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A Qatari Travelogue (And Conversion)


I recently went to Qatar as part of my job to do some light maintenance work and fix a handful of persistent little problems. I mostly worked somewhere between 10 and 14 hours a day, so I didn’t really have much time to relax and see the sights but I did have a handful of observations that culminated in me pretty much abandoning libertarianism.


“Drive like you’re really pissed off.”

That was the advice that I got from the guy who went there the last time maintenance work had to be done.

Under most circumstances, I drive like the proverbial grandpa. Hands on 2:30 and 9:30, at least two car distances between me and the car in front of me, go the speed limit, and stay in the rightmost (non-exit) lane. Hey, it’s a nice day. I like the radio stations here. I made sure I left in plenty of time to get where I am going.

This, however, is not how people drive in Qatar.

They believe in tailgating. If you are not in the rightmost (non-exit) lane, they will flash their lights at you and honk and otherwise communicate that you should be going faster. (Or, in my case, if I wanted to be going the speed I was, I should be a lot closer than two car lengths to the car in front of me.)

They believe that shoulders are just another lane that wasn’t painted correctly. I was passed on the right (on the shoulder!) by people upset that I had two car lengths between me and the car in front of me. (Or, more charitably, maybe they weren’t upset. Maybe they just saw that I had an unused resource and if I wasn’t going to take advantage of it, they would.)

On top of that, there is the issue of the people who are driving as if it were Nascar or Grand Theft Auto and they’re weaving between cars and threading needles and it’d be kind of impressive if it were a movie or something but, nope. It’s there. Happening all around you.

And I still feel like I haven’t communicated what it’s like. Add a constant worry that you are going to get in an accident if you are above a certain speed and a constant worry that you are going to wreck the car if you are below it.

Still, it’s interesting to note that I didn’t see a *SINGLE* accident while I was there. Not even one. I’ve heard that if you want to save more lives of drivers, you need to stop putting so many things like seatbelts and airbags in cars and make one simple little change: Put a spear point smack dab in the middle of the steering wheel. The thought is that the driver will glance down at the spear point, glance at the road ahead of him and make sure that he knows where those cars are, glance at any upcoming traffic lights, glance at the rearview mirror, glance at the side mirrors, glance at the speedometer, glance at the spearpoint…

While I was there, I drove like I was really pissed off but pissed off because of how scared I was.

I did not get into an accident.


The ex-pat radio station was eclectic, to say the least. They had religious programming followed by pop music followed by old-school jazz/big band followed by religious programming followed by pop music. The radio would interrupt its programming to play the Muslim Call To Prayer.

I want to say that it’s this one:

Now I’m not 100% certain that it was that one, but if it’s not that exact one, that one is really, really close to what the radio played. It was always followed by an English translation.

The religious programming was interesting, as well. There were shows devoted to exploration of the Koran with verses read in Arabic followed by an English explanation that you pretty much have to read the Koran in the original language but if you only speak English, here’s a not awful translation of what you just heard and some exegesis. There were shows devoted to famous people who converted to Islam. There were discussions of how you should be cooking during Ramadan, the best ways to exercise during Ramadan, and encouragement during Ramadan.

Then, on a dime, the radio would start playing pop music from random eras. (My favorite juxtaposition was a biography of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall followed by Oliver singing “Good Morning Starshine”.)

I couldn’t help but think that we should start having stations that did that sort of thing. Sure, you can get away with playing some old-school Gospel on the old-school Country station and, yeah, the Commodores released “Jesus is Love” but putting pop music next to religious programming isn’t really a thing.

I think it might take off.


It’s hot. Like really hot. I should have known that things would be bad in Germany. I got off my plane from Chicago and saw that it was around 88 degrees and I felt uncomfortably warm. People getting off of the planes coming from Qatar were wearing light winter jackets.

When I landed in Qatar and stepped off of the plane, the sun had been down for about 3-4 hours. I could still feel the heat radiate up from the ground.

The hottest day I was there had a high of 115. The coolest day I was there had a high of 105.


There are about four different obvious castes in Qatar (to an outside observer, anyway).

1) Qatari Nationals. These guys are all rich (New Money). Like, it’s, per capita, the richest country in the world according to some estimates and the only ones that disagree are the ones that have it in 2nd place. Qatari Nationals only make up about 12% of the population. The other 88%? Imported labor.

2) Guest Workers from real countries like the US, France, Great Britain, and so on. These are the skilled laborers who do stuff like IT support, military folks, architects, teachers/tutors, and so on. (This is the group that I happened to be in.) These people are somewhat catered to, insofar as there was a sports bar at my hotel despite Qatar being a Wahabbist country.

3) Guest workers from miscellaneous countries who were working in some form of hospitality/customer service. These are the people whose job it is to smile when people from the first two groups approach the counter and greet them and make sure that they want for nothing. Bright smiles, perfect English (if a little accented), pressed outfits. To be really crude, “house slaves”.

4) Guest workers from miscellaneous countries who were working in some form of manual labor. These are the people whose job it is to do the crappy work. These are the people who are dying while building the 2022 World Cup stadium in the middle of town (1200 of them, so far). To be really crude, “field slaves”.

I had only one non-trivial interaction from someone from in the fuzzy area between groups 3 and 4: a guy whose job it was to pump gas at the petrol station. He asked me “Are you a Muslim?” and he pointed to my beard. I shook my head no and made a small joke about how I grew a big beard because I am bald and this is the only hair I grow. He looked at me and said “I think you are a Muslim” and then his face hardened. I paid for my gas and got the hell out of there.

There are signs on the highway that say stuff like “YOU ARE NOT ALONE WE ALL SEE YOU” and then give various exhortations to not do certain things. The signs in English talk about littering. There are more signs that are not in English and they show people spitting. Googling shows me some signs that I did *NOT* see that say things like “do not slaughter animals outside of a slaughterhouse”. I get the feeling that Qatari Nationals are not the target audience for these signs.


I realized that libertarianism is really only workable in a society that has a fairly solid underpining of… je ne sais quoi. If you have a concept of liberty on top of something else other than this… I don’t know what it is, you can end up with chaos. A Hobbesnian war of All Against All.

I got an inkling of this with, say, the abortion debate. In the US, abortion (at its best, anyway) is an option available to women who may have made a mistake and abortion can keep options open. Finish school. Start a career. A baby may not be a good decision right now but it could easily be a great decision in the future. Terminating a pregnancy can keep doors open that would otherwise close.

However, there are a lot of places where sex-selective abortions are the main driver behind abortions. “We don’t want to have a girl, we want to have a boy” and abortion is a way to press the reset button and start over.

Now, I don’t want to start an argument about abortion (this isn’t about that) but I do hope that everyone can see that the dynamic of the second has an ugly thread that turns liberty upside-down.

It’s possible to look at all sorts of similar issues (religious liberty, for another example) and see that, at its best, the concept of liberty is an awesome concept but, without a certain foundation, that same liberty is turned on its head into something downright ugly.

My trip out there got me to see “Libertarianism” as something to worry about later, if at all. The important concept, whatever it is, is that je ne sais quoi that provides the foundation that makes Libertarianism a feasible philosophy in the first place. This je ne sais quoi is what needs to be cultivated and it is what needs to flourish. Without that je ne sais quoi, the concept of liberty will lead to such things as the blood of slaves being the mortar of spectacular monuments to vanity.

As such, I can’t call myself a libertarian anymore. What I am now preoccupied with to the exclusion of all else is this je ne sais quoi.

I just wish I knew what it was.

(Picture is “Doha Skyline from the museum of Islamic art” by Jimmy Baikovicius. Used under a Creative Commons License.)

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140 thoughts on “A Qatari Travelogue (And Conversion)

  1. I’m jealous you got to go a place like Qatar on the company dime. Sweet. But i love to travel. I have no idea what i’d want to see in Qatar other than to just absorb the different culture. Oh well I’ve been sent to Fairbanks in winter….high temp of -35….so i got that going for me. One of my memories of Cairo was sitting in traffic. I don’t remember it ever moving, but some how we got where we were going. But traffic never moved. There may have been one traffic light there. If there was it was purely ornamental.

    There is a long strain of American thinking that every country will want what we have and be like us if we can only help them see it. It was this clueless ignorant imperialist crap that led to us helping a lot of revolutions and wannabee dictators around the world. Lots of places want some of what we have, however a lot of the stuff they want is consumer goods. The freedom and liberty stuff….meh.

    It has been super hard for people to get beyond their cultural filters to see other cultures for what they are. And even when you do, you are missing stuff. Even worse it is really hard to see you own culture due to your own filters and desires. It has been a couple generations at least now that authors and anthropologists and sociologists and those types who have been struggling with wiping away, as much as possible, the grime we have in eyes about other cultures, especially those in the mid east.


    • The company dime paid for 14 hour days and a hotel room with a bidet.

      The bidet was nice, I guess.

      I *DID* go to the mall one evening while I was there and that was probably as close to seeing “the culture” as I got. There was a wing of the mall full of stuff like “Baby Gucci” and “Rolex” shops that made you feel like you knew whether or not you belonged in that wing the second you stepped into it.

      I knew that I did not.

      Walking around the mall, I saw that there was a fairly liberal (no pun intended) mix of women around me. Some were wearing the full burkha, sure. Some were wearing the veil that only showed their eyes, some only their faces, some it only covered their hair, and some were wearing Westernized (though still fairly conservative… there were no shorts, or skirts that went above the ankle) clothing.

      The women who wore outfits that showed only their faces or only their eyes tended to be *MASTERS* at eye makeup. I couldn’t believe how good they were at stuff like eyeliner and contouring.

      I had hoped to see stuff like brightly colored Muslim dress but there wasn’t really a whole lot of variation on the “any color you want, as long as it’s black” motif. I saw one woman wearing the full hijab but it had white adornments. It looked like it had, for lack of a better word, doilies sewn into it. It looked like a fun variation… but it was the only non-traditional traditional dress I saw.

      Guys at the mall wore one of two different outfits: “schlub at neighborhood barbeque” and “Qatari National Dress”. Everybody gave wide berth to the guys in the latter group… but you could tell, in a group of them, that they had a hierarchy among themselves.


  2. HGTV has a show on International Apartment hunting. The show features a relatively young and usually educated person who received a job abroad and needs to relocate. There were a bunch of episodes in Qatar and UAE. The prices seem as insanely high as the temperatures.

    Interestingly I heard people theorize that one cause of Islamic extremism in these countries is because the native population is small and is largely wealthy without working. All they have to do is go to school and other pleasures and the schooling is largely if not exclusively (or nearly so) religious and fundamentalist in nature. Maybe it would be different if they spent their days studying English literature.

    Going to Qatar and UAE would be odd for me, if not impossible, as a Jewish person but the expat life in these cities seems rather insular and mall/consumption driven. My guess is that the sports bar or whatever bar is really the only thing for expats (the educated, Western sort) to do with their free time in Qatar and the UAE along with shopping and maybe going to an indoor pool or that indoor ski slope (or is that in the UAE).

    I would say that Libertarianism rests on a largely Anglo-centric concept of individualism which is largely absent in the non-Anglosphere world. There are a handful of Libertarians from non-Anglo countries but it is really the Anglo-sphere that developed the ideals of the individual being supreme above the collective whole. The other thing you need is the classical liberal belief in A Good Life instead of The Good Life. Any society based on the supremacy of any single religion is not going to be libertarian.

    One thing I notice a lot about libertarianism is that it is a desire to be left alone and often expressed as such in memes and what not.


    • This is exactly what I meant only much better expressed. Regardless of whether or not it is correct, libertarianism comes from a particular line of fault that is very rooted in a particular culture. Its really difficult to imagine somebody from the Buddhist culture of Thailand or South Korea’s very Confucian culture coming up with something like libertarianism independently and without heavy exposure to English enlightenment philosophy and its’ descendants. Libertarianism is rare enough in continental Europe even though Europe has produced many thinkers important to libertarian thought.


    • The “just want to be left alone” is a bumper sticker level argument. Sure there is a decent sentiment there, but it doesn’t really give any detail about how things should work or what it even means in any practical sense. Everybody wants some Greta Garbo at times but any nice sentiment, like some watery bink lobbing a scimitar at you, it doesn’t form the basis of a political system.


    • I found your comments about the lifestyle of western migrants very interesting because they fit with a conversation I had with a friend who worked in Doha for two years. She described a serious tension between a very hedonistic expat culture built around bars and parties and a very socially conservative Qatari culture and suggested that only the fact both sides are making money out of current arrangements stops this causing a lot more violence.


  3. Libertarianism comes from a particular line of thought that is mainly located in the Anglophone world and entirely located in the European world and nearly no where outside it. The basic idea is that if you level the playing field and make sure that there are no special favors to any group in the law or government than you will get optimal outcomes in terms of fairness. Libertarianism is basically expanded the rights of the English gentry to include everybody. People who come from disadvantaged groups tend to believe differently. Many, but not all, libertarians tend to come from people who were born with at least some advantages in life.

    You need to have really gone through the Wars of Religion in Europe and the Enlightenment to arrive at libertarianism as an obvious solution to life’s problems.


  4. The “je ne sais quoi” is something that has bedevilled Development Economics for more than 50 years. Without it, it is extremely difficult for a poor country to become less poor. Unfortunately, we’re still not sure what it is, much less how to replicate it.


      • Perhaps “chutzpah” is a better term. Loosely translated as “balls” (though @leeesq or Schilling might have a better translation). Because it takes balls to sail around the world to escape “persecution” and then immediately subjugate the locals.


          • Thanks, . Which sounds like a ballsy thing to do. When it is used colloquially though, do I more or less have it right?

            Regardless, that still seems to sum up the unique worldview Jaybird is getting at.


              • Well, there is chutzpah, and there is CHUTZPAH. And there is CHUTZPAH at the individual level and CHUTZPAH at the collective level.

                I mean, we know that pretty much every society the world over has had some form of slavery or another. But it takes collective CHUTZPAH to hold slaves in a nation founded upon the premise that all men are created equal and then debating whether those enslaved people should count as a full person, no person at all, and ending up with something called the 3/5’s compromise.


                • In Qatar, the selfishness and assholeness extends all the way to near slave labor for virtually all essential functions of society, as well as much of the wealth creation. It ain’t those things.

                  I suspect that it is some combination of self-concern and self-sacrifice that gets you the range of “Enlightenment” ideals from social democracy to neoliberalism (in the technical sense).


                  • If TvD were here, this is where he’d point out the Christian influence on our society, ignoring the previous millennia, both there and here, but perhaps onto something, even if he doesn’t quite see it because the tip of his nose is in the way.


                    • Christianity has some interesting hooks. I like the whole “I am one of God’s Children” thing that it has going on as well as the whole “that other person over there is your sister/brother” that follows.

                      But Islam has that too.


                      • Like I said, over here and over there.

                        Still, the TvD’s (using here as a representative of no small number of folks) would argue that it was a combination not of scripture, but exegesis (in the form of Aquinas, in particular), the Greeks (Aristotle in particular, in whom the Muslim scholars of the Middle Ages were interested as well, of course, but took in different directions), the Reformation and the political revolutions it created, and so on. So loving thy neighbor and the Golden Rule are only pieces of the puzzle.

                        I suspect, in fact, that if you combed this site’s archives you would find TvD and I having precisely that conversation, focused though we were on religious tolerance.


                        • Schilling raises an interesting point: the tradition that TvD and his ilk would bring up is a Judeo-Islamic-Christian tradition, particularly in that much of the early intellectual heavy lifting, both before (Judaism) and after (Judaism and Islam) the Greeks was done by Jewish and Islamic scholars (with one obvious exception). To the extent that they are onto something, and they are onto something, the TvD’s are talking about a distinctly Greek-Roman-Abrahamic tradition, not a distinctly Christian one.


                  • But does Qatar claim to be unselfish and non-assholeish? That is what I’m getting at. Not the holding of slaves or use of slave labor. But the balls… the chutzpah… to have slaves and look yourself in the mirror and say, “I am a freedom fighter resisting oppression.”


                    • Kazzy, yeah, I was really just responding to Lee. I think you’re right that European imperialism (of which we are the projects) had a unique combination of the sort of feudalism that Qatar still has and a liberal pretensions. I don’t know that that is “it,” but if not, it is definitely a product of “it.”


                  • I’m fairly confident that as the oil wells run dry and Qatar diversifies its economy, it will back its way (if by necessity and gradual drift) into some version of enlightenment-ish society


                    • Perhaps, though Qatar enjoys its economic and political existence entirely because of its large, illiberal, regional power next door neighbor. If the oil were to dry up, or demand drop so low that it amounted to the same thing, we’d still be left with a region struggling with many of the same issues that Europe did from the Reformation through the Second World War. It took, as North put it, an “orgy of violence” for Europe to settle. Impending orgies of violence generally don’t breed liberal, Enlightened societies, particularly out of the repressive illiberalism of the Saudis, Iranians, and pretty much everyone else over there.


                    • I don’t know how it would diversify its economy, really.

                      I went to an antique store while I was there in order to find a little something for Maribou. I didn’t know what I wanted, really… maybe an illuminated Koran or something but when I got inside of the Antique Store, I was somewhat taken aback to see that it wasn’t that different from any given antique store that I would find in Manitou Springs.

                      The antiques were primarily from Europe and Japan. If you wanted some artwork to hang on the wall from circa 1985 from England? They had you covered. A teapot from the mid-60’s from Japan? They had you covered. English language books from the 40’s? Oh, mais oui!

                      I looked for a little trinket of Qatari origin and… they didn’t have anything.

                      Checking out Qatar’s economy, it produces oil and natural gas. It’s trying to branch out into tourism.

                      But it doesn’t make anything else.

                      You say “that as the oil wells run dry and Qatar diversifies its economy”, I’m wondering how we know it will do that second part. It’s not doing it now.


              • Internet quote of the day! Maybe even month!

                I feel like this needs to enter the OT lexicon somehow. I’m not sure how, but it deserves it.

                Perhaps if someone is being hyperbolic, we can simply say, “Ball is an understatement.”


      • The something is (to me) a mature & comprehensive attitude toward equality. In your abortion example, in a society where the sexes are treated equally & enjoy equal opportunity, the desire to abort for sex selection is minimal. Not non-existent, but such a minor thing as to not be a worry.


    • The “je ne sais quoi” seems to be a lot of land or the ability to get a lot of land. This requires at lot of self-sufficiency instead of interdependence. I would also add that it contains a desire to be “left alone” or a willingness to move to get your views be the dominant ones.

      Basically the British colonialists seem to have two things in mind when moving to what became the United States and Canada (and to a lesser extent New Zealand and Australia) for:

      1. Various issues of religious liberty (aka non-interference from the official government. The Puritans came to Massachusetts to establish a religious utopia and quickly kicked out dissenters who were able to move to their own colonies);

      2. Money/Riches.

      There is a strong currency of “Leave me alone” in American history and to this liberal it seems that a lot of people with libertarian leanings really just want to be left alone from even the slightest suggestion that something they like culturally might be racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, etc. Acknowledging that culture can be problematic means potentially having to evaluate and make different decisions.

      As Lee points to above, there is a fantasy element of what happens in the world is natural and therefore right in libertarianism and not everyone agrees obviously.


      • The Qataris, for example, are the richest country in the world. If it were “money/riches”, you’d think that there’d be an undercurrent of whatever “it” happens to be in their society.

        If it was there, *I* didn’t encounter it.

        There was also a small amount of religious liberty in Qatar insofar as there was a sub-culture that openly catered to vices such as alcohol despite it being a Wahabbist culture. I was also told that I didn’t have to follow Ramadan so long as I stayed outside of sight when I did so. (Compare to “you are expected to follow Ramadan even when you are out of sight.”)

        It ain’t that.


      • The wealthy European and Asian countries do not have a lot of land. Brazil and Argentina have plenty of land but struggle to become really wealthy. The wealthiest people in the United States were not big landowners but merchants, financiers, and industrialists. I think has it right when he refers to the je na sais quoi as chutzpah. The most developed economies are the ones that allow a certain degree of selfishness and asshole behavior in getting ahead. Many cultures expect you to help your kin if things are going well for you. English tradition allowed for more dickish behavior in the pursuit of wealth. You did not have to give your wife’s lazy second cousin a plum sinecure because he was kin. Other cultures would look at you like your a really horrible person if you didn’t do that.


        • Japan? China for most of history? Korea?

          Singapore? Hong Kong? These are city states that benefited from being brit imperial colonies and being great ports so those are big advantages for them.

          All the mid east oil kingdoms?? ( yeah i know they are rich because of lucky geology) But that works for the US and Norway and various other places. Lucky geology always helps.


          • Japan was never quite a colony. They were one of the few countries that managed to modernize on their own. They were certainly opened up for trade against their will but they never lost autonomy like India, Singapore, or Hong Kong did.


          • Lucky geography helps but it is not enough. There are plenty of countries that have lucky geography like Egypt, a transport route between three continents, that did not manage to do well. There are countries without lucky geography like South Korea or Taiwan that did very well.


      • I agree with it’s definitely not land. I think the yeoman ideal is what makes libertarianism more popular, but I think the factor that makes it effective is the one that makes any well-developed country possible. That factor can be found in lost of land-poor countries, and is missing from some land-rich ones. That factor has strenuously resisted 5 decades of policy interventions – the nations that have gotten richer have doe so with little regard to how much aid and development support they received by richer countries.


  5. I think ideologies only really work if they’re marginal changes from other working ideologies – i.e. libertarianism from classical liberalism. It tough to just impose a form of societal organization if it isn’t a bottom-up, marginal change from an existing form of societal organization.


    • I do worry that I’ve done little more than discovered the allure of Satan’s Answer: turning one’s back and saying “no”.

      That said, I’m not trying to argue that whatever it is happens to be something that might be able to be imposed (let alone something that should be if we find what it is). I’m not wandering towards neo-colonialism.

      I’m just trying to figure out what “it” is and then start figuring out how to plant the seeds for *THAT*.


  6. I wonder sometimes how much of our political camps are informed by the Cold War, by the great ideological battles of the 20th century.

    We just assume that economic and political theories can be made universal, like the laws of physics- that what works in Chicago works in Shanghai.

    In the early Enlightenment, the Big Question that the Europeans wrestled with wasn’t how much the government should intrude into the marketplace- it was aristocracy and the individual. Notice how the Constitution barely made any reference to economics at all; but if it were written today, regardless of party, there would be plenty of provisions talking about public versus private.

    I think of this, when we are confronted by cultures like Qatar for whom the Enlightenment never happened, who find our debates about Marx and Keynes puzzling.

    It causes me to question a lot of our basic assumptions. Like the idea of rights themselves, which we just assume are universal and self evident, and beyond question. Yet they are abstractions, requiring a leap of faith.

    If we say we want justice, a society where the maximum amount of people can live lives that are fulfilling and meaningful, where the human spirit is respected and everyone is afforded dignity, are our political theories equipped to engage in a dialogue with non-Enlightenment cultures?


    • Marxism had a lot of universal appeal during the 19th and 20th century. Working class and poor people of many different cultures fond socialist arguments very convincing. Capitalism seems to have a certain amount of universal appeal to. What works in Chicago does seem to work in Shanghai.

      I think the reason why libertarianism is not particularly widespread because it is very connected to the classical liberal tradition of the Anglo world more than other ideologies and most people do not have faith in the free market or private property the way libertarians did. Fear of the state usually results in left anarchism elsewhere. The libertarian desire to limit the size and nature of government feels very different. It seems more top down than bottom up.


    • Sort of true. Locke and others were proto-Capitalists though and the idea of government not intruding into the Marketplace came up fairly quickly with the Enlightenment. The Wealth of Nations and Declaration of Independence were both seminal events of 1776.

      Though I do think that there are still a lot of people who are cold war warriors and find that even the smallest bit of welfare state is the road to Communism. These claims largely work on people born before 1975 though but not so much after. The Cold War was more of an abstraction for people born in my generation and it honestly seems like a great big joke to me. One of the things I like about the Sean Connery James Bond series is that they seemingly treat the Cold War as a joke. I see a “Surely you can’t be serious?” about this to both sides in the classic Bond movies.


      • The cold war was serious business the Bond started. The early Connery movies were fairly serious, it wasn’t until Moore that the serious went silly. Most of the wry humor in the bond movies was the creation of connery and the director on the set and it turned out people liked it. Cold Warriors took that stuff seriously.


      • you missed LWA’s point entirely. LWA’s point was that everybody in the West believes that his or her ideology, be it libertarianism, conservatism, liberalism, or some variety of radical leftism, is universal in nature because of the ideological battles of the Cold War. The Cold War was seen a world wide battle between liberal capitalist democracy and Communism. One side was going to win and get everything and everybody would follow the winner. What meant was that all of these Western political ideologies come from centuries or millennia of Western philosophy. Without that background, nobody is going to get them. A person from an Islamic or Buddhist country is not going to come up with something like libertarianism or radical leftism without a lot of outside influence. The assumptions of both groups aren’t going to make sense to them.


  7. but putting pop music next to religious programming isn’t really a thing.

    you obviously don’t listen to AM stations; that part of the spectrum’s owned by Christian churches and they do this very thing — pop music next to religious programming — all the time.


    • But do they play things that would normally be bleeped on US airwaves and NOT BLEEP THEM? because the Qatari station Jay got me hooked on does stuff like that. (Admittedly I was listening to their late night show.) Here is some religious programming! Here is a [Christian, incidentally] duet by Johnny Cash and June Carter! Here is some uncensored Eminem! Literally all in a row in that order! If the Christian stations in Maine are really that eclectic, I applaud them (and I think they are in a league of their own, in this country).


      • No, the Christian stations don’t play bleepable music; but I’m pretty sure language and religion are the culprit in determining what’s gets bleeped; I recall some families from our time in Brookline MA who had similar cultural stuff going on; kids who were not allowed a lot of freedom listening to really disgusting music because their mother couldn’t understand the words.

        Perhaps it’s part of reinforcing how depraved western culture is?

        ETA: Christian stations own majority of the US AM airwaves; this is not unique to Maine, and a matter of some concern. Here’s a study on the phenomena: http://www.southernlawjournal.com/2006/10%20Spectrum%20Wars-1.pdf


        • No, I don’t think reinforcing western depravity is what it is. Or if it is, it’s happening at a very senior level. Because it’s an English-language radio station with enthusiastic, knowledgeable (and mostly Qatari or South Asian, apparently Islamic, as far as I can tell) DJs.

          It’s quite possible the the government CENSORS don’t speak English, and are thus in a similar role to the mother in your anecdote, but the DJs (at least the few, late night ones that I’ve listened to) know the music they are playing, know its context, and just have incredibly eclectic tastes (and no Clear Channel to tell them to keep to certain songs).

          There seems to be something going on there. I’ve been looking into Karachi radio stations for a different reason, and whatever the something is, it seems to be going on in Karachi as well.


  8. The je ne sais quoi, that magical secret spice that might make libertarianism possible, probably is a spice blend with a lot of ingredients; some rare and elusive.

    But the major ingredient is that we all enter the pot equal; that being gay or black or female or in a wheel chair or short or bald or fat doesn’t work against you in some way. Sadly, this is not the case. More importantly, that ingredient presumes that the weight of history, its habits and traditions, don’t shape our responses in ways that bend toward inequality. Libertarianism presumes a level playing field, but we don’t have a level playing field, we have all sorts of players with all sorts of handicaps that are so baked in that they’re tradition, and often hard to recognize.

    I’m always somewhat stunned how willing some libertarians are to accept those inequalities; to pretend they’re not there, and to embrace a presumption of equality as if it were a real thing. I think you’re probably right, lack of rules of the road leads to fewer fender benders; but when the pile up does happen, but I’d be hesitant to put a brand new driver behind the wheel of a car with a spike where the horn used to be, too. Or an old duffer who learned how to drive with a horn in the center and not on a thumb button on the side of the wheel.


    • It is, I think, a mistake to read Jaybird as saying that he is looking for the je ne sais quoi that makes only libertarianism possible. The thing he is looking for is the kind of thing that would make liberalism or conservatism or some pragmatic centrism also possible. The problem seems to be that certain things that are taken for granted in a place like the US cannot be taken as such in a place like Qatar. I’m not sure I entirely agree with Jaybird’s point, but it’s wider than a narrow point about libertarianism per se.


      • I read JB the same way. The political differences among Americans (excluding the complete wackos) are so small compared to what’s fund in the rest of the world. The question is how did we get to the shared consensus of which liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism are slight variants? And how do we keep it? And how would other countries get to where we are?


        • Yeah.

          I’m also kinda wondering about the extent to which my own cultural biases are informing my knowledge of The Good here but the other direction has stuff like “well, inequality before the eyes of the law is not necessarily wrong (if not a good in its own right)” and if I’m willing to do that, then stuff like political philosophy ceases to be important.


      • The thing he is looking for is the kind of thing that would make liberalism or conservatism or some pragmatic centrism also possible. The problem seems to be that certain things that are taken for granted in a place like the US cannot be taken as such in a place like Qatar.

        The ism you’re missing here is theism. Qatar is theocracy; and that’s filling the space.


          • That’s what I was fumbling toward: diversity combined with the opportunity to make your own way, or to change the path chosen for you if you don’t like it, and maybe with a splash of education or just the knowledge that one does not necessarily have to accept the way things are. But that all sounds ridiculously romantic and entirely too self-serving.


    • zic: Libertarianism presumes a level playing field…

      This. I believe it’s of some interest that the modern American version of Libertarianism really became a thing, as marked by the founding of the Libertarian Party in 1970, when inequality in America, as measured by the GINI coefficient, was at its historical nadir. The normal historical pattern of wealth and income distribution, basically for the entire history of “ever”, looked like a pyramid, with a tiny and wealthy landed aristocracy at the top, a small (10 – 20%) middle class of merchants and professionals, and a teeming mass of peons living hand to mouth. Due to a combination of accident and design, the post-WWII New Deal era in America saw a wealth and income distribution that was shaped more like a diamond; a broad and prosperous middle class and relatively small numbers of people at the bottom and top of the distribution.

      Yes, I fully realize the picture wasn’t all that rosy if you weren’t a WASPy type, but who exactly founded the LP? WASPy types. These were white and male baby boomers who had grown up in a world where success, at least for people that looked like them, was fairly easy and it wasn’t obvious — or at least it was easy to ignore — the role that specific government policies had played in making things that way. It was easy to imagine that this relatively egalitarian — by historical standards — was a “natural” outcome.

      On that last point I find it amazing how a bunch of people that pride themselves on their intellect and logic fall into certain logical fallacies. Two in particular stand out to me: First, the Naturalistic Fallacy, the belief that what happens “naturally” is necessarily the correct and most desirable outcome. Here I’m referring to the worship of the Free Market. It’s not just that the Market will produce an outcome, of course it will, but that that outcome is necessarily the “best” outcome, both instrumentally and normatively. Thus all the hand-wringing about market “distortions.” (Umm… yeah. That’s the point.) The best analogy would be to deep-ecology environmentalists who harbor weird masturbatory daydreams of humans disappearing from the planet so natural ecosystems can return to their pristine state. The second, related to the first is the Fallacy of Composition. Here it’s imagined that if everyone is just allowed to pursue their own aims unencumbered by anything but the most rudimentary of rules the overall, global, result will necessarily be optimized. The weird thing about this one is that the counter-examples are so incredibly obvious. Ever get stuck in rush-hour traffic? Even more on point, can anyone point me to a corporation that operates that way? Where you just hire people and tell them to just do whatever the hell they want?

      To return to the original point, one of the mainstay principles of libertarianism, mutualism, presumes a fair degree of economic and social equality. The greater the inequality, the less motivation there is to behave in a mutualistic fashion. The poor look at the rich and start to wonder at the fairness of a deal which requires them to respect the property rights of the rich as much as the rich respect their rights. It seems like the rich are getting a much better deal. And the rich for their part fail to appreciate just how much they depend on the mutual respect. So libertarianism, by abandoning any concern for equality qua equality plants the seeds for its own destruction.


        • Another way to put this is that there is no private property without the state. You can only create an ideology about living in a state-less utopia of various sorts when the state has existed long enough to keep most people safe enough that they don’t need to worry about a robber or mob killing them. It might explain why African-Americans, Jews, or other minorities that were victim’s of informal violence a lot tend not to go for libertarianism. Likewise, you didn’t get many female libertarianism until childless women became more frequent and the economic need for a husband less relevant. Women could only be libertarian if they are capable of living autonomously.


      • Here I’m referring to the worship of the Free Market.

        Do you really think shit like this makes you sound more credible?

        A better approach might be to avoid making a bunch of arguments that make it clear that you don’t actually understand the claims you’re arguing against.


        • I should elaborate on this, just to show I’m not bluffing.

          Rush-hour traffic is an example of tragedy of the commons. This is something that happens when nobody has property rights over a resource, and it’s libertarianism 101 stuff.

          Coase’s work on theory of the firm covers why corporations aren’t run that way. The formation of firms enhances efficiency by reducing transaction costs, but as a firm grows larger these savings are offset by diseconomies of scale as the firm becomes too complex to manage efficiently in a top-down manner.

          There’s also the fact that working for a particular firm is voluntary. Anyone who thinks he’s getting a raw deal can leave, which reduces the potential for negative externalities within the firm. Much of the point of libertarianism is preventing the negative externalities that left-wing economic policies are explicitly designed to facilitate.

          Yes, pollution of the commons is a negative externality, which is why pretty much any serious libertarian will acknowledge a role for government in regulating pollution of the commons. To head off the “No true Scotsman” from Mike, I’ll acknowledge that libertarians who oppose this exist. I just don’t consider them serious.

          Do you really think we haven’t thought of stuff like this? If you could tone down the arrogance of your dismissal of libertarianism to a level that reflects your actual understanding of the arguments for libertarianism, that would be swell.


          • Do you really think we haven’t thought of stuff like this? If you could tone down the arrogance of your dismissal of libertarianism to a level that reflects your actual understanding of the arguments for libertarianism, that would be swell.

            That’s actually really funny. I spent a couple of years seriously grappling with this. Go read McArdle’s old blog at The Atlantic. Search for my many deep and fruitful discussions with another commenter there, Rob Lyman.

            So the real problem here is that you think I’m shooting from the hip and haven’t considered libertarian positions; I have. I find most of them to be, on the surface, and at small scale, perfectly reasonable. Right up until they aren’t, until there’s a conflict and a need to sort out responsibility and consequences. And that pours out in all sorts of inconvenient directions.

            I’d be relieved to embrace a whole lot of libertarian if they’d actually seriously go there; but the devil’s in the details, and libertarians as a group have next to no consensus on those details.

            So rather than presume I’m arrogant and dismissive, you might try perusing the arrogance and dismissiveness you hold over my concerns about libertarian philosophy.

            So mostly, I think you doth protest too much.


            • I’d be relieved to embrace a whole lot of libertarian if they’d actually seriously go there; but the devil’s in the details, and libertarians as a group have next to no consensus on those details.



            • zic: but the devil’s in the details, and libertarians as a group have next to no consensus on those details.

              Well, to be fair, liberals as a group have consensus issues as well. What they do have is considerably more political power and the associated ability to bring some of their ideas into being, which acts as something of a default consensus.


              • Libertarians would do well to try to work out compromises that move liberals toward more libertarian principles. I see few actually bothering to do that.

                Liberals actually have an implemented policy. At the risk of being really confrontational though my intent is to state my personal opinion and not discredit an individual libertarian: we just had a grand experiment with a totally free market and it nearly destroyed the global economy.

                Better, I think, to implement libertarian policy in small and incremental goals and to actually grapple with concerns that and experiment on local levels. It’s a grand and noble goal of a level playing field, I love that vision. But for many, many people the playing field is not level for a host of complicated, entangled, and often conflicting reasons, and those reasons often become subsumed and unaddressed by the people who are on the playing field, presuming everyone else holds similar advantages.

                The presumptions built in to traditional community — the mores and norms — meant I would not have a right to vote or perhaps to own land or my own body without government creating it via constitutional amendment and jurisprudence. Tradition did not allow for my own primary rights to participate equally. If I’m to grant myself that benefit via government, I must recognize that others might also require that flexibility to join the playing field equally through either judicial or legislative fiat.

                But the same things hold true. In the SCOTUS decision on mercury emissions, my libertarian position would be that coal-burning plants (and perhaps their customers) are responsible for the damages to the air and water and people’s health here in the Northeast where I live.


                • zic: totally free market and it nearly destroyed the global economy.

                  Housing or financial? Although I think there is pretty good arguments that neither was anything like a free market, but markets that had perverse incentives at play.

                  zic: Better, I think, to implement libertarian policy in small and incremental goals and to actually grapple with concerns that and experiment on local levels.

                  This is what groups like the Institute for Justice do, using the courts to bring about small, libertarian changes.

                  zic: I see few actually bothering to do that.

                  That goes both ways. Take experiments like Uber & Lyft. Very libertarian, and yes, there are problems that need addressing, but a lot of liberals would rather protect the existing Taxi racket than seriously work to fix the problems with rideshare services. This is not a criticism of you, , but rather the more knee jerk response of the wider population to anything libertarians like, because if libertarians like it, it must be a case of FYIGM, or it’s somehow a SoCon cause wrapped up in liberty language.

                  And before we start going back & forth on which group is more insufferable, let me add that if there are elements of libertarian thought that you think do have the ability to align well with the more mainstream liberal platform, as the ideology with, you know, ACTUAL political power, is there not an obligation on the part of those with power to find a way to share that power? I mean, I’ll be the first to admit even serious libertarians (as opposed to conservatives who no longer want to be labeled GOP) can be a group of insufferable asses, but ideas can be useful independant of the social graces of the holder, and people with power can afford to be tolerant and magnanimous.


                  • I’m not going to get into the liberal vs libertarian argument, since frankly, we’re both looking at the sky and seeing different colors, but speaking as a pretty anti-Uber/Lyft liberal, I have no problem with ridesharing services.

                    What I do have a problem is with instead of actually working to change the laws or regulations with their billions of VC money, Uber and Lyft ignored the laws within the cities and such they’ve gone into.

                    I agree, many cities have issues with taxi drive medallions, licensing, and all the rest. But, the fix to that isn’t, “remove all regulation, and hope the Yelpification of society saves us.”

                    No, the answer, like most things, is reasonable regulation that opens up the transportation market, but also protects both taxi and Uber/Lyft drivers, including making sure they’re not on the hook for accidents while they’re on the job, and making it clear that if Uber is instituting a price for them to take a job, they’re employees, not contractors.

                    Of course, when I say these things in many places, I’m accused of being a shill for taxi companies who hates innovation (since any regulation at all destroys innovation) since I haven’t immediately fallen for the ‘disruption is wonderful’ propaganda.

                    TL:DR – Yeah, the taxi companies are assholes. But, so is Uber. If I could nuke them both, and only help the actual drivers, that’d be great.


                      • I’m not sold on the notion that they’re employees, not the least which because they don’t have any employer-mandated schedule or hours (except in the very, very broadest sense) which would make it unlike any employer-employee relationship I’ve ever had (including contract jobs).

                        I’d likely leave that part the same. Where I’d regulate Uber would be to regulate the service that the company provides. Currently, their service has too many holes (in servicing the disabled, for example) and I don’t think it’s unreasonable that they take steps to plug them. By actually hiring employees, if need be.


                        • I’m not convinced yet that the gig economy is going to be a pervasive & perpetual enough thing that it’s worth trying to work up labor regulations for workers who fall into that class. Primarily because there is a large population of workers who want the freedom & flexibility that kind of work offers without the hassle of setting themselves up as a sole proprietorship or S-corp.

                          From what I hear, ride-share services in the US could probably use to change the driver-service relationship, to make it more equitable, but I wouldn’t go so far as to demand benefits, overtime, etc.

                          Agree on the insurance & service holes.


                          • The difference, & between Uber and say, Taskrabbit, AirBnB or hell, Craigslist or the other ‘gig’ websites is pretty obvious to me.

                            The latter really are just conduits for getting people to meet each other up and exchange services. If you want to pay a guy $20 to do your lawn or write a paper for you, or charge $30/night for your spare bedroom, Amazon or AirBnB says, “cool” and takes their cut. They don’t say, “no, our algorithm says you have to charge at least $150 a night because the view outside of your apartment is really nice..”

                            As long as Uber says, “you have to charge this much, or not be part of our service,” than that’s a lot more control over a supposed non-employee than something like AirBnB.


                            • Admittedly, I’m not well versed on the pricing & compensation schemes of ride share services, but as the cost goes up, the drivers get paid more, right? Is that a linear relationship, or something else? Also, who is handling the financial transaction, the driver or the service? If the driver is doing it, then sure, they can set their own prices. If the service is, and the transaction is done before the driver even arrives…

                              Actually, that does make that distinction a bit fuzzier….


                        • Given flex hours that some companies are pushing (that whole on-demand scheduling), I’m not sure “set schedule” is all that critical a factor.

                          In any case, while I agree letting them set their hours is a big factor against them being employees, there are a number of other factors in making the decision that cut the other way.

                          Uber drivers are somewhat akin to a weird marriage of an employee and a franchise owner.


                          • The companies are pushing flex hours for their own convenience, which is the opposite of Uber allowing drivers to set their hours according to theirs. They’re at two opposite ends of the spectrum. I believe that outweighs pricing requirements in a really, really big way.


                    • TL:DR – Yeah, the taxi companies are assholes. But, so is Uber. If I could nuke them both, and only help the actual drivers, that’d be great.

                      This is where, in total frustration, I start to bang my head against a hard, solid object.


                  • Take experiments like Uber & Lyft. Very libertarian, and yes, there are problems that need addressing, but a lot of liberals would rather protect the existing Taxi racket than seriously work to fix the problems with rideshare services. This is not a criticism of you, , but rather the more knee jerk response of the wider population to anything libertarians like, because if libertarians like it, it must be a case of FYIGM, or it’s somehow a SoCon cause wrapped up in liberty language.

                    While I agree that Uber et al shake up the market, it seems pretty obvious that the generation(s) doing the shaking have an egalitarian bent.

                    Libertarians are not egalitarians. Never have been. But for sure they’ll try to don that mask when it serves their purpose.


                    • ” it seems pretty obvious that the generation(s) doing the shaking have an egalitarian bent.”

                      um, not so much, actually. If Uber were interested in egalitarian philosophy they wouldn’t charge quintuple the usual price to drive you away from a terrorist attack.

                      “Libertarians are not egalitarians. ”

                      Libertarians believe in an equal playing field; same rules for everybody, same enforcement for everybody. If the taller guy can still dunk on you, then it’s on you to learn to deal rather than on someone else to make dunking illegal for taller players.


            • Aw, crap. I’m so sorry. I saw your name at the top of @road-scholar’s comment and misread it as yours. I just plain fished up, and I sincerely apologize. Since my entire comment was a response to stuff you didn’t say, none of it was fair, and I take it all back. Again, I’m terribly sorry. Your response was entirely justified.

              I can’t remember whether it was the janegalt.net or Atlantic era, but I do remember you at Megan McArdle’s place. I’m glad she’s moved up in the world, but I sure do miss the comment sections from the old days.

              Rod: See my previous comment.


              • After some more thought, I’ve realized that I screwed up twice. First by misreading, and second by not realizing that the things I found most objectionable about that comment just aren’t your style. I should have given you enough credit to realize something just didn’t add up. Sorry again.


                • Thank you,

                  I miss that commentariat, too. There’s a thing about a place getting too big and losing it’s appeal, and that happened there. I started this comment-communicating at dKos; it got too big, and the liberal echo chamber got too loud, and I went to McArdle’s to recuperate. Then to TNC’s as that got too strident. Then here. Always as zic, no capital.

                  I am still grappling with libertarianism; and I meant what I said; I think it’s a mistake to ally with the GOP/conservative politics; and I wish libertarians would grapple with liberals (or at least try to,) more. Not old hippie liberals, but the kids who voted for Obama and who are going to Bernie Sanders rallies now. He drew over 10,000; a high-water mark this election cycle.)

                  I agree with Bernie; size (TBTF, monopoly, antitrust) matters here; income inequality matters, and I’d like to see some libertarian (instead of liberal) policies implemented that relieve some of that pressure, but our inability to separate mom/pop (really, shell and LLC) from Fortune500 screws the conversation all to hell.


          • The idea that working for a particular firm is voluntary is true in theory but not really that practical in practice. Its true that everybody could theoretically leave a bad work place environment if they so choose but people need to pay rent, buy food, and basically need money to simply survive. If there are a lot of job openings and you have the skills people need or want than you can leave. If there aren’t a lot of job openings or you lack marketable skills at the moment than you might be forced to endure a lot of bad stuff at work because you need the money.


            • Which leads to the question – how much of this should be society’s problem*? I mean, hard luck stories abound, where do we draw the line at what society s obligated to attempt to remedy?

              Which is more efficient, forcing companies to conform to some kind of standard, or just enabling the ability of employees to openly talk about bad environments (e.g. GlassDoor) &/or enabling the ability to exit & find work elsewhere (relocation assistance)? Or something else?

              Should we demand higher pay for unskilled work (living wage), or enable training & education opportunities? Or something else?

              *Rhetorical – let’s ignore what is or isn’t politically feasible.


              • It depends on whether you think society exists or not. There are some radical individualists hold that there is no such thing as society and everybody is an autonomous free agent entire responsible for him or herself and beholden to nobody. Than you have a bunch of radical communitarians who believe the opposite, that the individual does not exist and everybody is responsible for everybody else. Most people are in-between both groups even if they lean towards one. They don’t want their personal desires, needs, and wants to be totally subjected to that of everybody but they don’t want to be entirely without social support either.

                Assuming that people want a mix of individualism and communalism, it seems more feasible and cheaper to make sure that work places conform to certain standards of behavior through law and the occasional law suit than enabling people to exit and find work elsewhere. The latter could potentially require a lot of tax money to be spent while with the former, the companies themselves could be made to pay just like companies pay to meet environmental and safety regulations.


  9. Without that je ne sais quoi, the concept of liberty will lead to such things as the blood of slaves being the mortar of spectacular monuments to vanity.

    I don’t think that industrial-era Europe had the je ne sais quoi you’re talking about either. It had the same divide between the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor working class, with the latter having extremely low wages, high mortality, little to no rights, and largely being held in disdain by the wealthy minority who controlled all the property. Industrial-era America (e.g., ~1870s-1930s) was similar, with the difference that whereas in Europe the poor weren’t supposed to progress beyond their station, in America it was expected that anyone could move up in the world if they just had enough grit, smarts, and determination.

    The je ne sais quoi you are seeking may be something along the lines of social cohesion, or solidarity, or community: the underlying conviction that everyone in your country or society is part of the same ‘team’ and we should look out for each other and treat each other as humans with dignity and worth. But in the West, that “je ne sais quoi” seems to have come into existence with, and through, the creation of the welfare state. (Well, that’s a simiplication. Initially, the beginnings of the welfare state came into existence out of fear of communism, as a way to pacify the workers and reduce radicalism. But by the latter half of the 20th century, some level of genuine social solidarity had taken hold.)


  10. Jaybird, I remember you going on several riffs about confusing matters of taste with matters of morality.

    And I’d say that it sounds like you really didn’t enjoy being in Qatar. You hadn’t chosen to go there, and you left at your first opportunity, and you don’t plan to go back. So…what’s the problem?


  11. I looked at the Israel/Palestine argument through this particular lens and I see, again, why my inclinations are with Israel (with caveats) and my arguments about what the Palestinians ought to do all have a set of cultural assumptions that I probably ought not be making about them.


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