s pastime in naming the law. Three strikes and you’re out. And by out, we meant shut off from society, rotting alone in a cage until you die. It sounds harsh, but we wanted to deter the most serious and abhorrent crimes, like the one that lost us Polly Klaas.

Never mind that the law applies to minor drug offenses (and you can get more than one strike at a time), and puts petty shoplifters away for good. My leftist classmate and a moderate conservative classmate who was listening both protested that, duh, if they don’t want to go to jail, they shouldn’t sell weed (or shoplift, or drive drunk). Sounds a bit like “If she didn’t want to get raped, she shouldn’t have worn that skimpy outfit.” An extreme comparison? Not in the least; in both cases the punishment does not even remotely fit the crime, and the crime may not really be a crime at all. Selling marijuana, like wearing a skimpy outfit, is at worst a behavior that some or most of us frown upon, not something to justify prison time or rape.

Thankfully, California voters overwhelmingly agree and Proposition 36 passed. Not only that, it applies retroactively to anyone in jail who was never convicted of serious, violent crimes.

Prop. 35, the human trafficking initiative, also passed with flying colors, although this time, this was not a sign of cool temperament and reason winning the day. My conservative friend and my progressive friend once again agreed: How the hell can you be against requiring people convicted of human trafficking to register as sex offenders?

First, because I don’t care for the idea of punishing crimes based on the degree of disgust they incite in us. Justice is about equal recompense for harm done, not brutalizing or shaming people we don’t like. Second, because the proposition was not as simple as just adding human traffickers to the list.

It also requires these offenders to register with the state all their email addresses, Internet service providers, screen names and such. It also requires them to inform the police every time they comment on Yelp or blog or troll the latest Paul Krugman column.

My friend protests that he has no sympathy for human traffickers. Neither do I. Really! But why do we inflict this punishment on them and not murderers or vandals? Surely, they are also a detriment to society and monitoring their activities could make us safer. Nevertheless, these people have rights, and if we do not allow them their rights, our law is worthless. I have no strong opinion on how much jail time human traffickers should get—I find it suspect Prop. 35 raised it—but regardless, our society so far is pretty good about not punishing the same crime multiple times.

Perhaps the reason the death penalty issue did not turn into an extended discussion is because there is nothing obviously absurd about either side. I have strong reasons for wanting repeal, but can admit that at least in theory, the punishment fits the crime. We assign the death penalty almost exclusively to those offenders who bring intentional death upon others, and California has not done this since 2006.

The other two laws, however, are cases of tough-for-the-sake-of-it political posturing. Three Strikes, especially before the sensible vote last week, is a feel-good catch phrase signifying an arbitrary law named after a dead kid. Prop. 35 is well intended and sounds good, but it is an assault on speech and privacy rights, both of which belong to even the most hated members of society.

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