Remembering some victories

It’s too easy (for me, anyway) to sink into doom and gloom about the political situation. There are plenty of reasons to be depressed right now, but focusing only on bad news just kills motivation. So here’s a quick list of areas where libertarians have made gains in the 21st century. In most cases, other groups did a lot (often most) of the work; there aren’t enough of us to win many battles without alliances. Often, though, libertarians were there first.

I’m not claiming this is a complete list or even covers all the most important cases; please mention others in the comments if you like.
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Why I won’t attend the NH Liberty Forum

I would have liked to register for the New Hampshire Liberty Forum this coming February. They always have interesting speakers, and I run into people I haven’t seen in a long time. Unfortunately, the Free State Project, which is organizing the event, has made it an unreasonable choice to take. They require all attendees to waive all claims of liability against FSP, even if its negligence kills people.
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Note on Foundation for Economic Education

The website for the Foundation for Economic Education recently got a complete update. The page on article submissions shows a different structure; there used to be separate categories for Freeman articles and shorter pieces for Anything that’s Peaceful, but that’s gone.

The biggest change, though, is that there’s no longer any mention of payment. FEE has bought many articles from me over the years and even named me to its Faculty Network, but I don’t know if it’s paying any more.
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On Rand Paul

Just for the record: I don’t support Rand Paul. Before his current round of anti-refugee demagoguery, I thought he’d be more acceptable than the other candidates, but he’s only harming libertarianism by associating himself with it. He’s just an opportunistic conservative.

New article in The Freeman

The Freeman has a new article of mine, under the title “Fantasy Bookstore Fights Fantasy Economics.” (I submitted it under the less showy title “Independent Businesses and the Minimum Wage.”) It discusses the recent history of Borderlands Books, which nearly succumbed to a minimum wage increase; I’m hoping that this close-to-home example helps fans to understand that people can’t be made better off by prohibiting them from working for what their work is worth to an employer, and that employers aren’t “evil” for not raising wages.

This sentence was an editorial addition: “Fans of bookstores realized, perhaps too late, that for the industry to survive as a whole, the bookstore must be profitable as a business venture, rather than a charity case.” This seems to suggest that Borderlands is a “charity case” for seeking sponsorships, which it isn’t at all, any more than my two crowdfunding campaigns to publish Files that Last and Tomorrow’s Songs Today were.

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SF, fantasy, and libertarianism

Libertarian themes are common in science fiction. Several of Heinlein’s works have clearly libertarian ideas, and several other authors, including F. Paul Wilson, L. Neil Smith, and J. Neil Schulman (there must be a reason for the first initial-middle name pattern), have written hard-core libertarian SF. Ayn Rand’s Anthem is science fiction, and Atlas Shrugged has important SF elements.

Science fiction is about exploring alternative possibilities, and the analytic approach that’s common in SF appeals to many libertarians. There is, of course, also a lot of science fiction with clearly non-libertarian ideas, promoting socialism, scientist-kings, benevolent alien overlords, and supposedly good galactic elites that hold arbitrary powers of life and death. A genre that deals in speculation will go in all directions.

In fantasy literature, though, I can’t think of any important work that I’d call libertarian. There’s a difference between works that are specifically libertarian and ones which might be called libertarian-friendly. There’s no lack of fantasy works in which tyrants are overthrown or would-be tyrants are frustrated, but those villains are so evil that no one would support them. You don’t have to be against income taxes and for legalizing cocaine in order to hate Sauron, Lord Voldemort, or the White Witch.

Some of these works have sections with special libertarian appeal. Tolkien’s Shire has almost no government and gets along very well. Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods presents an authoritarian religious state as the villains, and even its god learns to grant people more freedom. They’re far from explicitly libertarian, though. Some people have tried to present J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World as libertarian, but the wizards have enslaved the house-elves and set up a literally soul-sucking prison.

Fantasy literature deals in magic, and it’s sympathetic to the idea that ideas can be solved literally by waving a wand. This has obvious appeal to progressives and socialists, who like to think that a sufficiently powerful government can make everyone well off in spite of the laws of economics. Libertarian ideas are built on the assumption that wealth has to be created and earned by thought and effort. Magical worlds are built on the idea that it can be created by inherent power, in effect by wishing. What you were born as often matters more than what you have made of yourself. Aragorn deserves to be king because of his ancestry. Muggles can’t levitate a peanut, no matter how much they study. Good and evil tend to be represented as cosmic forces rather than individual choices, and it’s necessary to follow the born leader in order to hold back the Forces of Darkness.

Obviously I haven’t read everything, and in fan fiction just about every possibility has been tried, so I’m sure there is libertarian fantasy out there. There are opportunities for trope-smashing stories or pushing the idea of the Promethean rebel. My filk song “De-liver Us from Evil” casts Zeus as a patent troll. Perhaps someone could do (or has done) a story of opening free trade between dwarves and elves?

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New Hampshire Liberty Forum

The New Hampshire Liberty Forum, February 20-23, is now accepting registrations. I’m a bit put off by the militaristic style of the page; it’s just whimsy, I think, but “redacting” the exact location of the conference really was going a bit too far. If you scroll down and read carefully, you’ll find out it’s at the Crowne Plaza in Nashua.

I’ll most likely be there. It looks as if there will be some good speakers, and probably some people I haven’t seen in quite a while.

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I learned about them from the NSA

If it weren’t for the NSA, I might never have learned about Liberty Maniacs. An article on Salon reports that the NSA issued a takedown notice to Zazzle against a Liberty Maniacs shirt which mocks the agency. It’s no longer available on Zazzle, but Liberty Maniacs has lots of amusing merchandise on Cafe Press. I’ve just ordered a couple of shirts, including the NSA one.
T-shirt image with mock NSA logo and 'The only part of the government that actually listens'
Don’t expect deep or fully consistent philosophy there. It’s simply a shop where, if you value liberty and free thought, you may find some clothes, stickers, and posters you like. I can’t say anything yet about the quality of the service or products, but I hope both will be good. Order while you still can.

Thanks for making them known to a wider audience, NSA.

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A blog worth reading

This morning I came upon a blog called The Skeptical Libertarian.” From the reading I’ve done so far, it looks like one that’s worth following. Since I posted recently on the Ron Paul Curriculum, this article on the Ron Paul Curriculum especially interested me. The links to Gary North’s website confirm that North ties Biblical teaching and homeschooling together, which is exactly what I hoped the “Ron Paul Curriculum” would avoid. The article claims that the “‘Paleo-Libertarian’ Taliban” is behind the RPC. This isn’t much of an exaggeration. North admits in an article in Christianity and Civilization that advocacy of religious liberty is just a tactic for gaining theocratic Christian power. His aim is that “the new social order will return to the doctrine of Christian liberty set forth in the Old Testament.” (And you always thought the Old Testament was Jewish!) He means it too. A number of websites quote him as writing, “Clearly, cursing God (blasphemy) is a comparable crime, and is therefore a capital crime (Lev. 24:16).” Update: Here’s a link to The Sinai Strategy, where that quote is found. The book is a horror, showing that North is about as libertarian as Hitler.

When I started writing this post I was trying to be skeptical myself about that comparison to the Taliban. There are many Christians who claim to believe in every passage of the Bible yet don’t support its long list of capital crimes. But it’s clear that if North had his way, I’d be put to death for the things I’ve said about religion. The major differences between North and the Taliban are that he doesn’t advocate violent revolution — and that he doesn’t currently have the power to kill the people he’d like killed.

If the Skeptical Libertarian never does anything else, it’s already proven its worth by letting me catch myself on this error.

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Projecting a free society

Is there a point to thinking about what a really free society could be like when freedom seems to be going down the drain? There is, as a matter of keeping a sane outlook. When we’re in a state of “war” with no prospect of an end, when governments are spending their way into bankruptcy and looking for more things to spend our money on, when we need to prove we’re allowed to work for a living, when traveling by air means submitting to the whims of goons, and when progressives and conservatives say that all this proves that we must have more government control as a remedy, it’s impossible to answer it all a piece at a time. It’s necessary to have an alternative vision rather than just fighting a futile defensive action. Even if there’s nothing left but to go down fighting, it’s better to fight for a vision worth having than just for the freedom to unlock a phone or to travel without having your luggage vandalized.

I don’t claim to have all the answers for what a fully free society would be like. There are serious issues to be resolved in finding non-coercive solutions to some situations. But the lack of an immediate solution is only a reason to look harder. To the extent that people coerce others in order to get what they want, there’s a moral problem. The big goal of libertarianism isn’t to reduce government spending or to increase its efficiency, but to get rid of coercion as a social tool.

There are several common objections to the possibility of non-coercive solutions to societal problems, and a thorough response requires addressing them. Here are some:

(1) The problem of poverty. “Without coercive redistribution of wealth, some people would starve.” This is one of the weakest arguments. Governments do more to create poverty than to alleviate it. Through history, poverty has been largely the result of unequal application of the law. Rulers and politicians need the poor in order to give the impression of helping them. Eliminate cronyism, barriers to entry in business, and burdens on hiring, and the level of poverty would be much lower. Private help would be more than capable of helping those genuinely incapable of earning a living.

(2) The free-rider problem. “There’s no way for private business to produce X and get paid by those who benefit from it, because people can get the benefits for free.” This is essentially the argument behind the DMCA and other draconian copyright legislation. This issue needs to be addressed in detail, but in many cases legislative attempts to make free riders pay just perpetuate ineffective business models. Letting some people have free rides may be the lesser evil in many cases.

(3) The natural monopoly problem. With some goods and services, economies of scale and distribution make sustainable competition difficult. Roads and water supplies are examples. This issue does need serious work, and some free market economists have addressed it. One part of the solution is recognizing that property rights don’t apply in the same way in all contexts. We already recognize that unauthorized parking in a parking lot can’t be treated quite the same way as unauthorized parking on your front lawn, and owners of private roads don’t have the right to charge a million dollars for crossing the street.

It isn’t necessary to solve all these problems completely for every possible case to regard the minimization (if not elimination) of coercive transactions as a moral ideal to pursue. If, in the ideal world, people still are compelled to pay for police patrols, it’s still a world worth aiming for.

For most of human history, people couldn’t imagine a world without slavery. Essential services wouldn’t be performed! The ex-slaves would starve! The economy would collapse! Yet slavery has been pushed to the corners of civilization, even if it’s never been eliminated. The vast majority, if not all, of the coercive means of getting one’s way can likewise be outlawed, made something to hunt down and eliminate rather than something to get elected to do. It’s a long road that could take centuries to follow, but I can hope that people will someday be much further along it, rather than backing into authoritarianism.