Standing Athwart History Yelling “Ha-Ha!”


Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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27 Responses

  1. Avatar Chad says:

    There is no final answer to making the world a safe and happy place for everyone and our eternally messy human interactions. All we can do it keep trying stuff in hopes that something will work better than before and make the world a somewhat better place. There is no final destination that will every satisfy. Libertarians are here to remind everyone else that sometimes trying too hard is part of the problem.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    Good post and I agree. I’m not a libertarian but I think there should be a bigger place in a national discourse for libertarian thinking. Especially in those areas where is tend to agree with libreatrians.Report

  3. Avatar Dave says:

    It would be better and more productive to have discourse where there are disagreements.Report

  4. Avatar Travis says:

    I would not disagree at all.

    I guess my point was more that the American government is not a grand evil elitist conspiracy to slowly impose Communism or something.

    We have all these laws and regulations and social programs and such not because they have been imposed upon us by a totalitarian tyrant, but because the people of this nation have decided these laws and regulations are beneficial for the nation.

    Why do we reserve certain areas of public land as wilderness? Because a majority of Americans believe it’s the right thing to do. Why do we impose a tax to fund health care for the poor in the form of Medicaid? Because a majority of Americans believe it’s the right thing to do. Why do we have a “War on Some Drugs?” Because a majority of Americans believe it’s the right thing to do.

    The questions are, what should government do, and what should government be allowed to do? Thankfully, we have a difficult-to-change Constitution that sets some ground rules – but even these must be interpreted and are non-absolute. Even the First Amendment is not strictly literal. On these grounds lie the debate.Report

    • Avatar Travis says:

      The other half of the point is that, contrary to what some libertarians would like us to believe, government can be an extremely powerful force for good.

      I said above that we have these laws and regulations because the people of this nation have decided these laws and regulations are beneficial for the nation.

      The corollary to this is that, in general, they get it right. Not always, but most of the time.

      If you haven’t heard, there’s a new Ken Burns documentary series coming on PBS in September. It’s called “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

      That’s right – we invented the national park. The radical, socialist notion that the government should set aside and protect public land in its natural state for the enjoyment of all – that was an American idea. They got it right.Report

    • Avatar Travis says:

      “Government power is inescapably violent and inescapably self-interested.” – [Citation needed]Report

      • Does government have any power (as opposed to legitimacy) if it lacks the ability to enforce its laws through violence? I think the answer is obviously “no.” Without the right, ability, and willingness to use violence to enforce the law, government can have no power beyond that of persuasion. And we don’t exactly persuade people to go to prison when they break that law.

        But this is a very far cry from saying that government is incapable of doing anything right. Most libertarians are not anarchists.Report

    • There need not be a “grand evil elitist conspiracy to slowly impose Communism.” Libertarians have outlined ways in which bigger government (not necessarily communist, and not necessarily calling itself that) can arise without conscious effort, or even against the conscious preferences of the majority. It is a politically useful function, I’d say, to keep things like public choice theory to the forefront of our political life, so that we are at least aware of the dangers. That’s one thing libertarians are often quite good at.Report

  5. Avatar sidereal says:

    First, to quote Jaybird’s paraphrase of a quote from an unknown source “libertarianism is a vector, not a destination.”

    Unfortunately, philosophical models built on directions rather than destinations are of pretty limited use to real humans.

    If you agree that the maximalist expression of a particular model is Bad (Say, Somalia as a maximalist expression of a minimally invasive state), then you acknowledge that if you keep going in some direction you will have gone Too Far. The point at which you stop Improving and start going Too Far is the optimal Destination. And the value of a philosophical urge is probably more or less proportional to how far away you are from that point (Maybe it even increases in value with the square of philosophical distance. I’ll whiteboard it). And the closer one is to that point, the less that philosophy can offer you.

    But the nature of self-sustaining philosophical movements is to exaggerate their own importance. So if we see a Libertarian pointing at, say, Sweden, and pod-person screaming about how unfree everyone is there and the terrible consequences, they are in effect saying that the gap between American Libertarianism’s Destination and that place is large enough that Libertarianism is still politically relevant. But most of us see Swedes as pretty prosperous, happy people, and recognize that perhaps the American Libertarian impulse that keeps us from being more Swedish isn’t really offering as much as it says it is.Report

    • Avatar mike farmer says:

      Yes, but to maximize the minimal point, when direction is counter to a point axiomatically and diametrically opposite to the central deviation of the first point, which, if taken literally, coexists not with the signalling of time, but of space as intuited by a first mover in any philosophical case that places points at distances which are relative to emotive influences, then it stands to reason that a libertarian uninfluenced by callipygian Swedish delightfulness in form, would be less libertarian than pointless.

      (why do people write like this?)Report

      • Avatar sidereal says:

        You mean. . deliberately obscuring your point (?) with gibberish? It’s a difficult question to answer, since you’re the only person that’s tried it. If you’re implying my Fun With Vectors was gibberish, I apologize for your not understanding it.Report

        • Avatar mike farmer says:

          I understood it, I was just having fun with your style. My brain is too weak, it starts shorting out.Report

          • Avatar mike farmer says:

            I would say that libertarianism is dynamic, while statism is static. Now, whether we can handle dynamism, which gives more power to the private sector, is one question, or whether we set our sites on a model, then achieve it and become somewhat conservative, in that we control growth through central planning. I opt for dynamism, guided by a moral code which protects basic rights, but doesn’t promote positive rights for some at the expense of others. I believe the private sector dynamism will handle most societal problems, espically in the 21st century, since we have become a very caring and conscientious nation of people for the most part.Report

  6. Avatar Keith says:

    Interesting message of the Free State Project. It’s not an effort to take over anything. The idea is to move 20,000 or so liberty activists (or people which will become liberty activists once they move) to New Hampshire.

    There are only 9500 participants signed on, and most people agreed to move after the 20,000 mark was reached. Since the mark hasn’t been reached yet, people don’t need to move yet.

    Some, such as myself, have moved early. However, we aren’t trying to take over anything.

    Just thought I would clarify that. Thanks.Report

  7. Avatar Vaughan says:

    “Government power is inescapably violent and inescapably self-interested.”

    How can you be so attached to an unsupported ideology of governmental failure? Where is the evidence that government is so broken?

    Government works in every other Western democracy – why can’t it work in America? Unless you just want the law of the jungle, which it seems you do. This is the 21st century, not the 19th.

    If you want a small government, watch the rest of the world leave America in its wake.Report

    • “How can you be so attached to an unsupported ideology of governmental failure? Where is the evidence that government is so broken?”

      Saying that government is inescably violent and self-interested is not the same as saying that it is an inescapable failure or that, as a concept, it is broken beyond repair. All it means is that government power (as distinguished from government legitimacy) ultimately rests on its monopoly on the use of force – without the right and ability to use force, a government power is ultimately meaningless – its law can be ignored without consequence by anyone.

      As for my desire for a “small government,” I’ve personally made pretty clear that I don’t care much one way or another about the size of government. I do, however, care quite a bit about the scope and power of government. These are two fundamentally different concepts, and I have personally made pretty clear that I think its possible for a government to be both large and limited (indeed, that is precisely how one would have to characterize Denmark).

      But all that misses the point of that passage, which is simply that libertarianism can serve (whether or not it actually does serve is possibly a different question) to force advocates of a particular government action or policy proposal to at least ask themselves whether this is really a power they want to render unto Caesar.

      This isn’t to say that the libertarian impulse is always correct – not in the least. We’re wrong no less than any other ideology. It is, however, to say that the libertarian impulse is one that can, should, and even on some occasions actually does serve a valuable function in debate over whether government should, in fact, “do something.”Report

      • PS – I should have added:
        “It also serves a valuable function in debate by counteracting the hubris that can sometimes prevent others from recognizing that a pet policy or law is actively causing more problems than it is solving such that the solution is not to “do more,” but instead to “do less.”Report

  8. Avatar mike farmer says:

    “If you want a small government, watch the rest of the world leave America in its wake.”

    Actually, if the US limited our government and pulled out of the UN, closed military bases, stopped funding the World Bank and quit sending foreign aid, most of those western governments would likely collapse like a cheap tent and be under the control of a theocratic madperson — or they would be forced to spend their money on defense, leaving very little for socialist schemes which can only be supported if enough capitalism exists to keep them going.

    This might be harsh, and it’s not intended to support our actions — I think the US should pull back and force other nations into independence. I’m speaking strictly from a point of realism here.Report

  9. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I hope to add some thoughts on the Nozick work in question stemming from the context in which I was introduced to it — an IR seminar — and the consequences of that view for modern practical libertarianism, but I don’t know what exactly they’ll be yet. So for the moment I’m just going to revert to my default position of gratuitously nibbling at the edges of Mark’s well-formed thoughts from a less well-thought-through perspective.

    Skipping over Nozick for the moment then, I have been thinking since Mark introduced it about this image of libertarianism as a vector. It’s an appealing and certainly useful notion. But I wonder if to some extent it is a bit of a dodge of the question of who, ultimately, is a libertarian. After all, if libertarianism simply a vector of thought – an intellectual force with a particular direction and varying magnitude — then it can be present as a component in any and all political thought, no? The whole point of the suggestion, it seemed to me, of a libertarian-liberal alliance of some sort (and perhaps that was regarded as somewhat heretical or ridiculous in these parts — I wasn’t a regular here during the brief moment when some held out hope for such a thing) is that in fact many if not most liberals acknowledge the value if not the primacy of the non-instrumental case for libertarianism. Which is to say, most liberals believe that the idea that people should be left to their own devices as much as possible is not anathema to the liberal viewpoint, and is in fact a constituent part of it. (Liberals, of course, insist that the appeal of that basic insight/attitude can’t be pursued at too great a cost to other vital societal imperatives, which is of course the sticking point for libertarians [and hence the question of who exactly libertarians are asserts itself]). But the libertarian vector is present in much liberal thinking, and in fact many liberals would consider it a vital part of their project, even a(!) priority within it.

    But if this is the case, then what is it that distinguishes a libertarian qua person from someone who merely allows the libertarian vector a healthy role within her thought? As Mark has mentioned, the term as applied to a person’s overall ideological position becomes subject to a purer-than-thou regress in any case. But if we address that problem by simply saying that libertarian is a vector, or perhaps more colloquially a tenedency that anyone can have, then it seem we have to give up the right to say, “I am a libertarian,” and accept that the most we may be able to say is, “The libertarian vector within my thought is more determinative of my overall views than that person’s,” or, “On the spectrum between libertarianism and statism, my thinking can be placed further toward libertarianism than this person’s.”

    Is it fair to say that what I’ve described here is a valid consequence of construing libertarianism as an ideological vector than as a description of a self-coherent ideology?Report

    • Avatar Bob says:

      Some days ago Jaybird, who introduced the “vector” proposition, said he had picked it up from a source he could not recall. I did a bit of research and found the site linked below. (As best I can tell the entry is undated, I hate that. Perhaps someone with more computer savvy can find a date. And as long as I’m making asides I’ll just note the fact that Jerry Falwell’s last name is misspelled gives me pause.)

      I’m making no claim that Jaybird found the term here. In all likelihood he did not.

      What is interesting is that the unknown author sees all political labels as vectors. Not a terribly shocking conclusion.

      I post it now as a response because you make excellent points, and your substation of “tenedency” for vector is not loaded down technological concepts.

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      Almost as if we had coordinated it (from my perspective at least) publius has a great example of a liberal weighing, or at least valuing, the libertarian view against other factors and viewing it from different perspectives, ultimately arriving at a conclusion different from the apparently libertarian one. I don’t necessarily agree with his weightings or considerations here, and of course to be considered anything other than a clear liberal, he would at least sometimes actually have to come to a more individual-freedom-oriented conclusion. But this does provide an excellent example of what I’m talking about in any case.

  10. Avatar mike farmer says:

    Very good questions. I think both direction and destination come into play. The influence of libertarian ideas, like Mark suggests, are vital to prevent overreach, but there is also a destination among some libertarians who believe incrementalism, or containment of statism, is impossible if strict limitations aren’t placed on government power (minarchists), or if private institutions to deal with defense and disputes aren’t substituted for a government with a monopoly on coercion. Forinstance, I believe in the establishment of a minimal government limited to defense, police and courts, yet I don’t think this will voluntarily happen, and even if we tried it, the ideas of democracy over liberty are so strong, that people would demand that the majority begin making the rules again..Report