Libertarianism’s illusions

I have recently read some interesting blog posts on liberalism and libertarianism. (And as several of those posts mention, the November 2008 conversation at Cato Unbound is worth reading.) I don’t care to address any of those pieces directly. But I feel like mentioning a couple of things about libertarianism that cross my mind periodically.

An article in Reason in November 2008 by Todd Seavey was my first exposure to the suggestion that libertarians in the US exchange their alliance with the conservative movement for an alliance with liberals. There are good reasons for the suggestion, and I have encountered it several times since. But I doubt it can work any better than the alliance with conservatives, which seems not to have served the interests of libertarians at all.

I think that a better suggestion is for libertarians to give up libertarianism. My problem with libertarianism as a political ideology is that it seems incoherent. Many political ideologues either eschew idealism while sticking to utilitarianism or view their ends as both ideal and practical. In contrast, libertarians seem to hold an ideal that they consider impractical; there’s nothing wrong with that. But rather than uphold the ideal while compromising for the practical, they choose to adopt a new ideal that they consider attainable. They try to fudge the gap between idealism and pragmatism.

Specifically, it seems to me that libertarianism is an attempt to fuse liberalism with anarchism and then renounce both. I suspect that most self-identified libertarians hold anarchy (αναρχος — anarchos) as an ideal in their hearts but recognize that anarchy is unattainable. In the context of a well-established and permanent leviathan state, they are sympathetic to the tenets of liberalism, which is utilitarian. (I am talking primarily about classical liberalism, but concessions could be made to social liberalism; I am not referring to any aspect of the neoliberalism of the two-party plutocracy in the US.)

Liberalism, however, excludes skepticism about the fundamental value and legitimacy of the state project. So some people feel torn between anarchy and the liberal state, as between thesis and antithesis. They could choose to accept both, if only with caveats, and some do. But most people are uncomfortable with paradox, so some search for a synthesis to resolve the dialectical tension. Libertarianism is that synthesis.

It might help to define what I mean by libertarianism since it is used in various ways. I’ll use what Karl Hess wrote in “The Death of Politics”:

“Libertarianism is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to use and dispose of as he sees fit: that all man’s social actions should be voluntary, and that respect for every other man’s similar and equal ownership of life and, by extension, the property and fruits of that life, is the ethical basis of a humane and open society. In this view, the only — repeat, only — function of law or government is to provide the sort of self-defense against violence that an individual, if he were powerful enough, would provide for himself.”

“If it were not for the fact that libertarianism freely concedes the right of men voluntarily to form communities or governments on the same ethical basis, libertarianism could be called anarchy.”

And, as Christopher Beam put it in an article about libertarianism that New York Magazine published at the end of December, libertarians seek “minarchy,” i.e., “government responsible for a standing army, local security, and a courts system, and that’s it.”

The idea of minarchy seems based on the artifice that two incongruous elements, anarchy and a liberal state, are reconcilable. And this is worse than the original illusion obscuring the conflict between the ideal and the utilitarian disappear.

Libertarians understandably want to distinguish themselves from statists (i.e., those who believe that the state project is noble). But if minarchy is the goal of libertarianism, any distinction between libertarians and statists is spurious.

Once authority is constituted, even if only to defend against aggression, it cannot but be used to manipulate, coerce, and violate others, including – perhaps especially – those that it purports to defend. And constituted authority is expansive by nature. Only competition from other authorities restrains its expansion. But competing authorities tend to look for and find ways to ally with one another to expand their authority. So the state, once conceived, must expand perpetually. Its subjects cannot restrain it. Power consolidates until it overreaches and makes itself vulnerable to toppling.

Minarchy (i.e., formal government responsible only for a standing army, local security, and a courts system) is a mirage, an apparition. An army, local security forces, and courts will inevitably be used not to defend all members of society equally, but to secure advantages for some at the expense of others. Pretending that minarchy is attainable and sustainable just facilitates that which libertarians, like anarchists, are most adamant about opposing.

I think it is better to embrace, paradoxically, both anarchy and liberalism without pretending that they are compatible. Anarchy is an ideal, and liberalism is utilitarian. Until a plurality of people repudiates the state and espouses anarchy, a liberal (i.e., democratic, constitutional, pluralistic, tolerant, etc.) republic seems to be the least terrible form of modern state.

Some object that the perfect is the enemy of the good. But anarchy, upheld as an ideal, does not have to be an enemy that destroys the liberal state and hurls society into the grip of a totalitarian surveillance-security state. It is possible to maintain an idealist perspective and a utilitarian stance simultaneously. Yes, it is paradoxical, and it is difficult to know which deserves precedence at any particular moment. But this tightrope walk seems best to me.

A combination of philosophical anarchism and pragmatic liberalism seems better than libertarianism at facilitating a defense of liberty and the individual. It opens a space for working meaningfully with classical liberals for a less insane, less oppressive, less invasive, less intolerant, less inequitable organization of society, if that sort of thing appeals to you. Libertarian politics, in refusing to uphold the ideal represented by the dreaded a-word and similarly marginalizing classical liberalism, unwittingly paves a road to authoritarianism.

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American democracy

Institutions vs. people

The hundreds of US State Department cables released so far by WikiLeaks and its newspaper partners reveal a world in which power factions work for their own good rather than for the common good. Each state seeks to strengthen its hand against other states. None of them has any qualms about acting against the interests of their citizens or humanity as a whole.

Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us. — Leo Tolstoy

The state is an institution whose purpose is to violate rights in order to secure benefits to a privileged class. — Wendy McElroy

The modern state no longer has anything but rights; it does not recognize duties anymore. — Georges Bernanos

A state is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies also; and this lie creeps from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” It is a lie! Creators were they who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life. Destroyers are they who lay snares for many, and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

So the US bargains with other states to strengthen its position vis-à-vis those states. It is willing to prop up tyrannies that it finds useful employ any means to defend and increase its power. This has always been apparent to the conscientious observer, but it is valuable to have it now in fuller view of the public.

But as Jacques Ellul said: “What seems to be one of the disasters of our time is that we all appear to agree that the nation-state is the norm. … Whether the state be Marxist or capitalist, it makes no difference. The dominant ideology is that of sovereignty.” So I’ll turn momentarily from repudiating the state and look beyond the content of the cables to speak in terms that may be more pertinent to those who prefer to focus on improving the state.

Ethical vs. utilitarian

I think that the greatest significance of the recent controversy surrounding Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks (BMWL) is how it seems to illuminate the respective weights given to the ethical and the utilitarian in an individual’s worldview.

People who give precedence to the ethical are confident in ideals such as truth, freedom, and justice. They appreciate the good that can come from the publication of this material. Most can also acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns that should be contemplated and debated. But whatever their views in that respect, they can see that prosecuting WikiLeaks or Julian Assange for espionage or the like is a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.

In contrast, those who subordinate ethics to utilitarianism seem to idolize power. They refuse to make value judgments about constituted authority and its actions. They seem compelled to defend that authority without considering the reasons for opposition or the implications of the means employed to quash opposition and the various possible outcomes of the conflict. This is the seed of authoritarianism, which Glenn Greenwald recently identified as “an instinctively servile loyalty to power even when it is acting corruptly, lawlessly, and destructively.” And the intensity of an attack on BMWL seems to indicate the degree to which the attacker is in thrall to power.

Brittle authoritarianism vs. authoritative strength

But those in the ethical camp need not discard utilitarianism, and it is the utilitarian perspective that leads to recognition that it is impossible to eliminate vulnerability. This leads to decisions about which vulnerabilities to accept based on ideals and priorities. And this maximizes strength without focusing on strength as the ultimate end.

In contrast, a strictly utilitarian perspective leads one at every moment to maximize short-term strength above all else. This self-inflicted myopia serves only to reduce strength in the long term.

I believe that an individual who does the hard work of living ethically is more likely to attain true happiness in the end than an unethical person is. Likewise, a nation whose people conduct politics ethically grows stronger than nations whose politics are rigidly utilitarian. Neither happiness for the individual nor strength for the nation can be attained through direct pursuit.

Democracy vs. plutocracy

And so I turn back to the US, where so many people believe that democracy “impresses its character on everything it touches” and that “nothing can touch democracy” (see my post of 10 December regarding Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes).

Despite mythology about the US being a place of freedom and democracy, the country has always been haunted by authoritarianism and plutocracy. I associate this with the failure to combine independence for the nation with manumission for individuals. The issue goes far beyond the struggles of African-Americans through slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights, etc. Successive generations in the US have faced iterations of the abominable choice between living on one’s knees or dying on one’s feet (¡viva Zapata!). Kent State and Watergate, McCarthyism, WWII concentration camps (in the US), Hooverville, the Espionage Act of 1917, and continual labor struggles (e.g., the Ludlow massacre, the Pullman strike, the Haymarket affair, and so on). Even Lincoln, virtual patron saint Americana, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War.

But each time that authoritarianism ascended, people rebelled and turned it back before a point of no return was reached. Likewise, we must now reassert the ideals that Americans have long claimed their nation embodies and defends — starting with freedom and openness:

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. — James Madison

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. — Thomas Jefferson

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech. — Benjamin Franklin

Who are we now?

There are real threats to freedom and security. But the threat is not just from terrorists; the state itself is a threat when it operates in secrecy and without accountability. Bradley Manning and fellow leakers and a free press (which includes WikiLeaks) are not threats to freedom or security.

We must oppose injustice without perpetrating injustice. This means that sometimes determined enemies will succeed in their attacks. We need to have the courage of our convictions and a tolerance for opposition. Adhering to our convictions must take precedence over prevailing against evil. And contravening our convictions equates to surrendering to evil and becoming complicit with it in the end.

Plutocracy ctd.

At Democracy in America, Will Wilkinson makes some good points in arguing that America is not a plutocracy. I am sympathetic to his assertion that the specific nature of the highly skewed distribution of wealth in America “actually reflects the fact that American institutions are unusually conducive to innovation and the creation (as opposed to the expropriation) of immense wealth.” The wealthiest 1% in the US, taken as a class, differs in character from the more feudal-type ruling class in societies such as those in Latin America that he focuses on. But I think that he is too quick to dismiss the significance and implications of the huge gaps in wealth distribution.
He claims that, “America is a relatively healthy and functional democracy.” It’s difficult to reject this entirely because the word relatively allows a lot of wiggle room. The question arises: relative to what? Other foundering democracies? The example of Meg Whitman losing her bid for the governorship of California may show that the health of America’s democratic system could be worse, but it doesn’t persuade me that America’s democracy is healthy.
Wilkinson then says that the “historically most typical cause” of income inequality “is the concentration of political power in the hands of a predatory elite.” He goes on to list five primary reasons for income inequality in America that don’t involve political predation. I accept that the five reasons he lists account for some of the income inequality, perhaps even a considerable share.
But I think that manipulation of the political process plays a large role as well. I mentioned in my previous post a recent Bloomberg article about lobbying by health insurers. It seems to me that the health care industry in the US reaps huge profits partly through the kind of oligarchic expropriation of wealth that Wilkinson seems to deny is a problem in the US.
Without going through a laundry list of other examples, I think it’s fair to say that many industries and special interest groups use their wealth to game the political process to their advantage in myriad ways that amount to wealth expropriation from those who don’t have access to copious surplus wealth. And I consider the enormous expenditures on the surveillance–security state to be a particularly distasteful form of wealth expropriation, especially when viewed against the backdrop of deteriorating infrastructure, a deteriorating social safety net, and the mediocre-to-poor quality of education available to most of the people who are not wealthy.

Plutocracy

Plutocracy: government by the wealthy; the rule or dominion of wealth or of the rich

Oligarchy: government by the few; a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes; also: a group exercising such control

Whatever else may be true of civil governments, they are primarily systems of depredation, capture, piracy, thuggery, gangsterism, racketeering, etc. But the degree to which they fleece the societies they lord over varies widely. Some are never far from provoking the population to revolt. Others are restrained enough to be tolerated by all but a small part of the population — and even lauded by a large part — for a long time.

But greed eventually leads every regime to provoke open revolt. The question of whether a revolt is bloody or bloodless depends mostly on the government. Democracy’s chief, perhaps lone, credit is that it gives wider berth than any other form of government to the possibility of bloodless, rather than bloody, revolution.

Bill Moyers spoke, as part of the Howard Zinn Lecture Series, on 29 October 2010 at Boston University about the slide in the US back toward the plutocracy of the Gilded Age. The universal tendency of corporate and political power to merge gets attention periodically in public discourse. Rather than try to construct my own overview of the problem, I leave you to read or watch Moyers’ speech.

One of the specifics that Moyers discusses is efforts by the likes of the Koch brothers and Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence, to defeat health care reform. Dovetailing nicely with this is a Bloomberg article about the US Chamber of Commerce’s role in delivering the US into plutocracy. Of course, that’s not what the Bloomberg piece is supposed to be about. It’s about the money ($86.2 million) that health insurers gave AmCham to oppose health care reform.

It’s a nice piece of journalism that illustrates the lengths to which the health insurers went to oppose health care reform and the lengths to which they went to keep the extent of their opposition hidden. It also illustrates AmCham’s role as a money-launderer for corporations that want to influence the political process anonymously.

In the words of Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and current head of the political activity practice at a law firm in Washington, DC, “They [the health insurers] clearly thought the Chamber would be a more credible source of information and advertising on health-care reform, and it would appear less self-serving if a broader business group made arguments against it than if the insurers did it.”

Bloomberg focuses on the fact that the insurers were negotiating with legislators in drafting what became the Affordable Care Act with a professed interest in seeing reform done well while simultaneously and anonymously attacking the reform effort wholesale. They were able to exert influence from the outside without losing the credibility needed to influence the process from the inside.

This gets to the issue of disclosure of and restrictions on lobbying methods and the funding of electioneering activities and the rest of the “soft” corruption that tips a democracy into a plutocracy. Moyers closes his speech by exhorting us to organize to pass legislation that would, among other things, nullify the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. I’m all for that, and I say let’s go further and overturn the legal fiction — established by cases such as San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1882), Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), and Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Beckwith (1889) — that property (e.g., a corporation) is a person (which is the inverse of the equally absurd and now discarded legal fiction that a person is property).

However, I don’t believe that such efforts, even if successful, will accomplish a lot. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party both represent the wealthy. The political system is run for the benefit of the top 10% of income earners, and the trick of conservative consolidation is to use some of the resources of this elite 10% to make certain that the next 40% of income earners fear the bottom 50% more than they resent the top 10%. Rhetoric aside, the Democratic Party is conservative in the literal sense that they wish to maintain the bias in favor of the wealthy that is inherent to the current political economy.

There have been periods when the political economy was healthier than it is now, and this fact makes it seem reasonable to expect that significant improvements can be made now, that there is hope for improvement. After all, democracy is a strictly utilitarian system. It is not itself a reasonable object of faith or hope, but it seems to allow room for some kind of faith or hope for progress.

However, I think this is a deception. Societies under democratic systems of government have had ups and downs in the past, but I think there is no longer any good reason to expect or even hope for significant periods of upward momentum toward justice, peace, prosperity, or whatever else may seem like a worthy goal.

The reason has to do with the nature of the technological society, a concept described by Jacques Ellul in a book of that name. I recently read another book by Ellul that addresses propaganda as a particular class of technique in the nexus of techniques composing the technological society: Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1965). I want to quote a passage (translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner) from section 3, “Propaganda and Grouping,” of chapter 5, “The Socio-Political Effects”:

“One can say that propaganda almost inevitably leads to a two-party system. Not only would it be very difficult for several parties to be rich enough to support such expensive campaigns of propaganda, but also propaganda tends to schematize public opinion. Where there is propaganda, we find fewer and fewer nuances and refinements of detail or doctrine. Rather, opinions are more incisive; there is only black and white, yes and no. Such a state of public opinion leads directly to a two-party system and the disappearance of a multi-party system.

“The effects of propaganda can also be clearly seen in view of what Duverger calls the party with the majority mandate and the party without that mandate The party with the majority mandate, which ordinarily should command an absolute majority in parliament, is normally the one that has been created by propaganda. Propaganda’s principal trumps then slip out of the hands of the other parties. All the latter can do then is to make demagogic propaganda, i.e., a false propaganda that is purely artificial, considering what we have said about the relationship between propaganda and reality. (In other words, the party out of power must pick an artificial issue.)

“In that case we find ourselves faced with two completely contradictory propagandas. On one side is a propaganda powerful in media and techniques, but limited in its ends and modes of expression, a propaganda strictly integrated into a given social group, conformist and statist. On the other is a propaganda weak in regard to media and techniques, but excessive in its ends and expressions, a propaganda aimed against the existing order, against the State, against prevailing group standards.

“But one must never forget that the party with the majority mandate, which adjusts its propaganda to that mandate and even uses the mandate as a propaganda aim, is nevertheless also the creation of propaganda, which hands it that mandate in a given setting and for a long period of time.

“Finally, a last word on the financial problems and their implications: it is improbable that the contributions alone would enable a party to pay for the increasingly expensive propaganda media. The parties are therefore forced to look for aid either to capitalists — and thus indenture themselves to a financial oligarchy — or to a government (national or foreign). In the second case, the State comes close to appropriating the instruments. The State then lends them to those who ask for them, which is very democratic, and thus permits secondary parties to live; but this leads to an unstable situation, as I said earlier, and the State is then increasingly forced to exercise censorship over what is being said by means of these instruments. This censorship will be increasingly rigorous as the State itself is forced to make more propaganda.

“This leads us to examine the hypothesis of a State that ceases to be neutral in the ideological domain and assumes a doctrine or ideology of its own. At that moment, propaganda by the State is imposed on all parties. To be sure, we are still dealing with propaganda. We have seen in past decades with regard to all “state religions” that power must first be used to shape public opinion, without which they could not operate. Thus, at the beginnings of the Nazi State, or of popular democracies, a certain competition continued between the propaganda of the State and that of the parties out of power. But in such competition the State necessarily emerges victorious; it increasingly denies the use of the mass media of communication to the opposition parties; it works on public opinion until the moment arrives when it can simply suppress opposition parties without fear. But the State can work on public opinion only through the intermediary of a party. This is another effect of propaganda. One could conceive of a State that would suppress all parties and live by itself: that was the classic pattern of dictatorship. However, that is no longer possible.

“Once public opinion has been aroused and altered to political problems, it must be taken into consideration. The propaganda mechanism of the State cannot function as an administrative unit; it cannot have reality or efficiency except through the media of the State party. It is impossible to imagine that a modern State could command acceptance without working through a party establishing contact between those who govern and public opinion. The party’s fundamental role is to make propaganda for the government, i.e., the propaganda that the government wishes to e made. In one sense, incidentally, we find here the image of a party in its purest state, for ultimately every party is a propaganda machine. But this is much more hidden in other systems in which there still can be nuances and discussions; in dictatorships, the party no longer serves any ideological or political function, no longer expresses social interests, and so on. It is an organ designed to tame and train public opinion, and exists solely because of the State’s need. As soon as that need diminishes, the role and prestige of the party also diminish This happened in Nazi Germany in 1938 (after the concentration of all powers in the Fuhrer’s hands), and in the Soviet Union after the purges of 1936. But as soon as propaganda again becomes important the party resumes its role.

“Propaganda very clearly gives direction to the life of political parties imposes certain forms and rules on them sends them down certain paths, and ends up by deciding their life or death until the regime expands to the point at which propaganda and party are totally fused.”

My view is that there is no longer a possibility of reforming the state into a more tolerable form because, although it may have taken forms in the past that were tolerable, it has now been transformed by the agglomeration of techniques, especially propaganda, to the point where meaningful reform is no longer possible. The only option I see is to withdraw all moral support from the state and minimize interactions with it. It cannot be made to serve the interests of humanity and the rest of creation.