The Year That Was

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It's hard to get a handle on a year as wild as 2018 proved to be. But we can try at least to sum up the last year of Liberty, through the voices and messages of our esteemed contributors:

Thanks to all you readers for another tremendous year. Now we ask you: What all did we miss? What would you like to see more of? You can bet we'll continue doing our best to bring you items and commentary of interest across the entire range of libertarian thought. See you in 2019!

 



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We Are All Floridians Now

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The election of 2018 was ably summarized by Brenda Snipes, supervisor of elections for Broward County, Florida, in a comment about 2,000 ballots that her organization appeared to be missing. She said there was one thing she was sure of: “The ballots are in this building.”

There would be nowhere else for them to be. The ballots are in the building. The ballots are in the building.

The ballots, if found, would presumably have been cast for candidates of Snipes’ party, but she was forced to resign her position before she could find them. In the same way, Democratic and Republican partisans spent the election season trying to find the votes they needed and were sure existed, somewhere on the premises; but they never found where. The more or less final results of the election indicated that the voters were pretty much where they were when the whole thing started — evenly divided. The same groups turned out in more or less the same numbers, and when forced to decide between D and R, they decided in a way that taught no one much of anything. There was no blue wave. There was no red wave. Nobody rocked the vote. And because the results were approximately even, both parties will spend the next two years making asses of themselves trying to find their votes.

As a libertarian, I’m inclined to hate everyone’s politics; as someone who can read and write, I’m inclined to be skeptical about all supposed Great Communicators and Inspiring Speakers of the post-literate age.

But more was lost than ballots in the election of 2018. Grammar often got so lost that nobody even went looking for it. Here’s a report from Fox News (November 18) about the Senate election in Snipes’ own virtuous and efficient state:

[Rick] Scott's victory . . . marks the first time in more than a century that Florida has two Republican senators representing them in Washington.

No matter how many ballots Floridians cast — bogus or not — “Florida” is not a “them.”

The best orator among Florida politicians was supposed to be Andrew Gillum, the losing candidate for governor. Gillum is said by conservative friends of mine to be “a good speaker, even if you hate his politics.” As a libertarian, I’m inclined to hate everyone’s politics; as someone who can read and write, I’m inclined to be skeptical about all supposed Great Communicators and Inspiring Speakers of the post-literate age. I liked Ronald Reagan pretty well, but I wasn’t captivated by his speeches. I didn’t like Barack Obama or William Jefferson Clinton, but that wasn’t my reason for disliking their constant attempts at self-expression. The reason was that they were blustery, repetitive, and a hundred times too long for their concept count. I found Gillum’s speeches as embarrassing as any other faux-folksy orations.

There was no blue wave. There was no red wave. Nobody rocked the vote.

His election, like Scott’s, fell into the toils of a Florida recount, and Gillum long pursued a victory of hanging chads. Meanwhile, he talked a lot. He said, among other things,

I wanted so bad, and still want so bad, for us to be able to make a combined impact on this state, and I’m trusting that we’re going to have that opportunity. Once we get beyond this election, whatever the outcome may be, we will have to commit ourselves to an improved and a better democracy.

How bad[ly] do you want to be able to make an impact, Mr. Gillum? I want it so bad. Are you currently committed to a better democracy? Maybe not now, but in the future I will have to commit myself. But what do you mean by a better democracy? I mean an improved democracy. I will have to commit myself to an improved and a better democracy.

I didn’t like Barack Obama or William Jefferson Clinton, but that wasn’t my reason for disliking their constant attempts at self-expression.

Gillum wasn’t the only candidate in that race who was committed to the meaningless doubling of words. Ronald Dion (“Ron”) DeSantis, who emerged as victor, was also so committed. He also kept issuing statements, which were duly reported by the Miami Herald:

“I remain humbled by your support and the great honor the people of Florida have shown me as I prepare to serve as your next governor,” his statement read, striking a more conciliatory tone than the confrontational approach he used in the campaign. [The Herald is convinced that approaches strike tones. Picture that, if you can.]

He said the campaign must now end so it can “give way to governing and bringing people together to secure Florida’s future. With the campaign now over, that’s where all of my focus will be.”

Humbled by support and humbled by honor, DeSantis now turns to governing and bringing people together . . . can’t he just say something once? People who can’t do that are likely to get confused. What does it mean to say that a campaign must give way to bringing people together? Incidentally, what does it mean to secure the future? Isn’t it going to happen anyhow? Leave the damned thing alone.

I know what DeSantis was trying to say. Why didn’t he say it? “The campaign’s over; let’s try to work with our opponents”? Now, was that so hard?

But how in God’s universe did the other guy — Mr. Gillum — get himself so mixed up as to say that “it [meaning either his campaign or the recount he wanted] is not over until every legally casted vote is counted”?

Both Gillum and his opponent are able representatives of the modern form of illiteracy, which is the ability to read and speak without noticing what you read and speak.

Sorry. The past participle of cast is cast. And don’t accuse me of pedantry. The man is a politician. The most important thing in his life is the casting of votes. He must have read hundreds of articles, papers, advice sheets, whatever, about the subject. And he doesn’t know what the past participle of cast may be?

Don’t say he merely prefers an accepted variant of the word. Casted hasn’t been used in serious English since the 16th century, and if there’s one thing Florida politicians are not, it’s collectors of antiquarian books. (You can say the same about Mike Pence, who in 2016 babbled about having “casted” his vote, until he was reproved by Merriam Webster and a little swarm of literate people.) Both Gillum and his opponent are able representatives of the modern form of illiteracy, which is the ability to read and speak without noticing what you read and speak. When in doubt — whatever! Just make it up!

That approach can be used with concepts, too. Adults form concepts mainly by reading, reflection, and communication with knowledgeable people. The concepts result from their attempts to find intellectual answers to questions posed by their experience. This is particularly evident in the formation of economic concepts. Today we see one person paying three dollars for a cup of coffee and another declining to pay anything more than two. On another day we see the second person happily paying four dollars for the same commodity. We wonder how to account for this, and if we are willing to read, we may learn from our reading the principle of marginal utility. Similarly, we may wonder why jobs appear to be scarce in one year but abundant in another. If we read, or talk with other people, or pursue our own reflections, we may discover such concepts as the investment cycle, the effects of taxes and regulation, the influence of technological innovation upon productivity, and the like, and we can use these concepts to explain our experience.

I was going to list eight or ten fallacies that are packed into Ocasio-Cortez’s eight words. Then I realized: there aren’t any ideas in what she said.

By contrast, a person who, as Sophocles says, “wishes to talk but never to hear or listen” seeks answers not from reading, reflection, and communication but from an impulse to say something, whether the saying represents a concept or not. Want an example? Here’s a good one. It comes from the inimitable Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newly elected congresswoman of New York, who was asked by a PBS interviewer for her response to the nation’s low unemployment rate. As a dedicated opponent of the current economic regime, she seemed embarrassed by this question. But her embarrassment did not last long. She soon had something to say, which was: “Unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs.”

When I saw a clip of that interview, I grabbed a piece of paper to record her words, certain that I would use them here. My plan was to show how even dumb people can generate ideas, lots of ideas — dumb ideas, but plenty of them anyway. I would list eight or ten fallacies that are packed into Ocasio-Cortez’s eight words. Then I realized: there aren’t any ideas in what she said, or around what she said, or implied by what she said; it’s just words, nothing but words. Her remark was as empty of concepts as those mysterious messages in Cocteau’s Orphée: “The bird sings with its fingers, three times.” She is conceptually illiterate, that’s all.

I gave up my plan, but I was not disappointed. I knew that in this column, O-C’s future is secure. Most politicians talk nonsense all day long, but few are objects of a publicity cult. They are clowns without an audience, and their words are written on the waves. But Ocasio-Cortez is the Donald Trump of the Left. Nothing can stand between her and a camera, and there are always people showing her the way to one. She is God’s gift to Republicans and to people like me. I expect from her a continuous supply of hilarious remarks.

Like other mainstream politicians, McCaskill spent her career disguising an obsession with power as a manifestation of civic duty.

I have not been so lucky with Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, whose legislative career was ended by the voters on November 6. I fear that McCaskill will no longer be turning out fodder for Word Watch. But her farewell performance was a knockout in the nonsense department. It had the weight, the gravity, of exemplary things. Ocasio is a nut who sees no reason to disguise the fact, but McCaskill is a representative figure: like other mainstream politicians, she spent her career disguising an obsession with power as a manifestation of civic duty. When she lost, she posted a farewell address in which she made the following outrageous claim.

This campaign was never about me — it was always about the people of Missouri.

Her full statement contains 354 words, 33 of which are first-person pronouns. Most of it is autobiographical: “I love Missouri. I was born and raised here. Waited tables to put myself through college and law school at Mizzou. I have raised my family here. I’ve never left. [Note: except for 12 years vacationing in Washington DC.] . . . We’ve been through a lot together, Missouri and me.”

How icky can you get? The really awful thing is that this could have been “Montana and me” or “New Jersey and me” or “Hoboken and me”: any pol could have written this — and most of them have. The business about waiting tables — they all say something like that. They all maintain that their campaigns are not attempts to thrust their snouts into the gravy bowl; oh no, everything they do is a “fight for what’s right,” for “our values,” as McCaskill put it — the “values” of “this state” (or whatever). We have Missouri values, California values, Cleveland values, any kind of values you like, and every value offers a privilege to serve:

You allowed me to serve the public since I was 28 years old. [There’s an old leftist satirical song that says, “Our leaders are the finest men, / And we elect ’em again and again.”] For decades I have been blessed to get up every single day to make things better and improve people’s lives. [Recall Gillum’s idea about both improving and making better.] That has been my greatest privilege.

Every libertarian must be in agony, having to read yet another assertion that the people are desperately waiting for their lives to be improved by such philanthropists as Claire McCaskill. The real agony, however, begins when one gets to McCaskill’s promise. She puts it in boldface: “I will never stop fighting.

Even when they lose, they all say that. They all promise to keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing their whole lives. No matter what you think, they know what’s right for you. You will never get rid of them. They simply won’t go away.




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How Many Branches of Government Do You See?

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Executive, legislative, and judicial — the three branches of government, right? That’s what we learned in school. And it’s true, those are the legally established branches. But they aren’t the only ones.

Defined in a realistic, not a schoolbook way, a branch of government is a political power that is so continuously and firmly influential as both to instigate its own coercive programs and to veto the programs of others, including other branches of government. By this definition, the American government currently consists not of three but of at least six branches.

Generation after generation, the heritage media have advised and staffed the executive branch and have planned and directed public policy.

You can try numbering the branches for yourself, but I would add, to the usual three, the three following: the heritage media, the professional bureaucracy, and the taxpayer-financed social orgs and lobbies.

Start with the heritage media. For countless other organs of pseudo-public opinion, the New York Times and the other historically significant media still identify what is news and how to slant it, what the government is for and what the government should do. Generation after generation, the heritage media have advised and staffed the executive branch and have planned and directed public policy as much as any Secretary of State or Treasury or Health and Human Services could possibly do. So much for the fourth branch of government.

The existence of a fifth branch has been established beyond any possibility of doubt by the past ten years’ revelations of the power, tenacity, and guileful self-confidence of the IRS, FBI, CIA, and other secret agencies. For many years, no president has really been in control of them, and the war between them and the current president has demonstrated that they have the power of veto.

Now for the lobbies and institutional pressure groups, the sixth branch of government. For more than 150 years they have been denounced as a “hidden government,” but now you can drop the “hidden.” Many of them, such as Planned Parenthood, the anti-drug organizations, the anti-smoking organizations, the police and firefighter lobbies, the mental health consortiums, the legal services providers, the farmers’ organizations, the education associations, the “nongovernmental” welfare services groups — you are welcome to expand the list — are supported by taxpayer money, in the form of grants for “research” and “services” and the “training” of the subject population. Others are supported and empowered by their provision of “experienced’ and “professional” staff for government functions, including the writing of laws. They stock the regulatory boards and the credentialing boards; they provide the public service announcements on TV and radio; they provide the press releases recited without skepticism by the comfort animals of the press; they provide the bullet points for the resumes by which politicians try to establish their bona fides. You know the template: “I worked closely with the National Association for X in developing new programs to deal with the grave national problem of Y.” The one thing you can count on is that none of these well-funded, well-placed, and doubtless well-intentioned organizations advocates a smaller role for government.

Regardless of whatever is currently on the list, it seems inevitable that the self-appointed job of any branch of government will be to increase its power at the expense of individual liberty.

If I were writing this 50 years ago, I might have added to the list of branches the labor unions and the churches. But with union membership hovering around 11% and the churches unable to keep either their flocks or their alliances together, both of these would-be branches can be labeled former — and they’re pretty bitter about it, too.

But regardless of whatever is currently on the list, it seems inevitable that the self-appointed job of any branch of government will be to increase its power at the expense of individual liberty. The framers of the Constitution knew that. They therefore designed branches of government that could put the brakes on one another. And, although I’m not aware that the framers said so, it’s the tendency of every large organization to develop its own internal brakes, its own internal dissent and competition. This can also be an aid to the liberty of men and women who want to live their lives without being told what to do.

But how does the situation stand right now? We have an executive branch, personified in Donald Trump, that is better at generating internal dissent and competition than anyone could have dreamed. We have a judicial branch whose members are utterly incapable of reading the same page in the same way. We have a legislature locked in the death struggle between the two great parties, each of which is locked in a death struggle with its own suicidal impulses.

By contrast, the heritage media, the grand array of lobby groups, and the federal bureaucracy are bent on maintaining their power and cohesion until the end, the bitter, bitter end. Bitter for you and me.




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Leland Yeager, R.I.P.

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Leland B. Yeager, a distinguished economist and proponent of liberty, died on April 23, in Auburn, Alabama. He was 93 years old.

In public accounts of his life you will see it noted that he was Professor Emeritus at Auburn University and the University of Virginia and that he was a monetarist economist who believed that government should keep its hands off the money supply, except by defining a “unit of account.” He was the author of many books, including International Monetary Relations: Theory, History and Policy (1976), Experiences with Stopping Inflation (1981), The Fluttering Veil: Essays on Monetary Disequilibrium (1997), and Ethics As Social Science: The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation (2001).

When you read his work, you will find that his interests were as wide as the world.

Many of Leland Yeager’s shorter publications, as well as his fascinating collection of essays, Is the Market a Test of Truth and Beauty? (2011), can be found on the website of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. When you read his work, you will find that his interests were as wide as the world. Unlike other polymaths and original thinkers, however, he was always careful to stipulate where his own knowledge stopped. He believed in limited government; he believed also in responsible self-limitation. As a result, he was never a pedant, and he was never a bore.

But now I’ve started to talk about Leland Yeager the person, and as I do, I feel a sense of overwhelming loss. For three decades, Leland honored Liberty with his contributions, and I had the privilege of working with him as editor on most of them. He was a fine writer and a gracious fellow citizen of the republic of letters. His friendship inspired me. He cannot be replaced in my esteem.

Leland had many intellectual involvements, and in his last years his health was failing, so I knew I was doubly fortunate to maintain a literary relationship with him. Not that he ever indicated, as academics are wont to do, that he was tired of all the demands on his time. Oh no. There was no falsity about Leland Yeager. He did what he could, and he was interested in doing what he could.

He was a fine writer and a gracious fellow citizen of the republic of letters. His friendship inspired me. He cannot be replaced in my esteem.

If I could have published his essays, reviews, and comments every month, or every week, I would have. But I tried to be respectful of his time. Every few months I asked him whether he might be thinking about something that would be good for Liberty. Usually he’d mention some interests; I’d say that I shared them, and I was sure our readers would also; and soon his crisp, clear copy would appear in my inbox. I’d make a few editorial suggestions, of which he accepted maybe half; but whether he did or he didn’t, he would discuss the logic behind his final choice of words or syntax. I always looked forward to that.

Many authors aren’t interested in discussing words. They’re more interested in what they have to say than in how they actually say it. But Leland was in love with the way language works and with the reasoning behind our syntax, diction, and even punctuation. To an editor, he was the ideal author, a person with whom one could freely discuss the craft of writing and editing, a person from whom one could learn, even when one disagreed with him.

Leland sometimes joshed me about my “flattering” him into writing his next article for Liberty, but there was no flattery involved. I told him exactly how good he was. I looked forward to discovering what his next subject would be. Economics? Government? History? Words themselves? Leland was better at explaining economics than anyone else I ever encountered, with the possible exception of Murray Rothbard (and that’s saying something); but the same enthusiasm and authorial integrity he showed in discussing economics appeared in his treatment of ethics, linguistics, history, and every other subject. A careless word, a willful exaggeration, an improbable “fact,” a cheap piece of abuse — those were things he would never permit himself. Leland never thought that good intentions could excuse bad writing.

Leland was in love with the way language works and with the reasoning behind our syntax, diction, and even punctuation. To an editor, he was the ideal author.

Rereading Leland’s works for Liberty, I found everything as fresh as the day he wrote it — and how much journal writing can you say that about? I’ll mention a few examples:

  • Leland’s essay on alternative histories, the histories of things that never happened (Liberty, September 2009);
  • his essay on free will and determinism (February 2017);
  • his introduction to the “auxiliary language” Interlingua (February 2008);
  • his essay on national and occupational cultures (April 2011);
  • his review of “Reaganomics,” with an exposition of the reasons for separating economy and state (January 1989); and
  • his magisterial consideration of government debt (December 2000).

In 2007 I persuaded him to debate the existence of God with me. He took the unbeliever’s side, but his essay remains a favorite of mine: “Is There a God? And Does It Matter?” (October 2007).

Leland’s last contribution to Liberty was an incisive analysis of Bitcoin. The essay, which I assume to be the final publication in a long career of authorship, appeared on April 4 of this year.

But I mean the final publication during his life. Last November 20, Leland wrote me a message in his characteristic manner. He noted that he was “93 and in poor health.” “Still,” he said, “I can’t and don’t complain.” Then he filled me in on his current literary project:

For years I have been working on a book on capital and interest. It is substantially complete, although still in rough form. Now, I think, I have a coauthor, an eminent economist, who will finish the book after my death and try to get it published.

I am looking for news on this project, and as I get it, I will report it here. Meanwhile, his published work remains — large and rich and thoughtful, and ready at all times to encourage people who delight in true works of the mind.




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Big Book, Big Insights

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Gary Jason is continuing his Thoughts books: Dangerous Thoughts: Provocative Writings on Contemporary Issues; Philosophic Thoughts: Essays on Logic and Philosophy; Disturbing Thoughts: Unorthodox Writings on Timely Issues. Now we have Devious Thoughts: Unconventional Thoughts on Contemporary Issues. It is an excellent complement to the others in the series.

Jason is Liberty’s esteemed senior editor, and some of the essays in Devious Thoughts have appeared in Liberty. So my regard for this book may not be free from all possible or conceivable bias — but then again, Jason is senior editor because he is an exceptional writer and an exceptional reasoner, so it is natural to find that he writes exceptional books. Such as this one.

At more than 400 pages, it is also a big book, willing to take up a wide range of issues. There are essays on education, immigration, energy policy, labor unions, and politics and economics more generally. An especially interesting section highlights one of Jason’s major developing interests, the history of propaganda.

I have long considered Jason one of this country’s leading experts on that most familiar and most misguided of America’s obsessions, energy and the environment. In a world in which public assertions about the environment are seldom supported by relevant or even existent facts, Jason always has facts to spare. For such nonspecialists as I, the 22 essays in the Energy and Environmentalism section of Devious Thoughts are a thorough education in the crucial events of the past five years, the age of fracking. Summarizing this section of his book, Jason refers to “the good news of the fracking revolution and America’s resurrection as an energy superpower.” He also mentions “the continuing follies of the environmentalist movement, a movement as rich in emotion as it is impoverished in rationality.”

Clearly, Jason’s thoughts are not “devious” in the sense of being tricky or slyly suggestive or cunningly insinuated. They are clear and straightforward, devious only in the ironic sense that to people who view them from a conventional perspective they will look like Mephistophelian underminings of Right Thinking. Of course, Right Thinking includes unconditional support for government schools, uncritical sympathy for monopolistic labor unions, abject worship at the shrines of the environmentalist cult, and other strange mental exercises now required of all who wish to be regarded as good citizens.

One of my favorite essays in this volume is Jason’s hilarious account of the migration of Toyota’s national headquarters from California to Texas, and the stunned or hubristic reactions of local politicians to the fact that companies prefer to operate where governments don’t make business too hard to carry on. Too numerous to mention are Jason’s droll commentaries on the afflictions of the big labor unions, which are losing all but their chutzpah. Near the top of my list is his series of essays on the means by which a totalitarian state (Nazi Germany) manipulated its population. Jason’s knowledge of fact, always impressive, is especially so in these works, in which one continually finds facts one didn’t know — facts about so many things: Nazi financial schemes, Nazi children’s books, the Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (what a name!), with its staff of 2,000 and its budget of almost 200 million Reichsmarks. . . . So many things.

Jason has an unusual ability to provide a dense array of facts and data while preserving liveliness and accessibility. In this book there is no unexplained jargon, no haughtily opaque references. The relatively short length of most essays allows them to be conveniently devoured and digested. And it’s a fine meal.


Editor's Note: Review of "Devious Thoughts: Unconventional Thoughts on Contemporary Issues," by Gary James Jason. CreateSpace, 2018, 406 pages.



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We’re Here!

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Thirty years ago, the first issue of Liberty appeared. It was dated August 1987, and it emerged from an old house high on a hill in the little town of Port Townsend, Washington, overlooking the Puget Sound.

Liberty was born at the moment when technology was making it possible to create a national magazine in one’s own home — if you were willing to perform the backbreaking effort necessary to get it to other people’s homes. R.W. Bradford and Kathy Bradford, who lived in the house on the hill, were willing to do that. Timothy Virkkala was their learned assistant in the project. And this, I suppose, is where I come into the story. I was Bill Bradford’s old friend from Michigan, our home state, who was privileged to become an editor-at-long-distance.

From the start, we had attracted most of the great names in the libertarian movement, and we continued to attract them, from Murray Rothbard to John Hospers to Milton Friedman.

One of Liberty’s first gifts to me was a svelte little plastic fax machine into which I could feed my handwritten copy (or copy embodied in a bad, bad computer printout), so it could be transmitted to Liberty HQ and retyped for publication. I spent many happy nights hand-feeding paper into the clicking, purring, squeaking machine with the cheerful blinking lights, then calling Bill to make sure he could read the results unrolling from his fax.

Within a few years, all copy became digital, human and financial costs-per-word decreased, and Liberty was being mailed to thousands of readers, all over the world. We started at six big issues a year, then went to 11 or 12 big issues. From the start, we had attracted most of the great names in the libertarian movement, and we continued to attract them, from Murray Rothbard to John Hospers to Milton Friedman. We also attracted debate, hostility, admiration, and friendship (often of the much-prized “I disagree with what you say but I like your writing anyway” variety) from libertarians and others.

It was our job to promote a play of ideas, and if we disagreed with what an author said, we helped him or her to present the disagreeable ideas in the most accessible and attractive way.

One of my most vivid memories is a conversation I had with Bill Bradford, who was a very great man, about whether we should publish a certain article. I said no, the subject wasn’t very important, and what the author said would only provoke anger from certain friends of Liberty. “Well,” he said. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” So we published it.

That’s not a unique instance. And I used to say that Bill published more articles that he disagreed with than otherwise. It was our job to promote a play of ideas, and if we disagreed with what an author said, we helped him or her to present the disagreeable ideas in the most accessible and attractive way. The one thing we wouldn’t stand for (still won’t) was an error of fact. In the days before the internet and during its infancy and adolescence we spent many days checking out purported facts about the history of South American railways, the origin of dogs, the use and regulation of helium in America, and other topics that turned out to be so interesting that we were happy we had disputed our authors’ facts.

But there were millions of facts that Bill didn’t need to look up. I suppose that nobody ever knew more about American political history than he did, or more about American and world geography. Sometimes my phone would ring at 1 a.m., and I would hear Bill’s voice, reporting on his current interests.

“Say, do you know what’s the tallest mountain in the world?”

“Mt. Everest?”

“Of course. From one point of view. But shouldn’t mountains be measured from where they start? I mean, if a mountain starts from the ocean floor, shouldn’t it be measured from the ocean floor? Well, in that case, the candidates are . . .”

Well,” Bill said. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” So we published it.

I think it was in that conversation that Bill introduced the topic of where you can see farthest on the surface of the earth, and developed a mathematical formula for calculating how far away a peak of such and such a height can be seen. He got the formula, which he supposed was the same as the one he had learned but had misplaced. Then he found that formula and discovered that it was different from his own, “but both of them work.” Not surprisingly, Bill wanted Liberty to encourage, not just articles about politics, but articles about the whole wide world. The journal should offer the best writing about liberty, or by libertarians, about anything . . .

Once, in the early days, Bill and I attended a libertarian convention called “The Culture of Liberty.” It was held in a typical conference center with a ballroom and breakout rooms, and in one corner of the ballroom there were six or seven paintings by some libertarian artist. Bill looked at them and laughed: “I guess that’s it; that’s the ‘culture of liberty.’” We both thought that if libertarianism was about getting the political power to leave people alone, so they would be free to do all the colorful and creative things they were able to do, then a libertarian journal should be warmly interested in those things; it shouldn’t stop with politics. Liberty never has — and if you want to see a magnificent exponent and exemplar of this idea, follow the contributions of Jo Ann Skousen, our entertainment editor.

When Bill and I were growing up, there were a few conservative journals, with National Review as their undisputed chief; an orthodox Objectivist journal; and a scattering of libertarian publications. At one end of that spectrum was The Freeman, an outreach publication with good analyses of economic questions. It was mailed out free, and it never, ever, reviewed a book it didn’t like. At the other end was Libertarian Connection, a cheeky product of early technology: you wrote whatever you wanted, mimeographed it, and mailed a ton of copies to the publisher, who stapled them together with other people’s mimeographed pages and mailed them out to everyone. Bill and I often hung out and discussed the latest Connection. It gave us a lot of laughs at some of its authors, and a lot of friendly feelings toward the others (and toward the first group, too).

If libertarianism was about people being left alone, free to do all the colorful and creative things they were able to do, then a libertarian journal should be warmly interested in those things.

In the late 1960s came Reason, which is still going strong, thank God, with a large foundation behind it, and a strong political agenda. And then came Liberty. Now — again, thank God — there are hundreds of libertarian online publications, pursuing various kinds of political agendas.

But Liberty was never that way. Bill was proud of the fact that, as he said, “Liberty has never advocated a single political position. Our authors have, but Liberty itself has not.” Don’t be mistaken: this is an important distinction, one of the most important in the world of journalism.

There is nothing wrong, and many things that are right, about publishing a journal whose purpose is to advocate certain specific ideas. Great political progress has resulted from the focused influence of libertarian, conservative, and civil-libertarian organs of opinion. But what is gained in influence may be lost in fun, and sometimes in trust. Liberty has never failed to publish something that’s unusual, attractive, or interesting, just because it wouldn’t help to produce the correct kind of political change.

And when you read Liberty, you may be bothered by many things, but you won’t be bothered by what I call the Church Bulletin Problem. Everything that’s written in the church bulletin may be true: the church may be doing great deeds; Satan may be on his last legs, and sinking fast; among the membership, all may be harmony and peace. But you know that if this were not true, the unfortunate fact would never appear in the bulletin. It just wouldn’t fit the agenda.

Liberty has never failed to publish something that’s unusual, attractive, or interesting, just because it wouldn’t help to produce the correct kind of political change.

Even the good stuff, the really individual stuff, the really inspiring stuff I see in some of the political sites and journals I enjoy, can make me wonder: is that really true? If not, how could I tell? And do the authors actually believe it’s true? With Liberty there has never been any question about that: our authors may have the wrong perspective, they may be making the wrong deductions, they may, at times, be riding their deductions over a cliff, but they believe exactly what they’ve written. This is especially noteworthy in cases in which libertarians are brave enough to challenge some libertarian “line.” You don’t do that unless you mean it.

But enough of preaching. The rest of the history (so far) is this. In December 2005, Bill died in his house on the hill, after a long and heroic struggle with cancer. One of his last concerns was the future of Liberty. We talked on the phone, a couple of weeks before his death, and I agreed to take the job as editor in chief. The good thing about me was that I had been an editor from the start and had been the only person, besides Bill himself, who had written something for every issue. The bad thing was that I lacked Bill’s gargantuan energy, his intimate knowledge of everything libertarian, and his . . . just everything that distinguished him as a great human being. For me, the good thing about my new job was that I got to collaborate with the amazing people who did the real work: Kathy Bradford, Mark Rand, Patrick Quealy, and Drew Ferguson.

In 2010, Liberty passed into its third technological era. Print journalism was on its way out. Fewer people wanted to wait for Liberty to arrive by mail. Bill had once been proud that we had subscribers in virtually every real country in the world, but changes in postal rates had nearly eliminated our worldwide audience. We needed to make a change, and we did: in late 2010, we became an online journal.

The effects were both good and bad. Good: we reclaimed our international audience. We became much more timely than a monthly print journal can be. We could link and be linked. We could make everything we publish and have published accessible for free. (OK, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You still have to spend time reading what we write. But you don’t have to pay any money. Although donations are always very acceptable.) Bad: we lost the wonderful heft and feel and smell of print, and with it many of our readers, who delight (as I do) in the enjoyment of words on paper.

Once we had subscribers in virtually every real country in the world, but changes in postal rates had nearly eliminated our worldwide audience. We needed to make a change.

So, we’re different today from what we were before, but we’re still the tough little boat in Captains Courageous, the “We’re Here.” We’re so substantially here that when I went looking through our online archives to find the locations of articles that I especially enjoyed, so I could recommend them to you, I got lost — lost in enjoyment of so many things I had read, and loved, and “forgotten,” and then discovered again, as fresh as the day they were written. You’re invited to go to the Liberty Archive and push the Search button and see for yourself. Substantial writing is writing that endures, and I think you’ll find that the great majority of the writing we’ve published retains its interest in a way that journal writing ordinarily does not.

I wanted to say, “If you follow this link, you’ll see the best writing by this author or that author.” But that idea was a nonstarter. There was just too much of the best, both of authors and of articles. And while I’m talking about the “best,” here’s the interesting thing about the authors of Liberty: every one of them is really an individual — which means that attempts at comparisons among them are all comparisons of apples and oranges.

Bill Bradford wanted writing that wasn’t valuable simply because of its subject or its political opinions. He wanted writing that showed you what individual people can do with words.

That is exactly what Bill Bradford wanted — individuality. A fervent admirer of H.L. Mencken — I can see Bill now, glowing with pleasure as he told me about one of the high points of his life, his visit to the Mencken house in Baltimore, where he sat in Mencken’s chair, behind Mencken’s desk — he wanted writing that wasn’t valuable simply because of its subject or its political opinions. He wanted writing that showed you what individual people can do with words.

I’ll speak for myself: If anyone asks me to identify my favorites among all the things I’ve written for Liberty, I’ll mention two items about animals: my Word Watch column on the death of Tatiana the tiger (April 2008, pp. 19–20), and my Reflection on the death of Adwaitya the tortoise (June 2006, pp. 9–11). I think those pieces are interesting because of what I did with them, not because I was expressing predictably libertarian sentiments. I also think they’re interesting because neither of them could possibly have appeared in any other journal. They are modest examples of what Liberty has always done to give liberty to its authors.

If you want more of the story of Liberty, I urge you to visit our March 2006 issue and read “A Life in Liberty,” our symposium on the life of Bill Bradford. Much of our history is conveniently available in our 20th-anniversary issue (August 2007), which offers accounts of the journal’s history written by Bill and me and the inimitable Bruce Ramsey. I hope you like what we’ve always tried to do. If you like it, please raise a glass to both Liberty and liberty. The second is always cause for tumultuous celebration. As for the first . . . we hope that it continues to merit a tumult, too.




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Type B, Meet Type B

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R.W. Bradford, the founder of this journal, was an acute political analyst, thoroughly familiar with American history and American life in all its forms. I’ve read a lot of professional commentators on American politics, but Bill Bradford’s chance observations showed more knowledge and intuition than 90% of the commentators show in a lifetime.

Every four years I recur to something Bill said to me one day, almost by chance. He said that there have been two types of presidential candidates: (A) those who had a perennial constituency — in Bill’s words, those “who always had a lot of people who wanted them to be president” — and (B) those who didn’t, those whom “nobody ever wanted to run.”

Crowds of people loved them, honored them, backed them in every attempt at the highest office.

It wasn’t a difference between people with good ideas and people with bad ones, although Bill said that he’d always had a weakness for the old maxim that “the job should seek the man,” not the other way around. The difference had to do with the psychology of the candidates and of their willing or unwilling supporters. Because of that difference, there might also be a difference in the candidates’ campaigns and their performance in office, if they managed to get into office.

I think there’s a good deal of truth in Bill’s idea. I think it provides an interesting perspective on how things work. And I think it’s sadly appropriate to what we see this year.

Think about it. Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Stephen Douglas, Ulysses S. Grant, William Jennings Bryan, Robert LaFollette, Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, Ronald Reagan . . . Crowds of people loved them, honored them, backed them in every attempt at the highest office. These people cheered their victories, mourned their defeats, and convinced themselves that the defeats were victories. Such followers enhance their favorites’ stature. More importantly, they enhance the candidates’ experience of their country and their countrymen. They give them a connection, if they want to use it, to real knowledge of America. And most of those favorites did use that connection.

Now think of Franklin Pierce, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, the two George Bushes, Barack Obama . . . No constituency ever spontaneously decided that these men were inspiring figures, and therefore insisted that they run for office. When they ran, it was because of their own insensate and insatiable ambition (Wilson, Nixon, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama), or because they thought it was somehow an appropriate thing to do (Taft), or because a deadlocked party invigorated a lurking idea that yes, maybe they could make it (Pierce, Harding), or because of some reason I cannot fathom (the Bushes).

Who clamored for Ted Cruz to run for president? What irresistible mob of supporters demanded that Marco Rubio take the field?

In each group, A and B, there are people whom I happen to like or admire, and there are people whom I happen to dislike or despise, usually because of their political philosophy. And there are people whose group assignment we can debate. But it would be hard to say that the Group B folk had the personal stature of the Group A folk, or their connection with the American experience. People in the second group have been candidates of themselves and some political coterie; their experience hasn’t needed to be broader, and sometimes it has been remarkably narrow. Those among them who have been motivated merely by their ambition, or the ambition of their friends and family, have tended to be either twisted souls or kids perpetually too late for the party.

The alarming thing about 2016, from this perspective, is the absence of any candidates from Group A.

Who clamored for Ted Cruz to run for president? What irresistible mob of supporters demanded that Marco Rubio take the field? John Kasich — the subject of what adoration? Jeb Bush — the cynosure of what eyes? None, of course, except those of the Chamber of Commerce and the diaspora of former Bush political employees.

I guess it goes without saying that nobody ever wanted Hillary Clinton to be president, and nobody wants it now. What her supporters desire is somebody who will favor their chosen policies, make the appointments they want to the Supreme Court, give them government grants and favors, employ them (or their relatives) and give them wealth and power. If Krazy Kat had figured out a way to collect gigantic bribes without overtly violating a law, and therefore had a ton of money to throw around, those people would be cheering for Krazy Kat. Who, come to think of it, would be a much better choice than Hillary Clinton, who is zanier than any comic strip character, though without the fun.

Ah, but Donald Trump and Bernard Sanders, what of them?

This is not a puzzling question. Think back to a year or two ago. Do you remember anybody ever saying, “There’s just one person I want to be president, and that’s the senator from Vermont”? No, you don’t. Sanders was and is a nonentity. It was the prospect of Mrs. Clinton’s coronation that made him a public hero. Any other plausible receptacle for leftist nonsense would have done as well, or better.

Of Donald Trump, we may ask a similar question, and find much the same answer. He wasn’t a nonentity, but no broad masses (to use the Marxist phrase) ever begged him to run for public office. He just got up one morning and decided to do it. So he has become the plausible receptacle for most of the justifiable or unjustifiable anti-establishment sentiment in the country. The fact that he has certain curious skills, skills that have made him more successful than Sanders in the political arena, doesn’t mean that anyone ever wanted him to be president.

I guess it goes without saying that nobody ever wanted Hillary Clinton to be president, and nobody wants it now.

I don’t know what Bill Bradford would say about this, but when I look at the major-party presidential contests of this republic, if we can keep it, I find very few examples of a year in which both candidates were in Group B. One example is the Harding-Cox election of 1920. Another is the melancholy contest of 1976 between Gerald Ford (nice guy, but an accidental president) and Jimmy Carter (distinctly not a nice guy, or a guy with any known constituency or capacity for office — a man elected to the seat of Washington by the fact that he was a Southern Democrat).

There have been other contests of B vs. B. But the current election is spectacular for the prominence of two inmates of Group B who are obnoxiously assertive personalities. To paraphrase the words of an advertising man who helped to elect Richard Nixon, “They wake up in the morning with their suits all rumpled and start running around shouting, ‘I want to be president! I want to be president!’”

One of these Type B people will win. The voter’s job is to decide which one is less weird and dangerous. This isn’t Harding vs. Cox. Both were capable men, and the victor, Harding, turned out to be a good president. (Forget the adverse propaganda; read the great book on the subject, Robert Ferrell’s The Strange Deaths of President Harding.) This time, the chances are much greater of getting a president devoted wholly to his or her self-generated ambitions.

Yes, in a republic, private ambition can sometimes benefit the public. Sometimes.




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Alice in Merkeland

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The Europeans, brainy people that they are, have always had a problem understanding the concept of liberty.

It’s one of the simplest concepts in the world. It means being left alone to do what you want. For Europeans, however — and, I regret to add, for many millions of Americans as well — it has always been the concept of doing what the state considers to be good. It didn’t take long for the French Revolution to define liberty as the freedom to destroy Catholicism. It didn’t take long for the German revolution of 1848 to define liberty as freedom for German nationalism. It didn’t take any time at all for the Weimar Republic to define liberty as the government’s taking money from the people and wasting it on social uplift projects.

Now comes Angela Merkel. First she decides, without consulting anyone, to force the German people — and if she had her way, all other Europeans — to liberate the Syrians by taking them in and supporting them all on welfare. Then, mirabile dictu, she discovers that way too many Syrians want to take that deal, and way too many Germans don’t. So to save her face, she decides to bundle up the Germans’ money — again, without anyone’s permission — and give it to Turkey, so that Turkey can keep the would-be immigrants from getting into Germany. Thus her open door policy becomes an invitation for the Syrians to come on in — to Turkey. And stay there, courtesy the Turkish government.

But again she discovers that actions may have consequences. The Turkish president, Recep T. Erdogan, an equally domineering personality, decides that he wants more out of the deal. He wants Merkel to shut up his critics — in Germany.

For Europeans, however — and for many millions of Americans as well — "liberty" has always been the concept of doing what the state considers to be good.

German TV aired a song satirizing Erdogan. Erdogan’s government demanded that the video be removed from access on the internet. A German comedian, or perhaps would-be comedian, then went on TV and recited a poem ridiculing Erdogan. Erdogan therefore demanded that the comedian be prosecuted under a law saying that you can be sent to jail for five years for insulting a foreign leader. There are plenty of laws in Europe decreeing that you can’t say or publish certain things; this is what Berlin, Vienna, Brussels, whatever, call liberty. Go figure. But while you’re figuring, Merkel has already authorized the prosecution.

You see, this screwy law not only threatens you with imprisonment if you say something that some foreign politician doesn’t like, but it leaves the power to decide on prosecution with your own politicians. So, if we had such a law, Obama would be authorizing pleas for someone to be prosecuted for satirizing Castro, and Cruz, or whoever the Republican president might be, would be authorizing pleas for prosecuting someone who satirized Netanyahu. Not only is it an authoritarian law, but it’s a politically arbitrary one.

The result, right now, is that the Erdoganish Turks are saying, as many Europeans always say under such circumstances, that “this has nothing to do with free speech”; Merkel’s supporters are saying that by authorizing the prosecution she is “standing up for the rule of law”; and she herself is saying that her action does not represent “a decision about the limits of freedom of art, the press, and opinion.” She further opines that “in a constitutional democracy, weighing up personal rights against freedom of the press and freedom of expression is not a matter for governments, but for public prosecutors and courts.”

It’s the old story. You have rights, granted. But these rights have to be “weighed” against other rights. You got your “personal rights,” see; but then, on the other hand, you got your “freedom of expression.” Entirely different! And somebody’s got to “weigh” them. So . . . let’s see here. I know! Let’s have the “public prosecutors and courts” do it. After all, they’re not the “government,” are they?

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

The comedian is in hiding. He’s right: this isn’t funny.




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The Year That Was

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With 2015 done and dusted, here’s a list of a few of our favorite articles by many of our favorite people.

And that doesn’t even include Bill Merritt going to see tiny houses and discovering a weed convention; Russell Hasan making the case for a working-class libertarianism (with a further nod to Ayn Rand), Margary Eastvale counting the cost of regulatory red-tape at her small business . . . or so many others!

We've got a lot more planned for the coming year, but we'd love to know: what were your own favorites? And what would you like to see more of?

All of us here at Liberty thank all of you for reading and wish you the happiest of New Years — not just for today, but for all 366 days of 2016.



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What’s So Selfish About Capitalism?

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It is a mischaracterization of the free-market society that is as old as capitalism itself. One recent recycle comes from self-designated “libertarian socialist” and “anarchist” Noam Chomsky: “It’s just, I’m out for myself, nobody else — and that’s the way it ought to be” (Power Systems, p. 157).

Now it is absolutely true that laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” (in the most shallow sense), basically because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things. A man can spend every penny he has on trinkets (from which expanding circles of merchants and others will actually benefit), or he can donate all he owns to charity — or select among all the types of intermediate options. Freedom of property gives people these choices, in the same way as freedom of religion provides them with a smorgasbord of theisms, atheisms, and agnosticisms. The separation of state and religion doesn’t mean that everyone will embrace, say, Seventh-day Adventism, nor does it follow that the separation of state and economics means that everyone will embrace “selfishness” — or any one exclusive behavior.

The fear that freedom of charity — ending redistributive taxation, thereby completing the separation of state and charity — will mean not a diversification, but the utter death of charity, proceeds from the premise that the one thing everyone will do under capitalism is nothing — for or with anyone else. But this contention that individual liberty entails an abject disregard for others corresponds to no social reality. Does freedom of assembly mean that people will never assemble — in any way? Does freedom of trade mean that everybody will in fact stop trading? Does freedom of speech and of the press — an unregulated market in ideas — mean not that we will have a rich and engaging culture, but that nobody will exchange any ideas about anything?

Laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things.

Consider freedom of sexuality. Now it is also absolutely true that capitalism allows someone to indulge in what was formerly euphemized as “self-abuse.” Does that mean that without government control of sex — without a nationalization of the means of reproduction — individuals will do nothing but lock themselves away in their rooms? That there will be no dating, no courting, no marriages? No births, no propagation of the species — is that how “rugged individualism” will “atomize” society? Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” (Engels) degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators? Is that the fate from which only coercion — by a hereditary monarch, a Putsch oligarchy, or the Election Day majority-plurality — can save us?

Forebodings of societal necrosis notwithstanding, there is no conflict between liberty and community — the former is each tree, the latter the forest. By allowing each adult to act on his own choices, liberty empowers consenting adults to interact in various ways within a multiplicity of modes: religious-philosophical, professional-economic, sexual-romantic, cultural-artistic, fraternal-humanitarian, and many more. Hence the profound error of thinking that capitalism — voluntarily funded government limited to the defense of person and property — has any one “way it ought to be” concerning socioeconomic matters (such as Chomsky’s “I’m out for myself, nobody else” burlesque). Its only commandment is political: the prohibition of the initiation of force or fraud — by either state or criminal agents. We may therefore confidently retire verso Engels’ and recto Thomas Carlyle’s “cash nexus” caricature of the open society. Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity — the multifaceted, multihued consent nexus of capitalism vs. the flat, sanguineous coercion nexus of statisms left and right. When some lobbyist hands us the line “If government doesn’t do it, it doesn’t get done,” what he’s really telling us is: it doesn’t get done his way only.

Many of the giants of classical liberalism recognized the affinity of compulsion and conformity. Jefferson wondered: why subject opinion to coercion? His answer: “To produce uniformity.” And Ludwig von Mises, in a survey of paradoxical charges against the free market, observed: “The atheists make capitalism responsible for the survival of Christianity. But the papal encyclicals blame capitalism for the spread of irreligion. . . .” Irreligionists identify capitalism with religion because capitalism (unlike leftism) doesn’t suppress religion, while religionists identify capitalism with irreligion because capitalism (unlike rightism) doesn’t suppress that. Let us put aside the question of whether such behavior — the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself — constitutes “selfishness” in the most destructive sense. What this example illustrates perfectly is the statist projection inherent in linking laissez faire, which neither suppresses nor subsidizes, to any homogenized culture. A “capitalist society” is no more synonymous with “selfish materialism” than with “selfless spirituality.” The only thing everyone in a libertarian political order does — with no one’s mind, body, and property but his own — is act, not for his exclusive “gratification” against any consideration for others, but on his own judgment protected against any violence from others.

With regard to the nature of civil liberties, the freedom to withhold one’s wealth from the state — apparently the gravamen of the charge of capitalist “selfishness” — is wholly like any other human right. The state has no more claim to the individual’s private property than to his private body or his private mind. (Indeed, what a person does with his own property or body is what he does with his own mind — all coercion is “thought control.”) If we do not grant government the ability to more wisely or morally use a citizen’s mind or body, we do not grant it the ability to more wisely or morally use his property. Yet that is exactly what the accusation of “selfishness” wants to guilt us into conceding: that the state (essentially a handful of guys with guns) will manage each and every person’s money “better” than these people (essentially the entirety of the population) will do themselves. Just who is manning this administration — mortals or gods?

Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators?

The importance of private property to political dissent was memorably demonstrated by an unexpected but significant source. In response to President George W. Bush’s launching of the Iraq War, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee issued a public statement entitled “An Appeal to Conscience: In Support of Those Refusing to Pay for War on Iraq,” which upheld a citizen’s right not to pay “all or a portion of one’s federal taxes as a form of conscientious objection.” Among the signatories were many who proudly wore the label “socialist,” including . . . Noam Chomsky. Now here were outright collectivists defending the right of every individual to keep his money from the taxmen, for no reason other than to reflect his private conscience — that is, his personal disagreement with government policy, even when the government was enthroned by the Election Day majority-plurality. (And certainly Bush 2000 won a much greater percentage of the popular vote than Chile’s Allende, whose “democratically elected” credential is repeated by the Left as calculatingly as Castro’s dictator status is not.) The “Appeal to Conscience” didn’t even contain a little pledge that each tax resister would spend his withheld wealth on good things (e.g., children’s charities) and not on bad ones (hookers and heroin).

Since war is a government undertaking, we must note the converse in America today: almost every government project is conceived as some kind of “war” — hence a War on Poverty and a War on Drugs no less than a War in Iraq and a War on Terror. If, as a matter of principle, a citizen may stop giving money to the state as a practical expression of his “conscientious objection” to any particular war — if he can in that manner legitimately protest national security and other policies — we thereby recognize that private property is essential to freedom of conscience. What then is left of any variant of wealth seizure? What are we left with but capitalism in its purest form?

Yet that is the very politics denounced by the Left, including even its antiwar tax resisters, as “selfishness.” One cannot help recalling the scene in A Man for All Seasons where Sir Thomas More, accused of high treason, explains that his believing a “loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing” is a matter of necessity “for respect of my own soul.” Thomas Cromwell, the state’s advocate and More’s antipode in this “debate” — a rigged trial in which the defendant’s life is in peril — tries to undermine this statement of conviction in a common manner, sneering, “Your own self, you mean!” More doesn’t deny it: “Yes, a man’s soul is his self!”

Possibly the “egalitarian” supporters of the “Appeal to Conscience” believed that its broad principles should apply to only specific people — namely, themselves and those sufficiently parallel. That returns to the fore the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself. Said refusal is a good working definition of what many actually champion as the corrective to capitalist “selfishness”: the social-democratic “welfare” state — the mixed economy:

To be capitalist or to be socialist?— that is the question. Precisely what is the mix of the mixed economy? When is it capitalist and when is it socialist? When does it protect property and when does it confiscate it? When does it leave people alone and when does it coerce them? When does it adhere to the ethics of individualism and when does it obey the code of collectivism? And just which is the metaphysical primary — the individual or the collective (e.g., the nation, the race, the class)? The fundamental truth about the mixed economy is that mixed practices imply mixed principles, which in turn imply mixed premises — i.e., an incoherent grasp of reality. With socialism, the chaos was economic; with “social democracy,” it’s epistemological. Ultimately, the latter can no more generate rational policies than the former could generate rational prices. The mixed economy doesn’t present us with a mosaic portrait of the just society, but with a jigsaw of pieces taken from different puzzles.

Unable to provide any philosophically consistent answers, the mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected. One example that virtually suggests itself: while a myriad of voices clamor for censorship, who ever says, “There have to be some limits on free speech, and we should start with mine”? Concerning “economic” issues, do we ever hear, “Y’know what? Give the competition the subsidies. Me, I’ll bear the rigors of the market”? As for intellectual and moral integrity: do we see the National Organization for Women (NOW) and fellow “progressives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the abortion industry — a heresy that elicited a charge of “possessive individualism” from Christopher Hitchens when in office as socialist inquisitor — except, that is, when these “progressives” demand tax dollars for abortions (and deny reproductive rights, the putative sine qua non for gender equality, to males)? Do we see the National Rifle Association (NRA) and fellow “conservatives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the gun culture — a deviation that roused Robert Bork, majoritarian mongoose to any perceived libertarian snake, to attack the NRA via a comparison with the ACLU — except, that is, when these “conservatives” demand that private property owners be prohibited by law from refusing entry to persons carrying firearms?

Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity.

No matter what combination of contradictory positions any particular avatar of the mixed economy advocates on any given day, he is always a libertarian with his own liberty and a capitalist with his own capital, but an authoritarian with the freedoms of others and a socialist with their property. Such is the “idealism” that distinguishes modern liberalism and its special-interest lobbies from the “selfishness” of classical liberalism and its establishment of the same rights for oneself and one’s neighbors.

With social diversity now multiplying the types of special interests in many social democracies, the resulting political conflicts cannot be dismissed, let alone defused — least of all by the bromide that “we all accept that our tax dollars go to things we disapprove of.” No one in fact accepts that. Even though taxation exists to separate people from control of their money, selective tax protests span the spectrum of otherwise pro-taxation pressure groups. We’ve seen collectivists — reputed foes of all private property — endorse antiwar protesters who demand as a matter of individual conscience their right not to pay taxes. Years ago in The Nation, an ad told readers that “your tax dollars” funded what it alleged was Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. Public school supporters, who never voice concern over how many “Americans really want to give tax dollars” to that monopoly, suddenly claimed great concern with what “Americans really want” at the prospect of those dollars going to “school vouchers.” And among traditionalists, tax protests involve everything from abortion to art (if it offends them) to foreign aid (for the countries they don’t like) to free condoms and free needles. Under a system that denigrates the concept of equal rights for all, everyone wants to be exempt from paying taxes for the things he disapproves of, but no one wants — any guesses why? — his neighbors to be exempt from paying taxes for the things they disapprove of.

There’s not a mote of doubt as to what — with the double standard as its only standard — exposes itself as the inherent politics of “selfishness”: the hypocrisy of social democracy. All the warring camps of social democrats brazenly acknowledge that hypocrisy — in the other camps. A snowy day stuck indoors will pass much more tolerably with a back-and-forth Googling of “liberal hypocrisy” and “conservative hypocrisy.” (Each camp also detects tyranny — “fascism” — in only the others; compare Jonah Goldberg vs. Naomi Wolf.)

And what of social democracy’s central claim to “social justice”: its redistribution of wealth from the “most greedy” (richest? most materialistic? least philanthropic?) to the “most needy”? Consider one form of redistribution that no North American or European “welfare” state allows — or ever would allow. Let us stipulate that I have no problems with (a) the government’s taking a portion of my money for the purpose of tempering my “greed,” (b) the idea of those tax dollars going to the “most needy,” and (c) the percentage the state takes. But there is one thing: I don’t consider the current recipients to be anywhere near the “most needy.” My definition does not include my fellow Americans, who even at their poorest are richer than most people on the planet. To get right to it: I believe that the “most needy” — the “least of these” — are undeniably the starving children of the Third World, and I insist that my tax dollars all be sent to them.

The mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected.

Now why is that a problem? I am not declaring a right to withhold my taxes from the government, with no assurance about what I will do with the money — unlike the antiwar leftists who signed the “Appeal to Conscience.” Nor am I trying to control what others’ taxes pay for. All I’m asking is that my money go to those who my independent judgment and individual conscience tell me are the “most needy.” Why should I pay for full medical coverage for all Americans, when the Third World children don’t have any food? Why should I pay for textbooks for American children, when the Third World children don’t have any food? So, why can’tmy tax dollars go to them? Because the Election Day majority-plurality decides that “charity begins at home” (i.e., nationalism trumps humanitarianism)? If the neediest-recipient principle justifies my money’s transfer to my fellow Americans, why doesn’t it justify the money’s transfer from these Americans to the starving Third World children? Isn’t the principle violated by the dictionary “selfishness” of voting other people’s money into one’s own coffer (“tax booty for me, tax burden for thee”)?

The redistribution of wealth in a “welfare” state is not directed by a neediest-recipient or any other principle. It is purely a matter of power. With its rejection of consistent property rights, social democracy forces all people to throw all money onto the table (which some resist more successfully than others) and then allows them to take what they can (with some better able to take than others). That’s right: The money goes from those who are politically unable to hold on to their wealth, to those who are politically capable of grabbing on to that wealth. The former are no more guaranteed to be the “most greedy” than the latter are to be the “most needy.” It would be criminal not to cite Lord Bauer’s denuding of foreign aid: the “transferring [of] money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.” And it would be downright felonious to omit business subsidies. Any redistribution of wealth operates in only one way: from each according to his ability to contract via civil society, to each according to his ability to coerce via the state — a feature applicable (by degree) to both socialist dictatorship and social democracy.

The confusion of limited government with “selfishness” is reflected in the socialistic thesis that such government comprises nothing but the “class self-interest” of the business (“capitalist”) class. This thesis implodes almost immediately when we begin to ask precisely what concrete policies manifest that specific “class self-interest.” If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations? If unregulated commerce leads to monopolization by these “capitalists,” why do real-world businessmen look to state regulation to gift them with monopoly entitlements? And if free trade gives an advantage to this class, why do each country’s business — and union — leaders lobby for protectionism?

The classical liberals formulated their principles of private property, laissez faire, and free trade — rejected by “socialists of all parties” and big business alike — not against the yearning of the have-nots for a better life, but in opposition to policies that favored the few over the common good, that is, the routine of “merchants and industrialists . . . demanding and receiving special privileges for themselves” (in the words of Robert B. Downs). Free-market economics (The Wealth of Nations) and American nationhood both arose as part of the revolt against such mercantilism — corporatism, in today’s parlance. The American “welfare” state, in contrast, began as a neomercantilist reaction against that revolt. “The essential purpose and goal of any measure of importance in the Progressive Era was not merely endorsed by key representatives of businesses involved,” observed Gabriel Kolko; “rather such bills were first proposed by them.” Big business has never stopped being a major driver of big government. Would President Bush’s 2003 prescription drug bill (the “largest expansion of entitlements in nearly forty years,” according to Jonathan Chait) have gone anywhere without its hundreds of billions in industry subsidies? Would Obamacare even exist without the “advice” and approval of the health insurance cartel?

If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations?

Corporate privilege is a raison d’être — not a corruption — of the “welfare” state (aka “corporate liberalism”). Charity is not the purpose of the “welfare” state, much less its innovation. Concern for “the poor and stranger” long preceded its birth and will long survive its death. Like family life or the division of labor, charity is (to quote Paine’s view of society vs. state) “part of that order which reigns among mankind [that] is not the effect of government. It had its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man.” What had its origin in government is the swarm of anticompetitive measures benefitting “connected” entities — the fixed economy of the mixed economy. Without tariffs, for instance, how many people would always prefer to buy domestic goods? And how many would ever write out checks to a multinational conglomerate for nothing in return? Those are the “market failures” that the opponents of a free market fear.

Any state initiation of force exists not for a noble end (which, as Jefferson said of truth, requires no such coercion), but for a sordid one. Regarding military conscription, Ayn Rand pointed out that a “free (or even semi-free) country has never lacked volunteers in the face of foreign aggression.” However: “Not many men would volunteer for such wars as Korea or Vietnam.” Likewise, people will allocate money for the education of their children, sound retirement funds, the less fortunate, and especially the services of a limited government. What they won’t do is give it to “teachers” who can’t teach, Ponzi schemes, Boeing, or Chrysler — or the Taliban, which just a few months before 9/11 received from Uncle Sam a total of $43 million for its “help” in the victory-elusive War on Drugs (a sum that too obviously pales next to the multiple billions handed over to Vice President Cheney’s compadres for the purpose of building infrastructure — in Iraq). Only pursuits of folly and injustice seek the means of force or fraud.

Portraying laissez-faire capitalism as the tailored benefactor of big business is transparently a projection on the part of the mixed economy’s corporate liberals. The consistent socialists, on the other hand, care no more whether commerce is privileged or left alone by government than whether religion is privileged or left alone by government. They want the abolition of commerce, of religion, of a free market in anything, of any independent institution of civil society: the replication of totalitarian theory and history.

Will only the unfettered state stop the virulence of “selfishness”? Ideally yes, asserted Plato, for whom the “highest form of the state” was one “in whichthe private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions. . . .” Reductio ad fundamentum: There will be no more “selfishness” when there are no more selves.

Capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees.

The unfettered market boasts no ability to effect a change in “human nature” — in social reality. There will always be situations in which people compete to get or to keep one position, one prize. But while the market can do nothing about this conflicting “selfishness” (and will do nothing about different parties’ demands for a guarantee of monopoly), it commands the common self-interest that people have in all competition being governed by an equitable rule: a ban on the use of force or fraud by any rival, the only possible such rule. The analogue of the market is not the jungle, but the stadium — more broadly, a network of stadiums and other venues.

Capitalism’s multiplicity of open competitions enables each individual to find the field where he can succeed. The free market’s profit-and-loss dynamic (to quote Adam Smith) “encourages every man to apply himself to [the] particular occupation” most sought after by others. These interactions synthesize the most prosperous social order as defined by the participants themselves — all of them, as opposed to any one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be.” It is an ideal that has been realized to the degree thata market mechanism has been implemented. In contrast, socialism’s “equality” has meant nothing but poverty for all. And in a jarring echo of the Great Depression, the mixed economy’s regulatory sector in recent years orchestrated a general downturn in the US (where the crisis was Orwellianly blamed on “deregulation”) and in Europe (the “PIIGS”). State intervention in production (i.e., one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be”), once heralded as the alternative to the market’s alleged class conflicts, evidently produces only the “common ruin of the contending classes” — to redirect a phrase from The Communist Manifesto. When the prescribed cure for “selfishness” actually afflicts the common good, we must reexamine the diagnosis of the condition.

Preponderant among the essential criticisms of limited government has been the charge that it fails to recognize as natural rights such things as food, clothing, and shelter, to say nothing of education (“from pre-K to Ph.D.”), advanced medicine, and whatever else might be tacked on. The sober reply: these items are not natural rights because they are not natural produce. It costs a man nothing not to coerce his fellow citizens, thereby respecting their rights to worship, speak, etc. But how can he provide everyone’s “right” to all those scarce materials and services? And why should he, when he himself is promised a “right” to those things whether he does any work or not? Realistically speaking, capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees. And the condemners are quite serious in that belief: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Wealth simply exists, and only capitalist “selfishness” prevents its equal distribution to every soul on earth.

Ultimately, the free-market society is guilty only of affirming each individual’s right to control his own mind, body, and property, a conviction that calls for a single sentence: if that is “selfishness,” let us make the most of it.

Recommended Reading

  • Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, 2012.
  • Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America, 2012.
  • David Kelley, Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence, 2003.
  • Robert P. Murphy, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, 2007.
  • Andrew P. Napolitano, It Is Dangerous to Be Right When the Government Is Wrong: The Case for Personal Freedom, 2011.
  • John Stossel, No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed, 2012.



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