“Social justice” is a misnomer.

Contrary to the yammerings of a million “progressives,” it is simple commutative justice that is social, sociable.

“Distributive justice,” the technical term for today’s trendy “social justice,” is less easy to construe as “social” in any meaningful way.

Old-fashinoed justice, based on property and the suppression of the gravest evils (rather than the achievement of the greatest goods), evolved outside of the great legislative bodies, evolving, decentralized, in courts and juries and religions and common sense. Its origin is in the interactions of human beings, and its focus is limited to those transactions that cause the greatest harm and are identifiable as anti-social by nature. This kind of justice seeks to correct or compensate for the most egregious actions of one person (or group) against another person (or group).

What is today called “social justice” is, instead, the shotgun wedding of poetic and cosmic justice. It signifies attempts to redress the imbalances provided by nature — genes, geography, culture, chance — by restricting society and inverting the presumed norms of evolved justice.

Compare and contrast: In old-fashioned justice, duress invalidates contracts, initiated force defines crime, and coercion’s prominence is downgraded in social intercourse. The standard of justice is peace and non-interference.

In modish social justice, on the other hand, coercion and compulsion assume gargantuan proportions and ever-present, unlimited scope in society; aggression against property becomes almost a norm; and duress becoming the hallmark of the new and ever-renewing “social contract.”

AuberonHerbertSHRIEK

 

Individualists believe that though efficiency, complexity, order and even morality itself may emerge from the co-operation of many people — the idea of “emergent order” is key for most individualist theorists — the basic moral rules to not change as organizations change structure, scope or function. This is the great challenge of individualism, that the common, servile and tyrannical tendency to let emerging power in groups automatically grant these groups authority, is utterly wrong-headed.

Enlightenment liberalism — including early utilitarianism and modern libertarianism — advanced the breathtaking thesis that the rules we regularly apply to the singular or the weak also must apply to the collective and strong, just as the rules that apply to the vast run of humanity under the governance of a few must also apply to those few. Tyrants are judged by the same rules we judge peons. Big groups must adhere to rules established also for small groups.

This is equality of rights under the law.

But this rubs up against the grain of a lot of human thought and practice, which tends to let is determine ought in crude and vicious ways.

Against common practice, liberals and libertarians assert a radical principle, here formulated by Auberon Herbert:

We hold that what one man cannot morally do, a million men cannot morally do, and government, representing many millions of men, cannot do.

Now, this particular formulation (there are many formulations of the principle) has a may/can problem hidden by the use of “morally.” So let me translate precisely:

We hold that what a lone individual may not do, a million, co-operatively, may not do, and government, representing many millions, also may not do.

It is worth noting that this flies in the face of what I call the “progressive” view of government, as formulated by Abraham Lincoln:

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves in their separate, and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere. The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions. The first that in relation to wrongs embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and nonperformance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself. From this it appears that if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need for government.

The  problem with Lincoln’s very pragmatic approach is that he buries an obvious fact of political governance by the institution of the state: that it traditionally carries on by means that otherwise would be defined as “wrong” when non-state individuals or groups would pursue such means. Chiefly, by initiating force, bullying populations into submission, establishing territory based not on consent but by conveniences of warfare, and extracting funds by fiat rather than trade.

The Lincoln view of rules about government follows from a tacit and complete acceptance of traditional state practice, and based on a loose conception of “need.”

The tension between the individualist moral principle (Herbert) and the collectivist expediency principle (Lincoln) is that the latter provides no ready, foundational standard upon which to judge the misdeeds of those in government. The alleged good being aimed at completely buries the possibility that a great evil is being committed to achieve that “need.” Just consider the short list of good things government does without suppressing wrongs, and a common evil means that states regularly use to achieve the good:

  • public roads = built on stolen land rather than purchased land, using corvée labor rather than contracted labor, and paid for by confiscated wealth rather than invested wealth (as in a joint stock company, which also is a way for individuals to co-operatively provide goods)
  • public schools = organized by compulsion, paid for by confiscation (taxation), and filled with conscript students
  • state-run charities = “generosity” compelled from the many, by confiscation, rather than real generosity of volunteers and hirelings distributing goods collected by donation (traditional and voluntary charities)
  • estates of the deceased = rather than rely upon customary distribution of abandoned goods, and contracted-for disposal of property left technically uncontrolled by the death of the owner, state managed probate and other institutions heavy-handedly corral the property of the deceased into one system, rather than letting informal and willed formal agencies do so at rates agreed-to by the deceased, or by heirs and assigns as established by custom or law.
  • the machinery of government itself = here we get to the basic institutions allegedly designed to produce security, but which almost universally use methods otherwise left to criminal organizations that endanger security: forced compliance, membership, and support.

Of course, the idea that governmental institutions could be engaged by contract never really crossed Lincoln’s mind. It didn’t cross many minds at all until Gustave de Molinari floated the notion of competitive contractual government, formally, in 1849. Before then, the core individualist thesis was often asserted as the basis of republican government, but eyes quickly turned when confronted with the traditional means of establishing government: sheer force of some against others.

So, the efflorescence of the individualist idea came in the mid-19th century, with Molinari’s “Production of Security,” Herbert Spencer’s “The Right to Ignore the State,” and Josiah Warren’s “individual sovereignty.” The idea of sovereign government finally had some competition. And the core individualist idea had some claim on the purchase of our moral imaginations with added levels of consistency.

Which, all in all, is a good thing in a moral principle. Not exactly a common practice, but hey: common practice not too long ago included gross tyranny and commonplace violence. Now we can contemplate a world where pockets of tyranny may be suppressed without gross, mass injustice, and violence would be minimized to retaliation and defense, with a focus always on compensation for unjust loss.

We are a long way from such a free society, but the vision  of it is clearer than before. Many folks are practicing the methods of a freer society already, and the core individualist thesis about morality may even be gaining traction in unexpected places.

intrinsic

Amusingly, the sign to the right, explaining the motto on the big sign, quickly shifts to talking about “roles” played in any given animal’s “environment.”

It doesn’t take long for intrinsicism to devolve into some relativist conception. For example, as soon as one talks of roles, and animals, this pops to mind:

Every Dead Animal Has a Role to Play in the Environment

Food, at least for maggots and bacteria, if not larger animals.

I know an unkindness of ravens that, could its members understand the concept, would have every reason to chuckle at “intrinsic value.” The other day I drove by a lovely roadkill deer, with three buzzards picking at it. My cat has so far killed three rabbits, one of them larger than himself.

The roles animals play to each other does not bolster the case for their intrinsic value. Only clueless human beings could concoct such a contrary-to-fact notion. Which is why the arguments for the notion are so idiotic.

Note: The above photo was something I found batted around on the Internet. I have not tried to track down its source.

pressurePortrait

My friend Mr. James Gill, a talented professional artist, is fascinated by the study of cognitive biases. This fits his lifelong interest in stage magic, and resonates well with his interests in philosophy and psychology. His current project, the Cognitive Bias Parade, is well worth looking at. Like the logical fallacies, and rhetoric’s figures of speech, the currently developing lists of cognitive illusions and biases provide an interesting vantage point to view the human comedy. At present, Mr. Gill uses these human, all-too-human intellectual frailties, tics, and ruts as inspiration for collages, cartoons, and the occasional epigram. (I appropriated the above image, from his site, as my current Facebook profile picture.)

My own somewhat lesser interest in cognitive biases and illusions stems not from an interest in “magic” — I have almost none — but from the basic problems of philosophy, particularly epistemology (theory of knowledge) and axiology (theory of value), as well as the theory of action, praxeology, which resonates with my lifelong interest in economics and social theory.

As I contend with the cognitive biases, a few issues keep on coming up, and a few books on my just-read shelf cannot help but spring to mind:

  • The Study of Sociology, by Herbert Spencer — this work explores, in detail, some of the initial difficulties in doing any kind of social science, going on at length about the biases that might affect the reader or practitioner. Spencer concentrates not on modern cognitive biases as such, but on the humdrum issues of class bias, religious bias, etc.
  • The Slightest Philosophy — in this work, Quee Nelson takes seriously the challenges that most philosophy students treat merely eristically: the challenge of how we can know anything at all, how we can believe  in common sense reality. Ms. Nelson challenges the traditional skeptical challenge, and takes a sharp look at total skepticism. The bias she seems most strongly opposed to is the one that takes seriously the idea that “all is illusion.” She takes the more studied, “centrist” position, that we know something as illusion against the context of non-illusory experience.
  • Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan — in these two books Nassim Nicholas Taleb takes a look at chance and uncertainty beyond the biases developed by “expert” users of statistics.

It was Richard Feynman who gave the most profound warning: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The classic case of fooling yourself, I believe, was by the pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno of Elea. His paradoxes were designed, Plato tells us, to prove Parmenides’s notion that all is one and that change is illusory. But what they prove, I think, is a great warning on the misuse of cognitive tools, like measurement. The arrow paradox is a great goofy puzzle that one has to see as a trick, like stage magic. You must disbelieve the premise. For the brute fact of the matter is that arrows are aimed at targets, and usually hit them, if not with complete, Robin-Hood accuracy. If you think the geometric imagination of location, or some mathematical measurement, or conception of space, can disprove the evidence of your senses — can tell you that change is unreal — you have glommed on to a conclusion far worse than many a natural illusion.

Folk theories of the world almost necessarily step into one illusion or another. I have dubbed one popular and characteristic glitch in folk economics “The Beneficiary Focus Illusion.” So far that term has not caught on.

Who Supports Your Rights?

A response to a once-popular meme.

Matt Kibbe on Hardball

Matt Kibbe on Hardball

The rapid advance of equal rights for gays regarding marriage kicks up more than one interesting problem.

To me it’s an issue of freedom of contract: gay marriage builds directly from the idea of equal rights to freedom.

To those on the left it’s about inclusion, about acceptance by society of minority values.

To many on the right, however, it’s an abomination that will destroy marriage as we know it.

I simply don’t buy this latter conservative thesis. Other people’s peculiar marriages (and I could be thinking of Bill and Hillary’s) wouldn’t affect mine, were I married. Why should gays marrying other gays make much difference for straights marrying other straights?

My “equal freedom” view (which is closer to the courts’ rulings than the “inclusion” obsession) suggests that accommodating polygamy is next. What follows from the “equal inclusion” view? More nasty boycotts and forced recognition, a totalitarian moralism with no possibility of dissent? (There has been quite a lot of progressive piling on recently: the Mozilla CEO ousted because he once gave money to an anti-gay marriage initiative is only the most obvious.)

In that very real context, my sympathies lean towards beleaguered conservatives. Why must they co-operate with practices that they fear, loathe, or despise? May they not express their values?

The solution? Get government out of the marriage business. All long-term consensual sexual unions should be “civil unions.”

Want to call yours a marriage? Fine.

Want a church ritual? A parental blessing? A lexical imprimatur?

No more of the government’s business than a fancy wedding or elopement.

Matt Kibbe, head man at FreedomWorks, recently surprised Chris Matthews on Hardball with  this notion: No state license needed to “get married.” Matthews’s incredulity was cut short by his guest reporter backing Kibbe up: “Lots of people, like Rand Paul, are advocating that now.”

It could be a way out of the Pandora’s Box that “equal inclusion” threatens to unleash.

I have recently been reading the writings of the pre-marginalist anti-Ricardians, the school of thought referred to by Henry Dunning Macleod as the Third School of Political Economy, the leading lights of which included the Frenchman Frédéric Bastiat and the American Arthur Latham Perry. These economists resisted the siren song of the Labor Theory of Value, and promoted a subjectivist foundation for value. They were basically proponents of a catallactic approach to what was in those days still called “political economy.” Macleod pushed the name “Economics” for the science; Perry called the approach “The All-Sales School.” Macleod put everything neatly in place with a definition:

Economics is the science which treats of the laws which govern the relations of exchangeable quantities.

These are very interesting theorists, though not one of them was a complete success, missing marginal utility theory, if sometimes coming fairly close. Macleod was both the most ingenious and least reliable member of the school, with opinions ranging all over the map. But as the school’s chief historian, he is always interesting:

Mcleod-history

 

That was from The Principles of Economical Philosophy, a fascinating work. Below is a longer passage from a shorter treatment, On the Modern Science of Economics, showing his daring in criticizing classical economics, from Smith-Say to Mill:

McLeod-say-mill

 

You can see what Macleod is up to: reinterpreting the main concepts of economics in terms of trade. He was very careful of the transactional nature of his science, and tried not to introduce explanatory concepts that prescinded out the transactions upon which markets were based. Indeed, his discussion of the original meaning of production, distribution and consumption, above, is the clearest I’ve yet come across.

During the course of my readings, I’ve had occasion to provide forewords to new, ebook editions of Bastiat’s works, including the Economic Harmonies. If you haven’t read Bastiat, I heartily recommend these Laissez Faire Books editions.

I was pleased to see links to those editions in a recent Common Sense squib by Paul Jacob, on the Swiss minimum wage plebiscite. Mr. Jacob referred to a great passage in Bastiat, about the nature of interventions into exchanges:

Unlike in America, this minimum wage would have affected a huge hunk of the population. One out of ten Swiss workers earns less than the proposed minimum. In America, only about a single percentage of workers earns close to the national minimum.

This matters, as Frédéric Bastiat clearly explained, because price regulations can have two effects: a loss of production, or none at all — “either hurtful or superfluous.” No effect, when the price floor (as in a minimum wage) is set lower than the level most prices are already at (or, for which workers already work). But when the price floor gets set higher, goods go off the market — with too-high wage minimums, workers with low productivity cease to get hired.

Swiss voters could scarcely afford to risk the jobs of ten percent of the workforce.

Paul Jacob quotes the passage in his sidebar:

Legislation that limits or hampers exchanges is always either hurtful or superfluous.
Governments that persuade themselves that nothing good can be done but through their instrumentality, refuse to acknowledge this harmonic law.
Exchange develops itself naturally until it becomes more onerous than useful, and at that point it naturally stops.

The reason for that natural stopping point in trade is because, at root, trades are engaged in to serve both sides, each trader expecting a gain by each trade. When no further gain can be obtained by either one side or both, the series of trades stop.

Unfortunately for economic theory, it was Dunning Mcleod, not Bastiat, who reasserted Condillac’s principle that, in each exchange, both parties gain. Bastiat, like J.B. Say before him, had difficulty with the idea of reciprocal advantages, that people traded because their values differed enough to make a trade advantageous to both parties. Bastiat’s confused repudiation of the principle, like Say’s before him and Karl Marx’s after, is one of the great embarrassments of pure economic theory.

And yet he understood, like Say did — but unlike Marx — that on some practical level trade is productive.

Implied in Bastiat, also, is the idea of a schedule of demand, of a scale of values. But it is only implied in the above principle, not in his attempt to define value itself.

The great lacuna of the proto-marginalists.

But Bastiat did understand an important thing: the idea that a price floor (or, also, a price ceiling) either did no harm (if too low; or, conversely in the case of ceilings, too high) or was indeed harmful (when set above the rates at which some trades are made; or the reverse, in case of mandated price ceilings). There is no possible positive benefit to both sides of exchanges. Only to one side. In only some subset of exchanges.

This is important not only to explain why some minimum wage increases have little obvious effect, but also to help understand why some people advocate this form of regulation.

The possibility (even likelihood) of superfluity across most employees helps the advocate bury the actual effects of the wage floor. It allows them not to see.

It helps them forget the unemployed. Ignore them.

Yes, raising the minimum wage serves, on some level, as a cynical upping of voters’ packets of self-righteousness, while risking so little of their own possible wealth.

Mostly, voters pretend they’re doing no harm; they choose bad faith. But, at some level, a lack of interest in who is unemployed betrays a narrow vision of concern. It is not the poor workers they are trying to help. It is their own “moral standing” they are trying to raise. And the reason they do not gulp and double the minimum wage is that they would then have to confront what the Swiss confronted the other day: decreasing employment levels, harming lowest-skilled workers, and creating a business-negative environment.

In other words, current debate about the minimum wage is largely an exercise in political class luxury, sacrificing others while appearing to help those others. It’s quite a racket.

And one that members of the Third School of Political Economy, for all their faults, worked mightily to understand. Bastiat included.

It is generally frowned upon for white men to write about race. It’s about “white privilege” and all. I transgressed that boundary, earlier today, for one simple reason: to remind readers of a domain of life too often missed: the middle ground.

I confessed to loving a few people, hating a few, and being indifferent to most.

That concept of “indifference,” as applied to most folks, is worth contemplating.

The great truth of life is that, on a personal level, we — nearly each one of us — do not (cannot) love everybody, do not hate everybody. True misanthropes are rare. True humanitarian philanthropes are even more scarce.

Though many of us who are religious, or nurture some sort of philosophical humanism, do indeed sport a limited love for “everybody,” that love is a weak pretense, most of the time. We don’t even know most others, and the great majority of people live and die not only without our knowledge, but without our interest.

And this is just fine.

Indeed, on a practical level, we remain and must remain indifferent to the vast run of humanity. Indifference is the middle ground between love and hate. Indeed, there is a wide range of positive and negative on both sides of indifference.

My point in bringing this up, now, is in mere preparation for making a case for the glory of indifference. While some moralists — often of a totalitarian streak (they want to prescribe for your whole life) — preach universal brotherhood and universal love and fraternity and all that, these notions of universal affection are worked-up ideals, often designed not to inculcate those feelings, but designed to make people feel guilty. So that they will then fall prey to some brummagem policy prescription from demagogue or tyrant.

The legitimacy of indifference liberates us from psychological martyrdom.

It is just fine not to care about most people most of the time. A moral person’s heart does not bleed for others (for a bleeding heart is a metaphor of self-destruction), but, in some few and limited situations, will come to the defense and even positive aid of those to whom he is otherwise indifferent. Those situations are few, but important.

But we must not be led to some idiotic, self-sacrificing altruism to “feel good” or “feel bad” about our own moral stance. Such a stance would be as unrealistic as . . . egoism. Selfishness.

The truth is that the moral life is a compromise between the extremes of egoism (promoting self-regard at the undue expense — perhaps “sacrifice” — of others) and altruism (promoting other-regard at the undue expense — “sacrifice” — of self). The middle ground, often excluded from dogmatic discussions of ethics, is not selfishness or selflessness (two odious terms in and of  themselves) but a compromise between them, a conciliation. (See Herbert Spencer’s Data of Ethics,  chapters 11-14).

But this middle ground in personal ethics does not, I think, yield a proverbial “middle way” between socialism and laissez faire. Instead, think in terms of me-sacrificing-you and you-sacrificing-me. The middle ground in social ethics becomes liberty, where sacrificing one for another is prohibited. The compromise amongst contending egoists is the same as the compromise among contending altruists. Liberty gains its traction not only as an ideal but as compromise, as an ideal compromise.

Much harm was done to the idea of liberty by writers like Ayn Rand, who disregarded Spencer’s careful reasoning and set up, in its place, a dualistic system without a middle ground. And in the process ungrounded talk of compromise from its actual real-world instance and instead floated it, instead, in a too-rarefied Kantian realm.

So I am  merely re-asserting the middle ground more dualistic others incautiously omit.

I will get back to the great blessing of civilization: treating with emotional indifference but formal respect the great mass of humanity. What we owe others is not, at base, everything, but only a limited forbearance. Our positive obligations accumulate and extend as we interact in a wide range of mutually voluntary and advantageous arrangements. And our heartstrings are pulled by certain drastic predicaments, as is only natural. To these situations charity and generosity is the appropriate and natural (but not required) response.

Most of the time, most of the day, we ignore others in depth. Especially in cities, one sees others, but does not see them and comprehend them in their full individuality. We only acknowledge their rights to separate existence, and walk on by.

And it is this very unfamiliar and non-communal attitude upon which civilization rests. Pretending, as so many do, that this situation is a predicament is to misunderstand what human love and caring can accomplish. It would stretch our souls too thin to demand universal loving brotherhood, many major religions to the contrary. (It helps to believe in God, for the Deity is defined as all-this and all-that, and all-loving becomes possible. But religionists of even the most benevolent religions compartmentalize all this, and let their “love” for “God” stand in for an impossible love of man.)

Demands that humans love one another, at all times and in all places, and regarding as sin or viciousness any lack, is itself anti-human, and a blight upon humanity. Humanists, especially, must resist the siren song of altruism. Or the strange twisted doctrines of egoism. The middle ground is better, and it contains a huge helping of indifference.

I love a few white people, hate a few others, like many, and am indifferent to most.

I love fewer darker skinned folks, like a few more, hate none that I personally know, and am indifferent to most.

I am not in the position, at present, to hire anyone. If I were, my criteria for selecting an employee or a business partner would have nothing to do with race. But I would want someone very intelligent, and someone who shows respect for others. This means that I might cast a very suspicious eye on folks hailing from some cultures, with histories of anti-intellectualism, criminality or bad manners or all three. Some (but by not means all) of those cultures are predominantly filled with dark-skinned folks. Inner-city “gansta” culture is a grand example of this.

Does that make me racist?

I think not.

I probably would not hire or even consider hiring a Muslim. The religious ideology of Islam promotes an idea set and a value set that has extensive overlap with all sorts of evaluative/normative positions I find abhorrent. It’s easiest simply to not closely associate with Muslims.

And yet I know a few Muslims who seem to me as impeccably well-mannered and good-intentioned as a Mormon.

I bring up Mormons because they are the one religious group with which I have almost no personal bad experience, despite the fact that their myths and dogmas strike me as risible in the extreme. Indeed, I think I have liked every Mormon I’ve met. But, for the life of me, I cannot respect their ideas.

These are not matters of race, of course, but there are some who would try to shoehorn these issues into the “racism”/“racialist” category.

But Mormons and Muslims are not exactly exceptions to my view of people with ideas. I feel a camaraderie with all sorts of folks who take up religions — including Mormons and Muslims — for at least they have an interest in matters I consider important. But all religions strike me as wrong choices, bad choices, and I often wonder about the ease with which others accept their goofy ideas.

And there certainly are many ideas I do discriminate against. Not only would I never hire a Marxist, for instance, I make it a policy never even to argue with these ideologues. There are bad ideas, incorrect ideas, disastrous ideas. And then there are those beyond the pale. Marxism is one such.

Anyone calling himself (or herself) a “socialist” I look upon with deep suspicion. I wouldn’t hire a socialist, either. There are some sorts of intellectual folly that meld too closely, in my experience, with vice and crime. Socialism is one such, no matter how well-intentioned some socialists usually seem.

They are great on “seeming.”

I believe in the inherent civility of free association. The important thing about free association is that not only does it allow for participation in peaceful groups — any and all peaceful groups — it allows for not participating in groups. The ability to “just say no” is an important part of freedom.

Which is why I do not consider “inclusion” and “exclusion” to be universalizable goods and evils. Not all inclusion is good; not all exclusion is bad. The free person in a free society has principles that allow discrimination among those groups he or she would join or shun, and allow for selection among candidates for his or her in-group. Out-groups are also allowed. As well as inevitable. If you do not understand this, you do not understand the essence of liberty.

I am not a racist for holding these ideas. I’m curious if you would think otherwise, and might entertain criticism. But be warned: if you think I’m a racist for saying anything above, I have already developed a prejudice against you. I think you are a fool. Or worse. You would have a lot of convincing to do to make me think otherwise.

 

TOPICS for future discussion include “equal liberty” (which I support) vs. “equal inclusion” (which progressives say they support). Racism and other such isms of opprobrium are often defined, these days, by folks who favor equal inclusion, and have no truck with liberty. I think they are very wrong.

 

I wrote the following defense of libertarianism and sent it to Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, but I am not aware that it was ever printed. I placed it on my first Web page, some time in the mid-1990s, and it was grabbed by a gentleman with an intense interest in anarchy, and placed on his site. I reprint it here because it is not completely horrible, and it shows my long-standing interests and characteristic debating techniques.


Only a hopelessly marginal thinker could describe Libertarianism as a “mainstream movement”; but this absurdity is nowhere near as silly as the bulk of the other assertions in Peter Sabatini’s “Libertarianism: Bogus Anarchy” (Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, #41). Though it would be a waste of time to point out everything wrong in this sad “Sad Truth” column, the main thrust of the article deserves comment.

I’ll start with Sabatini at his most witless: “Libertarianism is not anarchism. Some Libertarians readily admit this. For example, Ayn Rand, the radical egoist, expressly disavows the communal individuality of Stirner in favor of liberalism’s stark individualism. Plus Robert Nozick makes pointed reference to the U.S. individualist anarchists, and summarily dismisses them.” As anybody who is at all familiar with contemporary libertarianism knows, libertarians do not agree on the ideal political-legal constitution of the free society: some libertarians describe themselves as anarchists (Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, and Pierre Lemieux, to name three) while others call themselves advocates of the “minimal state” (Rand, John Hospers, and Nozick — prior to his abandonment of libertarianism). Libertarianism is a range of opinion about the proper limitations of coercion in society. The most that a libertarian could say about the relation between libertarianism and anarchism is that many libertarians describe themselves as anarchists and that this form of anarchism maintains a dominant intellectual position in the libertarian movement, in part because of the rigorous way it seems to follow from the moral principles most libertarians say they support (i.e., that “no one has the right to initiate force”). Sure, many libertarians reject anarchism. But what does this prove about those who do not reject anarchism? Nothing, of course.

Though Sabatini concedes (amidst much blather about libertarians’ motives) that the “main issue” is “the actual substance” of libertarian “dogma,” he can’t bring himself to sustain a discussion of substantive libertarian doctrine, anarchist or otherwise. Merely characterizing Rothbard’s anarchism as a scheme that replaces the “public state” with “countless private states” is enough for Sabatini; he immediately shifts the subject to economic inequality, and continues the misdirection by asserting that “when Rothbard . . . draw(s) upon individualist anarchism, he is always highly selective about what he pulls out.” Now, I would normally say that being selective is on the whole a good thing, but the example of Sabatini suggests the dangers. Though Sabatini asserts that individualist anarchism’s principles are “anti-Libertarian,” it is simply outrageous to suggest (even if only by neglect) that Rothbard differs from individualist anarchists such as Spooner and Tucker on the issue of competitive police forces and courts: on this idea, so maligned by Sabatini, Rothbard is at one with his forebears. Indeed, contrary to Sabatini, anarchist-communists of Tucker’s day ridiculed the individualists for attempting to “put government on a business footing.” (Sabatini’s whitewashing of the disagreements between the anarchist camps is either extremely dishonest or evidence of an astounding ignorance.)

To be fair to the late Prof. Rothbard, we should note that he actually bothered to argue against those individualist anarchist notions he disagreed with, at least as it concerns monetary theory. Tucker and Spooner and, from what I can tell, most of their fellow American individualists not only believed in the absurd labor theory of value, but also held extremely naive notions about the nature of money and banking. Much of the anti-capitalist “feel” of individualist anarchism stems from bad economics, which Rothbard — a clear stylist and sometimes astute economist — laid neatly to rest.

Still, Sabatini is probably right to identify modern libertarianism — even in its radical, anarchistic varieties — more with classical liberalism than with individualist anarchism. After all, anarcho-capitalism was first espoused (though not by that name) in nearly its modern form [before] 1850 by Belgian economist Gustave de Molinari. Molinari was self-consciously a liberal, he proudly proclaimed Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say as his predecessors, and his watchwords were private property, “laissez faire” and limited government. Extremely limited government. He thought socialism a great destroyer of civilization, and dismissed self-described anarchists as economically illiterate. He noted that the services of government, previously organized monopolistically (and thus doing great harm as well as some good) were in his time being turned over to the ungainly communism of “democracy”; he believed that these democratic experiments, like all large-scale communisms, were doomed to fail. He conjectured that someday the “production of security” would be limited by the regime of market competition, and that the routine injustices of politics and law — the casual plunderings, the massive intrusions, the grinding inefficiencies, the deadening regulations, the whole morass of coercive intervention — would be checked and balanced by the uncomfortable but ultimately fruitful discipline of the regime of contract.

I am not convinced of this position. On the issue of the feasibility and desirability of “anarchy” — or “competitive government” or “demonopolized states” or whatever — I remain agnostic. Though I came to libertarianism through an interest in the anarchisms of Proudhon and Kropotkin, I soon found the more liberal, less radical vision of man espoused by modern libertarian thinkers to track much closer to reality than did the romantic, loopy optimisms of the nineteenth-century anarchists. How far should the state be peeled back? I don’t know. I remain more confident of the direction I think society should go than of the distance. And contrary to Sabatini’s account of libertarianism’s attraction, my deepest social concerns have never had much to do with the anxieties and alienations of capitalism. My chief concern has always been the necessity of limiting coercion and the dangers associated with collectivized identity, that is, with in-group/out-group dynamics — on every level, but most importantly when combined with legitimized coercion.

I judge these preoccupations compatible with the spirit of anarchism. But if writers in Anarchy are any guide, I am very wrong: apparently hatred of inequality and disgust with market co-operation are the real issues, and a wholesale critique of every aspect of our civilization the best test of anarchist temper. If true, I sadly part company with the movement. But if anarchy’s watchwords remain freedom and voluntary community (rather than coercion and compulsory community) then I have a bit of advice for Mr. Sabatini and his fellow critics of those who call themselves libertarians: talk with us, acknowledge our common ground, try to enlighten us on issues where you think we fail. And don’t marginalize yourself with hysterical attempts to “out” those who have one foot in the door. For though we may wind up limping, you wind up shut in. Voluntarily.

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