BUY MY BOOK OR ELSE!  Roderick T. Long

Archives: March 2006

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Happiness in Las Vegas

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Tomorrow I’m off to Las Vegas for the (unluckily monikered) APEE, where I’ll be contributing to a panel on “Happiness: Philosophical and Economic Perspectives.” (Essentially I’ll be trying to defend an Aristotelean conception of happiness on praxeological grounds.) Take a look at the participant list and you’ll see why it would be a bad thing for the libertarian movement if Vegas got nuked over the weekend.

I have more to say about the French situation, but it’ll have to wait until I get back.

In the meantime, check out Charles’ recent rebuttal of a frequent argument against worker-run industry, as well as an interesting discussion of urban vs. agrarian virtues in the comments section of his recent post on immigration.

Posted March 31st, 2006

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Subversion from the Sea

I’m continuing to work my way through some of the lesser-known works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and thought I would comment on the two latest:

Posted March 26th, 2006

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Another Loony Left-Libertarian Screed from Roderick

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

What the current protests in France are about, at least inter alia, is the French government’s proposal to allow employers to fire their workers – a right they’re currently not allowed.

 Agora! Anarchy! Action! It might seem clear which side a libertarian has to be on in this dispute: of course libertarians favour freedom of association, which includes the freedom of either party to exit an employment contract. Thus the new proposal apparently represents a move in the direction of a free market: the government is right, and the protestors are wrong.

But things aren’t quite so simple.

Of course in a free market there would be no legal restrictions (except those contractually agreed to) on an employer’s right to fire an employee. But from the fact that there would be no X in a free society, it doesn’t follow that absolutely any situation will be moved in the direction of freedom simply by removing X. (Compare: from the fact that a healthy person wouldn’t have a pacemaker, it doesn’t follow that the health of anyone who has a pacemaker would be improved by its removal.)

As I recently wrote elsewhere:

Whether something counts as a reduction of restrictions on liberty depends on the context. Remember when Reagan “deregulated” the Savings & Loans – such deregulation could be a good thing under many circumstances, but given that he didn’t remove federal deposit insurance, “deregulation” amounted in that context to an increase of aggression against the taxpayers, licensing the S&Ls to takes greater risks with taxpayers’ money.

So in this case: when government passes laws giving group A unjust privileges over group B, and then passes another law giving B some protection against A, then repealing the second law without repealing the first amounts to increasing A’s unjust privilege over B. Of course a free society would have neither the first nor the second law, but repealing them in the wrong order can actually decrease rather than increase liberty.
Just as deregulating the S&Ls doesn’t count as a move toward liberty if it isn’t accompanied by an end to tax-funded deposit insurance, so in general a removal of restrictions on an entity doesn’t count as a move toward liberty if the entity is still a substantial recipient of government privilege or subsidy. For the more that an entity benefits from government intervention, the closer it comes to being an arm of the State – in which case lifting restrictions on it is, to that extent, lifting restrictions on the State.

As Kevin Carson writes:

[S]ince the state’s intervention, directly or indirectly, has been in the interests of the plutocracy, it matters a great deal which functions of the state should be axed first. The first to go should be those forms of intervention in the market that subsidize economic centralization and the concentration of wealth, reduce the bargaining power of labor, and ensure monopoly returns to the owners of land and capital. The last to go should be those government functions that make the system of class exploitation marginally bearable for labor. In the words of Thomas Knapp of the Democratic Freedom Caucus, that means cutting welfare from the top down, and taxes from the bottom up.
While I don’t agree with Kevin as to what in every case counts as “monopoly returns to the owners of land and capital” (he thinks absentee land ownership is unjust, I don’t – see our exchange on Lockean vs. Tuckerite theories of property rights in the forthcoming issue of JLS), I certainly agree with the general sentiment.

To clarify: the claim is not that we need to favour some restrictions on liberty now in order to gain greater liberty later. There are plenty who’ve held that view, from Marx to Chomsky to Victor Yarros – but not me, comrade. The claim is rather that what would count as lifting a restriction on liberty in one context does not so count in another context.

All this is by way of introduction to fellow left-libertarian blogospheroid Brad Spangler’s letter to the French protestors, which expresses solidarity with their struggle while disambiguating genuine from faux market reform and inviting the protestors to adopt libertarian aims and methods. Of course I had to sign it, since it begins with a quotation from me! (By coincidence, the Rothbard Memorial Lecture I delivered at the ASC last weekend ended with a quote from Brad. The mutualist admiration society continues .... And speaking whichly, congratulations to Wally Conger, another fellow left-libertarian blogospheroid, for being awarded the Karl Hess Club’s 2006 Samuel Edward Konkin III Memorial Chauntecleer. But wasn’t that the name of a play by Ayn Rand’s favourite playwright?)

1968: back by popular demand!

Posted March 25th, 2006

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How Victor Yarros Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the State

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

There is no danger of my finding Anarchism ridiculous and abandoning it.
– Victor S. Yarros, Liberty, 13 August 1887

Victor Yarros, who now parades in the role of a mere observer, was for years
my most active participant in Anarchistic propaganda, – a fact which he is
now at pains to conceal. I once admired him; I now despise him.

– Benjamin R. Tucker, Free Vistas 2 (1937)

Victor Yarros – our mystery philosopher from a few weeks back – was one of the leading figures of 19th-century American anarchism: disciple of Herbert Spencer, populariser of Lysander Spooner, and sometime co-editor of Benjamin Tucker’s periodical Liberty.

In the 20th century, however, Yarros eventually repudiated anarchism in favour of social democracy – becoming an admirer of the policies of Wilson and FDR, waxing enthusiastic about the T.V.A., and apparently even making his peace with the Soviet Union, though he remained skeptical of Marxism. (He also became an adherent to logical positivism, though oddly still combining this with a kind of ethical naturalism à la Spencer. He had already long since repudiated his brief flirtation with Tucker’s Stirnerite egoism in favour of a more Spencerian natural-rights position; for my own take on the Stirnerians-versus-Spencerians controversy, see my blog post Egoism and Anarchy.)

 Victor Yarros I’ve just posted, on the Molinari site, three articles in which Yarros discusses individualist anarchism and explains the origins of his increasing dissatisfaction with it. In Benjamin R. Tucker and Philosophical Anarchism, Yarros gives a somewhat sympathetic account of the position he no longer holds, but in Adventures in the Realm of Ideas he is rather more hostile to Tucker’s ideas, and in The Persistence of Utopian Thinking he extends the same critique inter alia to Albert J. Nock.

Yarros accuses his former anarchist colleagues of “utopianism,” by which he means any attempt to “plan societies and civilizations in complete ignorance of, and indifference to, the human materials and instruments involved.” Yarros’s description is reminiscent of Adam Smith’s portrait of the “man of system,” who “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board,” neglecting to consider that while “the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them,” yet “in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.”

Now this might seem an odd indictment to make of the anarchist, who proposes to leave people alone rather than impose any legislative blueprint on them. But Yarros believes that those who agitate for the abolition of the State have “no conception of human nature as it is.”

Now Yarros is certainly right in condemning attempts to realise a political program without taking into account “[t]ime, place, conditions, [and] realities.” (Chris Sciabarra has likewise offered an excellent critique of this sort of utopianism in his book Total Freedom, where he too suggests that the critique may apply to anarchism – though I should add that Chris’s distance from anarchism, if distance it be, is far shorter than that of Yarros in these essays. My review of Chris’s book will be online eventually, i.e., as soon as I get around to it; in the meantime, see the summary and Chris’s reply.) But are anarchists really guilty of the error in question? Yarros writes:

Of all the possible and impossible Utopias, that of the Philosophical Anarchists is, of course, the most preposterous one. How many persons of the world today can even imagine a society without the State? The first thing people do under pioneering conditions is to organize a government. The first thing people in distress do at any time is to appeal to the State for aid.
Now if all that Yarros means is that most people nowadays are not anarchists, and that converting them to anarchism will likely be a long and difficult process, that’s not news to the anarchists; and merely embracing a long-term program can’t be sufficient to earn one the title of utopian. Nor, despite occasional gestures in this direction, can Yarros really mean that anarchism’s focus on a long-term ideal prevents them from supporting any short-term reformist measures; for he himself notes that the Tuckerites “knew very well that progress toward their goal would be slow,” and “rejoiced in small steps toward their goal” so long as none of these intermediate measures “in any degree extended the sphere of government or compulsion.” And if Yarros means that getting people to accept a stateless social order is not just a long-term but an impossible goal, we may simply point to the evidence collected by libertarian historians (see, e.g., Tom Bell’s bibliographical essay) to demonstrate that such stateless orders have in fact developed frequently through history, including “under pioneering conditions.”

In any case, one fundamental reason for rejecting the charge of utopianism is that the institutions and incentives to which anarchists look as the basis for social order in a stateless future are not imaginary constructions which might or might not work in practice; they are already here and already functioning. Thomas Paine made the point in The Rights of Man:

Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. ... In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.
Or, as Rothbard observed in “The Spooner-Tucker Doctrine: An Economist’s View” (which is scheduled be reprinted in the next issue of JLS), the market anarchists of the 19th century not only “advanced libertarian individualism from a protest against existing evils to pointing the way to an ideal society toward which we can move,” but “correctly located that ideal in the free market which already partially existed and was providing vast economic and social benefits”; in this respect, Rothbard argues, the anarchists “greatly surpassed previous ‘utopians’ in locating [their] goal in already-existing institutions rather than in a coercive or impossible vision of a transformed mankind.”

 Benjamin Tucker Yarros’s real objection to anarchism, it transpires, is not that it rejects all intermediate measures simpliciter, but rather that it rejects all intermediate measures that increase State power. By opposing the growth of the State, Yarros charges, the anarchists have “played into the hands of the Bourbons and Tories” and given “aid and comfort to plutocracy,” since “the defenders of plutocracy and monopoly have talked and written exactly as the Anarchists have.”

Well, it is certainly true that plutocratic conservatives have often invoked the same sort of anti-government rhetoric that free-market anarchists use. But the conservative employment of such rhetoric is manifestly insincere – as Yarros is well aware. For as he goes on to explain, the corporate elite’s opposition to government intervention is selective; they “hate government when it makes too many concessions to labor or to progressivism, or undertakes to curb greed and tyranny on the part of capital and finance,” but to “special privilege, of which capital and Big Business are the beneficiaries, there is never any objection from that quarter.” There’s nothing new about bad guys aping the rhetoric of good guys; their doing so is no argument against the good guys. There must be more to Yarros’s objection than this.

And indeed there is; for along with his increased pessimism about anarchy went increased optimism about the state. In particular, Yarros had come to reject the view that the state is necessarily a tool of the ruling class:

The American farmers do not regard the State as their enemy. They are grateful to it for small favors; and organized labor is equally grateful for like favors. If the State is the enemy, what is Plutocracy, and what is predatory big business? ...

[W]hatever the origin of the State, it was absurd to assert that it was always and inevitably the instrument of privilege and monopoly, and must remain such under all conditions. The evidence glaringly contradicted that conception. The democratic governments have increasingly yielded to the pressure of farmers, wage workers, and middle-class reformers.

The hatred of our plutocrats and reactionaries for the New Deal is alone sufficient to dispose of the charge that the State is simply the tool of the economic oligarchy. In the past, the same interests bitterly fought Woodrow Wilson’s reform program, and fought in vain.
Yarros concludes that state power is now a viable tool in the struggle against plutocracy: “Where democracy is strong and mature, the State serves the interests of the masses, not of the classes.” Here, once again, Yarros’s theories run up against historical facts. As libertarian and New Left historians have exhaustively demonstrated (see, for example, Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916, Butler Shaffer’s In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918-1938, and other sources cited here), big business interests were the chief beneficiaries of Wilson’s and Roosevelt’s economic programs, whose cartelising measures functioned to insulate the corporate elite from upstart competition. By supporting such measures, it was Yarros, not Tucker or Nock, who was playing into the hands of the plutocracy.

Does this mean that the business lobby’s hostility to the New Deal was pure fakery? No, not entirely; but Yarros misunderstands its significance. As I wrote in my Rothbard Memorial Lecture:

We might compare the alliance between government and big business to the alliance between church and state in the Middle Ages. Of course it’s in the interest of both parties to maintain the alliance – but all the same, each side would like to be the dominant partner, so it’s no surprise that the history of such alliances will often look like a history of conflict and antipathy, as each side struggles to get the upper hand. But this struggle must be read against a common background framework of cooperation to maintain the system of control.
Yarros allowed himself to be taken in by the populist veneer of the New Deal, but in fact the struggle between FDR and the business lobby was merely (with a few honourable exceptions) a squabble between two different flavours of fascism – with each faction far preferring the victory of its rival to any genuine liberalisation. And as for the gratitude of “organized labor” for governmental “favors,” the true legacy of New Deal labour legislation was to defang the labour movement by co-opting it into the corporate establishment.

According to Yarros, the “paternalistic and bureaucratic” character of statist collectivism, and its regrettable focus on “economic improvement” to the detriment of spiritual progress, are necessary byproducts of a temporary ’phase“ through which the struggle against plutocracy must pass; accordingly he counsels “opportunism,” “pragmatism,” and “cheerful acceptance of the unavoidable.” It’s not clear whether he’s talking about the Soviet Union or the New Deal; but “paternalistic” seems an odd term for Stalin’s reign of terror and democide, while Roosevelt’s corporatist policies – as Rothbard, Higgs, and others have shown – worsened economic misery rather than remedying it.

The individualist anarchists may not have been Austrians, but they certainly understood economics well enough to understand why the New Deal would be economically disastrous; Yarros seems to have forgotten much that he had once known. As for the Soviet Union, Yarros traveled there several times – but unlike Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Rose Wilder Lane, and Bertrand Russell, he does not seem to have profited from the experience.

Yarros’s work – even his later, post-anarchist work! – contains much that is interesting and valuable, and I will probably post more congenial fare from him in the future. But against anarchism Yarros’s charge of utopianism misfires; in seeking to obtain libertarian goals by increasing the power of the centralised coercive state, Yarros proved himself to be the true utopian.

Posted March 25th, 2006

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This Is a Stick-Up

So, here’s a bumper sticker I’d like to see:

Posted March 23rd, 2006

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This Week in Review

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

A rundown of my adventures for this past week or so:

Posted March 20th, 2006

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Traduttore Traditore

To a reader just starting Jules Verne’s 1877 novel Hector Servadac, it wouldn’t be obvious that this was to be one of Verne’s science fiction novels. On the contrary, the opening chapters – featuring a French military officer in North Africa, preparing to fight a duel with a romantic rival – might lead the reader to expect a straight, non-science-fictional adventure story (of which Verne wrote many).

It is not until the fourth chapter that it becomes evident that some sort of astronomical catastrophe has struck: suddenly gravity and air pressure are lower, the celestial bodies are all askew, etc. The characters begin to speculate that perhaps the Earth has been knocked off its axis; but it does not initially occur to them that they are no longer on the Earth. When eventually this thought does occur, the characters assume that they are at least on some large chunk of the Earth that has somehow gotten dislodged. It is not until the 26th chapter, over halfway through the book, that the characters discover that they are actually traveling on a comet which has barely grazed the Earth, carrying off some soil and water and a few unwilling passengers.

Presumably this is supposed to come as a surprise to the reader too. Maybe not quite as much of a surprise; Verne has been dropping clues all along, so the reader has a fair chance of figuring things out before the characters do. But even so, Verne plainly intends the reader to have to figure it out, rather than simply being told up front.

After all, many of Verne’s novels announce in their very titles what sort of adventure the reader is in for: Around the World in Eighty Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, and so on. The fact that Verne by contrast gave this novel the non-committal title Hector Servadac suggests that he wanted to maintain some suspense as to what is really going on.

So what title did Verne’s English translators give to Hector Servadac? Why, Off On a Comet, of course! Thanks a lot, guys.

Posted March 12th, 2006

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A Late Delivery from Babylon

The last of the unreleased Babylon 5 shows is now finally being released on dvd, as a feature-length film titled Legend of the Rangers. This was originally To Live and Die in Starlight, the pilot for an unrealised Babylon 5 spinoff series to be titled Legend of the Rangers.

This disc now joins the original Babylon 5 pilot, seasons 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, the tv-movies, and the other spinoff series Crusade.

I can’t say that this is Babylon 5 at its best; indeed I have the same gripe about Legend that I had about Thirdspace, namely that each of them introduces a new long-lost alien race that is supposed to be “even more terrifying than the Shadows.” The original series spent many, many episodes gradually building up the menace of the Shadows; there’s no way some Cthulhu-come-latelies can just waltz in after a few minutes’ exposition and expect to earn the same kind of audience reaction.

But it’s still a fun ride; and it features what now, sadly, turns out to be G’kar’s final appearance.

Posted March 10th, 2006

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Wooly Bully; or, Mammoths Live!

They say that mammoths are extinct – but are they? Take a good look at this aerial photo:

These two entities are definitely mammoth-like in appearance (notice the long, curving tusks, much larger than elephant tusks). The one on the left seems to be trapped in an area of liquid, perhaps some kind of a tarpit; the one on the right stands on the shore near the tree, helpless to assist its conspecific.

This is a real satellite photo; it has not been retouched in any way. Draw your own conclusions.

Posted March 10th, 2006

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 Leonard Cohen never drinks ... wine

I’ve Been Memed!*** – Part Deux

I notice that some versions of the “Meme*** of Fours” include the category “Four albums I can’t live without.” So here are mine:

1. Leonard Cohen – The Essential Leonard Cohen
2. Lucinda Williams – Essence
3. Yeni Türkü – Külhani Şarkılar
4. Antonio Vivaldi – The Four Seasons

*** This time the term “meme” is being used literally. That’s right: I really am nothing more than a passive transmission device for autonomous units of information. But wait. That means it’s really the meme, not me, that’s writing this – in which case the words “me” and “I” must refer to the meme and not the, um, meat vehicle – which in turn implies that I am the meme writing this! Whew, glad we got that settled.

Posted March 8th, 2006

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I’ve Been Memed!*

Wally Conger has tagged me with the dreaded “Meme* of Fours.” I hereby discharge it.

Four jobs I’ve had

1. House painter
2. Amusement park ride operator
3. Grocery bagger
4. Academic summer program director
Four movies I can watch over and over
1. His Girl Friday
2. Ninotchka
3. To Have and Have Not
4. The Third Man
Four places I’ve lived
1. Colorado Springs, Colorado
2. San Diego, California
3. Hanover, New Hampshire
4. Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Four TV shows I love
1. The Twilight Zone (the original)
2. Secret Agent / Danger Man
3. Babylon 5
4. Firefly
Four highly regarded and recommended TV shows I haven’t seen (much of)
1. Lost
2. Alias
3. 24
4. Deadwood
Four places I’ve vacationed
1. London, England
2. Paris, France
3. The Amalfi Coast, Italy
4. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Four of my favorite dishes
1. Ahi tuna
2. Tortellini
3. Spanakopita
4. Lechon asado (the way they make it at Alma de Cuba)
Four sites I visit daily
1. RadGeek
2. Brad Spangler
3. Kevin Carson
4. Ludwig von Mises Institute
Four places I’d rather be right now
See my answers to Four places I’ve vacationed, above.
Four new bloggers I’m tagging
Ah well, when Alexander the Great** was on his deathbed, he was asked to whom he wished to bequeath his empire. “To the strongest,” he is said to have replied. Same deal here: this meme* belongs to whoever can seize it.

* The term “meme” as here employed is intended in a metaphorical sense only, and implies no agreement with any particular semantic or cognitive theory. Offer void where prohibited by law. Side effects may include convulsions, vomiting, or instant death. If this meme lasts longer than four hours, see a praxeologist immediately.

** The term “Great” as here employed is intended simply as a historical identifier and implies no endorsement of the foreign or domestic policies of the Macedonian Empire or any of its employees, representatives, heirs, or assigns. For external use only. Contents may have settled during shipment. Keep away from children.

Posted March 6th, 2006

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Melancholy Miscellany

Posted March 3rd, 2006

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From Russia With Love

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Guess the mystery philosopher:

I was a Russian Jew by birth, but an American and an atheist by choice. In early adulthood I fled Russian tyranny to come to America, where I became involved in the fledgling libertarian movement. One of the chief libertarian newspaper writers of that era was my friend and intellectual mentor, though we later had a somewhat acrimonious break. I never held an official academic post, but I wrote widely on philosophical and political questions, favouring secularist rationalism, ethical individualism, and extreme economic and political laissez-faire. After an early flirtation with a somewhat Nietzschean version of egoism, I developed more of a natural-rights approach, drawing on the classical liberal tradition. Later in life, I annoyed many of my former associates by sharply condemning libertarianism – especially in its anarchistic form. My spouse pre-deceased me by several years.

Who am I?

Posted March 1st, 2006

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