The Meltdown of Thomas E. Woods

I was excited when I first heard that Young Americans for Liberty had invited Thomas E. Woods to speak at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I figured that Woods, author of Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse, would have some interesting things to say about the economic crisis. I agree with his general thesis that federal policies caused the crisis and that “bailouts will make things worse.”

Woods will also speak on Saturday, April 4, in Colorado Springs at an event sponsored by the Limited Government Forum. The event will feature other speakers associated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

But then a friend pointed me to an article by Eric Muller blasting Woods as a “founding member” of the League of the South. Through, I found the web page that includes this claim in a biographical note. (I only wish this were an April Fool’s joke.)

Another archived page notes that the League of the South “seeks to protect the historic Anglo-Celtic core culture of the South” and keep that culture from being displaced. The current web page notes that the group “reveres the tenets of our historic Christian faith and acknowledges its supremacy over man-made laws and opinions.” The League “upholds the ontological or spiritual equality of all men before God and the bar of justice, while recognizing and rejoicing in the fact that is has neither been the will of God Almighty nor within the power of human legislation to make any two men mechanically equal.” The group further believes that Southern culture is “structured upon the Biblical notion of hierarchy” and the “natural societal order of superiors and subordinates.” The League of the South is thus racist and theocratic.

Woods wrote to one blogger, “I am in fact not a member of the League of the South, though I did attend a meeting in 1994 when a decentralist organization was said to be forming. I was 21 at that time.” Muller offers several facts indicating the relationship went beyond the attendance of a meeting.

In a review essay for the Mises Institute, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel writes:

Some of the critics [of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History] have laced their denunciations with ad hominem attacks on Woods. Going beyond his book’s content, they have dredged up what they consider either guilty associations with the League of the South or unconscionable past writings in The Southern Partisan. [Actually it’s the Southern Patriot.] The most egregious offender is Eric Muller. Although Muller in no way qualifies as either a libertarian or conservative, his venomous assaults, descending to the low of Klan baiting, have been frequently referenced by other critics of the book.

Obviously Muller has his own ideological ax to grind, but that doesn’t automatically invalidate his criticisms of Woods. In fact Woods was associated with the League of the South, however loosely. But Muller’s criticisms hardly end with that fact. Hummel himself writes, “Woods clearly wants to tender a neo-Confederate interpretation, in which slavery is shunted into the background as a motive for southern secession.”

So Woods is not a member of the racist and theocratic League of the South, he is only a neo-Confederate who argues the South had the right to secede. How comforting.

Muller points to an article of Woods published by the League of the South; the archived article remains available. Woods wrote that “hard-core northern conservatives have admired Southern society for remaining socially and theologically sound long after John Winthrop’s ‘city on a hill’ had descended into a nightmare of Christian heresies and secular crusading.” He praised the “social harmony and adherence to tradition that characterized the South.” The South, he wrote, “remained stubbornly orthodox in it’s Judeo-Christianity further undermined the myth that the two sections constituted a single nation.” He denounced the Fourteenth Amendment as “incompatible with a federal system.”

I’m all for federalism, but only as a means to individual rights. States do not have “rights” in the fundamental sense of the term. No state that systematically and massively violates individual rights has any “right” to secede from a broader government.

Even disregarding Woods’s past associations, he clearly believes that liberty has its roots in theology and is defined by theology. Thus, it is no surprise that Ron Paul, who has vacillated between a state’s-rights argument against abortion and a federal amendment laying the grounds for outlawing abortion, wrote the foreword to Woods’s latest book.

I do not doubt that Woods has many insights into the financial meltdown. Nor do I doubt that, ultimately, he is as dangerous an enemy of liberty as any leftist.

Barr Beats Anarchist

Bob Barr was the most logical choice for the Libertarian Party (LP), so I was surprised that the Libertarians chose him. They almost didn’t; Barr beat out rival Mary Ruwart only after joining forces with Wayne Allyn Root, who joined Barr’s ticket after dropping out of the presidential run. David Weigel reviews the story for Reason.

But was the Libertarian Party the logical choice for Barr? I might have checked into an independent candidate (though Barr’s record on abortion is worrisome), but I can’t vote for a Libertarian Barr, because the Libertarian Party is such a disaster. Nevertheless, I do think that Barr is Barack Obama’s only hope to win. (I plan to vote for Obama as the best way to register my disgust with McCain.) I don’t think that Barr will make any difference — I predict that Obama is such a weak candidate that McCain will Dukakisize him. Yet Barr could actually make the difference in some states, though I doubt it.

Weigel writes:

Early in the balloting on Sunday [May 25], Barr’s strategists — and the candidate himself — thought the Radical Caucus might have beaten them. … The 25 percent Barr scored on the first ballot was lower than everyone expected. … Barr didn’t steamroll, instead grinding out a series of ties with radical favorite Mary Ruwart before the Las Vegas businessman Root dropped out and sent his support Barr’s way, wrapping up the nomination.

Why didn’t Ruwart win? Known from her work with Advocates for Self-Government, Ruwart, a self-proclaimed anarchist, scared off even some Libertarians with some of her views.

One problem with anarchist Libertarianism (and party anarchists are inherently peculiar) is that it tends toward anti-state reaction, as I’ve argued. For example, the Radical Caucus favors “Radical Abolitionism.” What is it that they want to abolish? Government. “[T]he outright removal of the injustice and interference of the State is our ultimate goal. … The Libertarian Party is the only political party that traditionally advocates for real freedom from government interference.”

This is untenable. When somebody is trying to mug me, I’d really like some “government interference.” Likewise, if a hostile foreign power tries to kill me or invade my country, I’d like the government to take strong military action.

In general, the proper and necessary function of government is to protect individual rights. While the Radical Caucus mentions rights, it establishes no means to protect them. (I understand the anarchist conception of competing defense agencies, and I toyed with the notion for several years, but the anarchist view ultimately is incoherent and unworkable). Abolishing the government is hardly the same thing as protecting individual rights, and in fact contradicts it.

Ruwart’s anarchism led her to some outrageous positions, which were exploited by Barr’s supporters. As Weigel reviews, Ruwart writes in her book Short Answers to the Tough Questions:

Children who willingly participate in sexual acts have the right to make that decision as well, even if it’s distasteful to us personally. Some children will make poor choices just as some adults do in smoking and drinking to excess. When we outlaw child pornography, the prices paid for child performers rise, increasing the incentives for parents to use children against their will.

Ruwart’s position is ridiculous and abhorrent, yet it is typical of anti-state reactionaries. To them, arresting child pornographers is “government interference.” While some anarchists may argue that competing defense agencies might defend children from pornographers, often the reactionary element wins out, as it has with Ruwart in this case.

Ruwart’s position is wrong, first, because children do not acquire their full rights till adulthood (because not fully rational), and thus they do not have the right to make every decision that an adult can make. While it might be true that the prohibition of child pornography increases prices, the same can be said about the prohibition of murder for hire. The argument about prices is a useful side-issue in the drug-war debate, but that’s only because producing and consuming drugs do not inherently violate rights. Murder and child pornography do inherently violate rights. If Ruwart has since revised her position, I have not read about it.

So Bob Barr’s claim to fame now is that he barely beat an anarchist who defended the legality of child pornography. Barr may have lent the Libertarian Party his credibility, but the Libertarian Party has lent Barr its insanity. In this election, a vote for Bob Barr is a vote for the Libertarian Party, and that is not an organization that I wish to promote. (I learned my lesson thoroughly after working for the state LP a few years ago.)

In his May 31 column, Dave Kopel reviews the media coverage of the party’s convention. Unfortunately, he fails to get to the heart of the debate within the LP:

One piece [by Cara DeGette] detailed the fight between Libertarian pragmatists and fundamentalists; the former wanted a platform that could appeal to the 16 percent of the U.S. population that is generally libertarian in outlook, while the latter wanted a platform that set forth maximal Libertarian goals. For example, the pragmatists wanted a platform promising to abolish the federal income tax and the Internal Revenue Service, while the fundamentalists wanted a platform demanding an end to all taxation.

Yet the problem with the anarchists is not that they are interested in fundamentals; it is that their fundamentals are wrong. The pragmatists are thus only reacting to the anti-state reactionaries. The result is that one wing endorses untenable principles, while the other wing eschews principles.

Kopel also conflates the debate over principles with the debate over strategy. Ultimately, I too believe that civil society should ban the initiation of force, of which taxation is an instance. But that doesn’t mean that I do not also advocate the repeal of the income tax. Incrementalism is compatible with radicalism. I would be thrilled to live in a society in which a progressive income tax topped out at four percent. Hell, I’d be thrilled if we could merely phase out the Social Security tax, which devastates the working poor and lower-middle class, even if the income tax remained untouched. I am not against taking a bite of liberty merely because I cannot now have the whole enchilada. If politics is the art of the possible, the goal of the radical is to expand what’s possible by influencing cultural debate at the deepest level.

Unfortunately, by allying himself with a party that tends toward reaction against government at the cost of individual rights, Barr has set himself up to possibly influence the election without improving the long-term prospects for liberty.

Up from Anarchy

Ironically, after spending many years as a libertarian who flirted with “anarcho-capitalism,” I was recently criticized in a letter to the Rocky Mountain News by a libertarian anarchist. I’ll take that as a sign of my progress. John Chamberlain of Longmont writes for a letter dated February 14:

It’s a shame when someone gets so close the truth without quite reaching it.

Ari Armstrong (“Loading the dice against responsibility,” Speakout, Jan. 18) scores many good points against Rocky Mountain News columnist Paul Campos, especially in explaining how government activism actually hurts the poor.

But he also writes, “Government can be effective when it sticks to protecting people’s rights – that is, preventing crime and protecting people and their property from violence.” The problem is that governments, in their current form, depend on taking people’s property by violence for their very existence. They are self-contradictory. Their acts of theft (which are euphemized as “taxation”) are considered crimes if anyone else does them.

Furthermore, modern governments prevent anyone else from competing against them within the same geographic area.

Governments performs many useful services, but they shouldn’t be monopolies. Why would anyone support monopoly? Government should be a voluntary subscription service. Let’s take “government by the consent of the governed” seriously!

I am quite familiar with the notion of competing defense agencies, having read the works of Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, and others. (I’ve also written about Randy Barnett’s “polycentric” legal system.)

I essentially agree with Ayn Rand (who, by the way, does not conflate the issues of taxation and geographic monopoly), that competing defense agencies would devolve into violence. Rand writes:

[S]uppose Mr. Smith, a customer of Government A, suspects that his next-door neighbor, Mr. Jones, a customer of Government B, has robbed him; a squad of Police A proceeds to Mr. Jones’ house and is met at the door by a squad of Police B, who declare that they do not accept the validity of Mr. Smith’s complaint and do not recognize the authority of Government A. What happens then? You take it from there.

The typical response is that the two defense agencies will seek arbitration and reach a peaceable solution. But there are two problems with such a reply. First, it manifest a typical libertarian failing of assuming universal rationality in motives. (This is the same failing that leads many libertarians to conclude that Islamic terrorists would become peaceable if only the United States did not antagonize them.) Yet, as world history demonstrates, people do not always reach peaceable solutions that would be in their “rational self-interests;” quite the opposite.

Second, if the competing defense agencies all agree to binding arbitration, then they have formed the very sort of “monopoly” that motivated the criticism in the first place. (I think this is basically along the lines of what Robert Nozick had to say on the matter.) To make such cooperation work, defense agencies would necessarily have to subject themselves to a monopoly power. And if a “competing” agency tried to defy those rules, its members would be arrested and thrown into jail. Sort of like what happens today. As “anarcho-capitalists” are fond of pointing out, today most peace officers are privately hired. Yet they are subject — and quite properly so — to the government’s rules. Once “competing” agents of force agree to create and obey a central authority, they are no longer “competing” in the relevant sense. And, once they make this move, they must consider the optimal structure of government — for which no better alternative has been found than a constitutional republic.

Ron Paul for President, RIP

I was looking up Radley Balko’s comments on a drug-war raid, when I came across this post about Ron Paul, which links to this article from The New Republic. I do not doubt that Paul deeply regrets the comments in his old newsletters condemning Martin Luther King, Jr., and tolerating David Duke, whether Paul himself wrote those words or not, but, regardless of Paul’s sincerity of repentance, his campaign for president is dead (even though few people ever seriously expected him to win). The great tragedy is that Paul is very often right about issues involving economics and civil liberties, and unfortunately the revelations will undermine his efforts to promote those ideas.

What’s Wrong With Libertarianism

Craig Bolton left a comment beneath my post, “Recovering from Rationalism.” While Bolton claims to defend libertarianism, his claims actually demonstrate what is wrong with libertarianism.

I do not wish to address Bolton’s bizarre claim that “there is no such thing as ‘induction’.” I don’t even know what he could possibly mean by such a statement. So let’s move on to his politics.

Bolton wishes to separate voluntarist society from politics and political ideology. Opposed to “society” is government, which “is essentially about coercive force,” even though government “may be useful” in suppressing violent individuals.

Thus, Bolton affirms that libertarianism is precisely what Objectivists say it is: a political or social goal explicitly detached from a moral theory.

However, it is impossible to define what properly falls within the bounds of voluntarism without a political ideology that flows from a moral ideology. Following are just a few examples.

* If a 10 year old boy “voluntarily” agrees to have sex with a 40 year old man, is that okay with libertarians? This issue has in fact been seriously debated in libertarian circles. Yet, apart from political and moral theory, libertarians have no way to resolve the issue. Objectivists, though, have a ready response that is consistent with the common view: the concept of voluntarism rests on the rationality of adult people. A child has not yet developed into a fully rational person. Therefore, a child is not in the position to consent to certain things, such as sex, marriage, business contracts, and the purchase of dangerous objects. The extent to which libertarians answer the question (in a non-crazy way) is the extent to which they abandon libertarianism.

* Let us say that you are throwing a barbecue party in your back yard, and either there is no fence or the gate is open. Then an uninvited religious nut comes into the yard and starts delivering a sermon. Is this “voluntary?” Did the nut initiate any force? If so, how? All he did is go on a walk and start talking. Where’s the force? Is the answer property rights? But “Libertarianism is not about… asserting that ‘people have rights’.” A theory of property rights requires an overarching political theory that rests on a moral theory as to why people have a right to their property. And any reasonable person will call the police — agents of the government — if the nut refuses to leave.

* What about people who “voluntarily” offer copyrighted music for “free” downloading? The legitimacy of copyright is often debated among libertarians.

* Does abortion limit the voluntary behavior of an embryo, or does a ban on abortion limit the voluntary behavior of the mother? Libertarianism has no answer.

Bolton also shows that libertarianism, as I’ve argued, tends to descend into anti-state reactionism. For Bolton, coercive government is fundamentally at odds with voluntary society, even though he thinks that government can be useful. Because libertarians dismiss moral theory as the foundation for politics, they assume that everything would be fine, if only nasty government would leave people alone. Yet libertarians are inconsistent about this, because most of them realize at some level that we need a government to protect our rights, and that we do need a moral and political theory of rights. The reactionism of libertarianism manifests in a variety of ways, from conspiracy theories about 9/11 to anarchism. Libertarians who do not hate government tend to become pragmatists, for they have already dismissed moral principles as the basis for politics.

I understand that this post is brief, so any reader who does not follow my arguments here is encouraged to read my lengthier critiques, starting with “More Libertarians Against Liberty,” which in turn links to additional articles.

A condensed version of Peter Schwartz’s essay, “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty,” is published in Ayn Rand’s The Voice of Reason.

Recovering from Rationalism

I am a recovering rationalist. I thought I was pretty smart, back in 1992 (it must have been), when I first got my copy of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. I read it, understood it, and was even ready to start correcting it. Or so I thought. In fact, I did not understand Objectivism, at all. Or, rather, I understood only a few of its tenets, and those poorly. I was certainly not prepared to apply Objectivist principles consistently in my own life. My main problem was rationalism. I understood the philosophy as an interconnected system of ideas, but I did not understand how those ideas were related to the real world.

Take, for instance, my (lack of) understanding of “life” as the standard of value. I wrote thousands of words over the internet explaining the problems with that position. For example, how is one to choose between length of life and strength of life? I created long, rationalistic chains of arguments that (I thought) demonstrated the absurdities of holding “life” as the standard. Of course, what I was not doing is looking at what life really is. I was not drawing the principles from the facts; I was trying to derive principles from floating deductions.

Another example may be found in my interaction with libertarianism. Within a few years, I went from enthusiastically promoting libertarianism to denouncing libertarianism. In 2002, I was still defending libertarianism, though I was starting to pay more attention to certain of its problems. I made two basic arguments in defense of libertarianism. First, “If libertarianism is roughly wanting government only to protect property rights, then Objectivism is a type of libertarianism…” In other words, I was starting with (dubious) definitions and then proceeding deductively, rather than looking at the content of libertarianism. Second, I argued that the Objectivist case against libertarianism makes little sense, because Objectivists interact with others who are not principled. I was attempting a reductio ad absurdum, rather than looking at the relevant facts about libertarianism.

I revisited the issue in 2004. I was becoming much more aware of the problems within the libertarian movement, but I still tied myself to libertarianism using rationalistic arguments. I again tried to point out the internal contradictions of criticisms of libertarianism, to reduce those criticisms to absurdity. And I remained stuck on definitions as a starting point: “a single term can[not] be used to name only a single concept. … [W]e frequently assign the same word to multiple concepts, and we rely upon context and explicit definitions to make clear our meaning.” In short, I thought I could re-define libertarianism into respectability. A bit later I wrote of “two libertarianisms” and declared that, by the correct “definition, I am a libertarian, I have been a libertarian for many years, and I anticipate I will always be a libertarian.”

By 2005, I was deeply alarmed by goings on in the libertarian movement, and I was beginning to look at what libertarianism is, rather than attempt to reconstruct it according to my prior definition. A month later, I declared, “I am not a libertarian.” I summarized my reasons: “For I do not want to be lumped together with the pragmatists, reactionaries, tribalists, nihilists, hedonists, rationalists, subjectivists, idealists (of the Platonic variety), propagandists, utopians, and kooks of the libertarian movement.” This was a big development for me. I had finally beat my head against enough concrete problems to begin to abandon my rationalistic view of libertarianism. However, I did not at that point explicitly understand that what I was starting to do is replace rationalism with an inductive approach. I continue to struggle with overcoming rationalism.

Unfortunately, the best Objectivist material about using induction to learn philosophy is not easy to access. A lecture by Darryl Wright helped me to understand the ethical significance of “life.” (Unfortunately, I cannot at this point recall the title of that lecture.) Far and away the most helpful material for me has been Leonard Peikoff’s “Understanding Objectivism” lectures. This outstanding material explicitly deals with the problems of rationalism. It is quite expensive; those who have a problem with the cost might consider finding a loaner copy or buying a copy to share. I’ve started Peikoff’s “Objectivism Through Induction,” which so far is also quite good. He discusses how to inductively approach issues such as causality, reason as man’s means of survival, egoism, and other critical topics.

I am thrilled that Peikoff is making available on his web page a podcast in which he answers questions. He has not so far dealt explicitly with the topic of rationalism versus induction in philosophy, but his answers explode the rationalistic premises of various questions. For example, in his new podcast, he explains why the possibility of human instincts cannot be derived from evolutionary history. Instead, he suggests, we should look to see whether people in fact have instincts. So those trying to overcome rationalistic tendencies can listen to Peikoff’s answers at the level of how they treat rationalism versus induction.