Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reasoned discussion through slander, insults and ridicule

A couple of days ago I came across a rather odd attack on libertarians. I’m used to such attacks myself. After so many years actively involved in libertarian circles I’ve seen them all. But this one struck me as particularly bizarre, though typically inaccurate. Two things were odd to me. One was that the article, by Jim Taylor, was posted at the website for Psychology Today, and secondly, the author claimed his “intentions” were “curiosity and understanding rather than judgment and criticism.”

That struck me as odd because his focus was not on libertarian thinking at all but entirely on attacking, or insulting libertarians. How much understanding is someone seeking who, in the very same sentence, refers to “a rapid pack of Americaus Libertarius,” the latter phrase being his cute term for calling libertarians a “species.”

I penned a short reply and made notes for a more in-depth response to be posted here. But, for no explained reason, the article vanished from the website. It also had apparently been posted at the website for the San Francisco Chronicle, but it vanished from that site as well. I can only hope it was because the author realized how unfair he was in his depiction and how insincere his talk about “understanding” appeared.

Notice: The article has since reappeared in a heavily edited format. You can find it here. Taylor removed most of the insults from the revised version. He removed the "four types" of libertarians he discussed. He added qualifiers that previously had not existed. Most of the points I made in this reply were made moot by his newly edited version. However, the accusations he made are not uncommon from some on the Left so the reply is valid in general even if no longer an accurate portrayal of his new, edited version of his article. He still doesn't know the difference between a principle and a policy. His general view is still as negative as before but he removed most the particularly egregious comments that I mention below.

One thing he said was true. He did refer to libertarians, as people who know that the world they live in will “never, ever even remotely resemble the world in which you want to live.” I can live with that. I know that there will always be bigotry and prejudice, but I yearn to live in a world where that won’t happen. I know that there will always be people who act violently upon others, but I yearn for a world where that would not happen. I would love to live in a world where disease, poverty, hatred and war are vague memories from a distant past.

All I can ask Mr. Taylor is: What decent person doesn’t yearn for a world that they know they will “never, ever” find? Considering how many awful things exist, that we all wish were abolished, I would argue that any individual, with even a smidgen of decency, yearns for exactly that. If that motivation is so entirely and almost universally human, then what is his point? Personally I would be more worried about those without such yearnings. In conclusion to this matter, allow me to quote John Lennon first, and then Mark Twain:
You may say that I'm a dreamer But I'm not the only one I hope someday you'll join us And the world will be as one

"Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live. "
Taylor calls us libertarians a “strange and wonderful species,” but not a species he belongs to. He, by his own admission, is a Leftist of some sort. What kind, I know not. But I can live with lefties, even San Francisco lefties. After all I spent time in San Francisco and have some rather left-wing friends from San Francisco. And I consider them all decent people. We disagree, of course. They think I am wrong on things. I think they are wrong on things. And we still get along. I don’t think them evil and they don’t think me evil.

Taylor tries to argue that, on the basis of comments left on his blog, he has come to understand “this unusual creature” known as the modern libertarian. That should be a clue immediately, that something will go wrong. The Internet, especially comments left on blogs, is a notoriously bad way of discerning reality. This is especially true of anonymous comments. First, you have no way of knowing if the person leaving the comment is who they say they are. Second, the nature of the Internet is such that it encourages uncivil comments and behaviour. In real life, if you insult someone, the response is usually instant. You are chastised almost instantly by that person, or by others. But the net allows insults to flow freely without responsibility.

The Internet is a very bad place to figure out what makes people tick. The lack of responsibility that comes with anonymous surfing distorts and perverts how people normally act. Thus it is a pathetically weak means of determining what any group of people are like. Not that this stopped Mr. Taylor. His web surfing told him what “core principles” libertarians have, principles “that make them sound like a traditional conservative.”

What are those core principles? “Smaller government, lower taxes, free-market economy, a balanced budget and more freedom and responsibility.” Mr. Taylor says he agrees with those principles but with “different priorities.” Here we are off to bad start instantly.

Mr. Taylor has not really discussed libertarian principles at all, but libertarian policies that are derived from principles. Lower taxes are not a libertarian principle but a conclusion. Principles are premises upon which conclusion, or in politics, policies, are based. What are real libertarian principles? Here are a few:
That each individual has the right to control their own life as they see fit. That no individual has the right to use violence, coercion or fraud against another peaceful individual. All individuals stand before the law with the same rights as all other individuals. The only proper means of social interactions are those that are voluntary. Cooperation that is coerced is not cooperation but violence. The best structures for solving problems are those closest to the individuals concerned. Transactions between people should be free of force, free of fraud, and based on voluntary exchange based on love in some cases, or on the exchange of value for value for most. That the voluntary interactions between people are their own business and that others should not be allowed to coercively interfere with them.

Those are just some libertarian principles. These are premises. The rest of libertarianism follows from the principles.

Mr. Taylor then says that libertarianism is “full of contradictions” because they also “appear rather liberal on social issues, such as gay marriage, abortion, the environment and drug use.” Based on the principles I’ve mentioned there is no contradiction. But Mr. Taylor never set out libertarian principles at all. He ignored them. Instead he set out some policies. That some libertarian polices are accepted by the Right, and others are accepted by the Left does not mean the libertarian is being contradictory. It may mean that Left and Right are contradictory. All of the positions he mentions come directly from principles I mentioned, there is no contradiction.

Libertarians want respect for individual choices to cover their economic choices as well as their non-economic choices. You have the same right to make your own decision about what job you will take, as you have over whom you will marry. You right to ingest mind-altering substances is the same as imbibing mind-altering religion. I don’t see respect for voluntary choices as contradictory. It is when one accepts free choice in some areas of life, while banishing it from other areas, that one is contradictory. And I would argue that it is those on both the Left and the Right who are most guilty of that contradiction.

Mr. Taylor then repeats the mantra that the Tea Party movement is one of the places where libertarianism flourishes. I have reported on my visit to a Tea Party meeting and how unlibertarian it was. Libertarian author James Bovard, wrote a similar piece about the non-libertarian nature of the Tea Party events he attended. And one author at the REASON website did the same thing. Apparently we don’t know as much as Mr. Taylor was able to gather by Internet surfing.

While Taylor only mentioned Internet interactions with alleged libertarians, he says he has “examined the species” and “identified a pattern in the upbringings and lives of some of its species.” Really? This would prove interesting, albeit not very enlightening. He says libertarians tend to follow “one of four evolutionary paths.” To be quite honest few libertarians I know actually fit any of the four paths that Taylor, with his exhaustive research, has identified. I shall list the four types that Taylor claims exists and comment on them.
1. “The first I call the Libertarius Cluelessius in which they grew up privileged and are so out of touch with real people and the real world that they can't possibly imagine why getting ahead in life is so difficult (for others).”
I admittedly only know a few hundred libertarians. And many tend to be involved in writing libertarian books, lecturing, teaching courses, writing magazine articles, policy research and the like. They don’t tend to be people who surf blogs to leave nasty comments. They are libertarian trendsetters, the sort of people who explain libertarianism to others. So perhaps they don’t know as much about the subject as the anonymous commentators who have interacted with Mr Taylor.

But the people I know rarely were born into a life of privilege. I’ve known hundreds of libertarians but only a small number of millionaires. The richest man I’ve met was probably Steve Forbes. He’s a nice man but no libertarian. Very, very few libertarians are born into privilege, unless you mean on a global scale. Then we are all privileged, compared to the poverty that I saw while living in Africa. But I don’t think Mr. Taylor meant that. Nor do I think he has any real reason for assuming that this “evolutionary track” is a common one. It is one the Left has used to stereotype, and thus dismiss, libertarians. Much the way bigots stereotype blacks, Jews or gays. The difference is, that some on the Left have convinced themselves it is alright to distort the facts about libertarians. But again that differs very little from what bigots do to justify their prejudice against other minority groups.
2. “The second is the Libertarius Selfishius who are wealthy and don't want to give any of their hard-earned money to the government (not realizing that it is our entire system that has enabled them to accumulate that wealth)”
Philosophically most libertarians would say that taxation of anyone, not just themselves, amounts to coercive confiscation of private property and that is a bad way of funding government. But equally most libertarians really wouldn’t mind paying some taxes. The libertarian tends to be most offended at what is done with taxes and how many taxes are unnecessary. The limited government libertarian, who represents the libertarian mainstream, doesn’t mind funding the necessary structure of government.

But when we fund the war on drugs, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, NATO, bank bailouts, Wall Street bailouts, the Department of Homeland Security and such measures, we do tend to get peeved. I honestly suspect that most libertarians would be a lot less noisy about taxes if their money wasn’t being used so badly, or to do some very bad things. I would agree and disagree that “our entire system “ “has enabled” us to accumulate wealth. That is just a gross overstatement of the facts.

Government protection of property rights, enforcement of contracts, basic policing, and such do help accumulate wealth. Most prominent libertarian scholars have discussed that and acknowledged that. A minority of anarchists would disagree and they can marshal some good and interesting arguments, which in the end leave me unpersuaded.

Some government structure does help accumulate wealth but it is simply wrong and exaggerated to claim the “entire structure” of government has done so. After all, wealth accumulation took place before much of the “entire structure” as we know it, was built. That alone disproves the claim. It is usually a sign of dogmatism to say “all” or “none” about something. It would be as wrong to say “all” government helped in wealth creation as it would be in saying that “none” of government helped in wealth creation. The facts are found between the dogmatic extremes. And Mr. Taylor’s claim is just as extreme and dogmatic as the claim of those he dismisses.
3. The third is the Libertarius Bootstrapius who worked their way up from humble beginnings without help from anyone else (that they noticed anyway) and expect the same of others without consideration of their individual circumstances.
I had to give this one some thought. The problem is that very few of the libertarians came from “humble beginnings” and worked their way up to being wealthy. In fact, most libertarians, like most people in America, came from rather middle-class beginnings and are today quite middle class. My father was a fire fighter, my mother a nurse. My grandfather was a steel worker and my grandmother a clerk in a department store. I always considered them fairly middle class for their time and I don’t see myself much differently.

Almost every libertarian I know is typically middle class and few thought their beginnings so humble that they had to tug on their bootstraps. They worked hard, just as our parents and grandparents did. And certainly our lives have improved, but that is true for most people in the country, not just for libertarians.

After going through the inventory of libertarians I’ve met, there is one who I can say started with humble beginnings, at least humble in comparison to his current wealth. That would be John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods. He is a lot wealthier than he started. But he is also one of those libertarians who least fits the description given by Mr. Taylor. His speeches and writings indicate quite clearly that he has noticed people who have not done well and he emphasizes using wealth to help others because individual circumstance do impact on the lives of these people. Mackey promotes charity and compassion. So the only “bootstrap” libertarian I’ve met, that I can think of, is as far from Taylor’s stereotype as one can get. That is the problem with stereotyping people and I suspect that Taylor knows this about most groups, but is willing to make an exception for libertarians.
4. The fourth is Libertarius Hatius Governmentius who see all of the problems of government and none of its benefits (even though they take full advantage of those benefits) and, as a result, have a deep antipathy toward its role in their lives.
In some ways this is just a rewrite of type #2. Days before Taylor made this claim I wrote an entire essay on the topic of hating government. I wrote: “Hating government doesn’t say anything about what a person believes. Many people seem to equate hating the state with being libertarian. But that is not the case by any means.” I wrote: “Libertarianism is not defined by what it opposes, but by what it supports.” The main point of my essay was this:
More than announcing what we oppose we libertarians need to be vocal about what we support. Our agenda is not primarily a negative one, but a positive one. I am a libertarian because I believe in peaceful, voluntary cooperation. I believe in the sanctity of the thinking individual and their right to grasp reality as best they can, and their right to express their views without anyone having the right to sew their lips shut. I believe in a tolerant society where all are equal before the law. I believe in a world where individuals are free to travel and trade as they wish, where people are allowed to keep what they produce, and where no man may use violence against another except in self defense. I believe that individuals have clear, distinct rights and that no other individual, or collective of individuals, should have the power to violate those rights.

Such principles, of necessity, would require opposition to certain measures or policies. But the motivation for this is a positive one, not a negative one. I opposed the government’s war on drugs but not because the government is doing it. If a private group acted in precisely the same manner I would oppose their efforts. I hold my position because the war on drugs violates life, liberty and property. It is fundamentally an anti-rights movement of the worst kind. It is my passion for a peaceful, cooperative community that requires me to oppose the war on drugs.
I think hate a negative emotion. I love liberty. I love free, peaceful, people. I love voluntary community. For those reasons I am a libertarian. Given the right circumstances even people like Mr. Taylor would hate government—I hope. The US government used to arrest runaway slaves and return them to their owners. Would Mr. Taylor love, or hate, a government that did that? A government, legitimately elected by popular vote, assumed total power and then rounded up Jews for the camps? Would Mr. Taylor hate that government? In Cambodia, the government exterminated millions of people under Pol Pot’s regime. Is this a government that Mr. Taylor hated?

In apartheid South Africa I saw policemen harass and attack people for being black. I hated that enough to personally intervene and have my own life threatened by a police officer for doing so. Yes, I hated that government, which is why I was glad to see it go. I don’t “hate” the new South African government, though I do wish it were better run and more just. I don’t even hate the US government—not the whole thing. I can’t even intellectually grasp the whole thing, let alone hate it. Something that huge and complex has to be comprehended before it can be hated, at least for me. I do hate much of what it does. I will be happy to outline what I hate. Mr. Taylor is free to disagree.
I hate the war on drugs.
I hate the foreign policy of international interventionism.
I hate the military assaults and the bombings of civilians.
I hate that our government uses torture on people.
I hate Guantanamo.

I hate censorship.
I hate the anti-equality laws that keep gay people as second class citizens.
I hate the flagrantly racist, and stupid measures used to punish illegal aliens.
I hate that we have criminalized sex to such a degree that we are turning teens into sex offenders by fiat.
I hate victimless crime laws.
I hate out-of-control police officers who think they are gods.
I hate the politicians and judges who cover up for those police officers.
I hate the petty principals and teachers who allow bullying to go on in the schools against kids who are different.

I hate teachers and principals who put their own financial greed ahead of the interests of their students.

I can go on and list a lot of hates I have about specific aspects of government. Each one, however, is based on one of the things I love. My hatred exists when government harms people needlessly, and that is too often. But those are very targeted hatreds, and hatreds I would hope that Mr. Taylor shares.

Mr. Taylor did say some nice things, in-between misinterpreting libertarianism. He wrote: “My forays into the habitats of this intriguing and elusive species have revealed them to be intelligent, well informed, engaged, and persuasive in their anti-government arguments. Americus Libertarius also perceive themselves to be strong, independent, and self-determining people who are the direct philosophical descendents as our founding fathers. And I can see all of these qualities in them.” But I fear that was just an attempt to soften the insults that flowed fast and furious from that point on.

He said libertarians are selfish and “always reference their views in terms of how government impacts them as individuals.” I am a libertarian. He says libertarians “always reference their views” in personal terms, not caring about others at all. Read my hates again. Of that list one, or maybe two, can be stretched sufficiently to refer to myself. Clearly most are not. I’ve written essays on why libertarianism must be seen as entirely “outward directed” and about respecting others. I have said the real motto of libertarians is “Don’t tread on others.” Yet Mr. Taylor says libertarians “always” reference their views only in relation to themselves. The fact that I don’t, automatically do this disproves his assertions that this “always” happens. The one thing about always-statements is that it only takes one counter example to prove it wrong.

The very fact that libertarians take the positions they do disproves Mr Taylor's claim they only care about issues that affect themselves. Most libertarians are not drug users but support legalization. Most libertarians are not Christian fundamentalists but support the rights of fundamentalists. Most libertarians would legalize prostitution and are not prostitutes or customers. Most libertarians are not gay yet support the equal rights of gay people. Most libertarians are not criminals but are upset by out-of-control cops and dishonest judges. Most of the positions libertarians take do not affect their own lives directly, but affect the lives of others. And most of the others so affected are not libertarians. Mr. Taylor's litany of libertarian "principles" disproves his later claim

There are many other accusations flung at libertarians by Mr. Taylor. He says we are out of touch with reality, what he means is that we disagree with him. He says we don’t understand the “rather messy world “ we live and prefer a “tidy utopian world.” That is so far off the truth about libertarianism I almost laughed. Libertarians spend countless hours discussing exactly how to deal with messy reality. To a large degree the Hayekian case for freedom is built on the premise that reality is so messy that it is not easily manipulated by politicians, bureaucrats and other central planners. Given that there are entire libertarian books discussing how messy reality is, it is very wrong to assume that libertarians don't understand the "rather messy world." But then this sort of analysis won't be found in comments left at blogs. Perhaps Mr. Taylor would have been better off reading some real libertarian works rather than judging a philosophy based on some cursory Internet browsing.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of a libertarian viewpoint is that a case can be made that libertarian presumptions deal with the mess better. Certainly one of the messes is that the rich and powerful grab government power. Yet lefties want to pretend it can be used to benefit the poor and powerless. And when they note that it doesn’t work out that way, they have lots of excuses for it, but they never deal with the messy reality that in politics the poor and powerless are pushed aside on behalf of the rich and powerful. What is more utopian than the fantasy that state power can be used to benefit the powerless?

He says we lack “empathy for those less fortunate than” ourselves. And believe that those in bad straits should just “pull themselves up by their own boot straps.” Fuck! What a terrible distortion of libertarians. On several occasions I’ve given a room in my home to people who had nowhere to live and given them paying jobs when I could, or found them one. I looked a rabid apartheid policemen in the eye when he was attacking a young black man and tried to stop him. In one case I literally jumped such an officer when he started punching a woman. Yep, it was all about me, the white, blue-eyed guy who could have safely stood on the sidelines and watched.

I will be honest, this sort of portrayal is similar to those where people say Jews are just greedy, blacks are just lazy, or gays are a bunch of sex-crazed, effeminate child molesters. This sort of crude generalization is just as prejudicial as the others and meant to achieve the same sort of ends—it is meant to discredit, and defame, people whom you don’t like. It takes a large group of millions of people and defines them down to a few alleged common characteristics that you hope people find unpleasant.

Taylor says libertarians are rigid thinkers. Hell, and to think I wrote an entire essay on why I’ve changed my mind on various issues. I didn’t know that I had to be a rigid thinker. No one told me! I was told to think for myself. I was told to consider the facts. I did those things, still do, and still change my mind. All that time I was supposed to be rigid and not even the good kind of rigid that comes with the little blue pill. No one told me.

Libertarians also supposedly think they are the only “free thinkers” around. Yep, rigid, free thinkers. That’s us. And we are angry, he says.

His proof is that he can’t have a “reasoned conversation with this species.” Okay, lets see, he calls us “this species,” calls us a “rabid pack,” prints accusations that are we are rigid, selfish, uncaring, hateful people. And then he wonders why he has problems having a “reasoned conversations” with us. Who is he kidding?

Perhaps if he left the accusations, insults and references to “rabid packs” behind he might find that it was possible to talk to us all along. When his fellow “San Francisco liberal,” Carol Ruth Silver, was speaking at a libertarian event she said one thing she liked “was that libertarians take ideas seriously” and that no one mistreated her or insulted her. (If they had they would have had to deal with me.) But they didn’t. The conversations were respectful and tolerant. But then Carol Ruth didn’t start her discussion with libertarians by hurling insults.

Mr. Taylor said: “I hope members of the species will offer substantive answers to my questions (and keep the attacks on my species to a minimum) so I and others can better appreciate the ideas and passions that Americus Libertarius bring to our political system.” I have tried to do that here. Unfortunately much of Taylor's article was not comprised of questions seeking to be answered. Too much of it was insults meant to sting. Mr. Taylor: If you want respect you must give it. If you want dialogue you must appear open to dialogue and not merely wanting to score points by ridicule.

Note: I apologize for being unable to link to the original article at Psychology Today. As I said, it was removed after I began my response to it. I really do hope it was removed because Mr. Taylor realized how unfair he was, and how he was intentionally “poking the bear” in order to get a growl to prove himself right. However, another web site caught the full text of the article before it vanished and reprinted. Since Mr. Taylor has heavily edited his original to remove much of the claims which I addressed here, his new version of the article no longer matches his original version. The link to the new version is above in the first note. The link to the original version is in this note. Those who wish to do so may compare the two.

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