Archives for category: Basic Principles
asked & answered on Quora: “Is life really unfair?”

Herbert Spencer

“Fairness” is a principle human beings and other animals discover in play. We humans then try to apply it to coöperation-based interactions of a more productive nature — in domestic, tribal, and business endeavors. The next step is to move the concept and its principles to handle situations of violent conflict.

And, finally, the principles are shanghaied to cover (and make up for) the workings of Fate and Chance.

For every step beyond play, “fairness” becomes trickier to apply.

It is very tempting to regard justice as identical with (or subsumed by) fairness. But it is worth noting that the principles of justice as they have evolved from ancient times into the modern age were chiefly concerned with preventing the worst harms. (This is a truth made clearest by philosopher Bernard Gert.) They did not make up for the vagaries of time and chance and the vast causal gyrations of the universe — the forces that make me homely, you beautiful and that person over there ugly and sick and deformed.

Traditional justice is a limited affair, a virtue that cannot cover everything. Unfortunately, there has developed a major competing vision of justice — “justice as fairness” in a cosmic context. Social justice — utopian or Rawlsian or neo-Marxian or what-have-you — is such a radical paradigm shift that it spells a complete paradigm revolution.

And not in a good way.

This extension of fairness standards to make up for the workings of nature is socially destabilizing. Indeed, it threatens at every application to overthrow the great advances made in traditional justice with the tweaks that happen when society moves beyond the tribal and agrarian and into open society status. Our approach to justice should be studied, not wishful. Instead of either traditional justice or revolutionary justice, I suggest evolutionary justice, as pioneered by Herbert Spencer and F. A. Hayek. With this approach, our moral reasonings are moderated by reason rationally restrained. Evolutionary justice interposes between traditional and makeshift authoritarian dogmas and the more grandiose claims of cosmic fairness.

Caution. Please. It’s hard enough applying fairness to games, much less work and family and all that. Extending it to cover all the fortuitous differences among humans and the higher animals is . . . well, the word is hubristic.

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Pictured: Herbert Spencer, author of the Synthetic Philosophy.
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The more diverse a people are — the greater the variety of ethnicities, languages, cultures, folkways — the less extensive a government they can peacefully share. Real diversity requires limited government. Only in monocultural societies can robust, Leviathan government remain sustainable for long.

The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. The chief of these is the tragedy of the commons.

A government in the form of a republican State (a “liberal democracy” as it is sometimes called) is conceived of by most of its proponents as a shared resource, established for the good of all — a “commonwealth.” But common resources require regulation to prevent individuals and groups from abusing and over-using the resources — that is, adapting to the common resource opportunities by gobbling up more for themselves than for others. And by “adaptation” I mean altering their behavior and their way of life to enable them to secure more common resources. And, as anyone with a lick of sense knows, self-regulation would be ideal. It’s the least expensive way to maintain the institutions, secure their long-term viability. Hence the importance of a monoculture.

enjoy-capitalismAristotle wrote about this. But I haven’t read Politics in 40 years, so I forget if the great philosopher applied the commons problem idea to the form of government itself. (I will let someone else look it up, or just tell me.) Economist W.F. Lloyd wrote about this in the 1830s, and ecologist Garrett Hardin made it famous in the “tragedy of commons” phrasing in our time. Hardin applied it to environmental resources, but it also applies to State-marshaled resources of any kind, including wealth obtained from taxes. Public Choice economists have been working on these problems for about the period of my lifetime, though Vilfredo Pareto clearly understood it in his critique of socialism at the beginning of the 20th century.

It was this idea that helped lead me to prefer limited government as a general policy in the first place. It should be easy to see that the more similar people are, the more likely they are to forgo overusing public resources. Why? Out of kinship altruism. But this sort of forbearance is harder to generally maintain in diverse populations, so there is a tendency for welfare states to turn into “churning states,” where the web of “everybody trying to live at the expense of everybody else” becomes so complicated that no one really knows who the net benefactors and net beneficiaries are. This leads to poltical strife, and … our present situation.

IMG_2027The Scandinavian states have been moderately successful with a robust redistributive state in large part because they have been so genetically and culturally uniform. And yet, over time, the moral probity that prevented overuse of common resources has waned, and permanent dependent classes have formed. Oddly, these countries have been importing these dependent classes, too, mainly from Muslim countries, so I expect these states to fall or undergo some significant kind of revolution in a generation or two.

Note, then, how wrong today’s progressives are. Driven by liberal piety, they insist upon diversity. And yet their politics is one of class division combined with socialistic government growth, which undermines sustainability. It is inherently contradictory.

More contradictory yet is their internationalism. Nationalism — indeed, ethnonationalism — is the surest sustainable way to keep welfare states going in the long run. So progressives are wrong and the so-called “alt-right” is definitely correct. If you want extensive state action, you need to draw boundaries along ethnic or “racial” lines. And indeed we find that alt-right maven Richard Spencer, after scratching the surface of his poses, has proven to be an ardent supporter of the welfare state.

Now, there are several other ways (serving as alternatives to ethnonationalism) to counter-act this commons-overuse problem. The chief method, in our time, has been consumerism. Consumer culture has broken down ethnic divisions, and can indeed make populationsmore uniform the better to be ruled by — and encourage support for — an extensive “welfare state.” And once again we find progressives utterly on the wrong side, for they pretend to be against consumerism, and their hatred for big business works against the only cultural factor that could possibly make the politics of social democracy work in a diverse population.

For my part, I prefer actual diversity, and believe that a rule-of-law-based polity is the way to go, so I oppose both the pathetic alt-right and the contradictory mishmash philosophy of progressivism.

Yes, I’m a real liberal. I do not just spout liberal pieties, as does today’s left, but I embrace the liberal spirit of tolerance of diversity, which the left, today, does not (their class warfare version is faux-diverse, and in fact promotes commons overuse). And I also wish to establish long-term social institutions, not institutions subject to takeover by special interests and run along exploitation lines. Democracy in a welfare state is as contradictory as a welfare state in a diverse society.

So, you may have guessed it: diminishing the scope of democratic action is another way to control overuse of common resources. On the left this is done by seeking to limit lobbying of government (a basic right under our Constitution) and setting up of complex bureaucracies and guilds of power, immune to electoral shock. On the right we have . . .

Donald Trump.

IMG_1929Trump sure seems anti-democratic, and that is a possible solution to save the welfare state from its most hysterical advocates and its abuse from group interests at the public trough. And, let us admit, that is precisely what modern conservatism is all about: saving the welfare state from the progressives and their insane prodigality. (Conservatives do talk about building down the welfare state, but that’s just their piety; it does not seem to be a real goal. Demonstrated preference tells us this.)

Since I’m not a conservative, you see why I dislike both political parties and the major factions within them. And why I don’t get on board with Trumpism.

I can find Trumpism funny, however. Why? Because modern ideologies are so incoherent that Trump serves as the cutter of Gordian Knots; he’s the Mule (as I’ve said any times); he’s the Loki figure. Whether this will save the welfare state, or bring it down faster, I do not know. While we wait to see what happens, Trump’s bizarre antics entertain.

He and we fiddle as the Empire burns.

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It has become commonplace: the hallmark of today’s self-identified Left is to play encomiast* to diversity while brooking scant diversity of opinion. Indeed, difference of opinion now fills them with scorn and rage.

What do we call their error here?

They have ready terms for people who hate or discriminate against others on the basis of race or sex: racism and sexism, respectively.

They have ready terms for people who hate or discriminate against gays, trans people or foreigners: homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.

So, what do we call their hatred for people with different philosophies, who diverge on matters of facts and values?

Shall we dub them with an “ism” or a “phobia”?

If it is to be the latter, may I suggest xenologophobia?**

I have many ideas for the ism variant, but I suspect I should merely ask others for the exact term that has been fixed upon by professionals. (Call this a bleg.)

Nevertheless, I proceed. And I note that it would be especially satisfactory to base the epithet on the philosophical nature of the error.

How? Well . . . racism and sexism, for example, are not just about hatred or “discrimination.” The error in these attitudes, if we drill down to principle, limns the nature of the prejudice: racism is the “making too much of race” by imputing some generalizations about a race to individuals of that race regardless of merit.

Even were the modal Swede socialist-minded, it would be an error to assume that every Swede you meet is a socialist, no matter how statistically relevant the identification with Swedes and socialism. This would be racism, were Swedes considered a race. (Otherwise we could call the error Swedism? I mean, ethnism?)

Similarly with sexism. “Sexism is judging people by their sex,” wrote the coiner of the term, “when sex doesn’t matter.”

Leftist ideologues who will not debate their opponents respectfully, who exclude non-leftists from the community of scholars on criterion of lockstep ideological agreement, put too much stock in their ideas, and have abandoned liberality, tolerance. We could simply and rightly call them illiberals. But that doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter.

They negatively judge people by their ideas when ideas don’t really matter . . . by ideologies when ideologies shouldn’t matter. But we can’t call these illiberals “ideaists” (“idealism” already having been nabbed for other purposes). Too clumsy.

But hey: we do not need the -ism or -ist, really; there are other suffix options: think of Christianity. Isn’t there an -ity suffix, or something similar?

How about idiots?

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* Encomiast, remember, was defined by Ambrose Bierce as “a special, but not particular kind of liar.”

** If they fear even going halfway to meet people they disagree with, for fear of endlessly parsing disagreement, we could call them Zenologophobes.

A Conjecture

Maybe because my aesthetic tastes are so resolutely minority (or ultra-minority), I have never been inclined — even before I developed any political opinions to speak of — to seek to prohibit the publication, exhibition or performance of any work of art on “community standards” or even moral grounds. Could it be that those people with more standard, popular tastes, are precisely those most likely to leap to censorship or even boycott pressure to squelch art or ideas they do not like, simply because the commonality of their tastes suggests to them the power of majority opinion, and thus the likelihood of success?

IMG_2025And could we be witnessing the loudest crowing for abridgements of free speech (“hate speech is not free speech!”) from college campuses and media enclaves for reasons of this very principle? Universities and Hollywood and major media are de facto intellectual bubbles, self-selected (as well as pressure-driven by intranigent minorities) to enforce ideological ideologial uniformity . . . and thus the perception of majority taste. Leading, in turn, to the current anti-free speech mania.

Well, it’s a theory. A conjecture.

I advance it, in part, to explain why illiberal ideas take form and grow. Perhaps they crystallize when there is too much cultural homogeneity.

Which, if true, would be the cream of the jest, since the current batch of illiberals are those progressives who yammer the most about “diversity.”

But, as is now widely known, they are not really interested in value diversity. They are interested in racial and sexual (OK: “gender”) diversity only. By sharing a value-dependent moral vision — not a transaction-based principled vision — they have developed a surprisingly strong sense of community, and use their commonality to enforce strong pressure to out-groups to conform to their in-group.

Even while, yes, preaching the doctrine of “inclusion.”

There is nothing about progressivism which does not give cause for sardonic laughter.

In this context, it has been a hoot to watch major media figures fall from grace over the issue of sexual harassment . . . and graver sexual misconduct. Call it Schadenfreude on my part. It is truly rich. Mainly, what we are seeing here is the purging from the Sanctimonious Classes eminent figures who, it turns out (and to only feigned surprise), had no good reason for self-righteousness, or any standing for righteousness at all.

I may be disturbed by the witch-huntery of mass boycott and social censure that sends the Weinsteins and Lauers and the like into the Outer Darkness — without trial or rules of evidence or much nuance about the acts actually mentioned — but to witness the celerity of the “punishment,” and its apparent extremity (no livelihood left for any of these? Really?), directed at people who have been so smugly censorious of others on these very grounds? Priceless.

When Patrick J. Buchanan declared a culture war, decades ago, I confess: I was not impressed. But he was right. (I know: “far right”! Ha ha.) We are now in full-out culture war on largely political grounds, and I have been thrown in with conservatives whose general approach to life (“there is no kill like overkill”) I have some basic difficulties with. But, though the conservative temper may be fear-based about cultural cohesion, and far too prone to the vices of rage and vindictiveness, progressive vices now seem more dangerous. I can live peacefully among conservatives. But would I be given any peace from progressives? I think not. They would love to tax and regulate me and those I know into conformity with their values. They would never cease to hector me for my disagreements with their dogmas. And their vices? Envy alone could destroy civilization, if it be entirely unleashed. Rage leads to warfare; envy to totalitarianism.

But of course, as I’ve said many times before, progressives in politics are the new conservatives in temper. It is they who rage against differences of opinion. It is they who scream at their ideological opponents and refuse to use reason in debate. It is they who join hands and use the social controls of boycott, shunning, shaming, and moralistic opprobrium to marginalize others.

So, how to attack them? Perhaps reason will not cut it — not to begin with, any way. They must learn that their basic values are not universally shared. That their tastes are not universal, and not written into the warp and woof of the universe.

Maybe, chastened, shown not to be as “open” to diversity as they had pretended, they will then listen to reason, and learn that the way to accommodate diversity is with the easy yoke of liberty and not the dead hand of the totalitarian state.

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3 Great Errors

It is not a common term, this “agnarchism.”

Do a Google search: most hits come back to me and mine. As I have readily admitted before, it is not my coinage, but it was coined for me. Way back in Liberty magazine days, I would often explicate my basic take on political philosophy: I am more confident of the direction we should go than how far.

I hold that, human nature being neither infinitely malleable nor absolutely adamantine, we cannot know where, exactly, the possibility boundary of social action and policy lies the further we are from instantiations of any given imagined possibility. We must withhold judgment, at least admit a high degree of fallibility about the ideal legal-political realm. Especially if we accept as given that current taboo boundaries enable so much exploitation, misery, confusion, and needless death.

But my agnosticism in ideology is a bit more precise, as well as extreme. I am pretty confident that moral reasoning does not readily justify a State. That is philosophical anarchism. But I am much less confident that moral reasoning is perfectly matched to human nature. I suspect there may be something like an Incompleteness Theorem in the ethical domain. I fully accept that social morality rests upon notions of universalizability and reciprocity — but I am not certain that human beings can, in fact, establish and maintain a workable advanced society solely on the basis of the social statics of universal laws and reciprocal habits of action.

IMG_1239Human beings are primates. We share a lot with other primates. And these similarities are not limited just to violent chimp and peaceful bonobo and hierarchical gorilla. There is some individualistic orangutan in us, too. And, alas, no small amount of baboon.

The human acceptance of hierarchy seems more than adaptable to coercive orders. Indeed, I see a lot of evidence that most humans demand coercion and readily supply coercion. Force is a heady tool, quite addictive. Can man curb the habit not cold turkey but limit it to defense and retaliation?

I do not know.

Which makes me not an anarchist (which is what I confess I would like to be) or panarchist (which is what I am on alternative weekdays), but an agnostic-about-the-state. I do not believe that the State is moral. I just doubt that morality is all it is cracked up to be. The State may be inevitable, an ugly, hateful necessity.

And I have held this position explicitly for more than three decades. Traces of my philosophy can be found in the first twelve volumes of Liberty. But I never really wrote it out in full.

Which brings me to Jan Lester, author of Escape from Leviathan (2000), an excellent and challenging treatise as well as an eminently accessible essay, “The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians” (2013). I am happy to report that I do not make all three of the errors he identifies. But perhaps I do make one or two. Over the next few weeks, I aim to consider Lester’s “new paradigm” for libertarianism. And I will, if I manage to follow through, report on my explorations here, at discriminations.info.

At top, notice Lester’s list of errors, which I have, with some effrontery, perhaps, put in imperative form: J. C. Lester’s Three Commandments for Libertarians. In his original form they are

  1. The error of seeking a foundation or justification
  2. The error of taking sides between deontologism and consequentialism, etc.
  3. The error of having no explicit, necessary, and sufficient theory of liberty

And, to prove that “most libertarians” make these errors, just ask philosophically minded libertarians what they think of this list. I bet most would indeed be shocked by at least one of them, perhaps two or all three.

But wait: I have already made an error!

You see, we cannot prove anything, says Lester. Nothing can be “supported”; there can be no “justification.” All we can do is offer conjectures and respond to criticism.

As you may guess, Lester is a critical rationalist. And by that he means he follows in the tradition of Karl “Conjectures and Refutations” Popper, as elaborated by Imre Lakatos, W. W. Bartley III, and others.

Or maybe that would be Karl “Objective Knowledge” Popper. Or Karl “Realism and the Aim of Science” Popper. Could it be Karl “The Poverty of Historicism” Popper?

But before I draw out some not-very-funny joke about intension and extension and book titles, I will simply confess: I do not really disagree much with critical rationalism, though I come at it from the critical commonsensism of C. S. Pierce and his pragmatics of meaning. What separates me from this philosophy is language, word choice. J. C. Lester insists that words like “proof” and “support” and “justification” have no place in legitimate epistemology (not to mention epistemics). And I see his point about the use of the first of those words, for I still hold (if without much enthusiasm) to a variant of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, and agree that matters of existence map orthogonally from a logical plane. Logic relates to the realm of essences. It does not provide us truth so much as validity. Logic may track the truth of concepts in the purely conceptual realm, but not existents in the external world.

Or something like that. I could be wrong.

To me, though, good indications of the truth about the world constitute “support.” A preponderance of the evidence “justifies” belief. I am not too disturbed by this sort of word usage. More importantly, I strongly suspect that matters of normativity hold to distinct operations and principles of their own (Bentham coined the term “logic of imperation” to handle this aspect of everyday “reality”), and that justifying a norm and justifying an act and justifying a belief are three distinct things.

So, Lester’s first challenge is something I will have to think about. I may be expressing confusion, here. It is late . . . in the morning . . . (why am I not asleep yet — it is nearly seven antemeridian!) . . . and it has been years since I have read what little I have tried of Popper, or what I have read of Peirce, and all the rest. I have been struggling with Meinong recently, and my struggle has not yet ended.

Miles to go before I sleep.

As I will explore in other entries, I am generally in agreement on Lester’s second contention, and in general approach (if not content) regarding his third. Amusingly, Lester calls himself an anarchist. He seems confident of that, though his method seems so fallibilist I am just no sure why he does not identify, with me, under the agnarchist label.

As I go through Escape from Leviathan, and as I edit a video conversation I had with him and Lee Waaks on Sunday, I hope to “live blog” the Lesterian paradigm in this venue for some time to come.

And I will place the videos here, as I put them into final form. We talked, the three of us, for over two hours.

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escapefromleviathan

I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone.

The problem, in re H. L. Mencken’s admission, above, is that to obtain freedom for yourself you must bar others from abridging it not only from self, but from some or even all others. Liberty cannot be advanced except by taking license away from others.

And forswearing it for self, as well.

This is a corollary to William Allen White’s great maxim:

Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others.

Or, to summarize, the words of J. H. Morse:

Liberty is no respecter of persons. Freedom with an exception clause is spelled L.I.C.E.N.S.E.


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Just as “left” and “right” are relative to one’s position vis-à-vis up and down and forward and back, Sartre’s dictum that “existence precedes essence” is true only depending on the direction of a particular philosophical transit.

And I see no reason to privilege one trek over another.

More valuable is Santayana’s counter to ancient rationalism: “essences are promiscuous.” That is, essences are infinite and non-determinative of existant matter.

Existents have many essences. That is, for every existent there is an infinity of essences. And which one may or may not be relevant to any tale or problem or accounting depends on the exact nature of each tale, problem, or accounting.

This is a relativism of essences.

It is not a relativism of truth, however.

How so? Truth is a function of propositions . . . or, if you prefer, a function of maps, and maps are arrays of essences conceived as mirroring or directing us through the realm of the objects of our attention — one realm of which includes, not surprisingly, the (or some) set of existents.

Existents are one kind of object; essences another; and when the latter maps the former in a more or less serviceable way, we have truth.

So, which precedes the other is irrelevant — from the aforementioned Promiscuity Theory of Essence. Emphasizing existence as taking precedence over essences, or vice versa, cannot be bedrock, for it all depends on where we start the story of our intellectual transit.

Essentialism? Existentialism?

If we start the story from our embarrassingly humble origins as a gamete pair or a baby or the first grader on the bus to school’s first day, existentialism is obviously the better story. But if we begin intellectually, as every philosopher qua philosopher in fact does — in medias res, as it were — within a vast realm of signs and portents and rumors and concepts and memeplexes, then essentialism cannot help but capture our imaginations.

One might be tempted to call this viewpoint “relativism,” but that will not do, will it, seeing as how we must reject a relativism of truth for a relational set of essences mapping existence?

But “Relationalism” is ugly.

Philosophical promiscuity, with the tip of the hat back to Santayana?

Who himself called this perspective “critical realism.”

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img_2320This morning I disengaged from the closed-but-unmoderated Libertarian Facebook group that my friend James Littleton Gill has promoted in the past. Why? It mostly consisted of posts about how libertarians are racist and really like or approve of Nazis. Yikes.

Apparently, if you set the cost of joining a group at FREE, and don’t vet anything, then, why, your enemies will ruin it!

Wow. Who would have thought!

It is almost as if private property and the legitimate threat of expulsion serve a function. In a free society. Read the rest of this entry »

With the triumph of Donald Trump, we are told to beware of authoritarianism, fascism, totalitarianism. Those on the left, especially, ominously shriek their warnings, advising us to read Ninety-Eighty Four. But, like usual, leftists have chosen the wrong book. The science fiction classic relevant here is Frankenstein. The Left, after all, bred its Nemesis. It should learn to sympathize . . . if not with the monster, at least with its creator.


If you think that people who hold ugly ideas need to be hounded out of society, must be socially destroyed, you do not believe in free speech. You are illiberal.


The need for rules and taboos will surely never end in human society. We cannot think through the consequences of every act. We must make short cuts. By holding one or many sets of actions out of bounds, we are relieved of the necessity of evaualting those actions and their effects. This is what Hayek called nomocratic — the government of rules. The rule-following aspects of life allow for the purposeful aspects of life to be managed more effectively. Rules outsource wisdom from individuals to tradition and  folkways.


The world of facts is not all that is the case. Fiction has been a driving force for human adaptation and progress. Facts are for computers. Fictions are where humanity has thrived. Those who think morality compels us to always “stick to the facts” will fail to become fully human.


Determinism is a theoretical map placed upon the world. It is akin to measurement, which also maps reality, but by comparing reality to an idealized construct, a standard. Determinism runs afoul of the truism “the map is not the territory,” and proves off-point with Zeno’s arrow paradox, in which we buy into a premise of measurement — a mapping technique — forgetting the reality in the act of mapping, measuring. The truth is that the arrow hits the target and stops. The truth is that adding sign and significance and concepts to the causal reality, causal reality is transcended — leaving determinism measuring a world no longer relevant to it. For, as Hume showed us, the realm of ideas behave by logic and validity, not causality, and our life of the mind places us on another level beyond any simple causality.


Socialism is the fantasy of most Democrats, libertarianism of many Republicans.

The former has long been the case, but usually was discounted with a breezy admission that socialism be “unworkable” in some way, but still “a good idea at core” and “obviously the more moral way of organization” though, sadly, somehow leading to bad results when pushed too far. So most Democrats compromised, always nudging towards more government, but accepting some need for compromise. Recently, the understanding of socialism’s scalability problems have evaporated, and the Democracy has lurched towards hard-left collectivism and a sort of Cultural Revolution moralistic groupthink.

Republicans’ besetting fantasy has been increasingly libertarian, but they often impute to the recent past more libertarian features than it possessed. Because progressives thoroughly won the ideological wars by 1960, and recast much of American life in terms of heavy state interference, characteristically conservative attitudes tend to bolster existing progressive institutions. The Republicans’ libertarian fantasies have thus served more as a touchstone than a lodestar, or, better yet, more of an anchor to prevent hasty and unsustainable acceptance of further socialist incursions.

Amusingly, the Democratic socialists take the libertarian fantasies of Republicans more seriously than do the Republicans themselves. They see these fantasies as a real threat, and, like many Republicans, often mistakenly impute Republicans’ characteristically milquetoast reforms as “free market” and “ruggedly individualistic“ (“by the bootstraps!” in their demonology of convenient clichés) when the Republicans’ fantasies are in fact barely ever more than nods towards individualistic rigor.

This yields us the peculiarly daft ideological divide of recent history, and makes talking with normies of both sides quite frustrating. They rarely can distinguish between fantasy and reality, especially when contemplated in the other sides’ ideological eructations.

Recently, though, it has gotten more interesting. With the popularization of Bernie and Elizabeth Warren’s “ideas” (mostly, of course, fantasy and rank delusion) the Democrats have abandoned their previous distancing from socialism to an embrace of the very word on the grounds that any government program is socialist, so wanting more programs makes them, unabashedly, “socialists.” This is so stupid one wonders if they have any sense of history at all, or any respect for clear thinking.

But they look like Einsteins compared to the brain-deadening drain on principle that is the Trump phenomenon. Almost any love for individual freedom has been thrown out the window for the silly nationalism of Trump’s unlearned approach to policy. The only palliative, here, is the obvious build-up of failures in the new administration. Which may lead to an implosion. Soon.

We are reaching for an apogee of silliness, it seems, upon which we can expect the decay to be quick and catastrophic.

But I hope I am wrong. If the modern world can keep running through its witless iterations of fantasy and compromise, we may witness the unfolding of some new alignment of politics, perhaps of a Seussian nature: will your fronts be plain, while your opponents sport stars upon thars? Or the reverse?

Better that than a choice of hammer-and-sickle vs. swastika, leading to the conquest by people preferring to adorn themselves with the crescent.

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On my old hand-scripted blog Wirkman Netizen — now decommissioned — I wrote a longish post  about the slogans “Taxation Is Theft!” and “Taxation Is Robbery!” and took the contrary-to-my-comrades position. Since the main essay is offline, I guess I should repost it, here. My points are somewhat technical, but my aim is practical. Which might make it hard to categorize.

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Taxation Is Not Theft

Libertarians are too fond of slogans such as “Taxation is Theft” and “Taxation is Robbery.” They get quite a charge out of such maxims. And, with these maxims, they do manage to get a good idea across to some people, people who come to see that taxation is, indeed, a form of expropriation, and that it is analogous to forms of theft such as robbery, and that maybe we can do better.

Perhaps we can pay for public goods without engaging in extortion and expropriation.

But to people who really want those public goods, and who are capable of elementary distinctions in language, they are not convinced by these slogans. They are put off by them.

And they have good reason to be. Taxation is not theft. Not really.

Taxation is the expropriation of private property according to an established rate, as put into law by an established state.

Robbery and other forms of theft are illegal kinds of expropriation, and piecemeal at that. Taxation is a legal kind of expropriation.

To many libertarians, this distinction is not much of a distinction at all. They have pretty much thrown out the distinctions between legal and illegal, and are in a continual revolutionary mode of thinking, ready at a moment’s notice to throw out whole chunks of the rule of law and state practice.

So of course they equate all kinds of expropriation.

Well, not all, since libertarians do support some forms of expropriation. They have no trouble expropriating the loot of thieves from thieves, after court adjudication. And they have no trouble expropriating from a person found liable, in court, to a tort claim.

They just don’t support taxation.

My Contention: The main reason radical libertarians will not get anywhere is their complete lack of understanding of the normal mindset, which is not constantly in revolutionary mode. Radical libertarians who trot out slogans such as “taxation is theft” do not address the respect a non-revolutionary has for the rule of law.

Indeed, because of this revolutionary stance — and I’m not talking about physical, bloody revolution so much as a particular stance regarding ideas and consent — these libertarians cannot deal with normal folk.

They offend normal folk; libertarians often (and with good reason) strike normal citizens as lunatics, perhaps dangerous lunatics.

This is one reason why I choose my words more carefully — or at least differently— than radical libertarians. I wish to address normal folk in normal language. I believe it is incumbent upon me to make every step towards a revolutionary mindset clear. I wish to pull no wool over any eye. I believe we have to approach greater liberty with complete honesty. No rhetorical trickery.

And I regard slogans such as “taxation is theft” as something close to rhetorical trickery.

It may be that we will someday be able to support all worthy public projects without any taxation.

But however we manage to do this (and I’ve lots of ideas, not limited to simple slogans like “the market will take care of it”), it will have to be done within the framework of the rule of law.

And people in such a future society will have to regard the means used at that time in something other than constant revolutionary mode. Even if they can think of better ways, they will have to show some respect for the rule of law of the day.

As libertarians, by and large, do today. Most pay their taxes, if grudgingly. They are revolutionists only in speech.

Hypocrisy? Not really. But, as I’ve argued before, if it is, then this kind of hypocrisy is better than stupid, feckless revolt, or the sad parade of individualist martyrdom.

This all came to mind in the debate I mentioned on David Friedman’s Ideas blog. Writing on No Treason, John T. Kennedy has this to say about the debate:

In a comment to Friedman I point out that he has called taxation robbery and robbery is widely considered unattractive and indefensible. Does this mean that in using the word “robbery” Friedman dishonestly mischaracterized the motivations of all who support taxation? No, he correctly characterized the act of slavery.

I must add some precision here: Expropriation is not an act of slavery, but merely that, the taking of property. Slavery is the most extreme type of expropriation, perhaps, being the theft of one’s autonomy and practical ability to choose and move about, and ability to hold property justly acquired (or not). But slavery, the most extreme crime against liberty (just as murder is the most extreme crime against life), is only by analogy an act of theft.

Further, if Friedman has used the phrase “taxation is robbery,” he may indeed have erred. Not so much in terms of dishonesty, but in missing a whole element of society that most non-revolutionaries accept without much thought, but which libertarians too often rule out of consideration, give little or no thought to.

So, what is taxation again? Taxation is like theft, in that it is expropriation. But the state is not “just like a group of robbers and bandits.” It is distinct. It gains the general, practicing consent of the bulk of the populace. Most citizens of modern states remain unable to see how they can manage without the state, and many, perhaps most, treat it as a major source of their own well-being.

This makes a difference. Why? Intentions do make a difference. They add a level of meaning to interaction.

To call the state, either pointedly or by implication, nothing better a group of bandits, is to misunderstand it, first, and to antagonize its supporters, second. The “taxation is theft” mantra does more than just imply that “the state is a robber band.” Why? Because everyone knows that the power of the state comes from taxation. That is the basic power, the foundation of the rest. That is why, in fact, one of the basic powers that the colonials wished for their states, in union as well as separate, when they seceded from Britain in 1776, was the power (indeed, right) to tax.

How much better to avoid the mantra, and say something like this: “Yes, too often, the state does behave like bandits; too often its very mode of existence encourages a banditry ethos in society, making us all worse off through internecine expropriation and conflict.” By toning down the language of invective a bit, we go back to simile and revert from bold metaphor treated as stark, unliterary truth.

After all, “Taxation is theft” is a metaphor. It is not a logical identity. To presume such is to engage in a philosophical error, and to misunderstand a crucial element of normativity in society.

Libertarians will not succeed until this error is consistently avoided, and a more reasonable dialectic becomes dominant in the movement — that is, a more reasonable and nuanced way of dealing with those people whom libertarians say they want to convince.

twv

Links

This has appeared twice on the Net before, at wirkman.net and wirkman.com [dead links]

Brian Doherty discussed it briefly on Reason’s Hit and Run.

I discussed it on video, in my usual semi-coherent fashion, here:

And last year I discussed this essay, quoting it in part, here: “Taxation Is…