Archives for category: Lexicography

The debate over whether “capitalism” should be used by libertarians and other supporters of free markets waxes rather than wanes. Last week,* Sheldon Richman published “Is Capitalism Something Good?” on Freeman Online. And I can see why Stephan Kinsella calls this an “extremely frustrating” debate. We never get very far.

My favorite of Richman’s points is lexical:

At the semantic level, capitalism is an unfortunate word when applied to the free market. It suggests a privileged status for capital over other factors of production, which is not the case in a free market. A capitalist is not a believer in capitalism but rather an owner of capital. One can be a socialist capitalist, that is, one who owns capital while favoring a system called socialism.

In my younger days of argumentation, people would sometimes accuse me of being a capitalist. Well, in those younger days I was broke. I had no savings. I had nothing to invest, and invested in nothing but my own mind. So I would correct them: “Hey, I’m near the poverty line. No enjoy-capitalismcapitalists down here! Besides, I support laissez-faire because it regulates businesses: It enforces a rule of law that disallows businesses from demanding I pay for their goods if I don’t want their goods, or pay more than I would under competition, which laissez faire also enforces. I am not a capitalist, because I insist that we keep capitalists in their place.”

This is the basic truth about the word: A “capitalist” was first known not as a defender of any system, but as one who had money to invest, or investments that returned money. It is logically odd, then, to use the word “capitalism” to identify a system whose supporters  could very well be not capitalists!

I’m not quite in the same place as I was in those days, and don’t take that rhetorical tack as often. I have a long history of being leery of the word. I cannot remember Herbert Spencer, whose general approach I admire, making a pitch for “capitalism” as a system. (His witty acquaintance Henry Makepeace Thackeray first used that term in this fashion. He was no anti-capitalist, but he was an ironist, and I won’t wager on what the precise meaning of his intent.) But Ayn Rand, notoriously, did. She published a book under her name entitled Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. When Spencer and Rand appear at odds, I long ago learned to side with Spencer.

But there are some things to be said in favor of “capitalism.” For one, it is known. It is less cumbersome than, say, “free enterprise,” a phrase that traditionalists conservatives have abused for years, as a synonym for the Main Street variety of crony capitalism.

I recently argued** for an open, inclusive use of the term capitalism. Capitalism describes any system with private means of production and a labor market. Existing forms of capitalism are, in most every case, dirigistic — that is, subject to multiple and dominating government controls. But the less government direct, micromanaging control you have, and the more the whole system rests upon a rule of law, the more it exhibits the libertarian ideal of laissez faire. Yes, another French term . . . but it’s a lot better known than dirigisme.

The sad truth of the situation is that dirigisme is the letter and spirit of modern law far more than laissez faire is.

So we can continue to use the term “capitalism” as long as we are clear about its modifier, dirigistic or laissez-faire.

However, let’s be frank: All terms have been contested and are therefore contestable. Every term has its problems of connotation as well denotation. “Laissez Faire” suffered under Herbert Spencer’s able attack as “That Miserable Laissez Faire.” We all know what’s happened to “liberalism.” And “Libertarianism” has been caught in a tug-of-war between, uh, pro-capitalists and anti-capitalists for a long time.

Such it is in ideological debate — and yes, every one of us who espouses some policy or some regime or another is an ideologue. None of us are above that (despite Marx’s attempt to squelch the term low in the echelon of epistemics).

For the same reason, we must use the words in circulation, no matter how tainted they may be. We have only a limited ability to influence their meaning. The meanings are “out there,” in the realm of intersubjectivity, if not objectivity, where truth is said to reside.

So, the term “capitalism” is not one that I’d fight much over. “Liberal,” on the other hand, is a great term to defend. I like to call modern so-called liberals by a much more apt term: Prodigal.

But most people don’t know what that means, either. And that’s mainly because most people are sloppy users of language who can write whole sermons on a contested word without once looking it up.

A prodigal is someone who spends too much, too extravagantly. Prodigality is the excess of which “liberality” is the virtue. Which fits an observation of Leonard Read’s from about the time I was born: A liberal, today, is liberal only in the sense that he’s liberal in spending other people’s money. Similarly, a progressive, today, notoriously believes in no form of progress other than the growth of the state.

It’s the prodigal advocates of dirigisme that we must oppose, today. I’m not sure giving them the word capitalism is the way to wrest victory from their rapacious desire to take, take, take from the liberalism of yore.

In fact, there’s not much I’d give them. Not even their pretense to good intentions.

But, if we do end up defending the word “capitalism” now and then, let’s not univocally ever defend capitalists, as such. Not any more than we defend wage laborers or entrepreneurs or professionals. Any person from any group, no matter how good, can stray to the point of demanding special favors from governments, bailouts and subsidies and the like. Besides, I’ve known a number of asshole capitalists, not a few who did not bother placing themselves above the practice of petty fraud as modus operandi. Shun them, even if (insofar as they cannot be caught in their frauds) one grants them their rights to trade and, in general, live their asshole lives.

Now that I think of it, one could generally hate capitalists, but love the system.*** Laissez faire is a form of regulation, a check upon business power. The rule of law, in which rights to liberty receive general protection, is an amazing defense against rapaciousness. Indeed, that’s probably the reason why most people oppose it. They want to act rapaciously while pretending to act nobly.

Ah, anti-capitalist capitalism! Not, I gather, a great motive force for progress or political reform or revolution. But there’s a t-shirt slogan in there somewhere.


* This article first appeared on The Libertarian Standard on April 20, 2010. A very few words have been changed or elided in this reprint, and one new link placed.

** This “recent” argument was reprinted yesterday at this location.

*** The sheer number of possibile takes on “capitalism” is the result of a general confusion over the meaning of the word, Daniel Kian Mc Kiernan explained a year after I wrote the above. I will have to address his points in a future essay. One of the reasons to unearth and repost these blog entries is to provide an excuse to consider Mc Kiernan’s perspective.

A number of writers from across the political spectrum have been writing about the word “capitalism” recently.* What does it mean? Do we have what it signifies? Does talking about such a seemingly vague thing increase our understanding?

enjoy-capitalismJohn Stossel argues that we don’t live under capitalism, unless you modify the word to mean “crony capitalism.” His essay “Let’s Take the ‘Crony’ Out of ‘Crony Capitalism’” makes a very familiar case:

The word “capitalism” is used in two contradictory ways. Sometimes it’s used to mean the free market, or laissez faire. Other times it’s used to mean today’s government-guided economy. Logically, “capitalism” can’t be both things. Either markets are free or government controls them. We can’t have it both ways.

The truth is that we don’t have a free market — government regulation and management are pervasive — so it’s misleading to say that “capitalism” caused today’s problems. The free market is innocent.

But it’s fair to say that crony capitalism created the economic mess.

This is all very well and good. Accurate in its own way. But I am not sure we should give in to either libertarians who want to defend free markets or statists who want to bury them in red tape. “Capitalism” isn’t a word that means just one thing, just as “democracy” isn’t a word that means just one thing. One usage isn’t obviously better than another. Thackeray’s coinage serves more than one master.

I support laissez-faire. It’s a great and noble — and ultra-civilized — policy. But laissez-faire isn’t the only form of capitalism. Indeed, the dominant form has always been some form of dirigisme, or piecemeal state control of market activity.

So, I suggest letting everybody use the word “capitalism” in a broad sense, as an economic system featuring a large degree of private property both at the consumer and producer levels, wide market interaction in both consumer and producer goods, and fully developed labor markets.

It nevertheless remains the case that laissez-faire is more capitalistic than dirigisme. For, the more state control of markets, the more limitations on private property — particularly with command-and-control regulation, rather than rule-of-law oversight — capitalism morphs into socialism. The more government you have, the less the capitalist element dominates.

To put this more straightforwardly, capitalism is defined by the features that laissez-faire unreservedly supports: private property, freedom of contract, markets in capital goods, and contract labor. So, though dirisgistic capitalism is indeed capitalism, laissez-faire capitalism is “more capitalistic,” by the standards of its very definition.

There is one sense that this understanding, however, is not true. That’s the sense in which dirigistic capitalism serves capitalists, that is, people with money. It is a truism of government that it rarely serves all, equally. And it is also a truism that money talks in politics. So, dirigistic capitalism amounts to little more than plutocracy.

This sad truth comes as a shock to those who hail from the left. Those leftists who propose to make capitalism more dirigistic often merely serve as useful idiots for the very rich. Businesses have a long history supporting mercantalist policies, policies that so-called “progressives” thought “regulated business.” Instead, regulations most often help business cartelize, even monopolize, their positions. Getting the upper hand is something many businessmen attempt, and attempt through government.

Such operations have taken many forms, from anti-trust (which actually makes businesses less competitive) through micromanaging regulation to outright subsidy.

It can be quite amusing to watch a standard-brand leftist make all the arguments necessary for businesses to trump their market competition. The trump being, of course, government.

This was most entertainingly seen in the recent bailouts, where it was a whole class of bankers and intermediaries who were aided, not the general run of market participants. Indeed, bankers’ jobs and intermediaries’ jobs were made secure, and their fortunes restored, while the economy lurched out of control and into double-digit unemployment. Such is the logic of dirigisme: Not very logical.

Very political, though.

The great rule of capitalism is that everybody’s worth differs in differing contexts. Laissez-faire is a form of regulating capitalism by the rule of law, trying to set a political limit on the value of human beings. In laissez-faire, the political value of people are equalized by their equal rights to liberty and free contract. But under dirigistic capitalism, the fluctuating value of human beings is re-introduced into the political system because rights no longer regulate human interaction, micromanaging policy-makers do. So everything goes up for grabs.

Under dirigisme you get the general exploitation of the politically weak by the politically powerful — two classes that continually shift, according to the deals and machinations of politicians. You get what Anthony de Jasay calls “the churning state.”

I have no special love for the term “capitalism,” and see no great and overriding reason to shore it up. I just want people to be able to talk to each other about the realities of the current (and past) social world. Capitalism obviously exists in some form today. But it is obviously not laissez-faire capitalism. What we are blessed with and suffer under is dirigistic capitalism.

Two French terms. Why not?

It should be remembered, though, that dirigisme is the ancient, traditional state practice. It flows naturally out of the limited-access society’s basic deal: Tough guys provide order, and in “exchange” we — each of us — gets a fairly stable, quasi-guaranteed place in that state, however lowly.

The idea of laissez-faire, though perennial, is much newer, and quite revolutionary. It is deeply associated with the idea of a rule of law, and its main feature, on the personal level, is personal freedom, the ability to choose what you do in life.

It is always amusing to me how advocates of dirigistic capitalism so readily devolve into advocates of ancient political notions of status. Both centrist Republicans and Democrats tend to move in that direction, and leftists, in particular, keep reviving ancient notions of class and “my station and its duties.”

The great thing about laissez-faire is that it allows us that opportunity to throw off the shackles of time and chance and programming, it conjures up the ability to remake oneself, correct course. This allows for a great amount of progress and flexibility. But stability? Nothing can be guaranteed.

Those who want guarantees of place and position, they tend to hate the freedom in laissez-faire. They don’t want government to “let others act” within the confines of a rule of law, they want more regulation.

Ah, regulation!

The lifeblood of dirigisme. The command structure of socialism. The inheritance of the conquerors who established the first states. At one with military orders, the darling of bureaucracies, the goal of most politicians. It is coercion instantiated in its most paradigmatic act.

The paradigmatic acts of laissez-faire, on the other hand? First, the trade; and, second, being held responsible for one’s own actions.

But I’m more than willing to admit that “capitalism” fits a broader history than the ideal of laissez-faire. So the word must be modified. “Dirisgistic” will do. I offer it to those reasonable people — see, for instance, Stephan Kinsella in his recent essay “Capitalism, Socialism, and Libertarianism” — who wish to keep their terms straight and move beyond semantic disagreement to substantive argument.

And perhaps more French words could be found for the varying degrees of control that have characterized American market life.


* This essay was originally posted April 16, 2010, on The Lesson Applied, by Wirkman Virkkala. A very few changes have been made to the original text.


“You keep using that word. I don’t think you know what it means.”

Or so said Inigo Montoya in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

He was reacting to a repeated use of the word “Impossible!”

But he might have well been reacting to “Racism!”

I eagerly plunged into Matt Zwolinski’s essay “Why Laissez-Faire is NOT Social Darwinism.” This is one of my favorite subjects, in part because most discussions of it are so hopelessly muddled that it has become my favorite sport to vivisect each argument as it appears before me, wriggling in front of my eyes, tempting my scalpel. Thankfully, this essay starts out well; it looks promising from the first paragraph. Zwolinski has set out to defend William Graham Sumner from Richard Hofstadter’s infamous “social Darwinism” charge. And yet, it quickly gives me pause. Here is the fourth paragraph:

“Fitness,” for Sumner, was not a normative evaluation but a descriptive claim. To be “fit” is not necessarily to be “better” or “more virtuous” than one who is unfit. All that fitness means, in the evolutionary sense, is adaptation to environment. Thus, in Sumner’s “colorful” words, “rattlesnakes may survive where horses perish . . . or highly cultivated white men may die where Hottentots flourish.” The point is easily missed in the face of Sumner’s unfortunate racism, but even racism is not the same as social Darwinism, and the substance of Sumner’s point here is clearly at odds with the popular interpretation of that idea. The fact that a rattlesnake will outlive a horse in a desert doesn’t make the rattlesnake morally better than the horse. It just means that the rattlesnake is better adapted to surviving in the desert. That is all.

My problem here? I almost missed Zwolinski making a good point because of his unfortunate mistake about the nature of racism.

And so, before I move on to evaluating Zwolinski’s deconstruction of Sumner’s putative social Darwinism, I must dissect the racism charge that he makes.

You might be saying to yourself, “What’s going on here? Why is Virkkala distracting himself from the main point?”

Well, “racism” has been associated with social Darwinism for a very long time. So, when Zwolinski identifies something in Sumner that strikes him as racist, he is already finding something that lends support to the Social Darwinism charge — if only in a sloppy, association-of-ideas manner. And, also, if the author makes hash of the racism aspect, it might shed light on any deficiencies we may find in the main argument. (If any there be.)

But the simple truth is that I am deeply distracted by Zwolinski’s comment about Sumner’s “unfortunate racism.” For, from the example he gave, there was no racism involved at all.


Not even a little bit.

Sumner has compared the survival-fitness of the “cultivated Englishmen” of his day with the “Hottentots” of his day. Where is the racism here?

Sure, the Englishmen Sumner was referring to were “white,” a variety of what was then known as the “Caucasoid” race, and the Hottentots were “black,” of what was then known as the “Negroid” race.

To notice racial differences is not racism. Racism isn’t “belief in the utility of distinguishing between genetic groupings of humanity.” It is the “making too much of race,” usually by imputing statistically discernible characteristics of a race to individuals of that race. One does this either because one has fallen prey to an error typical of folk statistics, or because one is engaging in some out-group antagonism, usually in service of some play of in-group solidarity. Racism is inherently anti-individualist, by this understanding.

But it is not anti-individualistic to notice that there are racial differences. So, by identifying Englishmen and Hottentots, recognizing their typical differences, one has made no racist error. None. Not one. Not even a little bit. Racism is not, I repeat, about the recognition of “race” as a useful category of thought and speech. It is about the abuse of the category.

But, but . . . Sumner called Englishmen “cultivated” and implied that Hottentots were not! How cannot that be racism?

Because “cultivated” is not a racial concept.

Anyone can be cultivated, given the right circumstances. “Cultivation,” as here used, is a cultural concept.

The very word derives from agriculture, as in “cultivating the fields.” A culture that engages in elaborate structures of production in agriculture and industry and marketing, not to mention the many arts and sciences, is, by definition, “cultivated.” When Sumner was writing, England was quite cultivated. There is no doubt of that. And the Hottentots of central and south Africa were not. They had a fascinating primitive culture. But it was still primitive. And, as such, much less complex than the English culture. Most Englishmen were “cultivated” compared to Hottentots because they were adapted to their more complex society, and that is a simple and unavoidable truth.

Oh, but “Hottentot” is an offensive term for the Khoikhoi! Well, sure. Now. But this was not known to be any more offensive than calling a German a German or Finn a Finn, back in Sumner’s day. The Germans did not use the old Latin name of “Germany” to refer to their country, not very often; the Finns called themselves “Suomilainan,” inhabitants of “Suomi,” not “Finns” from “Finland.” Similarly, the Khoikhoi did not call themselves “Hottentot” — that was a Dutch name for them, just as Finn is the outsiders’ name for the people of Suomi, and German is the outsiders’ name for inhabitants of (or from) Deutschland. Hottentot is considered offensive, now, but so are many other words that were once the only words that folks had access to.

I do not know precisely why Matt Zwolinski thinks comparing “cultivated Englishmen” to “Hottentots” is “unfortunately racist,” but I guess it is the “cultivated” part. And this is simply an error. If you think it is racist to acknowledge cultural differences between a modal Englishman and a modal Khoikhoi, or “most Englishmen” compared to “most Hottentots,” then I am not sure what to say further. It is just a category error.

What this seems to indicate, though, is something quite common among the young, these days. It was certainly not unheard of among the old when I was a child — I remember a great aunt of mine speaking this sort of offense-taking nonsense back in the 1960s — but it is especially common now. And it has a geneology:

  1. Racism is bad.
  2. I have been trained to react negatively to anything smacking of racism.
  3. Talk of “race” itself reminds me of racism.
  4. Therefore: this mention of race is itself racist!

This can best be described as the thinking of lazy minds. It happens all the time with “sexism,” too. I have heard people say that rape is sexist. That pornography is sexist. That . . . well, you get the idea. But  just because rape has something to with sex, and is bad, does not mean that it is sexist. Sexism does not encompass all the bad things that relate to sex.

To believe that it does mean this? It is to not really understand how language works. It is to lose track of definitions, and think that any association of ideas that pops into one’s precious little head warrants some drastic identity.

My interpretation of this passage runs like this: Matt Zwolinsky read the comparison between Englishmen and Khoikhoi; it made him uncomfortable; therefore: “unfortunate racism”!

I will not try to make a similar mistake by taking my annoyance with this one error and imputing it to the rest of the essay.

All I am going to do is let it stop me from reading the rest of it tonight. Stay tuned for further discussion of this important subject — and what I hope will prove to be an important essay, regardless of Zwolinski’s infelicitous misattribution of racism to this one statement by William Graham Sumner.




Defining the “alt-right” (or “Alt Right” — as with LocoFocoism, the hyphen is a problem) is especially slippery, for a number of reasons:

  1. Many who consider themselves “alt-right” are not so considered by others who consider themselves “alt-right”;
  2. Many who do not identify themselves as “alt-right” are routinely called “alt-right” by others; and
  3. “Alt-right” is a badge for some, a mark of Cain for others.

The putative enemies of the “alt-right” often use the term for any non-leftist who hates the Republican Party or who thinks SJW obsessions are especially bad for civilization.

By that latter criterion, I’m alt-right! Of course, I am not right-wing at all, alt or otherwise.

I’m a Loco-Foco (LocoFoco), which is Alt-Center.


Free speech is the unregulated speech of a free person. Free people become criminal when they engage in assault, which is what a threat on someone’s life is. And then those who threaten are open to prosecution.

Americans, of course, are too ill-educated to know what free speech is any more. Americans tend to think of “free speech” as all speech . . . minus those exceptions carved out somewhat arbitrarily by legislation and perhaps the common law (about which free speech absolutists shift in their seats when they acknowledge). But that is not the free speech idea. 

Yes: free speech is a term of art. It refers to (and is made explicable by) a larger concept, liberty. Which depends on the basic decency at the heart of civilization, indeed, humanity: reciprocity. I do not get to initiate force against you, you do not get to initiate force against me. And a threat is considered an assault, an act of aggression. An initiation of force.

The only violent threats tolerated in common law are threats to retaliate. One has a right to self defense. 

This is the great truth that libertarians emphasize, but almost no one else does: no one has a right to initiate force. That is honored in the breach, of course, in our government-ridden society, but more than acknowledged on the personal level in our law as applying to the person of the President. He is supposed to be constrained by our rights, listed somewhat crudely in the Bill of Rights, and he himself (like us) retains those common protections, plus an extra kicker bit of legislated law to back up his political station.

All those Anti-Trump assassination threats on Twitter? If the yobbos who made them continue, now they get to go to prison. And no rights would have been violated. Except Trump’s! But the prosecutors will be defending him.

Be assured, witless protestors and whiners, your days of license are soon to be over. Do you really want to test the system?


img_0050Partisans are those who, before an election, threaten to leave the country if their candidate loses; and, after the election, resist acknowledging the reasons to leave if their candidate wins.



The great ideological transformation roughly from 1850 to 1950, wherein the kind of people — defined by their education status, their bearing and culture, their general attitudes — who ensconce themselves at the pinnacle of intellectual and social stewardship switched political philosophies from individualism to collectivism, has been the subject of much dispute, especially among individualists. The general trend was tragic. But the terminological problems involved in the transformation were more maddening than anything else, at least to some.

250px-liberty_oldperiodicalAs far as individualists were concerned, the word “liberal” was stolen from them. By 1884, Herbert Spencer could plausibly make the claim that “Most of those who now pass as Liberals, are Tories of a new type.”* By the end of the century, when economist Joseph Hiam Levy speculated on the social consequences of applying classical liberal doctrine, he gave his talk before the National Liberal Club, but, when published, titled it The Outcome of Individualism, and nowhere within it used the word “liberal.” As I noted in a recent ebook reprint of that book,† by the end of the century, “Big government, unlimited government, even dictatorial government” had become “fashionable, even among people who thought of themselves as liberal. . . . So it was not clear anymore what liberal meant: it had two branches — one individualist and one collectivist.

This left the partisans of liberty as a limit to government in a pickle. What could they call themselves? The term liberal didn’t work anymore. It put them in company with all their old enemies: protectionists, mercantilists, pork-barrel enthusiasts, and even socialists.

The British writers following in Spencer’s tradition offered one solution: they called themselves individualists. . . .

But, as I went on to write, it was not a wholly satisfactory substitution. I explained some of the problems with that term in the rest of the preface to that unfortunately neglected book.

Readers today know what word finally replaced liberal in common speech and in politics: libertarian. But it, too, has had a rocky reception. Jeffrey Tucker, in a new essay‡, concisely states the problems, as popularly understood:

It’s long. It’s awkward. It always needs explaining. In America, it’s a word for both a party and an ideology. And the wars over what it actually means never end.

For my part, I have never been bothered by the “it’s long” criticism. Sure, it is long, but so are many other words in common use. Besides, it is in one way much better than “liberal” in that it does not have a primary (indeed ancient) meaning in ethics, a meaning mostly orthogonal to individualist liberalism. (“Liberal,” in personal ethics, means “open and generous”; “liberality” is a major virtue, “the quality of not being opposed to ideas or ways of behaving that are not traditional or widely accepted”**) Further, libertarian has more of the word “liberty” in it than does liberal.

Still, it is not as if the word “libertarian” did not have a separate,  non-political meaning. The word labels a position in metaphysics, defending free will††, and was well in use before its appropriation for political use.

But this hardly constitutes an argument against using it. Indeed, the two usages are in parallel in ways that liberal (in the individualist sense), may not be: metaphysical libertarianism limns the liberty of man in the context of the causal forces of nature; political libertarianism limns the liberty of man in the context of human society and, ahem, anti-sociality.

Jeffrey Tucker’s essay, though, is not concerned primarily with the advisability of the political meaning of “libertarian.” Instead, he focuses on when it began being used, consciously, by the folks who now call themselves “libertarians.”

As it turns out, libertarianism is not a strange new ideology with arcane rules and strictures, much less a canon of narrowly prescribed belief. It predates the Libertarian Party’s founding in 1972. The term came into use twenty years earlier to signal a broad embrace of an idea with ancient origins.

To be sure, if we go back a century, you will find a 1913 book Liberty and the Great Libertarians by Charles Sprading (reviewed here). It includes biographies of many classical liberals but also some radicals in general who didn’t seem to have much affection for modern commercial society. It’s a good book but, so far as I can tell, the use of the term in this book is an outlier.

Apart from a few isolated cases — H.L. Mencken had described himself as a libertarian in 1923 —  the term laid dormant on the American scene for the following 50 years.

Tucker then goes on to reveal the real origin of the term, which he discovered in the archives of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE): Dean Russell, in May 1955, suggested that “those of us who love liberty trade-mark and reserve for our own use the good and honorable word ‘libertarian.’” Soon after, Leonard Read began using the term, and an intellectual movement — classical liberalism revived and (perhaps) perfected — had a new name.

I checked Brian Doherty’s history of the modern libertarian movement, discovering only that the index sports no page citation for  the origin of the term “libertarian” itself. I skimmed (again) through the excellent first chapter‡‡, and did not find a discussion of the term’s filiation, even in the sections on the turn-of-the-century Liberty magazine.

Which surprised me a bit. For the adoption of the word can serve as a microcosm of the libertarian movement itself. Perhaps Mr. Doherty will correct me — it has been many years since I have read his book. Today I just skimmed over it. And as for Jeffrey Tucker’s account, does he really get it right? Were there only, as he contends, a few mentions of “libertarian” before Dean Russell grabbed the word from the metaphysics (not metaphysical) ether to shoe-horn it into service for a revived individualist liberalism?

I have qualms.

So let us go to the most likely origin of this terminological revolution, the pages of Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty (1881–1908). Actually, I am going to cheat, and consult the book (titled, oddly, Instead of a Book***) he compiled from its pages. And there he uses the word “libertarian” exactly four times.

In his classic and well-regarded essay “State Socialism and Anarchism: How Far They Agree, and Wherein They Differ,” which serves as the book’s first chapter, Benjamin Ricketson Tucker distinguishes between the tyranny implied by state socialism with his own anti-statist, self-designated “socialism”: “One is communistic, the other soliditarian. One is dictatorial, the other libertarian.” So there you have a characteristic use: as a general term to contrast with tyranny, with dictatorships.

Later on in the book, from Liberty’s January 1, 1887, edition, Ben Tucker laments a comrade in the cause of liberty — a man who had stated that “There is nothing any better than Liberty and nothing any worse than despotism” — who errs, Tucker claims, by defending protectionism and Greenback inflationism. Tucker titles the chapter “A Libertarian’s Pet Despotisms.”

Here the word is a noun, not an adjective. And it is obviously a term for what Tucker claims himself to be. (He usually referred to himself under other synonyms, such as a “philosophical anarchist” or “individualist anarchist,” but perhaps most eloquently as an “unterrified Jeffersonian.”) In the book’s third reference, it is back as an adjective, in a discussion of Henry George and divorce laws. The phrase in question is a contrast: “instead of being libertarian.” The clear implication of the passage is that Tucker, not George, holds to a libertarian doctrine.

The fourth use occurs in a fascinating discussion of the meaning of “anarchy.” To translate the passage into modern terms, it might read something to the effect that anarchy is not Somalia’s lack of State governance, but the institutional arrangement of a people who lack a State government while also desiring liberty, and seek to defend it. Tucker’s phrasing is more provocative:

The present State cannot be an outgrowth of Anarchy, because Anarchy, in the philosophical sense of the word, has never existed. For Anarchy, after all, means something more than the possession of liberty. Just as Ruskin defines wealth as “the possession of the valuable by the valiant,” so Anarchy may be defined as the possession of liberty by libertarians — that is, by those who know what liberty means. The barbaric liberty out of which the present State developed was not Anarchy in this sense at all, for those who possessed it had not the slightest conception of its blessings or of the line that divides it from tyranny.

Here we have definition of a free society that depends on a general settling of opinion on libertarian doctrine. Whole treatises could be written about this passage, but our take-away, here, must be how important it is for Tucker to have his ideological doctrine become culturally dominant, a libertarianism writ across society.

This particular passage, by the way, was written in response to a long letter from someone signing himself (or herself) as “Egoist.” The date was October 27, 1888.

As Jeffrey Tucker has stated, the term was sparsely used during the first half of the 20th century, and was by no means universally latched onto by proponents of the kind of radical liberty that incorporated private property — as Ben Tucker’s did, as Jeff Tucker’s does.

But I think Jeff underestimates its extent. Alas, I cannot, at the moment, do the research to back my contention up in an exhaustive manner. I do not now have access to my files from the anarchist-communist journal The Firebrand, which started publication about the same time as Tucker’s Instead of a Book came out, and in the pages of which appeared plenty of critiques of various Tuckerite positions. If my memory serves correctly, the word “libertarian” was used by the anarcho-communists as well as individualist anarchists at that time. Soon later, I know, Left (that is, anti-property) anarchists used the term to euphemize their anti-statist forms of socialism. And it has been so used until the present day by just those kind of people.

I could uncover many citations of this, but I will make do with one. Yes, just one: Senex, “Whither the Libertarian Movement?” Vanguard I:5 (January 1933), 6–8. This is a typical response to the individualist anarchists from a far-left anarchist. More such references can be found in the pages of the book††† from which I extracted this.

What is worth noting is that “libertarian” evolved to fill a need: as a euphemism for anarchist, anarchistic and anarchism. Anarchists had every reason to desire such a euphemism, considering that, in their midst, there were numerous vandals, murderers and terrorists. Ben Tucker hated violence, the “propaganda by the deed.” And even those anarchists further left than he — that is, those expressing hatred for private property, on the whole, and market coöperation, specifically, who were in fact leaning towards violent revolution — needed a safe space (a safeword?) from the rising anger of American and European populations, people who were understandably vexed by terrorism.

This actually mirrors what was happening in State Socialist circles. There, the terms socialism gave way to communism gave way to collectivism. I covered all this last year — well, rather, economist Yves Guyot discussed all this 108 years ago. “There is some popular confusion about the terms,” I explained†††, relating Guyot’s telling of the tale:

Marx and company chose “communism” in 1848 because, well, “the word ‘socialism’ had been too much discredited at the time.” But, to everyone’s confusion and delight, “they subsequently resumed it, for the logical conclusion of all socialism is ‘communism.’”

And there’s more. “The word ‘collectivism,’” according to one socialist leader, “was only invented in order to spare the susceptibilities of some of the more timorous. It is synonymous with the word ‘communism.’”

Talk about a wealth — indeed, a welter — of terminology!

But it does cast light on the Grand Ideological Theft of the 19th century, the taking of Liberalism from the individualists by the collectivists.

We who carry on the older liberalism still lament the purloined label. Jeff Tucker does, anyway: “left-wing partisans of state planning don’t seem to embrace the word liberalism as they once did. They prefer the term progressive — a misnomer if there ever was one!” And he then asks the obvious question: “Does that leave the word liberal on the table for the taking? Maybe. That would be some beautiful poetry.”

But there already has been some poetry here — some irony, perhaps. Or cosmic justice. Collectivists took away liberalism from the individualists and the individualists took away libertarianism from the collectivists.

Perhaps we should chuck it all and take up Benedetto Croce’s term****: liberism.

It is shorter.

  • * Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack, introduction by Albert Jay Nock (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981). 9/17/2016.
  • † Timothy Wirkman Virkkala, foreword to Joseph Hiam Levy, The Outcome of Individualism (Baltimore, Maryland: Laissez Faire Books, 2015), a reprint of 1892’s Third Edition.
  • ‡ “Where Does the Term ‘Libertarian’ Come From Anyway?” FEE: Foundation for Economic Education, Thursday, September 15, 2016.
  • ** Merriam-Webster,
  • †† See Randolph Clarke, Libertarian Accounts of Free Will (Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • ‡ ‡ ‡  “Patriots, Unterrified Jeffersonians, and Superfluous Men,” in Brian Doherty, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern Libertarian Movement (New York: Public Affairs, 2007).
  • *** Benjamin Tucker, Instead of a Book by a Man Too Busy to Write One: A Fragmentary Exposition of Philosophical Anarchism (Boston, 1897). This book was reprinted by Laissez Faire Books as an ebook, in 2015, with an introduction by Yours Truly.
  • ††† Leonard I. Krimerman and Lewis Perry, editors, Patterns of Anarchy (New York: Anchor Books, 1066).
  • ††† Timothy Wirkman Virkkala, foreward to Yves Guyot, Socialist Fallacies (Baltimore, Maryland: Laissez Faire Books, 2015), an ebook reprint of the first English edition, 1910. The original French edition was published in 1908.
  • **** See the “Liberism” entry on Wikipedia. Though the term hails from Croce, Giovanni Sartori has given it a trans-Atlantic treatment, and may have given it a more “libertarianish” and free-trade meaning than original in Croce. I have not read the relevant Croce or Sartori writings.

imageIf we want politicians to communicate better, and perhaps even lie less, we should no longer accept vacuous nonsense packed into specific words and phrases. All groups use vague terms that don’t really mean anything or mean different things to different people in telling ways. Perhaps we should discourage such ambiguous jargon:

imageRepublicans & Democrats: “middle class” — it doesn’t mean what you think it means; it barely means anything. “Middle income” people do not constitute a “class.” The one percent earners do not constitute a class. Learn basic concepts! Read a book. Or two. Or a hundred. Don’t be led by deceptive statistic mongers, as if a steer by the nose.

Republicans & Democrats: “hard-working Americans.” Please, don’t make me upchuck. This is a shallow appeal to people who think they work hard, but most of whom probably do not. Today, with increasing numbers of white folks on disability (simply because they cannot find work easily any more — there are of course legit cases, of people seriously wounded and ill), and many of them conservative, Republicans are simply pandering when they say this, and shoring up illusions, too. And Democrats are more embarrassing, since their frank goal is to put more people on “welfare.” Hard-working indeed!

Repub: “family values” — if you were serious about supporting families, you’d talk less about “values” and more about “virtues” — and also seriously consider the damage to family life by secular trends of wealth and sex equality, the welfare state in most of its incarnations, and even the war on drugs. Also, the sacrificial focus on gays and not on heterosexual adultery amounts to a major hypocrisy. There are many reasons for Christianity losing its position in the West — persistent double standards in sex mores is surely one of the biggest.

Democrats: “pro choice” — the relentless focus on abortion everywhere and at all times and for any reason is one of the most despicable moves in modern politics, and conflating it with “freedom of choice” is more witless than those supporters of capitalism who always talk as if there were never externalities. “Freedom of choice” for whom? Certainly not prenates. And the fact that this slogan is applied to nothing but sexual relations indicates something far worse than a mere double standard.

Libertarians: “rights” and “big government” — it is futile to bring up rights into a discussion where people do not agree on the nature of obligation. Why? Rights entail obligations. And being against BIG government can be awfully vague, for bigness is not really the issue, is it? What matters is the scope of government. Also, if one addresses issues of size and scope, one should also incorporate ideas of hormesis and diminishing returns and “scale.”

In this, Libertarians are no different than any other group. They set themselves up for pillorying by the simple-minded slogans they are addicted to.





Americans are so phobic about discrimination that they can no longer distinguish right from wrong, important from trivial, A from B . . . or x or y or z.

Puzzled? Then perhaps you are like most Americans, who are so uneducated — so ill-read, so avoidant of the life of the mind — that they do not realize that “discrimination” is itself a good thing, the very foundation stone of thought.

Lazy, foolish people, seeing the word paired with “racial” and “sexual” for decades, came, by a familiar process of the association of ideas, to see it not for what it is, and has been for centuries, but as something very different: a bad thing. That is, a bad activity.

Now, according to, the word means

  1. an act or instance of discriminating, or of making a distinction.
  2. treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit:
    racial and religious intolerance and discrimination.
  3. the power of making fine distinctions; discriminating judgment:
    She chose the colors with great discrimination.

As I understand it — and understood it even when young, since I had dictionaries available, and was not afraid to use them — definitions 1 and 3 preceded definition 2. (See the definitions provided in the image, above, for more evidence* of my thesis, here; the dictionary consulted hails from the turn of the last century.) Making a distinction and judging the value of the distinguished, and then acting upon this judgment, is what we mean, at base, by “discrimination.”

Or meant. Prior to the bastardization of the word by the thoughtless and ill-informed.

The word pair “racial discrimination” became a term of art for something that, in the 19th and 20th centuries, came to be seen (quite rightly) as bad: judging a person on the basis of the race that person belongs to, not on the individual’s evident qualities. Behind this transvaluation loomed the idea of race hatred, of course, but sometimes it was just a statistical judgment about members of a given race, a judgment that ran afoul of rationality. If many (or at least many prominent, or modal) members of a race, in your experience, were lazy and prone to violence, it would be an instance of racial discrimination to judge an individual as being lazy or violent just because of the race he or she falls into.

Racial discrimination, in this case, is bad because it is bad thinking, bad judgment — a misuse of statistics. An average or common characteristic of members of a group does not mean that every individual in that group has those characteristics.

Now, such use of statistical information does form naturally enough in our minds, since we cannot always judge everything (or everyone) on its (or his or her) individual merits. We haven’t the time.

But on matters of justice, we are obligated to “make time,” that is, go to the extra bother to treat individuals as individuals. That’s the essence of individualism, and indeed the essence of justice itself. On important matters of a social nature, anyway, racial discrimination is unjust discrimination.

But on other matters, perhaps of a personal nature, deciding an individual case on the qualification of race may be just fine. (Most people, for example, prefer to mate with members of their own racial group. They may indeed “discriminate against” prospective mates outside their race. That is not likely to be a big deal, and would almost certainly unjust to oppose on matters of government policy.) And of course the very designating criteria for “race” is not itself the same thing as racial discrimination, though discrimination — distinguishing one thing from another, in this case bodily features and genetic make-up — it undoubtedly is.

Many, many intellectually lazy people make errors of this kind.

A philosopher, on the other hand, is a person devoted to good discrimination. Wisdom. You can tell an unphilosophical mind if that person is witless enough to proclaim opposition to all discrimination.

It is a leading indicator.

And it led in 1984.

Many people think of 1984 not as the year some of us lived through, but as the eponymous year of Orwell’s dystopia. And when you think of life as he imagined it, under totalitarianism, you immediately think of the systematic misuse of words that “Big Brother” engaged in to maintain the authority trap that keep tyrants in power. Newspeak.

There was sort of a dread in the air, approaching the actual year 1984. But times were not exactly following Orwell’s prophecy, as Anthony Burgess noted in his 1985. And yet systematic word misuse was common. And were indeed political, if not totalitarian.

1984 was a presidential year in America. President Reagan was running for re-election against Democratic challenger Senator Walter Mondale. And, in that fateful year 1984, both repudiated “discrimination” as such.

Asked about gay rights — a hot topic then, as now, though very differently emphasized — Mondale responded earnestly, “I was taught on my father’s knee that all discrimination is wrong.” Reagan fumbled a bit, but repeated the sentiment. “Isn’t all discrimination wrong?”**

Perhaps they were fibbing. Perhaps, because they were politicians trying to appeal to an ignorant and bigoted-against-thought population, they dumbed-down their responses.

But I do suspect that at least Mondale had never really pondered the meaning of the word he was abusing.

And, in so doing, the two helped Americans continue to think poorly about the nature of justice and injustice, discouraging philosophy in the process.

To say that “all discrimination is wrong” is to say that thinking is wrong, judging is wrong. It shows a weakness of mind to allow oneself to be waylaid in one’s thinking by a few word pairings, such as “racial discrimination” and “sexual discrimination” and “discriminated against.”

Some may think this a trivial distinction. Language is arbitrary; it changes. True enough . . . or, should I say, too true? But while the changes are happening, while the lexical shift grinds through the culture, we who prefer our statements to be true, and our thoughts to be savvy — fit for the world around us —must stand by the distinctions and standards that promote thought and justice. It is our job to oppose, not follow, the thoughtless mob.

Think, friends; judge reasonably.  And do not let yourself get tricked by words whose meaning you have not fully explored.

And maybe open a dictionary. Perhaps an old one.



* Tom Lehrer’s great joke must be lost upon today’s youngsters as well: “The Army has carried the American . . . ideal to its logical conclusion. Not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed and color, but also on ability.”

** I quote Reagan and Mondale from memory. If you find the proper citation of their exact wordings, please contact me and I will revise the above passage.