Libertarian Tech

gps1Oftentimes, technology is discussed solely in such a light that it will only lead to an inhibition of freedom, as LWA contributor Spencer Smith pointed out in regards to drones.

This past weekend while traveling to Northern Illinois to assist the McHenry County Young Republicans in their July 4th activism, I realized one of the benefits of technology in regards to one of the most vital forms of human freedom: mobility between geographical and governmental boundaries.

When I would put in my destination, my GPS would notify me: “This route has toll roads. Do you want to avoid them?” Anyone would say yes, but my reasoning was to deny a state that has been fiscally irresponsible more revenue; the dream of any libertarian.

My GPS not only helped me avoid such wastes of time and money, but also stimulated local businesses, an exemplar of spontaneous order if there ever was one. When I was in need of gas or a bite to eat, my GPS would alert me to where the closest gas station or restaurant was. The utility of such technology cannot be understated, even though the government can use such technology for nefarious purposes. In the past, I took drives merely with paper directions; that was not the easiest thing to do and resulted in many obscenities being uttered. Tom Tom is a company that is commended every day by such consumers like me who continue to buy their products and use them.

Consumers gain quite a lot more than government can as a result of the fact that they are rational actors using such technology to produce wealth, as opposed to stifle wealth or violate the rights of others. Consumers also don’t use the technology in such a way that it is overwhelming; in other words, they only gather enough information to use for their needs. I need to go one place, not gather the details on where millions of people are going.

Consumers, beyond using such technology to challenge, and stymie, revenue collection and stimulate private business, can also use such technology to do what I did: counter government intervention with activism. In that I wasn’t a local, I didn’t have an intimate knowledge of the environs I was working in there, just like when I was doing my work with AFP in my home state. Yet, the technology assisted me in getting where I needed to be and thus I was rendered more effective.

GPS units are not merely computer chips and plastic, they represent a certain kind of freedom as well due to the ease of travel when utilizing them. They are decidedly libertarian in nature for the reasons I’ve pointed out and a result of the prosperity the United States still has, in spite of the central planning that has become more characteristic of the economy.

What Conservatism Offers Liberty

“The conjunction of ruling and dreaming generates tyranny.”
Michael Oakeshott

Fictional libertarian Ron Swanson has become a TV icon.

The fictional Swanson has become a TV icon.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of attending a lecture by political scientist Donald J. Devine. Though the talk was my introduction to Devine’s work, the “Rasputin of reduction” has quickly become one of my personal heroes.

As Reagan’s civil service director, Devine was the original Ron Swanson: a stalwart libertarian placed at the head of a bloated bureaucracy. During his tenure as director, Devine slashed his office’s spending by 58% and fired one hundred thousand public employees. Taking an axe to government earned Devine several colorful monikers, including “Reagan’s terrible swift sword.”

In light of Devine’s actions, it’s a wonder why any libertarians say that Reagan’s administration was no better than Obama’s. Under the latter, IRS agents have spent some tens of thousands of dollars building a mockup starship Enterprise, violated government rules by booking top-dollar presidential suites, and hired costly speakers to lecture on subjects like “leadership through art.” This is precisely the sort of frivolity that Reagan’s sword would have razed.

Moreover, Devine’s latest book, “America’s Way Back,” has earned some revealing praise from Rand Paul. The senator has said that “Devine spells out the solution for the modern GOP – a fusion of the best of conservative ideas with those of the liberty movement.”

Rand Paul has been called “the effective leader of the Republican Party” by a prominent Democratic strategist.

Rand Paul has been called “the effective leader of the Republican Party” by a prominent Democratic strategist.

It’s not a coincidence that Senator Paul both identifies with Devine and has been recognized as “the effective leader of the Republican Party.” It’s thinking like Devine’s that enabled liberty-minded Republicans to surf into the House and Senate in a Tea Party tsunami in 2010. Conversely, the liberty movement’s alternative strategy – described as the “cosmotarian” approach by Justin Raimondo – has won no equivalent victories.

The futile overtures of the cosmotarians often involve abandoning libertarian positions in favor of leftist ones. Months ago, for instance, the chairman of the Cato Institute went so far as to offer a “libertarian case” for reintroducing an already defeated piece of gun control legislation.

Yet the strategy espoused by Dr. Devine and championed by Senator Paul requires nothing of the kind.* On the contrary, a brief survey of conservative thought reveals that it ultimately serves to strengthen and underpin the positions that libertarians already hold.


It’s no secret that the left perceives its every political victory as part of mankind’s linear and inexorable march into the light. Nor is it any mystery why. The left must disdain the past because most every serious thinker in human history to date would, today, be called a conservative.

In the words of Jonah Goldberg, “modern conservatism was born as a reaction to various utopian ideologies” that emerged in the 18th century. In the grand sweep of history, leftism is a particularly nasty rash that, only last week, cropped up on the body of human thought.

Russell Kirk wrote “To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things.”

Russell Kirk wrote “To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things.”

Thomas Sowell has suggested that the left originated when Rousseau first denied “the plain fact of evil.” That is, Rousseau advanced the biologically absurd position that humans have no innate behavioral traits: all of our differences and failings are the result of outside circumstance. From Rousseau’s premise, France’s Jacobin government inferred – quite reasonably – that it could perfect humanity by amassing enough sheer power to properly manipulate social conditions.

Yet, as Murray Rothbard would later note, this premise ignored the “ontological structure of reality.” The resulting Reign of Terror killed tens of thousands of people.

By denying the very “structure of reality,” leftism provides a bottomless justification for government violence. If everyone is the same by default, then any inequality is proof that someone has committed fraud or theft. To a leftist, government force is not initiatory violence, but the defensive appropriation of stolen property. Thus, “scratch an egalitarian, and you will inevitably find a statist.”

A leftist never quite runs out of people to kill.

A leftist never quite runs out of people to kill.

In the 20th century, this statism was borne out in full as communism blossomed across Europe and Asia. According to University of Hawaii professor R.J. Rummel, communists murdered nearly two thirds of all those killed by governments from 1900 to 1987.

This makes leftism the bloodiest and most authoritarian doctrine in the history of mankind. In the words of Russell Kirk, “the ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.”

The conservative, by contrast, recognizes that humanity is fallen. Because people have intrinsic limitations, Kirk wrote, “all that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk.” Pretending otherwise causes even more problems than we had to begin with.

The Parable of the Trees warns against political power.

The Parable of the Trees warns against political power.

If mankind is perfectible, the war on drugs has not gone far enough until there are no drug addicts. The war on prostitution has not gone far enough until no women choose to be prostitutes. “Humanitarian wars” have not been waged enough until there are no more Joseph Konys.

In other words, a state that abandons the principle of imperfectability will continue to grow either until it is stopped or no humans are left alive on Earth. To borrow from C.S. Lewis – who said that “it may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies” – the very worst right-wingers are robber barons.

While Friedrich Hayek had rhetorical problems with the term “conservative,” he called himself a “Burkean” – i.e. a conservative – and shared Burke’s objections to egalitarianism. Hayek wrote:

From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time.

Moreover, even if some sort of perfection were attainable, a conservative would not trust government to implement it. While a leftist may expect moral people to spring forth from democratic institutions, a conservative sees that politicians are as limited as the rest of us.

Kirk wrote that “knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence.” Likewise, the biblical Parable of the Trees (Judges 9:8-15) warns against offering human beings power – arguing that the most evil humans will be most attracted to it. By contrast, the righteous leader Gideon rejects government in Judges 8:22-23, saying “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you.”

Cicero said “freedom is a man’s natural power of doing what he pleases, so far as he is not prevented by force or law.”

Cicero said “freedom is a man’s natural power of doing what he pleases, so far as he is not prevented by force or law.”


Kirk’s conservative principles also included the sense that “modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time.” He wrote that conservatives adhere to “a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.”

This principle is certainly helpful to political decentralism, which has deep and ancient roots. Humans lived in tribes of roughly 200 people for the overwhelming majority of a timeline on which centralized states are a mere blip. Conservatism counsels us to stand “on the shoulders of giants” rather than pretend that we can create a wholly artificial pattern from scratch.

A human thinks in terms of his immediate community and is not wired to conceptualize strangers in other regions as if they, somehow, were members of it. There is little reason, then, to place disparate communities under the uniform rule of an overarching government. Kirk agrees: “In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily.”

Iceland had a libertarian legal system for almost 300 years.

Iceland had a libertarian legal system for almost 300 years.

Likewise, Yale historian Donald Kagan has said of ancient Greek polities that “the idea of taxation being normal would have gotten a Greek foaming at the mouth. When there’s no tyranny, there’s no taxation.” University of London historian Tom Asbridge has said that, during the Carolingian renaissance, Europeans were allowed “to follow quite different sets of laws depending on their local region, their traditions. And to have a loose umbrella of power that held it all together. That actually worked.” In Iceland, the nation was formally divided into a market of several dozen chieftaincies for nearly 300 years.

As Roderick Long has said of this final example, “We should be cautious in labeling as a failure a political experiment that flourished longer than the United States has even existed.”


One of Australia’s top Aboriginal leaders is also its fiercest conservative thinker.

One of Australia’s top Aboriginal leaders is also its fiercest conservative thinker.

Look back to the Jacobins, and it’s not difficult to see today’s tolerant left foreshadowed. Under Jacobin rule, religious people were seen as backwards “fanatics” and drowned en masse. The government replaced the Christian calendar with a secular one, removed the word “saint” from street names, and adopted a 10-day week so that Christians would not know which day was Sunday.

Likewise, it became a capital crime to use the words “monsieur” and “madame” – which the Jacobins replaced with the gender-neutral and egalitarian “citoyen.” Even the guillotine itself was designed to be egalitarian.**

Inspired by the Jacobins, Karl Marx would later seek to bring about “the disappearance of all culture” and promote the “abolition of the family”, a unit that “will vanish as a matter of course when its complement [capitalism] vanishes.”

In response to leftist calls for human sameness, conservatives like Edmund Burke began to argue that plurality, in and of itself, is desirable.

Localizing government not only increases accountability, but promotes differences between communities that – like those between cultures, the sexes and individuals – are complimentary and competitive.

In his essay “The Relevance of Conservatism,” Noel Pearson argues that conservatism offers the best way forward for his people – Australian Aborigines – and the continued existence of their unique culture. Writes Pearson:

Conservatism is the insight into the imperfection and mystery of human nature. This imperfection and mystery will ultimately make liberal and social-democratic structures inadequate and unfulfilling.

Conservatism is the idea that distinct groups of people should continue to exist because deep difference (not just multicultural diversity) is an end in itself. We don’t know what the purpose of existence is, if any. The homogenization inherent in liberalism and social democracy is risky because it robs us of many possibly attempts to answer the unsolvable existential enigmas.

* FAQ on this point: See here for immigration and here for foreign policy and social issues.

** This was poetically fitting. As the Reign of Terror illustrated, there is death in equality as surely as there is equality in death.

The Left-Libertarian Pot of Gold

For the past three years, an ardent faction of libertarian Democrats has wreaked havoc on the D.C. establishment.

By grounding their libertarianism in progressive principles, these “Wacko Birds” have successfully shifted the Democratic mainstream towards liberty.

Their rebellion even seems to have influenced Joe Biden, who recently lamented that “our government spied on every one of your phone calls” and decried the notion that we should be “taking on more new interventions” in places like Syria.

Sorry: there is no pot of libertarians at the end of the liberal rainbow.

Sorry: there is no pot of libertarians at the end of the liberal rainbow.

This is, needless to say, mind-bogglingly wrong. This story is not only false, but the mirror opposite of what is actually occurring.

Some elements of the liberty movement, however, continue to regard the reversal I’ve just presented as more attainable than the actual trend unfolding in front of our faces. This vision is the sort of surreal inversion that can only be produced in the comfort of an internet echo-chamber.

In reality, it takes minutes to convince most conservatives that we should not raise taxes to protect drug users from their private mistakes. Convincing most liberals to let you own an automatic weapon, on the other hand, is a fool’s errand. The disparity is so obvious that I suspect people who don’t recognize it are not really having these conversations in their daily lives.

If the thought of “Wacko Birds” taking flight in today’s Democratic party strikes you as less than ludicrous, it’s time to take a break from blogging and start having more face-to-face conversations about libertarianism.

Unlike Bush, Obama’s approval rating has weathered scandal after scandal.

Unlike Bush, Obama’s approval rating has weathered scandal after scandal.

George Bush spent less on the military and spied on fewer Americans than President Obama. Yet, during Bush’s second term, Republicans responded to his big government policies with mass disillusionment – leaving him with an approval rating of 22% and making him the most unpopular president on record. Conversely, amidst an almost cinematic barrage of ridiculous scandals, the left continues to cling feverishly to the pillars of power.

Glenn Greenwald recently called the fact that liberals have stuck with Obama “a testament to their intellectual dexterity.” At the heart of this dexterity is an ideological addiction to force. Leftism casts aggression as defense: that’s why it has been the predominant ideology of authoritarian despots for a hundred years.

Libertarians, nonetheless, have been making overtures to the left since the early 90s. Curiously, this approach often seems to involve stabbing other libertarians in the back. In 1994, the San Francisco Libertarian Party criticized Justin Raimondo for campaigning against welfare. During Ron Paul’s first GOP presidential run, the Cato Institute eagerly disparaged him on the grounds that he appealed to flyover state retrogrades. More recently, of course, Cato came out in favor of gun background checks – compromising the one liberty upon which all others are ultimately dependent.

Where, I ask, are the fruits of this strategy? It has not produced a Rand Paul or a Mike Lee in the Senate, nor a Thomas Massie or a Justin Amash in the House.  Ron Wyden – the only Democrat to aid Rand Paul’s filibuster (albeit in a very brief and noncommittal way) – will never be called “the effective leader of the [Democratic] party.” The liberty movement’s recent victories have been won not because of the leftist strategy, but in spite of it.

There are, of course, potential libertarians to be found everywhere. But if the liberty movement wishes to become a viable political force, we must embrace a strategy that yields real results in the generality – even if it doesn’t necessarily mirror our own individual experiences as post-9/11 teenagers.

Ron Paul 2016?

Does the idea of Ron Paul running a fourth time for president seem a little far-fetched to you? Apparently, it doesn’t to everyone in the liberty movement.

Writing last week on Lew Rockwell’s blog, libertarian professor and author Walter Block, made the case for a 2016 Ron Paul candidacy.

“What we’ve got to do, in my view, is DRAFT Ron to run for president in 2016. Libertarianism is alright as I see things, but if you really want to accomplish any thing in life, you’ve got to threaten people with physical violence (I’m kidding, I’m kidding – Lew insists I make this clear). So, Ron, unless you seek the presidency of the US in 2016, you’ll have me to contend with. Ron in 16! Ron in 16!”

He later added:

As far as I’m concerned, Ron should run for President of the US in 2016 in any way he wants. As a Republican, as a Libertarian, even as a Martian for all I care. Of all the present candidates for the presidency, I would support Rand Paul. But only in a lukewarm manner.

With all due respect to Dr. Block, adopting this attitude is far from a good idea. Sadly, it is not only among the people who have been active for liberty in non-political ways (like Dr. Block), that this attitude is prevalent. Unfortunately, I see many libertarians talking about how the only candidate they would support is Ron Paul. I have already written on this site about how pointless I find libertarian purity tests, so this isn’t what this article is about. Rather, I want to address what I see as a dangerous cult of personality that surrounds Ron Paul among some libertarians.

Ron Paul never made his message about him.

When we think about our beloved former Congressman, what do we know about him? He has never made the message of liberty about him, or compared himself favorably to other liberty-minded individuals. Rather, the entire message of Ron Paul’s national presence has been that liberty is universal.

Admit it: you want Ron Paul to be your grandfather (source).

In 2016, Ron Paul will be 80. It is not unrealistic to think that he may live to be 88, but it is rather selfish of us to expect him to spend his retirement going through the exhausting process of campaigning. He’s retired from politics. He’s not done fighting for liberty, but he’s ready to spend time with his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Letting him do that without pressuring him to run for office again is the least we can do to someone we claim to admire so much.

The liberty movement is about more than Ron Paul.

Rand Paul, Thomas Massie, and Justin Amash  (source)

Ron Paul has certainly done more for liberty in recent years than arguably anyone else. However, if I had to compare Dr. Paul to a biblical figure, it would be John the Baptist, not the Messiah. Ron Paul has spent countless years in government being the “voice calling in the wilderness” for liberty. Where 20 and 30 years ago, Ron Paul had few allies,  liberty these days has some pretty vocal supporters in the House and the Senate.  Liberty is becoming mainstream. The worst thing the liberty movement can do now is to hold tightly to what brought us here, demanding that an aging defender of liberty keep running for office despite his personal wish to retire, and ignoring the new voices we have today.

The most ironic part of all of this is that many of the diehards who wish to see Ron Paul run again are the people who usually say things like “voting is pointless,” “it’s not about politics,” etc. If it’s not all about politics, then we certainly need to stop focusing on one man running for one office. Ron Paul has done his part. Now it’s up to us to carry the torch of liberty and focus on supporting liberty minded individuals – not just for President, and not just for national offices! Let Ron Paul retire without harassing him to be our perpetual candidate. It’s our turn now.

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.

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.


The Ayn Rand in Iron Man

With the comic book character Iron Man, Stan Lee challenged himself to create the most unlikely of comic book superheroes–one that most of his readers should have despised:

The ’60s kids hated the war; Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) would be an arms manufacturer. They opposed capitalist exploitation; Lee would make Stark a rich entrepreneur and industrialist. Feminism was in its second wave; Tony Stark would be a playboy. Communalism was an ideal, and transcendental spirituality was on the rise; Tony would be a megalomaniac. Lee said he set himself a goal to take everything his readers hated and make his new hero all of those things, “shove him down their throats and make them like him…”

What Lee accomplished was to introduce the world to its first capitalist superhero!

Flash forward: This spring US theaters featured the latest installment in a string of films based on the character Stan Lee foisted on the world, and which it did, in fact, come to love. Tony Stark (brilliantly brought to life by Robert Downey Jr.) has now been the lead role in three wildly successful feature films: Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010) and Iron Man 3 (2013). He is also a major protagonist in the ensemble film The Avengers (2012).

Several commentators have noted that the capitalist spirit is alive and well in the Iron Man films–and a few have even noted that there are some motifs in Iron Man 2 which are reminiscent of themes in Ayn Rand’s works. Rand invented a sort of philosophy of capitalism, called Objectivism, which she expounded in her fictional novels and other writing. She was most active during the same period that Iron Man debuted as a comic, so it makes sense that there would be an influence. There certainly are Randian themes in Iron Man 2, but I think we can say likewise of all three Iron Man films. In fact, the character development of Stark and the psychology of his enemies, seem as if they could have been lifted from an Objectivist psychology textbook (if there were such a thing).

For instance, the enemies whom Stark encounters in the films reflect Randian character types:

Islamic Jihadists (Iron Man) use the fruits of reason (stolen or purchased high tech weapons of the Western world) for the sake of achieving their irrational ends.

Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, Iron Man), executive of Stark Enterprises, represents the lie of altruism. He pretends to assert the needs of the board of directors over the “selfish” desires of the individual (Stark), but in reality, this is a cover for his own self-serving intentions.

Senator Stern (Garry Shandling, Iron Man 2) operates under the delusion that society is primary, and the individual secondary, and tries to appropriate the rewards of individual initiative for the sake of the collective. In doing so, he risks killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, Iron Man 2) is the son of an old business partner of Stark’s father. He has a victim mentality, believing that he has gotten a raw deal out of life. He thinks that Stark’s successes should have been his own, and he attempts to take them by force.

Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, Iron Man 2) is a plugged-in, crony-capitalist arms dealer who tries to compete with Stark’s superior tech-savvy through schmoozing and deceit. He envies Stark’s success and wants to destroy Stark’s legacy to buttress his own crippled ego.

The Mandarin (Guy Pearce, Iron Man 3) got a raw deal and now he’s taking revenge. As brilliant as he is, he fails to see the fallacy in his own actions. He does not comprehend that he can know the difference between good and evil the same way he can understand the biotech behind his weapons–through reason.

The overarching theme of the three Iron Man films is Individualism vs. Collectivism: Stark has to learn not to substitute the values of society for his own before he can save the day. But there are other themes that resonate throughout all three movies–like knowing that you are capable of achieving your goals and that you deserve the rewards of that achievement. Although each Iron Man movie contains a mix of Randesque ideas, I have picked out the concept I think most represents the essence of each film. (I did not include The Avengers since it was not, strictly speaking, an Iron Man movie.)

Iron Man : Learn to be more selfish
Tony Stark is introduced to us as CEO of Stark Enterprises; an innovative arms manufacturer and inventor. Incredibly talented and absurdly rich, Stark seems to be living a self-centered and hedonistic life. But in reality–as a Randian psychotherapist might observe–he has been sacrificing himself to the needs of society and his father’s legacy. He has not come into his own and begun living for himself.

Then, an event happens that makes him question the arms manufacturing industry that he helped create in the footsteps of his father: He falls prey to Islamic extremists using the weapons his company made for the US military. This leads to the creation of his famous mechanized suit of armor that comes to be known as Iron Man. It is powered by the miniaturized version of Stark’s father’s energy generating device prototype: the arc reactor. Responding to Stark’s unwelcome move to shut down the weapons division of Stark Enterprises, Obadiah Stane, Stark’s father’s old business partner, shuts Stark out of his own company and begins building his own suit from an early version of Tony’s creation. There’s only one thing he still lacks: the miniaturized arc reactor to energize the suit. He hires an engineer to create it for him, but the guy cannot do it. “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave with a bunch of scraps!” he bellows at the cowering technician, who replies plaintively, “Well I’m sorry. I’m not Tony Stark.”

In our world, the same problems are playing out in real life: Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs–and no collective of Apple employees, however schooled in Jobsian thinking, can take the place of the deceased entrepreneur extraordinaire. Apple’s stock has been on shaky ground since Jobs passed away in 2011. In Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the individual pursuing his or her own dreams and visions is all-important.

Failing at making his own arc reactor, Stane resorts to stealing Stark’s. He justifies his actions with an appeal to altruism and its inverted morality: “Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you? Your father helped give us the atomic bomb. Now, what kind of world would it be if he was as selfish as you?” In contrast to the collectivist impulse represented by Obadiah, we see that Stark eschews the expected superhero dual identity. That, should he embrace it, would force him to distance himself from the fame of the hero persona and impose on him the humility that society demands of the great. Instead, he proclaims, staring into the cameras on international television: “I am Iron Man.”

Iron Man 2 : Believe in yourself
Tony Stark struggles to maintain his property from the grasping hands of the government, an arms dealer who wants Stark’s fame and prestige without earning it, and a sociopath who blames Stark’s father for robbing his own father, and himself, of a better life. Stark must do this while trying to overcome a problem with his arc reactor that threatens to kill him.

Early on, we see Stark defend private property before a senate hearing called by Senator Stern, who wants to nationalize Stark’s invention. Stark is hilariously irreverent before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “You want my property? You can’t have it. But I did you a big favor: I successfully privatized world peace.” However, Stark is out of sorts because it appears he will die from the toxins created by the arc reactor in his chest. He doubts his own abilities can break this impasse, and so he makes a series of mistakes–including relinquishing his CEO status to Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow), and letting a prototype version of his suit get stolen by his friend who works for the military.

In Randian philosophy, there is the idea that life is not stacked against us like a bad hand of cards. We are equipped to understand reality, and thereby to act to achieve our values. Knowing this is what Rand understands as self-esteem. This is the lesson Stark must learn in Iron Man 2.

Eventually, Stark resolves all these problems, regaining confidence in his abilities and reestablishing his ownership of the Iron Man suit. But ultimately he decides to grant the use of the suit to his friend, James Rhodes (Don Cheadle). Tony will not let society claim what is his alone, but he will lend his invention to a friend whom he knows will reciprocate and help him out from time to time. This interplay reflects Rand’s trader principle: the precept that no one may be sacrificed to another individual or group, but rather, each must offer something of value to the other.

Iron Man 3 : Stay focused
An important idea in Rand’s philosophy is that morality is rational: what makes sense for us and what is right are the same. But we must constantly choose to think. We cannot rely on handed-down wisdom, the current views held by society, or our own whims. That things can go wrong when we go on autopilot is the main idea in Iron Man 3.

Subsequent to the inter-dimensional battle in The Avengers, Stark has developed his technology 100 fold over what he had achieved in prior films. Now his armor can fly to him, and even assemble itself as a fully autonomous AI-driven robot. Stark has a fleet of these intelligent suits which can aid him in battle, each with special characteristics and battle strengths. The reason for the constant tinkering is that he has unresolved fears, which he needs to address yet is putting off. His obsession with his gadgets begins to get in the way of his relationship with Pepper Potts, and his fears begin to manifest in the form of anxiety attacks.

Then a terrorist begins bombing, and the strikes come more and more often. Stark discovers that the origins of the mysterious villain, The Mandarin, lay in his own past: Stark had mindlessly blown off a think-tank founder–who wanted to partner with Stark–and an idealistic geneticist with a breakthrough biotechnology. Stark quickly forgot about the geneticist and her work, but the think-tank founder became a terrorist who went on to exploit the discovery. Now he wants to sell the government technology to help it defend against terrorist threats that he was manufacturing in the first place.

For much of the film, Stark must go without his suit as he attempts to discover the identity of the Mandarin. In the process, he regains confidence in his intellect, not only in terms of past successes, but also in his innate ability to create now and in the future. He comes to acknowledge his lack of focus, both in the past, when he inadvertently sowed the seeds of the terrorist trouble, but also, in his current relationship with Pepper. In the end, he makes a bold move to cement these realizations into place–he destroys all his Iron Man suits.

The notion of the purposeful destruction of something you hold dear, for the sake of something worth even more, is a recurring theme in Rand’s work. In The Fountain Head, for instance, architect Howard Roark burns his greatest architectural feat to the ground rather than let it be ruined by a committee. In Atlas Shrugged, the world’s innovators destroy their own work to keep it from being appropriated by the government. This destruction is justified by the absolute right of the individual to the fruits of his/her own work and ideas, as expressed in the right to property.

Stark destroys Iron Man because he now has absolute confidence in himself and his ability to obtain his own values. He does not need suits to protect him because he created them in the first place and he is the true source of their power. He can create a new Iron Man suit or any other thing that he may need. And because of this, we know that we will see Iron Man saving the day, again.

In Defense of Social Constructs

This is Part 2 in a series on gender roles and feminism. See Part 1 Feminists for the Patriarchy, Part 3 Christian Hedonism, Part 4 Christian Gender Rolesand Part 5 Proof of the Existence of God(s).

In Part 1, Feminists for the Patriarchy, I argued that Feminists and Complementarians don’t disagree on method but merely on goals; they agree on using the methods of Patriarchy and Chivalry (as defined in part 1) to achieve their goals of attaining rights for women, but they disagree on what those rights should be. In this essay I will start by arguing that there is a third aspect of method which Feminists and Complementarians must agree on; I will argue that if women’s rights are to be established peacefully, they must be socially constructed. By “socially constructed”, I mean that culture and society will need to work to peacefully promote certain behaviors and attitudes which will create a certain set of rights for women. I will then address the issue of how to decide which rights Patriarchy, Chivalry, and social construction should establish for women.

By “social construct” I do not mean that something is not real, or that it is inherently undesirable. As Feminist Philosopher Sally Haslanger has pointed out, although she thinks modern notions of race and gender are social constructs, she also says,

on my view, gender and race are real. However, their reality in the contemporary context is the product of unjust social structures, and so should be resisted.”[1]

It is only these specific social constructs that she is opposed to, not the idea of social construction itself. This seems to be the only reasonable way to talk about social constructs. I think anyone who argues that something is inherently bad just because it is “socially constructed” instead of “natural” is deeply confused; socially constructing norms and roles is one of the most natural human activities there is. If you truly dislike social construction itself, then your only option is to live in complete isolation. On the other hand, if it is merely the social constructs our society has at the moment that you don’t approve of, then you should stay and promote the social constructs that you think would be best.

Many libertarians, often influenced by John Stuart Mill, believe that they have an obligation to oppose societal norms and customs, such as gender roles, in the name of freedom. Part of the argument is often that we should oppose them because they are “nothing but social constructs”[2]. However, what Mill argued for was not that we should oppose social construction altogether (he was smarter than that), but rather that we should socially construct new norms which he thought would be preferable to what existed at the time.

Take the example of seeking to increase the opportunity for women to become doctors (a goal I believe Mill would have supported): If we have this goal, then we must socially construct a society in which patients assume female doctors to be equally competent with male doctors, where medical schools assume female applicants to be equally competent with male applicants, where young girls are encouraged to aspire to go to medical school, where men are equally attracted to women who work full-time as doctors etc. All of these things must be socially constructed by the society. Women will then have the right to an equal (or at least improved) opportunity to become doctors, because society has constructed such a right[3] for them. Social construction, along with Chivalry and Patriarchy, is a necessary part of the method for reaching any goal of peacefully creating rights for women.[4]

Before discussing which women’s rights we should have as goals, I will outline some assumptions that I will make about how to go about deciding these goals.

1.) I will assume that we are only talking about peaceful methods of promoting/discouraging behaviors. (With the exception of discouraging violent assault – in which case violent defense could be used)

2.) I will restrict my analysis to people who use the method outlined in Part 1 Feminists for the Patriarchy. This means that they do not think it is methodologically necessary to equalize the Raw Power or Economic Power dynamic. Unless feminists want to equalize those power dynamics, they will need to use Patriarchy, Chivalry, and social construction to accomplish their goals.

Some people may argue that the only way to reduce rape is to make it so that women are all as physically strong[5] as men, but anyone who doesn’t think this is going to need to either use some men to protect women from rapists (Patriarchy),[6] or change the intention of men who would otherwise commit rape (Chivalry). Changing the culture in this way would be a form of social construction.

Another example would be a feminist who wants there to be more opportunities for women to become CEOs, but doesn’t think this should necessarily require equalizing the Economic Power dynamic. Such a feminist would instead support socially constructing a society where men would change their intentions and stop discriminating against women, stop harassing women, and stop doing business in a “traditional male way” that makes it difficult for women to be included.

3.) I will assume that there is no such thing as a neutral culture. Every culture socially constructs gender roles of some kind. Every culture promotes some behaviors and discourages others. As long as Raw Power or Economic Power aren’t being used, any method of cultural or social persuasion will be considered peaceful social construction. The fact that nobody wants to date you because you don’t shower is peaceful pressure to stay clean. It is not equivalent to people beating you or imprisoning you for not staying clean. The former is peaceful and acceptable, the latter is violent and unacceptable.[7] As stated earlier, social construction is inevitable and there is nothing inherently immoral about it.

4.) I will assume that every proposed goal for women’s rights must be argued for on its own terms. There is no set package of objective women’s rights that must be accepted as one unit without argument. I will not assume that prescriptive egalitarianism is a “given”. The virtue of equality of roles must be argued for just like any other moral or political theory.

We must address goals for women’s rights separately. For example, someone might want to reduce the number of rapes that occur and also want to encourage more women to be CEOs. However, reducing the number of rapes and increasing the representation of women in corporate leadership positions should not necessarily be assumed to be connected, unless a causal arrow can be established between the two. Correlation is not enough; it has often been noted that when people eat more ice cream, the murder rate goes up, but we shouldn’t think it follows that increased ice cream consumption causes an increased murder rate.[8] Unless causal arrows are established, we must treat these as separate goals. One goal is reducing rape and another, separate, goal is increasing the number of female CEOs.

In some cases establishing causal arrows might break up the usual grouping of feminist positions. Let us continue with the goal of reducing rape. Now someone might think they can prove that reducing the number of women in the Military would reduce the rape rate because those women would no longer be put in dangerous conditions. If this causal arrow was proven, then it would make sense to advocate discouraging women from joining the Military in order to reach the goal of reducing rape. Many people would say this would be unfair because the women are being punished for something that isn’t their fault. But that is begging the question by assuming that having more women in the Military is a goal in itself and that to be discouraged from joining is a “punishment”. If our only stated goal so far was to reduce rape and if lowering the number of women in the Military causes the number of rapes to go down, then it follows that we should discourage women from joining the Military. The goal of having women in the Military, if it is going to be a goal at all, needs to be argued for on its own terms.


The question that needs to be answered moving forward for anyone interested in this issue is: “Which rights should we socially construct for women?”

In Part 3  Christian Hedonism and Part 4 Christian Gender Roles I begin to answer this question for Feminist Egalitarianism and Christian Complementarianism. In Part 5 Proof of the Existence of God(s) I prove the existence of god(s).

[1] Haslanger, Sally. 2012. Resisting Reality.

[2] This wasn’t the language that Mill used but some people take Mill’s arguments against the social norms and gender roles of his day and add on the “just social constructs” language.

[3] I am talking about rights being created by society in the sense of their recognition and enforcement being created by society. I am not taking a position on the question of whether there are objective rights that come from God or nature or some other source.

[4] Or any other group, of course, but I’m only focusing on women’s rights in these essays.

[5] Or equally armed or equally aggressive or equally trained or whatever it might take to equalize Raw Power.

[6] This could also be Chivalry in many cases. I am thinking of the use of the Military and Police to enforce anti-rape laws which would fall more under Patriarchy than Chivalry.

[7] By “acceptable” I mean “among those methods of social persuasion which I will be considering” and by “unacceptable” I mean “not among those methods of social persuasion which I will be considering”. I am not going to argue against violent social persuasion. That is outside the scope of this essay.

[8] They probably both have a common cause such as warmer weather.

Original Sin and Guns

“You know, obviously, if he comes inside the residence and assaults you, can you ask him to go away?”

That’s the advice that a 911 operator gave a woman who called to report a break-in last year. Having explained that “I don’t have anybody to send out there” (the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office is closed on weekends, of course) the public servant offered the victim this shrewd counsel.

It was, apparently, of little practical use to the woman, who was choked and raped by the intruder ten minutes later.

Girl-at-RangeConsider the operator’s suggestion in the context of the gun debate. Supporters of gun control legislation – about half of the country – wholly predicate their arguments on two assumptions: 1). We can trust the government to provide for our personal safety, and 2).  It’s safer to cooperate with an attacker than to resist them.

Both of these ideas were very much at play in the Josephine County case. In their cultural context, in fact, the 911 operator’s violently naive statements really ought to be unsurprising.

It’s not hard to see where gun control advocates might derive these assumptions. If the first is true, we can expect elected officials to be virtuous. In other words, a decision-making body will tend towards increasingly moral choices as it grows to include more human beings.

If the second is true, criminals are not particularly interested in harming you. Home invaders do not have a human desire to do violence, but purely financial motives brought about by outside circumstance.

imagesThe ultimate foundation of gun control advocacy, then, is the notion that man is good. If this premise is true, in fact, it actually makes the arguments for gun control rather compelling.

But it is not true. In fact, it’s so plainly and calamitously wrong that it must take some intellect to trick oneself into believing it. I’d say, moreover, that no doctrine in human history has been responsible for more evil than the notion that man is good.

Last month, I happened upon Gina Luttrell’s column “Guns Aren’t the Answer to Rape.” Luttrell concludes her piece by cutting right to the core of the gun dispute.

Suggests that people are “naturally” rapists

I will be the first person to admit and to say, that rape, just like any other kind of violence, is not going to be completely eradicated from our society. However, again, if you look at the claim that women should simply be armed in order to prevent their own rape, there is a fundamental assumption in there that rape is natural, can happen at any time, and that we should just prevent against it like we do a cold or natural disasters. You’re basically assuming that people (and, implicitly, men, although of course men are not the only ones who rape) are inherently rapists. And that certainly is a disturbing thought.

Though Luttrell’s analysis of the gun divide is spot-on, it’s unclear how she chose her side. She gives us no reason to think that rape is entirely environmental except that the alternative is disturbing. Conversely, I can point out that dolphins and orangutans are known to commit violent rapes. Likewise, testosterone has been shown to reduce empathy and is found at high levels in rapists.

earthquake-4-sep10-0073Perhaps Luttrell is equating the natural with the good. Admittedly, if I heard the statement “rape is natural” in isolation, I might assume the speaker was offering a moral defense of rape. Yet Luttrell has dealt eloquently with this problem already: disease and earthquakes are natural. And while most of us are now aware of this fact, we have not become apologists for malaria or Krakatoa.

Moreover, we are given the power to save many people from both of these horrors – to “just prevent against it” – by our knowledge of their origin: the natural processes of a flawed world. Medicine and disaster-preparedness would be less successful if we instead pretended that the world is otherwise than it is.

There is little need for liberty if there is no cause for cynicism. John Adams said that he distrusted rulers because he perceived “danger from all men.” We should be glad that Adams had this cynical temperament; otherwise, we might be even less free than we are today.

We should carry arms, then, because a world of perfect safety is not possible – and because we couldn’t trust politicians to create one if it were.