I read a post by one R. J. Eskow, when AlterNet and Salon.com first published it two years ago: 11 questions to see if libertarians are hypocrites. At the time, I thought about recording a YouTube selfie diatribe answering these questions, but I ended up not bothering after libertarian historian Tom Woods issued his podcast rebuttal. I declined to duplicate Tom’s fine work, and went on with the other things I had planned for that day. It was raining, so I tested my new tent for waterproofness. I actually got in there in the rain and hemmed up a couple pairs of pants, one of which I’m actually wearing right now. That’s called “multi-tasking”.
Here we are, two years on, and I’ve just received a request from a facebook friend to answer these questions. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise, but anything for a friend, right? Before I answer the questions, let’s get a few things straightened out:
Preface 1: Libertarians have more productive things to do than respond to inane Salon.com articles. Salon has thi … [Intermission. I’m going to mow my lawn right now, since there is a break in the rain. … Start time: 9:23. Stop time 9:52] … s stalkerish, obsessive compulsion to bash libertarians. Radley Balko profiled it in his piece entitled: Portrait of an obsession: Every Alternet and/or Salon headline about libertarians from the last three years. I’ve read many of the articles mentioned in that maniacal list, and I’ve found them bereft of useful insight and understanding of the subjects they were written to criticize—childishly so, not in the higher-level details. Trust me: If you find a Salon.com article with the word Libertarian in headline, or crowned with a photograph of Rand Paul, just skip it. Move on. Don’t read it, and—by God—don’t respond to it. Use your scarce time more productively. If I had responded to this article two years ago, I would not now be enjoying these righteously hemmed up pants. What will I wish I had in two years that I won’t have because I’m now wasting time responding to this? I’ll never know.
Preface 2: Asking a bunch of questions doesn’t necessarily make one insightful. It might just make one ignorant. R. J. Eskow doesn’t understand what libertarians believe? Join the club. A lot of people don’t get it. Fair enough. That’s what questions are for, and I’m happy to answer them for people who are interested in learning. I understand that R. J. Eskow is ignorant, but he doesn’t have to be a douche about it. A better title for this article would have been: I’m ignorant, so I’m asking libertarians these 11 questions because I want to learn something. Of course, that was neither the title nor the tone of the article. For me, a person who is becoming more conscious of how I spend my scarce time, I have to wonder: Will someone like R. J. Eskow exhibit genuine curiosity, and actually exert effort toward understanding what I have to say? If I don’t receive any indication that the answer will be yes, then I don’t see why I should have to bother—and if you’re reading this because you think R. J. Eskow is, like, “Wow, totally spot on, man!” because he phrases his ignorance in question form, then do yourself a favor and stop reading this right now. Go do something productive. Go bake a cake, or something. Make something. Do something that actually manifests in a product to show for your efforts. Increase your wealth. Stop wasting time on mental masturbation. If, on the other hand, you are genuinely curious about what libertarians think, and you’ll find that useful information to apply in your daily life, then read on.
Preface 3: Hypocrisy is a trumped-up charge, in my opinion. So what if R. J. Eskow proves that I’m a hypocrite with his little questions? That doesn’t that make the things I say about libertarianism incorrect. All he’s proven is that I’ve failed to attain my higher standards. This is in contrast to the norm of American political life, which is to set low standards and rarely fail. Think about it: If I go to the store, steal a candy bar, and speak nothing of it, that makes me a thief. If I go to the store, steal a candy bar, and then counsel all of my facebook friends about the social harm of stealing, that makes me a thief and a hypocrite. Fair enough, but I stand by what I say, even when I fail to live up to it. Contrast that with a typical lefty non-libertarian who counsels that stealing is wrong, unless voted into rightness by a critical mass of theives, who then steal a million candy bars en masse, and then congratulate themselves for not being hypocrites. Give me a libertarian hypocrite any day, who rightly counsels those around him to improve their world while personally failing, over any progressive popinjay, who, in ignorance, counsels those around him to injure their world, and they publicly succeed. Am I a hypocrite? Let us remove the issue the table, and stipulate for the purpose of this post that I am. Don’t we all fall short of perfection? Let us then take what I say on it’s merits, and stop pursuing meritless excuses for rejecting good advice.
Those issues hopefully having been clarified, let’s proceed with these 11 questions. When the author writes in his article, “a libertarian”, or “our libertarian”, I’ll assume he’s referring to me, personally, so I’ll substitute words to that effect in my responses.
#1) Are unions, political parties, elections, and social movements like Occupy examples of “spontaneous order”—and if not, why not?
Sure they are, but bear in mind that libertarians don’t necessarily like everything that’s spontaneous. For example: Spontaneous human combustion is spontaneous. Libertarian don’t like spontaneously bursting into flames. We’d rather not do that. No, libertarians don’t love spontaneity. Libertarians mention spontaneous order to reassure critics that people will get along well enough on this Earth without central planners micromanaging everyone’s lives—not because we have any particular love of spontaneity. Congratulations to unions and political parties on being spontaneous. If they could ever make themselves more useful than spontaneous human combustion, I would welcome them.
#2) Am I willing to admit that production is the result of many forces, each of which should be recognized and rewarded?
Yes on part one. Production is the result of many forces. Consider the story I, Pencil, by Leonard Read, to learn how libertarians acknowledge and appreciate this fact.
Part two is a passively-voiced half-thought. It’s missing an agent. Who, exactly, should do the rewarding? Only those who value the product should reward the many varied producers, and the reward should accord with the terms to which the producers agreed.
#3) Am I willing to acknowledge that workers who bargain for their services, individually and collectively, are also employing market forces?
Yes, sure. But (a) so are employers who fire workers for unionizing, so be careful with that one, and (b) let’s not kid ourselves. We all know that unions don’t limit their activities to benign bargaining. Answering, ‘Yes,’ to #3 is by no means an endorsement of all union activity.
#4) Am I willing to admit that a “free market” needs regulation?
Another passively-voiced half-thought. Does it matter whom I call upon to implement this regulation? The question doesn’t specify so I assume I’m free to choose anyone. So confident R. J. Eskow is to brand libertarians as hypocrites, at some point in his life must have heard one assert that markets self-regulate. I reckon the author doesn’t believe that markets self-regulate, but rather than offer insight, he substitutes a banal question.
Yes, markets need regulation, and hear this explanation: Regulation is a market function. It’s a service. If customers demand that service, suppliers will provide it. A more interesting question than whether a market needs regulation is how a market could possibly exist without regulation. They can’t. Markets self-regulate.
I reckon this explanation won’t satisfy R. J. Eskow, who attempted in his article to use the mortgage crisis to demonstrate that markets need regulation via threat of government force. He asserts that the mortgage problems occurred after the market was “deregulated”. Well, may I remind him that, in spite of any recent “deregulation”, that the whole of the banking and monetary systems are still centrally planned by a government institution? I think that detail is significant. The most R. J. Eskow can draw from his case study is that whereas the regulatory leviathan controlling the banking system a few decades ago was bad, the regulatory leviathan controlling the banking system in the years leading up to the mortgage crisis was horrendous. R. J. Eskow’s example offers no insight into the effects of actual deregulation. So it doesn’t really bear on his question—his real question, not his passively voiced half-thought:
Do people in their private dealings need for armed agents of the government to interfere, forcing them a threat to do some things, and prohibiting them at threat to do others? No. I don’t believe that that’s necessary, and I don’t believe R. J. Eskow’s chosen example demonstrates any such necessity.
#5) Do I believe in democracy? If yes, explain what’s wrong with governments that regulate.
“Believe in” isn’t very clear. Do I believe it exists? Do I believe it exists in America? Do I believe it works? Do I believe it is an appropriate method to settle all questions? Let me rephrase this question to get at what I think the author is getting at: Does an aggressive act that’s harmful when committed by an individual become beneficial when voted upon by a group? If so, at what number of voters does the harmful act become beneficial? I don’t think there is such a number. I think the act remains harmful, no matter how many people vote for it. So I don’t think I quite “believe in” democracy. I think it’s fine for voluntary associations, and not really so fine for wishing something harmful into something beneficial.
If I join the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo, Lodge No. 26., tomorrow then yes. As a member of that organization, I’d be interested to participate in their internal democracy, provided I’m free to leave the organization peacefully if I find that it no longer serves my interest. Believing in that, however, does not imply that I want the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo, Lodge No. 26., to show up on my doorstep uninvited to impose upon me the will of its uninformed membership.
My short answer is that democracy is adequate for resolving some issues, but not all issues. What’s wrong with governments that regulate? I don’t think the public, or the governments purporting to represent them, ought to be weighing in on or forcefully interfering with the private transactions of consenting parties. I do not believe that is an appropriate exercise of democracy, and I’ll leave Milton Friedman to finish the point:
#6) Do I use wealth that wouldn’t exist without government in order to preach against the role of government?
Yes, and here is my justification for doing so:
I don’t believe I could answer this question fairly without some accounting of the things I use that would not exist without government. R. J. Eskow prattles off several items in which the government has stuck its fingers: schools, intellectual property, computer technology, Internet, a communications web. His litany is insufficient for its purpose. Just because the government sticks its fingers in things, that doesn’t establish that these things couldn’t have existed, possibly in better form, but for government. I assert in my defense that a great many of the things I use would not only have come into being without the government’s meddling, but might actually have turned out better for it.
Secondly, the ways in which government routinely impoverishes its people are myriad. When I’m trying to run a business and the government taxes and regulates it into bankruptcy, I’m poorer for that. When I have to pay more for medicine because the government has blockaded off imports, I’m poorer for that. When the government criminalizes opportunity by interfering in my private affairs, I’m poorer for that. When the government destroys communities with its senseless prohibitions, I’m poorer for that. After all this, so what if the government leaves me a functional communications web that may well have come about in its absence anyway? Am I supposed to kiss its feet? I assert in my defense that to the extent I utilize wealth in which the government has stuck its fingers, the government has also made me at least that much poorer with its myriad interventions and prohibitions. So long as the government has left me a functional communications web, I’ll use it to preach against the government’s costly interventions. If that makes me a hypocrite, then so be it.
#7) Do I reject any and all government protection for my intellectual property?
Here’s a gotcha. R. J. Eskow can gloat over this on all the way home. He’s got me. I’m a hypocrite! Get this: I’m trying to run a genealogy services business, and part of what I do is take photos for people, some of which end up on online, often on the Find-A-Grave web site. The Find-A-Grave site says that I retain the intellectual property rights, so what I say to users of that site is that I release the photos under a Creative Commons Attribution licence, meaning that people are free to use the photos any way they want so long as the reasonably credit me for taking the photo. If they don’t credit me, then that’s technically a violation of the license that I can run to papa government to have enforced. Will I ever do that? Will I ever run to the government and say “Hey, please enforce this licence for me?” No, I’ll never bother. I leave the threat to loom. I’d like for my name to go with my images when people share them, but the threat is idle and toothless. Maybe I shouldn’t say that stuff about Creative Commons and I should say instead that I release all my works into the public domain. So yeah. He’s got me! I’ve been a hypocrite!
R. J. Eskow should know, anyhow, that there is a growing movement among libertarians to reject intellectual property, so he may not net as many hypocrites with this question as he thought he would. A lot of libertarians fully reject intellectual property.
#8) Why isn’t a democratically elected government the ultimate demonstration of “spontaneous order”? Do I recognize that democracy is a form of marketplace?
Let me remind those readers who have followed me this far: Libertarians aren’t infatuated with spontaneity. Spontaneous human combustion is also spontaneous, and I, as a libertarian, am not interested in spontaneously combusting. So yes, the democratically elected government is a demonstration of spontaneous order, and if democratically elected governments could ever make themselves more useful than spontaneous human combustion, then I might then appreciate them.
Is democracy a form of marketplace? The voluntary organization kind of democracy is. Again, if I join the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo, Lodge No. 26., participate in their internal democracy, and if I turn out not to like the result, then I can always easily leave for some competitor that offers a better product.
What about the involuntary kind that I believe the author is referring to, when people show up to your door uninvited and impose all manner of ill-considered public policies on you? Is that a marketplace? One must strain the imagination to make the comparison, but I believe it’s possible. I’ll say, “Yes, but gimme a break.”
Imagine a “marketplace” in which every four years the public votes on what our collective pizza topping will be, for example. Suppose pepperoni wins the election this year—but suppose you don’t like pepperoni. Too bad. It’s pepperoni for you, for the next four years. If you really don’t like pepperoni, then the competition is that you have to pick up stakes at great personal expense and move to some other country, where maybe the collective pizza topping in power is less to your disliking. Repeat this process for everything you consume, in attempt to maximize the elections you win and minimize the elections you lose. Come on. Is this a marketplace? There are elements of competition, so I suppose it could possibly meet the bare minimum criteria for what could constitute a marketplace, but let’s get real. When democracy is imposed on everyone in a large geographical region, I’m pretty sure it’s the shittiest marketplace the imagination could possibly conjure.
#9) If big governments are bad, why are big corporations so acceptable? Do I recognize that large corporations are a threat to our freedoms?
When many corporations compete in a marketplace, no individual is under compulsion to deal with any particular corporation. The customers choose whom they deal with. Governments, by contrast, compel “customers” at threat of force to either deal with them or leave the country. Corporations have an incentive to behave well because they need to attract your business away from competitors. Governments have less incentive to behave well because utilizing the services of a competitor government is too expensive for most of the government’s “customers”.
Do I recognize that large corporations are a threat to our either our freedoms or to our general prosperity, or whatever? Sure. Yes I do, but relatively speaking corporations are less menacing to me because they have a stronger incentive than governments have to respond well to customer demands. Of course, corporations can go rogue. When they do, usually it is because governments have enabled them by either providing material support or undermining competitors who would do better work.
Maybe I can summarize: If the government is The Grinch, then Big Corporations are a seasick crocodile. Between the two of them, I’d choose the seasick crocodile. And it’s not even like that because I’m pretty sure that, over the course of my lifetime, big corporations have offered me a net benefit, whereas the government’s track record of generating benefits is a little less clear.
#10: Ayn Rand was an adamant opponent of good works, writing that “The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves.” That raises another test: Do I think that Rand was off the mark on this one, or do I agree that historical figures like King and Gandhi were “parasites”?
I’ve never read any Ayn Rand. I saw portions of her interview with Phil Donahue in which she criticized charity and altruism. I thought her comments were a little over-the-top. Here are her comments on that show. By the end of the clip even she admits that she is using harsh language for rhetorical purposes. So yes, I thought that comment was a bit off. As a libertarian, I don’t feel like I need to adopt everything she says and take it all literally, least of all this point about altruism.
#11) Libertarianism would have died out as a philosophy if it weren’t for the funding that’s been lavished on the movement by billionaires like Thiel and the Kochs and corporations like ExxonMobil. So our final question is: If you believe in the free market, why weren’t you willing to accept as final the judgment against libertarianism rendered decades ago in the free and unfettered marketplace of ideas?
I’ve found the ideas of libertarianism to stand on their merits, irrespective of who funds them, and who else buys them in the marketplace of ideas. “Believing in” the free market, to me, means that I buy what I want, and everyone else buys what they want. It does not mean, to me, that I should want to buy what other people are buying. So too in the marketplace of ideas. If R. J. Eskow looks for other people to tell him what to think, that’s his business, and I’d thank him to leave me out of it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I had other things I wanted to do today.
If I’ve made any typos, screw ’em. Okay, I broke down and made some minor revisions for clarity.