In a Blog’s Stead
Archives: July 2003

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Peeling the Self

A person’s identity is determined by a mix of innate biological factors on the one hand and experience on the other. That much is fairly uncontroversial. (What’s controversial is the relative weight to be assigned to biology versus experience in determining particular traits.) But given this fact, there’s a strong temptation to suppose that the contributions of biology represent a person’s most essential and authentic self, her true nature, while the experiential contributions are merely a kind of overlay.

I think this way of looking at the matter is a mistake. People tend to think of the contributions of biology and experience on the analogy of weight. (I used the phrase “relative weight” myself in the preceding paragraph.) Suppose Bonzo, carrying a box, weighs 200 pounds. We might be able to determine that the box contributed 50 pounds of that weight, in which case Bonzo contributed the other 150 pounds. And then we know what Bonzo would weigh without the box. In the same way, it’s imagined, if we knew which aspects of Bonzo’s personality, sexual orientation, I.Q., or whatever were the contributions of experience, then we would know what Bonzo’s natural or authentic personality, sexual orientation, I.Q., etc. is – the one he would have had if not “corrupted” or “improved” (take your pick) by having experiences.

But isn’t there something weird about this? What would you be like if you’d never had any experiences? Surely the answer is: a human vegetable. How would you even count as having a personality, etc.? Plato talks about scraping barnacles off the self in order to recover its original simplicity. But trying to scrape off the accretions of experience is like trying to peel off the layers of an onion: when you’re done, you find, not the “true and authentic onion,” but rather nothing at all. (For a similar point, see Foucault’s History of Sexuality.)

The recognition that there is no true biological self underlying the contributions of experience has led some thinkers to conclude that the contribution of biology to our identity is zero or close to it. But that’s the wrong way to think about it too. The contributions of biology and experience may be distinct, but they’re not separable. Instead of weight, a better analogy might be colour. Suppose Factor X determines that a certain item will be some shade of red, and Factor Y then determines which shade: scarlet, crimson, or whatever. Factor X specifies a certain range, and Factor Y then makes a selection from that range. In that case, it would make no sense to ask what colour the item would have been if only Factor X and not factor Y had been operative. Nothing can be just plain red without being some determinate shade of red. Biology’s contribution to your identity is not what you would have been apart from experience; there is no “way you would have been” apart from experience. Instead, biology’s contribution narrows the range of what results experience can have.

It’s a mistake, then, to suppose that a trait counts as an unnatural accretion on your true identity merely because it’s the result of experience.

The same moral, I think, applies to the relative contributions, within experience, of environmental versus volitional factors. It’s not as through traits of one sort are determined by environment and traits of another sort by free choice. Rather, environmental influences determine a certain range within which the will makes its selection.

This doesn’t mean that desires can’t be distinguished into authentic and non-authentic. But it does mean that authenticity can’t line up in any straightforward way with the biologically given. The path to authenticity lies in constructing a true self out of our existing commitments rather than trying to dig down to a true self lurking beneath them. Authenticity is an achievement, not a recovery. As Nietzsche writes: “Your true nature lies, not concealed deep within you, but immeasurably high above you.”

Posted July 31st, 2003



Fame and Fortune

In a Blog’s Stead has been added to yet another online list of academic blogs: Rejoice and be exceeding glad.

Posted July 18th, 2003



Silencing the Rabble, Too

As the mainstream political spectrum stands, those most enthusiastic about the First Amendment are often those least enthusiastic about the Second, and vice versa. In practice, however, governments that suppress either one of these freedoms usually turn out to suppress the other as well. In my previous post, I discussed the U. S. military’s current policy of disarming civilians in Iraq. Today, in the August 2003 issue of Liberty (Alan W. Bock, “Free to Obey,” p. 10), I learn that the Coalition Provisional Authority is laying down a “code of conduct” for the Iraqi media. According to Coalition spokesgoons, the code is necessary to “stifle intemperate speech that could incite violence and hinder efforts to build a civil society.” In newly liberated Iraq, there’s “no room for hateful and destabilizing messages that will destroy the emerging Iraqi democracy. All media outlets must be responsible.”

Is this legal? Not under natural law, obviously. But I don’t think it’s legal under U. S. law either. Despite talk of a “Coalition” Authority, Iraq is effectively under U. S. rule. It follows, according to the Constitution, that Iraq is under the authority of Congress: “Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” (Article IV, section 3) So if censorship is being imposed on Iraq, by what authority is this being done? Not by extra-Congressional authority, because no extra-Congressional entity has any legal authority over Iraq; the Constitution places the relevant authority squarely in Congressional hands. And not by Congressional authority either, because, as the First Amendment stipulates, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” (Note that the First Amendment does not say: “abridging American citizens’ freedom of speech or of the press”; the prohibition is quite unrestricted.) Under the Constitution, U.S.-imposed censorship in Iraq could be authorised only by act of Congress; and under the Constitution, censorship is something that Congress is expressly forbidden to authorise.

So long as the Iraqi people are under U. S. rule, they are entitled to receive the full protection of both the First and the Second Amendments.

Don’t hold your breath, though.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for American citizens to receive the full protection of those Amendments either, of course. Still, the courts do throw us a scrap or two of protection in the name of the First and Second Amendments. What our rulers are doing to the Iraqi people is a good indication of what they would be doing to us, were it not for the few remaining shreds of liberty that the courts are willing to uphold.

Why aren’t liberals complaining about U. S.-imposed censorship in Iraq? Why aren’t conservatives complaining about U. S.-imposed gun control in Iraq? Wasn’t this war supposed to be about bringing freedom to the Iraqi people? Doesn’t the Bill of Rights define what the United States means by “freedom”?

In his last State of the Union address, on the eve of war, President Bush told, among other lies, the following: “Tonight I have a message for the brave and oppressed people of Iraq: your enemy is not surrounding your country; your enemy is ruling your country. And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.”

Then it came burning hot into my mind,
that, whatever he said, and however he flattered,
when he got me home to his house
he would sell me for a slave.

– John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

Posted July 17th, 2003



Disarming the Rabble

U. S. forces haven’t been able to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq yet, but when it comes to weapons of individual self-defense it’s another story.

Most readers of this web journal will understand why the U. S. military’s imposition of Nazi-style gun control on Iraq is evil – arguably even more evil, in terms of consequences at least, than gun control in America. (If you and your family were civilians living in the chaos of postwar Iraq, wouldn’t you have an unusually pressing need for a gun?) I want to raise a different question: is it constitutional?

The Second Amendment reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Since Article VI establishes the Constitution as “the supreme law of the land,” every branch and department of the U. S. government is bound by the Second Amendment, including the military.

But does this language protect civilian gun owners in Iraq? After all, “the people” referred to in the Second Amendment are surely the American people, not the human race generally.

Iraqi gun owners are obviously not American citizens. But a case could be made that they are nevertheless part of the American “people” in the constitutional meaning of that term For they are, after all, people under the jurisdiction of the U. S. government.

Should the phrase “the people” then be interpreted narrowly, to mean American citizens only, or broadly, to mean anyone under the jurisdiction of the U. S. government? I am persuaded by Lysander Spooner’s arguments in The Unconstitutionality of Slavery that constitutional ambiguities should always be resolved in whichever direction is most consistent with natural justice, so that “all reasonable doubts must be decided in favor of liberty.” As he notes in Chapter 17:

It is a universal rule of courts, that where justice will be promoted by taking a word in the most comprehensive sense in which it can be taken consistently with the rest of the instrument, it must be taken in that sense, in order that as much justice as possible may be accomplished. On the other hand, where a word is unfavorable to justice, it must be taken in its most restricted sense, in order that as little injustice as possible may be accomplished.
A prohibition on infringing the rights of anyone subject to U. S. jurisdiction is certainly more favourable to liberty and justice than a ban on infringing the rights of U. S. citizens only; hence the former interpretation, resting on a “more comprehensive sense” of the phrase “the people,” is to be preferred.

Even if this reasoning should be rejected, however, there are other arguments against the constitutionality of the U. S. campaign to disarm the Iraqi citizenry. Here’s one: according to the Second Amendment, an armed citizenry (which is what “militia” means in 18th-century English) is “necessary to the security of a free state.” So, by the standard endorsed by the Constitution, what is the condition of a state that has been deprived of this necessary condition? Obviously it must be an unfree state – a slave state. But the Thirteenth Amendment outlaws slavery “within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” – including Iraq. (Nor will it do to protest that the Thirteenth Amendment means to outlaw only chattel slavery; the wording specifies that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” shall be permitted, thus ruling out a narrow reading. The condition of a disarmed populace is certainly one of involuntary servitude.)

Second, whether or not the Constitution contains a specific prohibition on the imposition of gun control on a noncitizen populace, there is arguably a general prohibition to the same effect. The Tenth Amendment denies to the U. S. government all powers beyond those granted. Where in the Constitution is the U. S government granted the power to infringe the right of noncitizens to bear arms?

The answer, I may be told, is in Article IV, section 3: “Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” Well, what does this mean? Should it be interpreted narrowly, to mean simply that such territory falls under the authority of Congress (rather than, say, of the President)? Under that reading, the provision concerns the apportioning rather than the expansion of authority. Or should it be interpreted broadly, to mean that the Congress is granted an unrestrained and arbitrary power to bind such territory in whatever manner it pleases? Under that reading, the bill would be a grant of despotical power. To quote Spooner once more:

[W]here words are susceptible of two meanings, one consistent, and the other inconsistent, with justice and natural right, that meaning, and only that meaning, which is consistent with right, shall be attributed to them, unless other parts of the instrument overrule that interpretation.
Hence we are under no obligation to give Article IV, section 3, a liberticide construction.

Operation Iraqi Enslavement is unconstitutional. What are the implications of this finding? First, President Bush is in violation of his oath of office (again) and deserves immediate impeachment (still). Second, military personnel who implement Bush’s gun ban are carrying out illegal orders, and so are legally obligated to cease and desist immediately.

Finally, to pass from the constitutional level to the level of policy analysis: Saddam Hussein was by all accounts a brutal dictator, yet he apparently felt no need to render the Iraqi populace defenseless by disarming them. What fate must George Bush have in store for them, if he feels that need?

Postcript: On a related note, see contemporary Spoonerite Randy Barnett’s interesting comments on Lawrence v. Texas here: Kennedy’s Libertarian Revolution. Barnett makes a good case for the Court’s decision having been more consistently principled than I had suggested in my June 26 posting.

Posted July 15th, 2003



Happy Bastille Day

Today, July 14th, the French celebrate their heritage of freedom.

Sadly, that heritage, like our own, is tattered. But we send our best wishes to the nation of La Boétie, Voltaire, Lafayette, Say, and Bastiat. And we look forward to the day when lovers of freedom in every country will send their rulers packing.

Liberté, liberté chérie, combats aves tes défenseurs.

Heureux 14 Juillet!

Posted July 14th, 2003



Molinari Institute Update

The Molinari Institute now has its own Yahoo discussion group. To join, go to or send an email to

In related news, the Institute now has a sister organisation in Molinari’s own native country of Belgium; check out the website of the Institut Molinari.

Posted July 6th, 2003



Cinema Update

A brief postscript to my recent posting on Katharine Hepburn’s death:

I read on the Internet Movie Database that Cate Blanchett has been cast to play Hepburn in an upcoming film on the life of Howard Hughes. (Other casting oddities: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hughes, Kate Beckinsale plays Ava Gardner, and Gwen Stefani plays Jean Harlow.)

Does Blanchett look anything like Hepburn? Well ... no.

Still, I have to say it’s not a bad choice. Anyone who plays Hepburn needs first and foremost to nail down the voice, and from what I know of her work I expect that Blanchett will do that superbly; remember her delightful performance as the preppy American in The Talented Mr. Ripley? And her performance as Galadriel in Lord of the Rings should leave no doubt as to her ability to capture Hepburn’s imperious side. Anyway, it’s not as though I can think of any actress of Blanchett’s calibre who does look particularly like Hepburn. So I look forward to seeing Blanchett’s take on the inimitable Kate.

Posted July 5th, 2003



What Mean These Stones?

Is the Fourth of July – or Independence Day, as I still like to call it – a day for celebrating the United States of America, or is it instead a day for celebrating the principles on which the United States was founded? I suspect most Americans would answer: “both.” But the nation founded in 1776 parted company a long time ago with the principles of ’76. We can celebrate one or the other, but not both.

According to the Declaration of Independence, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive” of people’s rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it is “the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.” The Declaration adds that one sign of a government’s becoming unacceptably despotic is its having “erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” Today the (constitutionally unauthorised) Federal bureaucracy comprises over five million employees. Are they harassing our people and eating out their substance? Check out James Bovard’s books Lost Rights, Freedom in Chains, and Shakedown.

The Declaration also maintains that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Right now the U. S. government is also the government of Iraq, and has recently suggested it intends to remain so for the next ten years. Does that government in any sense rest on the consent of the governed? Odd that a nation born in rebellion against an empire should end by becoming an empire itself.

The Constitution protects, inter alia, “freedom of speech, or of the press,” “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and the right to “just compensation” for any “private property … taken for public use” – all rights that are currently under assault from the U. S. government in the name of fighting the “War on Drugs” and/or the “War on Terror.” The Constitution also guarantees that “no person” (not “no American citizen,” but “no person”) shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” – another provision currently plunging down the Memory Hole.

Moreover the Constitution specifies a narrow reading of delegated powers – “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people” – and a broad reading of reserved rights – “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” These provisions obviously bear no resemblance to any political system currently existing in Mid-North America.

Aristotle said that a political community is defined by its system of government; when it abandons one system of government for another, it undergoes not alteration but destruction. By that standard, the nation whose birth is commemorated on July 4th no longer exists. We cannot celebrate it, we can only mourn it. But we can celebrate, and reaffirm our commitment to, the libertarian principles on which it was founded.


Since writing the above, I found very similar points made in Harry Browne’s article Uncelebrating the Fourth, which I highly recommend.

Posted July 4th, 2003



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