Posts tagged The Freeman

There’s no “I” in “Health Care Reform”

To-day, in the online edition of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, you’ll find the following column — in which I find myself in the unusual position of saying that David Brooks did say one true thing in his New York Times column:

The Health Care Debate Has Been “Meaningful”? It Just Ain’t So!

There’s no I in health care reform

Credit where credit is due: David Brooks does say one true thing in his New York Times column The Values Question (Nov. 24) on government health care reform: The system after reform will look as it does today, only bigger and more expensive.

Brooks is certainly right that no health care reform proposal with any chance in mainstream partisan politics promises any fundamental change to the status quo. What we have had is a system where pervasive government regulation, subsidy, and mandated captive markets corral workers into an industry driven by sky-high costs, managed by bureaucratic pencil-pushing and corporate economizing (often at the expense of innocent people’s health or lives), and owned by a handful of uncompetitive, well-entrenched incumbent corporations. No mainstream reform proposal will change anything about that. The proposals mainly concerned themselves with introducing new government subsidies and new captive-market mandates to force yet more workers and money into the broken system.

But Brooks takes all this as a sign that the health care debate is about fundamental values. I think it’s a sign that conventional political debate is a superficial squabble over meaningless details. The real debate is about grammar.

— Charles Johnson, The Freeman Online (2009-12-22): The Health Care Debate Has Been Meaningful? It Just Ain’t So!

For more on why (although, if you’ve been here a while, you might be abe to guess), you can read the whole thing at the Freeman‘s website. The column will also be appearing in print in the March 2010 magazine.

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Without remorse

From Thomas Szasz The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty (May 2009): The Shame of Medicine: The Case of Alan Turing:

The persecution of homosexuals is paradigmatic of the history of psychiatry’s monumental blunders and brutalities and of its policy of never acknowledging nor apologizing for them. Instead, organized psychiatry intensifies the celebration of its founding quack, Benjamin Rush (1746–1813). Declared Rush, I have selected those two symptoms [murder and theft] of this disease [crime] (for they are not vices) from its other morbid effects, in order to rescue persons affected with them from the arm of the law, and render them the subjects of the kind and lenient hand of medicine. What did Rush mean when he spoke of medical kindness and lenience? Lamenting the excess of the passion for liberty inflamed by the successful issue of the [Revolutionary] war, he explained, Were we to live our lives over again and engage in the same benevolent enterprise, our means should not be reasoning but bleeding, purging, low diet, and the tranquilizing chair. Psychiatry–glorifying the use of coercion as cure–is the shame of medicine.

From Bryan Caplan, EconLog (2009-04-24): Szasz on the Turing Tragedy:

In the last couple of decades, a lot of people have apologized for the past crimes of the groups with which they identify: the U.S. for Japanese internment, the Church for Galileo, Swiss bankers for Nazi money laundering, even the Japanese (kind of) for their war crimes. I’d like to see psychiatrists do the same — to admit that unusual preferences are not disease, affirm that it is wrong to treat people against their will, and turn their backs on the greats of their profession who believed in and practiced coercive therapy.

I’d like it, too. Psychiatrists expect to be taken seriously, both as scientific experts and as benevolent caretakers; I think at least a minimal requirement of being taken seriously on these claims would be for them to own up to the fact that within living memory, their discipline was rife with theories now universally regarded as the worst sort of politically-motivated pseudoscience and therapeutic practices now universally reviled as the worst sort of atrocities. They have been wrong about everything and they ruined life after life with the most appalling sorts of brain-damaging treatment on the basis of these pseudoscientific superstitions. If shrinks want to be taken seriously, they need to start by owning up to their record; because if they can’t do so much as that, the rest of us have every reason to expect that they’ve done nothing to correct the systematic vices that led to the ridiculous lies and sadistic horrors they were inflicting as recently as 30-40 years ago. But I don’t expect anything like it to happen this side of the revolution.*. As Szasz says in The Freeman: Ideas On Liberty (July/August 2009): The Shame of Medicine: The Depravity of Psychiatry:

I am grateful to Caplan for calling attention to a problem most people prefer to ignore. His expectation will, however, not be fulfilled, and it is important to understand why. Claiming competence in astronomy and incarcerating heretics are not integral to the identity of the Catholic Church. In contrast, claiming competence in predicting dangerousness and incarcerating persons alleged to be so because of mental illness are integral to the psychiatric enterprise.

From GT 2008-06-24: Medicated madness

Of all the horrible things that institutional psychiatry routinely does, one of the most infuriating for me is its stupidly aggressive lack of anything approaching self-consciousness or critical reflection. In a field where, not half a century ago, patients were routinely locked away in filthy hellholes that would be hard to distinguish from a medieval dungeon, and, once confined, subjected, against their will, to restraints, tortures and mutilations that would have made Torquemada blush — camphor shock torture, repeated massive electric shocks to the brain, and, at the end of the road, an icepick jabbed through the eye socket and rotated so as to mutilate the brain and deliberately destroy centers of personality and higher cognition — in a field, I say, where all this was dignified as brain damaging therapeutics and regarded as best practices for a scientifically-informed helping profession — in a field where current practitioners now more or less universally agree that torture like this was based on little more than pseudoscience and quackery, and where almost no-one in their right mind would propose ever using practices like these on any patient today — in a field, that is to say, where within living memory thousands of people were subjected to the worst kinds of sadism and torture that the human mind can devise, and all of it based on what are now almost universally acknowledged follies, illusions and lies indulged in by the recognized experts of the field — in such a field, you might expect at least a little bit of humility, historical awareness, and decent caution, rather than sanctimonious self-righteousness and aggressive obliviousness to the idea that psychiatric practice itself might perhaps be part of the problem.

In point of fact, there are countless cases like this one, cases where a life crisis becomes the occasion of massive psychiatric intervention, and where the intervention itself spirals into years of institutionally- and chemically-manufactured madness; in which the stereotypical behavior of the psychiatric patient, invariably passed off as part of her disease, can in fact be traced quite directly to the physiological, behavioral and social effects of the forced drugging, the forced confinement in hospital psychoprisons, and other aspects of psychiatric therapy. Psychiatrists then have the gall to use those same symptoms, created by their own therapy, as proof of the need for even more of the same.

Under the present circumstances, there is no reason to believe that individual psychiatrists or psychiatric institutions will ever trouble themselves to acknowledge this possibility or to incorporate it into their practice in any way that matters. It’s not just the financial incentives — although those are certainly there, and those are certainly important. The problem that underlies the financial problem is that psychiatrists have no real reason to care whether they get things right or not. Why should they? They are backed by cultural prejudices in favor of doctors; they can dismiss any complaints by their patients as literally the ravings of lunatics, and almost no-one will bat an eye; they are backed up by the force of the law, which gives them the power to force their latest and greatest therapies on a literally captive market of unwilling patients. Unless and until psychiatrists no longer have the privilege of inflicting nonconsensual treatment, which is to say, unless and until they become directly accountable to the will and desires of the people for whose benefit they claim to be acting, cases just like Nikki’s are going to happen again, and again, and again.

Footnote. For reference, when I talk about The Revolution, I mean a qualitative social transformation that upends, or completely abolishes, existing relationships of social power. Not necessarily an armed uprising. And not necessarily a discrete event that is obvious to all, most, or even any of the people living through it.

How to be social while staying civilized

The latest issue of The Freeman (January/February 2009) — is now available online at their new and glossy revamped website. I mention this partly for its own sake, but partly also because, one of the things that you will find in that new issue, at the new website, is this:

Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain’t So!

By Charles Johnson • January 2009

Individualists get a bad rap in politics these days. That should come as no surprise; politics these days is dominated by electoral politics, and electoral politics is an essentially anti-individualistic enterprise. With free markets and other forms of voluntary association, people who can’t agree on what’s worthwhile can go their own ways. But the point of government elections is to give people in the political majority a means for forcing through their favorite laws, projects, and rulers over the objections of people in the political minority, and making everybody obey those laws, fund or participate in those projects, and acknowledge those rulers.

Still, even if it is unrealistic to expect individualism to get much respect from people who are deeply invested in electoral politics, it’s not too much to ask them not to try to score political points by totally distorting our position. In any case, if they do, it’s worth taking the time to set things straight.

For example, consider The Social Animal by neoconservative New York Times columnist David Brooks (September 12). He begins by quoting Barry Goldwater’s argument (from The Conscience of a Conservative) that Every man for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being. . . . Conservatism’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?

Brooks says that Goldwater’s ideas seem to come from a vision of human life based on solitary, rugged individuals—the stout pioneer crossing the West, the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the stalwart hero fighting the collectivist foe. Brooks protests that a tide of research in the human and social sciences has demonstrated that Goldwater’s old-fashioned individualist notions aren’t supported by the latest empirical evidence because, Brooks tells us, human beings are social creatures by nature, closely intertwined with each other in the fabric of a shared social life.

. . .

Maybe Brooks is right that Goldwater’s legacy is holding Republicans back politically. Individualistic ideas can be a tough sell, particularly since the obsessive focus on electoral politics as a panacea for every social ill ensures that genuinely individualistic ideas are almost never presented in the media or discussed in public forums. But whether he’s right or wrong about the best way for Republicans to fully modernize, I don’t care much about the Republican Party or its political prospects, or about Barry Goldwater’s reputation. I do care about the prospects for individualism and truly freed markets. And Brooks’s case against them commits a series of serious and misleading errors….

— Charles Johnson, The Freeman (Jan/Feb 2009): Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain’t So!

Read the whole thing.

The title of this post, for what it’s worth, was the original title of the column, and will make some more sense once you’ve read the article (the current title is based on the fact that it appeared in the regular It Just Ain’t So! department).

As always, I’d like to thank Sheldon Richman for the (very flattering) invitation, and for his very helpful editorial work. I’m especially happy to get the chance to put a distinctly Tuckerite understanding of individualism, complete with a cheer for wildcat unionism, and a reference to William Gillis’s freed markets, into an official publication of the Foundation for Economic Education.

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Libertarianism through Thick and Thin

This is the promised expanded edition of an essay which originally appeared in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty in August 2008. Enjoy!

To what extent should libertarians concern themselves with social commitments, practices, projects or movements that seek social outcomes beyond, or other than, the standard libertarian commitment to expanding the scope of freedom from government coercion?

Clearly, a consistent and principled libertarian cannot support efforts or beliefs that are contrary to libertarian principles—such as efforts to engineer social outcomes by means of government intervention. But if coercive laws have been taken off the table, what should libertarians say about other religious, philosophical, social, or cultural commitments that pursue their ends through non-coercive means, such as targeted moral agitation, mass education, artistic or literary propaganda, charity, mutual aid, public praise, ridicule, social ostracism, targeted boycotts, social investing, slow-downs and strikes in a particular shop, general strikes, or other forms of solidarity and coordinated action? Which social movements should they oppose, which should they support, and towards which should they counsel indifference? And how do we tell the difference?

Recently, this question has often arisen in the context of debates over whether or not libertarianism should be integrated into a broader commitment to some of the social concerns traditionally associated with anti-authoritarian Left, such as feminism, anti-racism, gay liberation, counterculturalism, labor organizing, mutual aid, and environmentalism. Chris Sciabarra has called for a dialectical libertarianism which recognizes that Just as relations of power operate through ethical, psychological, cultural, political, and economic dimensions, so too the struggle for freedom and individualism depends upon a certain constellation of moral, psychological, and cultural factors (Total Freedom, p. 383), and in which the struggle for liberty is integrated into a comprehensive struggle for human liberation, incorporating (among other things) a commitment to gay liberation and opposition to racism. Kevin Carson has criticized the vulgar libertarianism of apologists for capitalism who seem to have trouble remembering, from one moment to the next, whether they’re defending actually existing capitalism or free market principles (Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, p. 142), and has argued that free market anarchists should ally themselves with those radical industrial unions, such as the IWW, that reject the interventionist methods of the state labor bureaucracy. Radical libertarians including Carol Moore, Roderick Long, and myself, have suggested that radical libertarian insights naturally complement, and should be integrated with, an anti-statist form of radical feminism.

On the other hand, Jan Narveson has argued that left libertarian concerns about the importance of cultural and social arrangements are at the most a strategic issue which libertarians should consider a separate issue from the structure of our theory. Leonard Read, the indefatigable founder of FEE, famously promoted the argument that libertarianism is compatible with Anything That’s Peaceful. And Walter Block has criticized left wing libertarians for perverting libertarianism (Libertarianism is unique, p. 28) in their effort to integrate common leftist concerns into the libertarian project. So long as cultural values are expressed without indulging in government intervention or any other form of coercion, Block argues, it should not matter to plumb-line libertarians whether the cultural values in question are left wing, right wing, or something else: Give me a break; this issue has nothing to do with libertarianism. … No, these are all matters of taste, and de gustibus non est disputandum (Ibid., p. 29).

However, it is important to keep in mind that the issue at hand in these discussions goes beyond the debate over left libertarianism specifically. The debate leads to some strange bedfellows: not only left libertarians defend the claim that libertarianism should be integrated into a comprehensive critique of prevailing social relations; so do paleolibertarians such as Gary North or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, when they make the equal but opposite claim that efforts to build a flourishing free society should be integrated with a rock-ribbed inegalitarian cultural and religious traditionalism. As do Randian Objectivists, when they argue that political freedom can only arise from a culture of secular romantic individualism and an intellectual milieu grounded in widespread, fairly specific agreement with the tenets of Objectivist metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology. Abstracting from the numerous, often mutually exclusive details of specific cultural projects that have been recommended or condemned in the name of libertarianism, the question of general principle has to do with whether libertarianism should be seen as a thin commitment, which can be happily joined to absolutely any non-coercive set of values and projects, or whether it should instead be seen as one strand among others in a thick bundle of intertwined social commitments. These disputes are often intimately connected with other disputes concerning the specifics of libertarian rights theory, or class analysis and the mechanisms of social power. In order to better get a grip on what’s at stake, it will be necessary to make the question more precise, and to tease out the distinctions between some of the different possible relationships between libertarianism and thicker bundles of social, cultural, religious, or philosophical commitments, which might recommend integrating the two on some level or another.

Thickness in entailment and conjunction

Let’s start with the clearest and least interesting cases.

There are clearly cases in which certain social, cultural, religious, or philosophical commitments might just be an application of libertarian principles to some specific case, which follow from the non-aggression principle by virtue of the law of non-contradiction. An Aztec libertarian might very well say, Of course libertarianism needs to be integrated with a stance on particular religious doctrines! It means you have to give up human sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli! Or, to take a politically current debate, it might well be argued that libertarians ought to actively oppose certain traditional cultural practices that involve the systematic use of violence against peaceful people – such as East African customs of forcing clitoridectomy on unwilling girls, or the American and European custom of excusing or justifying a man’s murder of an unfaithful wife or her lover (although not allowed for by government laws, revenge murderers were until very recently often acquitted or given a lesser sentence by judges and juries). What’s going on in these cases is that consistent, principled libertarianism logically entails criticism of these social and cultural practices, for the same reason that it entails criticism of government intervention: because the non-aggression principle condemns any violence against individual rights to life, liberty, and property, regardless of who commits them. Thus we might call this level of integration thickness in entailment. Thickness in entailment does raise one important issue: it is vital for libertarians to recognize that the non-aggression principle commits them to political opposition to any form of systematic coercion, not just the forms that are officially practiced by the government. Thus principled libertarianism is politically committed not only to anti-statism, but also to opposition to private forms of systematic coercion, such as chattel slavery or domestic violence against women. But in the end, it is dubious how far thickness in entailment really counts as a form of thickness at all, since at bottom it amounts only to the claim that libertarians really ought to be committed to libertarianism all the time.

At the opposite extreme, we might consider the extent to which there are social or cultural commitments that libertarians ought to adopt because they are worth adopting for their own sakes, independent of libertarian considerations. For example, it may be worthwhile for libertarians to all be kind to their children, because (among other things) being kind to your children is a worthwhile thing to do in its own right. You might call this thickness in conjunction, since the only relationship it asserts between libertarianism and some other social commitment (here, kindness to children), is that you ought to accept the one (for whatever reason), and also, as it happens, you ought to accept the other (for reasons that are independent of libertarianism). But again, it is unclear how far this counts as an interesting form of thickness for libertarianism to demand. If libertarianism is true, then we all ought to be libertarians; and besides being libertarians, we all ought to be good people, too. True, that, but it’s hardly an interesting conclusion, and it’s not clear who would deny it. Certainly not those who generally advocate the thin libertarian line.

Thickness in entailment and thickness in conjunction tell us little interesting about the relationship between libertarianism and other social commitments. But they do show the extent to which our original question needs to be asked in terms more precise than those in which it is usually asked. Considerations of entailment make clear that consistent libertarianism means not a narrow concern with government intervention only, but also opposition to all forms of coercion against peaceful people, whether carried out within or outside of the official policy of the state. And considerations of conjunction make clear that what is really of interest is not whether libertarians should also oppose social or cultural evils other than those involved in coercion (no doubt they should), but more specifically whether there are any other evils that libertarians should oppose as libertarians, that is, whether there are any further commitments that libertarians should make, beyond principled non-aggression, at least in part because of their commitment to libertarianism. In the two cases we have considered, the logical relationship between libertarian principles and the further commitments is either so tight (logical entailment) or else so loose (mere conjunction) that either the commitments cease to be further commitments, or else they become commitments that are completely independent of libertarianism. Thin-conception advocates like Block and Narveson often argue as if these two dubious forms of thickness were the only sorts of relationships that are on offer, and if they are right, then it seems unlikely that there is anything very interesting to say about thick libertarianism. But I will argue that, in between the tightest possible connection and the loosest possible connection, there are at least four other interesting connections that might exist between libertarianism and further social or cultural commitments. To the extent that they allow for connections looser than entailment but tighter than mere conjunction, they offer a number of important, but subtly distinct, avenues for thick libertarian analysis and criticism.

Thickness for application

One of the most important, but most easily overlooked, forms of thickness is what I will call thickness for application. There might be some commitments that a libertarian can reject without formally contradicting the non-aggression principle, but which she cannot reject without in fact interfering with its proper application. Principles beyond libertarianism alone may be necessary for determining where my rights end and yours begin, or stripping away conceptual blinders that prevent certain violations of liberty from being recognized as such.

Consider the way in which garden-variety political collectivism prevents many non-libertarians from even recognizing taxation or legislation by a democratic government as being forms of coercion in the first place. (After all, didn’t we consent to it?) Or, perhaps more controversially, think of the feminist criticism of the traditional division between the private and the political sphere, and of those who divide the spheres in such a way that pervasive, systemic violence and coercion within families turn out to be justified, or excused, or simply ignored, as something private and therefore less than a serious form of violent oppression. To the extent that feminists are right about the way in which sexist political theories protect or excuse systematic violence against women, there is an important sense in which libertarians, because they are libertarians, should also be feminists. Importantly, the commitments that libertarians need to have here aren’t just applications of general libertarian principle to a special case; the argument calls in resources other than the non-aggression principle to determine just where and how the principle is properly applied. In that sense the thickness called for is thicker than entailment thickness; but the cash value of the thick commitments is still the direct contribution they make towards the full and complete application of the non-aggression principle.

Thickness from grounds

A second logical relationship that might hold between libertarianism and some further commitment is what I will call thickness from grounds. Libertarians have many different ideas about the theoretical foundation for the non-aggression principle—that is to say, about the best reasons for being a libertarian. But whatever general foundational beliefs a given libertarian has, those beliefs may have some logical implications other than libertarianism alone. Thus, there may be cases in which certain beliefs or commitments could be rejected without contradicting the non-aggression principle per se, but could not be rejected without logically undermining or contradicting the deeper reasons that justify the non-aggression principle. Although you could consistently accept libertarianism without accepting these commitments or beliefs, you could not do so reasonably: rejecting the commitments means rejecting the proper grounds for libertarianism.

Consider the conceptual reasons that libertarians have to oppose authoritarianism, not only as enforced by governments but also as expressed in culture, business, the family, and civil society. Social systems of status and authority include not only exercises of coercive power by the government, but also a knot of ideas, practices, and institutions based on deference to traditionally constituted authority. In politics, these patterns of deference show up most clearly in the honorary titles, submissive etiquette, and unquestioning obedience traditionally expected by, and willingly extended to, heads of state, judges, police, and other visible representatives of government law and order. Although these rituals and habits of obedience exist against the backdrop of statist coercion and intimidation, they are also often practiced voluntarily. Similar kinds of deference are often demanded from workers by bosses, or from children by parents or teachers. Submission to traditionally constituted authorities is reinforced not only through violence and threats, but also through art, humor, sermons, written history, journalism, childrearing, and so on. Although political coercion is the most distinctive expression of political inequality, you could—in principle—have a consistent authoritarian social order without any use of force. Even in a completely free society, everyone could, in principle, still voluntarily agree to bow and scrape and speak only when spoken to in the presence of the (mutually agreed-upon) town Chief, or unthinkingly agree to obey whatever restrictions and regulations he tells them to follow over their own business or personal lives, or agree to give him as much in voluntary taxes on their income or property as he might ask. So long as the expectation of submission and the demands for wealth to be rendered were backed up only by means of verbal harangues, cultural glorifications of the wise and virtuous authorities, social ostracism of unruly dissenters, and so on, these demands would violate no-one’s individual rights to liberty or property. But while there’s nothing logically inconsistent about a libertarian envisioning—or even championing—this sort of social order, it would certainly be weird. Yes, in a free society the meek could voluntarily agree to bow and scrape, and the proud could angrily but nonviolently demand obsequious forms of address and immediate obedience to their commands. But why should they? Non-coercive authoritarianism may be consistent with libertarian principles, but it is hard to reasonably reconcile the two; whatever reasons you may have for rejecting the arrogant claims of power-hungry politicians and bureaucrats—say, for example, the Jeffersonian notion that all men and women are born equal in political authority, and that no-one has a natural right to rule or dominate other people’s affairs—probably serve just as well for reasons to reject other kinds of authoritarian pretension, even if they are not expressed by means of coercive government action. While no-one should be forced as a matter of policy to treat her fellows with the respect due to equals, or to cultivate independent thinking and contempt for the arrogance of power, libertarians certainly can—and should—criticize those who do not, and exhort our fellows not to rely on authoritarian social institutions, for much the same reasons that we have to endorse libertarianism in the first place.

Strategic thickness—the causes of liberty

There may be also cases in which certain ideas, practices, or projects are entailed by neither the non-aggression principle nor the best reasons for it, and are not logically necessary for its correct application, either, but are causal preconditions for implementing the non-aggression principle in the real world. Although rejecting these ideas, practices, or projects would be logically compatible with libertarianism, their success might be important or even causally necessary for libertarianism to get much purchase in an existing statist society, or for a future free society to emerge from statism without widespread poverty or social conflict, or for a future free society to sustain itself against aggressive statist neighbors, the threat of civil war, or an internal collapse back into statism. To the extent that other ideas, practices, or projects are causal preconditions for a flourishing free society, libertarians have strategic reasons to endorse them, even if they are conceptually independent of libertarian principles.

Thus, for example, left libertarians such as Roderick Long have argued that libertarians have genuine reasons to be concerned about large inequalities of wealth, or large numbers of people living in absolute poverty, and to support voluntary associations – such as mutual aid societies and voluntary charity – that tend to undermine inequalities and to ameliorate the effects of poverty. The reasoning for this conclusion is not that libertarians should concern themselves with voluntary anti-poverty measures because free market principles logically entail support for some particular socioeconomic outcome (clearly they do not); nor is it merely because charity and widespread material well-being are worth pursuing for their own sake (they may be, but that would reduce the argument to thickness in conjunction). Rather, the point is that there may be a significant causal relationship between economic outcomes and the material prospects for sustaining a free society. Even a totally free society in which large numbers of people are desperately poor is likely to be in great danger of collapsing into civil war. Even a totally free society in which a small class of tycoons own the overwhelming majority of the wealth, and the vast majority of the population own almost nothing is unlikely to remain free for long, if the tycoons should decide to use their wealth to purchase coercive legal privileges against the unpropertued majority—simply because they have a lot of resources to attack with, and the majority haven’t got the material resources to defend themselves. Now, to the extent that persistent, severe poverty, and large-scale inequalities of wealth are almost always the result of government intervention – and thus as much a concern for thickness from consequences, as discussed below, as for strategic thickness — it’s unlikely that many totally free societies would face such dire situations; over time, many if not most of these problems would likely sort themselves out spontaneously through free market processes, even without conscious anti-poverty activism. But even where problems of poverty or economic inequality would sort themselves out in a society that has already been free for some time, they are still likely to be extremely pressing for societies like ours, which are not currently free, which libertarians hope to help become free through education and activism. Certainly in our unfree market there are large-scale inequalities of wealth and widespread poverty, most of it created by the heavy hand of government intervention, in the form of direct subsidies and the creation of rigged or captive markets. Those tycoons who now enjoy the fruit of those privileges can and have and and will continue to exercise some of the tremendous advantage that they enjoy in material resources and political pull to pressure government to perpetuate or expand the interventions from which the profiteering class benefits. Since libertarians aim to abolish those interventions, it may well make good strategic sense for them to oppose, and to support voluntary, non-governmental efforts that work to undermine or bypass, the consolidated economic power that the government-privileged robber barons currently command. Otherwise we will find ourselves trying to fight with slingshots while our enemies haul out bazookas.

Or, to take a less controversial example, many if not most libertarians, throughout the history of the movement, have argued that there are good reasons for libertarians to promote a culture in which reason and independent thinking are highly valued, and blind conformism is treated with contempt. But if this is a good thing for liberty, it must be for reasons other than some kind of entailment of the non-aggression principle. Certainly everyone has a right to believe things simply because everybody believes it, or to do things simply because everybody does it, as long as their conformism respects the equal rights of independent thinkers to think independently and act independently with their own person and property. It is logically conceivable that a society could be rigidly conformist while remaining entirely free; it would just have to be the case that the individual people within that society were, by and large, psychologically and culturally inclined to be so docile, and so sensitive to social disapproval, ostracism, and verbal peer pressure, that they all voluntarily chose to go along with the crowd.

But, again, while it is logically possible for people in such a society to be convinced to respect individual liberty, it’s hardly likely to happen, or, if it does happen, it’s unlikely that things will stay that way for very long. If libertarians have good reasons to believe that reason and independent thinking are good for liberty, it is because, in today’s unfree society, where the vast majority of people around you are statists, it takes quite a bit of critical thinking and resistance to peer pressure in order to come to libertarian conclusions. And similarly, in a free society, it’s likely that a healthy respect for critical thinking and contempt for conformism would be necessary in order to successfully resist later attempts to re-institute collectivism or other forms of statist coercion.

While the non-aggression principle doesn’t entail any particular attitude towards socioeconomic equality, or independent thinking, it is quite likely that any chance of implementing the non-aggression principle in the real world will be profoundly affected by whether these material or intellectual preconditions have been met, and so principled libertarians have good strategic reasons to promote them, and to adopt forms of activism that tend to support them through non-statist, voluntary means.

Thickness from consequences—the effects of liberty

Finally, there may be social practices or outcomes that libertarians should (in some sense) be committed to opposing, even though they are not themselves coercive, because (1) background acts of government coercion are a causal precondition for them to be carried out or sustained over time; and (2) there are independent reasons for regarding them as social evils. If aggression is morally illegitimate, then libertarians are entitled not only to condemn it, but also to condemn the destructive results that flow from it—even if those results are, in some important sense, external to the actual coercion. Thus, for example, left libertarians such as Kevin Carson and Matt MacKenzie have argued forcefully for libertarian criticism of certain business practices—such as low-wage sweatshop labor—as exploitative. Throughout the twentieth century, most libertarians have rushed to the defense of such practices, on the grounds that they result from market processes, that such arrangements are often the best economic options for extremely poor people in developing countries, and that the state socialist solution of expansive government regulation of wages and conditions would distort the market, violate the rights of workers and bosses to freely negotiate the terms of labor, and harm the very workers that the regulators professed to help. But the problem is that these analyses often attempt to justify or excuse prevailing business practices by appeal to free market principles, when those very practices arose in actually existing markets, which are very far from being free. In Carson’s and MacKenzie’s view, while the twentieth-century libertarians were right to criticize state socialist claim that existing modes of production should not be even further distorted by expanded government regimentation, but too many twentieth-century libertarians confused that genuine insight with the delusion that existing modes of production would be the natural outcome of an undistorted market. Against these confusions, they have revived an argument drawn from the tradition of nineteenth-century individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker, who argued that prevailing government privileges for bosses and capitalists — monopoly, regulatory cartelization of banking, manipulation of the currency, legal restrictions and military violence against union strikers, politicized distribution of land to connected speculators and developers, etc. — distorted markets in such a way as to systematically push workers into precarious and impoverishing economic arrangements, and to force them, against the backdrop of the unfree market in land and capital, to make ends meet by entering a free job market on the bosses’ terms.

On Tucker’s view, as on Carson’s and MacKenzie’s, this sort of systemic concentration of wealth and market power can only persist as long as the government continues to intervene in the market so as to sustain it; free market competition would free workers to better their own lives outside of traditional corporate channels, and would allow entrepreneurs to tear down top-heavy corporate behemoths through vigorous competition for land, labor, and capital. Thus, to the extent that sweatshop conditions and starvation wages are sustained, and alternative arrangements like workers’ co-ops are suppressed, because of the dramatic restrictions on property rights throughout the developing world—restrictions exploited by opportunistic corporations, which often collaborate with authoritarian governments and pro-government paramilitaries in maintaining or expanding legal privilege, land grabs, and oppressive local order—libertarians, as libertarians, have good reasons to condemn the social evils that arise from these labor practices. Though they could in principle arise in a free market, the actual market they arose in is profoundly unfree, and there is every reason to believe that in a truly free market the conditions of ordinary laborers, even those who are very poor, would be quite different, and much better. Certainly this offers no reason for libertarians to support the state socialist solution of giving even more power to progressive government in an ill-conceived attempt to correct for the predations that plutocratic government already enabled. But it is a good reason for libertarians to support voluntary, state-free forms of solidarity — such as private fair trade certification, wildcat unionism, or mutual aid societies — that work to undermine exploitative practices and build a new society within the shell of the old.

Onward

I should make it clear, if it is not yet clear, that my aim in this essay has been to raise some questions, provoke some discussion, and offer some categories for carrying on that discussion intelligently. I’ve not attempted to answer all the questions I’ve raised, or to provide a fully detailed elaboration of thick conceptions of libertarianism. And I’ve deliberately left a lot of questions open for further discussion. Two of them are worth mentioning in particular, in order to avoid possible confusion.

ZT software: hosting with IPv6

First, pointing out that conscientious libertarians may have good reasons, as libertarians, to favor other social projects in addition to libertarianism raises a related, but importantly distinct question: whether libertarians should favor a gradualist or an immediatist stance towards the abolition of statist controls while those other social projects remain incomplete or frustrated in their progress. In particular, if getting or keeping a flourishing free society depends on having a base of certain social or intellectual preconditions in place, should libertarians still make direct efforts to abolish all statist controls immediately and completely, regardless of the social or cultural situation? Or should they hold off until the groundwork is in place, and restrict themselves to calls for limited and moderated repeals in the meantime?

For much of his career, Murray Rothbard endorsed a form of thin libertarian anarchism, arguing that libertarianism will get nowhere until we realize that there is and can be no libertarian culture (Left-opportunism: The case of S.L.S., part one, in Libertarian Vanguard, February 1981, p. 11). At the same time, he endorsed ultra-immediatism, joking that if he had a magic button that immediately abolished an aspect of the state, he’d break his finger pushing it. In Total Freedom, Chris Sciabarra criticizes Rothbard’s thin libertarianism as unanchored utopianism (202); Sciabarra argues that a dialectical sensibility recommends a more comprehensive three-level model of social transformation, incorporating not only to the political structure of the state, but the interlocking dynamics by which political structure (Level-3) affects, and is affected by, individual psychology and philosophy (Level-1) and the framework of established cultural institutions (Level-2).

Sciabarra’s critique of Rothbardianism, and his later writing foreign policy, have emphasized the dangers of directly pursuing libertarian policies in contexts where libertarian individualism and anti-authoritarianism are not well-established in the local culture. All this strongly suggests that Sciabarra prefers a form of libertarian gradualism, and suspects that any form of immediatism depends on non-dialectical disregard for the cultural base necessary to sustain liberty. But whether Sciabarra’s right about that, or wrong about that, you need to keep in mind that endorsing a form of strategic thickness does not, just by itself, commit you to gradualism; that’s a separate issue that needs a separate argument. Believing in particular material or cultural preconditions for the flourishing or long-term survival of a free society, once statist interventions are repealed, does not entail any particular position on whether those invasions ought to continue until that base is established. A dialectical sensibility requires us to consider the possibility that individual attitudes and cultural institutions might adjust dynamically as the political structure changes, and that these changes might be favorable rather than hostile to the cultural base that we advocate. Or they may not: illiberal attitudes may be intransigent, and even without statism they may nevertheless find new, equally destructive expressions. They may even worsen. The point awaits further investigation, and is not settled simply by accepting a thick conception over a thin conception of libertarianism.

But even if you concede that immediate repeal of statist controls, without the preconditions in place, would eventually result in disaster, rather than cultural adaptation, that still doesn’t settle the argument in favor of gradualism. To do that, you would need to add some kind of further moral argument that would show that people are entitled to continue invading the rights of other people in order to maintain a particular standard of living, or to stave off aggression that would otherwise be committed by some unrelated third party at some point in the future. I happen to think that the kind of arguments that you’d need to add to thick libertarianism in order to justify gradualism are morally indefensible. Fortunately, since they are separable from strategic thickness itself, there is no reason why advocates of strategic thickness need to adopt them. That’s an important debate, and one worth having—but it’s worth having elsewhere, since it’s independent of the debate over thickness.

Second, it should be clear that I have not attempted to provide detailed justifications for the specific claims that I made on behalf of particular thick commitments—for example the claims that libertarians have strong reasons to oppose sexism or to support state-free efforts at mutual aid and labor solidarity. To explain the different forms of thickness, I drew most of my examples from the left libertarian literature, and I happen to think that there are good arguments to be made on that literature’s behalf. But for the purposes of this essay, these claims are intended as particular illustrations of underlying concepts—not as proofs of a detailed left libertarian analysis. For all I have said here, it might still be true that further argument would reveal reasons of thickness in application, or from grounds, or in strategy, or from consequences, that support a form of libertarianism quite different from that which I advocate, such as orthodox Objectivism, or even support a form that is almost exactly the opposite, such as Hoppean paleolibertarianism. Consider the reasons that Objectivists give for going beyond laissez-faire principles alone, and culturally glorifying big business specifically—it’s basically thickness from grounds (Randian egoism) and strategic thickness (in the belief that vilifying big business provides grist for the altruist-statist mill). Or consider the reasons that Hoppe offers for ostracizing homosexuals and condemning large-scale migration of unskilled laborers—it’s basically thickness from consequences, on the belief that without statist intervention against restrictive uses of property rights, these lifestyle choices would not be sustainable in the face of opposition from civil society. I, as a left libertarian, find these specific appeals specious (or, in Hoppe’s case, grotesque). But that means only that I disagree with the specific premises, not with the general forms of argument that all thick forms of libertarianism help themselves to.

Just which actual social and cultural projects libertarians, as libertarians, should incorporate into theory and practice still needs to be hashed out in a detailed debate over specifics. But I hope that here I have at least cleared some of the ground that must be cleared for that debate to sensibly proceed.

Sunday Ego Blogging / Shameless Self-promotion Sunday #16

It’s Sunday again; that means it’s time for Shameless Self-Promotion. This Sunday, unlike most, I’ll be leading off, because here’s what I received in the mail a few days ago:

The  July/August 2008 issue of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty

Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin

To what extent should libertarians concern themselves with social commitments, practices, projects, or movements that seek social outcomes beyond, or other than, the standard libertarian commitment to expanding the scope of freedom from government coercion?

Clearly, a consistent and principled libertarian cannot support efforts or beliefs that are contrary to libertarian principles—such as efforts to engineer social outcomes by means of government intervention. But if coercive laws have been taken off the table, then what should libertarians say about other religious, philosophical, social, or cultural commitments that pursue their ends through noncoercive means, such as targeted moral agitation, mass education, artistic or literary propaganda, charity, mutual aid, public praise, ridicule, social ostracism, targeted boycotts, social investing, slowdowns and strikes in a particular shop, general strikes, or other forms of solidarity and coordinated action? Which social movements should they oppose,which should they support, and toward which should they counsel indifference? And how do we tell the difference?

In other words, should libertarianism be seen as a thin commitment, which can be happily joined to absolutely any set of values and projects, so long as it is peaceful, or is it better to treat it as one strand among others in a thick bundle of intertwined social commitments? Such disputes are often intimately connected with other disputes concerning the specifics of libertarian rights theory or class analysis and the mechanisms of social power. To grasp what’s at stake, it will be necessary to make the question more precise and to tease out the distinctions among some of the different possible relationships between libertarianism and thicker bundles of social, cultural, religious, or philosophical commitments, which might recommend integrating the two on some level or another.

. . .

— Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin, in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty 58.6 (July/August 2008), pp. 35–39.

You can read the whole thing (warning: PDF blob) at The Freeman‘s online edition. Enjoy! FEE’s website doesn’t (yet) support online comments, but I’d be glad to hear what you think in the comments section over here.

One note about the article: it had to be shortened substantially both for reasons of space and considerations of the likely audience. I’ve talked with Sheldon, and I’ll be posting the longer version of the essay here at Rad Geek People’s Daily in a couple of weeks.

So, that’s me; what about you? What did you all write about this week? Leave a link and a short description for your post in the comments.