In a Blog’s Stead
Archives: March 2003

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Interim Report

As of this coming Saturday I’m off to Calgary (to visit friends) and San Francisco (for the Pacific APA). Not wanting to leave my eager readers with nothing to read during my week-long absence, I post the following links.

My paper R. G. Collingwood: Praxeologist or Historicist?, delivered at the last Austrian Scholars Conference, is now online.

In my February 16 posting, “Fighting Words,” I linked to the first three installments of my friend Chris Sciabarra’s valuable series of posts on why Randians should be against the Iraq war. Here now are the fourth, fifth, and sixth installments.

Here’s a 1964 article by Murray Rothbard on The Anti-War, Anti-State Right, explaining how the American Right moved from anti-militarism to militarism.

Finally, in connection with my March 17 posting, “Disentangling Alliances,” check out this excellent video file of my friend Gene Callahan advocating the right of individual secession. Or try the (slightly different) text version.

Farewell till April.

Salamu iwe juu yenu,

Roderick T. Long

Posted March 20th, 2003



Aid and Comfort

Today is a happy day for Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden has had two goals for a long time. One is to oust Saddam Hussein from power; Hussein’s Westernised, secularist régime has been a major factor in suppressing the forces of militant Islamic fundamentalism, and bin Laden has made no secret of the fact that he desires Hussein’s overthrow. (President Bush’s fantasy that Hussein might give weapons of mass destruction to his deadly enemy bin Laden is truly surreal.) The other is to unite the Islamic world against the United States.

Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which began last night, seems likely to accomplish the first goal. And by engaging in such an arrogant and unprovoked act of imperial aggression, Bush’s action contributes to the second goal as well.

If al-Qaeda were to take Hussein out itself, that would accomplish the first goal, but in such a way as to frustrate the second; violence between al-Qaeda and Hussein would weaken Islamic unity, not strengthen it. By getting Bush to do his dirty work for him, bin Laden can gleefully watch Hussein fall while making sure the Great Satan gets the blame: the American invasion of Iraq simultaneously wins bin Laden more allies in the Muslim world, and dissolves the Iraqi state, bin Laden’s enemy, into civil war. Bush thus proves himself a “useful idiot” for al-Qaeda, unwittingly playing Count Dooku to bin Laden’s Palpatine. (This is a reference to the plot of Star Wars Episode II, which turns out, whatever its artistic failings, to be a depressingly reliable guide to geopolitics.)

In his televised speech last night, President Bush referred to Iraq as “an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.” By initiating a pre-emptive strike against a country that has never harmed the U.S. (except in self-defense), and by openly scorning the institutions of international law, Bush has made the United States look to most of the world like “an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.” This is exactly how bin Laden views the U.S., and how he wants others, particularly in the Islamic world, to view it. Bin Laden wrote the script, and his dupe, George Bush, played his role perfectly. Bin Laden painted the “BOMB ME” sign, and Bush obediently hung it around the necks of the American people.

If Bush had deliberately danced to bin Laden’s tune, it would be high treason. What is the right term for it when it is done out of stupidity instead? Well, whatever we should call it, it is clear grounds for impeachment.

Posted March 20th, 2003



Disentangling Alliances

It now seems virtually certain that President Bush will indeed be plunging the United States into a suicidal Middle Eastern war within a matter of days.

The likely result will be a dramatic increase in acts of terrorism against the United States. Bush’s bizarre and unprovoked assault on Iraq, in defiance of a horrified and outraged world, is the best recruiting tool al-Qaeda could ever have hoped for. Bush’s decision evinces a reckless disregard, not only for innocent Iraqi lives, but for innocent American lives as well. I would not be surprised to see suicide bombings become a daily reality in the U.S., as they have been for some time in Israel.

Is there any way that Americans can protect themselves against the horror that Bush’s actions threaten to unleash upon them? Yes, there is. The answer is: secession.

Terrorists are, by their nature, collectivist-minded. Only a collectivist would slaughter the innocent members of a group in order to punish the guilty members. The terrorists’ quarrel is with a political entity known as the United States of America. Let us withdraw from association with that entity and repudiate the actions of its leaders.

This may sound like an unrealistic proposal right now. Given what it would take to make it a realistic proposal, there’s a sense in which I hope it reamins unrealistic. But if Bush’s war results in the kind of massive wave of terrorism on U.S. soil that I fear is all too likely, we libertarians should stand ready to point to secession as an increasingly viable and attractive solution. (For libertarian source materials on secession, see and the Libertarian Nation Foundation.)

In his 1796 Farewell Address, President George Washington asked: “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?” In every region of the U.S., American citizens should now be asking themselves: Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of the United States, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of American ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?

Posted March 17th, 2003



A Double Standard?

In response to my January 26 posting “An Open Letter to Osama bin Laden,” Free Rabeman writes:

I feel sorry to say that while the arguments would have been proper within a discussion between libertarians only, such a letter supposed to be addressed to one of the most evil criminal in this world and history is an absolute outrage.

Such a letter can not pass the test of a Randian analysis. Never mind, many libertarians hate Ayn Rand and dismiss her as a collectivist.

To tell Bin Laden that he has become Dubya, that would be equating Pol Pot to Nixon.

Nice and accurate!

Libertarians (and I am one of those) well know that when individual rights are not respected, they must be enforced. Self defense applies to anyone attacked including those not attacked but acting on behalf of the victims.

The only proper way and truly libertarian avenue to deal with Bin Laden is to bring him to justice, dead or alive, and to make him pay as a compensation for his crimes or if you wish a compensation for the lost properties.

This means the use of force and not an attempt to persuade.

But you do not understand that. You would agree that a robber should be punished and pay, but curiously, when that criminal is a charismatic leader, he deserved to be talked to or written to.

If charismatic leaders are to be treated by you differently than ordinary thugs, I have to conclude that you are collectivist minded.

Disguting [sic] yours,

Free Rabeman
Mr. Rabeman complains that I treat bin Laden differently from the way I would treat an ordinary criminal – that I would advocate force against an ordinary criminal, whereas I attempt to persuade bin Laden. Well, for starters, if Mr. Rabeman really believes that my letter was an attempt to persuade Osama bin Laden, he needs to develop a more sensitive ear for literary conventions. Bin Laden is obviously not going to read my open letter, a fact from which an attentive reader might have inferred that bin Laden was not its intended audience.

But do I think it would be wrong to attempt to persuade bin Laden, should such a thing be possible? No, of course not. If a criminal can be stopped by persuasion, then one should employ persuasion. If a criminal can be stopped only by force, then one should employ force. If I could convince muggers and mafiosos to change their ways, I would do it. If I could convince the dictators and terrorists of the world to change their ways, I would do that too. If instead I could forcibly arrest all those people – muggers and mafiosos, dictators and terrorists – and force them to pay compensation to their victims, then I would do that. As libertarians, we must consider most of our elected representatives to be criminals, but on October 7 I wrote an open letter to them too. Why didn’t Mr. Rabeman chide me for engaging in dialogue with them?

Mr. Rabeman accuses me of dividing rights-violators into two classes: “charismatic leaders,” to be persuaded, and “ordinary thugs,” to be forcibly compelled. But I do not. I regard both groups as proper objects of persuasion when possible and compulsion when necessary. It is rather Mr. Rabeman who divides rights-violators into these two classes.

That Mr. Rabeman commits the very error of which he mistakenly accuses me is clear from his criticism of my equating Bush with bin Laden, which he says is like equating Nixon with Pol Pot. What exactly is the problem? Nixon and Pol Pot were both mass murderers. (Which of the two killed more innocent Cambodians is a still-debated question.) Bin Laden is another mass murderer. Bush is about to engage in his own campaign of mass murder. Of course I equate them. To be sure, Bush has grievances; so does bin Laden. Bin Laden’s grievances do not justify his assaults upon the innocent; neither do Bush’s. If there are interesting moral differences between Nixon and Pol Pot, or between Bush and bin Laden, I look forward to learning from Mr. Rabeman what they are. Until he does, I can only assume that, in his eyes, some mass murderers are more equal than others.

George W. Bush and his fellow thugs are on the verge on unleashing upon the innocent people of Iraq the same kind of destructive violence that bin Laden and his fellow thugs unleashed on the innocent people of Manhattan. Mr. Rabeman seems to think I should regard one of these men, but not the other, as an inhuman monster beyond the realm of civilised dialogue. But he doesn’t explain why; he leaves us to guess. Could it be because President Bush is the “duly elected leader” of our country? If that’s the answer, then it is Mr. Rabeman who is “collectivist minded.”

Posted March 17th, 2003



The Very Idea

On the topic of my February 27 posting, “Satanic Epistemology?”: here’s another try at the point I was trying to make.

Is conceptual structure found or made? Three positions are initially salient. First, one might assume that concepts are the product of rational thought; they are a way of imposing conceptual structure on the nonconceptual content of sense-experience. This is a natural way of interpreting Rand’s account of concepts:

On this view, the external world is not conceptually structured, and our sensory contact with the world is not conceptually structured either; concepts come in only when we seek to translate our sense-experience into articulate judgments. (Randian philosopher David Kelley has long and ably defended something like this picture in The Evidence of the Senses, A Theory of Abstraction, and Evidence and Justification.)

It might instead be maintained that sense-experience must come conceptually structured already in order to have any content at all. This position comes in two forms. In one version, the world in itself is not conceptually structured, but when that world causally impinges on our sensory organs, our sense-experience is the result of innate conceptual structures being applied to raw stimuli. This position is sometimes attributed to Kant:

In the other version, sense-experience comes conceptually structured because the world that causes it is conceptually structured as well. This position has been attributed to Hegel, and something like it is defended by the “objective idealists” whom Scott Ryan and Bob Wallace champion as an alternative to Rand.

When I claim that the choice between nominalism and conceptual realism is a false dichotomy, what I mean is that none of the three positions I’ve just sketched quite makes sense. All three approaches represent an attempt to view the relation between thought and reality from what John McDowell calls a view from sideways on – i.e., they’re attempts to peek out from behind our concepts to see what the world is like without them. (See McDowell’s excellent book Mind and World.) But this we cannot do; the only way we can ever view the world is head-on. Take any of the three diagrams I've provided and place yourself in the position of the observer (symbolised by the eye), looking through the conceptual-thought frame at the sense-experience frame and the world beyond it; what you see will be this:

We cannot view the world except through the lens of sense-experience, and we cannot think about sense-experience except through of the lens of our concepts. It’s tempting to want to flip the picture sideways and “see” what the world looks like apart from our concepts; but this would involve taking a stand somewhere outside our own cognitive perspective, which is impossible.

It’s important to see that this is not a skeptical point. The problem isn’t that we, trapped behind our conceptual lens, can’t find out whether the world is conceptual in its own right or not:

For that is a sideways-on view too. Taking a sideways-on view and making parts of it fuzzy doesn’t make it any less a sideways-on view. The problem is with the camera angle, not with the content. To complain that our means of awareness is an obstacle to awareness is to fall into the very confusion that Rand rightly mocked as maintaining that “man is blind, because he has eyes – deaf, because he has ears – deluded, because he has a mind.”

It’s not that we can’t find out what things are like apart from our concepts; it’s not primarily an epistemological problem. Rather, the problem is a logical one: we can’t coherently describe what it is we’re supposedly trying to find out, since all description is conceptual. There is no nonconceptual vantage point from which to describe the world; it’s not just that we can’t get to such a vantage point, but rather that there’s no such point to get to.

Hegelians have used precisely this argument against the views I’m calling “Kantian” and “Randian,” but the argument is just as fatal to the “Hegelian” view itself. The “Hegelian” view asserts what the “Kantian” and “Randian” views deny, but both assertion and denial are made from a standpoint that cannot be occupied.

As Wittgenstein writes:

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. ...
Logic fills the world: the limits of the world are also its limits.
We cannot therefore say in logic: This and this there is in the world, that there is not.
For that would apparently presuppose that we exclude certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case since otherwise logic must get outside the limits of the world: that is, if it could consider these limits from the other side also.
What we cannot think, that we cannot think: we cannot therefore say what we cannot think.
(Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 5.6-5.61.)
Now a defender of Hegel might say: “Look, the view you attack as ‘Hegelian’ isn’t Hegelian at all. Hegel’s real view is just the one you call the head-on view. So you’re really defending objective idealism.” To such a defender I would reply: Fine, if this is what you propose to mean by “objective idealism,” then by all means go ahead, and we can all get along; but be careful not to slide into the sideways-on version of the view. And I worry that the fact that you want to call this idealism is a symptom of the sideways-on temptation. You want to say, “Look, the world isn’t just formless chaos – it’s got conceptual structure built right into it!” But what do you mean – what can you mean – by “formless chaos”? What is it that you’re denying? It’s as though you want to say “I’ve set aside my conceptual goggles and looked at the place where I might have seen formless chaos, had it been there to see, but behold, I saw conceptual structure instead!” – as though the applicability of concepts to reality were a substantive discovery. But what has been discovered? That reality is this way rather than that? When “that” is something nonconceptual, this amounts to saying that reality is this way rather than ... rather than what? If you can’t complete the sentence without transgressing the limits of conceptual coherence, what exactly are you asserting?

As to what Hegel himself meant, I claim no expertise in Hegel exegesis; that’s one of the reasons I’ve been putting the adjective “Hegelian” in scare-quotes. Note, however, that Kantians and Randians have just as good grounds for making an analogous objection. (This is another example of my claim that the most sophisticated parties to this dispute have always been groping for a way of transcending the terms of the dispute itself.)

The point I’ve been making – that we cannot take up a standpoint outside of our conceptual perspective and describe the world as it is “in itself” – is, it may be objected, no objection to Kant, because it is precisely Kant himself who most famously and forcefully urged this very point. I think this objection is half right. As Peter Strawson points out in his book The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Kant himself vacillated between a logical and a metaphysical interpretation of what he was doing: on the logical interpretation, Kant’s view is simply the head-on view; on the metaphysical interpretation, Kant’s view is some amalgam of the “Kantian” and “Skeptical” views. For Strawson, the logical interpretation represents Kant’s core insight, while the metaphysical interpretation is an unfortunate accretion best jettisoned. If the Kantian is happy to stick to the austere logical interpretation, and resist the temptation to peek at it sideways on, then I’m happy to call my viewpoint a Kantian one.

But now we have to ask whether the “Randian” view is a fair representation of Rand’s own position. Certainly she says things that suggest the “Randian” view, just as Kant and Hegel say things that suggest the “Kantian” and “Hegelian” views respectively. (Even McDowell, my muse for this posting, sometimes uses wording suggestive of the “Hegelian” rather than the head-on view.) But is that the whole story? Rand insists that she wants to reject the view that conceptual structure must be either an intrinsic feature of reality apart from consciousness or a subjective feature of consciousness apart from reality. Rather, conceptual structure is what she calls objective, meaning that it applies to reality as viewed from the standpoint of consciousness. Now this can be taken in either the “Randian” or the “head-on” way; and I think Rand actually vacillates between the two, in much the same way that Kant vacillates between the logical and metaphysical interpretations of his own project. But just as Strawson maintains that the logical interpretation is the most consistent development of Kant’s basic insights, I maintain that the head-on view is the most consistent development of Rand’s basic insights.

An important point to keep in mind concerning Rand’s theory – both sympathisers and critics tend to forget it – is that for Rand concepts are not little pictures in the head to which extramental reality might or might not correspond; rather, concepts are ways in which consciousness deals with existence. (At times, in unconscious affinity with Wittgenstein, she even calls them “rules.”) To ask whether the structure of our concepts does or does not mirror the structure of reality is like asking whether the structure of our hammering technique does or does not “mirror” the structure of the nail. The conceptual realist’s reply, “yes it does,” and the nominalist’s reply, “no it doesn’t,” are both premature, since they both presuppose that a meaningful question has been asked.

Remember, for Rand conceptual awareness is a matter of selective attention; we focus on some features of reality and ignore others. Now given that understanding, what exactly are we asking when we ask whether reality is conceptually structured “apart from” our conceptual awareness? If the question is whether the features we attend to exist in their own right, apart from our attending to them, the answer is surely yes; but that doesn’t seem to settle the issue. What’s really being asked is something like this: are the features we attend to already “picked out” in their own right, before we pick them out? But this question has no determinate meaning. Try to imagine two red apples: in one of them, the apple’s redness is “selected,” apart from any mind doing the selecting; in the other apple it isn’t. Before you can ask which of these situations is the actual one, you have to be able to distinguish the two cases from one another. I submit that there is no coherent distinction involved here, and so the question cannot be asked. Wovon man nicht fragen kann, darüber muss man nicht antworten.

Posted March 8th, 2003



An Open Letter to the Peace Movement

Dear Peace Activists:

All honour to you. In your opposition to the United States’ impending war on Iraq, you represent a welcome voice for sanity and civilisation, lifted up against the incessant baying of the dogs of war.

But I want to urge you to follow the logic of your position just a bit further.

Much has been said, and eloquently so, about the need, in dealings between nation and nation, to choose persuasion over violence whenever possible. Hear, hear!

But why this qualification: between nation and nation?

If persuasion is preferable to violence between nations, must it not also be preferable to violence within nations?

Suppose my neighbour runs a business out of his home, and I’d rather he didn’t. If I call the zoning board and ask them to shut his business down by force, am I acting like a peace activist? Or am I acting like George Bush?

Suppose I go to the polls and vote to maintain or increase income taxation, or gun control, or mandatory licensing, or compulsory education. Am I not calling upon the state to invade people’s lives and properties? To impose my will, by legalised force, on those who have done me no harm? To choose violence over persuasion? Am I acting like a peace activist, or am I acting like George Bush?

As Ludwig von Mises writes:

It is important to remember that government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action. The funds that a government spends for whatever purposes are levied by taxation. And taxes are paid because the taxpayers are afraid of offering resistance to the tax gatherers. They know that any disobedience or resistance is hopeless. As long as this is the state of affairs, the government is able to collect the money that it wants to spend. Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.
To the extent that government initiates force against its people – and every government qua government must do so, since a government that maintained neither coercive taxation nor a coercive territorial monopoly of authority would no longer be a government, but something a good deal more wholesome – every government is waging a war of aggression against its own people. A consistent peace activist must be an anarchist.

It may be objected that in democratic countries, the government represents the will of the citizens; since the citizens are understood to consent to the government’s actions, those actions cannot count as “aggression” against the citizenry. Volenti non fit injuria.

The notion that voting counts in any meaningful sense as “consent” was subjected to devastating criticisms in the 19th century by the English classical liberal Herbert Spencer, in his essay The Right to Ignore the State, as well as by the American abolitionist Lysander Spooner, in his pamphlet No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority. Both works are available online; those tempted to regard majority rule as a form of self-government are invited to consult them.

As peace activists, we understand that aggressive warfare between nations is neither moral nor practical. If violence is to be employed, it must be defensive in nature, and it must be the last resort, not the first. Why would this principle hold good at the international level, but fail at the intranational?

Fellow peace activists: I invite you to join me in the work of the Molinari Institute. The state is the cause and sustainer of war, because the state by its nature is warfare incarnate. Its imperialist aggression beyond its borders is simply an extension of its inherent modus operandi within its borders. There is a peaceful, consensual alternative: Market Anarchism. The object of the Molinari Institute is to see that alternative implemented.

If you love peace, work for anarchy.

Yours in liberty,

Roderick T. Long, President
Molinari Institute

Posted March 7th, 2003



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