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]gmail.com, since he’s starting a political book club.