25 March 2004

A Meditation, By Way of Summary 

“A government which maintained law and order, defined property rights, served as a means whereby we could modify property rights and other rules of the economic game, adjudicated disputes about the interpretation of the rules, enforced contracts, promoted competition, provided a monetary framework, engaged in activities to counter technical monopolies and to overcome neighborhood effects widely regarded as sufficiently important to justify government intervention, and which supplemented private charity and the private family in protecting the irresponsible, whether madman or child – such a government would clearly have important functions to perform. The consistent liberal is not an anarchist.

“Yet it is also true that such a government would have clearly limited functions and would refrain from a host of activities that are now undertaken by federal and state governments in the United States, and their counterparts in other Western countries.”
Milton Friedman

21 March 2004

On The Dean's List 

So Howard Dean just sent me an email promoting his new website Democracy For America. For those who don't know, he's turned what's left of his Presidential campaign into a political action committee, formed to help Democrats "succeed with voters who might be tempted to support independent or third-party candidates".

Sorry, Doc, but it's going to take more than just your pat on the back to get some of us to fall in love with Kerry and Terry. If the Democratic Party is really so concerned about our issues, then why aren't you the nominee?

20 March 2004

Two Views of the Iraq War 

From Reuters:
Worldwide protests marked the anniversary of the war in Iraq on Saturday as tens of thousands demanded the U.S.-led coalition pull its troops out of the country scarred by a year of war and insurrection.

Many protesters refuse to believe U.S. assurances that Iraqis are better off and the world is safer as casualties mount daily in Iraq and bomb attacks wreck Western cities.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Spain where many people blamed the conservative government's decision to go to war in Iraq for the March 11 Madrid train bombs that killed 200 people. [snip]

In London, two anti-war protesters evaded security to climb the landmark Big Ben clock tower at the Houses of Parliament, unfurling a banner reading "Time for Truth." [snip]

Thousands of demonstrators streamed through central London carrying "Wanted" posters bearing the faces of President Bush and Blair, his main war ally. Banners declared "Make tea, not war."

An anti-war rally in Rome had to start early to relieve pressure on city center streets groaning with demonstrators.

At least 200,000 people were expected to take part in the protest... [you get the idea].

From Slate:
Some highlights from a collection of Iraqi graffiti, found on the walls of Baghdad.

SADDAM WILL RETURN! And written underneath: THROUGH MY ASS!





If I may borrow from Fox News... you decide.

18 March 2004

Lessons Learned From My Tax Return 

I’ve just finished paying my annual homage to the state – that is, I did my taxes – which is, in my mind at least, a relevant topic for this blog. I should start by saying that I am not entirely upset that (theoretically) some of my money will go to build things like schools and roads, so we’re not going to get into heavy philosophy here. I’ve long since tired of the extremist arguments from all sides, “taxation is theft”, “property is theft”, blah blah blah... the revolution isn’t coming any time soon, my friends, so I’m just going to mail my 1040 and get on with my life.

That said, I think my situation – an average guy working an average job and collecting a $78 refund – might be somewhat instructional to someone out there, so I offer these three lessons learned.

Lesson #1: Don’t get too excited about a “refund”. I know some of you may be wondering what I’m complaining about since “I don’t have to pay anything”, a common misstatement heard this time of year. Let’s put this into perspective, shall we? Uncle Sam and his good friend Fica decided to “withhold” roughly one month’s worth of my salary last year, and their buddies at the local level took about seven cents on the dollar every time I purchased anything other than unprepared food, and I’m supposed to be excited that the state has decided to let me buy most of a good pair of shoes? Yeah, I’m ecstatic... but not enough to pay $14.95 to e-file.

Lesson #2: Red and blue are actually the same color. Despite all the Republican rhetoric about “the people’s money”, and all of Bush’s promised assistance to the working poor, this year’s return looks just like last year’s return which looks just like my tax returns when Clinton was in office. In other words, none of Bush’s tax cuts ever trickled down to me, and I don’t anticipate a significant change for better or worse any time during the next four years, whether John, George, or even Ringo is sleeping in the White House.

Lesson #3: It’s great to be here. Somewhere in the world right now a child is dying from hunger. Somewhere right now a woman is being brutally raped and beaten, perhaps by a robber driven to madness and desperation, perhaps by a soldier or policeman who knows that he is “above the law”, perhaps by a sweatshop owner as “a condition of employment”. There’s a great many things wrong with this country, and I consider it my patriotic duty to discuss them, but never let it be said that I’ve forgotten that I’m damn lucky to be an American.

Think about it. And remember to file by the fifteenth.

An Accidental Manifesto: My Reply to a Reader 

Since starting this web log, I have been gratified and humbled by the large amount of emails I have received. Many of these could be lumped together under the heading “And you call yourself a libertarian!”, and the following is no exception. What distinguishes this email from many of the others I get is its unusually high content of intelligence, reason, and civility. As such, I feel this discussion is worth making public… Jason S., enjoy your fifteen minutes. ;-)

The back story: I wrote a piece in November on the FCC’s wireless number portability initiative, which grants consumers (not cellular companies) ownership of their own phone numbers. Rather than condemn this government “meddling” in the marketplace, as many libertarians are wont to do, I praised it for encouraging choice and competition. Jason tells of a similar measure enacted in Australia, and then shares his rather interesting opinion as to what my support of such regulations means:

Your intuition that this FCC measure is the right thing is correct; it is also, alas, the thin end of the wedge for your eventual deconversion from libertarian ideology.... I don't have to remind you that Libertarianism, as defined by its own proponents, is the absolutist position that the government should back out of all intervention in the free market beyond enforcing voluntary contractual arrangements. Once you back down from the absolute position that all federal regulation is bad, the debate becomes not whether government intervention in the economy is justified, but merely a debate about what kinds of government intervention are justified, and a concern to separate good interventions from bad ones. A debate, in other words, based [on] the orthodox belief, held by liberals and conservatives alike, that the government has a role in intervening in society, and that the only thing to be settled is what kinds of interventions are appropriate.

My response: I disagree with your assessment, and it seems to me that our differing definitions of “libertarianism” are the crux of the disagreement. As historian Jacques Barzun has said, “The history of ideas is a string of nicknames. They may start as a crude insult, or again they may carry a fairly definite meaning; even so, they will soon degenerate.” I freely concede that the popularized version of American libertarianism – the “big L” ideology advanced by the Rand-Rothbard wing of the movement – is not far from the “absolutist position” you describe. However, the classical liberal ideals I hold dear are also, in my mind at least, best nicknamed “libertarian”, despite their departure from that ideology. Also, I firmly believe that nearly all libertarians consider the illegality of human slavery and restrictions on the sale of nuclear weapons to be acceptable federal interventions (despite a few ridiculous writings to the contrary).

If you approve of even this teensy-tiny regulation, I'm afraid you are not a "heretical" or an "ideological impure" libertarian. You are, in fact, no libertarian at all. All those elegant syllogisms, all those perfectly structured arguments, all that elaborate theoretical analysis about "self ownership" and "autonomy" and "initiation of force" falls down in a crashing heap of broken logic. This single counterexample destroys the general principle that government regulation constitutes morally unjustified "initiation of force." And this is a bedrock principle, my friend. To question it is to question a foundation stone of the ideology.

My response: Again, it all comes down to how we define our terms. I recognize that your definition of libertarianism is valid to some, and my “bedrock principles” obviously differ from those, hence my satirical characterization of them as “heretical”, “irrational”, and “impure”. It is also why I hint at another equally important “ism” in the title of this blog.

If there is no reason to believe that libertarian analysis of government regulation is correct there is no reason to accept any other aspect of libertarian thought, because it all stems from the same set of loaded propositions. To reject the theory is to strip all moral and intellectual force from the conclusions.

My response: Not so! How Aristotelian your world must be, that all truth must spring from irrefutable axioms! Even the bourgeois oppressor must admit that Marx had a point! My own mockery of these “loaded propositions” – “Regulation. Force. The horror!” – was intended to illustrate that libertarian analysis does in fact have intellectual value and moral force, but that attempting to fix the facts to fit the axioms is akin to explaining Mars’ retrograde motions using a geocentric map.

When libertarians deal with the problem of a regulatory action that seems to be both effective in remedying a problem and justified in doing so, they use the standard spoiler techniques: refusal to believe the efficacy of the regulation, bold pronouncements that regulation has been "a failure", and if that isn't enough, sweeping proclamations that it is, in fact, government intervention that created the problem in the first place and that, in the unfettered free market, there would be no problem to solve. These approaches are rarely supported by arguments or evidence, at least any arguments or evidence a neutral observer would find convincing. Indeed, since the unfettered free market posited by Libertarianism doesn't exist and has never existed, such pronouncements are little more than statements of faith. Since you haven't resorted to the well-trodden defenses, I imagine you find them unconvincing. One more piece of evidence that you are in fact going through a process of ideological deformation.

My response: Your argument reminds me of the fundamentalist debates on who the “true Christians” are. While some zealots may demand baptism into “the one church universal”, others mandate keeping a Saturday Sabbath, and still others require the rejection of electricity and other “British” innovations, most reasonable people would say that professing Jesus Christ as risen Lord and Savior is sufficient qualification to use the term. Thus do I confess that government should be smaller, more localized and less intrusive; that self-defense is the only morally defensible military action; that voluntary exchange is preferable to centralized planning and distribution; and that individuals have certain inalienable rights which neither man nor state can justly violate. On these grounds do I stake my claim to the word “libertarian” – but the devil is in the details!

As an aside, the state of the American railroad industry is quite literally a textbook example of problems born of government regulation, but overall I see and cede your point.

(Jason next quotes the closing of my piece: “Federal regulation might seem antithetical to our ideals, but so is the economic serfdom promised by unrestrained monopolism. Brand me a heretic, if you will, for my belief that only a regulated market can truly be considered “free”, but is it not a consistent libertarian position to oppose slavery in all its forms?”)

Here you attempt to trade off two different values against each other; balancing the weight of one against the other. You are concerned to oppose federal regulation, which seems "antithetical to our ideals" but you also recognise the value of opposing "economic serfdom promised by unrestrained monopolism." This form of reasoning is common to standard liberalism... but you should know [it] is complete anathema to Libertarianism. From Ayn Rand on the party line is that Libertarianism is a rigidly logically consistent system of self-supporting beliefs, not a loose agglomeration of differing and often conflicting values that can only be harmonised by weighing them against the others. Once again you produce a fatal heresy against the creed.

My response: Then sod their f***ing creed! MY libertarianism started three centuries before Ayn Rand was born!

As for your argument about "slavery", you must be aware that in the technical definition used by libertarianism, being coerced by a lack of bargaining power in the market does not constitute serfdom or slavery. It is true that it certainly may do so in ordinay discourse - poverty stricken Bangkok prostitutes, many children, are often described as "sex slaves", held in the job by crippling debt. But your example is inadequate to support the point, since nobody sane would argue that being unable to change your cell phone number constitutes slavery in the natural language sense either.

My response: Forgive my obviously unclear wording. Being locked into a mobile contract, however unpleasant, is NOT slavery. The slavery I was referring to, the slavery I oppose, is “the economic serfdom promised by unrestrained monopolism”. What far too many of the libertarians that you so correctly criticize (many of whom are middle class teenagers convinced that they are the next John Galt) fail to realize is that being born into the world that they call Utopia – where a handful of large corporations control most of the means of production and subsistence, where no educational opportunities exist to offer upward class mobility, nor any social services to help people through the trials of life, where there is no state to mandate competition, free and fair trade, or worker protection – is to be born into bondage. No matter how “statist” or “irrational” some consider this viewpoint, as a believer in liberty, I will fight and die before I let that future come to pass.

Anyway, I write this not necessarily to start an argument (although I like those too) but merely to warn you that the process has begun. Though as a Libertarian who finds more common ground with the Democrats than the Republicans, you must already be used to being an outsider... my question to you is why not go the whole hog and just say you're a liberal?

My response: While I do use the term in Milton Friedman’s sense, I think I’ve belabored this point; perhaps in Australia the language remains pure and classical liberalism is never mistaken for Keynesian intervention or communism. In the place and time where I live, to be a conservative is to advocate forced prayer and sodomy laws, to be a liberal is to favor regressive sales taxes to fund unnecessary programs. The Democrats have no clear position on anything – when they do agree, I don’t – and liberal Republicans have gone the way of the mammoth. Thus, I am a libertarian… and a Libertarian.

In closing, I think Robert Anton Wilson said it best: “I’m not that kind of libertarian. I don’t hate poor people.”

Jason, thanks for writing. To all, thanks for reading.

16 March 2004

Happy St. Patrick's Day 

For the next few days, my thoughts will be entirely focused – I use the term loosely – on Guinness, in an inebriated celebration of my Anglo-Irish heritage. Let's take a break from all this political stuff and enjoy some fine workin' class Irish music by the Dropkick Murphys. Punk rock with bagpipes – how can you go wrong?

Amazon has five free MP3s available for download here. Yes, it's legal.

Cheers, lads... see you when the hangover fades.

14 March 2004

Further Signs of the Apocalypse 

L&P proudly presents the following real news stories... no comments are required.

From Newsday:
It was upbeat, precise, as organized as a meeting of the board of directors, framed at beginning and end with rousing music -- a near-perfect campaign stop:

President George W. Bush arrived on schedule. He gave his speech. He moderated a panel of five people on a makeshift stage in front of a sign that said "Strengthening America's Economy." He wove their stories seamlessly into the fabric of his re-election campaign. He engaged in self-deprecating humor that even a detractor might find charming.

And then he left -- to a standing ovation -- shaking hands all the way to the exit door of U.S.A. Industries in Bay Shore, where his campaign made this first of three stops on Long Island yesterday.

Security people kept reporters from interviewing the workers at U.S.A. until the president was on the way to his next stop.

But when workers were finally interviewed -- these people who made up the bulk of the president's cheering audience in New York -- Bush's performance turned out to be, if anything, even more impressive.

"No speak English," said the first worker, smiling apologetically.

"No speak English," said the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth workers way-laid in the crowd.

But you think the tax cuts should be made permanent, as he says?

"Sorry, no English," said another.

From Reuters:
U.S. President George W. Bush has marked International Women's Week by paying tribute to women reformers -- but one of those he cited is really a man.

"Earlier today, the Libyan government released Fathi Jahmi. She's a local government official who was imprisoned in 2002 for advocating free speech and democracy," the president said in a speech at the White House on Friday.

The only problem was that, by all other accounts, "she" is in fact "he".

"Definitely male," said Alistair Hodgett, spokesman for the human rights advocacy group Amnesty International, whose representatives tried to see Jahmi in prison during a recent visit to Libya.

12 March 2004

Midnight Meditations 

I don't like George W. Bush and I don't like John Kerry. Most people, regardless of political orientation, are likely to meet me at least halfway on that point. I just wrote a short piece on this topic over at my old, now essentially vacant hangout Libertarians for Dean, and I encourage you to drop by there and share your comments.

I still want my country back.

09 March 2004

Election Night Special 

Well, the returns are in, and things have turned out much as the 25% of eligible voters who bothered to pay attention probably expected. Mayor Dyer has been reelected with just shy of 51% of the vote... alas, no run-off related wake-up call will be delivered to City Hall this year.

In the Orlando city commission, we witness yet another victory for the forces of stagnation, with incumbents Ernest Page, Patty Sheehan, and Betty Wyman all retaining their seats. As the nation prepares for the great marriage debate, I celebrate Sheehan's triumph – the forces of common sense need as many openly gay public figures as they can get. On Page I offer no comment, and on Wyman just one question: how is it that a largely Hispanic district reelected an old WASP bat as out of touch with her constituents as George Bush at a grocery store by a two-to-one margin?

In other news, the referendum passed nearly unanimously, despite warnings from the left-liberal press that requiring candidates for city office to live here for a whole year was an insidious pro-incumbent plot, and the right-thinking people of Osceola County voted down a regressive tax that would allegedly fund schools; this being Florida, we knew better than that. And John Kerry won some other thing... I wasn't paying attention.

Coming attractions: Now that I've returned to a mere 40-hour work week, new articles are on the way. We'll examine the positive benefits of government regulation, how you can still be a Libertarian after typing that sentence, and we'll finally post the long overdue post-mortem of the Dean campaign. Stay tuned.

Standard disclaimer: these are my opinions, and no one's paying me to share them.
If you'd like to share yours, feel free to drop me a line or find me at Chat For America.

The Law Is For All