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Published: Sun, 23 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

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Optimism or Pessimism? Let's Try Realism

Mon, 03 Oct 2016 16:00:00 -0400

Two Washington journalists I have long admired, George Will and Jeffrey Goldberg, had columns last week on the question of optimism and pessimism. They took more or less opposite sides, leaving this non-Washington-based columnist an opportunity to try to arrive at my own position on the question. Will wrote, paradoxically, "Looking on the bright side, perhaps this election can teach conservatives to look on the dark side. They need a talent for pessimism, recognizing the signs that whatever remains of American exceptionalism does not immunize this nation from decay, to which all regimes are susceptible." He went on, "Pessimism need not breed fatalism or passivity. It can define an agenda of regeneration, but only by being clear-eyed about the extent of degeneration." Goldberg, in a piece for The Atlantic prompted by the death of Israeli politician Shimon Peres, mourned the loss of Israel's "chief optimist." Goldberg criticized Israel's current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, writing, "he must shed himself of at least some of his paralyzing pessimism." Goldberg concluded his column: "As Peres famously said, optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. Despite it all, Peres chose to live as an optimist. It is not too late for Netanyahu to do the same." So Will is counseling American conservatives to be more pessimistic, while Goldberg is counseling Israel's premier—a person who is arguably the most successful and significant conservative politician in the world since Reagan and Thatcher left office—to be less pessimistic. Which one is right? My own view is that to some degree the optimism versus pessimism discussion is a false dichotomy. The point isn't to see the world though rose-colored glasses or through a dirty windshield, but to see the world as it actually is. Some situations merit cheerfulness; others merit gloominess. Unwarranted cheerfulness is a mistake; so is unwarranted gloominess. In the Israeli case, Shimon Peres, heroic though he was for developing Israel's nuclear deterrent and rescuing Ethiopian Jewry, was nonetheless, in retrospect, probably unduly optimistic about the prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. And Netanyahu's pessimism about the prospect of such a peace is nonetheless rooted in a certain optimism that Israel itself will endure and flourish despite international ostracism and ongoing violent attacks. In the American case, Will apparently holds out hope that if only Americans realize precisely how badly we are going down the tubes, we might be able to save ourselves. This itself is a kind of combination of optimism and pessimism, almost like the friend of an alcoholic or drug addict hoping that the addict will "bottom out" in such a miserable stupor that the despair of the moment is the first step on the road to recovery. If I have a dispositional tilt in these matters overall it is toward optimism; how can one not in a world of technological progress—smartphones, jet travel, the Internet—and a past century that saw the defeat of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union? Well, easy enough: the jet travel enabled the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the smartphones and internet enable ISIS beheading videos, and anyone who views the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as evidence for optimism ignores the fact of their rise and the tens of millions that they murdered, which are evidence for pessimism. The wisest thing I have ever read on this general topic comes from the Jewish sage Saadia Gaon (882-942), whose The Book of Beliefs and Opinions includes this passage: "For all well-being in this mundane world is bound up with misfortune, and all happiness with hardship and all pleasure with pain, and all joy with sorrow." That insight suggests what we need in the world is not more optimists or more pessimists but more people whose eyes are open to seeing the world as it really is and whose minds are open nonetheless to imagining how it might be improved.[...]

Anarchy, State, and Zombie Dystopia in The Walking Dead: New at Reason

Fri, 01 Apr 2016 07:08:00 -0400

(image) The Walking Dead's most distinctive characteristic, writes Timothy Sanfefur in the upcoming edition of Reason magazine (why not subscribe today for all your zombie needs!) is its basic belief that civilization and its virtues are not merely doomed, but fundamentally misguided. Where most post-apocalyptic stories portray civilized virtues in nostalgic terms—to show the value of cooperation, gentleness, progress, and law by imagining their absence—The Walking Dead is skeptical, if not downright cynical, about political society and the good life it makes possible.

Anarchy, State, and Zombie Dystopia

Fri, 01 Apr 2016 07:00:00 -0400

Now closing its sixth season, AMC's The Walking Dead has received the highest ratings of any cable drama ever, and its writing and acting have been showered with awards. That's impressive, given that the series is also a deadly serious examination of the nature of political society and the virtues necessary to sustain it. The series begins, appropriately enough, with what Albert Camus called the only genuine philosophical problem: Why not commit suicide immediately? In one early episode, the survivors of the zombie apocalypse are trapped in a lab that's set to self-destruct by a scientist who, unable to pursue his research further, prefers death to a world without hope of cure or rescue. "Wouldn't it be kinder? More compassionate, to just hold your loved ones and wait for the clock to run down?" he asks. The show's central character, Rick Grimes, refuses. "All we want," he says, is "a choice. A chance." Another character, Andrea, prefers to remain and die, but is forced against her will to escape. For the rest of her life, she resents her rescuer. "I chose to stay," she tells him. "If I decided that I have nothing left to live for, who the hell are you to tell me otherwise? I wanted to die my way, not torn apart by drooling freaks. That was my choice. You took that away from me." In a later episode, Andrea falls in with a larger community led by a psychotic despot called The Governor. When Rick's followers discover that The Governor plans to attack them, they implore Andrea to assassinate him, but when the moment comes, she holds back and is captured. She dies, as she feared, at the hands of a monster. Her fate might seem conventional for post-apocalyptic literature: a tragic instance of harsh life after society's collapse. But it is actually just one manifestation of The Walking Dead's most distinctive characteristic: its basic belief that civilization and its virtues are not merely doomed, but fundamentally misguided. Where most post-apocalyptic stories portray civilized virtues in nostalgic terms—to show the value of cooperation, gentleness, progress, and law by imagining their absence—The Walking Dead is skeptical, if not downright cynical, about political society and the good life it makes possible. From The Governor's tyranny to a hospital controlled by cops who have turned pirate, to Terminus—a society of cannibals whose motto is "You're either the butcher or the cattle"—every community Rick's group of nomads encounters turns out to be corrupt, compromised, or contemptible, and the foundations of city life—from religion to agriculture to the pursuit of happiness—are treated as delusions. Andrea's weakness, for instance, is not that she's a coward—she's not—but that she values the the pursuit of happiness more than mere survival. "Every one of us has suffered," she tells The Governor's followers at one point. "So what do we do? We dig deep, and we find the strength to carry on. We work together, and we rebuild. Not just the fences, the gates, the community, but ourselves, our hearts, our minds." That idealism proves her fatal flaw. To the degree that The Walking Dead does respect the city, its ideal is Sparta, not Athens. The creativity, innovation, democracy, and joy that the Greeks saw as proof of Athena's favor are treated here as petty distractions from the bloody trials of "real" life. The series prefers the aristocratic values of warlord societies: violence, hierarchy, cleverness, honor, and physical labor. The characters never create, they rarely sing, and the only books they read are Tom Sawyer and the Bible. Their highest virtue is loyalty. Their worst sin is being slow on the trigger.  The Walking Dead's Nietzschean indictment of bourgeois decadence begins with its scorn for religion. Its subtle jabs at a faith whose God rose from the dead provide a clever indictment of the longing for immortality that often inspires humanity's worst. This is particularly effective in the episode "The Grove,[...]

Tibor Machan, a Founding Editor of Reason, RIP

Fri, 25 Mar 2016 10:30:00 -0400

I'm sad to write that Tibor R. Machan, who along with Robert W. "Bob" Poole and Manny Klausner was one of the people who sustained and grew Reason magazine into the premier libertarian voice in public debates over politics, culture, and ideas, has died at the age of 77. We at Reason express our deepest condolences to his family and friends, and our gratitude to the world for having benefited from knowing and working with him. Reason magazine was started by Lanny Friedlander (1947-2011) in Boston in 1968 as a publication dedicated to providing a libertarian alternative to the fractious and often-violent left-right political discourse of the late 1960s. Unable to produce the magazine on a regular basis, Friedlander sold it to Bob, Manny, and Tibor, who moved the production to Santa Barbara, California, where Bob worked in the aerospace industry and Tibor was completing his Ph.D. at University of California. In 1978, the three created Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website. Tibor's impact and influence on the growth and development of Reason can't be overstated. Especially in those early years, he brought not just a rigorous philosophical mind-set to our pages but, as a refugee from communist Hungary, a personal fire for individual liberty and a free society that energized all our efforts. Tibor was also a longtime columnist and consultant to Freedom Communications and the author and editor of dozens of books, on topics including Ayn Rand's Objectivism, what he called "the pseudo-science of B.F. Skinner" and other behaviorist psychologists, animal rights, and much more. Here's a link to Reason's June 1971 issue, which features a piece by Tibor titled, "On Securing Liberty." It captures the cast of his mind and his method of argumentation: ...a climate of relative freedom in the United States produces, through the activities of relatively free people, a life for most citizens which, all things considered, is both qualitatively and quantitatively superior to the lives of most people outside our borders. defense of military conscription, zoning, or other coercive activities of government, some socialists have claimed that, since we are economically interdependent, we have obligations to "society" which we have not assumed voluntarily. Not long ago, the British government drew the logical conclusion from this and instituted measures against scientists who wanted to participate in the "brain drain." The government and its defenders argued that these scientists had no right to leave the country since their skills and existence hinged on what their "society" had done for them. Apparently, few of these people considered that Communist Hungary and the other countries of the Soviet bloc use the same argument to justify the shooting down of people who attempt to leave without the explicit permission of the government. (The whole issue, which can be read online as a pdf, is something of a time capsule well-worth rummaging through.) As it happens, Tibor spoke last year at Reason Weekend, our annual donor event, which happened to be taking place in Santa Barbara, so it was a reunion of sorts. In a conversation about the history and direction of Reason's journalism division—the print magazine, this website, and our video platform Reason TV, Tibor recalled the role that he and his co-founders had envisioned for the magazine. "Reason was always meant to be an outreach tool," he said, "not a movement newsletter." He stressed that he and the other co-founders wanted a platform that would produce serious journalism, essays, interviews, policy pieces, and debates that would grow the audience for and influence of libertarian ideas and practices. Just as we benefited from his massive contributions to our past, we'll continue to do our damnedest to fulfill that dream for Reason. Members of the Reason community will be contributing their memories and appreciation of Tibor in the coming days. [...]

Friday A/V Club: Fun with Teleportation Machines

Fri, 18 Mar 2016 12:45:00 -0400

If you want a detailed account of the philosophical issues raised by the Star Trek teleporter, you should check out CGP Grey's The Trouble with Transporters, a YouTube video that came out earlier this month and has been zipping around the Internet since then. It's smart, it's fun, it's short; you should watch it.

But my favorite film about these issues is a lot older than Grey's video. It's a cartoon John Weldon made in 1990, called To Be:

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For yet another video on the subject—this time from a physics angle—go here. For a novel that touches on the topic (and later was made into a movie that I'm told is good but I haven't seen), go here. For past installments of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

It's Time To Embrace Free-Market Existentialism!

Wed, 30 Dec 2015 12:00:00 -0500

I am all alone, not in a despairing existentialist place, though sometimes I go there. No, I am all alone in the intersection of circles in a Venn diagram. The first circle represents the set of free-market philosophers and the second circle represents the set of existentialist philosophers. Free-market existentialism? The very idea, which is the subject of my new book, makes some people cringe. A friend of mine was "horrified," as he put it, when I told him about what I had planned in connecting existentialism and capitalism. He warned me that any other self-identifying existentialist would be horrified as well. What he could not tell me was why. By the "free market," I don't mean the crony capitalism or crapitalism one finds in the United States, but rather a libertarian economic system in which the government plays no role aside from providing rule of law and protecting property rights.  I define existentialism as a philosophy that reacts to an apparently absurd or meaningless world by urging the individual to overcome alienation, oppression, and despair through freedom and self-creation in order to become a genuine person. Existentialism is a philosophy of action, not of wallowing in despair. It is stoicism without quietism.  The main link between existentialism and libertarianism is individualism. In both systems of thought, the individual is primary and the individual is responsible. Granted, the sense of individualism characteristic of existentialism is not exactly the same as the sense of individualism characteristic of libertarianism, but they are not foreign to each other inasmuch as both strive for genuine autonomy. Libertarians have long recognized the importance of strong property rights in securing autonomy, and existentialists have long recognized the importance of choosing meaning and subjective values for oneself in developing authenticity. One sense does not necessarily imply the other, but they do fit together well. Existentialists emphasize the importance of subjectively choosing one's values and making one's meaning, and libertarians champion the individual's prerogative to live in any way that does not cause harm to others.  Existentialism and libertarianism both value freedom and responsibility. As with individualism, the sense of freedom characteristic of existentialism is not exactly the same as the sense of freedom characteristic of libertarianism, but they are not foreign to each other. The entrepreneurs whom libertarians celebrate are risk takers and often rebels who feel a sense of exhilaration in taking chances. Existentialists, though, because of their largely negative view of capitalism, have typically ignored or dismissed such entrepreneurs as not-genuine examples of individuals exercising their freedom.  Nonetheless, the entrepreneurial spirit of working for yourself and not being beholden to others fits well with the existentialist ethic of self-reliance. There is a message of personal empowerment in existentialism and free markets, and existentialism can help us avoid the problem of consumerism.  By consumerism, I mean the addictive drive and desire for the newest and latest goods and services for the sake of deriving self-worth and for signaling one's worth to others. Existentialism calls for us to define ourselves as individuals and to resist being defined by external forces. The self-defining existentialist will find consumer culture crass without necessarily rejecting the free market that makes it possible.  One of the great concerns of the political left is that capitalism makes us into mindless drones who simply buy and consume. Of course capitalism provides circumstances that make it easier for a person to live that way, but capitalism can't make you do anything. It is possible to have capitalism without consumerism. Existentialism is actually the ideal balancing agent, the perfect accompaniment to capitalism,[...]

Why Jean-Paul Sartre Should Have Been a Libertarian!

Mon, 21 Dec 2015 14:52:00 -0500

Meet William Irwin, a philosophy professor at Pennsylvania's King's College and one of the loneliest people on the planet.

"I'm the only one in academic philosophy who both identifies as an existentialist and as a libertarian," he explains.

Irwin is the author of The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism Without Consumerism, which argues that the philosphical tradition most closely identified with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus has a "natural link" with capitalism and contemporary libertarianism.


That’s probably not what you were taught in Philosophy 101. The early writing of Sartre, for instance, were mostly apolitical and emphasized the individual’s need to live "authentically" and create meaning in an indifferent and "absurd" universe.

After World War II, Sartre and many of his contemporaries embraced socialist and even dogmatically pro-Soviet views. Academia today continues to link existentialism with faith in command economies.

Irwin argues that Sartre’s values of self-creation, choice, and responsibility are best realized by capitalism. “There’s as about as much in common between existentialism and socialism as there is between existentialism and cigarettes. They happen to go together sociologically, at a certain time and place. But there’s no necessary logical connection.”

Consumerism, he says, can pose a challenge for a libertarian existentialist. The reflexive accumulation of goods conflicts with the existentialist imperative not to be defined by your possessions or the values of others. Irwin recommends a few strategies for reaping the material benefits of capitalism and living sincerely, while avoiding a life of keeping up with the Joneses. 

“You don’t need to mindlessly drift into the accumulation of stuff and the derivation of self worth and the signaling of one’s worth by what one has,” he tells Reason's Nick Gillespie. “Instead, just mindfully realize that the free market offers all kinds of great stuff.”

About 6 minutes.

Produced by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Josh Swain and Krainin.

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When Courts Compete for 'Business,' Liberty Wins

Sun, 06 Dec 2015 00:00:00 -0500

Considering that what liberty we continue to enjoy in the West is a product in large part of competing legal institutions operating within overlapping jurisdictions hundreds of years ago, it's curious that so many libertarians still believe such an order—an essential feature of free-market, or natural-law, anarchism—would be inimical to liberty. Why wouldn't that which produced liberty be up to preserving it? When I say that competition produced liberty, I of course do not mean that liberty was anyone's objective. Yet liberty emerged all the same, as if by an "invisible hand." That's how things often work. Good (and bad) consequences can be the result of human action but not of human design (to use a favorite phrase of F. A. Hayek's, which he borrowed from the Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Ferguson). We should be delighted to know that something so wonderful as liberty can emerge unintentionally. It should give us hope for the future; if the libertarian movement is deficient, we need not assume that liberty has no chance. (I have more to say about liberty as an unintended consequence in the context of Magna Carta here.) Many authors from the 18th century onward have written about the unintended good consequences of competition, i.e., the absence of central control. They emphasized that in the West the rivalries between church and state, between nobles or parliament and crown, and between nation-states yielded zones of liberty that endure to this day, however diminished in particular matters. Competition among legal institutions—courts and bodies of law—within overlapping jurisdictions played a large role in this centuries-long beneficent process. These of course are not examples of anarchism; on the contrary, states existed. But competitive overlapping legal regimes are an element of market anarchism. So where a state coexisted with a polycentric legal order, we may say, with Bryan Caplan, that there existed "less than the minimum" state, that is, something that fell short of the nightwatchman state favored by limited-government libertarians. A good place to read about competition in law and dispute resolution is Todd J. Zywicki's highly accessible Northwestern University Law Review article "The Rise and Fall of Efficiency in the Common Law: A Supply-Side Analysis." An important feature that "influenced the common law's evolution," Zywicki writes, "was the competitive, or 'polycentric,' legal order in which the common law developed. During the era that the common law developed, there were multiple English courts with overlapping jurisdictions over most of the issues that comprise the common law. As a result, parties potentially could bring a particular lawsuit in a variety of different courts. In turn this created competition among these various courts for business." The idea of courts competing for "business" sounds strange to modern ears, but it was commonplace before the 20th century. (The extent of private arbitration in international commerce is largely unappreciated.) Zywicki's paper shows that the common law, which featured this competition, was efficient in the eyes of those who used its services. Monopoly is inefficient even (especially?) in matters of security, dispute resolution, and justice. Moreover, it's a mistake, as Hayek explains in Law, Legislation, and Liberty (volume 1)  to assume that government is the source of law. Moves away from competition and the common law, then, aren't adequately explained by shortcomings in its services to its consumers. Political ambition provides a more satisfactory explanation. (In the case of the criminal law, see this.)  Zywicki draws on the legal historian Harold Berman, who wrote, "Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the Western legal tradition is the coexistence and competiti[...]

Why I Am a Pro-Life Libertarian

Fri, 14 Aug 2015 10:00:00 -0400

There's a belief on the American left that says it's impossible to be both a principled libertarian and a principled pro-lifer—that the two positions are somehow intellectually incompatible. It's been popping up more often lately as liberal writers look for ways to criticize Sen. Rand Paul, as in this Salon piece, where the author says Paul and his father "have always played fast and loose with their libertarian principles when it comes to reproductive health." The unstated premise on which that statement relies is that No True Libertarian could also be against abortion. But in reality, it's not the case that all libertarians believe women should have the right to terminate a pregnancy. More to the point, it's flatly incorrect to suggest that opposition to legal abortion is irreconcilable with the belief system that places a person in the libertarian camp. What is true is that most libertarians—at least historically—have held pro-choice views. In their 2012 book The Libertarian Vote, David Boaz, David Kirby, and (former Reason Foundation polling director) Emily Ekins looked at the data and confirmed as much. "According to our analysis of 2008 [American National Election Study] data, 62 percent of libertarians are pro-choice versus 37 percent pro-life, similar to percentages of the national population," they wrote. Stated otherwise, as recently as 2008, a six-in-ten majority of libertarians thought women should be able to legally get an abortion. Here at Reason that tendency has been even more pronounced, with the magazine's editorial staff overwhelmingly favoring a right to legal abortion. You've probably seen my colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown's writing on the subject, including her recent quasi-defense of Planned Parenthood. From the general tenor of our coverage of this issue over the years, one might get the impression that most if not all prominent libertarians support the so-called "right to choose." Yes, libertarians tilt pro-choice. But as a young, female, pro-life Roman Catholic who also happens to identify as libertarian (and who works for a magazine dedicated to free minds and free markets), I'm always rather dismayed when someone on the far side of the political universe professes to be an authority on what "consistent libertarianism" requires. From my perspective, the consistent libertarian position on abortion is contingent—it depends whether you believe the entity developing in the womb counts as a human being. I accept that some people don't think it does. And if I were one of them, I'd probably be pro-choice too. Like many libertarians, a fundamental question I use to adjudicate whether an act should be considered a crime is whether or not it has a victim. Drug use? Consensual prostitution? Working for less than the wage some politician has decided should be the legislatively mandated minimum? I oppose government intervention to stop any of these things, because none of them involves the use of force by one human being against another. But for the consistent libertarian who looks at an ultrasound and sees a baby, a person, a fully human life, it's extraordinarily hard to avoid the conclusion that abortion is an act of violence. That's where I come down. No doubt my Catholic faith has something to do with it, but so does my (admittedly imperfect) understanding of the science of what happens during conception and at the various stages of fetal development. In moments of honest reflection, alone only with my conscience and my God, this is the inescapable conclusion I can't help but arrive at. And while I may be in the minority among libertarians, I'm definitely not alone. In 1978 Reason published an entire issue dedicated to debating this topic. There, in a piece called "It's a Matter of Life and Death," the author Karl T. Pflock made the pro-life libert[...]

As Long as Government Exists, Our Freedom Is Insecure

Sun, 31 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400

An article by George H. Smith from a few years ago makes a distinction about freedom that seems worth pursuing. In "Jack and Jill and Two Kinds of Freedom" (also a podcast), Smith distinguishes between (as the title indicates) two kinds of freedom, or between freedom and liberty. He tells the story of Jack, who wants to climb a hill to fetch a pail of water and needs Jill’s help to bring the heavy pail back down. Being a "moral nihilist," Jack is just as willing to force Jill to help him as he is to persuade her. It all depends on his cost-benefit calculation at the time. In Smith’s story, Jack chooses persuasion and succeeds, so he does not need to resort to Plan B, compulsion. Jill, by the way, does not know that Jack would have forced her. Jill, on the other hand, is a libertarian who believes in rights and justice. Had the tables been turned and she needed Jack’s help, her only acceptable course would have been persuasion.  What are we to make of this? In both scenarios Jack and Jill are free, Smith writes, in the sense that neither was subjected to force. "Freedom in this sense depends on how others act in regard to me. And since actions are guided by value judgments, I can be free only to the extent that others value my freedom by refusing to aggress against me." But, he adds, the quality of their freedom is not the same: Jill’s freedom, since it depends on Jack’s pragmatic calculations, may be called pragmatic freedom. And Jack’s freedom, since it depends on Jill’s moral values, may be called moral freedom. This does not mean that Jack somehow has "more" freedom than Jill; the distinction here is qualitative, not quantitative. Jack has a better quality of freedom than Jill, because his is more secure. For the purposes of his article, Smith calls pragmatic freedom simply freedom and moral freedom liberty, though he does not propose this for general usage. (He notes that liberty and freedom are typically used interchangeably.) He goes on: Freedom, as I shall now use the word, exists whenever a person is not subject to the compulsion or constraint of another person. This describes an objective state of affairs. In our previous scenarios, both Jack and Jill were objectively free vis-à-vis the other person, because neither was actually threatened with force. The fact that Jack was willing to use force, the fact that he was willing to resort to Plan B if Plan A had failed, is irrelevant in this context. Subjective intentions and values have no bearing on our description of the factual state of affairs, the objective relationship between Jack and Jill. Nevertheless, there is a significant difference between the freedom of Jill vis-à-vis Jack and the freedom of Jack vis-à-vis Jill. Jill owes her freedom to a pragmatic decision by Jack, whereas Jack’s freedom is based on Jill’s moral values.... Liberty is principled freedom. Smith provides a few historical examples in which the two freedoms were explicitly distinguished. He notes that radicals in colonial America were not satisfied when the British Parliament merely repealed import duties (except the duty on tea, which was reduced) because "Parliament also reaffirmed its sovereign right of taxation." The British in effect said, "We could tax you if we wanted to, but right now we don’t want to." Smith writes: American radicals spurned this conciliatory gesture, because the freedom from taxation was granted to them by permission, not by right. This rolling back of taxes, though it increased the freedom of Americans, was widely seen as a threat to their liberty. Many Americans believed that if they voluntarily complied with the reduced tax on tea, they would implicitly acknowledge the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and would thereby lose the ideological war. Smith conc[...]

Lessons for the Liberty Movement

Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400

It goes without saying—I hope—that we libertarians should be patient and empathetic when we talk political economy with non-libertarians. Patience and empathy are generally virtues, of course, but libertarians have an additional reason to practice them in their political lives: they are keys to effectively presenting new ideas. We ask a lot of people when we ask them to appreciate the merits of our political philosophy. [I’m assuming the goal is persuasion and not mere self-gratification.] We should think back to when we first encountered the philosophy. None of us started out understanding it. We had to read, think, and talk with people more advanced in their understanding than we were. Even a fledgling libertarian who starts out favorably inclined intellectually and emotionally to the philosophy needs time to digest the ideas. I can recall running newly acquired, but not-yet-well-understood, libertarian ideas by friends, parents, and siblings—only to be stumped by their questions and objections. I had to go back to the books or my libertarian teachers for further study and contemplation. The process takes a long time. Leonard Read used to say it takes a lifetime, and I believe him. Keeping this truth in mind will help shape our approach to non-libertarians. Don’t underestimate the persuasive power of empathy. Think what we’re asking of non-libertarians. All their lives they (and we) were taught that government is the source of social order. It’s easy to believe this because government is so visible. It’s got all those big buildings filled with bureaus and people doing things that they say are indispensable to social order. Signs of disorder are easily attributed to nongovernmental sources. [Rising prices associated with inflation are easily blamed on the greed of sellers.] Then we libertarians come along and say it’s not so. Perhaps we quote Proudhon (maybe without knowing it was Proudhon who said it): "Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order." Are we crazy? Or perhaps we try to explain what Thomas Paine wrote so beautifully in Right of Man: Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government. [Emphasis added.] We can say those things, but why should anyone believe us? If the primacy of liberty were true, people would have heard long before we came along, right? Order without a conscious creator of order? It’s counterintuitive.  Libertarians have a good story to tell, but it’s complicated. How many of us breezed through Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner, and Henry Hazlitt? [Okay, maybe a few did.] Most people need to hear the story several times before it even begins to make sense and appears worth looking into. But before that can happen we need to get their attention. We need to give them a reason to question their worldview. That’s no small task. The idea of spontaneous, or undesigned, order is crucial to persuading non-libertarians that we are w[...]

There’s 'Just Lip Service to Free Speech' on College Campuses

Thu, 16 Apr 2015 09:30:00 -0400

Most successful academic philosophers spend their entire professional lives operating in self-satisfied insularity, exclusively trafficking in opaque jargon in obscure journals on technical issues of approximately zero application to ordinary life. Colin McGinn is a notable exception. He's also a high-profile victim of the destructive ideological witch hunts now conducted on American college campuses with distressing frequency. Reason recently Skyped with McGinn to get his side of the fall and to discuss his landmark philosophical arguments, which advance an epistemic modesty that should resonate with libertarians. As he puts it, "there’s no shame in admitting there’s a basic ignorance about our conception of the world." width="560" height="340" frameborder="0" src=""> Born into an English mining town, McGinn's 40-year career includes hundreds of essays and dozens of books specifically geared to a general audience, on topics ranging from Shakespeare to cinema to drug decriminalization. It's disappointing how little interest the average philosophy department has in this kind of engagement with the broader culture. McGinn says most of his colleagues viewed his non-technical work with a "mix of disdain and envy." The pretense is that professors should be free to indulge in pure reason unpolluted by popular opinion or market demands. Yet so much of the writing produced by academic philosophers is saturated with opaque insidery jargon that's just meant to signal the author's membership in a exclusive intellectual club. "Most philosophical writing is simply unclear. And [the authors are] incapable of being clear." Ironically, communicating with a broader audience imposes exactly the discipline of thought that's largely absent from academic papers. "You have to go back to the basics and express the basic ideas clearly. If you just write in jargon, you never have to confront the basic ideas and arguments. You just repeat the words that other people use." At the same time, McGinn's contributions to technical philosophical debates have been substantial enough to secure him tenured posts at several major American universities. That's an exceedingly rare combination of academic accolades and pop-culture fluency. In 2012, though, something sad happened. His career imploded amidst accusations of an improper relationship with a female graduate student. No one claimed their relationship was sexual. It appears to have been a complicated, power-imbalanced emotional thicket between a star professor and an admiring mentee that may have turned inappropriate without actually violating the university's code of conduct. But never mind the facts. The academy's self-righteous outrage machine quickly kicked into gear and a bunch of McGinn's colleagues ganged up to denounce him as a sexist predator. The administration at his employer at the time, the University of Miami, urged him to leave before disciplinary hearings had even started. "I wasn’t receiving due process. They started asking me to resign. They didn't give me any reason." After a couple months under intense presure, he complied. "The cards were totally stacked against me because the rules allowed the university to do whatever it wanted." (For more details about McGinn's case, see this excellent investigation from Katie Roiphe in Slate, which describes the professional carnage as "a great deal of destruction for a strange amorphous amorous entanglement.") That particular blind moral crusade is a symptom of a larger problem. Professors and administrators often "force more complex phenomena into very simplified narratives with stock characters," McGinn says. In his case, they fixated on a politically fashionable story—sexual harassment perp[...]

What I Saw At the Conspiracy Theory Conference

Wed, 18 Mar 2015 14:49:00 -0400

"I get the feeling that a lot of philosophers can poke a hole in anything," Ted Goertzel complained, his voice radiating prickly impatience. The site was the University of Miami, where nearly 50 scholars from institutions across Europe and America had gathered to discuss conspiracy theories in a room named for Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Goertzel, a retired Rutgers sociologist, was addressing a panel of philosophers who had indeed just spent an hour poking holes in popular notions about conspiratorial beliefs. One had presented a paper with the cheeky title "Why Do We Believe Conspiracy Theories Exist?" Goertzel wasn't buying it. "I think the reason we think conspiracy theories exist is because they exist," he declared. It was neither the first nor the last contentious moment of the conference, which took place on the university's Coral Gables campus from March 12 to 14. The event had been organized by Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, a pair of political scientists who did a commendable job of looking past their own field to invite people from different disciplines. And when I say "different disciplines," I don't merely mean "people who study different things." I mean "people with entirely different tool kits for understanding the universe." The result was a friendly but frequently combative gathering of tribes, each of which had to suss out the other gangs' languages and worldviews. Here's a rundown of the rival clans: The social psychologists. For this group, the study of conspiracy theories is mostly a matter of conducting experiments. The psychologists have developed several questionnaires that are supposed to show how prone a subject is to different sorts of thinking, including conspiracism. In a typical study, volunteers might answer those questions, read an article (or be "exposed to" the article, as the experimenters like to put it), and then give their responses to the story. Then the researchers start looking for correlations. In one paper presented at the Miami conference, a team from the University of Bamberg in Germany had participants construct narratives to explain an event, then asked them how plausible the resulting stories were. Interestingly, the investigators found no correlation between the people who preferred the conspiratorial stories and the people identified as conspiracy-minded by the questionnaires. This result produced some consternation in the question-and-answer period. The philosophers. This tribe bubbled over with frustration at the psychologists' approach, and the feeling was frequently mutual. Any time the psychologists focused on the sources of "conspiracy ideation"—that is, the mental formation of conspiracy beliefs—while skipping past the question of whether those beliefs were true, one or two philosophers might pipe up to ask why they weren't treating the conspiracists' ideas as ideas. Between sessions, the philosophers were sometimes heard grumbling that the psychologists and social scientists were demonizing conspiracy believers; the psychologists and social scientists, meanwhile, were prone to complaining that the philosophers were better at raising questions than at devising a research program. One philosopher, Lee Basham of South Texas College, presented a paper that took direct aim at the psychologists, questioning some of the assumptions underlying their studies and suggesting that the scientists suffered from a condition he called "conspiracy theory phobia." Another speaker, Jack Bratich of Rutgers—he's actually a cultural-studies guy who chairs his school's journalism program, but he was at home on the philosophy panel—asked whether "conspiracy theory" is a useful category at all. (This was the "Why Do We Believe Conspiracy Theories Exist?" p[...]

WATCH: Reason and Science Make Us Moral - Michael Shermer on The Moral Arc

Tue, 20 Jan 2015 12:30:00 -0500

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"You can't just say, 'This is the way it is, therefore it ought to be that way.' You've got to have good reasons," says Michael Shermer, referencing the common "is-ought fallacy" most famously explained by David Hume. "Well, I claim that we do have good reasons: Democracies are better than autocracies. Free markets are better than tyrannical, top-down economic systems. There are certain things we know work. You can measure it!"

Shermer is the longtime editor of Skeptic magazine, a visiting professor at Chapman University, and author of the new book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Towards Truth, Justice, and Freedom, in which he argues that humanity has become measurably more moral over time and that this is a direct outgrowth from the rise of Enlightenment ideals of reason, empricism, and the rejection of blind faith and tradition. 

Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller interviewed Shermer and explored such topics as the meaning of morality, the relationship between morality and markets, the possibility (or impossibility) of consensus around moral truths, and the biggest obstacles impeding further moral progress.

Approximately 20 minutes. Interview by Zach Weissmueller. Shot by Justin Monticello and Paul Detrick. Edited by Weissmueller. Music by Chris Zabriskie.

Click the link below for downloadable versions of this video, and subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube channel for daily content like this.

Dragon Age: High Fantasy Meets the Security State

Thu, 18 Dec 2014 16:31:00 -0500

The basic plot of Dragon Age: Inquisition sounds terribly conventional to any fantasy video game fan: A group of heroes bands together to battle an evil wizard who seeks godlike power and world domination. It's the plot of dozens of role-playing ventures set in worlds built by game designers who grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons. The recently released Dragon Age: Inquisition is the third game in the series, and Bioware (the company that makes the game) has spent a lot of time crafting the world, Thedas, in which the games (and supplementary books) take place. Though the three games put the player in control of different heroes each time and up against different villains, there's a larger cultural conflict that has built up through the series. The games use the fantasy setting to explore how power is used to control a group of people perceived as a threat to the larger populace, the unintended side effects, and ultimately, how that power becomes corrupted and ultimately ends up serving its own aims. In short, part of the game's identity is about exploring the conflict between liberty and security, using magic as a metaphor. Gamer warning: This analysis contains spoilers about the games' plots, including Inquisition. In the first game, Dragon Age: Origins, players are introduced to this world through the eyes of a hero tasked with stopping a corrupt magical plague that has drawn an army of orc-like creatures and their dragon master from the depths of the earth to attack the surface. As the hero gathers an army to take on the enemy, players also learn about the social structures and conflicts that shape human (and dwarven and elven) interactions. Like any good fantasy setting, Thedas is dotted with mages who are able to fling balls of fire and raise the dead, like any self-respecting wizard is expected to do. But Dragon Age's twist is to take the natural fear that the non-enchanted population would have toward mages and crank it up to paranoid levels. When people use magic on Thedas, they're exposed to potential manipulation and domination by evil demons. Mages, thus, are considered a huge threat to the safety of the world. At the start of the series, many mages are forced to live in towers overseen by Templars, the world's holy knights. There the mages learn to use their skills safely, and the Templars are empowered, like police officers, to stop by force mages who become corrupted or use their abilities for evil. Imagine Hogwarts, but you never graduate and can't really leave. The ultimate, most dire representation of how fear of magic shapes policy is not through execution but rather a rite called "tranquility." If a mage cannot learn to control his or her skills and avoid the temptation of demonic forces, he or she is given a magical lobotomy, stripping the mage of the ability to wield magic and also turning him or her into an emotionless near-automaton servant. The relationship between mages and the rest of the world is a constant focus in Dragon Age, even when not the primary plot. Many are unhappy with the nature of the relationship between the mages and Templars and want to explore different ways to manage the threat of magical corruption. There are several different factions within the circle of mages—including a self-described "libertarian" component that argues for mages to be free and to police each other in the event of demonic possession. In the first game, the player experiences exactly why everybody is afraid of mages. The hero finds himself or herself in a tower where some mages have become corrupted, and the tower is now plagued by demons. The hero is tasked to clear out the abominations and save the mages who have not gone[...]