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Published: Sun, 25 Feb 2018 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 25 Feb 2018 18:29:47 -0500


Is Selfishness a Virtue? A Debate With Yaron Brook and Gene Epstein.

Mon, 29 Jan 2018 10:27:00 -0500

"We don't have to endorse Gordon Gekko's view that greed is good anymore than we believe that selfishness is a virtue," says Gene Epstein, former economics editor at Barron's.

"The Christian morality of sacrifice and altruism is wrong," says Yaron Brook, executive chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute.

On January 16, 2018, Brook argued the affirmative in a debate with Epstein over whether selfishness is a virtue. It was an Oxford-style contest, in which the audience votes on the proposition before and after the event, and the side that sways the most people wins. Epstein was victorious, picking up 15.38 percent of the undecideds vs. 9.89 percent for Yaron Brook. Judge Andrew Napolitano, senior judicial analyst at Fox News Channel, moderated.

The event was held by The Soho Forum, Reason Foundation's debate series in New York City. Held every month at the SubCulture Theater in the East Village, it also serves as a gathering place for New York's libertarian community, with free food and a cash bar. Epstein is also the Soho Forum's director and usually moderates.

On February 12, the Soho Forum will host a debate over whether the sex offender registry should be abolished, featuring Emily Horowitz, a sociologist at St. Francis College and author of Protecting Our Kids?: How Sex Offender Laws Are Failing Us (2015), and Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director at CHILD USA and a resident senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Get tickets ($18, or $10 for students) here.

Reason will also be live streaming the debate on our Facebook page, and the audience at home can both participate in the voting and submit questions to be read aloud at the event.

Video shot and edited by Kevin Alexander. Tease by Todd Krainin.

"Drum Solo For Hospital Ghost" by Lucas Perný used under a Creative Commons license.

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Avoid the Deadly Isms

Wed, 20 Dec 2017 00:15:00 -0500

People want politics to be simple. Left vs. right. Clinton vs. Trump. My side vs. your side. Elect the right guy, and things will be good! The truth is more complicated. Influential political philosophies created the mess we live with today, not just a political "left" and "right." There's socialism, conservatism, populism, progressivism, liberalism, scientism (eugenics), Marxism, totalitarianism, nationalism, fascism, Islamo-fascism, Nazism and probably others I missed. But only two "isms" work well for ordinary people. More on them in a moment. It's in the interests of politicians and activists to tell us society is divided into two armies, one good and one evil, with crushing defeat for one side just about to happen. When primitive parts of our brains see the world as "us vs. them," we're ready to fight each other. We may not realize until it's too late that all those ideologies will reduce our freedom and increase the power of politicians. Matt Kibbe, head of the group Free the People, calls them "the Deadly Isms" in a new series of online videos. He urges people to stop wasting time worrying about which "ism" is on the left or right and worry more about how all threaten individual liberty. Stalin was not the opposite of Hitler. Both were mass murderers who censored the press, seized control of industries and murdered innocent people. We don't benefit by choosing between communism and Nazism, or between the milder forms of them that still find adherents today: socialism and fascism. Whether government gives you orders in the name of the working class or a superior race, it still takes away your right to do as you please. On the other hand, there is an ideology that does leave us mostly free to do what we please. John Locke called it liberalism, saying that: "The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man." We need some government to do some things—keep the peace, for example—but otherwise, government should mostly leave us alone. Unfortunately, today's liberals stole Locke's word. Now liberalism means regulating most every detail of individual behavior and dividing people into grievance groups that use government to take each other's money and freedom. Conservatism claims to love freedom, but its advocates don't mind government starting wars and crushing civil liberties of unpopular groups like drug users, immigrants, gamblers, sex workers and pornographers. Today, both liberalism and conservatism are guilty of encouraging another ism: corporatism. That's what we get when government doles out special privileges to corporations and people who have more lawyers and lobbyists than you do. A genuine free market rewards entrepreneurs who serve customers well. A government that hands out farm subsidies, wind-farm tax credits, mortgage deductions, etc., skews the economy in favor of those who are already rich. That's corporatism, or crony capitalism, or "crapitalism," and that's basically what we've got in America now. Donald Trump practiced crapitalism. That's why cronies like Bill and Hillary Clinton attended his wedding. I don't blame Trump. When government has its fingers all over the economy, developers are smart to get cozy with the political class. But when Trump ran for president, he didn't call himself a crony capitalist; he said he was a "populist." Sometimes he called it "popularist." Populists are angry at the establishment. But populism offers no solution. It leads instead to people following the will of self-appointed leaders who say they share the mob's anger. Bernie Sanders is called a populist, too. Trump complains about regulations one day (I cheer), but then he complains about free trade the next. He seems to go wherever his moods, and the public's shifting moods, suggest. The anger is constant, but individual liberty suffers. The only ism that doesn't threaten your freedom is liberalism (as originally defined)—libertarianism, as we call it now. Let's take power from the other deadly [...]

Are Free Minds and Free Markets Compatible With Christianity?

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 14:50:00 -0400

Is libertarian political philosophy intractably at odds with the Christian faith, as some folks seem to think? Over the last year, I've spoken with countless practicing Christians who also fall into what might be called the small-l libertarian camp. A few prefer "classical liberal" while others identify as full-on anarcho-capitalists. Many work in the so-called liberty movement, but there were also business owners and writers, musicians and scientists, scholars and priests. Virtually all see markets, largely or entirely unfettered by the state, as the best mechanism we have for empowering humans to grow and thrive. I asked them to explain, in their own words, how they manage to reconcile two worldviews that many would have us believe are hopelessly in conflict. Below is a sampling of what I heard. "In my mind, capitalism is what happens when you have the absence of initiated force, and that's perfectly compatible—beautifully compatible—with Christianity. Capitalism simply means the freedom of individuals to make contracts and to engage others in a peaceful and voluntary way. That's precisely what Christ taught." —Lawrence W. Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education and author of Rendering Unto Caesar: Was Jesus A Socialist? "If someone says to you 'be my friend' and points a gun to you, that is not a good start of a relationship. God offers us his friendship. We have a choice to respond or not. But if it's to make any sense, it has to be free. You have to be able to say yes and you have to be able to say no. And here is the really interesting thing: God will respect your decision even when he knows it's not a good idea. "So here's the point: If God, who from our perspective is the creator of the universe—he has literally made us, and in that sense, if anybody owns anything, God owns the universe—and indeed, from our theology, having died on the cross for us, he owns us again. So God, who owns us twice over, and who in a 'my house, my rules' way has the right, if anyone has the right, to tell us what we may and may not do and indeed to force us not to do it—if he's not willing to do that, how can anyone have the right to do it?" —Gerard Casey, philosophy professor emeritus at University College Dublin and associated scholar at the Mises Institute "Who nailed Jesus to the cross? The state! ... The devil went up on a mountaintop with Jesus and he said, 'All this is mine.' He was talking about all the kingdoms. I would argue that earthly government is the last thing I should be supporting as a Christian." —Eric July, frontman of the libertarian rock/rap group BackWordz, asked how he reconciles his faith with anarcho-capitalism "The modern welfare state in the United States has demonstrated one thing very clearly: that it doesn't transition people permanently out of poverty. And that needs to be the goal. I think Christians and non-Christians alike can agree: We should help people who are marginalized. But the question is, OK, how do you do that? If you look at the church and nonprofit organizations, combined with a really thriving economy, you have the best antidote to long-term poverty that we've ever known." —Anne Rathbone Bradley, vice president of economic initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics "Historically speaking, virtually all the great advocates of liberty were Christian: Aquinas, Montesquieu, Locke, Tocqueville. It really was only in the modern world, with the Enlightenment, when you developed a naturalist group that broke off from the natural law tradition and were advocating liberty based on utilitarian arguments." —David Theroux, founder and president of the Independent Institute in California and publisher of the new book Pope Francis and the Caring Society "The arrogant assumption [on the Christian left] is that if you're not advocating for government to be the normative way in which the poor are helped, then you're not a Catholic. And that idea is not Catholic. The first people to act on behalf of t[...]

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Equality?

Mon, 08 May 2017 12:00:00 -0400

Tom Perriello, the Democrats' insurgent candidate for governor, excites the liberal base of the party because he—like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have both endorsed him—is a conviction politician. He has firm ideas about what government ought to do, and he expounds on them with a degree of depth and precision that puts some other statewide candidates to shame. Much of what he wants to do involves questions of equality and inequality—terms that pop up again and again in the white papers he has written on the racial wealth gap, help for working families, and his tax plan, and in his Twitter feed, and elsewhere. Which is refreshing. America, after all, is a nation based not on ethnicity or an accident of history but on ideas and ideals—including equality, the first of the self-evident truths mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Stating an ideal and living up to it are two different things, of course. American history has made that painfully clear. But when the ideal is as broad as equality—or liberty, or justice—even stating the ideal doesn't get you very far. At a high enough level of abstraction, everyone can agree on the virtue of equality, liberty, or justice. But what do we mean when we talk about such things? Isaiah Berlin and others drew a distinction between negative liberty (the absence of external impediments) and positive liberty (the ability to do what you want): You are free to buy a Rolls-Royce because nobody is stopping you, but you are not free to buy a Rolls-Royce if you don't have the money. There are also different types of equality. Few people today insist on absolute equality of outcomes, for example, for obvious reasons. If Tom studies for a test and Steve doesn't, it hardly seems fair to give them the same grade, and societies that have tried to operate on such principles generally have turned into hellholes where people end up miserable or dead. Venezuela, for instance, used to outperform Chile on measures of infant mortality and life expectancy. Now the opposite is true. Moreover, it is not intuitively obvious that a state where everyone is equally poor is always better than a state where at least some people are not. And unequal outcomes can still be desirable: Steve Jobs grew incredibly rich, but he got that way by producing innovations that made millions of people better off. By the same token, confiscating his wealth might have increased overall equality—but it would have improved few lives. Equality of opportunity seems much more inherently just: If life is a race, then everyone ought to start at the same point; all public schools should meet certain criteria, for instance. Yet Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and author of The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, argues that the principle still can be pushed too far. "Few would support a prohibition on allowing parents to use their talents to favor their children," he said recently. Deaton also talks about procedural equality, or (roughly) what we would call equality under the law: Is everyone who is equally situated being treated equally, or are some people being treated differently? Do blacks accused of crimes get the same chance as whites to be judged by a jury of their peers—or are they dragged out of the jail by a mob and lynched? Some kinds of equality can be used as an argument for others. John Rawls did something like that in A Theory of Justice, suggesting that if everyone designed the good society from behind a veil of ignorance we would end up with a certain kind of welfare state. Procedural equality also can be used to justify inequality, as in Robert Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain hypothetical: If you assume a perfectly just distribution of wealth at starting point A, and lots of people willingly give some of their money to watch Wilt Chamberlain play basketball, then the distribution at endpoint B will be highly unequal, but not unjust. One appealing form of equality is equality o[...]

On the 'Invasion' of 'Libertarianism,' Pope Francis' Ignorance Is Showing

Fri, 28 Apr 2017 22:49:00 -0400

"Pope Francis had harsh words to describe libertarians Friday," Breitbart reports. That's OK. I'm a Catholic libertarian, and I've had some harsh words to describe Pope Francis. My main critique, which I published here at Reason on the eve of his 2015 visit to the United States, was that the pontiff's ignorance of basic economics has led him to a bad conclusion about which public policies are best able to reduce the crushing yoke of poverty in the world. I went on to encourage him to consider that, as a matter of empirical fact, markets are the single greatest engine for growth and enrichment that humanity has yet stumbled upon. I don't doubt for a second that Pope Francis cares deeply about the least of his brothers and sisters. But I deny that his chosen prescriptions would do anything but make the problem worse. This is not a bad time to be reminded that popes aren't infallible, according to Catholic doctrine—instead, they are possessed of the ability to deliver infallible teachings on matters of faith and morals. As I pointed out in my piece, "In practice, such 'definitive acts,' in which a pope makes clear he's teaching 'from the chair' of Jesus, are almost vanishingly rare." Arguably, though, the pope's remarks today to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences do pertain to faith and morals. He seems to be arguing that an outlook that places the individual above "the common good" is morally suspect. As with his comments about capitalism, then, the problem is not so much that he's speaking to issues that go beyond the scope of his office; the problem is his speaking to matters on which he is ill-informed. In this case, his statements betray a shallowness in his understanding of the philosophy he's impugning. If he took the time to really engage with our ideas, he might be surprised by what he learned. He might, for instance, be taken aback to discover that many libertarians hold beliefs that transcend an Ayn Randian glorification of selfishness (and that Ayn Rand rejected us, too, by the way). Or that what Pope Francis calls an "antisocial" paradigm in which "all relationships that create ties must be eliminated" (Breitbart's words) is better known by another name: the liberty movement, a cooperative and sometimes even rather social endeavor among people who cherish peaceful, voluntary human interactions. Or that lots of us are deeply concerned with the tangible outcomes that policies have on vulnerable communities, and that libertarians' support for capitalism is very often rooted in its ability to make the world a better place. Or that some of us are even—hold on to your zucchetto—followers of Christ. Most of all, he would likely be startled to find that, far from thinking "only the individual decides what is good and what is evil," few libertarians are moral relativists. (Except the Objectivists, of course. Or am I getting that wrong?) Speaking as a devotee of St. John Paul II, one of the great articulators of the importance of accepting Truth as such, this one is actually personal. It's hard not to wonder whether Pope Francis knows any libertarians. In the event he's interested in discussing the ideas of free minds and free markets with someone who ascribes to them, I'd be happy to make myself available. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">[...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

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 possib[...]

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 historia[...]

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 [...]

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 [...]