Libertarians: You Can Have Opinions

If you spend any time reading the blogs authored by college-aged libertarian students, you are bound to read articles addressing their love for promiscuity, drug usage, and obscene alternative lifestyles for the sake of being alternative. The common argument these libertarians make is that their choices fall under the category of being “subjective values”; therefore, it is wrong to make any moral judgments condemning their actions.

It seems as if these libertarians, who claim to be adherents to the Austrian School, have never, in fact, read any works of the Austrian economists. Because of this, these libertarians are entirely ignorant of the ideology they claim to espouse. This ignorance manifests itself in to statements such as, “Subjective values mean you cannot judge people for their choices” and “It is anti-liberty to judge people for their choices.” Individuals who claim to be scholars of libertarian thought should at least be well-read on the elementary basics of their own beliefs.

There is a fundamental difference between subjective values and moral relativism. Libertarians have decided to conflate subjective values, in the economic sense, with moral relativism. This confusion stems from a lack of knowledge of the definition of subjective values. In economics, subjective value refers to a theory of value in which an object attains its value through the wants and desires of individuals. When economists claim that, “Everyone has different subjective values”, it is a reference how individuals have different wants, needs, and tastes in respect to goods and services. Moral relativism, on the other hand, is a philosophy which decrees that there is no truth: right and wrong do not exist. Therefore, to a moral relativist, you cannot judge people for their actions, as it is all subjective.

To individuals who have never studied Austrian economic theory, the terms may seem confusing at first. However, for people who liken themselves to be leaders of the liberty movement, with a depth of knowledge about Austrian economics, there is absolutely no excuse to confuse subjective values in economics to moral relativism. There is no reason, therefore, for libertarians to make insane proclamations such as, “You cannot be a libertarian and judge people for their choices” and “Judging an action as right or wrong goes against libertarianism.”

These college-aged libertarians truly believe that telling someone that doing heroin is a bad decision infringes on libertarianism. As well, daring to criticize the polyamorous lifestyle as being morally repugnant prods a response of, “Who are you to judge?” which would make Ayn Rand weep. Time and time again, the college-aged libertarians become outraged when an individual has the audacity to proclaim that there is an objective right and an objective wrong. According to these moral relativists, there is no right or wrong unless you criticize something that they believe is right, thus leading to your beliefs being labeled as “wrong”.

As well as conflating subjective values with moral relativism, the college-aged libertarians confuse being a libertarian with being a libertine. In their world, one must be have an unconditional acceptance of the drug-addled polyamorous lifestyle, with zero moral apprehension. Anything other than the unilateral advocacy of any and all alternative lifestyles is seen as an affront to freedom. To argue that a certain lifestyle is wrong is apparently akin to wanting the government to ban the lifestyle. To have any moral reservations, to believe in right and wrong objectively, and to proudly defend what is good against what is evil, is seen as enough to render an individual “not a libertarian”.

As a demonstration of the ridiculousness of the, “You cannot be a libertarian if you believe in judging people for their ‘different subjective values'” logic, it is important to note that Rothbard, the foremost anarcho-capitalist and Austrian School adherent, produced scathing remarks against the libertine lifestyle that these college-aged libertarians wholeheartedly promote. Under the new mantra of non-judgment being a prerequisite to libertarianism,  Rothbard could not be considered a libertarian. Apparently, his beliefs were entirely “anti-liberty” as they involved a level of critical thinking beyond the childishness of, “We all value different things. Every choice is equal. No judgment.” How horrifically ironic.

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The Art of War and Leadership

Sun Tzu, while a military strategist who wrote The Art of War in regards to conquering one’s enemy on the battlefield, had many lessons that can be applied to leadership within the scope of political work or campus activism. I will detail some of my favorite axioms and how I feel they apply to leadership in regards to my battlefield, that being the battlefield of ideas and policies, and how society will be shaped by those in power.  As Clausewitz stated, war is just politics by other means.  In a sense, politics is war by other means, just a bloodless and democratic form of it.

“A leader leads by example, not by force.”

To lead by example and not force is to excuse those who make mistakes in the beginning and show them the correct way to go about doing something.  Having worked many jobs where I was disciplined for minor mistakes, I can relate to Tzu’s axiom.  If one leads by example and not force (discipline, whether spoken or, in the example that Tzu speaks of, physical), there will be less resentment amongst those you are seeking to inspire and lead.  It need be noted that I didn’t spend very long at those jobs where I was disciplined for minor mistakes and not shown how to do something via example; whereas, those who have led by example have inspired a trust and kinship with myself and other employees  or activists.  Leadership is not about having power to use without limit, it is about pulling the same amount of weight as those under you to inspire their continued loyalty.  If you have to, train fellow activists on the job; I know I have.

“To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.”

What Tzu is stating in this axiom is that on the most basic level, you must understand the tactics of your opponent and, if need arises or if they are particularly effective, utilize them yourself.  Understand the means which create their ends.  Learn their ground game.  Who are they reaching out to?  What is their base of support?  Learn to create a base that numbers larger than that of your opponent.  Remember, in elections or initiatives, all you need is a plurality.

“A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective.”

While achieving this is somewhat difficult in a time of constant communication, 24 hour news, and social networking, it’s still possible.  Make your opponents feel as if they have the upper hand and make them complacent.  Do everything you can do under the radar.  It’s priceless to see opponents aghast, when they catch wind of the phonebanking, canvassing, or any other effective form of field-work that you are doing, due to their constituents contacting them or seeing their poll numbers steadily decrease right before the election.  Leadership in regards to politics is not only about winning, but having the tactics necessary to ensure that victory.  You owe it to those you lead to make the conditions possible for victory, otherwise will they have any impetus to fight?

“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”

This axiom goes hand in hand with a Bible verse I detailed in a prior piece about building a tower without making the necessary calculations of the costs.  As a leader, you must take into account everything that will be necessary including funds, materials, manpower, and the most mundane little expenses that you will need to lead and win effectively.  Always remember that it is better to have  something and not need it than it is to need it and not have it.

“The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.”

Time and time again, I’ve learned this lesson.  I’ve worked with many people who would have served in other capacities to a much better extent.  As a leader, you must be able to identify one’s strengths and weaknesses, and thus be able to allocate them correctly.  Your activists and volunteers are human capital that can lead to distortions if not correctly placed.  Those who are better with organization are much better suited to planning events, typing up spreadsheets, and making expense reports whereas those who have shown an ability to work with the public are better  suited to canvassing, phonebanking, or serving as ambassadors to those whom you are trying to build coalitions with to achieve your goal.

The Art of War is a great read even for those who aren’t involved in warfare, as it has many lessons that can be applied to other facets of life, especially those in regards to leadership, the form that I embrace of humility and service to those serving under me, a concept that Tzu understood over two thousand years ago.

art-of-war

Separation of Church and State

Lately there has been quite a bit of hubbub on various social media sites about the role of religion in government and politics. I’m going to make some friends and enemies by saying that I personally believe that its role should be nonexistent, as a protection to both religious and secular individuals.  That said, I believe a bit of history and explanation is in order.

Where does the idea of separation of church and state come from?

FirstAmendmentFrom a young age in the United States, many history and government classes teach about something called the separation of church and state.  The general idea behind the phrase was set as a constitutional standard with the first amendment in 1791, as the first of ten amendments detailed in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment, as many already know, prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, or impeding the free exercise of religion, and emphasizes the importance of a plethora of other freedoms. The phrase itself comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to a Baptist congregation, stating that “believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”  The importance of adhering to the separation of church and state is that it both keeps the government from interfering in the religious lives of individuals and churches, while also keeping what then, and now, constitutes as a religious majority from exercising political power in a way that would harm those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or simply choose not to identify themselves with a label at all.

So why is it that oftentimes religion gets mixed with government?

I would venture to say that it is a generally accepted fact that individuals develop emotional ties to their political and religious ideologies. Oftentimes the two get melded together; to temporarily play off of a popularized stereotype, one doesn’t identify just as a Christian or a Republican, for instance, they identify as a Christian Republican. The same could hold true of any different mix of religious and political identities, or lack thereof. That isn’t “bad”, or “good”, but merely how we as individuals seem to function.

What does libertarianism have to do with any of this?

th_interfaithWhat’s beautiful about libertarianism is that the political tenants that I hold dear could not care less what you as an individual believe. As long as you support free market values, respect individual rights, and don’t try force your lifestyle on someone else, the political philosophy could not care less if you believe in, or worship, one god, many gods, no god, or the flying spaghetti monster. My father jokingly calls my political views the ideology of “live and let live”, and I would say that’s fairly apt. Libertarianism hinges on the importance of individual liberty, political freedom, and voluntary association. There is no “check this religion” to fit into the “cool kid’s club”. Libertarianism at its core supports the separation of church and state in the sense that it doesn’t allow for force of one group of people, or individual, over another – also labeled the nonaggression principle. The adherents of libertarianism are  just a group of people from different backgrounds with many beliefs coming together to say that we  have a right to  self-ownership to the fullest extent, and I, for one, think that is something that we can all rally around.

Fear, Fatalism, and Faith

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” – John 14:27 (KJV)

Last year, I attended a graduation ceremony for some of my friends at the local university. I was excited that the commencement speaker was none other than the fabulous PJ O’Rourke. His message was a simple one. Our generation – the graduating one – has it pretty good. We didn’t grow up practicing hiding under our desks in school to prepare for nuclear war with the communists like many of our parents or grandparents did. We didn’t grow up without voting rights for women or political protection for minorities like our grandparents or great-grandparents did. It wasn’t as simple as a platitude of “count your blessings,” but rather a reminder that every generation faces big threats. Every generation has fears. Every generation has monsters. We endure because of what made us great in the first place: liberty, tolerance, and determination.

School children drill during the Cold War era.

I am often reminded of O’Rourke’s remarks when I talk to my fellow libertarians. To many libertarians, the above may sound like blasphemy. “The world is ending!” we protest, “the government is encroaching! Our liberties are going down the drain!” This week, as we watched things from deadly tornadoes ripping through our heartland to a British soldier being killed in cold blood on the streets of London, the debate has returned to the surface. What are the merits of remaining optimistic in such a time as this? Is there any room for hope in a world where it seems as though every day we lose liberties quicker?

With this in mind, I decided to come up with a list of some things that libertarians, especially Christians, should remember. This article is from an explicitly Christian perspective, but hopefully there is room to apply its message to non-theistic libertarians.

1. God doesn’t want us to live in fear.

This is the first and most important thing to remember. The verse that opens this article is just one of many Biblical reminders that Christians, despite dire circumstances, should not live in fear. Let’s look at some of what else the Bible has to say about fear and the Christian life (all verses KJV).

“Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” – Deuteronomy 31:6

“Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” – Joshua 1:9

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” – Psalm 23: 4

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” – Psalm 27:1

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” – John 14:27

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” – 2 Timothy 1:7

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” – 1 John 4:18

The context and stories to which these verses refer are even more powerful reminders not to let fear overtake us. We aren’t traversing through the desert for 40 years, we aren’t running from an angry king, and we aren’t adherents to a newly-formed religion living in the height of the pagan Roman Empire. We do really have it fairly good! We need to be constantly vigilant, yes. But even in much more dire circumstances, Christians are reminded not to let fear overtake us.

2. Fear is not a good political motivator.

From a political perspective, giving into fear doesn’t produce good results. Fear makes representatives vote the massive PATRIOT ACT into law mere days after 9/11. Fear makes people support such foolish decisions. Fear makes you irrational. Fear is not thinking, it is reacting. The liberty movement cannot survive if our motivator is reaction. We must have rationalism behind positive goals. Our goals must go beyond reacting to things that scare us.

President Bush signs the USA PATRIOT ACT into law mere weeks after 9/11 in 2001.

3. Fatalism is pointless.

Now, at this point, some people are surely arguing that it’s not just about fear, but about being “realistic” about the future of our nation (and perhaps the world). Of course, at the radical end of this are the people who think the leaders of the free world are conspiring to bring about an “end game” of world tyranny. However, you don’t have to trek that far into the fringes to find people who are very fatalistic about the future. Christian libertarians also have a tendency to connect our political views with apocalyptic eschatology.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

It’s easy to look at the current state of civil liberties and economic freedom and be pessimistic. Even if the world is coming to an end imminently, does that mean that we shouldn’t try to make it as good as possible while we’re still here? If we are completely pessimistic about the future, what’s the point of doing anything? I firmly believe that political action can, and does, create real change, and that we are not doomed. But even if you think just the opposite, it’s still not unrealistic optimism to focus on the good. It’s not unrealistic optimism to focus on the structures, ideas, and foundation that our founders gave us. It’s not unrealistic optimism to focus on what we can do, as opposed to what we can’t.

4. There’s nothing wrong with being happy!

Finally, I think that it’s important to remember that we as Christians are not called to be dreary killjoys. This is also important to remember when we approach politics as Christian libertarians. I’m sure everyone has one or two friends who react negatively to any instances of levity, with admonishments that there are more important things to worry about.

“The founding fathers wouldn’t just post pictures of cats if they had Facebook!”

Maybe not. But I imagine our founding fathers – and our Biblical role models – wouldn’t go around trying to squash other people enjoying humor and joy and life! The Bible tells us that Jesus wants us to live  “life more abundantly“! Bad things don’t negate our enjoyment of the good things in life, and being humorless, glum, and fatalistic doesn’t win anyone over. If we truly want to try to make a difference for liberty, we need to think about our methods, and try to focus more on the positive things we can do. Sure, some people are going to continue to sulk about how the world is ending and everything’s horrible. I’d rather be with the people who try to change what we can.

Winning Is Not Compromising

“This war on drugs is totally out of control. If you want to regulate cigarettes and alcohol and drugs, it should be at the state level. That’s where I stand on it. The federal government has no prerogatives on this.” – Ron Paul (source).

If there’s anything Rand Paul can do well, it’s fire up debate among libertarians. As of recently, hilariously satirized by Steve Heidenreich on this site, libertarians are up in (theoretical, non-aggressive) arms in response to comments Paul made to a group of pastors in Iowa that some read as him “loving the drug war.”

“To some, ‘libertarian’ scares people. “Some of them come up to me and they say, ‘I kind of like you, but I don’t like legalizing heroin.’ And I say, ‘Well, that’s not my position.’ I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot. I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative”

Let’s crucify him today!

For God’s sake, let’s definitely not examine his comments with any degree of critical thought to see how well they line up with libertarian philosophy. Because if we step back from our hysterical Rand Paul hate, it is clear that, while not as strictly libertarian as some, Rand Paul’s views are very much in line with what they’ve always been – and with a small government philosophy.

Rand Paul has been very vocal in his support for ending federal drug laws. In April, Paul gave a scathing statement on mandatory minimum laws, one of the biggest travesties of injustice to come from the drug war. Telling the story of two men (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) who recreationally used drugs as young men, Paul argued that mandatory minimums, and imprisonment for marijuana use, can deprive the world of future leaders and ruin people’s lives unjustly. “In this story, both young men were extraordinarily lucky. Both young men were not caught using illegal drugs, and they weren’t imprisoned. Instead, they went on to become presidents of the United States. Barack Obama and George Bush were lucky.”

Wow, what a great voice for liberty he’d be if he’d only make a video of himself using illegal drugs!

Is it possible to not “love the drug war” and also not support legalization of all drugs on all levels of government? Of course it is. The term itself (Drug War) refers to federal prohibition, mandatory minimums, omnibus crime bills, and other such federal expansion over the area of crime laws traditionally left to the states, into which the federal leviathan began encroaching the 1970s and 1980s. Ron Paul, like Rand Paul, has always supported leaving such issues to the states. Both Pauls believe that states should be free to legalize drugs if they want. Ron Paul, like Rand Paul, is no supporter of drug use.

That’s not to say that Rand and Ron Paul are the same. There are differences among libertarians just as there are differences between any group of people. People – even fathers and sons – disagree, and we shouldn’t hold them to unrealistic standards of agreeing with us on everything if we are to consider them “intellectually pure” enough. If we do, libertarianism will continue to be persuasive only to those who already agree, and who, by and large, do not vote anyway. Winning is not compromising liberty. Self-insular irrelevancy should not be our goal.

This attitude totally wins over thousands of new libertarians every day.

If you disagree with this picture, you’re a statist.

Finally, it is very disappointing to see libertarians blindly accepting what the media says about Rand Paul just because they don’t like him. Libertarians should know better than anyone not to take what the media says at face value, but we blindly accept that Rand Paul “loves the drug war” now – a position completely different than everything he’s stood for in the past – based on the inference of a reporter who provides no quotes from Paul to back this up. The only quote in the article shows that he feels state governments should have the prerogative to ban drugs, just like his father. This is neither surprising nor new.

If libertarians are to ever shake the stereotype that we are basement-dwelling, pot-smoking, jobless college kids, we have to think carefully about our knee-jerk reactions to people who happen to hold more personally conservative views than some of us do. Critical disagreement is fine. Rejecting anyone who holds more politically prudent views than other libertarians is unwise. Blind acceptance of anything the media says, as long as it’s about someone we don’t like, is intellectual dishonesty.

On Sex, Liberty, and Prudence

There is a small war brewing among libertarians. Strangely, the battle lines seem to have been drawn on something that most people wouldn’t associate with libertarians: sex. In an article unfortunately titled “This is How Many Shits I Give About Converting Conservatives to Libertarians”, author Gina Luttrell argues that “conservatives, as they currently exist in American politics, have a pretty narrow view…[and] attempt to ‘persuade’—and by that I mean shame—others away from the peaceful ways they choose to live their lives.” Ashley Rae Goldenberg, writing for this blog, responded by criticizing Thoughts on Liberty’s supposed view that “sex is the most important topic in the entire universe!” writing that “perhaps these libertarian women think the only way they’re able to convert people to libertarianism is to use sex as a tool.”

Whew! Let no one say libertarians hate a vigorous debate! (No one would say that).

Pictured: two libertarians having a typical argument.

I do not feel that such infighting does any good to anyone in the liberty movement. However, I feel that a debate such as this, quite frankly, ridden with ad hominems on both sides and showing no sign of waning, could benefit from a middle ground perspective. Perhaps no one can fully reconcile the two sides, but I think the liberty movement would benefit from seeing more than the left/right paradigm, on this issue as on all others.

1)    My personal perspective.

I am a libertarian. I am a feminist. I do not see any contradiction between the two and feel that both movements have at their heart a similar message: that all individuals should be treated as individuals, and not treated differently based on their race, sex, gender, gender identify, sexual orientation, etc. What makes me libertarian is what makes me a feminist, and vice versa. Of course, there will be feminists who disagree with me, but nobody ever said we have to be a conglomerate of agreement, did they?

2)    Prudence is not just for prudes.

I tend to agree with Goldenberg, who argues that the only “libertarian” perspective on issues such as polyamory, casual sex, homosexuality, etc., is that the government should not pass laws restricting or regulating such activities between consensual adults. You can be a libertarian who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, you can be a polyamorous libertarian, or you can be an asexual libertarian. These things have nothing to do with the liberty movement. You do not have a right not to be “judged” or “shamed,” regardless of how damaging these two experiences may be.

I disagree with Goldenberg that merely talking about sexual issues is necessarily about promoting casual sex or decrying monogamy. I also agree that there is, “no right way to have sex“, and that there is value in discussing cultural issues! But you’re never going to win anyone over to liberty by waging a culture war. Prudence must come into play when deciding which issues you want to attach to the liberty movement. There is value in discussing, for example, rape culture, which is inherent aggression against men and women. But what can be gained by trying to convince social conservatives that they have to agree that there’s nothing wrong with polyamory, or else they are shaming those who practice it? Not a whole lot, I would argue.

Of course Thoughts on Liberty “gives no shits” about winning over conservatives, but this is foolish. As the aforementioned article points out, there is a great deal of hypocrisy from conservatives who claim to want the government to stay out of their lives and then ask it to intrude into other’s bedrooms. Hypocrisy is human. There is no reconciling a leftist philosophy that does not even pretend to reject all kinds of government intervention with the non-interventionism of libertarianism. That’s not to say that liberals are not won over by libertarianism. But our ideologies are completely different. Writing about how you don’t “give a shit” about winning over half of the country, the half that is closer to your philosophy than the other, no less, is not only imprudent, but it is arrogant, short-sighted, and juvenile. And make no mistake; this is coming from someone who agrees with 90% of what Thoughts on Liberty writes on culture and sexuality.

3)    On Lines in the Sand.

There will be times such “cultural” issues come to the forefront of American political consciousness and answers are demanded from libertarians. It is okay when libertarians give different answers! Obsession with extreme intellectual purity has never served the liberty movement well (see:  hysterical objections to Rand Paul based simply on the fact that he is not like Ron Paul 100 percent of the time). To give a non sex-related example: I do not feel that something like support for charter schools should not be on a checklist of libertarian intellectual purity, just as issues of culture/sexuality shouldn’t be. But who knows? Maybe I’m just repressed.

Unnaming the Government: Public Choice Theory

Forewarning: this article is a bit dense.

I was initially inspired to write this piece by Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story entitled, “She Unnames Them”.  I had to read it for an interdisciplinary studies course, and this piece is actually a reworking of a paper that I wrote for that course.  While I have thought about the topics herein before, I thought that the way Le Guin framed her deconstruction of names to be particularly insightful, even if it is a fairly short story.  Here is a link to the story if you’d like a little more perspective with respect to where I’m coming from in this approach.  It really is short.  Also, before anyone asks, yes, I read a fictional story about Adam and Eve naming and unnaming creatures, and what I got out of it was an anarchic, anti-government argument. 🙂

Right, back to the point.  The government, too, is naught but a name, and it is a name that can be deconstructed in what I find to be an important way.  Government’s deconstruction results in nothing more than us, yet it seeks to be our very cure.  Moreover, governments are granted unique abilities to do things that individuals would never be permitted to do outside of the guise of government.  Governments can levy tax, imprison, conscript, declare war, etc.  This only grants further room for abuse.  In this piece, I will attempt to argue that government is not only a repackaged ailment masquerading as its own cure but that it is, more detrimentally, just a concentrated version of the ailment itself – and one that seems only able to fall into the wrong hands.  It’s a false remedy that we may very well be shielding ourselves from realizing.

Public choice theory takes a rather unique approach to political science in that it applies economic theory and its principles to the entire field of political science.  It does this by painting the field of politics as a facet of the market, and it presumes politicians, bureaucrats, and the average voter as market actors.  One of its principle assumptions is that all of these market actors are, in the political realm, motivated chiefly by their own self-interest, just as it is theorized that market actors are in the economic realm.  A major criticism of the theory, though, is lobbed at that very assumption.  The criticism is that it paints that assumption with too broad of a brush; even if many people are motivated in that way, that does not mean that everyone is.  However, I think that if one takes a step back and reduces the theory to a useful, generalized heuristic rather than a rule that encompasses every human motivation, then I think that the criticism can be largely avoided.  I also think that the theory is best used that way, regardless.  There is no need to assert that such is always the case.  All that needs to be shown is that it is normally the case, and that should be reason enough to illicit concern.

Now, if that concern is valid, and if politicians are elected in order to serve the public good, yet are chiefly motivated by their own self-interest, that ostensibly leaves the door wide open for conflicts of interest to arise. One could try to mitigate this problem by claiming that reelection is also in the best interest of any politician, stipulating that not living up to the public’s expectations would be detrimental to their reelection.  I think that this position is rather juvenile upon reflection, though, in that it gives far more credit to the voting populace than what even a cursory examination of modern political history calls for.

Under ideal conditions, such would be the case, certainly.  We do not live under ideal conditions, however.  Under ideal conditions, the concept of a government would be entirely unnecessary as everyone would already know what to do.  The non-president James Buchanan, one of the theory’s founding thinkers, said, public choice theory is “politics without romance”.  It isn’t about saying that the emperor ought to wear clothes; it’s about showing how the emperor does not wear clothes, irrespective of whether or not he or she should.  That is another, much more moralistic matter entirely.  While the theory does tend to pull at the strings of one’s ethical dispositions, that’s merely a side effect of having such dispositions.  The aim of the theory is not to condemn contemporary politics in some sort of moralistic light but rather to attempt to more accurately analyze it.

One of the things that the theory is arguably the best at accounting for is the paradox of regulatory capture, and I only call it a paradox to be charitable.  The government’s chief role, which many agree with, is to regulate.  The government regulates in all sorts of ways, but it always does so under the pretense of protecting the public good.  It is for this very reason that regulatory capture is paradoxical.  If the government is meant to regulate for the public good, and the government’s regulators consist chiefly of men and women that are from the institutions that the government is meant to regulate, then what real regulatory work is being done?  To borrow from the overused old adage, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (who will watch the watchers?), who will regulate the regulators?

The worst part is not even that these entities are—quite rationally—gaming the system and escaping real regulation but the fact that they can and do use their regulatory positions to regulate their competition.  They can force and maintain de jure monopolies and oligopolies by crushing their competition without having to compete with them in the open economic market.  Using regulation to their advantage, such market actors not only can crush extant competition but can also extinguish new, potential competition before it can make its way into the market.  This is clearly evidenced by all of the subsidization that the government pays for.  It’s the larger firms that benefit the most.  They also enforce regulations that only an already large and well established corporation can afford to adhere to.  So, yes, some regulation might be going through, but most of it is regulation that only further secures the already advantaged groups—big business.  Instead of government working as a deterrent to those that would abuse without regulation, it can be easily manipulated into a crutch for abusive entities that would otherwise falter to competition in an open market.

That is not to say that I advocate for a free market necessarily but rather that it at least seems preferable to the apparent Chinese finger-trap that is (captured) regulation.  Government regulation is not some self-realizable, ontologically independent force to be reckoned with.  It is a tool that needs hands to wield it.  Even under ideal conditions, human beings must be in charge of the regulation.  When the regulation’s goal is to disadvantage your own position in any way, then what better idea is there than to take the reins of regulation yourself?  Moreover, what better idea is there when not only can you save yourself from being disadvantaged (in the long run) by taking the regulatory reins, but you can even incapacitate your competition by doing so.  For the ardent egoist, it’s just the logical position.  Abuse or be abused.

Last semester, I attended a conference that had a mini-lecture on public choice theory.  In it, the presenter, one Geoffrey Lea, was adamant in stating that problems like regulatory capture and others that are endemic to government intervention are not symptoms of a flawed system that is reparable; they are “features” of an irreparable system.  His exact words were, “feature, not a bug.”  Government is necessarily set up in such a way that it is ripe for abuse.  Those that wish to do so will always have more to gain than those who do not.  Not only does their own self-interest typically grant them a much stronger drive, they will also have an easier time getting into office because they lack the moral qualms that anyone who did not wish to abuse the system would have.  They are not only fine with abusing the system once it has been infiltrated, but they are just as fine with abusing their way into the system by virtually any means necessary.

Furthermore, their position within the system is seemingly safeguarded by another one of public choice theory’s political hypotheses: rational ignorance.  To briefly sum up its essence, rational ignorance occurs when the cost of learning about any particular item outweighs the perceived benefit.  In public choice theory, rational ignorance is inextricably linked to voter apathy.  If a voter does not think that his or her decision will make much of a difference—if any at all—in the long run, then what reason do they have to bother spending an adequate amount of time attempting to inform themselves on voter issues?  Having little spare time to even do such things due to work obligations is problem enough.  There is also a problem of competition in this realm.  Will more satisfaction be received by spending their spare time on entertainment and other such competing time-consuming activities, or will more satisfaction be received by edifying one’s self on matters of policy?  I would venture to say that, given my own perspective on things (which I don’t think is particularly controversial), the non-edificatory hobbies tend to win the competitive battle.  Again, exceptions clearly exist and so long as the general theory is used only in a general, heuristic sense, then those exceptions can be duly accounted for.  I maintain that rational ignorance can only ever feed into the already problematic political feature that is regulatory capture.

While this next paragraph might look a bit like a tangent (it probably is if I have to preface it with another paragraph), this is my brief attempt at proposing anarchism as a possible alternative.  I mean, if this problem is endemic to all forms of governments, which public choice theory does appear to entail, then that’s pretty much all you’re left with:


Anarchism has a long and sordid history.  At present, it is a provocative position that is popularly dismissed as naïve and adolescent, while also seen as dangerous at the same time.   I suppose that anarchism could entail those things, but that all depends on the particular flavor of “anarchism” in question, and there are plenty of flavors.  There are probably more flavors of anarchism than there are flavors in a Baskin Robbins, and these flavors really do matter.  Within the anarchist community, most that ascribe to any given school think that their theory is the only conclusion that “true anarchism” (whatever that means) can ever entail.  Any other school is merely an anarchist imposter, but I digress.  The point to this commentary is that there is serious dispute within anarchist circles as to what the proposition actually means/entails.  My own position is that any form of anarchism ought and must eschew violence altogether.  There may be room for defensive violence, at the very least in the defense of others if not one’s own person, but the key is that violence is always to be avoided.  It can only be tolerated as a last resort in a scenario where it is proportional at most.  I just wanted to note my position here, not defend it, so I’m not going to delve into the ethics right here.

Before closing, I would like to address another associated issue for a moment.  It is an issue that I think attentively stewards the naming of things, as opposed to their unnaming, especially with respect to government.  This issue is that of government as religion.  Of course, what it is that I mean by religion, exactly, must first be fleshed out.  Religion, as I use it, is the manner in which we believe that our fundamental ideologies apply to the world.  Under such a sense, religion can be both non-secular and secular; such a distinction is lost on it.  Additionally, religion is rooted in faith, which also merits a quick classification.  Faith, as I use it, is utterly arational.  As such, it is immune to rational argumentation.  This is not to say that one cannot be moved toward faith through rational inquiry but rather that, even if that is the case, faith is something new altogether.  I can think that x is correct for one or more good reasons, but that’s significantly different than the claim that I know x to be true.  When we leap from a proper justification for thinking that something seems to be true to an unwavering position that it is and can only ever be a true fact of the world, then that is indeed a leap of faith.  The leap is from rationality to arationality.  I would like to note that while I do think that faith has its place, I also think it to be inescapable, but this conversation is moving beyond the scope of this essay.  I’ll probably write an article on this alone in the future.

The reason I brought up the idea of government as religion at all was to try and make this point: when we transfer a proposition from a matter of contention and probability to one of essentiality and necessity (to something that we believe religiously), we also shield that proposition from scrutiny.  This can lead to cognitive dissonance and other such problems for discourse and thought.  We might also be completely unaware of the leap ever occurring.  Part of its inescapability is that it is something that we do naturally, I think, to protect the very foundations of our ideologies.  If we were able to completely change the core of our beliefs on mere whims, then we would all most likely go insane.  Its necessity and inescapability notwithstanding, I do believe that, first, it is important to repeatedly reflect on our beliefs and try to earnestly determine whether we hold them as matters of faith or rationality, and then, secondly, earnestly determine whether they ought to be or not.

I argue that government is not merely something that is just as susceptible to corruptibility as we are ourselves.  I argue that government is both a beacon and a haven for corruptibility.  As Frank Herbert said in Dune (which I haven’t read), “All governments suffer a recurring problem: power attracts pathological personalities.  It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.”  Public choice theory can be summed up rather concisely: those who have the most to gain will be the ones trying the hardest.  Yes, this seems to be a problem with human nature more generally, but concentrating it does not seem to be helping.  If we have such a hard time tackling the problem on an individual level, then what makes us think that we’re prepared to tackle it on a macro level?

Gradualism: Good or Bad?

Libertarians often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the issue of achieving their end goals. With almost every issue that arises in the liberty community, you are sure to come across those who support slow and gradual change as well as those who push for the immediate end of the state. Who is right?

 An effective way of judging the success of ‘Gradualism’ is to look at when it is used to further agendas other than those held by libertarians. For example, one can look at the success of the left over the last century or so and see what ‘Gradualism’ has achieved them: Marxism permeates nearly every aspect of society, especially those aspects which libertarians have seen deteriorate (gun rights, private property rights, etc.) The ideas of state-socialism and the like have been taught in high schools as well as colleges and universities for multiple generations; as a result, people across the country (and the world) hold statist policies in high-esteem.

 Also, given the current political framework, it is important to take note of how laws and court precedent  have gradually changed over time, and almost never abruptly. When working within a static system, gradualism is usually the only recourse possible.

 Yet, there are many examples in which sudden (and sometimes even violent) changes in the social and political structures of a society have been successful. The most familiar example of such change is the American Revolution in which the colonies of what is now the United States freed themselves from the rule of Great Britain. Although the seeds of secession were sown many years prior to the Revolution, only was freedom achieved when the colonists were finally willing to use swift action against their oppressors to achieve their goals.

 Gradualism only works when it is warranted and when it can be assured that the main goal can be reached after a compromise or ‘gradual’ step. For example, in the recent debates about ‘marriage equality,’ libertarians found themselves split on whether they should advocate equal marriage licensing or abolishing marriage licensing all-together. Libertarians generally agreed that the end goal was ending licensing, but many disagreed on how that goal should be achieved. The proper course of action should have been to end marriage licensing, rather than ensure equal marriage licensing. Why? Well, if equal marriage licensing is instituted, it is likely that it will stay that way, with marriage licensing never being abolished. Those not as sympathetic to liberty as libertarians will be much less willing to work on ending licensing if their end goal is already achieved. For libertarians, the short-term compromise would not serve the purpose of extending the path to the final goal.

 However, there are instances in which ‘gradualism’ could be quite effective. One of the most beneficial forms of gradualism in which libertarians are currently succeeding in is the cultivation of libertarian ideals. From quasi-libertarian institutions such as the Republican Liberty Caucus and Cato to more ingrained think tanks such as the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, libertarians are enjoying great achievements and success, with libertarian ideals and values on the rise.

 Libertarians should employ gradualism only when it serves as a stepping stone to an assured goal; otherwise, they may fall into the trap of rigidity, in which compromises may prove to be binding. Moving in the same direction, whether it be quickly or slowly, is almost always a good thing, so long as the end goal is always in sight.

5 Reasons to Talk DPRK

“It only takes being wrong once, and I don’t want to be the secretary of defense who was wrong once.”
Chuck Hagel

kim-jong-un-upA qualifier: I’ve unequivocally opposed every military action undertaken by the United States during my lifetime since, at least, Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. I hope that adds some weight to my analysis here.

My late grandfather once told me that, in the pre-WWII United States, Hitler was widely seen as a buffoon making empty threats. Then, in 1939, Germany invaded Poland in a sneak attack.

Over the past several days, I’ve watched libertarians of all sorts come together to laugh derisively at anyone who remotely suspects that North Korea might be a threat. The whole thing has been an eerie reminder of my grandfather’s cautionary tale.

The DPRK is a “fully fledged nuclear power” that constantly sacrifices its own well-being for its insane dogma. I don’t think there should be any doubt that, if one nation on Earth possesses both the technological capability and suicidal insanity needed to attack the United States, it’s North Korea.

Moreover, if North Korea does do something rash without a single libertarian having taken its rhetoric seriously, it could deliver a fatal blow to the cause of American non-interventionism. The hermit state’s threats, then, should warrant a real conversation and not just dismissive optimism. Consider the following:

1)  North Korean missiles can probably hit the mainland United States

Several of my libertarian friends have now shown me the same illustration of North Korea’s missile capabilities ending with the Taepodong-2 – which everyone agrees could travel over 4,000 miles and strike Alaska.

This projection is out of date, however. It leaves off the Unha rocket, which North Korea successfully tested in December. An Unha could strike most anywhere in California.

Granted, there is an ongoing debate about the Unha in the national security community, but it’s actually not a debate about whether an Unha could reach the mainland United States. It’s a debate about whether the DPRK could attach a nuclear bomb – something it certainly possesses – to an Unha – which it also certainly possesses. Asserting that North Korean technology is nothing to worry about, then, is quite a gamble.

2)  Our missile defense system is a joke

I’ve seen a number of libertarians point to America’s missile defense shield as a reason that everyone should calm down. This is ironic, since libertarians know that our government is incompetent at things much less complex than hitting one missile with another in midair. I think, therefore, that this is a pretty clear case of doublethink.

Because the War on Iraq was sold to the public under the pretext of a foreign military threat, we’ve apparently resolved to dismiss any purported military threat. This could be a grave mistake.

Although Reason does not see any threat from North Korea, they do seem to agree with me that it’s unlikely our missile defense system would stop much of anything.

In controlled tests against sitting ducks, these weapons miss their targets as often as they hit them … To have any realistic hope of shooting down an intercontinental ballistic missile, you have to be able to track it while it’s above the atmosphere (“midcourse”). But the enemy probably won’t cooperate.

Moreover, this questionable defense system isn’t even in place. Here’s National Review:

Remember what Obama did in April 2009: The day after North Korea conducted a missile test, he canceled the interceptors that President George W. Bush had ordered for Alaska.

Now flash-forward to this very month: March 2013. North Korea again conducts a missile test. And, immediately, the administration announces that we will proceed with those interceptors after all. They should be ready in 2017. So, we have lost four years.

3)  The attack would be a predictable instance of blowback

The sunny disposition of libertarians towards the ongoing Korean debacle is historically perplexing. After all, not only were libertarians in the 90s gloomy about America’s actions in the Middle East – their gloom was correct.

In fact, as a teenager, I likely first took note of Ron Paul when I heard he’d warned that a heavy military presence in the Middle East would provoke a terrorist attack. Today’s libertarians, however, apparently don’t think that surrounding North Korea with vast contingents in South Korea and Japan will produce equivalent results.

Why is it that we anticipated violence from networks of non-state fanatics but expect sensible behavior when those same fanatics are organized under the mantle of a formal state?

Libertarians shouldn’t be telling everyone to relax. We should be warning people about the costs of interventionism like we have in the past.

4)  The DPRK is bloodthirsty and insane

North Korea Window on North KoreaIt’s tempting to suppose that North Korea wouldn’t dare sign its own death warrant by attacking the United States. This thinking, however, assumes certain parallels between North Korean and American culture. It’s possible that these parallels simply do not exist.

North Korea didn’t become a pariah state, after all, by rationally responding to incentives. At every turn, the fulfillment of its dogma has taken priority over its own self-interest.

Libertarians might be slightly more concerned about an attack by the DPRK if they spent a few minutes researching its society. North Korea is a nation from another world.

The country lives and breathes a garish, hive-like brand of neo-Marxism. It’s government owns the largest stadium in the world, Rungnado May Day, where it’s fond of creating enormous images by having thousands of people arrange themselves like color-coded ants. Public executions are handed out for even the minutest of crimes and are attended by tens of thousands of people like sporting events. When a North Korean leader dies, the nation’s people collapse in despair en masse, weeping hysterically in the streets.

The American reaction to this last item was interesting. Americans of all backgrounds are happy to dismiss entire regions and ideological groups within the United States as gullible dolts. When it comes to North Korea, however, we’ve somehow decided that the nation is populated by rational skeptics who secretly see right through their government’s propaganda and are only feigning fanatical loyalty.

Conversely, I don’t suppose that North Koreans are any cleverer than we are. They have been told their entire lives that their rulers are deities and that Americans are evil incarnate. Overwhelmingly, they have no access to contrary information. Chances are, I think, that the isolated despotate is brimming with people who would really like to kill us.

5)  We risk nuking non-interventionism by avoiding the subject

The entire time this Korea fiasco has been unfolding, libertarians should have been using the opportunity to warn against the potential dangers of America’s interventionism in East Asia.

Should the worst happen now, the ensuing wave of jingoism would go uncontested. It would be too late for libertarians to criticize American foreign policy in the region; any talk of blowback would be understandably brushed aside.

In addition to being a horrible tragedy, an attack tomorrow would not even affirm non-interventionist predictions; libertarians would lose credibility, leaving America more likely to get itself into similar situations in the future.

While we should continue hoping for the best, we should be planning for the worst. If the liberty movement wishes to secure it’s place as a viable political force, it’s time to have a serious discourse about North Korea.