Posts Tagged ‘liberalism’

Grossly Uncharitable Readings

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

One claim about Libertarians that won't withstand any real scrutiny — yet is very common amongst journalists and educators — is that Libertarians don't believe in doing anything to address the immediate needs of the poor. If asked to defend the claim, those who make it will either note Libertarian opposition to various state programmes, and with a crude induction draw the inference that Libertarians don't believe in doing anything to achieve the ostensible goals of those programmes, or they'll note the Libertarian objection in principle to any state programme with such goals, and treat this as QED.

Well, let's lay the form of that out:

L does not believe that X should be done by S,
L does not believe that X should be done.
Oooops! That isn't really very logical, is it? I mean that we can find plenty of X and S where this won't work, when we make ourselves L.

Libertarians don't believe that the state should do a lot of things, including farming, financial intermediation, and managing roads. Genuine anarchists go further, to claim that the state shouldn't do anything. That hardly means that they don't think that these things should be done by someone. It doesn't even mean that they won't agree that they should be those who do these things. (Indeed, people who rely upon the state are most likely to say that it ought to do whatever it does at the expense of someone else, as when they call for higher taxes on those who make more money.)

This point of logic ought to be obvious. Well, many journalists and educators are such damn'd fools that they truly don't see it, and an awful lot are knaves, who see it but don't want it to be seen by others.

One way that I see the eristicism effected is by the specious society-state equation — by treating the state as if it is society, which is to say as if it is us. Formally, this would be

L does not believe that X should be done by the state,
which is to say that
L does not believe that X should be done by society,
which is to say that
L does not believe that X should be done by any of us.
except that it's not explicitly expanded in this way, else the jig would be up. One place you'll see this eristic equation employed is in many quizzes that purport to tell the taker what his or her political classification is. If he or she answers affirmatively to a claim such as that society should help the poor then the typical quiz will score that towards state socialism and away from classical liberalism (of which Libertarianism is the extreme).

(Actually, one needs to be very careful whenever encountering the word society. In practice, it is often used to mean everyone else. Sometimes it's used to refer to some hypothetical entity which is somehow more than a group of people and their system of interaction; this latter notion tends to operationalize, again, as everyone else. Equating society with the state, and coupling this with demands for the state to make greater demands on other people is a popular way of making society mean everyone else.)

The fact is that one simply cannot tell, one way or another, from the datum that a person is a Libertarian whether he or she thinks that some goal ought to be pursued, unless the goal involves what a Libertarian would label coercion; because Libertarianism itself is no more than a belief that one ought not to initiate the class of behaviors to which they apply this label. A person can be a Libertarian and be all for voluntary redistribution, or that person might indeed be someone who embraced some of the more callous proclamations of Ayn Rand, or the Libertarian might hold some intermediate postion. Libertarianism itself is neutral.

(Within the Randian camp, there has been a willful confusion of the fact that Libertarianism itself has limited scope with the proposition that any given person who is a Libertarian must somehow have no view about matters not within that scope, or with the claim that a Libertarian must think that anything not prohibitable is good.)

Parallels can be found here with the claim that atheists do not believe in morality of any sort. Not only is the underlying fallacy very similar, but the implication in each case is that, should the persons in question believe that something ought to be done, they are more likely to see themselves as the someone who ought to do it.

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day Is Here!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

To-day, 20 May, is Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. I'm quite disappointed that its founder has retreated; I could not have withdrawn in good conscience, even though my contribution demonstrates that I am pretty poor at working in charcoal: [drawing of the head of a bearded man of Mediterranean stock]

Some people have chosen to draw caricatures, but my objective was simply to violate a grossly illegitimate prohibition. As such, I sought to draw Mohammed. If the death threats become more narrowly focussed on those who creäte caricatures, then I will creäte a caricature.

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day Is Coming!

Saturday, 24 April 2010

20 May is Everybody Draw Mohammed Day! It's a special opportunity to reject claims against our words, against our art, and against our minds!

Cook's Tours

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Some days ago, the subject of machine guns came-up in conversation with the Woman of Interest, and I noted to her that fully-automatic firearms had first come under tight regulation as part of a war on a drug — the drug in question being alcohol. Synchronistically, within a day or so I received and watched the original Scarface (1932).

The film is prefaced by text that declares that it's essentially doing no more than presenting events that have really happened, that the government is not doing enough to protect the citizenry, and that the citizenry must act to get the government to act. Part-way through the film there's a moralizing scene in which community leaders confront a newspaper publisher, claiming that he's glorifying gangsters. He responds essentially with the same message that had prefaced the film — that he is reporting the facts, that the government is not doing enough, and that the citizenry must act to get the government to do more. Then we learn what he thinks ought to be done: outlaw machine guns, effect martial law, and accept the offer of the National Commander of the American Legion to act as a militia against the gangsters. As part of the case for martial law, the publisher notes that the governor of Oklahoma had effected martial law to regulate oil production and claims that surely then we should use martial law against guns. (At some point, the publisher stops qualifying the attack as against any particular sort of gun.)

Many people might not know about that business of martial law in Oklahoma. What specifically happened is that, on 4 August 1931, Governor Alfalfa Bill Murray had 3000 oil wells forceably shut-down to reduce production and thereby drive-up price.

And let's talk about the leadership of the American Legion in that era. Here are the words of American Legion National Commander Alvin Mansfield Owsley, in January 1923:

Do not forget, that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.
In 1931, the Executive Committee passed a resolution praising Mussolini as a great leader, and the National Commander of that year, Ralph O’Neill, presented a copy of the resolution to Mussolini’s Ambassador to the United States. In 1935, during a trip to Italy, National Vice-Commander William Edward Easterwood pinned a Legion pin on the lapel of Benito Mussolini.

What the character of the publisher is preaching is the displacement of individual liberty and of procedural rights with command-and-control fascism.

The problem of that era wasn't alcohol per se, nor was it fully-automatic firearms per sese. The problem was Prohibition, that war on a drug. We didn't need even less freedom and even more government, we needed more of the former and less of the latter.

Most of the moralizing in Scarface is not well integrated into the film. One could discard the prefacing text and the publisher's speech without any apparent gap in the story-telling. What would remain would be what seems to be an objection to writs of habeas corpus being used to free gangsters before the truth can be beaten out of them, and perhaps just a hint of the notion that fully-automatic firearms are evil. That overt moralizing seems, then, an after-thought intended to mute or vitiate criticism of what was, by the standards of 1932, a very violent film, depicting fairly ruthless characters.

The 1983 remake was likewise violent for its era, and also controversial for what many took it to say about the Cuban immigrants of the Mariel Boatlift. The remake had its own bizarre moralizing, mostly effected around the film, as in proclamations by director Brian De Palma and in the advertising campaign for the film. The conceit was that this Scarface was an indictment of the profit motive. Of course, the profit motive shouldn't be indicted — objecting to the profit motive is no more or less than objecting to purposeful action. At best, one might object to how someone conceptualized profit. (As, for example, in For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?)

It is interesting to note what elements within the story were preserved in producing the remake, and how things were transformed. Antonio (Tony) Camonte is a distinctly less appealing character than is Tony Montana. Paul Muni looks like one of Joe Kirby's sloppy drawings for Timely. Camonte plainly likes violent extortion, and he dies like a panicked rat. Montana isn't vicious, his downfall is precipitated by a refusal to allow children to be killed, and he dies a berserker. But, because the dialogue in the original is vastly better, it is easier to understand Poppy being drawn to Camonte than Elvira Hancock becoming Montana's mistress. (Poppy's choice may not be more laudable, but it is more plausible.) On the other hand, while the visual device carrying the message The World Is Yours in the original has more potential than those in the remake, that potential is largely wasted in the original whereäs the the remake makes very effective use of its devices. There is the barest suggestion of incestuous desire in the original, and that's probably almost optimal; the crude references in the remake cause the characters to be both more disgusting and less interesting. On the other hand, the original treats Antonio as falling apart in the wake of killing Guino, but it isn't clear why Antonio falls apart; he expresses no regret for what he has done, and he has hurt 'Cesca in the past without apology or collapse. Further, Guino seems to chose to let Antonio kill him, without good reason for doing so. In the remake, Manny is simply an idiot, and didn't appreciate that, even if he and Gina were married, Tony might still reäct violently. Tony doesn't appear to regret killing Manny, and Tony''s collapse is a result of other things (problems with his business associates, a lack of anticipated gratification from material success, and drug use).

Steele on Fascism

Sunday, 13 April 2008


Sunday, 6 April 2008

I see that Alan Greenspan has endorsed McCain. Back in January, Volcker endorsed Obama. This leaves no Fed Chairmen to endorse anyone else, as the present Chairman is supposed to stay out of it, and the other guys are dead.

Nobody much cares, but I am not endorsing anyone. I'm especially not endorsing Mike Gravel, who has joined the Libertarian Party and is seeking its nomination, nor the Libertarian Party, who have welcomed him. Mike Gravel has made plain where he stands on the issues, and it's plain that he's not a Libertarian.

It Is the Soldier

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

I've been pondering ideological taxonomy again.

As a classical liberal, I believe that there is a right-or-wrong prior to any actual human choice or action. A standard term for this preëxisting morality is natural law. Classical liberals typically test their notions of natural law by pondering how they would work in a state of nature — that is to say in a hypothetical environment when social institutions have been zeroed-out.

But what I've been pondering lately isn't classical liberalism per se, but conservatism — how it proceeds from a different foundational model, and how that that model affects (or effects) the politics of to-day.

Some conservatives have explained the essential difference between conservatism and liberalism (by which they may mean classical liberalism, or the social democratism that absconded with the name liberal in the 20th Century, or both) in that liberals did not believe in Original Sin. What one perhaps first sees here is a rejection of human perfectability; but there's something darker here.

There's a famous poem by Charles M. Province, It Is the Soldier, which declares that our freedoms and rights are not given to us by ministers, by reporters, by poets, by campus organizers, by lawyers, or by politicians, but by soldiers. The declaration is not merely that the front-line of defense of these rights is provided by the soldier, but that these rights are literally given to us by the soldier. In what sort of framework does the soldier give these rights to us?

Thomas Hobbes wrote of a state of nature in which rights as most of us now conceptuälize them did not exists. Hobbes indeed uses the word right, but it doesn't refer to anything that morally constrains others; rather, it is some sort of obligation binding its possessor, and in this case binding him to follow a lex naturalis which is of Every man for himself:

The right of nature, which writers commonly call jus naturale, is the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life; and consequently, of doing anything which, in his own judgement and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.By liberty is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of external impediments; which impediments may oft take away part of a man's power to do what he would, but cannot hinder him from using the power left him according as his judgement and reason shall dictate to him.A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved. For though they that speak of this subject use to confound jus and lex, right and law, yet they ought to be distinguished, because right consisteth in liberty to do, or to forbear; whereas law determineth and bindeth to one of them: so that law and right differ as much as obligation and liberty, which in one and the same matter are inconsistent.

And because the condition of man (as hath been declared in the precedent chapter) is a condition of war of every one against every one, in which case every one is governed by his own reason, and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies; it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to every thing, even to one another's body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to every thing endureth, there can be no security to any man, how strong or wise soever he be, of living out the time which nature ordinarily alloweth men to live. And consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason: that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. The first branch of which rule containeth the first and fundamental law of nature, which is: to seek peace and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature, which is: by all means we can to defend ourselves.
Now, Hobbes would still be interesting if we discarded the famous stuff about life in a state of nature being nasty, brutish, and short — he'd got hold of the notion of sub-optimal Cournot-Nash equilibria being overcome by introduction of a commitment mechanism — but that business of life being thus wasn't simply grim speculation of how things would be, but an interpretation of how things had been; and, hence, on a deeper level, of how things were and always will be.

Consider the pre-feudal period in Western Europe, and feudalism in theory. Outside of the major cities, the central Roman state provided ever-weakening protection against raiders. (Indeed, to the extent that the state acted upon the country side, it was as itself a sort of looter.) Those with sufficient resources and leadership abilities put together their own gangs (perhaps cobbled-together from the remains of the state). These gangs might themselves function as no more than local protection rackets, seizing tribute in exchange for protecting weaker people from nothing other than worse seizures by the gang itself, while protecting only themselves from other raiders. But in theory what the local gang did was to hold back those raiders, in exchange for goods or services from those who were subordinates of the leader of the gang.

As it evolved, the ideology of feudalism didn't present the gang simply as providing service-for-hire. Rather, the gang-leader was presented as himself the owner of the land and of what it produced. He granted use of this property, in exchange for stewardship.

Look at this model of the world. The community is under constant menace from external raiders. The warrior holds back those raiders; by virtue of this, he makes the community possible. All rights within the community are thus creäted by him, and any rights possessed by others have thus been granted by him — It is the Soldier.

Aside from ostensibly protecting the locals, the other engagement of the lord was in, well, raiding some other community. In fact, even when feudalism was operating according to theory, the immediate reason that each community needed a lord was that other communities had lords of their own. But, within this framework of rights being creäted by the soldier, there is nothing wrong with this — after all, the rights of the other community ostensibly were brought into existence by warriors to whom the raiders owe nothing! (And savages, who do not have a proper leader, are especially regarded as fair game, for they have no rights from anyone.)

Conservatisms emerge from and are informed by various things, including a respect for subtleties of social evolution. But I think that this model of civilization as carved-out of barbarism and always threatened by barbarism plays much the same rôle for most of them as do the thought-experiments of the classical liberals for them. The classical liberal begins with a perhaps romanticized model of the state of nature, to think about natural law, and adds barbarians (if at all) as a complication of the model; the conservative begins by imagining barbarism, and subsequently perhaps romanticizes the warriors who carve territories from it.

Even if I am wrong in this belief about conservatism, I think that a useful taxonomy could classify ideologies by what thought, if any, they gave to states of nature.

I have a conservative friend whose take on Dirty Harry was significantly different from my own. He saw men such as Callahan as dirty because such men must be, in order that there be civilization for the rest of us. In hindsight, I reälize that it was natural for my friend, qua conservative, to read things thus — it's a variation on the theme of barbarians (the Scorpio Killer) and of warriors (Callahan) who are required and thus empowered to do terrible things to stop them, though these warriors may be sickened by what they are doing.

(Though I have left him here unnamed, in justice I should draw attention to the point that my conservative friend indeed saw Callahan as dirty; my friend would by no means join and worship in a cult of the military. He speaks of soldiers wanting to be honored with parades every day, in what I take to be a metaphor for their propensity to mistake an essential contribution for a uniquely essential contribution.)

Almost every war-time Presidential Administration has tapped into the presumption that war suspends the ordinary rules. (That is, after all, why war is declared by these and by other administrations on things such as poverty.) But now-a-days, we've seen a resurgence, partly fostered by the present Administration, of a world-view in which barbarians are naturally and persistently at-the-gates, held back by warriors of various sorts (some apparently fighting in offices, armored in Loro Piana wool), who are the creätors and maintainers of civilization and thus (like Hobbes' Leviathan) not truly bound by the rules of civilization (though it is admitted that it is generally good policy for them to conform to those rules most of the time). And, within this ideology, it is not just in dealing directly with the barbarian (the enemy combatant) that the warrior is licensed — It is the Soldier, not the lawyer / Who has given us the right to a fair trial. The Soldier giveth, and the Soldier taketh away.

And, of course, as in the Middle Ages, those who have claimed the prerogatives that this ideology would grant to the warrior needn't actually have held back barbarians, or even tried to do so. They may, in fact, be more concerned to exploit the local population.

This mythology is also very much playing into the on-going Presidential election. The Republican nomination has been won by a man whose political career was founded upon military service, and who continues to be widely considered first-and-foremost as a soldier. Some conservatives have made it plain that they cannot abide by this man, but virtually all for reasons distinct from his performance as a soldier.