April 9, 2012
Silly Libertarians

Well, it finally happened: I finally read a libertarian post so silly I couldn’t resist a response.

To simplify, the libertarian in question claimed that no decision was legitimate unless he had consented to it, and that no prior decision could compel his compliance as he had not consented to it.

There are at least three profound things wrong with this argument: it’s wrong on its face; it’s wrong on social institutions; and it has no promise for building a real world social order. Let me take each in turn.

First, as to the premise: it’s just wrong. For example, I have an 8 1/2 month old son, and I make decisions for him all the time that are entirely legitimate and (probably) appropriate. Likewise, we generally don’t advocate letting crazy people kill themselves, or allowing gunmen to walk into crowded rooms and open fire. There are all kinds of circumstances in which one legitimately has one’s right to make a specific decision taken away, and in which one’s freedom to consent to an act (such as your incarceration) is denied. A blanket statement “never” is, well, silly.

Now, anticipating the objection that what the person meant to say—but didn’t, even in a follow up post—was that all RATIONAL people should have absolute freedom of choice, let me state that the politics of determining who is and isn’t “rational” are fraught with bias. Ask any woman in history who was denied the right to vote on the grounds that they were “emotional” not “rational,” or any ex-slave who was deemed (by their former masters) to be too “child-like” to be a full member of society. “Rational” is a lovely word. It’s also a tool of repression. 

Second, as to the way social institutions work, the simple fact is that by the time my son is of an age where he might choose to be, god help us, a libertarian, he will have benefitted from a vast array of social goods and services that depended on inter-generational commitments of time and labor and money. He will have drunk, bathed and played in untold gallons of safe water. He will have breathed safe air and eaten food that (basically) was safe. He will have not been electrocuted each time he turned on a light switch—which delivered power across an array of regulated mechanisms over large spaces of territory. And he will have enjoyed much, much more. Here’s the thing, though: all of it—ALL OF IT—will have been organized and paid for at least by his parents’ taxes and fees, his grandparents’ and fees, and his great-grandparents’ taxes and fees. 

The simple fact is that if you wish to have any kind of structure, institution or practice that lasts more than the time it takes two people to exchange whatever good or service they are exchanging, then a commitment beyond a one-to-one agreement is necessary. This need only grows more significant and more complex and social organizations expand in size and scope. Of course, as an adult one can choose to live outside these social orders: go and become a hermit. But if you wish to enjoy the benefits of society, you have to pay some of the costs of society. At least in a democracy you (ideally) get to have some say over those costs.

Third, on what should we do instead, let me say that I have never, ever heard a libertarian even vaguely hint at an answer to this. I have seen an endless number of “the government sucks” posts from libertarians but not a single answer to the question: how do I get electricity in a libertarian world? Where everyone has to consent to everything all the time? How do I get safe water? How do I make NASA and a national park and, yes, how do I make sure that actual enemies don’t attack? 

It’s one thing to critique the way the US does these things now. Indeed, I do it all the time. But it’s quite another to think through an alternative. And I have never seen a libertarian do this in even a vaguely compelling, real world way. Until you can answer these questions, and address my first two points with more than a mocking tone and a fantastical story, please, libertarians, I beg you:

stop claiming no decision or action taken by anyone else can ever be legitimate over you in any way. Just stop.  

February 26, 2012
The #Politics Tag: What I Need as an editor

I’ve had about a week as a #Politics editor for Tumblr, and I have few requests:

1. Libertarian posts that engage the complexities of libertarian ideology as translated into political practice.

Most of the libertarian posts that come up on my dashboard are little more than ideological screeds. They begin from “libertarianism is the answer to all issues of human freedom” and end with “everything else is a step on the path to totalitarianism.”

Aside from the fact that the argument is just silly—that things can go a way doesn’t mean they will or must—the main problem I have with these posts is that they seem cut out of time. They seem utterly unaware of or indifferent to the causes of the rise of the welfare state, the profound limitations on “free markets” when transparency does not and cannot exist, etc.  Inflation existed BEFORE the US and the rest of the world went off the gold standard after all, and there were labor wars in this country and around the industrialized world that included the assassination of a US President (McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist/labor activist). I would love to see some libertarian posts that addressed complexities such as these and then explained how, in a real world way, libertarian policies offer better alternatives to liberal or conservative ones.

2. Actual conservative posts, particularly ones that say something other than “Obama sucks.”

Perhaps it is my own lack of search ability in Tumblr, or perhaps it is the fact that blogging platforms seem disproportionately havens for younger, liberal/libertarian oriented people, but I have struggled to find posts expressing thoughtful, considered conservative alternatives to various policies and problems.

3. And to the Tumblr staff:

When I highlight a post, I am often interested in the  commentary associated with it that was added by a reblogger—particularly when the commentary offers needed corrections, new information, or just an alternative perspective on the issue at hand. All that goes away if I highlight the post in the #Politics tag. Which is annoying.

Is this so much to ask? Say something new, interesting, incisive and thoughtful and I will be happy to promote your piece—even if I don’t agree with it. If you don’t post the content, I can’t highlight it in the #Politics tag.

September 21, 2011
It’s an approach …

The college libertarians rallying on the quad outside my window (on what, I must say, is a staggeringly beautiful day for a rally … or, more accurately, for standing around yelling into a bullhorn while no one pays attention to you) just made their case for supporting their cause thusly:

"Voting for the Democratic or Republican parties is like sleeping with your ex-girlfriend: they’ve already wronged you so many times, why do you go back to them?"

It should be noted that the libertarians appear to have no female members. Or female audience members.

September 12, 2011
"The airlines are responsible for carrying their cargo and their passengers. Why should we assume that a bureaucracy can do better?"

Ron Paul, during the Republican presidential debate at the Reagan library.

I know I blogged this the other day, but I just ran across something that I forgot to mention:

  • On 9/11, airport security in the United States was performed by private companies hired by the airlines. 

If only Brian Williams had thought to follow up on that.

September 9, 2011
"The airlines are responsible for carrying their cargo and their passengers. Why should we assume that a bureaucracy can do better?"

Ron Paul, R-TX, during the Republican debate at the Reagan Library.

I say go for it. And let’s not stop there:

—auto manufacturers never resisted seatbelts, airbags or antilock brakes (or fireproof gas tanks, or break away steering wheels, or … ), so I am sure they will spontaneously adopt new safety technologies going forward.

—the food and drug companies never put rat carcasses in sausages, or cocaine in “health pills” when they were unregulated, so I am sure they can be trusted to never do anything like that again.

—the financial markets have always been made up of sophisticated, self-interested investors who would never buy an interlocking set of mutually reinforcing investment packages that they actually didn’t understand, crashing the global economy as a consequence, so I am sure they’ll not do it in the future.

—manufacturers never used to make cribs that collapsed on babies’ heads, strangling them, or clothes that were fire hazards filled with toxic chemicals, so I am sure they’ll never do it in the future. The same can be said for food products, lead painted toys, etc.

I mean really—the market is perfectly self-regulating and all government ever does is wreck things.

Then again, if pigs had wings they might be able to fly.

August 31, 2011
No, libertarians and tea partiers: the US is not on the verge of becoming a police state

Recently, I’ve been getting a fair number of what might be called “evil bureaucrat” posts from libertarian blogs I follow. In these posts, someone—more often than not a police officer—behaves in some officious and offensive way and abuses their power to the ill of the community. The implication is then drawn (sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly), that such actions and abuses are typical of state officials, and so long as public officers behave like this, the state should be limited in its powers and authorities.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with these posts. Democracy in fact requires citizens to be vigilant in ensuring that public officials do not abuse their powers: if citizens don’t hold government accountable for its acts, who will?

Moreover, these libertarian-minded posts are utterly correct in that state officials do sometimes abuse their power, and so as a consequence society simply cannot trust that “government will just do the right thing.” Indeed, speaking as one who severely criticized the state for taking us to war in Iraq, I deeply recognize that the state doesn’t always “do the right thing.”

That said, I find these posts annoying. It seems to me that they are premised on the false notion that the plural of anecdote is data. That is, they are premised on the assumption that so long as abuse of power can occur, all exercise of state power is dangerous and must be constrained.

Unfortunately, this is the worst kind of slippery slope argument. It moves from “wow, this is a problem,” to “wow, since bad stuff happens we are one step away from living in a hellish police state” in one move. But this is silly: that something might happen does not mean that it is likely to happen. For example, it is possible that a cop can be a jerk (or a jerk can be a cop, which is also true sometimes) without society teetering on the edge away from authoritarianism. It is possible for a society to have corruption in it (and it does) without all state action being corrupt.

For me, the dilemma of state power is summarized in one image: George Wallace’s infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” seeking to prevent the University of Alabama from being integrated in 1963. (Most of you only know this from Forrest Gump, but I’ve posted a real picture of the scene here.)

Stand in the Schoolhouse Door

Wallace was eventually removed from the doorway at the urging and effort of the National Guard. The thing is, as Governor of Alabama, George Wallace was the commander in chief of the Alabama National Guard—the very people who moved him from the schoolhouse door. His authority was superseded by John Kennedy’s Constitutional right to nationalize the Alabama National Guard, thereby making the Al. National Guard a federal force. Thus Wallace’s segregationist stand was ended by a military force made up of people who mostly shared his political values (the Alabama Guard’s troops), but who followed their constitutional duty to accept the orders of the President of the United States when ordered to do so.

The test of a democratic society is not whether all of its officials behave as they ought to all of the time. The test of a democratic society is what it does when its officials screw up. Often, the answer is: not enough. But often enough, the answer is: we send in the National Guard to make us live up to the ideals we claim to believe in.

May 24, 2010
Rand Paul is an idiot, not a racist

So Rand Paul kicked up a firestorm last week with his comments suggesting that parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may have gone too far in violating individual property rights in an effort to break the stranglehold of racism and segregation in American society.  Or, it might better be said that a firestorm kicked up around his comments—which, it turns out, is pretty much the same thing.

Let me first make the obligatory point that I am quite sure Rand Paul is an intelligent person.  He has an MD, and while not all MDs are shining intellectuals, it’s not the easiest degree to get.  It also turns out that doctors are the second-most represented profession in Congress—after, as you have no doubt guessed, lawyers. He’s no doubt a good father and husband and his friends and his pets surely like him, too.

None of which changes the fact that he’s an idiot, for at least three reasons.

First, he appears to have a fairly primitive libertarian ideology.  In this ideology, property rights are crucial, and individual choice is the operative principle through which legitimacy is conferred.  What people choose to do in their private lives and in their private choices is their business.  Laws compelling change are compulsion of a sort that tends, if does not necessarily lead, to tyranny.

This is all fine and well and good in the abstract, but what the authors of the 1964 Civil Rights Act understood, and courts have subsequently confirmed again and again, is that business in America rests on a vast network of social, legal and political practices.  Our food has to meet various safety standards; water and sewage and refuse systems have rules that have to be met if a business is to operate; contracts have to be enforced.  What the Civil Rights Act properly did was draw a line that said that if your business or enterprise offered services or products to the public, drawing on this network of social institutions, it had to comply with the law.  If it didn’t, it could continue to discriminate pretty much however it wanted. Indeed, if anything it is more consistent to argue that since private, discriminatory clubs use electricity, water, sewage, road and other systems that are tied to public life, they should have to comply with the law than it is to argue that they should be left alone.

Frankly, it takes a pretty dedicated ideologue not to get this distinction and to continue to reargue the abstract logic of a property-rights critique of a law passed the year I was born.  It’s primitive libertarianism, and it deservedly got Paul into trouble.  (Such property-rights thinking seems to be at the root of Paul’s claim that President Obama was unpatriotic for criticizing a business—BRITISH PETROLEUM.)

Second, Paul seems to think that people actually want politicians to be ideologically consistent.  I know we always criticize “flip floppers” and “opportunists,” but the simple fact is that Americans almost always choose the inconsistent politician over the ideologically consistent one.  This is, after all, a country in which people demanding cuts to “Big Government” held up protest signs opposing the health care reform bill with the slogan, “Get your government hands off my Medicare!”  All while demanding government round up all illegal aliens and get them out of the country.  (And yes, the left has similarly inconsistent ideas, like promoting freedom through centralized government regulation.) 

As a practical matter, our politicians are inconsistent because WE are inconsistent.  We rarely elect ideologues, and when we do, they tend to have self-limiting influence because the politicians they need to work with to accomplish various goals face fickle electorates who want Social Security saved, along with Medicare and defense spending, all while cutting taxes.  (Taken together, the bailout, interest on the debt, SS, Medicare, and defense make up something like 70% of the US budget.  You could eliminate every other program—0 them out—and the US would still have a budget deficit this year.  A big one.)

Third, Paul apparently has precisely no understanding of the nature of modern media coverage of elections.  As it happens, I am major critic of the media, particularly in its coverage of politics and political life, but it works the way it works today, and if you are going to get into the game, you better know the rules.  (Advice Sarah Palin should have heeded in 2008.) It’s all about the flub, the mistake, the misstep: that’s what makes good TV (and good blog fodder).  You have 10 seconds to make a point: insert sound bite here.  It is impossible—and I mean impossible—to make a subtle point with nuance and distinction.  Besides, anything you say will be instantly parsed by critics and fans on endless blog sites and talking heads shows, so you have to make it as hard as possible for such people to willfully misrepresent what you are trying to say.  And they will misrepresent it, whether they oppose you or support you.

I happen to think this is a terrible way to run politics.  CNN and the 24 news cycle did substantial harm to this nation’s capacity to get things done; the internet has only intensified this reality.  But it is nonetheless true, and if one is going to try to be one of the 100 people on the planet who is a US Senator, you better go to media school and figure it out. 

Smart people can be really stupid some times.  This was Rand Paul’s turn. It should be interesting to see how he proceeds from here.