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Archives: December 2005

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A Message From the Birthday Boy

Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you ....

– Matthew 20:25-26
Have a free and merry Christmas!

Posted December 25th, 2005



Join the Molinari Safari

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Just a reminder that the Molinari Society will be holding its second symposium in conjunction with the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in New York City next week, December 27-30, 2005. The topic is the relation between “thin” libertarianism (i.e., libertarianism understood as a narrowly political doctrine) and “thick” libertarianism (i.e., libertarianism understood as essentially integrated into some broader set of social or cultural values).

GIII-8. Wednesday, 28 December 2005, 11:15 a.m.-1:15 p.m.
Molinari Society symposium: “Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin”
Morgan Suite (Second Floor), Hilton New York, 1335 Avenue of the Americas

Session 1, 11:15-12:15:
chair: Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)
speaker: Jan Narveson (University of Waterloo)
title: “Libertarianism: The Thick and the Thin”
commentator: Charles W. Johnson (Molinari Institute)

Session 2, 12:15-1:15:
chair: Jennifer McKitrick (University of Nebraska - Lincoln)
speaker: Jack Ross (National Labor College)
title: “Labor and Liberty: A Lost Ideal and an Unlikely New Alliance”
commentator: Charles W. Johnson (Molinari Institute)
If you’re in the area, drop by! (Also, check out the AAPSS lineup later that day.)

Posted December 21st, 2005



News From Nowhere

This is a good month for sf dvd releases. Obviously there’s the delightful Serenity and the gut-wrenching first half of the second season of the new Galactica, but what I’ve just learned is that one of my favourite series from the 90s, Nowhere Man, is also being released.

The show’s about a professional photographer, Thomas Veil (the name’s not chosen accidentally), who finds he has unknowingly recorded evidence of a government cover-up, or ... something. Suddenly he discovers that his life has been erased; his wife and friends no longer recognise him, his credit cards don’t work, his job no longer exists – and some shadowy government operatives seem awfully eager to get their hands on his film negatives. So Veil has to solve the riddle of what seems like a massive global conspiracy, while questioning his own sanity and staying one step ahead of ruthless agents who will stop at nothing to get ... whatever it is they want. The series – which feels like a cross between The Prisoner, The Fugitive, and The X-Files – is very well done, largely thanks to a hauntingly excellent performance by Bruce Greenwood as Veil. (And while I wouldn’t call it a libertarian show, it certainly has libertarian appeal, as stories of one-honest-individual-defying-powerful-authorities tend to.)

Frustratingly, the series was cancelled after only one season, and so the mysteries are never fully resolved. Certainly by the end of the season we have a much better idea what’s really going on than we did at the beginning, but there’s still plenty left unexplained. They’re calling this Nowhere Man: The Complete Series, but it’s “complete” only in the sense that it’s all there is of it.

So don’t expect closure – but it’s still well worth a watch. (And if it does well enough in DVD sales, who knows? – it might build momentum for a follow-up, as happened with Firefly/Serenity.)

Posted December 21st, 2005



Left Behind

In the back of each issue of Liberty magazine is a section titled “Terra Incognita,” which consists of news clippings inane or horrific or both. So I must assume that someone at Liberty found the following item inane or horrific, since it’s the third featured item in the latest (January 2006) issue’s “Terra Incognita”:

Port Townsend, Wash.

A glimpse into the objectives of a modern-day peace movement, from the PTforPeacecultural statement”:
“Knowing we have all internalized the violence, patriarchy, white supremacy, and alienation so prevalent in our society. Knowing that dismantling these systems of oppression involves becoming aware of where they are hiding in our own minds, and that day-to-day patterns of oppression are the glue that holds together systems of oppression. Cultivating gratitude toward the person who points out where we may have internalized oppression without being aware of it.”
So what, exactly, is this item doing in Liberty’s “horror file”? What it says seems to me not only true and important, but something that libertarians in particular used to specialise in pointing out. For a leading libertarian publication to mock such insights is a regrettable refusal of our libertarian forebears’ radical legacy.

My aim is not to criticise Liberty in particular; it’s one of my favourite magazines, and this particular failing is merely symptomatic of a larger problem in the libertarian movement generally. One might call the problem knee-jerk anti-leftism, or in other words, automatically responding negatively to certain issues (at least when those issues aren’t obvious applications of libertarian principle, like drug legalisation) merely because those issues have typically been the concern of the left.

The knee-jerk anti-leftist infection – libertarians’ costly inheritance from their long alliance with conservatives against the genuine menace of state socialism – takes different forms in different sectors of the libertarian movement: softness on corporatism here, softness on militarism there, softness on white-male-hetero chauvinism somewhere else (with each such sector quick to denounce the flavour of deviation embraced by some other sector, but far less swift to recognise its own). A crucial aim of left-libertarianism, as I see it, is to help libertarianism recover its pre-conservative roots.

Now I suspect the average libertarian hears or reads words like those from the PTforPeace statement quoted above, and swiftly conjures up a mental picture of a person who is likely to utter them – a strident, self-righteous lefty, equally likely to have wretchedly statist views on all sorts of issues. But even supposing this stereotype is an accurate portrait, what of it? The inference is sheer ad hominem. And if libertarians can recognise valuable insights when they find them in the work of John Calhoun – a brilliant man, but an apologist for, ahem, slavery – inviting them to be equally open to insights from self-righteous lefties doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Posted December 21st, 2005



Little Red Book

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I see that the print version of Kevin Carson’s Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, an updated statement of Benjamin-Tucker-style individualist anarchism, or “free-market socialism, ” can now conveniently be purchased via PayPal (at least for shipping within the United State of Amerika).

I highly recommend Carson’s book – which, as it happens, is the subject of an upcoming symposium issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything in the book; on the contrary, as a more-or-less Rothbardian I firmly disagree with two of its most central theses: the labour theory of value (though Carson’s version of that theory is certainly far more defensible than the Marxian version) and the no-absentee-landlordship theory of property rights. But where I agree with it I think it is an excellent defense of the sort of anti-corporatist, pro-labour, left-libertarianism I embrace; and where I disagree with it I think it makes intelligent arguments that deserve careful consideration.

So go buy it right now and expand your mind. (Or if you want an advance preview, check out the online version.) Or why not buy two copies? The second one’ll make a great Yuletide gift for that libertarian friend you want to move leftward or that leftist friend you want to move libertarianward; the book has a red cover, so just wrap it in a green (or Green) ribbon and you’re all set!

P.S. In light of recent events I should perhaps make clear that Kevin Carson is not paying me to plug his book. (Hey, does that mean I’m not being paid the value of my product? Iranoff and Buljanoff unfair to Kopalski!)

Posted December 17th, 2005



Journey to the Centre of Middle Earth

As I’ve previously spoken somewhat unkindly of Verne translator William Butcher (see here and here), I’m happy to be able to offer some more favourable remarks.

First: on his website Butcher, along with his colleague David Cook, provides a useful list of serious errors (see here, here, and here) in the Richard Howard translation of Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century. Butcher and Cook convincingly demonstrate the inadequacy of Howard’s translation and the pressing need for a new one.

Second: Last time I accused Butcher of being too ready to see sexual imagery in Verne’s Adventures of Captain Hatteras; and I stand by that accusation. But I’m inclined to be a bit more lenient now, as a result of reading another Verne novel, A Fantasy of Doctor Ox, which definitely contains such imagery. Here’s a sample, about a boy with a fishing rod and a girl with a needle and thread:

‘Would you like to take my rod, Suzel?’

‘I’d love to, Frantz.’

‘Give me your embroidery, then. We’ll see if I’m any niftier with the needle than with the hook.’

And the young girl took over the rod, her hand trembling, and the young man threaded the needle through the mesh of the tapestry.
Then there’s this sample, describing a musical performance:

Raoul can’t prolong it! You sense that an unaccustomed fire is devouring him. ... The principal clarinetist has swallowed the reed of his ridiculous instrument, and the second oboist is chewing his reed in his teeth! ... the unfortunate horn player can’t get his hand out of the bell of his horn, where he stuck it in much too deep! ... The audience, panting and inflamed, is gesticulating and howling!
Or this, allegedly about a queue for theatre tickets: “We too have known love! We too have joined the queue in our time!” So I think I can see how someone coming to a work like Hatteras from a work like Doctor Ox might have his Freudian detector set at hair-trigger. (Nevertheless, most of the sexual imagery Butcher claims to detect in Hatteras still strikes me as far-fetched. Perhaps the “inclination at ninety degrees” is a plausible case, but I’m not sold on the other examples.)

But the main intriguing insight from Butcher, the one that chiefly inspires this post, is the following:

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings contains troubling similarities with Hatteras: a multi-volume epic steeped in Nordic mythology and British tradition, in a fictional world based on authentic history, geography, language, and culture, with an erupting volcano the geographical and spiritual focus, meaning one deus ex machina is required to stop the hero from diving in and another to get him home again.
(Butcher’s notes to Hatteras, p. 402.)
This got me thinking about the even greater parallels between Tolkien’s work and a different Verne novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which I’m now convinced Tolkien must have read.

Journey too is “steeped in Nordic mythology”; moreover it begins in one volcano and ends in another. Traveling inside and under mountains is a recurring theme in Tolkien: the Misty Mountains and Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit; Moria, Shelob’s Lair, and Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. Of these only Mount Doom is an actual volcano, but Lonely Mountain and Moria each contain some sort of fiery menace (Smaug, the Balrog).

A recurring theme in Tolkien is that there are, as he puts it in The Hobbit, “strange things living in the pools and lakes in the hearts of mountains, ” in caves that “go back in their beginnings to ages before the goblins.” Might this idea have been inspired by the prehistoric monsters that haunt the depths of Verne’s underground sea? In Lord of the Rings, when Pippin drops a stone into an underground well, Gandalf warns that “something has been disturbed that would have been better left quiet” – a scene oddly reminiscent of one in Journey when Prof. Lidenbrock attempts to sound the depths of the underground sea, and Axel realises that in doing so he has “disturbed some creature in its lair.” And might not Verne’s subterranean dinosaurs have inspired Tolkien“s pterodactyl-like “winged creature ... greater than all other birds,” bearing “neither quill nor feather,” whose “vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers”? “A creature of an older world maybe it was, ” Tolkien observes, “whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day .... ”

The most striking parallels are between Journey and The Hobbit:

Thus I am strongly inclined to suppose that Journey to the Centre of the Earth was a major influence on Tolkien.

There is a slight possibility that Tolkien was also influenced by the aforementioned Doctor Ox, in which a wonder-working stranger arrives to shake up a town of complacent, home-loving, adventure-shunning folk who enjoy smoking enormous pipes. But as Doctor Ox has always been far less well-known than Journey, the likelihood of Tolkien’s having read it is correspondingly smaller.

Incidentally, the editors of my edition of Doctor Ox appear to be nearly as clueless about science fiction as Butcher is. One of them, Andrew Brown, writes that “comic science fiction” is “still rare,” most science fiction being “doom-laden and apocalyptic.” Rare? Seems Brown is not aware of such classics as Martians Go Home, The Stainless Steel Rat, The Great Explosion, Dancers at the End of Time, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Dark Star, Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ....

The other, Gilbert Adair, proclaims himself “someone who finds virtually all of science fiction indigestible, and who tends to be as alienated by its relentlessly neologistic terminology, by words like ‘bionic’, ‘space-warp’ and ‘cyberborg’, as others are by the instructions in a DVD manual.” Adair’s choice of “bionic” and “space-warp” suggests he is familiar with science fiction only in televised form; as for “cyberborg,” that term would appear to be Adair’s own invention. (He is groping for “cyborg.”) Now it’s quite alright if Adair doesn’t understand science fiction; but might I then gently suggest that he should refrain from writing introductions to works in that genre? Instead he has the effrontery to erect his own failure into a universal law, declaring ex cathedra that works of science fiction are not intelligible, and so should not be read, until “years, ideally centuries, have elapsed since their original publication. ”

Leaving Tolkien aside, let me close this rather rambling post with a few more notes on Vernean influence. Journey has of course been, in a general way, a major influence, direct or indirect, on the entire subsequent line of hidden-location-where-dinosaurs-still-survive novels, from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core to Glyn Frewer’s Adventure in Forgotten Valley (the childen’s book that served as my original introduction to this genre) and Mike Grell’s comic-book series The Warlord. The chief influence on the latter is evidently Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels rather than Verne directly, but an homage to Verne is apparent in Grell’s choice of the name “Skartaris” for his underground realm.

As for The Lost World, it resembles Journey in that the reluctant hero is sent off on his dinosaur-ridden adventure by his fiancée’s insistence that he must endanger his life in order to “become a man” and thus be worthy of her; but where in Verne’s novel the hero, returning victorious, marries his sweetheart and lives happily ever after, in The Lost World he returns to find her married to a humdrum clerk, and she tells him his love “couldn’t have been so very deep ... if you could go off to the other end of the world and leave me here alone.” I suspect Conan Doyle is poking affectionate fun at Verne’s novel here.

Finally, those familiar with Verne scholarship, and in particular with the recent discovery of Verne’s “lost manuscript” Paris in the Twentieth Century, will get a kick out of this parody from The Onion. (Conical hat tip to Joel Schlosberg.)

Here end my miscellaneous Vernean reflections.

Posted December 16th, 2005



Death By Government

I was planning to blog on the Tookie Williams execution, but Charles Johnson has already said pretty much what I wanted to say, only better, here. But let me add a couple of thoughts:

 ECCE by Victor Hugo For me, the chief philosophical case against the death penalty is just an instance of my more general opposition to retributive punishments as such. If, as we libertarians maintain, force is justified only in response to another’s aggression, it’s hard to see how we could be justified in using more force than is necessary to constrain the aggressor.

But there are special problems with the death penalty, over and above its mere status as retributive force. For one thing, if you find you’ve imprisoned the wrong person you can still make some partial restitution, whereas if you find you’ve executed the wrong person there’s nothing you can do to make up for it; and as Randy Barnett points out, since any system of punishment is fallible, endorsing the death penalty means accepting the inevitable accompaniment of some executions of innocents. For another, if as libertarians we’re concerned about abuse of power, the death penalty is a power that seems especially liable to abuse, and especially dangerous if indeed abused. And anyway, it just seems unnecessarily cruel, and so objectionable in much the same way that torture is objectionable.

For a more literary case against the death penalty, see George Orwell’s classic essay “A Hanging” (from his marvelous collection Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays – why not go read the whole thing online right now?).

Even libertarians who support the death penalty, however, should agree about the Cory Maye case, about which see here, here, here, and here. Executive summary: Maye is on death row because he defended himself and his infant daughter with a gun when armed strangers kicked down the door into his bedroom in the middle of the night. Turned out the armed strangers were police, breaking unannounced into the wrong home by mistake. Maye is black. The cop he killed was white, and the son of the local police chief. The jury: mostly white. The location: Mississippi. You do the math.

Blogs are organizing against Maye’s execution; spread the word.

In other news: three recent posts of mine at L&P that didnít get cross-posted here: 12/7/05, 12/13/05, and 12/15/05.

Posted December 15th, 2005



Vast and Cool

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

The latest amazing feature from Google is something called Google Earth, which allows you to zero in on any portion of the globe, via satellite photos. Large urban areas tend to be shown in higher resolution than small towns or rural areas; check out the detail on this view of Chicago:

You can zoom in and out, scan in any direction, spin the globe with your mouse, search for specific addresses, view pics with or without street names, etc. You can see individual people standing in Trafalgar Square, or plunge into the surprisingly high-resolution (and 3-D!) abysses of the Grand Canyon. A dangerously tempting time-waster!

Posted December 11th, 2005



Freud Conquers the Arctic

Look, it’s not like I have some sort of vendetta against William Butcher, who I’m sure is a fine translator. But he keeps on saying the silliest things about Verne. Lately it’s his notes to Verne’s Adventures of Captain Hatteras, in which Butcher displays an apparently obsessive compulsion to read sexual (primarily phallic) imagery into everything Verne writes – with the result that Butcher’s analysis often sounds more like the adolescent mentality of junior high hallway banter.

For example:

Verne’s text Butcher’s commentary
You said to me some ... very flattering things about my style which is getting better ... But I wonder, in some corner of my noddle, as you say, if you didn’t want to sweeten the pill slightly. I assure you, my good and dear Director, that there was nothing to sweeten; I swallow easily and without preparation. So I wonder if you really are as pleased as you say .... Verne .... humorously uses the language of love: ... ‘pleasure’, and the obscene ‘I swallow easily and without preparation’.
At this spot a magnetic needle, suspended as delicately as possible, immediately adopted an approximately vertical position under the magnetic influence; the centre of attraction was therefore very near or immediately below the needle. The doctor performed his experiment with care. But if James Ross could only find an inclination of 89° 59´ for his needle, it must have been because of the imperfection of his instruments or because the true magnetic point was a minute away. Dr Clawbonny was luckier, and a short distance away he had the huge satisfaction of seeing his inclination at ninety degrees. ‘This is the exact Magnetic Pole of the earth!’ he exclaimed .... Verne .... is also making phallic jokes, as shown by Clawbonny’s ‘huge satisfaction of seeing his inclination at ninety degrees.’
Suddenly Bell looked at the doctor with fright; then without a word, he took a handful of snow and energetically rubbed his companion’s face. ... ‘Yes, Clawbonny, you were completely frostbitten; your nose was entirely white when I saw you, and without my vigorous treatment you would have lost that ornament, inconvenient while traveling, but necessary to existence.’ In effect, the doctor’s nose would soon have been frozen; with the circulation restored just in time, thanks to Bell’s forceful rubbing, all danger disappeared. ‘Accept my gratitude, Bell, on condition I do the same for you.’ [T]his scene, with much reciprocal rubbing of ‘that ornament, inconvenient while traveling, but necessary to existence’, abounds with innuendo.
A rubber dinghy in the form of a piece of clothing, which can expand as much as wished. Verne inserts a phallic-inspired footnote in II 1, explaining that the boat ‘can expand as much as wished’.
With a single night, in a strong north wind, the thermometer fell nearly forty degrees .... And when Bell put his nose outside in the morning, he almost left it there in the extreme frost. Verne is again making play on similarities between body appendages.
The mountain, in full eruption, was vomiting a mass of burning boulders and slabs of glowing rock; it seemed to be repeatedly trembling, like a giant’s breathing; the ejected matter rose to a great height in the air amidst jets of intense flames, and lava flows wound down its flanks in impetuous torrents .... [A]s well as the digestive imagery, the land is alive with sexuality.
‘Captain,’ said Johnson, ‘we only followed orders, and the honour belongs to you.’ ‘No, no,’ replied Hatteras in a violent outpouring; ‘to all of you as much as to me! To Altamont and all of us and the doctor as well! Oh, may my heart blow its top in your hands! It can no longer contain its joy and gratitude!’ [M]ore sexual innuendo, stronger in French due to the homonymy between ‘coeur’ (‘heart’) and ‘queue’ (‘tail’ or ‘prick’).

C’mon, man; sometimes a rubber dinghy is just a rubber dinghy.

Posted December 8th, 2005



Self-Promotion Tango

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I’m excited to announce the two latest steps on my path to world domination.

1. I’ll be giving the Rothbard Memorial Lecture at the next Austrian Scholars Conference, March 16-18, 2006. Topic: “Rothbard’s ‘Left and Right’: Forty Years Later.”

2. Then I’ll be giving a week-long Philosophy Seminar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, June 26-30, 2006. Topic: the praxeological foundations of libertarian ethics.

More details soon!

Posted December 8th, 2005



Freedom and the Firm

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

What will firms look like in a free society?

“Capitalist” libertarians often tend to assume that they will look pretty much like today’s large-scale, hierarchical firms. “Socialist” libertarians often tend to assume that they will instead take the form of small-scale workers’ cooperatives.

(Why the scare-quotes around “capitalist” and “socialist”? See this post by Charles Johnson and this one by Brad Spangler for the massive ambiguity of these terms. That’s one reason I’ve started calling myself a market anarchist instead of an anarcho-capitalist.) [A similar ambiguity besets the term “globalisation.” Exercise for the reader: read this defense of globalisation by Tom Palmer and this critique of globalisation by Kevin Carson; then define “globalisation.”]

To address this question, let’s consider what function firms serve. As Ronald Coase famously pointed out, one of the chief advantages of organising a firm is to reduce transaction costs. This in turn creates one incentive for firms to grow in size; the more operations one can move in-house rather than relying on outside vendors, the more such transaction costs are reduced. (Economies of scale are an additional factor driving growth.) The need to reduce transaction costs also creates an incentive for firms to become more hierarchical; when decision-making power is concentrated in the hands of managers, the costs associated with building consensus are avoided. (Hierarchical organisation also allows successful entrepreneurs to exercise their talents unhindered.)

If that were the whole story, we’d expect to see larger and more hierarchical firms consistently prevail. But there’s a trade-off; the larger and more hierarchical the firm, the greater its problem of internal calculational chaos; at some point the costs begin to outweigh the benefits.

What size and degree of hierarchy are optimal? I don’t pretend to know; I would guess that it varies by industry, and that it also depends on a host of further factors specific to each situation. But in a free market firms would be rewarded for approaching the optimum and penalised for deviating from it.

We don’t have a free market, however; instead we have a highly regulated market. For familiar reasons, such regulations hamper the less affluent more than the more affluent, and so successful firms will tend to become somewhat insulated from competition by less established firms, thus removing one check on their inefficiency. And as Kevin Carson points out, regulatory standardisation also decreases competition among the successful firms – a form of de facto cartelisation. Government regulation thus lowers the costs associated with size and hierarchy more than it lowers the associated benefits; it stands to reason, then, that firms in a genuine free-market context could be expected to be smaller and less hierarchical than they tend to be today. This is doubly true once one takes into account the increased competition for workers that a less regulated economy would presumably see (assuming that workers generally prefer less hierarchical work environments).

So how different would firms be under a genuine free market? To answer that question one would have to be able to sort out which aspects of today’s economy derive primarily from the market and which primarily from regulation, and that’s no easy task. So I feel confident about the direction of difference, but not the degree. And in any case the degree partly depends on what workers are willing to put up with – which is a variable, not a constant (and one of the functions of a labour movement is precisely to influence that variable).

Posted December 4th, 2005



Major Combat Operations Are Over!

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

For these 2000 American soldiers they are, anyway.

Posted December 3rd, 2005



Economics Incarnate!

Who’s “the law of supply and demand made into man”?

Find out here.

Posted December 3rd, 2005



Fixing the King

Wally Conger says he wishes that Peter Jackson would make a version of King Kong in which Kong fights Godzilla at the end.

Apparently Wally is unaware that Jackson has already done this. Check out the simian-on-reptilian action here.

Posted December 2nd, 2005



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