This year, 2017, marks the centenary of The Great American Novel almost no one has even heard of.

Let me take that back. A bit. It is not as if the book is unknown. Critics have written about it. The story has a following, if small.

But it has, as far I can tell, never once been suggested as a contender for that dubious title, The Great American Novel. Indeed, most of the author’s cabal of readers put it third or fourth on their contentious “Best of” lists.

Still, I buck all trends. I assert that this particular hundred-year-old work is its author’s best in long form; that it qualifies for the status of meta-novel, thus giving it a cachet necessary for serious consideration by literary critics; and that it has enough contact with mainstream Americana (just enough) to qualify for the Great American status.

The book? No more evasions . . .

James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasions.

A thousand copies were printed in September, 1917. Two and one half years later, a second printing came out; six months after that, a third; the next year, a fourth. In 1922, a slightly revised Fifth Edition was published, with the previous editions’ Preface turned into Chapter One, and prefixed, now, with an introduction by Harold Ward. This edition became the template for the British printings. With the 1926 eighth edition, the text was established for several later Modern Library reprints, as well as Cabell’s own final revision for what he called the “Storisende” edition of 1930.

I own, at present, the Second Edition, a later Modern Library edition, and two paperback editions: the Ballantine Adult Fantasy (“unicorn head”) reprint of the Storisende, and an elaborate scholarly treatment edited by Joseph M. Flora.

After the first edition, and the spectacular notoriety of 1919’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, Cabell devised a 20+ volume cycle that he dubbed, with sly pleonasm, The Biography of the Life of Manuel. In this cycle, ordered by the fictional events, not date of authorship, The Cream of the Jest appears as the final book-length comedy, followed by Straws and Prayerbooks — an indirect sequel to 1919’s Beyond Life and, like the earlier better-known work, a droll explication of Cabell’s literary philosophy — and a strange hodge-podge called Townsend of Lichfield, about which, well, one may learn more of (and understand less) from Cabell himself in Prefaces to the Past (1927), pp. 281 – 309.

My advice to the literary reader is to forget The Biography — all the other books the author fused into one well-ordered chaos — and begin with a later edition of The Cream of the Jest without reading any prefatory matter. Start with Chapter One and proceed. If you happen to find yourself with an earlier edition, read the preface assigned to the fictional “Richard Fentnor Harrowby,” and continue on to the first chapter.

The author’s bizarre framing of his Biography’s tales have much the same resonance of Jorge Luis Borges’s meta-fictions. They confused me when I first read them. Trying to sort fact from fiction is not easy when the forewords written by the author, which give off all sorts of cues to non-fiction status, turn out to be, instead, mixtures of fantasy, scholarly earnestness entwined with scholarly irony, and a propensity to dispense not wholly reliable autobiography.

This fictional/non-fictional framing is carried to extreme in Beyond Life and Straws and Prayerbooks, which, as I state above, are literary manifestos disguised as fiction. Both books make for strange reading, but are necessary for anyone interested in what makes books like The Cream of the Jest “work.”

Which brings me back to this one volume, itself. It is not quite a novel. And yet it is. Perhaps it is an example of modernism smuggled in from the literary attic, wherein the Guardians of Literature had placed most of the dusty old tomes of belles lettres along with medieval romance and Gothic fancy. Or perhaps it is a work of post-modernism, a clever wedding of highbrow fantasy to popular romance.

One could also argue that it is the last gasp of the Genteel Tradition in American literature, except Cabell, though suave and well-mannered, was never genteel in Santayana’s sense. He daringly broke too many taboos for that.

The Cream is really what its subtitle proclaims: a comedy. As such, it indirectly but thoroughly confronts the inevitable failures of romance as a way of life, while reëstablishing its necessity in the same breath.

Cabell, being a comedian, has it both ways. He is both a romancer and an ironist. As a fantasy novelist (The Cream is half-fantasy dream study), he attempts to “write beautifully about beautiful happenings.” But as a philosopher, he hammers a kind of realism that in the hands of naturalist novelists turns into a now all-too-familiar sanctimonious nihilism. But caution: his hammering is on the order of Nietzsche’s “philosophizing with a hammer” — what is meant is not brute force debunking but, instead, a gentle tapping as if at tuning forks and small bells. The idols of the age (and all ages) are being sounded out.

In this, Cabell places himself uneasily in a tradition he was not entirely comfortable within: of George Meredith and Thackeray, as well as the philosophical comedians of a later generation, such as Iris Murdoch. Egoism he carefully calls up for apt ridicule, as he does the deadening hand of normality, of mediocrity.

Cabell more readily hails from late-19th century aestheticism, especially the work of Anatole France. Echoes of Balzac’s Droll Tales can be easily detected. The popular romancers of Cabell’s day, such as Maurice Hewlett, might exert a background influence. But Cabell’s own favorites among his contemporaries included British literary fantasists, including Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen, author of The Three Imposters.

This puts Cabell utterly at odds with the mainstream of 20th century highbrow literature. And one might think it would have put him at odds with H. L. Mencken, America’s most enthusiastic promoter of the sociological novel. And yet, Mencken was an admirer. Perhaps what the Sage of Baltimore most liked was Cabell’s philosophy, that unmistakable thread of irony. Mencken called Cabell “the most acidulous of anti-romantics.”

So much for romance.

But Mencken also praised Cabell’s prose style. In fact, Mencken was capable of writing close to Cabell’s mode. In praise of Cabell he characterized the Southern gentleman as “a scarlet dragonfly embedded in amber.” Exactly.

Which might now indicate Cabell’s enduring interest for a few of us. His heart was in romance, his head was in irony, and his philosophical stance was . . . fancy footwork. Nimbly he stepped in and through several genres. The Cream of the Jest was one of the last of his fictions to be rooted in the mundane world of his time. With this work he firmly carved out a niche in high fantasy. It is half a comedy of manners and ideas, and half a fantasy, in brilliant union. The bulk of his work to follow proved more thoroughly fantastic, often set in the mythic province of medieval France, Poictesme. After wrapping up the Biography of the Life of Manuel, he jettisoned his first name, and produced several trilogies of quite distinct fantasy, including a successful dream trilogy, under the moniker Branch Cabell. At some point he brought back his first name, and, in the end, essayed a final foray back to the roots he planted in Cream, with his final (and  brilliant) comic fantasy, The Devil’s Own Dear Son.

The Cream of the Jest immediately follows three earlier comedies set in the Virginia of his youth: The Eagle’s Shadow, The Cords of Vanity, and The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck. Of these, the first is a fairly standard romantic comedy, the second is a dark comedy of egoism and betrayal, and the last is a masterwork focusing on the waning culture of Southern honor anchored in a sad “comedy of limitations” (to quote the subtitle). Only The Rivet holds up as a complete literary success. There were also several volumes of short stories, and a non-fantastic medieval romance, The Soul of Melicent (later retitled Domnei.)

But The Cream of the Jest transcends all that preceded it. With this work, the author finally “finds his voice.” Truth is, he always had his voice. What he had not developed until The Cream was a way to unite his philosophical interests with his love of literary japery and a wholly successful and absorbing tale.

Of course, opinions vary. Many readers complain that nothing of substance happens in The Cream of the Jest. And this is true if “of substance” means sword fights and lawsuits and such: the “action” is mostly dream, and, even when set in humdrum reality, almost all interior.

One of the great turning points in the story is in Chapter 27 (Book Fourth: V in the early editions), “Evolution of a Vestryman.” Here Felix Kennaston, our hero, becomes a Christian, and a leader in his local Episcopalian church. It reads like a comedy. Indeed, it reads like a parody of C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. But it came first, and one wonders whether Lewis might not have read the tale in disgust, and later, by cryptomnesia, took the half-remembered Cabellian argument to heart and became a Christian himself. Lewis was 25 when the book hit British libraries and bookstores.

I do know that Lewis hated Cabell. Cabell was so modernist compared to Lewis. Cabell the ironist could hardly please Lewis’s dogmatic earnestness. And yet Cabell himself had entered the fold of his Richmond, Virginia, Episcopalian Church, and become a member in good standing. He was more than half-earnest, himself, in this crucial chapter. Later, in other works, he defended Maundy Thursday and its Anglican rites, as being based on legends that might “possibly be true.” (Lewis became a member of the Anglican Church, so, basically, Lewis and Cabell were co-communicants.)

The ambiguities here as elsewhere set Cabell against the tide of rabid secularism. And yet his own comedies do more than merely suggest a caustic irony. What is going on here?

Cabell understood the hollowness, in fact, of the ancient traditions. But he also asserted that they were beautiful. Whether true or not, he had no intention of throwing the old ways completely aside. He was a post-modernist traditionalist conservative who was also a liberal doubter. But let us retain our bearings. What he doubted most was the advisability of a full embrace of modernity’s ongoing nihilism project.

Cabell lived his life as if tradition were worthwhile enough to preserve, if not embrace without a wink. And he wrote his fictions as if in full dialogue with the past. Indeed, that is what The Cream of the Jest really is: a philosophical dialogue with the past and its charms, while seriously acknowledging their tendency to disappear when attempted to be grasped. Just as his hero Kennaston wakes up from his dream whenever he attempts to touch his dream woman, Ettarre.

In The Cream of the Jest, we see not the revelation of a special American Dream, but the reality of Dreams Universal. Which is American enough for me.

The year 1917 sports a few other literary centenaries, the most important being the publication of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, and Other Observations. It is also the year that popular fiction made an important step into the future, with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. J. R. R. Tolkien began work on what eventually became The Silmarillon, Christopher Morley produced Parnassus on Wheels, and Norman Douglass published South Wind.

A century earlier, establishing bicentennial possibilities, Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey saw posthumous success; Walter Scott’s Rob Roy hit presses on both sides of the Atlantic; and Thomas Love Peacock’s delightful Melincourt debuted.

But these are very different stories.

My story? This year I celebrate

  • my Finnish heritage, with the centenary of the birth of independent Finland;
  • my family history, with what would have been my father’s hundredth birthday, had he not died four years ago; and, perhaps most of all,
  • the centenary of the publication of The Cream of the Jest, which I read at age 17 . . .

the one novel that seriously treats personal love and cultural literacy as a romance that, while inevitably comic, even the most cynical dismiss at their own peril.


Tom Woods, of the Tom Woods Show, a fine and informative libertarian podcast, puts out an excellent daily email newsletter. Today’s interested me:

On my Twitter feed the other day, someone posted a photo of a page in a textbook he was forced to use in college.

“If you are a libertarian or an anarchist who believes states are a threat to freedom, you should consider moving to Somalia.” That’s the first sentence on the page.
(The offending book, if you’re curious, is The Good Society: An Introduction to Comparative Politics, by Alan Draper and Ansil Ramsay.)
Here we have an academic textbook literally urging libertarians to move to Somalia if they hate states so much — in other words, it’s written at the level of “You like carrots? Why don’t you marry one” from third grade. Seriously, this is exactly the same dumb-guy argument I might encounter on Twitter.
“Without a state,” we read, Somalia under statelessness descended into a Hobbesian “state of nature where life is nasty, brutish, and short.”
Then, after two whole paragraphs on the situation in Somalia, we get study questions. If you look really, really closely, you may detect a very slight bias in these questions.
VERY SLIGHT, I tell you.
“1. Which is preferable, bad government or no government?”
“2. Why hasn’t Somalia without a state become the paradise that libertarians anticipate?”

This reaction, this common and absurd “Somalia Ploy,” is what you might expect from an over-emphasis on anti-statism among libertarians, at least when the “statism“ being fought is no longer informed by Ludwig von Mises’ usage of “etatism” (the French version of the word), but instead abused as a sort of hatred for The State in all its forms.

But the witlessness of some libertarians need not undermine the wits of the rest.

Here is my main reaction to the Somalia Ploy: Libertarians do not oppose The State because it protects human rights and thereby promotes public order and personal safety. No, libertarians oppose statism because States routinely, perhaps ineluctably, abuse human rights and thereby promote public disorder and personal insecurity. Certainly, all robust modern states do.

Libertarians defend the human right to liberty, the only (or, perhaps, one of the few) right(s) that can qualify as such (as a right). Why is this? Because liberty is one of the only (or few) defensible social relations that can be had by all. The right to liberty can be universalized.

Libertarians demand that the institutions of government defend rights. States too often offend against rights. But that does not mean that any society that lacks a state will necessarily defend rights. There is a logical fallacy involved to presume such a thing to be so.

Somalia does not have a long tradition of advocating and protecting rights. That is one reason that the states that preceded its recent period of statelessness were so awful.

And this historical and comparative aspect of the ploy is where Tom Woods plies his argument.

Now for one thing, was there ever a libertarian who predicted that a stateless Somalia — or a stateless anywhere else — would be a “paradise”?

More importantly, if we’re going to get a picture that’s worth anything of life in Somalia without the state, the correct comparison to make is not between Somalia and the United States (the comparison most writers like this are implicitly making), but between Somalia and comparable African countries.
And on that front, Somalia during its stateless period comes out pretty darn well. In most metrics of living standards it held steady or improved.
In the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization in 2008, Professor Benjamin Powell and his colleagues wrote:
“This paper’s main contribution to the literature has been to compare Somalia’s living standards to those of 41 other sub-Saharan African countries both before and after the collapse of the national government. We find that Somalia’s living standards have generally improved and that they compare relatively favorably with many existing African states. Importantly, we find that Somali living standards have often improved, not just in absolute terms, but also relative to other African countries since the collapse of the Somali central government.”
Economist Peter Leeson, in Anarchy Unbound (Cambridge University Press), reports similar findings — yes, Somalia ranked low in some categories during the stateless period, but that’s where it ranked before statelessness, too, and if anything it made progress in those categories (life expectancy is up, for instance, and infant mortality is down).

This is all very well and good. I am impressed. But even this does not get to the heart of the problem with the Somalia Ploy. Though it may be true that Somalia’s competing social institutions and long-standing (as well as recently developed) habits of sociality have encouraged the growth of a better-than-the-past-statist society, and a better-than-the-neighbors’ societies, too, I strongly doubt that Somalians are committed to a general right to liberty. I see little evidence that liberty has been the main focus of those institutions that have been responsible for “the peace” during the years of statelessness.

So, the Somalia Ploy must be relegated to Cheap Shot status. That serious scholars might advance it is only proof that what passes for seriousness among scholars these days leaves much to be desired.

Namely, “seriousness.” And maybe “scholarship,” too.



I just watched Lisa Kennedy Montgomery cave on repealing ObamaCare — see tonight’s Kennedy, Fox Business Network, 2017-01-12.

It looks to me like the putative libertarian is following Sen. Rand Paul and President-Elect Trump in doubling down on the core principle of ObamaCare itself.

They do this by insisting that the people newly covered by ObamaCare must remain covered under some new scheme before the old scheme be repealed.

This ensures that no real progress can be managed, for it commits the federal government to guaranteeing a transfer of wealth that (a) is nowhere authorized by the Constitution; (b) can only send medical costs spiraling further upward for the non-subsidized and eventually even the subsidized; (c) must increase the ranks of the subsidized as time goes on; (d) will become increasingly insolvent and demanding more taxes, eliciting further damaging regulation, as well as further stress the U. S. debt load; and, last but not least, (e) commits the nation to a principle utterly at odds with the best method for progress in medical services delivery. A better, free-market system, would simultaneously improve technology and capacity while leading to a secular trend of price reductions.

img_1981The Rand/Trump/Kennedy ploy gives the game away — the whole enchilada — to the socialist-minded Democrats (and Republicans, for that matter), which means that there could never be a rollback of government. At least, not on their watch.

It also shows that Kennedy and Rand and Trump all believe, just as do progressives and socialists and Fabians and fascists and ignoramuses (but I repeat myself) that once one has given a treat to someone else, that treat must be considered as a sacrosanct “right.”

Further, it indicates that they do not understand the economics of health care and medical insurance, especially not the damage done by decades upon decades of subsidy, mandates and regulations.

In other words, it means they do not really believe that free markets can work. Which is almost certainly true in Donald Trump’s case.

In Rand’s and Kennedy’s case, it ultimately means cowardice.



Thomas Sowell retired from writing his syndicated column a few weeks ago. And so the tributes have been coming in. As they should.

img_1961I note that Paul Jacob at, and Gene Epstein on the Tom Woods Show, both have praised Sowell for his astute and well-explained economics popularizing while expressing their chagrin that Sowell never seemed to apply the same “thinking beyond Stage One” approach to foreign policy.

This was a point I made in one of my earliest published reviews, of Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, to be found in the premiere issue of Liberty, way back in 1987. (Which you can read on this site, now — O, lucky you!)

So, if we are all pretty much saying the same thing, what can I say differently?

Well, I could mention my favorite Sowell book, his first: Say’s Law: An Historical Analysis. This is probably his most difficult book, in no small part because Say’s Law is itself a surprisingly difficult concept. It has been years since my last reading — and I have read it at least three times, even now wishing to return to it, give it another go.

I first read the book in tandem with W. H. Hutt’s quirky A Rehabilitation of Say’s Law. Each book helped me understand the other.

One of the really tricky things about Says Law is that it is a macro theory; but many authors found its chief resonance on the micro level. Indeed, though Say’s Law was first marshaled to debunk one theory of economic depression, the general glut theory, W. F. Lloyd, in his classic essay on value, tied that macro problem very closely to what became the theory of marginal utility, the micro theory par excellence. And Say’s Law according to Say’s disciplines — the Third School, or Catallactic economists — turned into a theory of “harmonies,” not equilibrium. It was another macro approach based on a micro insight that in turn was used against not merely general glut theories, but also protectionism and socialism. Sowell, if I remember correctly, does not extend his analysis into the third school, except insofar as he deals with Walras’s Identity.

As an economic popularizer and as an economic historian, particular of race and cultures, Sowell was magnificent. Yes. But as a social philosopher he was perhaps even better. More necessary.

There is a caveat to this judgment, however. Jacob and Epstein and Woods all discussed their favorite Sowell contributions. I have done the same, with his recondite Say’s Law survey. But let me offer a balance: his worst book, something neither Epstein nor Jacob bother with.

I nominate Marxism: Philosophy and Economics (1985). This book is easier to read than Say’s Law, my favorite, and it probably packs more punch . . . at least in terms of surprise value. But one of the big surprises is a huge whopper of an error. It is an error, of all things, about value.

Sowell asserts, in Marxism, that Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk was wrong on Marx’s labor theory of value.

When I read this, I had not only read Böhm’s classic “Zum Abschluss des Marxschen Systems,” translated under the provocative-if-puzzling title Karl Marx and the Close of His System (first English language edition, Alice MacDonald, 1898), but also two other important books related to the subject: Destutt de Tracy’s A Treatise on Political Economy (Thomas Jefferson, 1817) and a crucial chapter in Karl Marx’s infamous Das Kapital (1867).

You might be wondering: what the heck — what’s with the Tracy? Well, Tracy makes much of the Condillac thesis of both parties to an exchange gaining value in the transaction. So when I read Marx’s obscurantist dismissal of that thesis, wherein the old socialist crank mocks Condillac and Tracy’s mutual gain thesis, I was prepared for Sowell’s disagreement with Böhm.

The key Marxian error, in my opinion, is that repudiation of mutual gain through trade. It was there that Marx necessarily went off track, not seeing how value is increased as goods flow through the market nexus. The marginalist view of value is intricately entangled with the mutual gain concept, and by rejecting mutual surplus of value in each trade, Marx took his most decisive turn the wrong way. Adam Smith and David Ricardo and the British economists had sent economics down the wrong path in 1776, and Marx took their labor theory of value to its absurdist conclusion. Sowell basically apologizes for Marx. He insists, without much evidence (and with the evidene right there in Das Kapital, on the pages citing Condillac and Tracy), that Marx’s formalistic definition of value as (somehow) incorporating socially necessary labor time was indeed compatible with marginalism. This thesis seems not in the tiniest degree defensible.

A few years later (if memory serves), David Ramsay Steele cleared all this up in his magnificent book on the socialist calculation problem, From Marx to Mises (1992), speculating that Sowell was merely regurgitating the views of his Marxist-apologist professors in the days before his conversion.

In any case, Sowell has, since his conversion from Marxism under the influence chiefly (I think) of Milton Friedman, remailed too closely tied to the British Classical School. He seems uninterested in, perhaps dismissive of the Third School tradition starting with Condillac and moving through Tracy, Comte and Dunoyer, Bastiat, Perry, Henry Dunning Macleod, and Gustave de Molinari. (Half of these economists are French or Belgian or Swiss, so the tradition is often called the French Liberal School. But that is too narrow a reading of this dissident, proto-marginalist tradition.) The later Third Schoolers ran off-track, too, in not accepting the important proof of the basic idea in the marginalist advances of W. S. Jevons, Carl Menger, and Leon Walras. While Menger did not go on at length about what he owed to the Third School economists, Jevons sure did, while heaping scorn upon the Ricardians. And Walras, it is worth noting, was himself the son of a Third School economist, Auguste.

This lack of interest in these economists seems especially strange to me, since Sowell has repeatedly dipped into the rhetorical well so ably primed by Third Schoolers Frédéric Bastiat and Yves Guyot. (See my forewords to Bastiat’s and Guyot’s classics, available on Amazon/Kindle and iBooks.)

But it has been a long time since I read Sowell’s Marxism. Perhaps my memory is fuzzy. And my view of the Marxian surplus value and exploitation theories needs refreshing. So, after just now re-reading my three decades’ old review of A Conflict of Visions, I won’t direct my attentionimg_1963 to The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulaton as a Basis for Social Policy (1995), which I had been planning to do. I will go back and re-read Böhm-Bawerk’s take-down of Marx, instead.

So perhaps I will follow up this post with a corrective, soon. I should not be this fuzzy on something so basic as “surplus value.”


img_0056The defining features of capitalism are

  • the widespread acceptance and defense of private property;
  • mostly free labor (no chattel slavery);
  • established markets in both consumer goods and producer goods (including sophisticated financial markets); and
  • the use of mass production through the division of labor primarily for consumption by the masses themselves.

Key features necessary for the onset of capitalism include

  • the accumulation of capital through savings (“abstinence” from consumption, as Nassau Senior put it);
  • respect for (or cultural valorization of) work and trade;
  • tolerance of natural inequality, a general culture deprecating envy;
  • a willingness (even eagerness) to form voluntary associations for mutual and general benefit;
  • a widespread-enough sense of justice to undergird the division of responsibility; and
  • a culture that encourages and expects its members to take charge of their lives at fairly young ages, to control sexual appetite, regulate population growth through something like marriage and family, and foster education and the cultivation of human capital.

Some or all of these factors must begin outside of a capitalist context, which evolves and, in some cases at least, presumably reinforces the bulk of them by self-subsumption.

In our real-world experience of capitalism, for instance, some of the necessary limitations on the scope and power of governments arose for a variety of reasons; religion played a key role in the early development of education and the habit of voluntary co-operation, as well as the enforcement of sexual practices that allowed some stability in families.

It is crucial in such discussions to distinguish two antagonistic poles of government policy towards capitalism, neatly expressed in the French terms “laissez faire” and “dirigisme.”

Many people mean by “capitalism” the former policy — and there is some reason for that. However, a word of caution: mercantilism (Adam Smith’s term for the variant of dirigisme popular in his day) was almost universally present as industrial capitalism took off in the 18th century. Laissez faire was an alternate policy approach advocated chiefly by intellectuals based on extrapolations they made from observing how trade works, and what the complete consequences of mercantilist policy were. The laissez faire economists ably demonstrated that mercantilist practice did not intellectually back up social outcomes of the policy.

Though some of the first advocates of laissez faire’s hands-off policy argued for it in terms of its “natural” quality, it is worth noting that laissez faire is a policy designed to limit the natural activity of state control of economic life. It is a rule-of-law policy to curb “corruption” and inefficient-to-the-public rent-seeking and zero-sum wealth transfers. It is not a description of our system, or any previous governmental policy, as such.

Modern capitalism has mostly evolved in the context of sovereign states, which have practiced, to varying degrees, protectionism, wage and price controls, a myriad forms of taxation, goofily partisan operations of industry and “security,” vast wealth transfers, plunder and confiscation, corvée labor, monetary manipulation and credit control, and occupational licensing, not to mention the historical defining features of the State, conquest and war.

It is obvious that “capitalism” covers a lot of ground, and also that there is a lot of “ruin in a nation” (h/t Adam Smith) ruled by states of whatever kind.

To repeat: laissez faire (“let them act”; “let-alone,” as a later economist translated it) might best be seen as a system of controls (limits) upon government. It is in an important sense a regulatory regime, only the target of regulation is largely government itself, which is seen as dangerous beyond a certain level and scope. (The regulation of the minutia of economic life is left to individuals and groups vying with each other to serve each other’s values. The order exhibited by markets, especially left free, is a sort of cybernetic, emergent property of decentralized decision-making. Adam Smith offered a powerful and influential metaphor to explain this tendency to order: “the invisible hand.” Frédéric Bastiat referred to this observable phenomenon as “economic harmonies.” Economists of a more theoretical bent have tried to capture some of the ideas, here, in various notions of “equilibrium.”) Even a cursory glance at history shows us that these controls on government have, historically, tempted fewer folks than those enamored of controls by government.

For a variety of reasons, most people “naturally” tend to prefer over laissez faire more arbitrary and malleable systems — systems that allow for mass coercion, intricate political hierarchy and the constant game of positioning to gain at the expense of everybody else. Via force.

This is to say that “dirigisme” (political control of markets and private property) wins most policy battles, and sometimes extremist versions of it, such as socialism, make huge (if temporary) gains.

The current system in America, along with most places elsewhere, is dirigisme. Such systems entail an interventionist state that usually receives the appellation “welfare state,” since the common justification for its vast wealth transfers is human betterment, or “welfare.” But its characteristic policies are probably best described as “mercantilism with a socialist face.” The policies are very old, a revival of ancient, closed-society practice. The difference of today’s mercantilism from that of the 18th century lies mainly in that the group interests appealed to tend to be radically different. Which groups that are actually served, on net, are arguably very different.

The open secret of modern society is this: the representative political systems governing the regulatory and redistributive programs of modern states tends to be captured by what used to be called “the monied interests” is under-appreciated by dirigisme’s most enthusiastic public supporters, who, instead, blame “the free market” (a non-existent creature nowadays) for our apparent plutocratic structures.

Also not appreciated? The sheer unwieldy volume of transfers both outright and hidden (regulations), which scuttle any realistic accounting of who wins and loses by the system.

It is not for nothing that political philosopher Anthony de Jasay offers an alterternate name for the modern welfare state: “the churning state.” As Jasay sees it, there is a constant churning of policies — with each turn of the crank creating new advantages and disadvantages. This constant shuffling yields a kind of chaos, a feature prophesied in the 18th century by C-F Volney, who identified the nature of such systems as examples of “an intestine war.”

The modern state incorporates the all-against-all warfare of the theorized “state of nature” into the fabric of government policy, the better to bind participants to the state.

To advocates of laissez faire, the whole edifice of modern ideology and politics looks like nothing other than a long con.

Meanwhile, the system does not fall into utter chaos because of the resilience and productivity of the markets — the freedoms — that are allowed. It is obvious that our modern churning states have survived for decades, though their sustainability over a long run (which we may be approaching an end to) is certainly questionable.

Unquestionable is the extent to which these policies have altered human culture and moral perspectives. The changes in this latter have been vast . . . some good, some bad.

The dream of laissez faire still remains a mirage-like goal, on the whole.


This summer will mark the 30th anniversary of Liberty magazine. Not Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty, which has been dead for over a century. Not the general interest magazine of that name, either, of which Groucho Marx quipped “Remember, there’s nothing like liberty — except Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post!” And certainly not the Seventh Day Adventist periodical, the less I say about, the better. I am referring to the little libertarian ’zine out of Port Townsend, Washington, the one that I worked on for its first twelve years.

After my departure in 1999, it survived in print for another decade. After folding, it gave up its ghost to the Web, upon which it lingers as a scornful shade from another age.

Three decades is a long enough time to excuse a tinge of nostalgia. In January 1987, I was working on the vast library of Liberty’s publisher, R. W. Bradford, as well as researching and proofreading his monthly newsletter, Analysis & Outlook. We were preparing to launch the magazine that summer, and Bradford was looking for the right computer platform. I knew (this is going to be a self-congratulatory essay, so prepare yourself) that there was, at that time, only one computing platform suitable for desktop publishing, Apple’s Macintosh. But those computers were expensive, so Bradford futilely began experimenting with KayPro’s latest CP/M machine, and then with IBM’s PC. Both platforms were a bust. We finally went to the Macintosh. We bought two Mac Pluses, and on the first day we laid out the newsletter; within a week or two Bill and I, along with his wife, Kathleen, designed the cover and interior of the magazine.

img_1906None of us were design geniuses, and it showed. The magazine was ugly. I was responsible for the general look of the interior pages, for the most part, and Bradford and his “Scotch boxes” gave impetus to the make-up of the cover. But we three did hash this out in a long meeting, with much experimenting. And no small amount of friendly banter.

The structure of the magazine itself was, uh, odd, especially in the first few issues. (A good example being the fifth issue, shown at right.) This was mostly a result of Bradford’s resistance to putting the current-events reportage and political debate up front, at least in the first few issues. He did not want Liberty to be primarily a political magazine. It was to be a cultural magazine for a people of a particular political orientation. I liked the approach, if not the magazine’s look (which always remained a vexation to me).

Years later, Bradford credited me with establishing the style of editorial presentation. The wording of the blurbs and genre heading and the like, though Stephen Cox surely had a major hand in it at the final review end of the editorial process. It was a natural style for what we were doing, so that credit is not exactly a steller honor. He also said that I had named the final section of the magazine, the “Terra Incognita” feature. After twelve years, when he had informed me of this, I had forgotten my “responsibility” for this name.

“Terra Incognita” was to duplicate the aim and method of Mencken’s old Americana department, from which the Sage of Baltimore made a series of annual books. The idea was to take news snippets and other artifacts of our culture, and place them in our pages without comment. Each entry would use for a title the place the tidbit took place in, or from which it was published or broadcast. Then would follow a short, not too value-laden synopsis or setup. Finally, there would be an exact quotation.

Full disclosure: Bradford often edited these quotations not merely for space, but for the occasional subtle effect. Editorial license, if you will.

It would have been fun to name the section “Artifactual Man,” but I had not read the great essay “Natural and Artificactual Man” by economist James Buchanan yet. So “Terra Incognita” it became. Here is an example, snapped from an old copy littering my library:
Terra Incognita

This all came back to me, today, upon stumbling into a page of the Center for a Stateless Society, a reprint of an old Roderick Long criticism of one “Terra Incognita” entry.

The entry in question is from an issue published several years after I had left Liberty’s offices, so I can hardly be held responsible for the offending passage that Prof. Long considers. It was published as Bradford himself lay dying, so neither could the editor and publisher himself be the likely responsible agent. (Though it does sound like him, now that I think on it.) Nevertheless, I wish to demur from Long’s objections. In effect, defend the honor of Liberty’s “Terra Incognita” — as if anyone cared.

No matter. I am committed! I will quote the piece, whole, interrupting only when I have something to say:

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 PTforPeace “cultural 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.

Though I sympathize with Prof. Roderick Long’s anti-oppression solidarity, I bet I understand why, on some level, either Kathleen Bradford or Stephen Cox or one of the other editors of the ’zine thought it, at least in part, risible.

But I cannot speak for them, only for me. So here goes:

  1.     Liberty was still, then, published in Port Townsend, Washington. The editors probably knew the Port Townsend activists well enough. I did when I lived there. That propinquity tends to put a tinge of guffaw into the reaction. To know a leftist is to know their strange obsessions and quirks of mind and values.
  2.     The statement lists some givens that are not given to most folks. Indeed, I hesitantly accept some, thoroughly reject others.
  3.     I reject that we have all internalized the violence of our culture. I am a libertarian. I have externalized society’s penchant for initiated coercion. Speak for yourself, leftist.
  4.     Patriarchy. What patriarchy? The one that gives in to nearly every feminist demand? The one that worries over not having enough women in the Senate (despite over half the voters being women) but not over the male dominance in garbage collection, logging, and sea fishing — the latter two among the most deadly jobs in today’s generally cushy workplace environments? Or would it be the patriarchy that expects men, in cases of emergency, to come to the aid of women and children, at the risk of their own lives, but not expecting anything like the same courage from women? Does not our professor realize that this cultralight requirement for male valor in defense of women was written into the law during the heyday of “capitalist patriarchy” a century ago? That this was related to the fact that men, but not women, were drafted in times of war? That men were expendable, but women not?
    I am not denying, actually, a patriarchal aspect to our current culture, and a stronger one a century prior. But I realize what traditional patriarchy was for: the protection of women and children, so that the species — society — could continue. The much-maligned Patriarchy was supported, historically, by a concurrent social institution, which we should call The Matriarchy. For savvy women realized something that feminists today do not: that the “dominance” of men in law and politics was counterbalanced by huge costs that men were forced to bear. This is doubly true for the bulk of men who were not in exalted positions of leadership.
    Indeed, beta and especially gamma males were, as stated above, expendable. They were the ones chieflu oppressed. Society way back when was not rich enough to extend certain peaceful opportunities to women. But with the rise of capitalism came the rise in the status of women, and their gradual liberation. To repeat for emphasis: the oppressive aspects of patriarchical culture fell mainly on the men, in terms of their lives and liberties.
    Sure, women did not have as much social freedom as men did, back then, especially if they were married. All this had reasonable, non-oppressive rationales. Pretending that we now experience the old oppressions (or unfortunate inconveniences) is unbelievable.
    Thonking that “we all” have internalized this old way of thinking is believable, however. But the nature of today’s internalized patriarchy will not please Prof. Long. Our patriarchal mindset is instantiated in reiterated point-blank acceptances of the bulk of the inanities of feminism.
    Feminism has always depended on the patriarchal chivalry of men.
    And men, today, still go out of their way to play White Knight for women’s fictional honor. (Personally, I have given all of that up long ago. I realized years ago that the relationships between men and women in the ages of feminism are so deeply fucked up that I am de facto Hyperborean, now. I am more feminist than the feminists, in one sense, since I have abandoned almost all my chivalric obsessions. I accept women as friends, as social equals, but not as any special concern of mine, and I doubt I would ever risk my life for any one of them I am not related to.)
  5.     “White supremacy”? Really? Is that what I benefit from, today? Is that why most Asian-American men and women make more money than nearly every white male in my nearly all-white community? Who is supreme, here? Or, is it cultural power that we scorned country bumpkins possess? Of course not. I, for one, am marginalized, if anyone is. It is Democrats and Republicans and leftists who have major political and cultural institutions on their side. Not some lowly individualist like me. And certainly not my neighboring redneck proletarians. Listening to racial theorizing from leftists reminds me of little that individualists have to offer by way of liberation. I, a white man, oppress no one. If you think I have internalized the oppression of individuals of other races, I will argue with you not only intellectually, but stridently — upon my honor. Prof. Long, in siding with these leftists, lurches preciously close to insulting me. And probably you. Perhaps any honest person of any racial background in these United States. Note: I am not saying that there are not white supremacists (the fools; the buffoons). I am not saying that there is no racial bigotry (including from racial minorities). I am just saying that supremacy is largely irrelevant to the liberation of individuals, race is itself a burden upon their thinking, and leftist obsessions with supremacy are, in and of themselves, worthy of ridicule.
  6.     Alienation is not the result of oppression. Alienation is a step on the liberation from oppression. See Walter Kauffman in Without Guilt and Justice. I expect more from a philosopher than repetition of brain-dead tropes from the unthinking masses of symbolic-action-obsessed leftists.

So, obviously I am not on the same page as Roderick Long. Why?

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.

Could Prof. Long sutter from the opposite problem, a knee-jerk pro-leftism? I believe he calls himself a “left libertarian” — an absurd position that mischaracterizes what individualism is, what libertarianism has to offer.

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.

Well, the conservative stain may very well be the case. I have argued this in the past. But upon extended consideration, I have come to think the problem arises from a completely different source. Consider this:

There are two main conceptions of justice in this world: traditional justice (in its variant forms) and revolutionary justice (in statist and anarchist varieties). These two correspond to the two visions of social causation that Thomas Sowell has advanced in A Conflict of Visions and other works. Traditional justice fits in with the constrained vision of human nature; revolutionary justice fits in with unconstrained visions. Individualism is an attempt to steer clear of the Scylla and Charybdis these two forms of justice present. My philosophy, anyway, owing in no small part to the work of Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Carl Menger and F. A. Hayek, is an evolutionary justice.

The job of the individualist is to take the insight of liberalism, about applying a few rules up and down society’s institutional matrix, consistently and seriously to all individuals even within the institutions normally associated with the State. This project is by no means alien to the basic notions of traditionally evolved justice. But it does not stop by merely restating the past. And it can only proceed if certain ancient tribal attitudes about loyalty and sovereignty are either discarded or completely recast.

And, more importantly, it does not commit the huge error of trying to remake the whole world, especially in the impossible endeavor of balancing out for the inequalities and unfairnesses of the operations of the fate or chance we see in the natural world. The evolutionary revision of justice is a limited conception of justice. It makes it out as only one virtue among many. And it is mainly attuned to the practice of coercion. Not to redressing the imagined imperfections of nature.

Leftists, on the other hand, are embedded in a culture that rests entirely upon recreating man in a new image, of fair play writ cosmically and carried out minutely. They see oppression even in the merest accommodations to nature or to others’ demonstrated preferences.

They are fools, almost to a person.

We do not have much to learn from them, other than to see how recalcitrant human moral imagination can be, how reluctant it is to settle for liberty.

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.

I have had little trouble learning from anyone, in the past. I have learned from Jeremy Bentham, Henry Sidgwick, Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch and Gore Vidal. C.S. Lewis, James Branch Cabell, Lucian of Samosata, Epicurus and Ortega y Gasset. But what I learn from true leftists? Mainly from their many mistakes.

The ways that leftists talk about oppression are almost wholly counter-productive to freedom, to true liberation. Their current obsession, often dubbed by critics as an “Oppression Olympics,” is a vile victimhood cult, a slave morality, a revival of Christianity without the leavening lump of a distant and humbling deity.

Where leftists are, there be dragons.

They have left reality in their vain imaginings, and wander in the mythic realm of Terra Incognita.


The first half of The Liberal Tradition in American Thought (G. P. Putnam Sons, 1969), an anthology “selected and edited” by Walter E. Volkomer, is a fine testament to the robust nature of classical liberalism in its heyday in America, up until the Civil War. The second half of the volume is something completely different, a series of progressive and populist perspectives obviously and utterly at variance with the liberal ideas of the rule of law and limited government limned before.

The switch is astounding in its suddenness and extremity.

It marks an about-face.

img_1904That the anthologist and his readers could call the first half liberal while bequeathing the same name to the very different second half, is instructive. No wonder the anthologist admits, up front, that “liberalism has been identified with different ideas during different periods of American history.” No kidding.

The first five chapters begin with Roger Williams on religious freedom and end with Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The clear theme is liberty.

The second section of eleven chapters is titled “Anti-Federalism and Jeffersonian Democracy,” and begins with Richard Henry Lee criticizing the proposed Constitution (approved in 1787) and ends with John Taylor of Caroline’s defense of state’s rights. Between these pieces, most of the selections are from Thomas Jefferson.

Taylor’s piece is worth extensive consideration. “I renounce the idea sometimes advanced,” explains Taylor, “that the state governments ever were or continue to be, sovereign or unlimited. If the people are sovereign, their governments cannot also be sovereign.” Obviously, as an advocate of “states’ rights,” Taylor was not an absolutist. First things first, first persons first: citizens before government.

“A government of laws and not of men, is a definition of liberty; a government of men and not of laws, of despotism.” Taylor’s basic argument is that a union of states cannot make one federal branch of government supreme over all others. As a union, each branch of the federal government and each state against the federal government, must have equal power to resist an unconstitutional encroachment by some other state or branch. Citing the oath explicitly worded in the Constitution, Taylor argues that “The mutuality of the oath, by imposing a common duty, implies a common right; because the duty cannot be discharged, except by the right of construction.” This is basically a balance-of-powers notion, expressed in terms of rights and duties, adding in the states to the mix of Legislative, Executive and Judiciary branches of the federal government itself.

No one of these can hold the last word, an over-riding sovereignty, since no state had that to begin with. The states could not and did not confer power and authority that they never had.

This is, at heart, the essence of the liberal idea: it is the individual that matters most; government can only serve and defend rights, not push people around as if all the right focused in government.

The third section deals with Jacksonian democracy. No Locofoco texts. Alas. The fourth focuses on “Freedom and the Union,” with anti-slavery argumentation by William Lloyd Garrison and an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s near-anarchist extension of John Taylor’s individual sovereignty idea. The rest of the section hails from the pen of Abraham Lincoln, writing against slavery and the Dred Scott decision, and for his own party, the Republican Party, “The Party of the Man.” This latter is a fascinating exploration of ideological inversions. It is also mostly incoherent.

The section concludes with Lincoln’s first inaugural address, a fine specimen of nationalism, and a complete repudiation of John Taylor’s approach to the Constitution. “Plainly, the central idea of secession,” Lincoln intoned, “is the essence of anarchy.” The quotations from the Constitution itself are of the vague clauses, and no serious consideration of the federation idea is anywhere in evidence.

The next section is entitled “The Protest Against Social Darwinism,” and excerpts, first, sociologist Lester Frank Ward, who though influential in the long run, was not popular in his day; second, from a speech by Edward Bellamy, the author of the wildly popular utopian science fiction novel Looking Backward, featuring vague talk of brutality and the horrors of “survival of the fittest” while making a pitch for the nationalization of industry; and finally the preamble and declaration of principles of the reform-minded Populist Party.

Our anthologist justifies these inclusions by identifying as “conservative” the character of “Social Darwinism, with it individualistic, competitive, and laissez-faire corollaries,” which “reigned as dominant” in the post-war period.

So, why is this “social Darwinism” conservative? Ostensibly, because it is “business-oriented.”

The silliness of this, considering that laissez-faire was not the traditional policy of American industrialists; the inanity of this, since William Graham Sumner, one of the briefly mentioned Social Darwinists, considered himself (and was considered by others) a liberal. Worse yet, no mention of how similar Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics (1851) was to Henry David Thoreau’s previously essayed liberalism. And Spencer was the very acme of the Social Darwinist mode of the time.

The anthologist relates how Ward refused to . . . Well, let’s quote our guide in full:

Ward accepted the basic evolutionary doctrines of Herbert Spencer, but he refused to apply them to man’s mental processes. His reform Darwinism distinguished between the wasteful, directionless competition of the animal world and man’s mental capacity for controlling his environment.

The fact that Spencer dealt with all these issues in detail gets no mention — indeed, Volkomer does not quote Spencer at all, much less acknowledge that Spencer was a known liberal, pretty much identical to the Thoreau of the excerpted “Civil Disobedience” (Spencer’s chapter “The Right to Ignore the State” is as Thoreauvian as Thoreau could be said to be Spencerian), and that his liberalism included a hearty anti-imperialist and individual liberationist bent. Characteristically, Ward did not consider Spencer’s actual arguments. At least, not in the excerpt from The Psychic Factors of Civilization, which contains the great marching order, “The individual has reigned long enough. The day has come for society to take its affairs into its own hands and shape its own destinies.”
This is technocratic socialism, not liberalism. That is, this is all very “progressive,” since the idea of limits on power goes out the window in the mad rush for “reform.”

And it is worth recalling that today’s lefty “liberals” — mostly now on the same page with the revived term “progressive” — follow Ward in rejecting biological explanations of the human mind and personality. Anti-science; anti-mind.

The rest of the book carries on in much the same vein. There is scant liberty in the liberalism of the second half of the book.

Which echoes what happened to the word “liberal” itself: it got shanghaied by statist reformers who gave their crackpot reform some cachet by glomming on to the old term.

Why? How? Largely, from what I can tell, because “liberal” was what we would now call “cool,” and was associated with smart people, magnanimous people. The progressives desperately needed cultural cachet, since they sought to revolutionize society along technocratic lines. And by cultural appropriation, they made liberalism into a watered-down socialism.

We’ve been living with the consequences ever since.

This old anthology is worth heading to your local atavism, the public library, and perusing. There is much grist, here, to aid in understanding what 1960s “liberals” thought about the word they used to define their hubristic plans to remake society.

The introduction by the anthologist is probably worth the trip, alone. It is a wondrous farrago of contradiction and nincompoopery, the sheer audacity of hope over reason.



I like Charlie Booker. He sports a droll, mocking presentation style, probably my favorite “attitude” of all the topical comedians now in play.

However, this year-end round-up — 2016 Wipe — is more interesting as an example of fake news. Not as comedy.

Since some of the subjects here being made fun of were issues and debates I know quite a lot about, it was instructive to watch him effectively distort the news, the better to serve the prejudices of his elitist, London insider audience. Indeed, he frankly says so, at one point. But we’re supposed to take it as irony. I guess.

I took it as earnest confession.

First example? Brexit supporter (and Euro MP) Dan Hannan. Booker’s editing suggests that Hannan was lying when he said the Brexit issue was mainly about sovereignty, one of the few times in the show when that issue came up. But Hannan is eloquent, and precise. His primary interest in sovereignty was clear from every video I saw of him. I mean, the videos are still up on the Web, right? Maybe I noticed merely because I’m separated from Britain by an ocean and a continent.

In any case, it’s not as if this couldn’t be checked.

Or take Hillary Clinton — please. Booker glosses right over all her scandals, never drawing the real gallows humor latent in every move of her shrill, smug campaign. It is almost as if Booker were trying to score ideological points with his comrades in the show’s audience rather than be funny. Oh, say it ain’t so, Charlie!

Or take the NeverTrump protests both before and following the election . . . or the relentless sabotage (and Twitter-feed death threats) that Trump withstood from the beginning of his campaign. No mention how the pre-election shennanigans turned out to have been orchestrated from high up in the Clinton campaign. The revelations coming out just weeks before the election. No notice of how the same folks who had been, before the fateful Tuesday, decrying Trump’s droll suggestion that he would accept the outcome of the election “only if” he won, next took to the streets to cry “Not my president!” when their side lost. Are you sure you could not find any cause for laughter, here? I thought hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance were the very stuff of topical comedy.

Charlie Booker apparently “knows better.”

This past year was filled with insanity on all sides. And yet, somehow, Booker makes it look as if the wholly insane could only be found in the ranks of Leave/Trump vothers.

There was one genuine bit of satire, though, when he interviewed a Leave voter and then shouted the man down before he could get three words out in a row. In that moment he did acknowledge that “his side” was, indeed, habitually throwing stones in their glass domiciles.

You’ve got to pick and choose a lot to make a comedy special, I know. But 2016 Wipe wasn’t so much topical satire as apologetics — if in the form of despairing mockery.

Sad. Sad indeed.

It could have been so much funnier if a teensy bit honest. Pay me his fee and I could write a funnier year-end review. At least I would capture the spirit of the age in all its witlessness.

Oh, and speaking of witlessness . . . you know what I noticed most? Repeated revelations of poor education. Ms. Cunk, near the very end (how apt) showed no knowledge of what the word “apocalypse” originally meant, how it became what it now “means,” and how both definitions work together to nod, knowingly, at the real human predicament. Instead, she runs through a brain-dead, uninformed view of the current devastation that her class feels. Oh, the feels.

In that, the show did not serve as satire, but merely as mildly entertaining grist for real satire.

For a much better attempt, scorn the professionals and give the amateurs a chance. Sargon of Akkad did a far better job than Booker did. Sure, he is serious. But also funnier:




When a friend or sibling advises me how to be safe, I attribute the concern as earnest, perhaps even as “heartfelt.”

When my insurance agent advises me in a similar manner, I infer self-interest on his part.

In both cases, I consider the advice in a spirit of equanimity and good feeling.

But when an agent of the government lectures me on safety, I check for ready exits, and eye any official weaponry with deep suspicion.


The Truth About Donald Trump’s Lies” (Jamelle Bouie, Slate) is one of the few articles on the President-elect’s relationship with truthfulness that breaks out of the humdrum, placing its author outside the corps of earnest scolds.

img_1569The Slate author, Jamelle Bouie, begins by explaining the use of prevarication by fascists, as explained by Hannah Arendt. Then he expands on Arendt’s analysis:

Put in plain language, fascists didn’t lie to obscure the truth; they lied to signal what would eventually become truth. Or to use Arendt’s analogy, “It is as though one were to debate with a potential murderer as to whether his future victim were dead or alive, completely forgetting that man can kill and that the murderer, by killing the person in question, could promptly provide proof of the correctness of this statement.”

Americans aren’t living under a fascist government, but they have elected a president with an unusual relationship to the truth. Even when they lie, most politicians care about the truth. It’s why they lie, why they try not to get caught. But Donald Trump doesn’t appear to see a difference between truth and lies. He lies as a matter of habit about matters large and small. His lies are often obvious: easily disproved by available information. For a strong example, look to Twitter. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” tweeted the president-elect on Monday. This charge is groundless. False. Frankfurtian bullshit. There is no evidence of “illegal voting,” no evidence of the mass fraud necessary to give Hillary Clinton a significant lead in the national popular vote.

But, following Arendt, debunking Trump’s lie as a lie misses the point of his lying. Since 2013, when the Supreme Court struck key provisions from the Voting Rights Act, GOP lawmakers in states across the country have pushed and pursued strict laws for voter identification and voter suppression. Republicans in Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin (among others) have tried to burden voters with cumbersome requirements, convoluted procedures, closed precincts, and reduced time for voting. In each case, Republicans began their push with broad accusations of voter fraud influenced by figures like conservative activist Hans von Spakovsky, a key architect of ID laws and other methods of voter suppression. “We call this restoring confidence in government,” said Thom Tillis, then-speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, in support of a strict voter ID law. “There is some evidence of voter fraud, but that’s not the primary reason or doing this. There are a lot of people who are just concerned with the potential risk of fraud.”

The author, of course, doesn’t take kindly to the idea of tightening up voting requirements. And here we get to the problem with his take on Trump. After an initial foray into the interesting, he reverts to the usual partisan knee-jerkery.

He calls the Democratic Party’s approach to voting rights “broad and inclusive.” Yikes. This is part of the modern Uplift approach to democracy, the trivial “rock the vote” nonsense, wherein we encourage everyone, including those who know next to nothing about politics (much less history, economics, sociology, war, taxation, etc.) to vote, which seems hardly prudent.

Making it “easier” to vote just increases the number of marginal, uninformed or uninspired voters. Precisely the kind that can be moved by unreflective, uncomplicated political pitches.

The Democratic Party, in pushing for this kind of voting, suggests, to me, that it relies upon uninformed and easily-manipulated voters.

But of course the elites defend it in “racial” terms. Which is a fine example of the party’s over-reliance upon identity politics to solidify subsidy-based allegiance.

The Slate author thus derails his essay by turning it into yet another case of special pleading, preaching to the Choir Ideological.

Apparently, Democrats just cannot help themselves.

The essay’s title focus, however, retains interest, no matter how botched. Certainly it is the case that no matter how one feels about voting rights, the President-elect has never been known as a stalwart for the truth. Mr. Bouie gives us at least some small purchase on Trump’s modus operandi. Though it run off the rails by not looking into the basic notion — and questioning whether Hillary Clinton’s long string of whoppers might not also fall into the same not-quite-familiar fascist mode — in greater depth.

That’s up to the reader, I guess.

Just not the marginal voter . . . from whom nothing insightful about politics should be expected.