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Libertarian History/Philosophy

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Published: Sun, 20 Aug 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sun, 20 Aug 2017 08:06:09 -0400


The Google Memo Exposes a Libertarian Blindspot When It Comes To Power

Thu, 10 Aug 2017 10:45:00 -0400

[This piece has been edited to correct Peter Singer's ideological orientation. Explanation at end of article.] The "Google Memo" (read it here) raises at least two big questions from a specifically libertarian perspective: When does an employer have a right to fire an employee and how do social pressures work to shut down speech that makes powerful people uncomfortable? The answer to the first question is pretty clear-cut, at least when talking about an at-will employee: Google (and other employers) should and do have extremely broad rights to fire any worker at any time. Exceptions rightly exist (and depending on the state one lives in, there may be fewer or more legal exceptions recognized by the courts) but they are narrow. Critics fear that at-will employment will result in chronic job instability, but no firm thrives over time by firing its workers on a regular basis and without good reasons (at-will employment also gives workers the not-insignificant ability to leave a situation without having to explain themselves or negotiate out of contractual obligations). The vast majority of Americans have never signed an employment contract (in nearly three decades of adult work, I know I never have) and are not the worse off for it. Shortly before the memo's author was fired, Google's vice president of diversity, integrity, and governance wrote Diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of our values and the culture we continue to cultivate. We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we'll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul. As Ari Balogh said in his internal G+ post, "Building an open, inclusive environment is core to who we are, and the right thing to do. 'Nuff said." You might think that such values would have meant that James Damore, who penned the memo, might have been lauded for raising the issues he did, if not necessarily the way he did. Just earlier this year, at a shareholder meeting of Google's parent corporation Alphabet, chairman Eric Schmidt told an audience, "The company was founded under the principles of freedom of expression, diversity, inclusiveness and science-based thinking." But whether you agree with Google's specific decision in this case, there should be no question that it has the right to fire people. If a company does that consistently for arbitrary and unconvincing reasons (ranging from enforcing ideological consistency in non-ideological organizations to erratic management to whatever), it will have huge trouble attracting and keeping talent. But in a free society, every company should have the right to put itself out fo business through bad management practices. James Damore says that his most-recent performance review at Google rated him as "superb, which is the top few percentile" at the company. Supporters of the firing say that nobody at the company would want to work with a person who publicly questioned the announced demographic diversity goals at Google, a fact belied by reports that "over half" of Google employees don't think he should have been let go. If his firing causes more morale problems than it solves, that's Google's problem and it shouldn't erode confidence in the system of at-will employment. The second question raised by the Google Memo—dubbed "an anti-diversity screed" by Gizmodo, the site that posted it in its entirety apparently without reading it—is a more-complicated and interesting topic from a libertarian point of view. Damore titled his memo "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," and management's quick response to it underscores his titular implication, which is that political correctness has in many ways stymied any sort of good-faith conversation about issues touching on race, class, gender, and other highly charged topics. If libertarians instinctively only think about state power as worthy of critique, such a myopic perspective misses all the ways in which power asserts itself in society. As linguist Steven Pinker tweeted in response to Damore's firing, Goo[...]

How Freedom Made Us Rich

Wed, 09 Aug 2017 13:00:00 -0400

"In [1492], if you were going to bet on who was going to have a 'Great Enrichment,'" says University of Illinois at Chicago economist Deirdre McCloskey, "you would have been crazy not to bet on China because China had the most advanced commercial institutions, the most advanced ship building technology, [and] the most advanced machinery all together." But it didn't work out that way. "My claim," McCloskey says, "is that liberty was the key to modern economic growth." In her new book, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, the third volume in a trilogy, McCloskey argues that our vast accumulation of wealth over the past two hundred years— which she's dubbed "The Great Enrichment"—was the result of "massively better ideas in technology and institutions." Where did they arise from? &tag=reasonmagazineA"A new liberty and dignity for commoners," she argues, "expressed as the ideology of European liberalism." McCloskey sat down with Nick Gillespie at Freedom Fest, the annual convention for libertarians in Las Vegas, for a wide-ranging conversation on topics including the roots of "The Great Enrichment," why her gender reassignment surgery was an "expression of [her] libertarianism", and the importance of advocating policies that "actually help the poor" instead of just "making people feel good about helping the poor. McCloskey is also a Reason columnist. Her archive is here. Edited by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Meredith Bragg and Justin Monticello. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: Hi, I'm Nick Gillespie with Reason and today we are sitting down with Deirdre McCloskey. She's an Emeritus Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author most recently of Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World. She's also a columnist for Reason Magazine. Deirdre, thanks so much for talking with us. Long time contributing editor to Reason as well. McCloskey: I'm extremely pleased to be here and ... Gillespie: Well, your latest column, because I think this puts us right into a lot of current discussions, is titled The Myth of Technological Unemployment. McCloskey: Yeah. Gillespie: The subhead is, if the nightmare of technological unemployment were true, it would have already happened repeatedly and massively. In it, you take issue with a lot of libertarian or free-market economists who are talking about how we've reached the end of technological innovation or productivity growth and yeah, we're going to have to find something to do for people who are replaced by robots. McCloskey: Yeah. Gillespie: What's wrong with that? McCloskey: I think it's just completely wrong. My friend, Tyler Cowen, my friends at George Mason think maybe it's time for an intervention and Tyler, we think maybe we should send him to dry out somewhere because he seems to have gone crazy on this and he's not alone. I mean, there are people like Bob Gordon wrote a book last year, which was very successful. Gillespie: Which argued that basically say goodbye to 2%, ... McCloskey: Exactly. Gillespie: ... even 2% economic growth. McCloskey: Exactly. Innovation in the United States is finished and we've invented all the window screens and drop ceilings we're ever going to invent. There are a whole bunch of things wrong with it. One is that it doesn't make a lot of quantitative sense. In Tyler's book, which is called Average is Over, he's got a chart, which he says, "Summarizes my point." It's terrible. See the falling share of labor in national income. You look closely at the chart, which is one of these Time Magazine charts, it goes down like that. It turns out it's gone from 63% to 61%, talking about 2%. Now, come on Tyler. Please. Then, Bob likewise, and lots of others. I mean, in fact, it's a very old theme. People have been saying since[...]

Immigration Brings Out the Social Engineers

Sun, 06 Aug 2017 08:00:00 -0400

Immigration brings out the social engineers and central planners across the political establishment. We see this clearly in the debate over Donald Trump's support for legislation that would cut legal immigration in half while tilting it toward well-educated English-speakers and against low-skilled non-English-speakers. Even establishment opponents of Trump's position believe "we" must update the immigration system to better serve "the economy." But they disagree on particulars. Trumpsters think the economy needs only scientists and inventors (preferably future Nobel Prize winners, I suppose), while Republican and Democratic anti-Trumpsters counter that the economy also needs some unskilled workers to pick crops in the hot sun and do menial work in luxury resorts, which Americans apparently don't want to do. But what is this thing they call "the economy," which has needs? Social engineers of all parties and persuasions talk as though an economy is some kind of mechanism to be centrally fine-tuned and overhauled occasionally according to a plan. Even those who style themselves free enterprisers display the central-planning mentality when it comes to immigration. Contrary to this establishment view, the economy is not a mechanism. It is, rather, hundreds of millions of American producers and consumers, who also happen to be embedded in a global marketplace. Why can't they be trusted, without the direction of politicians, to decide for themselves what they need and to engage in social cooperation—that is, among other things, to trade goods and services—to obtain it? It is we whom the social engineers wish to manipulate. In the process they would cruelly keep poor people in perpetual misery and political oppression by locking them out of America. Why? Because the economy doesn't need them. Like all central planners, the immigration planners exhibit what F. A. Hayek called "the pretense of knowledge." Do these presumptuous frauds know what specific skills will be demanded in the future? To know that, they would have to know what products will be demanded in the future. But we don't know what we'll want because lots of things have not been invented yet. And we can't predict who will invent them. People who today have few skills and who speak no English will be among those who make our lives better. Let them come here to make better lives for themselves. That's their right, which is justification enough. But we will benefit too. Notice, also, that advocates of immigration control—progressive and conservative—often say the economy doesn't have enough jobs for the people already here. So how can we let more in? This assumes the "size" the economy is fixed and that more people would result in smaller shares for everyone. But if we stop thinking of the economy as a mechanism and start thinking of it as an unending series of exchanges between people seeking their betterment, we can see through this fallacy. Newcomers are both producers and consumers. Therefore their entry into our society presents new opportunities on both the supply and demand sides. In a freed economy this would portend higher living standards for everyone. (Regarding today's wage pessimism, see Bryan Caplan here.) Resources are not fixed, as evidenced by the fact that seven billion people are far wealthier today than much smaller world populations were in previous ages. In fact, resources—that is, useful materials—are not even natural. As the great economist Julian Simon taught us, what we call natural resources are merely useless things and even detriments until someone exercising intelligence—"the ultimate resource"—discovers how we may use them to make our lives better. Not so long ago, you would have paid dearly to remove crude oil from your land. Then a chemist distilled kerosene from it. Kerosene was better and cheaper than whale oil for lighting lamps; and so, suddenly, finding oil—"black gold, Texas tea"—on your land turned you into Jed Clampett. We indeed live in a world of scarcit[...]

Do Too Many Libertarians Celebrate a False 'Perfection of the Market'? [Podcast]

Fri, 04 Aug 2017 14:00:00 -0400

No recent book has caused a bigger splash in libertarian circles than Nancy MacLean's Democracy in Chains. The Duke historian avers that Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, who helped created what's known as public choice economics, had racist, segregationist intentions in his life's work of analyzing what he called "politics without romance"; that the Koch brothers—Charles and David—are not-so-secretly controlling politics in the U.S. and are devoted to disenfranchising Americans, especially racial and ethnic minorities; and that libertarians are deeply indebted to the pro-slavery philosophy of John C. Calhoun and that we wish "back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation." None of this is true, but that doesn't mean MacLean should go unchallenged—or that libertarians don't need to explain themselves better if we want to gain more influence in contemporary debates over politics, culture, and ideas. In the latest Reason Podcast, Nick Gillespie talks with Michael Munger of Duke's political science department, who has written a caustic, fair, and even generous review of MacLean's book for the Independent Institute. Even as he categorizes Democracy in Chains as a "work of speculative historical fiction" that was "in many cases illuminating," he concludes that her book is wrong in almost every meaningful way, from gauging Buchanan's influence on libertarianism to her inconsistent views toward majoritarian rule as an absolute good to her attempts to smear Buchanan as a backward-looking racial conservative. Munger, who ran for governor of North Carolina as a Libertarian in 2008 and maintains a vital Twitter account at @mungowitz, also discusses how that experience changed his understanding of politics, why he's a "directionalist" advocating incremental policy changes rather a "destinationist" insisting on immediate implementation of utopian programs, and how the movement's heavy emphasis on economics has retarded libertarianism's wider appeal. "Many libertarians celebrate something like the perfection of the market," he says. "And so we end up playing defense. When someone says, 'Look at these problems with the market,' we say, 'No, no. Actually, the problem is state intervention, the problem is regulation. If we get rid of those things, then perfection will be restored.' The argument that I see for libertarianism is not the perfection of markets, it's the imperfections of the state, the institutions of the state." It's a wide-ranging conversation that touches on growing up in a working-class, segregated milieu and possible futures for the libertarian movement. Munger's home page is here. Read Reason's coverage of Democracy in Chains here. Audio post production by Ian Keyser. Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below: src="" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.) Subscribe at iTunes. Follow us at SoundCloud. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: Hi, I'm Nick Gillespie. This is the Reason Podcast. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there. Today I'm talking with Mike Munger, a political scientist at Duke, about the new book Democracy in Chains by a Duke historian, Nancy MacLean. In her controversial work, MacLean argues, among other things, that Nobel Prize winning economist James Buchanan, who helped create what is known as public choice economics, had racist segregationist intentions in his life's work of analyzing what he called "politics without romance", that the Koch brothers, Charles and David, are not so secretly con[...]

To Duke Historian Nancy MacLean, Advocating Free Markets Is Something 'The World Has Never Seen Anything Like...Before'

Wed, 02 Aug 2017 13:53:00 -0400

Duke University historian Nancy MacLean recently issued Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, an alas quite hot book that purports to expose the dark secrets of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan and the "radical right"/libertarian movement he's allegedly the brains behind. MacLean has been convincingly accused by many who understand his work and the libertarian movement with both less built-in hostility and more actual knowledge than she has (including me here at Reason) of getting nearly everything wrong, from fact to interpretation. She recently took to the Chronicle of Higher Education to allegedly reply to her critics. A quick wrap up of many specific problems found in her book by her critics—by no means all—that MacLean ignores even while allegedly "respond[ing] to her critics," and which the editors at the Chronicle let her ignore: • Her claim of meaningful similarity between John Calhoun's constitutional vision and that of Buchanan and his public choice school cannot be reasonably maintained. • Her assertion that the modern public choice/libertarian constitutionalist vision has nothing to do with James Madison is not true. • Buchanan did not, contra MacLean, believe that all taxation above voluntary giving is theft akin to a mugger in the park. • She attributed to Buchanan the belief that those receiving government aid "are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to… animals who are dependent" though he used that phrase to describe the attitude that was the opposite of his. • Her attribution of Buchanan's use of the Hobbesian term "Leviathan" to (racist, uncoincidentally for her rhetorical smear purposes) Southern Agrarian poet Donald Davidson rather than, well, Hobbes, falls apart with study of when and how Buchanan began using the term in his work. • She regularly cites libertarian thinkers as saying nasty things implying a contempt for the poor or for democracy that are not supported by the full context of the quotes; victims of her malicious misinterpretation including David Boaz and Tyler Cowen. It's a pattern of hostile incomprehension, and her "response" indicates that this is partly because she's deep-down unable to view thinkers or funders who advocate limiting government's scope, expense, or power any other way. MacLean speaks to none of the above specific critiques of her book in the Chronicle, merely generically complaining about being attacked and insisting that people who critique her work clearly hadn't read or understood it, or linking to people who sophistically defend some possible meanings in a manner far more subtle and complicated than she bothered to do. Mostly eschewing factual or interpretational specifics, she reached instead for sympathy by complaining these specific critiques on her methods and understanding as a historian made her "feel vulnerable and exposed" and interpreting an intellectual metaphor for a physical threat. She does a cute turnaround insisting against all evidence that those who praised her book were the only ones who read it, and that the very political forces she inveighs against in her book "helped create the current toxicity" allegedly exemplified by academic experts explaining how she got so many things so very wrong in her attempt to make her readers hate and fear anyone who wants to restrict government's power to manage our lives. She certainly does not address a core problem with her book I detailed in my review: the "historical fact" upon which her entire thesis depends, her book's distinguishing selling point, which she claims to have uniquely discovered through diligent archival work, that James Buchanan was the secret influence behind the political funding machine of Charles Koch and that that machine is deliberately and conspiratorially disguising its libertarian goals, is completely invented. She creates an illusion of proof by citing documents that do [...]

Jeff Flake's Conscience Is Good for Libertarians—and the Country

Tue, 01 Aug 2017 10:20:00 -0400

"We've been forces...of populism and protectionism, isolationism, xenophobia," says Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, about his own Republican Party. In a new book that borrows a title from Barry Goldwater, an NPR interview, and a no-holds-barred column in Politico, Flake is making the case that the GOP and President Trump are dishonest and disinterested in limiting the size, scope, and spending of government. He has impeccable credentials as a libertarian-leaning politician who once ran the free-market Goldwater Institute in Phoenix. Flake is a dedicated free-trader and defender of immigration who accompanied Reason on our trip to Cuba in 2016. Since arriving in Congress in 2001, he has passionately attacked the Cuba embargo as misguided, immoral, and ineffective: "We preach the gospel of contact and commerce and trade and travel, yet with Cuba we turn around and say, 'No, it's not going to work there.' It just seemed to be a glaring inconsistency in our foreign policy." An "unapologetic member of the Gang of Eight" that sound comprehensive immigration reform, he is one of the few remaining Republicans in high office to champion higher levels of legal immigration both as a humanitarian gesture and as a practical boon to the country. Flake tells NPR that his discontent "is a long time in coming. I got here in Washington in 2001.... And we got [President George W. Bush's education overhaul law] No Child Left Behind, which was, I thought, big federal overreach into local education policy. And then we got the prescription drug benefit, which added about $7 trillion in unfunded liabilities. I didn't think that was a very conservative thing to do." As important, Flake notes, When we couldn't argue that we were the party of limited government anymore, then that forced us into issues like flag burning or trying to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, things that we wouldn't have done otherwise if we would have been arguing about true principles of limited government or spending. He says that conservatives need "to be honest with people" about the causes of economic dislocation. While Donald Trump and his fellow populists wail about Mexico and China, Flake stays grounded in reality. "We manufacture twice as much as we did in the 1980s with one-third fewer workers and those productivity gains will continue. Globalization has happened and the question is: Do we harness it for our benefit or are we left behind by it?" In his Politico piece, Flake ranges close to calling for Trump's impeachment, or at least official censure, writing that "unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility." Flake says that revelations about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election and the president's bromance with Vladimir Putin were among the reasons he's channeling his inner Goldwater. Where should his party go from here?: First, we shouldn't hesitate to speak out if the president "plays to the base" in ways that damage the Republican Party's ability to grow and speak to a larger audience. Second, Republicans need to take the long view when it comes to issues like free trade: Populist and protectionist policies might play well in the short term, but they handicap the country in the long term. Third, Republicans need to stand up for institutions and prerogatives, like the Senate filibuster, that have served us well for more than two centuries. No wonder there have been whispers about Trump working to primary Flake, who is up for re-election in 2018. You might not agree with Jeff Flake on everything, but it's good to see a principled free-market, open-borders Republican going public with his discontent, especially because he's got a strong record of calling out massive expansions of the government going back to his first days in Congress. We need more people like him in Washington, not just the handful[...]

What the Left Should Like about Public Choice

Sun, 30 Jul 2017 13:58:00 -0400

Although the public choice school of political economy has been demonized in a new work of putatively progressive fiction masquerading as intellectual history, good-faith leftists (if they don't already regard themselves as libertarians) may be surprised by how their cause could benefit from the insights of James Buchanan et al. (For reviews of the book I'm referring to, see among others this, this, and this. To keep up with the daily sightings of misquotations, fabrications, and smears, read Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek.) Full disclosure: despite its many valuable insights, I find less to like in public choice theory, at least its most common variant, than many (nonlibertarian) leftists would. For one thing, I (like Murray Rothbard) don't share the view that the state is just another way (along with the market) in which we assert our personal preferences and obtain goods and services. (Public choice versus private choice.) The state is a predator and an exploiter, not a cooperative venture for the production of "public goods." I don't see how a hypothetical social contract or constitutional convention changes that. And I'm underwhelmed by the constitutional contractarian argument that, while the state indeed coerces, we in effect have consented to be subject to the state's threats of violence. On the other hand, I like the methodological and moral egalitarian individualism at the base of public choice—and so should all leftists of good faith. Everyone has the right to be free of aggression; no one is naturally endowed with authority over others. But I am uneasy about the fact that that the consequent unanimity principle in practice becomes something far less than literal unanimity. For me it's not enough that the decrees of legislatures are passed under constitutional rules everyone perhaps would agree to were they gathered at a convention. As Rothbard pointed out, such hypothetical unanimity can easily become a device to legitimize almost anything the government does. I realize that concern about the production of important "public goods," such as security and dispute resolution, underlies much of this, but perhaps this concern betrays an underappreciation for the power of entrepreneurship, technology, and cooperation through nonstate channels. For a long time some heavy thinkers thought lighthouses couldn't be produced on the market. As for the market production of security, a voluminous interdisciplinary literature has become available to show how feasible that would be. (Start here. By the way, it's wrong to think that a stateless society would lack a constitution.) Elements on the left should also be delighted by public choice scholars' development of the theory of privilege-seeking (or "rent-seeking"). It's an old observation, really: when the state's personnel have favors to dispense, people in the private sector will invest resources to obtain them. Such favors are by nature impositions on third parties. They may take the form of cash subsidies, taxes and regulations that hamper or quash competition and raise incomes in a nonmarket manner, and other devices. But the principle is the same: private- and government-sector individuals collude to use the state's coercive power to obtain what they could not obtain through voluntary exchange for mutual benefit. It's a theory of exploitation the good-faith left should embrace. By the same token, the state's personnel, seeing opportunities to sell favors, are just as likely to initiate the privilege-seeking process. In this sense, public choice scholars are right when they see the political arena as a series of exchanges. The big difference with the marketplace, however, is that in the political arena the largest group of people is forced to participate. The bottom line on privilege-seeking, which should interest the left, is this: the people with the greatest access to power will not be those the left cares [...]

What Nancy MacLean Gets Wrong About James Buchanan

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 21:00:00 -0400

The board of education in Brown v. Board of Education—the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated American public schools—was located in Topeka, Kansas, a city that was overwhelmingly white. Brown overturned a policy set by a majority, and it was right to do so: School segregation is just as wrong when it is imposed democratically as it is when it is imposed by suppressing the black vote. So the strangest thing about Democracy in Chains—a book that contains many, many strange claims—may be how its author, the Duke historian Nancy MacLean, treats Brown. On one hand, she believes that those who want to bind majorities with preset constitutional rules are up to something sinister. Her chief villain on this score is James Buchanan, an economist and political philosopher who argued that government actors ought to be subject to built-in structural constraints. On the other hand, MacLean clearly thinks Brown was correctly decided. Indeed, she accuses Buchanan of working to undermine the ruling. MacLean seems not to notice Brown is itself an example of the phenomenon MacLean is denouncing: a Constitution being used to overrule a democratic outcome in the name of protecting a minority. It's an awkward start for a baroque conspiracy story, and it signals what a mess the book will be. The historian has little to no evidence for her history. She invents some when necessary, and will at times just make assertions to suit her narrative, mustering neither real nor phony evidence to back them up. Many of her factual and interpretive errors have already been covered elsewhere, in venues ranging from Vox to The Washington Post. Rather than get lost in the weeds of covering every false statement or misleadingly gerrymandered quotation in this book, I want to focus here on the core claims that it gets wrong: MacLean fundamentally misunderstands Buchanan's intellectual project, treating his theories about politics as an apologia for the wealthy and powerful. This gives short shrift to a serious body of thought, and it fails to see that his arguments can indict the wealthy as much as anyone else. She tries to tie Buchanan's work to the segregationist order in the South, even implying that his ideas arose from a desire to preserve it. She essentially invents links along the way. She paints Buchanan as an important influence on Augusto Pinochet's repressive dictatorship in Chile. Not only does her evidence fail to support this, but she misses an important piece of counterevidence: a 1981 speech, delivered in Chile, in which Buchanan condemned dictatorial rule. And finally, though Buchanan was neither an orthodox libertarian nor a central influence on the libertarian movement, she puts him at the heart of a Charles Koch–driven conspiracy to impose a radical libertarian agenda on the United States. In the process, she manages to misread both Buchanan and Koch in telling ways. Public Choice, Private Greed? Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his role in founding the "public choice" school of economics. This school's key idea, to quote the Nobel committee, was to seek "explanations for political behavior that resemble those used to analyze behavior on markets." The result was a body of work in which politicians and bureaucrats, no less than entrepreneurs and investors, often "act out of self-interest," driven not just by a vision of the common good but by a desire for votes or bigger budgets. MacLean, by contrast, treats public choice as little more than an effort to question the good-heartedness of public servants. Its conclusions, she insists, have "no true research—no facts—to support them" and are rooted in "projecting unseemly motives onto strangers about whom they knew nothing." She takes it for granted that when public choice economists complain that special-interest groups profit from government, they're aiming to protect the r[...]

'Humans of Freedom Fest': Portraits from the Largest Annual Gathering of Libertarians

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 19:56:00 -0400

Editor's note: FreedomFest, held every July in Las Vegas, is the largest annual gathering of libertarians in the country. Today is the first day of the four-day long conference, which is being headlined in its 10th year by William Shatner, John Stossel, Greg Gutfeld, and others. Taking inspiration from the site Humans of New York, Reason is happy to offer Humans of FreedomFest, a series of portraits and brief interviews with various attendees. This is the first installment.

Victor the SnakeMannn


"This hand and this tattoo is in more pictures with celebrities than anybody else's hand or tattoo. I've got the most famous GOP tattoo."

Are you the black sheep of the family?

"Oh yeah. My dad was a Marine and a Democrat. And he was one of those guys who voted because of my mom, so his vote wouldn't be canceled out. I've been a conservative and a hippie for most of my life."

Jaden Stubbs and Roy Lee Stubbs


"My dad couldn't make it to this year's [FreedomFest], so I came with [my cousin's Jaden's] family. I earned my money so I could come."—Roy Lee (above, right)

You earned your money so you could come?

"I work. I do a little bit of flooring. Construction. I'm helping pay for gas. Paying for food."

"Our parents teach us to be individuals."—Jaden

Nick Cooper


What is your most controversial opinion?

"Among the general public? Eliminating the Federal Reserve. Among libertarians? I'm not a huge open-borders guy. There's a joke that if you get five libertarians in a room, you'll get 10 opinions."

If You're Going to FreedomFest, Make Sure To Catch All the Reason Panels

Tue, 18 Jul 2017 17:54:00 -0400

(image) FreedomFest, the world's largest annual gathering of libertarians, gets started tomorrow in Las Vegas. (It's not too late to attend!)

The keynote speakers include William Shatner, Greg Gutfeld, and John Stossel (who will also be debuting his first "Stossel on Reason" documentary during the four-day event). There are panels and presentations galore on virtually every aspect of libertarian thought, policy, and philosophy—go here to leaf through the event's agenda.

On Saturday, July 22, there will be a special "Reason Day" slate of events, starting with a panel featuring Matt Welch, Katherine Mangu-Ward, and me called "To Boldly Go...Reason and the Glorious Libertarian Future." We'll suss out the direction we want to see the future head in and will underscore the policies and mindsets that can make that possible. Other Reason Day panels include "Liberty on Mars (and Other Planets)," featuring Mangu-Ward, Justin Monticello, and Berin Szoka; "Liberating the Human Body," with Welch, Ron Bailey, Zoltan Istvan, and Mike Riggs; and "Is Spock Libertarian?: The Politics of Science Fiction," featuring me, Mangu-Ward, Peter Suderman, and David Brin.

Beyond that, Matt Welch will join John Stossel to talk about being a libertarian journalist, Katherine Mangu-Ward will participate in the vaunted "final panel" of the conference, and I'll interview Greg Gutfeld and participate in a debate on Donald Trump's presidency so far. Nearly a dozen Reason staff will be roaming the halls, reporting on goings-on, taping interviews, documenting "The Humans of FreedomFest," and more.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of FreedomFest, the organizers also put together an online poll of over 10,000 people to name the "100 Most Influential Libertarians." Among the honorees were many Reason folks: John Stossel (4), whose online video series "Stossel on Reason" debuts this Thursday; David Koch (6), longtime trustee of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website; Drew Carey (17), the Price Is Right host, Reason Foundation trustee, and force behind the award-winning documentary Reason Saves Cleveland; Robert W. Poole, Jr. (19), one of the founding editors of Reason magazine and founder of Reason Foundation; myself (22); and Matt Welch (24), Reason editor-at-large, author of McCain: Myth of the Maverick and co-author of The Declaration of Independents. Add to that another half-dozen or so Reason columnists, former staffers, contributing editors, and it's practically like reading our masthead. Many of the people on the list will be on site for a special celebration on Friday, July 21.

FreedomFest is a great institution, a libertarian Woodstock that happens every year! If you're attending, make sure to check out all the Reason Day panels while you're there. And the Reason booth in the exhibition hall. And everything else this amazing conference has to offer.

Last year at FreedomFest, we sat with Gary Johnson and William Weld to talk about the 2016 election. Check it out:

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We Are The Economy They Want to Regulate

Sun, 16 Jul 2017 00:30:00 -0400

Critics of the libertarian philosophy think they can score points by calling libertarians "market fundamentalists." It's supposed to conjure images of dogmatic religious fundamentalists, just like the term global warming denier is supposed to conjure images of Holocaust deniers. It's a smear, of course, and if you think the tactic discredits those who employ it, I agree. The fact is that libertarians cannot be market fundamentalists. Why not? Because in the libertarian worldview, the market is not fundamental. What's fundamental is every person's right to be free from aggressive force. So fine, I'm a freedom fundamentalist. Guilty. Strictly speaking, it's not markets that can and should be free—it's people. The term free market merely describes one political-legal context in which people conduct themselves. It's shorthand for a subset of human action—the exchange of goods and services, usually for money. (The logic of human action, the study of which Ludwig von Mises called praxeology, applies to all purposeful conduct, not just market exchange.) It follows, then, that when politicians and activists call on the government to regulate the economy, they mean to regulate us. There's no economy to regulate. It's not a machine or a vehicle. It's an unending series of purposeful activities the logic of which gives rise to a process characterized by regularities. Hence, for example, the law of supply and demand. We can talk about this orderly process—the market—as though it were a thing, but we have to keep its metaphorical nature in mind. It's still only people cooperating with each other. When market critics demand government regulation, they imply that markets are by nature unregulated. But we've just seen that this is nonsense. An unregulated market is a logical contradiction. That we call it a market indicates the regularities, or laws, just mentioned. No regularity—no market. There could no more be an unregulated market than there could be a grammarless language or a perpetually disorderly society. We would not call a population a society if it did not display a general order expressed by rules (written and unwritten), customs, and mores. Without such things, a population would be not a society but a Hobbesian state of nature. So the question is not whether the market should be regulated, but who should regulate it. And the only two choices are: 1) market participants through the exercise of their free and peaceful choices or 2) politicians and bureaucrats relying on the threat of violence to impose their will. Easy choice, I'd say. Those who doubt the market is intrinsically regulated when people are completely free need only ask themselves what would happen if someone charged $100 for an apple or offered to pay workers $1 an hour (assuming no legislation forbidding this). The answer is simple: others would offer lower prices for apples and higher wages to workers. No need for government regulation. In other words, competition would discipline the would-be gouger and miser. Competition simply means the freedom to offer better terms to consumers and workers. As I say, free markets are nothing but free persons. Those who think cooperation is preferable to competition should realize they are two sides of the same coin. Competition is what happens when we're free to choose with whom we wish to cooperate. Two shoe stores compete, each hoping to be the one that cooperates with me in my quest for new shoes. Critics really must stop reifying the market because markets don't do things or have purposes. Only people do things and have purposes. You often hear it said (unfortunately, by some economists) that markets ration goods and services. This is often the retort when critics of national health insurance warn that rationing would eventually be necess[...]

Is Libertarianism a 'Stealth Plan' To Destroy America?

Mon, 03 Jul 2017 08:30:00 -0400

As its title suggests, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, by Duke historian Nancy MacLean, is filled with all sorts of melodramatic flourishes and revelations of supposed conspiracies. Chains, deep history, radicals, stealth—is this nonfiction or an Oliver Stone film? Even the cover depicts a smoke-filled room filled with ample-chinned, shadowy figures! This book, virtually every page announces, isn't simply about the Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan and his "public choice" theory, which holds in part that public-sector actors are bound by the same self-interest and desire to grow their "market share" as private-sector actors are. No, MacLean is after much-bigger, more-sinister game, documenting what she believes is the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance...[and] a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and the national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation. The billionaires in question, of course, are Koch brothers Charles and David, who have reached a level of villainy in public discourse last rivaled by Sacco and Vanzetti. (David Koch is a trustee of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website; Reason also receives funding from the Charles Koch Foundation.) Along the way, MacLean advances many sub-arguments, such as the notion that the odious, hypocritical, and archly anti-capitalistic 19th-century slavery apologist John C. Calhoun is the spirit animal of contemporary libertarianism. In fact, Buchanan and the rest of us all are nothing less than "Calhoun's modern understudies." Such unconvincing claims ("the Marx of the Master Class," as Calhoun was dubbed by Richard Hofstadter, was openly hostile to the industrialism, wage labor, and urbanization that James Buchanan took for granted) are hard to keep track of, partly because of all the rhetorical smoke bombs MacLean is constantly lobbing. In a characteristic example, MacLean early on suggests that libertarianism isn't "merely a social movement" but "the story of something quite different, something never before seen in American history": Could it be—and I use these words quite hesitantly and carefully—a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance? Calling attention to the term's origins to describe Franco's covert, anti-modern allies in the Spanish Civil War, MacLean writes the term "fifth column" has been applied to stealth supporters of an enemy who assist by engaging in propaganda and even sabotage to prepare the way for its conquest. It is a fraught term among scholars, not least because the specter of a secretive, infiltrative fifth column has been used in instrumental ways by the powerful— such as in the Red Scare of the Cold War era— to conjure fear and lead citizens and government to close ranks against dissent, with grave costs for civil liberties. That, obviously, is not my intent in using the term.... And yet it's the only term up for MacLean's job, since "the concept of a fifth column does seem to be the best one available for capturing what is distinctive in a few key dimensions about this quest to ensure the supremacy of capital." Sure, "fifth column" is a dirty, lowdown, suspect term among historians because using it trades in hysteria at the service of the ruling class rather than rational analysis intended to help the downtrodden. But come on, people, we're in a twilight struggle here, with a movement whose goals have included, among other things, ending censorship; opening the borders to[...]

What Do 'Women in Liberty' Want?

Thu, 29 Jun 2017 19:15:00 -0400

Why aren't there more female libertarians? Is it because biology dictates that ladies love the state?

These are the sorts of tedious questions women in the "liberty movement" field at far too many events. So when some of us gathered last week at "Porcfest"—formally the Porcupine Freedom Festival, an annual campground conference and party put on by the Free State Project—we used a "Women in Liberty" panel to deconstruct myths about male dominance in liberty circles, the incompatibility of libertarianism and feminism, and libertarians' ability to make "emotional arguments."

Reason's Melissa Mann, along with libertarian activist and writer Avens O'Brien, Kat Murti of the Cato Institute and Feminists for Liberty, and Free the People CEO Terry Kibbe joined in a panel I moderated. Friends in the audience took video of the hour-long panel, which I have cobbled together. My editing skills might be sub-par, but my wise and off-the-cuff co-panelists make it worth your while anyway.

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The Base Rhetoric of Mainstream Taxation Talk

Sun, 14 May 2017 10:15:00 -0400

Lenin reportedly said, "The best way to destroy the capitalist system [is] to debauch the currency." If by "capitalist system"* we mean only what Adam Smith called "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty," we could improve on the quote: the best way to destroy it is to debauch the currency of rational communication, the language. George Orwell of course understood this well and made it the centerpiece of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In a book on the German liberal social-critic Karl Kraus (Anti-Freud: Karl Kraus's Criticism of Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry), Thomas Szasz distinguished between noble and base rhetoric and rhetoricians—that is, those who use language to reveal (e.g., Kraus) and those who use it conceal their value judgments (e.g., Freud). Szasz pointed out that the conservative "radical" intellectual Richard Weaver, lamenting the neglect of rhetoric as an academic subject, described what Szasz called "the movement away from the value-laden language of theology, poetry and prose, in short of the 'humanities,' and toward the ostensibly value-neutral languages of the 'sciences.' This attempt to escape from, or to deny, valuation is, for obvious reasons, especially important and dangerous in … the so-called social sciences. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that the specialized languages of these disciplines serve virtually no other purpose than to conceal valuation behind an ostensibly scientific and nonvaluational semantic screen." Szasz here was referring to scientism, which Kraus despised and attempted to expose in his work. Base rhetoric is what social engineers must engage in or else they would be, in Oscar Wilde's words, "found out." We can see the base rhetoricians in action whenever they talk about taxation. From the terms of their discussion, you would never know that the money in question actually belongs to particular individuals, who obtained it through voluntary exchange or gift. Rather, the terms suggest that it belongs collectively to society, with the government being its agent of distribution. The only question, then, is: what's the fairest distribution? How else are we to explain the routine designation of tax cuts and repeals as "tax breaks?" We don't usually call letting someone keep his justly acquired possession a break. And how are we to explain why people are chided about paying their "fair share" without a standard of fairness ever being proffered? And, finally, how else are we to explain the term "tax expenditure," which is attached to any policy that enables people to reduce their tax "liability" by jumping through one legal hoop or another? These hoops are often called "loopholes," though that term can mean both deliberate and inadvertent features of legislation that provide opportunities for people to keep some money out of the government's hands. The concept tax expenditure implies that the government's budget is the entire GDP. When anyone calls for a new tax or a tax increase, that person wants government personnel to threaten force against others who fails to surrender their money to the state. But almost no one speaks in those terms. If tax advocates did that, their rhetoric at least would be value-laden and honest (and only in that sense noble). Instead, such people engage in base rhetoric. They speak in ostensibly value-neutral language when in fact their meaning is value-laden: they implicitly claim that their plans for the money are superior to the plans of those who now possess it. Weaver wrote that "language … is … sermonic. We are all of us preachers in private or public capacities. We have no sooner uttered words that we have given impulse to other people to look at the world, or some small part of it, in [...]

Libertarianism Does Not Yet Rule America. Libertarians Know That. That's Not a Reason for Them to Abandon Libertarianism.

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 08:30:00 -0400

From its beginnings as a distinct ideological movement in the postwar years, libertarianism has been a set of outsider ideas vastly disrespected by most American politicians and intellectuals. It was kept alive by small institutions, publications, and scattered academics (mostly in economics at first) who for decades were largely concerned with just keeping any expression of these ideas a going concern, barely expecting it could soon seriously influence mainstream political culture. (That story is told up to the turn of the 21st century in my book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.) Libertarians understand they are still to a large degree strangers in a strange land when it comes to the American political scene, struggling for impact in a world they never made, and any number of other cliches indicating that obvious truth: libertarianism is still a minority idea and libertarians are still embroiled in a difficult and long-term fight to influence political ideology and practice in America. Libertarians are generally not delusional on that point. When it comes to awareness and acceptance of the overarching principles of libertarianism, even if not to their actuation across the board in governing, the situation for libertarianism is America has gotten much better in the 21st century along many dimensions. As Reason's Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie have argued, an often pre-political embrace of the options, variety, and choice inherent in the libertarian vision of free minds and free markets has spread massively in American culture, even if government qua government isn't shrinking. One of the ironic demonstrations of libertarianism's inroads in American culture is that mainstream outlets find it necessary frequently to declare it dead, irrelevant, or fatally wounded. Lately we've had Tim Alberta in Politico assuring us that the libertarian dream is dead; and Adam Ozimek in Forbes saying libertarianism could be more successful if only it would narrow its vision a little. Politico makes a good point as far as it goes: Until Donald Trump's bold political entrepreneurship proved surprisingly successful, there was reason to believe the GOP might be more inclined to go for a libertarian-leaning candidate such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) rather than someone like Trump, policy-wise a Buchananite populist in the Rick Santorum style (to point to the nearest even slightly successful precursor in the GOP), but with less sanctimony, less even half-convincing Christianity, and more aggressive crudity and lack of intellectual polish. Examining the respective political fates of Paul and Trump in the 2016 presidential race, now we know better. But by the very fact that it is an outsider political movement not fully at home in either major party, nothing about libertarianism's correctness or its hopes for the future depend on some short term victory; certainly nothing about the American people's choice of aggressive protectionist nationalism (to the extent we can be sure what people thought they were getting when they choose Trump) proves that libertarianism is either mistaken or dead. It just proves libertarianism remains what it has been since it arose as a distinct movement in America after World War II: a small fighting rump, but one whose spread and reach is as high as it's ever been, even if it has failed in 2016, as it has always failed, to win the White House. Otherwise, Politico's long article is merely a portrait of a moment in time, not the final fate of an ideology. Its observational power is mostly rooted in noting that, while he occasionally talks a libertarian-sounding game when it comes to, say,[...]