Saturday, January 31, 2009

Von Mises vs. Hayek

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Week of Vexing Individuals: Day Seven — Not Conservative?

From January 25-31, I’ve looked at individuals who somehow complicate our ideas about property rights or capitalism — in alphabetical order.

Libertarian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek (the latter a Nobelist) may seem interchangeable to foes of the free market, but there are important differences. Mises was more of a rationalist, more narrowly focused on economics, and more inclined to think that even if all of the decentralized, far-flung empirical facts about the economy could somehow be aggregated by the government’s central planners, any resulting prices the government decreed would be “meaningless” — would in some sense not even be prices. That’s because the central planners would still have no magical, telepathic way of aggregating or even measuring individuals’ preferences in the absence of an already-free market that revealed the relative strengths of those preferences.

This is why the Soviet economic planning bureau, rather embarrassingly, could fulminate all it wanted to about being more economically rational than the market but had to use Western shopping catalogues as a rough guide to setting prices. You simply don’t know how much the public — let alone specific individuals, let alone the same individual at different times — wants a ham relative to a hammer relative to a ham radio. Every government intervention in the economy distorts the price system and does harm, obscuring this crucial information. Mises was not technically an anarchist, but he was thoroughly laissez-faire, and his economic arguments lead logically to libertarianism.

Yet it’s Hayek — the relative moderate who wrote a chapter about “Why I Am Not a Conservative” — who is the most philosophically interesting. Not because his policy recommendations are any sounder than Mises — they are sometimes mushy and moderate, accepting of government emergency measures at the margins — but because his thinking went beyond econ to encompass and help explain civilization as a whole, and in a way that I think still holds out hope of unifying left, right, moderate, and libertarian someday. He is (in some sense) not a conservative because he recognizes that tradition changes and evolves over time, as do economies and law codes. In all three, there is an ongoing weeding-out process (when they are working well) that retains things that work well and discards the things that do not.

If economies, law codes, and tradition are valuable at all, it is precisely because of this weeding out, and we should be very nervous not only when people claim that tradition was perfect from the beginning and should never change but when anti-market activists and politicians claim that the harsh corrective of the market should never weed out failing, badly-run firms.

If that sounds like Social Darwinism — a blend of the progressive traditionalism of Edmund Burke and the laissez-faire attitude of the much-maligned Herbert Spencer — then it’s time to reconsider Social Darwinism’s good points. Even the vilified Spencer never wanted a world where the strong crush the weak but rather the gradual weeding out and discarding of violent as well as inefficient practices and thus continual improvement (and greater peace) in civilization over time.

Hayek, more so than Mises, introduces the important (and realistic, you might say) element of time to our picture of econ and of morality itself. You might say that compared to the “3D” thinking I described in the first Week of Vexing Individuals entry on Sunday, Hayek offers much-needed 4D thinking. Not just a static set of rules or even an occasionally-reconsidered set of rules but a picture of the human race continually getting better at everything it does. That’s the world we all want to live in.

The analogue in biology — though biological change lacks direction, teleology, or conscious purpose, I must stress — is natural selection, so this entry forms a good segue from this “Month of Liberty (i.e., Property)” to my February “Month of Evolution,” which begins tomorrow. Onward and upward.

AND NOTE: February also brings our Thur., Feb. 19 debate — for which I still need a “no” debater — on the question “Has the Right Hit Bottom Yet?” (though it appears Ken Silber will argue “yes” and Heather Wilhelm will offer some comments from the political-activist field). If you think the right is still headed to even greater humiliation, defeat, and marginalization, we want to hear from you at a bar on the Lower East Side in three weeks. E-mail me.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Supreme Court Liberals (and Communism)

Week of Vexing Individuals: Day Six — Liberal?

From January 25-31, I’ll look at individuals who somehow complicate our ideas about property rights or capitalism — in alphabetical order.

It’s still assumed by most modern liberals that their philosophy and its representatives in Washington, DC aid “the little guy” — though Hillary Clinton is surely becoming Secretary of State largely in order to facilitate her husband’s lucrative overseas business dealings, Barney Frank routinely shakes down banks and businesses by showing them advance copies of pending legislation and softening it later in response to their resulting political donations, Obama is pressing for billions to be showered upon well-connected big businesses (at least they will have their messianic hopes for the new president fulfilled, despite over two hundred economists, including three Nobel Laureates, signing this Cato Institute ad from the New York Times opposing Obama’s stimulus and government spending in general), and, perhaps worst of all, Supreme Court liberals — not the conservatives — voted as a bloc against the occupants of Susette Kelo’s house in New London, CT, saying the government had every right to take their house away in order to give the land to a powerful and lucrative business (while Howard Dean, in an astonishing lie, tried to claim on TV that it was the conservatives who’d voted for the Kelo taking).

I’m pleased to say two small chunks of pink-painted wood from the Kelo house (which was ultimately moved to another location with the help of volunteers) now sit on my bookshelf, next to my first edition first printing of Atlas Shrugged (and the Superman clock Jacob Levy gave me). I’m not pleased that so many liberals (the term greatly corrupted from its original, anti-government, pro-individual meaning), though smart people, continue to defend the state — and to claim that having liberals on the Supreme Court is a victory for freedom. (The situation has gotten too grim for me to keep politely humoring these people at parties, so my social life should start getting more interesting soon — but let’s get back to the Supreme Court.)

The one justice to express some sympathy for libertarianism — and get raked over the coals for it by evil statist Joe Biden in his confirmation hearings eighteen years ago — is Clarence Thomas. You’d think with the skepticism he’s shown in his decisions toward state power (writing the fantastic dissent in favor of term limits for members of Congress when liberalism thwarted that noble crusade, for instance) and toward implicit threats of racial violence in (some) Klan cross burnings (something I’m willing to see as more than just idle speech, depending on the likelihood of real violence in a given social context, though many libertarians might disagree), he might get a little more sympathy from other black Americans — but not in a crowd like the one I was part of Sunday…


Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem hosted a debate on Sunday about whether religion is socially useful, and the moderator mentioned that Clarence Thomas was at one point in the seminary but was alienated by racism among the seminary students, hearing at least one celebrate when Martin Luther King was shot — causing Thomas to lose his Catholic faith for a time. This story makes me like Thomas even more, but the crowd mainly seemed worried that something sympathetic was being said about a Republican.

Indeed, the two sides in the debate were represented by a leftist (yet intelligent design-praising) priest and an atheist who, alas, turned out to be from the Revolutionary Communist Party, so I (being an atheist capitalist, like all right-thinking people) didn’t have too much sympathy for either side — as I told an inquisitive reporter for the RCP’s Revolution newspaper afterwards (though I can’t imagine he had time to jot down much of my comment, since he was explaining the oppressive nature of global capitalism to me at great length).

I was pleased, at least, that a large, camouflage-wearing guy at the back of the crowd, in asking the very first question, urged the communist, Sunsara Taylor, to explain how she could judge religion so harshly on humanitarian grounds when communism itself had murdered millions (exactly the question I had!). Astonishingly (unless you know the RCP is Maoist), Taylor flat-out denied that Mao had murdered millions, praised China’s mid-century achievements in raising life expectancies and standards of living, and even had the audacity to claim that China has been going downhill since the modest market-friendly reforms of Deng. A rightwing conspiracy, she said, has been duping us into thinking Mao is history’s most prolific murderer. (The only person to whom the RCP is apparently more loyal than Mao is their leader-in-hiding, Bob Avakian, for whom the non-hiding Taylor is technically on a book tour, apparently.)

Denying the tens of millions dead at China’s hands or the brutal political repression of the Cultural Revolution is sort of like being a Holocaust denier — and I wouldn’t be surprised if we had one of those in the crowd, too. There was, at least, a man who chastised Taylor for wearing what appeared to be a diamond necklace despite, as he put it, “the Zionists” running the diamond trade. In perhaps her only human and vulnerable-sounding moment, Taylor just said meekly that the necklace had been “a gift” — no defense of “the Zionists” was offered, of course. Another man objected to “retail” altogether (and I don’t think he was suggesting that wholesale is a better deal) and to technology, saying some of it is helpful but some is not.

One man, in a plea for pragmatism, noted that churches are discouraged by government from giving care to transients unless they can do so on a reliable daily basis, but no one (vocal) seemed to see this as an argument for a free market and against government. Everything tended to get shoehorned into the “capitalist system vs. blacks” narrative, tragically — and Taylor coldly said that aid from churches does little to foster a full-scale revolution, which is all that will truly help the poor.


I have this much in common with that crowd, though: their moderator was from the skeptical/atheist Center for Inquiry — and so is one of our scheduled Debates at Lolita Bar participants for April 1, Austin Dacey, who will duke it out with Rabbi Simcha Weinstein.

But more about that debate in a couple months — in the meantime, if you’re as expert on the squabbles of right and left as some of the people mentioned above, let me know if you’ll be in New York City on the night of Thursday, Feb. 19 and want to be considered as our defender of the “No” position in our impending debate on the question “Has the Right Hit Bottom Yet?”

Ken Silber will argue yes, and that the right has already begun to bounce back. Whether you’re rightwing, libertarian, moderate, or liberal — though preferably not a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party — perhaps you think Silber’s nuts and that the right is still plummeting downward. If so, e-mail me your credentials and maybe we can work something out.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Victor Niederhoffer Meets Jeffrey Friedman at the Junto

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Week of Vexing Individuals: Day Five — Libertarian?

From January 25-31, I’ll look at individuals who somehow complicate our ideas about property rights or capitalism — in alphabetical order.

The transcript part of today’s entry formerly appeared on Dawn Eden’s blog, with the title “Founded in Honor of Franklin, Confounded by Wild Tangents,” and is a glimpse of how random and odd the monthly meetings of libertarian investor Victor Niederhoffer’s Junto discussion group got, at least in those days.

I don’t know which raised greater doubts about libertarianism: speaker Jeffrey Friedman, editor of Critical Review, with his warnings that night in 2002 that all intellectuals should perhaps be more agnostic and less ideological about politics — or the diehard libertarians who made up most of the crowd.

PLEASE NOTE: the following quasi-transcript is not made up of quotes, just paraphrases, but is not wildly inaccurate, either (and in other Jeffrey Friedman transcript news, he e-mails to note that the transcript in Critical Review Vol. 22, No. 4 of CR’s recent Boston conference will show that his comments about Cass Sunstein were clarifying comments by me and another person who interjected, not just replying to my Sunstein-bashing, but now let us return to 2002):

JEFFREY FRIEDMAN [to Todd Seavey]: Do you know the procedure?

TODD SEAVEY: I think they do several minutes of announcements before letting the speaker talk.

VICTOR NIEDERHOFFER, INVESTOR AND LEADER OF JUNTO GROUP [starting the meeting]: Let’s hear a response to last week’s speaker.

ELDERLY BRITISH MAN [stands in front of group]: Ah, yes, well, it seems to me what with the significant military expenditures we are currently –

NIEDERHOFFER [interrupting]: Tell us what you do. Aren’t you involved in Human Ecology?

ELDERLY BRITISH MAN: Right, yes, well, rather, but I shan’t have time to get into all that, you know.

NIEDERHOFFER: Tell us a little.

ELDERLY BRITISH MAN: Well, it really is a whole new way of looking at the world and reminding us that humans co-exist with trees and the woods and all that. But as I was saying, we now spend on defense some 400,000 billion –

MEMBER OF AUDIENCE: 400 trillion dollars?!?

ELDERLY BRITISH MAN: Uh…ah…uh…rather 400,000 million dollars.

MEMBERS OF AUDIENCE: Just say 400 billion!! Just say 400 billion!!

ELDERLY BRITISH MAN: I like to say “four hundred thousand…” because –

MEMBER OF AUDIENCE: It makes it sound bigger than it is? [Twenty minutes pass in this fashion.]

RICHARD KOSTELANETZ [libertarian artist and author]: I saw a cool show on PBS about economics and some show on C-SPAN about Rand.

IRIS BELL [who looks sort of like an elderly Goth]: Yes, that C-SPAN series was dominated by the West Coast Objectivists…the East Coast Objectivists have realized that people do not listen to you if you call them evil.

ELDERLY BRITISH MAN: I worry about the future, which was very much the theme of our speech last time.

NIEDERHOFFER: Isn’t there some connection you can make between your views on defense and Human Ecology?

ELDERLY BRITISH MAN: Well, this spending will affect the human future, I suppose. But I really don’t want to get into all that.

NIEDERHOFFER [without turning around, yells loudly enough to address a large, mysterious figure at the back of the room]: What about you, Mister E? What do you think the future holds?

“MISTER E” [speaks in grim, booming voice through large jowls]: Beginning in July, we will witness a series of increasingly severe natural disasters. Temperatures will fall. Talk of global warming will give way to talk of global cooling. Cold temperatures will inspire wars, as they have throughout history. The Chinese will invade Vietnam, as they do in times of cold and want. Vulcanism will increase, due to the wobbling of the Earth on its axis –

MEMBERS OF AUDIENCE: Vulcans? Did he say Vulcans?

“MISTER E”: Volcanoes! The Earth has a fifty-four year cycle of hot and cold periods, punctuated by storms and stresses upon the Earth’s mantle as our angle toward the sun changes…

MEMBERS OF THE AUDIENCE: [giggling, murmuring]

NIEDERHOFFER: Let me just say that instead of being bemused by ideas different from your own, you should perhaps listen to Mister E, who manages billions of dollars worth of investments and is perhaps the single greatest investor on the entire planet. He has the greatest meteorological minds on the planet on his payroll.

MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: Could we hear what the credentials are of the people from whom you’re getting this stuff?

“MISTER E”: My profit and loss statements are my credentials! This is no theory! It is fact! There won’t be enough sweaters to go around when the change comes!

[Ninety minutes into the meeting...]

NIEDERHOFFER [to Friedman]: You wouldn’t mind before your speech if we heard just a word from this fellow who’s just returned from Japan, where he moved right after World War II?

FRIEDMAN [graciously]: Not at all, Victor.

[A half hour later...]

72-YEAR-OLD WHO LOOKS FIFTY AND HAS TATTOOS ON HIS ARMS [standing at front and addressing the audience]: …and so, after having three children by that wife, who was part French and part Italian…

NIEDERHOFFER: But tell us why you were thrown out of Japan. Was it for selling the antique pistols?

72-YEAR-OLD WHO LOOKS FIFTY AND HAS TATTOOS ON HIS ARMS: Well, I’m gettin’ around to that [makes "globe-hopping" gesture with his hand, as if indicating different parts of the Earth]…

NIEDERHOFFER: I think I’ll have to say that you have the entire meeting to talk next time, but now we really need to get on to our speaker for the evening, Jeffrey –

WORRIED WOMAN [interrupting]: What about the picnic?!? We haven’t talked about details for the picnic!!

NIEDERHOFFER: No, I’m sorry, we need to move on… [Minute or so of chaos ensues.]

[Two hours into meeting.]

FRIEDMAN [to audience]: Hello, I’m Jeffrey Friedman…I’m a polisci professor and I edit Critical Review… The public is very ignorant, and there’s no way any of us can ever really hope to be experts about all the things government does, like exactly how best to run a school system, so that ignorance alone is reason to let people make choices in a market, where they can just give immediate feedback about whether they like something instead of having to get into big theoretical debates that no one has time for about how to improve a system. We’re all ignorant about most things, even about political theories, which is why we should always assume our opponents are not evil — they simply haven’t read the ideas we have and are therefore struggling to make an unworkable system workable.

“MISTER E”: I don’t know where you got your theories, but you’re completely wrong. The only way you get people’s attention is by calling them stupid and evil! And furthermore, you can’t fix the schools by just letting people shop around. You educators always think you can fix things, but the problem is that some people are just too stupid to be educated! You can’t turn an 80 IQ into a 120 IQ by fixing a school!

PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHER: Prof. Friedman, I have to agree. I work in a public school and there’s nothing we can do better that’ll change the fact that kids have lousy homes and want to be drug dealers because they realize they can make a hundred dollars an hour –

MEMBER OF AUDIENCE: Hey, those kids sound pretty smart!

ASSISTANT TO NIEDERHOFFER: The problem with libertarianism, I think, is that these ideas are somehow bound up with a low rate of reproductive success. Socialists are outbreeding us, and they always will.

NIEDERHOFFER: It just so happens, I am myself writing a book on the topic of public ignorance, which I will describe to you now…Contrary to popular belief, when earnings are up, the stock market goes down…

[Fifteen minutes pass.]

NIEDERHOFFER: …and so, as in a story about demonic possession written by Guy de Maupassant, about a Frenchman who is possessed by a Brazilian demon while traveling on a cruise ship teaches us, or as Invasion of the Body Snatchers reminds us, the public can be taken over by bad ideas…

[Three hours into meeting.]

MEMBER OF AUDIENCE: Prof. Friedman, will you sign my copy of Critical Review?

FRIEDMAN [finishing up]: Sure.

SEAVEY [to Friedman]: Good night. Nice job.

FRIEDMAN: Thanks. Good night.

[Seavey steps outside into torrential rain and raises umbrella. Remembers that Friedman, who will probably not exit for some time, had earlier lost his umbrella and will have to carry books and papers with him in the rain. Seavey pauses, considers going back inside. Shudders, thinking he's probably heard enough for one night, and walks down the street. Fade to black.]

P.S. For a likely more sedate, academic, and ideologically non-rigid but still libertarian-influenced experience, by the way, you might want to contact my friend Peter Northup (now an NYU polisci grad student and formerly an undergrad taught by Jacob Levy, for those keeping track of all the University of Chicago connections in this month’s entries) at eudinaesis[at], since he’s starting a political book club.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Robert Mugabe Wants Your Land

Week of Vexing Individuals: Day Four — Leftist?

From January 25-31, I’ll look at individuals who somehow complicate our ideas about property rights or capitalism — in alphabetical order.

It’s Wednesday, and if you think “hump day” is rough for you, consider Zimbabwe, with its 231 million% inflation rate and massive, violent land expropriation under the dictatorial Robert Mugabe. (Last year, one U.S. dollar equaled over 661 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars, a story people  might want to look into if they believe human laws can trump the laws of economics any more easily than they can the laws of physics.  When inflation’s that bad, I’d say your de facto currency system is technically barter.)

Yet Mugabe received awards — awards! — from American universities when he first took power, since he was, after all, a post-colonialist and anti-imperialist, and how could that be a bad thing, right? When girlfriend Helen Rittelmeyer and I go to her old stomping grounds, Yale, in two days to attend a Party of the Right debate there, I’ll probably be within spitting distance of students — or at least aging professors — who still think Mugabe is cool, because at least he’s stickin’ it to the white man (by seizing white-owned farms and giving them to pretty much any Mugabe-serving thugs who happen along, contributing to the Zimbabwean economy’s collapse).

Oddly enough, one of my libertarian pals has Zimbabwean relatives by marriage, white ones, who hadn’t fled last I knew, which is about as strong a testament to people’s attachment to their homelands as I’ve encountered. If I were white and living in Zimbabwe but had family ties to London and New York City, well, I would not be living in Zimbabwe.

All this should be a warning to people of any political stripe — Middle East zealots, slavery-reparations-seekers, Northern Ireland combatants, even building preservationists — that once you open the bloody can of worms that is history and declare the settling of (inconceivably large and endlessly multilayered) past wrongs grounds for present-day property violations, there’s simply no logical end to it. You call me naive and ahistorical for wanting to just start from now with a clear and simple property rights framework? Spend a holiday in Zimbabwe and then tell me cultural grievances should weigh against econ.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sander Hicks: Communism for Punks


Week of Vexing Individuals: Day Three — Green?

From January 25-31, I’ll look at individuals who somehow complicate our ideas about property rights or capitalism — in alphabetical order.

It was an oddly capitalist chain of connections that led me to my Marxist friend, Sander Hicks. Through fellow libertarian Christine Caldwell Ames, who I’d known in college, I met Henry Hazlitt Foundation founder Chris Whitten, who heard at one of the libertarian Junto meetings run by Victor Niederhoffer (about whom more Thursday) about a search for new underlings by ABC’s John Stossel, who hired me and, two years later, Ted Balaker (now of the Reason Foundation), whose fiction-writing friend Katherine Taylor I met at a party hosted by U.S. Term Limits and Laissez-Faire Books founders Andrea and Howard Rich. And Katherine knows literary people, and that includes Marxist publisher and author Sander Hicks, who has now founded two publishing companies and the Vox Pop cafes/performance spaces.

As Michel Evanchik, moderator of the Debates at Lolita Bar said recently, Sander, ironically, “may be the most entrepreneurial person we know.”

And indeed, it was through Sander that I met Michel and yesterday’s Vexing Individual, L.B. Deyo, since I first beheld them when Michel moderated a debate in early 2002 in which L.B. defended globalization against Sander, who was then L.B.’s building super. Ironically for a building super, he was willing, very cautiously, to endorse vandalism (such as that which occurred against Seattle coffee shops and the like during the then-recent 1999 antiglobalization protests there) as an extension of protest. But back then, Sander was hoping for a sort of armed punk revolt against the capitalist establishment (and occasionally singing).

Since then, he’s become not only a cafe-owner, local merchants society member, and Gandhi fan — and thus presumably a bit less sympathetic to violence — but a Green Party activist (interested in subsidizing small businesses instead of big corporations) and, yes, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. In fact, I see that in his recent national “Inaugurate Yourself” tour, he sought to rally people to reopen investigations not only of 9/11 but of the assassinations of JFK and others.

And that reminds me: years after his Jinx Society debate against L.B., Sander joined us at the successor Debates at Lolita Bar to argue “yes” on the question “Did the Government Know in Advance About 9/11?” (a night during which I even met a woman from the 9/11 Truth sub-faction that believes no planes struck the World Trade Center, only being added in later digitally), and libertarian Thor Halvorssen e-mailed to object to the whole debate, asking what we’d do next, debate whether extraterrestrials are visiting Earth. I thought, y’know, a debate on UFOs isn’t such a bad idea. And so it’s likely we’ll do just that around June 3, assuming the local MUFON director, with whom I’ve now exchanged e-mails, remains interested. Presumably this in no way undermines my own skeptic credentials.

As for Sander, if you don’t catch him at a protest, you can find him doing business at one of the Vox Pop cafes.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Dionysus/L.B. Deyo Dichotomy


Week of Vexing Individuals: Day Two — Conservative?

From January 25-31, I’ll look at individuals who somehow complicate our ideas about property rights or capitalism — in alphabetical order.

A shameful irony behind the Debates at Lolita Bar I host is that despite being organized by a property advocate, me, they grew out of meetings of the infamous and shadowy Jinx Society, an organization dedicated to “urban exploration” — i.e., chronic trespass in and around buildings, ruins, bridges, and tunnels.

Witness these excerpts from a now ten-year-old article about Jinx, starting with a quote about sneaking into events at hotels from co-founder L.B. Deyo, now head of Austin, TX’s Dionysium events (which I urged an Austin libertarian couple who came to our recent intellectual property debate to attend when they get back home):

“Know in your heart of hearts that you have every right to be there. One time I was on an elevator at a luxury hotel when some kids got on. I thought, ‘these troublemaking kids have no right to be in this hotel. I bet they aren’t even staying here.’ So naturally if any staff member hinted that I might not be a guest, I would be outraged.”

The agents of Jinx take a hotel raid seriously. “We don’t do raids just to pass the time. We’re busy people,” explains LB Deyo. “Upper-class intelligence. Business and corporate intelligence. The people who stay in upper-echelon hotels are often the people we need to find out about.” The people they need to find out about, or the Enemies of Jinx, are a scrap-heap of organizations including Freemasons, Mensa, Mother’s Cafe, and the PTA [and the U.N., as readers of the Jinx book, Invisible Frontier, well know].

Jinx ties the groups together by pointing out, “Whether their crimes are aesthetic, as with Birkenstock, political, as with the Khmer Rouge, or spiritual, as with the Scientologists, these subversives have worked for the corruption and the ruin of humanity and human culture!”

…Humor is far from the mind of Jinx. “Wouldn’t I,” asks LB Deyo, “have rather been beside a warm fire with a beautiful woman and a bottle of cognac, or poring over Swift?” His question lingers, staining the air with visions of fluffy towels and sipping martinis with the New York elite. “The only moral act in war is to end it, and we know no acceptable way to end our secret war with the Enemies of Jinx than to win it.”

Nietzschean? Dadaist? Surely Dionysian, surely boundary-crossing. But wait! Also conservative, as his avowed policy preferences have suggested in the past? Preparing for the Obama era ahead and its possible socialistic implications, he recently e-mailed this stark vision of the future:

Property: A bloodstained word, synonymous with rapine, cruelty and white supremacy, soon to be consigned to the viler, less progressive passages of history. Our children* will know of property only as a long-forgotten evil, like the Black Death or Three Dog Night.

*Rhetorically, of course.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Apres Moi, Deleuze and Guattari


Week of Vexing Individuals: Day One — Anarchism and Beyond

From January 25-31, I’ll look at individuals who somehow complicate our ideas about property rights or capitalism — in alphabetical order.

I’ve read Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, etc. — and hated them all, arrogant anticapitalist obscurantists that they are, turning vague whining about the culture into pseudo-arguments on economics shot through with the most pretentious variety of Marxism — but I have never, I confess, read the work of philosophers Deleuze and Guattari. Nonetheless, in the ultimate act of deconstruction, I will form an opinion about them anyway. (I get the impression Guattari’s the interesting one, actually, taking an interest in relatively practical things like group-therapy dynamics and applying them to philosophical disagreements, while Deleuze, I gather, spends hundreds of pages trying to unravel metaphysics by doing things like criticizing the principle of identity.)

But the important thing for current purposes is that my ill-informed impression of these two Frenchmen is based mainly on the book cover to their work A Thousand Plateaus, a complex, Escher-like diagram/image that seemed to hint at what girlfriend Helen recently called “three-dimensional thinking,” a willingness to consider and reconsider things from multiple philosophical perspectives, hoping to change one’s own thinking instead of merely strategically outmaneuvering argumentative foes. (Her 3D thought analogy caused me to offer her my handy 3D glasses, meant to be used to perceive the multiverse in a comic book that came out last week. She declined, despite me noting that they are not merely cheap 3D glasses but, as the label clearly indicates, an Overvoid Viewer.)

Anyway, I gather D&G just offer more French lit-crit capitalism bashing, but what I was really hoping for was something more akin to “post-anarchism,” the post-structuralism-influenced view that freedom requires not just escaping manmade laws and remaining willfully ignorant of the laws of economics (the two pillars of conventional left-anarchism) but escaping stable ideology itself by constantly shifting one’s philosophy.

The anarchist sci-fi writer Robert Anton Wilson achieved something like a reductio of post-anarchism, without to my knowledge using the term, by trying to consciously switch to a new philosophy each day, at least for one period of his life (Foucault did something similar, in a slower way, but was too enamored of some absolutely nasty philosophies such as totalitarian Islam — and thus probably should have been disciplined and punished in a prison in Tehran for a while).

A willingness to change one’s mind without treating the change as damage is a wonderful thing — though being a relativist is not. All available evidence suggests that the world will not go away because you change your mind about it, no matter how much some self-aggrandizing navel-gazers might like to think otherwise. And it’d be a shame if you died in a car crash because you were distracted by questions about whether “momentum” is merely an illusory construct foisted on us by bourgeois scientists who fetishize and commodify Cartesian notions of order.

(Or were thinking about the fate of the multiverse as revealed this coming Wednesday in the comic book Final Crisis #7, for that matter.)

Still, it is worth valuing philosophical flexibility over rigidity. You’ve probably been wrong before. You might be wrong now.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Parcel of Property vs. Grab-Bag of Opinions


Property adherence offers about as clear-cut a means of deciding individual legal disputes and collective policy disputes as humanity can plausibly engineer — and one tending, not coincidentally, toward utility- enhancing, decentralized, individual-freedom-respecting outcomes.

I may be guilty of assuming all the libertarians I’ve talked to over the years realized this and so had the property rubric in mind as they reached decisions on various issues, but perhaps some of the younger ones in particular didn’t.  Perhaps some — despite, say, speaking positively of drug legalization, cutting the Department of Transportation budget, and deregulating agriculture — really have no strict ideological reason for seeing these things as connected, more a grab bag of vaguely similar opinions, like any other political faction’s eclectic fondness for, say, guns, Shakespeare, monogamy, and estate tax cuts.

I would like to think I’m getting something a bit more predictable and coherent from libertarianism, though.  If not — all sniping about single-minded ideologues aside — the movement will, I think, have been a waste of time and will get nowhere from here, simply because it will so easily become one more tiny, ill-defined demographic amidst other vaguely-moderate voters.  Useless.  Libertarians who think they have a loud voice to contribute to the very noisy democratic clamor without the clear message of property rights are deluded.

But that does not mean we should pretend the universe offers greater clarity and simplicity than it does, and anyone with a healthy respect for individuals must also admire the way that human political thinking seems to come in 7 billion varieties, when all the nuances and details are taken into account.

So, rather than repeat my own take on things again, let us spend the next seven days — the climactic final week of the Month of Liberty (i.e., Property) — looking at one person per day (sometimes two) who somehow complicates the story of property, challenging my account — or just serving as a living warning.

Tomorrow, then, the Week of Vexing Individuals begins.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Entertainment Addendum: Comics Apocalypse

I planned to stop reading comics before but was surprised to find them getting closer to the finale I always imagined and wanted to see — which was basically an unlikely but hoped-for simultaneous “ending” (I mean, at least semi-permanently) to the stories of the Multiverse, New Gods, Time Trapper, Krona, and maybe Gog to boot, and with Gog recently stuck onto the Source Wall — and Krona and Trapper slated for mind-bogglingly massive final battles in the next couple months — you might actually believe me if I say this new quote from DC Comics Exec. Editor Dan Didio makes it easier to walk away smiling and satisfied at last:

DD: You’re going to see a couple of things being “rested” after Final Crisis — the Multiverse is something that we’ve really used, and maybe overused over the last year. So now we can pull it back and bring it back slowly. It’s out there and available to us, but just because it’s out there and available doesn’t mean that we have to run to it immediately following this story.

The other thing we’ll give a rest to as well is the concept of the New Gods and the ideas surrounding them. There’s a very clear conclusion to the New Gods’ storyline in Final Crisis #7. The good part about it is that readers will see that ending, and we won’t have to return to it right away. Like the Multiverse, the New Gods will be out there and available to us, and we can use them when we see fit, and feel the time is right. Just because we introduced concepts doesn’t mean that we have to constantly use them. That’s one of the mistakes that we’ve made before, and hopefully learned from, and won’t have to make again.

One irony of this, which I’ve mentioned to DC editor Scott Nybakken before, is that even though Grant Morrison, the writer responsible for the two endings Didio mentions above, is supposed to be the “revamp/update/relaunch” guy, he keeps being the “closure” guy (which is fine with me but perhaps should trouble DC) for the simple reason that when he “relaunches” characters, he actually has a tendency to render them so strange and complicated that no other writer or editor is likely to want to touch them (and even some of his most eager readers aren’t quite sure what the hell just happened).  But that works out well for me, you see. Burn it all down, once and for all!  Revolution in my lifetime!  (Or better yet, happy endings all around.  Even net long-term decreases in happiness for fictional characters bother me a little, I must admit.)

That's Entertainment (Related to Property)!


A few unrelated observations from the world of entertainment, seen through the lens of property-adherence:

•I thought this story sounded a lot more exciting when I thought the headline was describing some sort of crime ring instead of science-thwarting noise: “Shhh! Gadget Racket Threatens Pulsar Research.”

(On a completely unrelated science note, shouldn’t Nova be planning a flashy, fast-paced documentary to come out sometime around today called “Rise of the Lichens”?)

•Did you know that Basil Rathbone of Sherlock Holmes fame (not to be confused with Robert Downey Jr., who’ll play Holmes late this year, in his second comic book-based role in two years) made over eighty films? Assuming he was not a billionaire, this is a reminder that celebrities probably don’t usually make as much as we think they do.

•That wacko Oliver Stone next turns his hand to a documentary on socialist dictator Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, emphasizing Venezuelan and Bush-administration resistance to Chavez. This ought to be rich. (I don’t want to hear Chavez bellowing in the theatre — I want to hear Majel Barrett Roddenberry’s final vocal performance as the Enterprise computer.)

•You have to find it at least a little amusing that a former “Exalted Cyclops” of the Ku Klux Klan, Sen. Byrd (D-WV), fell ill during the inauguration of a black president, but I can’t help thinking it would have been even funnier if it’d been Al Franken.

•Speaking of cruel comments about political foes masquerading as comedy (Do I mean from me or from Franken? Let history decide!), what is with the ostensibly-funny Onion doing dry pieces reporting Bush’s death (one by alligator, one by natural causes in his sleep)? There weren’t even any jokes in the pieces, and the record will show I cut comedy writers a lot of slack when they experiment. For pieces this awful and pointless to have seen print, I can only conclude that they were the work of someone fairly high up on the Onion masthead who couldn’t easily be told he’s not funny. So there’s a liberal with a bad sense of humor in high places, never good news. (Luckily, there also seems to be at least one libertarian on the staff, though I don’t know if he did this piece, which covertly namechecks my pals at Reason — who in turn just posted this item suggesting that a disturbingly large number of comedy writers may feel that it’s time to retire, what with a perfect and non-comedic being like Obama occupying the White House.)

•Any anarcho-capitalist must have a soft spot for mercenaries, bounty hunters, and vigilantes, so I can’t help being intrigued by the fact that the Steve McQueen movie Hunter (made just before he died) was not only based on a true story about a bounty hunter but spawned a sequel TV series two and a half decades later called Huntress, about the bounty hunter’s bounty-hunting daughter, also based on a true story. (Coincidentally, the DC Comics character Huntress, who also made it to TV for a short time a few years ago, is herself the daughter of a famous crime-fighter, namely Batman, at least in some versions of the story — and in other comics news, in case you weren’t sure whose side Marvel Comics is on, they’ve depicted Obama taking office to find that his predecessor unwisely put Norman Osborn, secretly the Green Goblin, in charge of all superhuman activities before leaving office [but this action figure pointed out by Jill Friedman suggests Obama can handle such menaces].)

More tragically, there was that recent film Domino about another real-life bounty hunter, the model-actress turned manhunter daughter of actor Laurence Harvey who died of an opiate overdose just before the film came out, which strikes me as bizarre timing, but I may not understand the addictive/depressive mindset (fear of fame? of misrepresentation?). I was half-tempted to see it just to see if they added a postscript about the death, at the risk of creating a jarring non sequitur and downer for the audience.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Utilitarian RULES


I mentioned yesterday seeing property rights as the set of rules generated by an underlying, foundational ethos of utilitarianism, the desire to maximize happiness for all relevant agents.

And since just asking people to wing it and make off-the-cuff predictions about what would increase happiness would likely produce chaos, we rule utilitarians look for rules that, when consistently enforced, seem most likely to yield the greatest happiness for the greatest number — those rules, I would argue, being property rights for the simple reason that they minimize the need to read each other’s minds in order to calculate happiness (something we couldn’t do even if we concluded it was morally necessary, of course, though all government edicts implicitly try).  With property rights and markets, we simply look at what people are really willing to pay for things, their revealed rather than merely proclaimed preferences.

To people who ask “Why utilitarianism as the underlying ethic, though?” I am tempted to say, “Have you got a better idea?” — but experience suggests they’ll say yes, however incorrectly, so let me just say briefly (though this topic could easily consume a whole “Month of Utility” and possibly squelch a month’s worth of utility in the process) that if happiness doesn’t seem like something worth fostering (as most of us know it to be from direct experience of it and by instinct), it’s hard to see why anything else would be.  For any metaphysical set of rules ostensibly put forward as something that demands the sacrifice of human happiness, we are logically capable of asking, “Why — won’t this create misery?”  But no such regress of questions and justifications is necessary or even logically possible with happiness itself.

By comparison to happiness, all the other posited metaphysical yardsticks — whether Commandments taken on faith, rights asserted in the name of the proletariat, or a vision of humanity intuited by Ayn Rand or Kant — are on shaky ground once descended from the metaphysical heavens and attempting to command our allegiance, as would be extraterrestrials who arrived on the Earth and assumed we should obey them in all things because they are so shiny (shiny, to their minds, equaling great).


Now, I realize few people are consciously utilitarian (though most people and creeds crudely fumble in that general direction even if they don’t intend to), so rule utilitarianism, in a slightly recursive fashion, entails actually having to defer to likely audiences’ receptivity regarding various possible utilitarian rules — which is different from just taking a poll (and radically different from simply doing what makes oneself happy, though some smart people who should know better — such as Jonah Goldberg — have accused utilitarians of holding that selfish view).  So rather than simply saying “utility now and junk all other ethical thinking,” we need to espouse those familiar-seeming rules that are most likely to move things in a positive, utile direction in the real world, over the super-long-haul.  To a proper utilitarian, there is nothing gained from “being right” in the rules you espouse if no one listens and a riot breaks out that causes widespread misery instead.

In other words, if espousing social democracy in the twenty-first century were actually the best historical route to the world eventually becoming libertarian and property-respecting in some later phase, I’d espouse social democracy.  In fact, though, I think the way to go is harnessing American individualism, of the responsible and bourgeois kind rather than the kooky-free-spirit kind that leads to getting stoned and trespassing on the bourgeoisie’s lawn.

And one measure of how far we have to travel in popularizing utilitarianism as an ethos, my core mission and moral foundation, is the fact that my damn spellchecker doesn’t even know the word “utilitarians.”  At least not in its plural form.  Sadly, “There can be only one” is not a core rule-utilitarian rule.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Property Is Concrete, Concrete Is Property


To connect a few dots from earlier entries: say what you will about property rights as a candidate for a “metaethic” (of sorts, anyway, though it’s merely the output of a background rule utilitarianism), you have to admit it at least makes legal rules concrete enough to enforce with relative clarity and ease.

If you want the average person to know when he’s transgressing and when he’s within his rights — a basic goal of law since the Code of Hammurabi nearly 4,000 years ago — things that you can see (or make contracts about) are likely to generate a lot less bickering (with all the lost time and energy that entails) than, say, abstractions like “serving the common good” or “contributing to the wholesomeness of the town.”  (Assuming plenty of physical evidence was on hand with which to draw the correct conclusions, I’d much rather be a defendant in court accused of stealing a car than accused of “disrupting the social fabric.”  Who knows what might happen in the latter case.)

People who long for something like the amorphous, abstract rubrics — whether rightwing or leftwing, academic or populist — are likely people who spend a lot more time talking than doing, roughly speaking (be they media folk like myself or Bible-thumping preachers).  They are not properly unnerved by the idea of having to abandon productive activities to go join a scrum, parliament, grad school bull session, Islamic council, or protest that could come to unpredictable, faddish, or mob-mentality conclusions.  Society cannot live on politics alone (nor can an economy survive on government alone — which means that even people with a leftwing agenda ought to approach the private sector humbly, a bit guiltily, with hat in hand, rather than thinking they’ve “created” something — such as jobs — by legislating money around or badgering others into action through protest; someone has to make the things your talking causes to be redistributed).

Even libertarians (who tend to be intellectuals if only because there are so few ordinary people who adhere to libertarianism) should be wary of letting the “fun” of democratic talk lull them into thinking less-concrete, more democratic-consensus-based laws are sustainable.  We’ve seen how quickly the U.S. — lacking a solid, explicit property base for its laws but steeped in constitutionalism and democracy — went from laissez-faire to European-style welfare state.  Murray Rothbard saw this as the best real-world argument for anarchism: We tried “limiting government” already and failed.


Property rights: no other system offers the same clarity, incentives for production and progress, feedback loops of constant improvement, peace, decentralized flexibility, and transcultural “neutrality” (in the simple headcount sense of treating all revealed preferences as relevant).  To rightists who say, with Irving Kristol, that capitalism lives on the accumulated moral capital of religious tradition, it is time to start saying, no, capitalism was merely built in the historical scaffolding of religious tradition, which would have had little to show for itself (scaffolding being a rather empty thing) had not something as beneficial and real as commerce been created within it.  Similarly confident and moralistic messages must be delivered to adherents of democracy, liberalism, and leftism — and to the subsidized corporations who fancy themselves the realists.

And just as the average citizen, to defend himself, needs to be able to spot rights violations with tripwire ease, so too the intellectuals must eventually spread the truth of property rights so far and wide that the average roomful of intelligent people will recognize in an instant when someone’s contradicted the property norm — the way elite circles now can immediately spot someone who makes a racist comment or says something implying he doesn’t recycle.

If intellectuals engaged in politics are selling some message other than property rights, they implicitly suggest that property rights are secondary, negotiable — but we know how poorly those rights fare and how quickly they are deformed in such an intellectual environment.  So just don’t steal.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Obama


As Obama said in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, people ought to be judged by the content of their character, not by race, so, historic a milestone as today may be, I hope the press and public will soon get down to the business of scrutinizing Obama’s policies as closely as they would, oh, say, those of his predecessor, especially when they are near-identical to those of his predecessor, as will no doubt frequently be the case (less scrutiny would be, to quote a retiring elder statesman, the soft bigotry of low expectations).

(Given, for example, the press’s indifference to Bill Clinton’s faith-based initiative and, by contrast, their theocracy-fearing freakout over Bush’s near-identical faith-based initiative, I have no doubt that media bias and cultural amnesia will play their usual huge role in defining perceptions of the Obama administration.)

There will be no shortage of people saying positive things about Obama today, so I won’t waste time with that, though I wish him luck (I’m pleased some of his appointments can be viewed as moderate or at least left-irking ones, even Hillary Clinton, Cass Sunstein, James L. Jones, Sanjay Gupta, and almost-Bill Richardson, and I likewise genuinely gave Bill Clinton a grace period back in 1993, recognizing that he had some moderate tendencies that might prove beneficial — whereupon he attempted to nationalize healthcare and went on to block Gingrichian efforts to shrink government).

Instead of gushing about Obama, I will say that the idolatry surrounding him would be alarming in a president of any party — and I hope liberals are not so naive as to think that press fawning is only unhealthy when it’s one of the “bad guys,” whereas Obama’s one of the “good guys,” which makes it OK for the press to be servile. For years, liberals have recoiled in horror at signs of partisanship by Fox News, but I doubt many will complain about the comparatively soft and glowy way networks and newspapers sound now, talking about how hope-filled, unified, and historically-awed we all our by our new president.

Remember, as the Blagojevich situation teaches us, politicians are basically thieves who must be watched with great skepticism. One lesson from that scandal: watch out for Chicago-area machine politicians eager to throw large amounts of government money around on construction and infrastructure projects (hey, wait a second — uh-oh…).

One race-related note before signing off, though: it was nice to see Channel 11 here marked Martin Luther King Day last night by rerunning the Family Guy episode in which Peter gets slavery reparations after discovering that he’s descended from a black man who was owned by the family of Peter’s father in law, then uses the reparations money to refurbish the family house in the fashion of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. We can all learn something from that.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Jazz, Race, Punk, and Electronicizing the Eschaton


Yesterday, I corrected a typo that I noticed in one of this blog’s first entries, from two years ago (a review of a book by Brian Doherty, who also wrote one of last week’s Book Selections), and that typo led me free-associatively to ten musings that warrant a book-length explanation. I’m slowly working on that book-length explanation, as it happens, but for now this one blog entry will have to suffice.

1. The typo in question was my misspelling the name of Leonard Read, gallant founder of the first thinktank dedicated to promoting property rights and markets, New York’s still-active Foundation for Economic Education. I accidentally referred to him in one spot as Leonard “Reed,” but Leonard Reed, as some of you may know, was the jazz tapdancer and songwriter responsible for co-inventing the Shim Sham Shimmy, a tapdance technique that began as a flashy finale and is also known as the Goofus.

So to summarize: Leonard Read, gallant; Leonard Reed, Goofus. We are lucky to have had them both.

2. Leonard Reed was also a mix of black, white, and Choctaw (and passed away nearly five years ago, after a long and productive life), and this being Martin Luther King Day, and the day before our first black president is inaugurated, it might be worth pausing to reflect upon jazz as an important step toward racial integration, a generation before the Civil Rights movement milestones of which we normally think. I wrote for (with the help of the Phillips Foundation) immediately after Hurricane Katrina about meeting jazz musician Jack Fine, who said he was old enough to remember thinking that the obvious lesson of jazz, that good things can come from breaking down ethnic barriers and creating hybrid art, will not be lost on the public. He expected things to change faster than they did, powered by that music.

3. On a Louisiana musical note of a different sort, Lesley Kane (wife of Kevin Kane, founder of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, which I hope will provide plenty of market-oriented ideas to my fellow 90s Brown graduate, Gov. Bobby Jindal) alerted me to this song by the band the Times about Patrick McGoohan, whose death I noted last week (and who was also admired by Jacob Levy, the fellow nerd about whom I wrote two days later). It is amazing the lengths the band went to to recreate the show.

4. I always thought Lesley looked a lot like my friend who sometimes comments here under the handle Xine — and who most recently did so to explain why girlfriend Helen Rittelmeyer and I might have somewhat opposing yet equally positive views of punk. This has prompted Helen to reply with an entry on her blog called “‘Conservatism for Punks’ for Punks,” defending her brutal, tribalistic view of the musical genre (as opposed to my individualistic one). I wonder, sometimes, if the sorts of things that typically cause Helen to declare something conservative — such as embracing suffering, violence, and intense rule-adherence — would even be recognizable as conservatism by most conservatives. I can’t picture Buckley in a mosh pit. (If Helen weren’t so lovely, I’d be scared sometimes. But she also makes brilliant suggestions like us being Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi from Ghost World the next time we have a costume party to go to.)

Perhaps America has lost so much social cohesion in recent decades, though, that the twentysomethings now sense a bit of conservatism in anything that reasserts strong group identity — admittedly not my first concern when I was a TV-watching, mall-going, comic-book-reading semi-loner and loving it.

5. On a strange related note, it was twelve long years ago, while doing research for the same Phillips Foundation project that sent me to New Orleans, that I phone-interviewed a smart seventeen-year-old “straightedge” punk from New Brunswick, NJ (straightedge being a subculture that avoids excesses such as alcohol, drugs, and sex) and asked him whether he thought he might actually turn into a conservative someday. He sounded a bit skeptical.

About a decade later, I met a bespectacled, elbow-patches-bearing Ph.D. student interested in political philosophy named Sam Goldman, who now blogs at the conservative site Culture11’s Postmodern Conservative blog, along with Helen. Only after Sam and I had contact numerous times (via theatre guy Richard Ryan) did I hear one of Sam’s friends refer to their punk days back in New Brunswick, leading to the revelation that, yes, my interviewee had grown into a serious scholar, full of talk about Rousseau, Leo Strauss, Kant, and the like. Shortly after I informed Sam that we’d had contact during his previous incarnation and that re-meeting him today I’d never have imagined he’d once been a punk, let alone the punk I spoke to, I saw him and his friend, reminiscing, bump fists and utter the slogan “No gods, no masters.” Huh. Small world.

6. He is no relation to Jasmine Goldman, whose birthday gathering I mentioned in the more recent of the Book Selections entries linked above, but I’d like to take this opportunity to mention that another reveler that night, Lisa Speer, looks a bit like Molly Ringwald, and this was confirmed once in the best way possible: not by one more person coming up to Lisa and telling her she looks like Ringwald but by friends of Lisa who accidentally walked up to Ringwald on the street once and started talking to her, thinking it was Lisa. That has to be disorienting for a celebrity.

7. I will think of both Lisa and Molly while watching Pretty in Pink, one of the old VHS tapes I bought cheap from the library across the street a few days ago, along with the Paul Verhoeven classics RoboCop and Total Recall, plus Drunken Master, Fight Club, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Jerk, and, speaking of birthdays, the suicidally-dark Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore. And that’s right, despite having been a teen in the 80s and proud of it, I have never seen Pretty in Pink. Nor St. Elmo’s Fire, Top Gun, Karate Kid, Flashdance, Fame, or any of the six Rocky films — and there are indeed six of them. Oddly, though, the names of Rocky’s opponents are burned into my brain.

8. The editor of the aforementioned PomoCon blog is James Poulos, and though he’s plainly very intelligent, I’m often amused by how abstract the issues that move him are, especially anytime Kant comes up, which always means a journey through engagement with manifolds of consciousness instantiated by our mediation of material social contexts and so forth.

Hitting slightly closer to home for those with my relatively earthy, pragmatic interests, PomoCon bloggers Hancock and Poulos have both been denouncing as naive efforts to render politics culturally “neutral” — to which I’ll just say briefly that neutrality, like perfect objectivity, may be impossible, but intellectually honest people know when they’re dealing with partisans who aren’t even trying.

The idea behind the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution (one of the documents I hope people calling themselves conservatives these days are still keen to conserve) or simple, dry, consistently-enforced rules like property — or for that matter democratic voting — is to avoid one cultural faction getting a big, arbitrary leg up over others. It’s not perfect, but surely, for example, even non-liberal people who sneer at the idea of neutrality can spot one item in this list of hypothetical laws that doesn’t belong here or is at least markedly different:

–Theft will be punished.
–Assault will be punished.
–Roads will be maintained.
–No one will be allowed to starve.
–A democratic legislature will settle outstanding disputes.
–Eighteen shall be considered the age of majority.
–French-descended people will be forced to dance in the public square and to explain to all who gather why the French are filthy and impure, unless the French renounce their gods, whereas Italian-Americans shall get free beer.

9. And though Poulos’s arguments about Kant have little to do with music, years ago I met Joel Krueger, who reviewed techno music, likening the trance effects of one album to reading Kant — tempting me and then-co-worker Ted Balaker, Joel’s friend, to consider sending Joel a recording of the rhythmic, mechanical sound of the office photocopier, to see if it at least evoked reading Hume or something. (Techno is wrong.)

10. But tomorrow, Inauguration Day, the only music that matters is “Yes We Can,” by which I mean, of course, the single by that title by the currently incarcerated Boy George, a song which his Wikipedia entry says reached #1 in Slovenia. And so the world gets still smaller.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Old New Deal


Cheap by comparison with Obama’s stimulus spending plans, the original New Deal remains something about which many people are more enthusiastic than they are about the sort of radical capitalist vision I discussed yesterday. Adam Cohen of the New York Times even wrote a ludicrous editorial recently lamenting that the problem with the New Deal (contrary to what those pesky free-market revisionists say) was that it didn’t spend enough.

Luckily, we have things like this half-hour video in which historian David Kennedy, economist Lee Ohanian, and others take a more sober look at the New Deal and why happy days weren’t there again. (Economist Don Boudreaux suggests taking note of David Kennedy’s twist in the video on Naomi Klein’s paranoia about free-market “shock doctrine” tactics.)

If you prefer NPR, though, my friend Diana Fleischman (who you will hear about again during my “Month of Evolution” next month) notes two recent NPR stories of interest: one about a fairly-libertarian suburb giving tax money back to residents and one about Joe the Plumber becoming an Iraq correspondent for Pajamas Media — the coolest thing the underestimated Joe’s done since recommending the public read libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises, a reminder the populists really do know more than the elite sometimes. (Now if only Pajamas Media responded to my inquiry about whether there’s any way to watch my own most recent appearance without paying them $14 a month — if not, I begin to suspect what their business model is and predict they will have many, many guests on.)

And speaking of conservative online media: tomorrow, a few notes about some of the bloggers at Culture11 (including girlfriend Helen Rittelmeyer), combined with an observation about jazz and race, just in time for Martin Luther King Day.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Property: Tough Cases


Even an anarcho-capitalist system (that is, a system of law without government) would presumably have (private) courts that generated a body of (solely property-based) common law, through judges’ decisions and quasi-jurisdictional negotiations between private protection agencies.  There would be an ongoing, evolving, traditional, precedent-based system for addressing ambiguous cases.  The person desiring a law code based on strict property rights need not have the answer to every tough question (how many decibels constitute noise pollution?) worked out in advance, as if by some simple divine geometry.  (And, heck, if we’re instead talking about a minimal but still-existent government — sometimes called minarchism, or simply “how the U.S. started” — then presumably it’s the legislature’s problem if there’s really widespread social tension over an issue.)

Even the dean of anarcho-capitalist theorists, Milton Friedman’s more-radical son David Friedman, being a utilitarian, acknowledges that there are (so to speak) commons that are not worth the effort (at least yet) to privatize.  If we all get the use of the Sun without any need to worry about anyone being excluded or our use depleting it, there’s little point in trying to carve it up — ditto the Moon if the moon is only being “used” in the sense that we’re all receiving light from it.

By contrast, once the Moon starts to be used as land, I would most heartily recommend that we allow people to stake claims to it, as they demonstrate some capacity to make use of it (or even simply because they got to it first — another ambiguity that can be worked out by evolving common law, as it has been upon the discovery of new islands and atolls in the past).  Luckily, the best rock video of the 1990s revealed the Moon’s inhabitants to us, so we know what to expect when our steampunk astromen get there.

In principle, the Sun might one day warrant similar carving up, if human technology so advances that we might get into disputes over who is allowed to use which solar flare for joyriding (using our antigrav solar-surfing suits made of neutron star metal).  Let me add that by the time we reach that point, it is highly unlikely, of course, that any poor people will be so starved for lighting/warmth tech that there is danger of them being left out in the cold in all this.

(When I hoped in an earlier entry for the privatization of the entire universe, I really meant “assuming it is our long-term destiny to fill the entire cosmos with humans or a human presence” — the ultimate happy ending from my perspective and perhaps a nightmare to green fundamentalists.  Of course, we could well become energy beings with no concern for physical space constraints by then — or be destroyed in fifteen years by a simultaneous combo of peak oil, ice age, civilization-crippling global warming regulations, nuclear terrorism, wheat rust, bee die-offs, and socialism-induced poverty.)


The oceans are a more near-term issue than solar surfing, of course, and while large fluid bodies (such as the atmosphere) obviously do not lend themselves to carving up as easily as land, there are real advantages to working out some systems of semi-private ownership in the oceans and the fish within them.  In fact, one of the most urgent environmental problems the planet has — overfishing — is a textbook case of what happens when an unowned, commonly-held resource is raided by lots of well-meaning but inevitably selfish people who each hope to get their share (and feed their families, pay their employees, etc.) before the next guy.  We’d be better off allowing ownership in schools and fishing areas, however imperfect from a theoretical standpoint that might sound as “pieces of property,” than wringing our hands and spouting green slogans over the ongoing depletion.  (Concern over these sorts of issues is why the free-market environmentalist movement deserves to be treated as a real political entity distinct from simply the greens and the greens’ most dismissive libertarian critics.)

This desire to avoid reckless, combative, short-term use is the basic rationale for all property, really — give people an incentive to invest in the long haul instead of behaving like hyenas.  One of the greatest tragedies in human history may prove to be the anti-property, anti-capitalist impulse in environmental thinking, which dooms so much of the Earth and its resources to the inefficient, less-well-maintained status of the commons.  The worst environmental problems occur in commons and on public property, not private land (one of the most dangerous combos being public land temporarily opened to private users with no incentive toward long-term stewardship — consider “cost-free” roads built at taxpayer expense into public forests for the benefit of private loggers who aren’t sure they’ll be permitted to log in the distant future).


But there are tough cases that will remain tough under most any law code, for reasons having little to do with property — and I think it’s important to avoid faulting property advocates any more than, say, democracy advocates, for being unsure how to handle some cases (such as the rights of children or animals, if any).  Some examples from just the past few days, simply because they intrigue me:

•Should a man be punished for beating a bird that tries to take his ice cream?

•Should we take a more warlike attitude toward the Canadian geese at LaGuardia Airport, whose martyr mission on Thursday sent a passenger jet into the Hudson River mere blocks south of my office?  (Even some of my vegan friends might say yes in this case, I’m guessing/hoping.)

•Speaking of trouble from Canada (by which I don’t mean Jacob Levy, star of yesterday’s entry), shouldn’t a Canadian dad be allowed to ground his daughter, or was a judge right to intervene?  (My thanks to father-of-two Michel Evanchik for pointing that one out — and as a France-influenced citizen of the States, he’s a bit like a Canadian dad himself.)

•And, though it may prove to be nothing out of the ordinary, why exactly did that Nazi couple have their children (with Nazi-inspired names) taken away by the state?  Now, it would hardly be surprising if Nazi parents had done something violent or crazy — they’re Nazis, after all — but simply having horrible beliefs and naming their children accordingly had better not be the reason.  (As cowboy-hatted lawyer Gerry Spence said in a wittily-titled Liberty article a decade and a half ago about his defense of racist gun-owner Randy Weaver, “First They Came for the Fascists…”)

Anyway, long story short: though I was recently accused of just pounding the table and saying “Property, property!” over and over, I hope it’s apparent I don’t think all of life’s tricky questions vanish under a property regime — they just get a bit clearer and easier to resolve in a fashion that likely fosters efficiency and happiness while minimizing struggle (any effort to make libertarianism “thicker” should, therefore, take care that it does not make settling legal questions more complex a task instead of less complex a task — and all ideologues should treat history and the present, with their limited political possibilities, as important context, of course).

The default assumption in favor of property’s a good place to start, though (and I do not mean treat property as a starting assumption philosophically, which would be cheating — on the contrary, I see it as a reasonable conclusion drawn from history, direct observation, and a lot of econ).  With a new presidential administration beginning in a few days, perhaps it’s a good time to begin the whole conversation anew — clearly there isn’t much faith in markets to complacently “conserve” at this point in history, as we watch banks nationalized and trillion-dollar “stimulus” bills readied.  If that sounds a bit humbler than issuing a manifesto, that’s all right (though I should issue one of those someday soon, too).

P.S. Oh, and there are some cases that should make it very, very easy to recognize that politicians are a menace to the common people, as when Jersey City Councilman Steven Lipski recently urinated all over a crowd of Grateful Dead fans while drunk.  Sounds like he’s destined for Congress, given how much time members of Congress spend being arrested for various crimes and dodging drinking-and-driving arrests with the help of the pliant Capitol Hill Police.  Viva democracy, government fans!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Jacob Levy Will Teach You All


Like the Phantom Stranger, the comic book superhero about whom he used to maintain a webpage, McGill polisci professor Jacob Levy has multiple origin stories, all of which may be inaccurate, at least as told by me, all perhaps inspired by the deeper truth that he was educated at Brown and Princeton, clashed a bit with some Continental Philosophy types while teaching at University of Chicago, and settled at McGill in Montreal. Or should I say:

•Was he banished from his home country to become the Wandering Jew?

•Is he the science-loving survivor of a previous universe, possibly a pariah?

•Is he a being of great power who refused to side with either faction in a great war (perhaps left and right, or perhaps the armies of Satan and Yahweh)?

•Did he lose his original religious faith, later being reanimated to serve good?

•Might he be an entity born in the timestream through a fusion of extraterrestrial might, ancient ideals of peace, and a grim sense of vigilante justice?

•Is he humanity’s first wielder of arcane forces a la Lovecraft?

•Perhaps the forbidden spawn of right-wing and left-wing coupling?

We may never know for sure, but at this time of crisis, this halfway point in the Month of Liberty (i.e., Property), mere days before Jacob’s fellow University of Chicago veteran Obama is inaugurated as President, I might do well to turn away from the potentially-strident property-only message of the month so far, to examine the subtler ways in which — within the broader liberal tradition that now so clearly dominates both academia and society in general — political ideals informed by but not reducible to property rights are mediated and weighed against other issues and framing narratives. I mean mushier but unavoidable modes of discourse such as constitutionalism, the rights of minorities, parliamentary procedure, due process, etc.

After all, the number of people willing to say property should decide all (or virtually all) legal and political issues is small. Indeed, even within the political movement most closely identified with strict property adherence, libertarianism, readers of this blog have seen how the larger cultural forces of right and left inevitably tug, producing factionalism. Indeed, absent a careful opinion survey (and perhaps even then), I can’t be sure just how many nominal libertarians are now right-leaning in a Ron Paul-like way (loving liberty yet averse to illegal immigration, etc.), how many are left-leaning (seeing drugs or free-spirited sexual attitudes as priorities perhaps as high as or higher than free trade or complete abolition of the welfare state), and how many are sticking to the simple “culturally-neutral” (to oversimplify) promotion of basic econ, budget cuts, deregulation, etc., which I still think is our safest path. I hope the movement won’t be torn into three portions, with the rightward-pulled and leftward-pulled factions largely dissolved unnoticed into their respective attractors — or exhausted by fighting each other, antiglobalists on one side and neo-hippies on the other.


But Jacob has long resisted the left-vs.-right narrative, at times to my frustration but perhaps wisely. For a sampling of the sorts of things he focuses on instead, this year you might check out his article about the importance of analytically separating legal constitutionalism from (largely-fictional) social-contractarian popular philosophical consensus, or his upcoming McGill talk about Lost and why it makes reference to figures like Locke and Bentham, or his impending talk to the Federal Bar Association about laws affecting Native Americans — or, eventually, his books on pluralism and federalism to add to the already-existing book Multiculturalism of Fear.

Given his interest in truce-like social compacts between factions or ethnic groups (rather than the likely-doomed Enlightenment rationalist dream of near-unanimous philosophical agreement), it is little wonder he liked the short-lived but popular and acclaimed comic book series Green Lantern: Mosaic, in which alien refugees from multiple worlds had to learn coexistence as fellow citizens of the planet Oa — until DC pulled the plug on the series (despite its popularity), admitting that it didn’t fit into the solo Green Lantern plans they had at the time — which means that in some sense then-new Green Lantern Kyle Rayner destroyed the Mosaic World even before he literally destroyed the Mosaic World (temporarily putting the most prominent black Green Lantern out of a job in the process).

It may seem inappropriate to go on about Green Lantern like this, but keep in mind Jacob and I were among those who wore Legion of Super-Heroes flight rings — like those glimpsed on a fun Smallville last night — to our friend Ali Kokmen’s wedding. And you can’t always easily separate the politics geek from the comics geek, as many of my readers know. Surely Jacob’s resentment of the X-Men character Gambit is born partly of the fact that Gambit is at times supposed to be a loveable and heroic thief, and thus a chronic property rights violator (I avoid “heist” movies on principle myself). Jacob should take heart, though, from the fact that Gambit seems to be cast in the role of one of the villains in May’s Wolverine movie.


In a spirit of pluralism and compromise, I should note that comments are now active on Jacob’s blog, and that fittingly he just posted an entry noting a West Coast version of that East Coast panel on liberal-libertarian commonalities that he was on in October, which helped inspire my Month of Feminism and this Month of Liberty (i.e., Property). (As I’ve said before, if I sounded like the narrow one at times, it was really out of a desire to avoid seeing a potentially-simpler libertarianism contorted into unnecessarily specific shapes.) I will also exhibit moderation, if all goes according to schedule, by using the next few days on this blog for the less-right-wing purposes of (1) acknowledging some tricky cases for a property philosophy, (2) recommending an NPR piece, (3) admiring jazz, and (4) marking the Obama inauguration.

Let no one think, though, that I have ceased to believe, in essence, that property rights not only are the best means of settling social conflicts but, on a more intellectual level, hold out the hope of creating, someday, a language in which social conflicts can be discussed that beneficially displaces much of the language of politics and social philosophy we now know, possibly leading to the junking of much of what currently goes on in polisci classes, women’s studies programs, the halls of Congress, and newspaper editorial pages — where people without the conflict-settling tool of property flail about in search of other, far messier and far less efficiency-enhancing weapons with which to beat back their opponents: democracy-invoking speeches, claims about “autonomy” or “cultural integrity,” ostensible messages from God, what have you. It never ends, and most people are left on the sidelines to watch the intellectuals (or just the good talkers) duke it out and determine everyone else’s destinies, possibly while boring them to death. Far better a culture in which each person can say, with as much authority as any senator or professor, “Get your garbage off my damn lawn.”

Or to put it in terms simple enough for comic books yet no doubt appreciable by at least one polisci professor as well (Jacob did once win an online contest of Robert George’s by identifying a Jack Kirby character, after all): if authoritarianism is the Anti-Life Equation (as seen in this week’s Final Crisis #6), I still think the Life Equation looks something like this:

avoidance of conflict over resourceses –> property –> liberty –> efficiency –> preference fulfillment –> happiness = morality –> the good

But there are a lot of smart people out there, and maybe they have some better ideas.

P.S. As a gift to Jacob, I will also just note, without naming names or giving details, that I’ve heard one of his critics (the only person I know of who ever accused Jacob of being part of a right-wing attack machine), New York Times “ethicist” Randy Cohen (who was a comedy writer before getting that rather high-faluting position) is an unpleasant jerk who treats women badly. This should come as no surprise, as what publicly passes for morality and political insight these days is often an indicator of bad character.

P.P.S. To embarrass Jacob, though, I also have to mention that his two worlds once fused in what may be the most nerdy typo of all time: On, he referred (in typically serious and erudite fashion) to the Landsraad when he meant to refer to the Bundesrat, the latter being the German upper parliament and the former being the governing body in Dune. I almost envy him the neural pathways that led to that mix-up, though they are much like my own in some ways.

(On a vaguely related note, check out anarchist blogger Michael Malice’s latest batch of embarrassingly real old comics panels. I wonder if he and Jacob both saw the Legion on Smallville last night.)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Inflatable Ape Against the Machine


Yesterday, as my last four blog entries show, was a brutal orgy of death, bringing news (or remembrance) of the passing of Fr. Richard Neuhaus, Patrick McGoohan (a model of stoic yet smirking rationalism for me as a teen), Ricardo Montalban, and (in fiction) Bruce Wayne, not to mention my credibility as a blogger, since I think I attributed to Jesse Walker an anti-GOP article written by someone else — and had to be corrected on some details about Neuhaus by Jesse’s fellow Reasoner Brian Doherty (this mere days after vowing on this blog not to criticize Reason’s Kerry Howley and her fiance Will Wilkinson anymore and thus thinking myself a beacon of good will toward Reason).

As a sort of compensation to the Reason crowd — and an affirmation of life in this dark time — I hereby link to the newly-produced video version of a story I loved since it was first mentioned as a Brickbats item in print in Reason magazine long ago: the story of an inflatable ape fighting back against ludicrous anti-inflatable ape regulations. (As if primates didn’t have enough problems fending off boring boss Bob and Robot.)

But some would argue that an illegal inflatable ape is not a subtle enough argument to deal with all possible objections to a property-based regime. Indeed, some would argue that property itself does not gleam with a self-evident clarity as a moral-political ideal beside which others appear unworkably muddled or arbitrary (community, religious sentiment, majority rules, hereditary monarchy, aristocracy, the Kennedys, etc.). To make clearer those things that are inevitably (even if unfairly) viewed as complex and baffling, humans instituted amongst themselves the thing called academia, where some wrestle with political science, philosophy, law, and other means of navigating messy and conflict-riddled human interrelations.

And so tomorrow, instead of an inflatable ape, I take a look at polisci professor Jacob T. Levy.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bruce Wayne (1939-2009)


*I mean in fiction, not any beloved actors.

Ricardo Montalban (1920-2009)


Patrick McGoohan (1929-2009)


He played boxers, a gay priest, an evil scientist in Scanners, and an evil king in Braveheart, but Patrick McGoohan was best known for playing No. 6 in The Prisoner, a character who may or may not have been the same character he played in the earlier series Danger Man (a.k.a. Secret Agent, whence the great title song “Secret Agent Man”). Though my friend Christine Caldwell Ames once dismissed The Prisoner as “the libertarian Gilligan’s Island,” since it depicts repeated, failed escape attempts by a resigned secret agent trapped in a surreal island prison called the Village, the show was markedly stranger and more intelligent than almost anything else on television, and its concluding episodes — including a trial conducted by masked officials representing “Nationalism” and other collectivist impulses, a machine gun battle set to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” rocket launches, and semi-improvised absurdist dialogue — are among the strangest hours I’ve ever seen on television, up there with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

McGoohan was reportedly influenced by the surrealist G.K. Chesterton novel The Man Who Was Thursday, and his Queens/Ireland/England upbringing seems to have left McGoohan with a sense of both absurdism and moral outrage, something any intelligent libertarian can appreciate (and any rational person trapped in an insane situation). It led to episode plots that should, ideally, cause people to rethink some of their most basic political assumptions, as when No. 6 is told that despite his complaints he is in fact free — because the Village is a democracy, you see, and he’s even allowed to run for office. Who needs escape when you have democracy, after all? One big happy family.

Parodied on The Simpsons at surprising length (for a relatively obscure, old show) with McGoohan doing the voiceover, The Prisoner gave us ambiguous catch phrases such as “Be seeing you” (the standard farewell in the Panopticon-like Village) and “I am not a number, I am a free man!” — which became part of the recurring opening sequence. His most memorable speech may well have been inspired by the same anarchist philosopher who inspired the title of this month’s Debate at Lolita Bar (“Is Intellectual Property Theft?”), by the way. No. 6 says “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own.” In a similar vein, Proudhon wrote (as one of the debate participants reminded me):

To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.

Precisely. Would that Proudhon had seen property as an alternative. No one’s perfect.