Book Review: Open To Debate

Open To Debate is a book about the life and work of William F. Buckley, Jr. by American film and media professor Heather Hendershot. The book examines the role of his television show Firing Line (1966-99) in shaping the American conservative movement in particular and the overall political scene more generally. The book is divided into six chapters, bookended by a lengthy preface and introduction as well as a short conclusion.

The preface deals with Buckley’s formative years, including his experience at a boarding school in England, his time in the US Army during World War II, and his reaction to his time at Yale. His success with God and Man at Yale (1951) led to his founding of National Review magazine in 1955. He participated in mediated debates with ideological opponents through the 1950s and 1960s, which eventually led to Firing Line. A particularly bad performance in a debate against James Baldwin demonstrates Buckley’s weaknesses, many of which he would improve upon over the years. The New York City mayoral campaign of 1965 in which Buckley ran as a third-party candidate shows the stark contrast between Buckley and a politician, which is all the more interesting because his brother, James Buckley, was a US Senator and federal judge. An example of the types of guests who fared well on Firing Line versus the types who did not comes next, then the preface ends with a comparison between the show and what has replaced it (or failed to) in the news and public affairs programming category.

The introductory segment discusses the beginnings of Firing Line in 1966, including the discussion format, production values, nature of guests, the time of airing, whether to have commercials, and whether to have a moderator. Much of this was a matter of trial-and-error in the first few years of the show, with the show taking on its iconic form after moving to PBS in 1971. Hendershot includes some of Buckley’s media experiences beyond his own show, which illustrate that he could fit in on other programs despite being a Hollywood outsider. Much of the rest of the chapter highlights several 1960s episodes.

The first chapter begins with the aftermath of Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election. Buckley’s quest was to make conservatism respectable, which meant trying to purge conspiracy theorists, violent racists, religious zealots, and extreme anticommunists from mainstream conservatism, with a partial exception for the less unhinged anticommunists. Hendershot details Buckley’s opposition to the John Birch Society across several episodes. As for the charges of extremism, Buckley invited Goldwater onto the show in 1966 to show him not to be the person that Democrats portrayed him as during the election.

The anticommunism of Buckley is the focus of the second chapter. Hendershot begins by giving the context of the time and of Buckley’s upbringing to help the reader understand the approach taken on Firing Line. Buckley debated socialists and progressives rather than outright communists, and did so from a position of defending McCarthyism in general but not the excesses of McCarthy himself. She provides excerpts from Buckley’s discussions with John Kenneth Galbraith and Noam Chomsky, two prominent leftist intellectuals of the time, then discusses the appearance of Theodore White, a repentant communist sympathizer, in 1978. Hendershot then turns to the episodes with Victor Navasky, Nation magazine editor and critic of McCarthyism and Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s senior counsel during the hearings to show the difference between Buckley and more ardent anticommunists.

The third chapter covers Buckley’s opposition to the Black Power and civil rights movements, though he supported many of the ideas advocated by those movements. Hendershot returns to the episode with Cohn and Mark Felt, the senior FBI agent who would later be revealed as the Watergate informant Deep Throat, to show Buckley’s opposition to lowbrow tactics in government opposition to Martin Luther King Jr. Next, the episodes with Floyd McKissick, Judge Leander Perez, Gov. George Wallace, and Sen. Strom Thurmond are used to show Buckley’s rejection of the ideas that the civil rights movement was a front for communism, that racism was conservative, and that states’ rights were synonymous with racist policies. McKissick’s appearance also highlights Buckley’s agreement with Black Power objectives, if not some of their tactics and leaders. Hendershot uses the shows with Eldridge Cleaver and Milton Henry, along with his refusal to host LeRoi Jones or H. Rap Brown, to show the limits of Buckley’s tolerance for extremists, which went quite far.

In the fourth chapter, Hendershot examines Buckley’s opposition to feminism and women’s liberation. Again, Buckley supported equal rights but not the equal rights movement due to its fringe characters and goals. Here, the Firing Line episodes with Phyllis Schlafly and Midge Decter demonstrate his lack of far-right extremism, while the episodes with Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and Harriet Pilpel show his opposition to the feminist movement and some of its more outlandish goals. Hendershot also includes Buckley’s interactions with Clare Boothe Luce as a sort of middle ground.

The fifth chapter is about how Buckley dealt with the Nixon administration. Hendershot covers Nixon’s 1967 appearance on Firing Line and several episodes dedicated to Nixon’s policies and legal troubles to show Buckley’s independence from Nixon. The episode with Woodward and Bernstein has Buckley almost defending Nixon and arguing that he should have destroyed the tapes, while the episodes on war crimes were quite critical of Nixon’s policies in Vietnam. Buckley’s darker impulses are also revealed in this chapter with regard to censorship and laws against victimless behaviors, along with an unwillingness to take much action upon them. The final part of the chapter has Buckley making the argument that Nixon’s downfall was caused by non-conservative behavior and that he was a deviation from the correct course for the right.

Chapter six takes us through the Reagan years and beyond to examine the results of Buckley’s efforts. Hendershot begins by discussing Reagan’s rightward shift and the growth in his ability to keep up with television hosts. She uses excerpts of Reagan’s 1967 and 1971 Firing Line appearances to demonstrate his improvement, but only writes about his 1980 appearance while campaigning and 1990 appearance to review his presidency. Reagan’s 1978 debate with Buckley over ownership of the Panama Canal shows Buckley’s dedication to realpolitik and unwillingness to abide conspiratorial thinking. Ron Paul’s 1988 appearance is used to show the limits of Buckley’s libertarian leanings. Next, Hendershot discusses Buckley’s rejection of the religious right, which was instrumental in electing Reagan, and the differing perspectives on the 1980s that come from left versus right. The chapter concludes with Reagan’s opposition to PBS (which aired Firing Line). References to Buckley’s final book, The Reagan I Knew (2008), are sprinkled throughout.

In the conclusion, Hendershot offers praise for Firing Line despite her leftist personal views, even recommending that a Firing Line 2.0 be created to attempt to replace the role of contemporary political discussion shows that frequently devolve into unintelligent partisan bickering. She laments that this is unlikely to happen, and that many of the far-right groups that Buckley sought to suppress are now enjoying a resurgent popularity.

The book offers a thorough examination of Buckley’s television program, if not Buckley as a whole. The book feels longer than it is, but the subject matter of a show that ran for 33 years demands length. Hendershot could do a bit less editorializing, but this is not overly disruptive. Overall, the book excels at its core objective and is worth reading.

Rating: 3.5/5

A Consideration Of Helicopter Rides

In recent years, the meme of throwing one’s political rivals out of helicopters has become popular among certain right-wing and libertarian groups. Unfortunately, people from all over the political spectrum tend to misunderstand the historical context of the meme, and thus interpret it incorrectly. Let us consider the backstory of helicopter rides in order to better understand their use, ethics, and utility.

Socialism in Chile

In 1970, Socialist candidate Salvador Allende became President of Chile, winning a plurality of votes and allying with the third-place Christian Democrats to gain the necessary majority to rule. He was the first openly Marxist head of state in a Latin American country to come to power through democratic means. The CIA and KGB both spent significant amounts of money to interfere in the election.

Once in power, Allende’s government took over control of large-scale industries, health care, and education. He expanded government theft and redistribution of land initiated by his predecessor Eduardo Frei Montalva, such that no estate exceeded 80 hectares (198 acres) by the end of 1972.[1] Payment of pensions and grants resumed, and social programs were greatly expanded. The arts became funded by the state. Diplomatic relations with Cuba were restored, and political prisoners were released. Price fixing for bread, wages, and rent occurred. Taxes on small incomes and property were eliminated. College was made tuition-free. The voting age was lowered to eighteen and literacy requirements were removed. Between October 1970 and July 1971, purchasing power increased 28 percent.[2] In that year, inflation fell from 36.1 percent to 22.1 percent, while average real wages rose 22.3 percent.[3]

Like all socialist experiments, the short-term results were good. But as Margaret Thatcher would later observe, “Socialist governments…always run out of other people’s money.” Government spending increased 36 percent from 1970 to 1971.[3] The national debt soared and foreign reserves declined. Declining prices in copper, Chile’s chief export commodity, only worsened matters. Black markets in staple foods emerged as rice, beans, sugar, and flour disappeared from store shelves. The Allende government announced its intent to default on debts owed to international creditors, including foreign governments. Strikes began in 1972, to which Allende responded by nationalizing trucks to keep truckers from halting the economic life of the nation. The courts intervened and made Allende return the trucks to their owners.

By the summer of 1973, Allende’s government was ripe for overthrow. On June 29, Colonel Roberto Souper surrounded the presidential palace with a tank regiment but did not succeed in overthrowing Allende. In May and again in August, the Supreme Court of Chile complained that the Allende government was not enforcing the law. The Chamber of Deputies accused Allende of refusing to act on approved constitutional amendments that would limit his socialist plans, and called on the military to restore order. Following embarassment and public protest, General Carlos Prats resigned as defense minister and commander-in-chief of the army, being replaced in the latter post by General Augusto Pinochet. Allende accused the Congress of sedition and obstruction, and argued that the accusations were false.

The Chilean Coup

On September 11, 1973, the Chilean Navy captured Valparaiso by 7:00 a.m. They closed radio and television networks in the central coast. Allende was informed of this, and went to the presidential palace. By 8:00, the army closed most broadcast stations in the capital of Santiago, while the Air Force bombed the remaining active stations. Admiral Montero, the Navy commander and an Allende loyalist, was cut off from communication. Leadership of the Navy was transferred to Jose Toribio Merino, who worked with Pinochet and Air Force General Gustavo Leigh in the coup. The leaders of the police and detectives went to the palace with their forces to protect Allende. Allende learned the full extent of the rebellion at 8:30 but refused to resign. By 9:00, the armed forces controlled all but the city center in Santiago. The military declared that they would bomb the palace if Allende resisted. Allende gave a farewell speech, and Pinochet advanced armor and infantry toward the palace. Allende’s bodyguards fired at them with sniper rifles, and General Sergio Arellano Stark called in helicopter gunships to counter them. The palace was bombed once Air Force units arrived. At 2:30, the defenders surrendered and Allende was found dead by his own hand.

Following the coup, the military killed around 3,000 leftists and imprisoned 40,000 political enemies in the National Stadium of Chile. Ninety-seven of those killed were eliminated by the Caravan of Death, a Chilean Army death squad that flew by helicopters in October 1973. The squad, led by General Stark, would travel between prisons, ordering and carrying out executions. The victims were buried in unmarked graves. This is one origin of the meme of helicopter rides, though squads other than Stark’s were responsible for the literal act referenced, having thrown 120 civilians from helicopters into the ocean, rivers, and lakes of Chile.

Peronism in Argentina

In 1946, Juan Perón of the Labor Party became President of Argentina. The majority of the Radical Civic Union, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and the conservative National Autonomist Party had formed an unusual alliance against him, but lost by 10 percent. His two stated goals upon becoming President were economic independence and social justice, but he had no serious plans to achieve those goals other than to attempt to hire the right advisors and underlings while refusing to side with the US or the USSR in the Cold War. Perón was intolerant of both leftist and rightist opposition, firing more than 1,500 university faculty who opposed him[4], shuttering opposition media companies, and imprisoning or exiling dissident artists and cultural figures.

Perón’s appointees encouraged labor strikes in order to obtain reforms for workers, which aligned large business interests against the Peronists. Upper-class Argentine’s resented Perón’s reforms, feeling that they upset traditional class roles. He nationalized the central bank, the railroads, public transport, utilities, universities, and merchant marine. He created the Institute for the Promotion of Trade (IAPI), which was a state monopoly for purchasing foodstuffs for export. Average real wages rose by 35 percent from 1945 to 1949,[5] while during that same period, labor’s share of national income rose from 40 percent to 49 percent.[6] Healthcare and social security were made nearly universal during Perón’s first term. GDP expanded by over 25 percent during this time,[4] which was largely due to spending the $1.7 billion in reserves from surpluses from World War II.

The economic success of Perón’s reforms would not last. The subsidized growth led to an import wave that erased the surplus by 1948. A debt of roughly $650 million owed by Great Britain to Argentina went mostly unpaid, further complicating matters.[4] The Argentine peso was devalued 70 percent between 1948 and 1950, leading to declining imports and recession. Labor strikes began to work against Perón, who responded by expelling the organizers from the unions and calling for a constitutional reform in 1949.

Perón faced no serious opponent for his 1951 re-election campaign, despite being unable to run with his wife Eva, who had fallen ill and would die the following year. Exports fell as low as $700 million in 1952, producing a $500 million trade deficit. Divisions among Peronists grew, and many of Perón’s allies resigned. He accelerated construction projects and increased rank and pay to top generals in an effort to reduce tensions. After Eva’s death, opposition to Perón intensified. On April 15, 1953, terrorists bombed a public rally of Perón supporters, killing seven and injuring 95. He responded by asking the crowd to retaliate. They responded by burning down the Jockey Club building and the Socialist Party headquarters.

In March 1954, Perón had to replace his Vice President, and his preferred choice won in a landslide. This, combined with stabilized inflation rates, motivated him to create new economic and social policies. This brought in foreign investment from automakers FIAT, Kaiser, and Daimler-Benz, as well as from Standard Oil of California. But Perón’s legalization of divorce and prostitution turned the Roman Catholic Church against him, which excommunicated him in June 1955. Perón responded by holding a public rally, and for the second time it was bombed, this time by Navy jets that fled to Uruguay afterward. 364 people were killed, and Peronists again carried out reprisals by attacking eleven churches. This led to the coup that ousted Perón on September 16, performed by nationalist Catholics in the Army and Navy led by General Eduardo Lonardi, General Pedro E. Aramburu, and Admiral Isaac Rojas. Perón barely escaped to Paraguay.

Resistance, Return, and Repression

Shortly afterward, Peronist resistance movements began organizing among disgruntled workers. Democratic rule was partially restored, but political expression for Peronists was still suppressed, so guerrilla groups began operating in the 1960s. Early efforts were small and quickly quashed, but more successful movements formed toward the end of the decade. The Peronist Armed Forces (FAP), Marxist–Leninist-Peronist Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), and the Marxist–Leninist Armed Forces of Liberation (FAL) were the three major players before 1973. The FAR joined an urban group of students and intellectuals called the Montoneros, while the FAL and FAP merged into the Marxist People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP).

In 1970, the Montoneros captured and killed Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, a military leader in the 1955 coup. In a few years, such events happened on a weekly basis, as did bombings of military and police buildings. Some civilian and non-government buildings were also bombed. Juan Perón returned from exile and became President again in 1973, and sided with the right-Peronists and the government against the left-Peronists. He withdrew support of the Montoneros before his death in 1974. His widow Isabel Martinez de Perón became President after his death, and she signed a number of decrees in 1975 to empower the military and police to defeat the ERP and other such groups. The right-wing death squad known as Argentine Anticommunist Alliance emerged at this time. Isabel was ousted by a coup in 1976, and the military took power. Up to this time, leftists had killed 16,000 people in their guerrilla efforts. The United States government financially backed the Argentine military, while the Cuban government backed the left-wing terror groups.

The juntas that held power between 1976 and 1983 repressed leftist dissidents, being responsible for arresting, torturing, and/or killing between 7,000 and 30,000 people. Many were Montoneros and ERP combatants, but others were civilians, students, left-wing activists, journalists, intellectuals, and labor organizers. Some of those executed were thrown from airplanes to their deaths in the Atlantic Ocean, providing another basis for the meme of helicopter rides. The worst repression reportedly occurred in 1977, after the guerrillas were largely defeated. The junta justified its action by exaggerating the threat and staging attacks to be blamed on guerrillas.

The “National Reorganization Process,” as it was called, failed in its efforts to suppress the left. As the roundup was overbroad, it sowed resentment. Some of those arrested had done nothing other than witness others being arrested in public places. Severe economic problems only added to civil unrest. The military tried to regain popularity by occupying the Falkland Islands, but their defeat by Britain in the Falklands War led them to step aside in disgrace and restore democracy.

Aftermath in Chile

In Chile, Pinochet remained in power until 1990. His 1980 constitution remains in effect, though significantly amended in 1989 and 2005 and slightly amended on eleven other occasions. In the 1990 elections, a coalition of democratic and socialist parties with the Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin at the head was successful. Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, the son of Allende’s predecessor, led the coalition from 1994 to 2000. The Socialist Party and Party for Democracy led the coalition from 2000 to 2010. The center-right National Renewal won in 2010, but the Socialist Party regained power in 2014.

During Pinochet’s rule, Chicago School economists influenced the regime to adopt free market policies. Despite the prevalence of leftists in power since Pinochet’s rule ended, many of his economic reforms have remained in place and the economy is among the freest in the world. Aylwin and Ruiz-Tagle increased spending on social programs and reformed taxes, but avoided radical changes. Chile managed to avoid serious impact from the Mexican peso crisis of 1994 by using capital controls.

Aftermath in Argentina

In Argentina, voters elected Raul Alfonsin of the center-left Radical Civic Union once democracy was restored in 1983. He both created a commission to investigate forced disappearances and passed an amnesty law that stopped the investigations until 2005. His administration was unstable due to friction with the military and economic issues, leaving office early to let Peronist candidate Carlos Menem take office early after winning in 1989. Though he privatized many industries that Perón nationalized, he expanded both executive power and the role of the state in the economy. He won again in 1995, but the Radical Civic Union was growing and a new alliance called FrePaSo formed. By 1999, all three major parties supported free market economics. UCR and FrePaSo allied behind Fernando de la Rua to defeat Peronist Eduardo Duhalde. After some resignations and turmoil, Duhalde would get his chance in 2002. He managed to bring inflation under control, then called for elections in 2003. This brought another Peronist, Nestor Kirchner, to power. He overturned the 1986 amnesty for members of the military dictatorship and oversaw a strong economic recovery. His wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, took over in 2007. She distanced herself from traditional Peronism after Nestor’s death in 2010, favoring instead the La Campora movement that reveres the Montoneros guerrilla group. In 2015, her party lost to Mauricio Macri and his Republican Proposal party, which was allied with the Radical Civic Union.

The governments from the 1930s to the 1970s used import substitution to increase industrial growth, but this came at the expense of agricultural production. Import substitution was ended in 1976, but growth in government spending, inefficient production, and rising national debt led to inflation problems in the 1980s. The government responded to inflation in the 1990s by auctioning state-owned companies and pegging the Argentine peso to the US dollar. De la Rua followed an IMF-sponsored economic plan to deal with the government budget deficit, but an economic collapse occurred at the end of 2001. The peso was devalued again, and recovery occurred by 2005. A judicial ruling in 2012 led to a selective default in 2014 that was resolved in 2016.

Contemporary Application

Now that the context from which the meme of helicopter rides emerges is understood, we may consider its potential application against contemporary leftist rulers and agitators. Helicopter rides for political enemies are a form of ultraviolence, which is the use of force in an excessive and brutal manner as a public display to make an example out of a particular person or group. This is done for the purpose of establishing dominance and suppressing rivals within a territory, from which peace and order may follow. Utilized correctly, this will break the spirit of resistance movements and solidify one’s hold on power, which will prevent further death and destruction that would otherwise occur from terrorism and civil war. If misused, whether by subjecting overbroad numbers of people to cruel punishment or by utilizing methods that the population deems to be completely beyond the pale, ultraviolence will create resentment that will resurface later as another, stronger resistance movement. Misuse will also have a negative psychological impact on the perpetrators, causing them to lose their humanity through the commission of needless atrocities.

The above examples of Chile and Argentina suggest that ultraviolence by rightists against leftists appears to be insufficient to counter the leftward slide that naturally occurs in politics over time. One possible reason for this is that a continual march leftward is the political variant of entropy, the physical process by which the universe becomes increasingly disordered and chaotic over time. If so, this would explain why all great civilizations eventually fall and all attempts by right-wing movements to use the state to advance their agendas fail to produce lasting change. Another potential explanation is that the state is an inherently leftist institution, in that the nature of the state is to allow some people to do with impunity that which would be considered criminal if anyone else behaved identically, and the nature of the left is to disrespect individual rights in favor of their view of the collective good. This meshes well with Robert Conquest’s second law of politics; any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing. A third explanation is that power does what it wants due to its inherent lack of accountability, meaning that a military junta has no real incentive to limit its removal of leftists to those whom have actually committed crimes. Thus, the use of helicopter rides naturally becomes overbroad when coupled with the state, and the distrust and resentment that fuels a revolution against the military government naturally follow.

Many alt-rightists who suggest the use of helicopter rides to eliminate their political rivals do not understand the above context with sufficient clarity. This leads them to long for the day when they get to pilot a massive fleet of helicopters that drops their enemies from staggering heights. For their stated goals, helicopter rides are a tool not fit for purpose, as the cost of helicopters, fuel, and pilots far exceeds that of other methods of physical removal. Helicopter rides as historically practiced also fail at performing ultraviolence, as rumors of helicopter rides pale in comparison to theatrical executions carried out in the public square on live television. The obvious retort that the victims should be dropped onto a hard surface in the public square is likely to fail by being too gruesome for the public to stomach. And ultimately, no matter how many leftists are killed, their ideas and the state apparatus to implement them remain. Overall, the alt-right approach fails because its adherents seek to use the ultimate enemy (the state) against the proximate enemy (the left) without any intention or plan to eliminate the ultimate enemy afterward, which results in long-term losses for short-term gains.

Moral Issues

While the alt-right seeks to misuse the practice of helicopter rides, libertarians and leftists tend to decry the idea as mass murder. The leftists will typically assert that the use of deadly force against someone who does not pose a deadly threat at the moment is murder. But the immediate danger doctrine, as it is known in legal circles, is a standard used by the state to perpetuate itself by creating an artificial demand for its functions of legislation, security, criminal justice, and dispute resolution while rendering the population dependent and irresponsible. Such a standard is not provable from first principles and is clearly at odds with libertarian theory on the use of force.

Libertarian theory allows one to use any amount of force necessary to not only defend oneself against aggressors, but to make people who refuse to perform restitution do so, to stop people who recklessly endanger bystanders, to reclaim stolen property, and to eliminate crime bosses and other unrepentant aggressors. While this does not allow for the full extent of the helicopter rides given by the militaries of Chile and Argentina, it can allow for statists who held power and those who carried out certain acts of aggression on their orders to be executed. Of course, rightists who wield state power (or libertarians who wield private power) in an overzealous manner against leftists would also be legitimate targets for helicopter rides if they kill people who have not committed crimes worthy of death.

A more appropriate libertarian use of helicopters is not to execute anti-libertarians by throwing them out, but to transport them out of a libertarian-controlled territory and warn them not to return. Exile and ostracism, after all, are perfectly legitimate exercises of property rights and freedom of association. Furthermore, removing people who advocate against the norms of a libertarian social order from a libertarian community is a necessary preservation mechanism, but such removal need not be fatal unless all reasonable efforts that do not involve deadly force have been tried without success.

Conclusion

There is a rich historical context behind the idea of helicopter rides for leftist agitators. Unfortunately, most modern advocates of such methods do not understand this context, which leads them to make recommendations which do not align with reality. Though leftists and some libertarians decry all uses of helicopter rides as murder, there are cases in which such acts are morally justifiable.

References:

  1. Collier, Simon; Sater, William F. (2004). A History of Chile, 1808–2002. Cambridge University Press.
  2. Zipper, Ricardo Israel (1989). Politics and Ideology in Allende’s Chile. Arizona State University, Center for Latin American Studies.
  3. Larrain, Felipe; Meller, Patricio (1991). The Socialist-Populist Chilean Experience, 1970-1973. University of Chicago Press.
  4. Rock, David (1987). Argentina, 1516–1982. University of California Press.
  5. Dufty, Norman Francis (1969). The Sociology of the Blue-collar Worker. E.J. Brill Publishing.
  6. Dornbusch, Rüdiger; Edwards, Sebastian (1991). The Macroeconomics of populism in Latin America. University of Chicago Press.

Blame Democracy For Heated Political Rhetoric

In recent times, concern has grown over the increasing hatred between competing political factions. As political rhetoric escalates into political violence, the various agents of the Cathedral have begun asking what may be done to reduce tensions. Naturally, they demonstrate obliviousness to their own culpability in ratcheting up hostilities, and reversing their own behavior would be a significant first step. Their actions are par for the course for leftists, as psychological projection—the act of accusing one’s opponents of whatever wrongdoing one is committing oneself—is an essential part of the leftist mindset. In the same vein, they accuse right-wing activists of causing any political violence that occurs, even when it is clear to any rational observer that rightists are taking action to defend themselves against aggression by radical leftists.

As for the radical leftists, it has long been the case that the right views the left as factually wrong while the left views the right as morally evil. This imbalance could not persist indefinitely, and because the elements of the left which are most vocal at present are pathologically incapable of rational discourse, the only rebalancing that could occur was for elements of the right to begin viewing the left as morally evil. This necessarily escalated matters, but in a manner that was necessary to restore a balance of political terror, which will result in less political violence in the long term by way of peace through mutually assured destruction.

Leftist Strategy

The leftist strategy at work here is that of high-low versus middle, better known by the Van Jones quote “top down, bottom up, inside out.” The academics, politicians, and pundits of the Cathedral are the high, the communist terrorists of Antifa and the minority criminal underclass are the low, and the middle is anyone who is middle-class, working-class, white, right-wing, and/or libertarian. The high-class group uses the privileges of state power to buy the loyalty of the low-class group, which is done by funneling money extorted from the middle-class group to them in addition to giving symbols of higher status to select members of the low-class group. In return, the low-class group is used to intimidate the middle-class group into compliance with this arrangement. The end goal is to transform society by defeating the middle, but in practice the low-class group tends to turn on the high-class group when times become hard and the high-class group can no longer afford to purchase their loyalty. Alternatively, this may end when the middle-class is tired of being abused and decides to violently suppress the low-class, then subject the high-class to vigilante justice.

The Real Culprit

The talking heads, politicians, and left-wing activists all deserve blame for creating a cultural milieu in which the political rhetoric has become increasingly heated and violence has erupted as a result. But as troublesome as these elements are, they are mere symptoms of a much larger and deeper problem. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” The root that must be named and struck is nothing less than democracy itself.

Benjamin Franklin described democracy as two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. If Franklin were correct, then democratic impulses would quickly be exhausted, as the lambs would be consumed in short order and society would spiral downward into a Hobbesian nightmare of wolf against wolf, every wolf for himself. But the truth is even worse; who is a wolf and who is a lamb changes depending on the time and the political issue at hand. Over time, majority rule thus “allows for A and B to band together to rip off C, C and A in turn joining to rip off B, and then B and C conspiring against A, and so on.”[1] This allows the democratic state to survive much longer than it would if there were a static majority and a static minority.

In the aggregate, the theoretical Hobbesian war of all against all is replaced by an actual democratic war of half against half. Contrary to popular belief, this is not an improvement; rather, it is an intentional engineering of a particular kind of perpetual conflict for the purpose of diverting the energies of the masses away from revolt against the ruling class. For what exploiter of people would wish all of his victims to unite against him? It is far easier to victimize people who are too busy quarreling with each other to mount an effective resistance against their mutual enemy. Democracy works beautifully toward this end, making human farming not only possible, but highly lucrative.

Returning to the level of interpersonal relationships and conflicts between local groups, a democratic state grants each citizen a small piece of political power. The possession of this power by every person who is eligible to vote means that the political opinions of each such person are a relevant concern, at least to some degree. That each person can—at least theoretically—mobilize other people into a voting bloc to advance a political agenda that would use state power in a manner hostile to another group of people makes each politically active person an unofficial soldier in the aforementioned democratic war, and thus a target for various abuses by the other side. This democratic civil war is a cold one in most cases, but as in many cold wars, both sides engage in rhetoric that denounces the other side in strong terms. It is this dynamic that produces the degeneration of political discourse into insults and vitriol and the replacement of healthy interpersonal relationships with hostility. The escalation into physical violence is an expected outgrowth of this dynamic.

The Solution

If democracy is the root problem, then the abolition of democracy is the solution. The historical methodology of this has been an unelected government, whether a military junta, hereditary monarchy, or some combination thereof. Libertarians propose another methodology; that of a stateless propertarian society in which all property is privately owned and all goods and services are provided by competing firms in a free market. Both of these systems deny the general public—those who do not have an ownership stake in the society—a political voice. The restriction of political power to those who have an ownership stake, or the abolition of political power in the anarcho-capitalist case, means that it makes no sense for most people living in these social orders to insult, bully, and attack one another over political disputes, as the winner of such a dispute has no direct influence over the direction of the society. One may only influence such a society by convincing a mass of people to move elsewhere or by acquiring property in the anarcho-capitalist case. When only the king or dictator can vote, or only the private property owner can make decisions over the property in question, only they and whatever underlings they may have are worth attacking with words or weapons when they say or do something reprehensible. Everyone else is no longer a political target, and thus most people are incentivized to be apolitical (if not anti-political), resolving any disagreements with the established order through the right of exit.

Objections

There are two common objections to such a proposal that must be addressed; first, that it will not solve the problem, and second, that abolishing democracy may cause more violence than it eliminates.

The accusation that abolishing democracy will not eliminate heated rhetoric is true but trivial. There are no perfect solutions; there are only trade-offs. As long as more than one person exists and there is a disagreement about anything, there is the potential for heated rhetoric and physical violence. And although rational actors would not get into political disputes if they lacked political power, assuming rational actors is a folly of any rigorous socioeconomic theory. In the absence of mass-distributed political power, would people still bully other people? Yes. Would people still try to lift themselves up by putting others down? Certainly. Would people still make fun of others for having views that are strongly at odds with their own? Of course. But a major impetus for doing so, namely the quest for political power and dominance, would be removed. Though some people will always rebel against their incentives, most people do not. For these reasons, we may expect that the trade-off would be worthwhile.

The claim that abolishing democracy would cause more violence than it eliminates must be answered with both nuance and depth. Democratic statists will claim that without voting on ballots, people will start voting with bullets and the only real change will be greater bloodshed and destruction. First, democracy does not solve the problem of interpersonal violence; in fact, it does the opposite. Rather than eliminate the crimes that people commit against other people and their property, statists have created and maintained an institution with a monopoly on performing those crimes, giving them different names, and suffering no penalty for committing them. Theft becomes taxation, slavery becomes conscription, kidnapping becomes arrest, murder becomes war, and so on. The removal of the option of voting for politicians and their minions to do to other people what one would never be allowed to do to other people on one’s own will leave everyone with two options: engage in crime directly or live peaceably with others. Those who choose the former would quickly discover that it is far easier to vote for politicians to hire enforcement officers to victimize someone else than to try to commit crimes oneself. Though there would likely be an increase in violence in the short-term, the elimination of hardened criminals by people acting in self-defense would be swift, resulting in both less violence and less crime in the long-term.

Second, the democratic peace theory must be addressed. This theory claims that democracies do not go to war with each other, and thus a democratic world is a world without war. The evidence for these assertions is lacking on all counts. The democratic nation-state is a recent invention in human history, which produces the statistical uncertainties of a small sample size. What reason and evidence we do have is not promising; democratic states are aggressive both internally and externally, particularly toward individuals and states that are anti-democratic. The political power vested in each voter by the democratic state that makes the civilian population unofficial soldiers and targets during peacetime makes them official soldiers and targets during wartime. Whereas the historical wars between monarchs were mostly royal and knightly affairs over border disputes that had little effect on the peasants, the incentive structures of democratic states led to the total warfare of the World Wars. The entire economies of nations were disrupted for the purpose of war production, the civilian populations were militarized, and the mass murder of civilians became an accepted part of military strategy. By abolishing democracy, the perverse incentives that produced such carnage may be eliminated.

Finally, there is the possibility that people who are accustomed to democracy would violently resist an effort to disenfranchise them by returning to unelected government or by creating a stateless propertarian society. Though reactionaries and libertarians alike hope to convince the voting public to use democracy for the purpose of abolishing it, this is almost certainly a false hope. The incentive structure of the democratic state coupled with the institutional power wielded by the progressive left is probably too strong to overcome peacefully. The path from here to a superior form of social order thus becomes a violent one, as the people who wish to establish a new order must respond with force against determined and unrepentant aggressors. This is another sense in which there would be a short-term increase in violence followed by a long-term decrease. As before, there are no ideal solutions; only trade-offs which produce a net benefit.

Conclusion

Democracy is a sanitized, soft variant of civil war. The question is how long it can remain a cold war. For contemporary Western civilization, the answer is no longer. As shown above, the engine that drives heated rhetoric and political violence will keep running as long as democracy persists. Though there will always be some level of societal conflict, removing such a disastrous generator of malignant incentives as the democratic state can only be a net improvement.

References:

  1. Hans-Hermann Hoppe (2001). Democracy: The God That Failed. Transaction Publishers. p. 104

The Benefits of a Trump-Russia Conspiracy

One of the most prominent news stories of the early days of the Trump presidency is the alleged conspiracy between officials in the Trump administration and members of the Russian government to help him get elected. The allegations that Russian intelligence agents interfered in the 2016 election are not going away, despite a lack of clear evidence for such claims. Relationships between senior administration officials and Moscow have come under intensified scrutiny in recent weeks, following Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating such connections. But so far, what collusion is known to have occurred did not violate any laws.

As expected, the political and pundit classes are divided along ideological lines. Democrats and establishment Republicans are determined to find a scandal, while Trump supporters insist that this is a conspiracy theory and witch hunt. As usual, the sharpest argument on the issue is going unexplored by the chattering classes: that such a conspiracy, if it has occurred, would be beneficial. Therefore, let us consider the positive results that would occur if a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and/or administration and the Russian government is proven, as well as the benefits of such collusion.

Un-Intelligence Agencies

If investigators find an improper connection between Trump and Russia, it will thoroughly discredit all of the US government’s intelligence agencies. A foreign power managing to successfully conspire with a presidential candidate in order to install someone who owes them favors at best and is their puppet at worst is exactly the kind of event that those agencies are supposed to prevent. A failure of that magnitude would signal that the leading positions in the US government are vulnerable not only to foreign interference, but to a hostile takeover by agents of a foreign government by means of a Manchurian candidate. Should this be the case, it would be clear for all to see that the government in general and the office of the Presidency in particular are too powerful.

To fail to prevent a declining second-rate power like Russia from altering the outcome of an election should finish off the American people’s trust in these agencies. Their trust has already been diminished by the revelations of Edward Snowden and the general failure of these agencies to do much besides entrap ‘terrorists’ of their own manufacturing, so such a spectacular failure might be the last straw. In a world where centralized statist means of security are increasingly ineffective and decentralized private alternatives are necessary, such a revelation could provide the impetus for a complete rethinking of the provision of security.

Preventing War

As the quote frequently misattributed to Lenin goes, “The best way to control the opposition is to lead it ourselves.” If Trump is compromised by Russian influence, as the conspiracy theorists claim, then war between the United States and Russia becomes pointless from a Russian perspective. Why engage in hostilities with a nation when one has influence over its leadership, but not enough influence to overcome the disparity in military capability? More progress can be made from their position by working with a friendly American president who is compromised by them.

In the world today, there is no greater potential threat to American and Russian citizens than a war between their governments, as each side has nuclear weapons and the great advantage that the United States enjoys in conventional military firepower would encourage Russia to escalate to a nuclear exchange. Of the two major presidential candidates, Clinton was the most bellicose toward Russia and its client state in Syria, and her interventionist position on the Syrian Civil War had great potential to bring American and Russian forces into direct conflict with each other. In the estimation of a competent Russian policymaker, it was in the best interest of Russian citizens (and everyone else, for that matter) for Russia to interfere in the US presidential election to help Trump win, especially by means that would create a sense of reciprocation once Trump is in office. Given the stakes involved, increasing cooperation between the United States and Russia is more important than the means used in so doing.

Delegitimizing The System

Those who hope for the accusations against Trump to be true may not appreciate the logical conclusions of the result they anticipate. If Donald Trump, why not anyone else? If the Presidency, why not any other office? If 2016, why not any other election year? Such a scandal would call into question the democratic process in the United States at every level. Senators, governors, mayors, county commissioners, and all of the rest would be at least as suspect, if not more so. Though such offices lack the power of the Presidency, the resources needed to infiltrate and commandeer such offices are far fewer. These offices could be used to accomplish particular foreign policy goals of Russia, China, or another rival power, such as hampering the construction of a military base in a particular state or blocking funding for anti-ICBM defense systems. Given the power that state and local governments have over the daily lives of citizens, a few solid plants in key positions could do significant damage.

If the process for selecting politicians is compromised, then the laws they pass and policies they enact are compromised a fortiori. The chaos injected into American political life by this realization is scarcely imaginable. Reams of legislation and regulation would need to be examined and possibly invalidated on the grounds that they were not properly ratified. Politicians and judges would be scrambling to figure out the correct precedent to set for dealing with such an event. Should they be in error (and they likely would be), their perceived legitimacy would be greatly diminished. Leaving dubiously passed laws and regulations in place would taint the perceived validity of the whole United States Code and federal regulations, while examining them all would take entirely too much time. The third option of eliminating many of these policies would provide a rare opportunity to repeal a large amount of burdensome legislation and regulation.

Additionally, all of the appointments the politicians have made would come into question, from department heads all the way up to Supreme Court justices. This would call all of their decisions into question as well. When someone points out that these politicians and judges have a conflict of interest because they themselves might be compromised by foreign influence, the American people might even get to witness a Mexican standoff of “Are You A Soviet Spy?” between government officials, which would be thoroughly entertaining, if nothing else.

Should Congress try to impeach Trump over a revelation that his election was compromised by Russia, it is likely that he would respond by declassifying and speaking about all of the underhanded means that they have used to bribe their way into their House and Senate seats, as well as any other scandals in which they might be involved. The American people would suddenly learn that the system is far more hopelessly corrupt than they ever imagined. Tu quoque may be a logical fallacy, but it has tremendous moral and emotional weight. If Trump went down, he could take many members of Congress with him when the 2018 midterm elections come.

Though everyone in the establishment would consider these events to be unthinkably dangerous, for libertarians this chain of events would be nothing short of glorious. Though it might endanger Americans in the short term to have such a government failure, it would provide an excellent opportunity for market actors to step in and provide more effective services. The loss of faith in democracy would allow for more libertarian forms of governance to be considered with less public hostility.

Conclusion

Regardless of the actual facts of the case, a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government would be beneficial to Americans on multiple counts. The aftermath of such a revelation is impossible to predict, but no one could reasonably conclude that more statism is the answer. Thus, let us hope that the conspiracy theorists are correct. Such a sharp line of argumentation has gone completely unexplored by the establishment media, and one may speculate that this is due to a combination of their role as propagandists for the US government, a lack of insightful boldness, and the damning implications of such reasoning for the status quo political arrangement.

A Perversion Of Service

Every year on Memorial Day, people visit cemeteries and go to parades in honor of those who died while serving in a government military. Those still serving in these militaries travel down roads normally reserved for civilian use, and the people that these military personnel ultimately oppress celebrate this fact. Meanwhile, politicians and the establishment press take the opportunity that a day devoted to deceased military personnel presents to promote statist propaganda concerning the nature of service and the provision of defense. The general structure of their propaganda narrative is as follows:

  1. We have freedom.
  2. Freedom and the rights associated with it are granted by the Constitution, the state, etc.
  3. Freedom is not free. This is because it is valuable, and valuables will be stolen by thieves and destroyed by conquerors if they are not defended.
  4. The state provides defense of freedom, and is the only means by which such defense can be provided.
  5. A society should revere its protectors, for they perform the functions that allow everyone else to do what they do in peace.
  6. Because of (4), government military personnel are those protectors.
  7. Because of (4), (5), and (6), people should revere the state in general and its military personnel in particular.
  8. Laying down one’s life to protect others is the highest cost that one can pay.
  9. Because of (4), (5), (6), and (8), those who die in military service should receive the highest honor.

Of course, like any effective propaganda, this narrative is a mixture of lies and truth. After all, a complete lie is easy to spot, while a lie wrapped in truth that has gone unchallenged by empirical examples for centuries is well camouflaged. The best way to counter this narrative is to challenge it on a point-by-point basis, examining each aspect and the connections between them for logical fallacies. Let us do this now.

Freedom

First, the statist asserts that we have freedom. Attempts to define freedom are rarely made by those who invoke it in this sense, for to do so would undermine their case irrevocably. However, we may proceed with the dictionary definitions of “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action,” “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants,” “absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government,” and “the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.” In the presence of the state, none of these are possible. The state is a group of people who exercise a monopoly on initiatory force within a geographical area. When people initiate the use of force, they are imposing necessity, coercion, and constraint in choice or action upon their victims. The laws that government agents create and enforce infringe upon the right to act, speak, or think as one wants by punishing behaviors which do not aggress against any person or property. Though the state does occasionally prevent foreign domination, it does this with less efficiency and effectiveness than could private defense forces, and states tend to become more despotic over time. The state imprisons and enslaves millions of people. Those who are left somewhat free are not in such a condition for their own benefit and flourishing, but because it produces superior results from the perspective of human livestock management. That we cannot have freedom under current conditions puts the entire narrative in jeopardy, but let us continue our examination.

Rights

The claim that rights are either a grant from a government or are protected by a government is the second step in the narrative. Leftists favor the former position and rightists favor the latter, but both can easily be shown to be in error. A right is defined as “something to which one has a just claim,” “a moral or legal entitlement to have or do something,” and “the sovereignty to act without the permission of others.” Whether or not a claim is just is independent of whether a government is present. Statists may contend that the absence of government means that there is no final arbiter of the justness of a claim, but there is no such thing as a final arbiter of disputes. Regardless, the truth value of a claim is independent of whether anyone recognizes its truth value, or even whether anyone exists to recognize its truth value. A moral entitlement to have or do something must be argued from first principles; it cannot be granted by a government. A legal entitlement may be granted by a government, but only because a government has forcefully suppressed any competing providers of law and order within its claimed territory. A state apparatus, by its very nature, infringes upon the sovereignty of its subjects to act without its permission through its legislation and enforcement mechanisms.

Moreover, the belief that rights must involve the state occurs because the state has corrupted the meaning of rights. Rights are supposed to be exercised through one’s own action without conferring any positive obligation onto someone else, but statists use the word to refer to a claim upon someone else’s life, property, and/or labor. These so-called “positive rights” are invalid because the state violates the negative rights of other people who are forced to provide for these positive rights.

Loss Prevention

That freedom is valuable, and thus vulnerable to destruction and theft if left undefended is true. But there is a non sequitur fallacy between this step and the belief that the state is necessary for the provision of such defense. In fact, the truth is just the opposite. Besides being the primary culprit behind the destruction of freedom, the state cannot possibly provide for the defense of freedom. As a compulsory monopolist of protection, the state charges what it wishes and uses force to prevent anyone from hiring a competing provider, going into business for oneself, or doing without. A threatening protector is a contradiction of terms, which in any context not involving the state would be appropriately recognized as a protection racket. Again, whatever benefit the state provides is done not to serve the people, but to serve itself. To whatever extent the state enjoys defense, its subjects are imperiled, for whatever means of defense the state has constitute potential means of offense against the people.

Reverence

That a society should revere its protectors is true. The problem comes with the belief that government personnel are the protectors of society. As shown previously, the state cannot provide defense for the people because it is a continuous threat against the people. Since the state is composed of people, it follows that those people cannot be responsible for defense in any absolute sense. They can only defend against other potential sources of exploitation so that the state may have a monopoly over the exploitation of the people. As such, reverence for the state in general and its military personnel in particular is misplaced unless it truly is the least of the evils. Fortunately, this is not the case.

Admittedly, there are no empirical examples of a free market of private military companies providing military defense services in lieu of a government military. A major reason for this is that governments will use as much force as necessary to keep such an idea from being tested, as its success would doom the state by depriving it of its most essential monopoly. Without a monopoly on military force, the state would cease to exist, as the response of the people to its taxes and laws would be to point military-grade weapons at its agents and tell them to stand down or be fired upon. That they are so fearful of such an attempt being successful indicates that even they believe it can work, and if anyone should have the deep knowledge necessary to make such an assessment at present, it should be them.

Without empirical examples, we must logically deduce our way through. The presence of a monopoly with involuntary customers necessarily leads to inferior quality of service and higher costs, as the monopolists need not provide superior quality of service and/or lower cost of service vis-à-vis a competitor. The opening of provision of military defense to a free market of competing service providers must therefore lead to an increase of efficiency, which in practice means superior quality of service and/or lower cost of service. There is no reason why the market should fail to provide a service that is strongly desired by everyone for everyone (except for a few criminals, who want it for themselves but not for their victims), to the point that most people will tolerate the oppressions of statism just to obtain a counterfeit version of it.

The most common criticisms of competing private defense companies are that they will fight each other, that they will lead to rule by warlords, and that they will become a new monopoly on force. Rule by warlords and monopoly on force describe the situation under statism, so if the worst-case scenario is that eliminating government militaries just gets us another government military, all other cases must turn out better than this, making these into powerful arguments in favor of privatizing military defense.

This leaves the concern that the private service providers will fight each other. We must recognize that the current service providers do fight each other, which caused roughly 100 million deaths in the 20th century. As such, the bar of service quality that private military defense providers must exceed is set quite low. Fortunately, private military defense providers would be limited in ways that government militaries are not. A private service provider must bear the cost of its own decisions, and engaging in aggressive wars is more expensive than defensive actions only. A company that sells war is thus at an economic disadvantage against a company that sells peace. Without the government monopoly on legal services granting immunity to private soldiers as it does to government soldiers, the private soldiers would be subject to the criminal punishments made prevalent by the private defense forces in the area in question in addition to vigilantism by individuals. The agencies that decide to fight also must take care not to damage or travel on ground held by customers of other agencies, as this would be considered trespassing, and a trespasser with an intent to murder others in a war is a trespasser who may be killed in self-defense. Thus one could expect to see every private property owner not involved with the warring agencies taking actions to destroy both sides of the conflict whenever they occupy land that is not owned by their customers. With no state to forbid ownership of certain types of weapons, the private property owners would be much more capable of stopping military hardware than they are now. There is no guarantee against such a fight, but there are enough incentives working against it to consider it a remote possibility.

Given the superiority of private defense markets compared to government militaries, the state is not the best option. Thus, we may put aside feelings of reverence for it and its military personnel.

Sacrifice and Honor

It is true that one’s life is the highest cost that one can pay, and that laying it down in defense of family and friends is the greatest sacrificial love that one can display. It does not follow that those who die while serving in a government military have done this. Many people volunteer for military service because they believe that this is what they are volunteering to do. Unfortunately, despite their best intentions, this is not the true nature of their actions. Contrary to statist propaganda, the state does not work for the people, for if this were the case, then the people would be free to fire the state, cease paying for it, and either hire someone else, go into business for themselves, or try to do without. Because the state does not work for the people or, as shown previously, provide defense for the people, those who die in its service are not due the honor of those who lay down their lives to defend others.

It must be said here that just because fallen members of a government military are not due honor, it does not mean that they are due dishonor. Like most other people, they are propagandized to the point of saturation by government schools, churches, establishment media programming, and recruitment advertising. Recruitment personnel then do their best to sell them the military life while making light of the arguments discussed here, if they even acknowledge them at all. The majority of people in a government military are not intentionally evil, but are victims of fraud and lies. The proper response, then, is to attempt to educate living military personnel and those who would follow in their footsteps rather than to engage in displays of disrespect toward the dead (or, for that matter, toward the living).

Conclusion

The desire to protect and serve others is commendable, but a government military offers only a perversion of service. Authentic service of others must be accomplished not through a top-down, coercive, centralized, territorial monopolist like the state, but through the bottom-up, voluntary, decentralized, competition of the market economy. While the state makes defense impossible for its subjects in an absolute sense, there is every reason to believe that private service providers can accomplish this critical task.

Self-defense is one of the most fundamental rights, and the most important personal responsibility, as the abdication of this responsibility endangers all other rights and responsibilities. Of course, there is nothing immoral about hiring help for such a basic need, but the decay of the role of the militia in society has created a vacuum that has been filled by government militaries. The troops are ultimately in the position they are in because too few of us do what is necessary to provide for our own defense and counter statist propaganda. It is therefore because of the selfishness (in the form of risk aversion with respect to confronting aggressors) and irresponsibility of most of the people in the modern West that soldiers are joining government militaries and sacrificing their lives at the behest of politicians in the first place. Until the people right themselves, true defense and service will remain unknown to us.

Authority, Anarchy, and Libertarian Social Order

On May 8, Fritz Pendleton published an article at Social Matter in which he argues that liberty is best preserved by authority rather than anarchy. He then proceeds to launch a misguided attack against libertarianism, all while misunderstanding authority, anarchy, liberty, and the nature of a libertarian social order. Let us examine what is wrong with Pendleton’s case on a point-by-point basis.

Stateless In Somalia

Pendleton begins with the old canard of Somalia-as-libertarian-utopia, though to his credit, he does not invite all libertarians to emigrate there. His description of the situation is essentially correct:

“It is a patchwork of warlords who have each parceled out a slice of mud to call his own, to rule according to his whims and fetishes. There are the Islamic warlords of al-Shabaab in the south, the government strongmen who collaborate with al-Shabaab when it suits them, the Somaliland separatists who want a separate nation in the north, and a thousand other men of questionable loyalties.”

Pendleton claims that “it takes a certain type of idiot to look at Somalia and see something promising,” then that “it requires an idiot of some erudition to see promise in a failed state like Somalia.” These are not equivalent. To look at Somalia and see something promising is to examine the entirety of their culture and find that there is at least one idea which could be adopted elsewhere to improve another society. To see promise in a failed state like Somalia is to believe that the situation in that particular place can be greatly improved in the foreseeable future. The former endeavor makes far more sense than the latter.

Though he is correct to say that “libertarians are interested in Somalia primarily because its central government is weak and has no effective presence throughout most of the nation,” his assertion that anarchy is not an effective solution to much of anything is confused. An absence of rulers is not meant to be a solution to anything in and of itself; its role in libertarian theory is to remove the statist intervention in the market economy that inhibits and/or prevents individuals from working together to find effective solutions to problems. Pendleton’s passing mention of human biodiversity is also misplaced, as the best means of analyzing anarchy in Somalia is to compare it to statism in Somalia, not to anarchy elsewhere or statism elsewhere. We are thus considering the same thede under different conditions rather than different thedes under the same conditions. His claim that “whatever the merits of decentralization in theory, in practice it mostly involves being subject to the whims of the local warlord and his cadre” is particular to the current cases of failed states. There is good reason to believe that a controlled demolition of a state apparatus by people who wish to impose a libertarian social order would not be like this because the people would have the will and means to disallow it. Even so, a nation-state government is essentially a warlord writ large. Localizing this evil and reducing its strength makes it easier to bribe, escape, or overthrow, which is a definite improvement.

Pendleton claims that a libertarian must search hard to find supporting evidence in Somalia, but the evidence is clear. Before Mohamed Siad Barre’s regime fell in 1991, the annual birth rate was 0.46 percent, the infant mortality rate was 11.6 percent, the life expectancy was 46 years, the annual death rate was 0.19 percent, the GDP per capita was $210, the adult literacy rate was 24 percent, and 35 percent of the people had access to safe water. The most recent measurements are that the annual birth rate is 0.40 percent (2016), the infant mortality rate is 9.66 percent (2016), the life expectancy is 52.4 years (2016), the annual death rate is 0.133 percent (2016), the GDP per capita is $400 (2014), the adult literacy rate is 38 percent (2011), and 45 percent of the people have access to safe water (2016). The telecommunications and money transfer industries have also improved to offer some of the best service in Africa.

It is easy to argue, as Pendleton does, that these improvements are negligible from his relatively cushy first-world environs, where such improvements on either a real or a percentage basis are barely noticeable. But in the third-world hellhole that is Somalia, such improvements can be the difference between life and death, not to mention the difference between having some basic quality of life or not having it. His claim that anarchy is not much different than communism is asserted without evidence and may therefore be dismissed without evidence.

The Case of Tudor England

Pendleton seeks to contrast the anarchy of Somalia with the historical Tudor monarchy of England. His contention that giving people more freedoms is not a prerequisite for a well-run society is technically correct but beside the point. The fact is that a society need not be ‘run’ at all in the sense of top-down management by a ruling class. People can (and in the absence of interference, do) form voluntary associations to solve problems without being ordered around at gunpoint by government minions. That people have flourished in times of gentle oppression, a strange phrase indeed, says more about human resilience than it says about the merits of oppression.

He continues,

“Henry VII and VIII set in motion a series of clever reforms that reached a climax during the rule of Elizabeth I. England had finally found its stride. It must be noted that Elizabethan England, despite its relative freedom, was not keen on handing out legal recognition of liberties to its people. The era was one of unapologetic centralization. The crown’s subjects were given no guarantees of free speech at all; in fact, the censors worked hard and fast to clamp down on anything they perceived as dissent. Freedom of speech was still very far over the political horizon. And yet, despite the book burnings, despite the cages, despite the severed heads around London Tower, the Elizabethan era gave us Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spencer, Jonson, and Bacon. Imagine an era that gave the English language so much genius and not one assurance of free speech to go with it!”

One must ask whether this occurred because of oppression or in spite of it. It is possible, of course, that the great writers of the day produced such memorable works because the adversity of censorship forced them to innovate novel speech patterns in order to evade the censors. In an earlier age, Chaucer gained a lasting place in the canon of English literature for doing just that. But one must wonder, what potential was wasted? What great works were never penned because their would-be-authors feared for their lives? Perhaps the literary marvels of Elizabethan England were due to its relative freedom rather than its censorship, and more liberty would have been better.

Pendleton asks us to consider that the Elizabethan era was when the British Empire began in earnest, but does not explain how this happened. Spain, Portugal, and even France were ahead of England in colonizing the New World and expanding trade routes in the latter half of the 16th century. It was not until Elizabeth died and James VI and I became King of Scotland and England that the English shifted their attention from attacking the colonies of other nations to the business of establishing their own overseas colonies. The burdensome regulations of the day may disappoint a contemporary libertarian, but the English trade policies were about as good as there were at the time.

Chile and Singapore

Next, Pendleton presents Augusto Pinochet’s Chile and Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore as examples of anti-libertarian success stories. Both pursued economic liberty while restricting social and political liberty; as Pendleton says of the left-libertarians, “a libertarian would rather choke on his bow-tie than defend [their political policies].” Though left-libertarians tend to recoil at such measures, a reactionary understanding of libertarianism provides quite a different view. The libertarian reactionary understands that the desired goal of a libertarian social order can only be achieved by physically removing the state from power. Doing this, however, requires a critical mass of the population to use self-defense against the current system. If such a critical mass is absent, then those who seek liberty must turn to other methods. Those libertarians who are capable of checking their autism and doing what is necessary within context may come to support a Pinochet- or Yew-type for the purpose of restoring a balance of political terror. The idea is for libertarians to use a reactionary authoritarian approach in order to suppress leftists and reverse the damage they have done, overthrow the regime once the left is defeated, then maintain the power vacuum by continuous application of defensive force. Furthermore, a libertarian social order will not necessarily offer a great deal of social and political liberty, especially to those who do not hold allodial title over private property and/or disagree with anarcho-capitalism. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains,

“As soon as mature members of society habitually express acceptance or even advocate egalitarian sentiments, whether in the form of democracy (majority rule) or of communism, it becomes essential that other members, and in particular the natural social elites, be prepared to act decisively and, in the case of continued nonconformity, exclude and ultimately expel these members from society. In a covenant concluded among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protecting their private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to unlimited speech on one’s own tenant-property. One may say innumerable things and promote almost any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant of preserving and protecting private property, such as democracy and communism. There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society.”[1]

This is quite similar to the standard of no voice and free exit advocated by Nick Land and some other prominent neoreactionaries. The only real difference is that the libertarian reactionary is especially concerned with making the sovereign units as small as possible. It is worth noting that both proposals blend anarchy with authority, in that there is an irreducible anarchy between sovereigns who have authority within their private properties.

Pendleton wonders how Singapore would have preserved liberty in the midst of conflicts between the various ethnic groups present there without Yew’s rule, and how the various religious groups could have been kept from fighting in England without Elizabeth I’s despotism. The possible answers to such questions are the same in each case. First, groups may hire neutral third parties to resolve disputes. Second, the groups may voluntarily segregate themselves so as to avoid contact with each other. Third, some groups that cannot get along with others may have a mass exodus. Fourth, a troublemaking group may be forcibly exiled by all of the other groups. Fifth, each side may be armed to such an extent as to create peace through mutually assured destruction. Sixth, the groups may simply choose to fight it out, as some hostilities reach a point of no return. In the first five cases, the preservation of liberty is maximized. The sixth case is far more troublesome, but such quarrels can be formalized and separated so as not to catch innocent bystanders in the crossfire. A system of dueling has filled this role in many historical societies. There are thus many options other than authoritarianism for preserving liberty; the only question is whether people care to utilize them.

Libertarianism and Reaction

Pendleton writes,

“The reactionary and libertarian both agree that small governments are good. But the reactionary feels that small governments are made not by relinquishing authority, as the libertarian would do, but by strengthening it. Liberty is too precious to be entrusted to anarchy in the same way that diamonds are too precious to be entrusted to one’s doorstep.”

Here, he misunderstands what a libertarian would do, at least those who are not leftists. A libertarian reactionary seeks not to relinquish authority, but to make it as absolute as possible in the hands of the private property owner within that person’s private property. And contrary to Pendleton, liberty requires anarchy because the freedom to do as one wishes as long as one respects the right of other people to do likewise and commits no aggression against them is violated by a state apparatus by definition. If a state is present, it will fund its activities through taxation and civil asset forfeiture, take private property through eminent domain, and restrict the use of property through intellectual monopoly, zoning, and environmental regulations. Its officials and agents will choose the nature of the law and the enforcement thereof, meaning that they rule the law and not vice versa. Its enforcers will initiate the use of violence against people who are known to disagree with government statutes and acts upon their disagreements, thus presenting a constant threat to peace. Its agents are allowed to do that which is considered criminal for anyone else to do, and the system is set up to keep them from being held to account. It will force people to associate with it regardless of whether they want to use or pay for its services. Therefore, it is clear that liberty cannot be protected by state authority; such a threatening protector is a contradiction of terms.

Final Arbitration

Next, Pendleton presents a case to make the ‘final arbiter of disputes’ criticism of libertarianism:

“Suppose we have one of those highly attenuated legal battles where the details of the case are complicated and emotionally charged. Let us suppose that a drunk driver crashed into a tree and his passenger was killed when she flew through the windshield; she had not worn her seat belt. The grieving husband of the passenger demanded compensation from the driver to help take care of his kids in place of his now deceased wife. Daycare is expensive these days, after all. The driver apologized profusely but pointed out that the passenger was just as responsible for her death because she was not buckled into her seat. The husband countered by saying that the belt would not have been an issue if the driver had not been drunk and crashed into a tree.

Since these men live in a libertarian utopia, there is no superseding legal authority to arbitrate: a third-party arbitration company will have to be hired. Now let’s suppose that one of these arbitration companies is owned by a brother-in-law of the driver, and not surprisingly, the driver only agrees to hire that company. The husband refuses. The driver in turn refuses to pay any compensation whatsoever. The furious husband now threatens to kill the wife of the driver to make him understand what it feels like to lose a loved one.

How can any libertarian who sings the praises of anarchy not see how this situation will only continue to escalate? How can there be any justice for the woman who lost her life in the original crash and what about the violations of liberty that will ensue when this conflict devolves into a family feud? If there had been one authority to take control of this dispute the liberties of everyone involved would have been much more safely guarded. In a world where emotion forms the greater part of human action, liberty requires authority.”

This situation may be resolved in advance through contracts. The owners of the road set the conditions for operating vehicles on their private property, with violators subject to physical removal not unlike the traffic stops, arrests, and impounding of vehicles today. They may demand that everyone using their roads have arbitration services which do not involve such conflicts of interest, and contrary to some myopic analysis to the contrary, are almost certain to frown upon drunk drivers. They might even have all cars on their roads driven by robots, which nips this scenario in the bud. Failing this, a person who has committed an offense and refuses to make restitution can be ostracized from society until compliance is gained. Furthermore, such a person may rightly be forced to make restitution because an unrepentant aggressor is not subject to the non-aggression principle through his continuing violation of it. The driver’s wife, however, is an innocent bystander unless she was responsible for getting him drunk and/or making him drive while intoxicated. Threatening her absent these conditions makes the widower an aggressor to be subdued. As a libertarian society would have several private defense agencies available to handle such applications of defensive force and almost everyone would have a protection policy with one of these companies, an escalation is quite unlikely. Even if this kind of situation does escalate, it pales in comparison to the carnage wrought by the one authority that Pendleton defends. States were responsible for 203 million democides and war deaths in the 20th century alone. This is hardly a price worth paying to stifle a few family feuds.

More generally, a final arbiter of disputes cannot exist because no person or institution can absolutely guarantee that any issue will be resolved forever with no possibility of review. The way that disputes ultimately end in any social order is that some party finds the dispute to no longer be worth continuing. Everything else, whether statist courts and legislatures or anarchic arbitration services and private defense agencies, is simply window dressing on this immutable truth.

Of Rules and Rulers

Pendleton writes,

“A libertarian who is honest with himself has to ask why even jungle tribes have a chief and why high schools have hall-monitors. Human beings require authority, and if authority is to mean anything at all, it requires the power of compulsion; liberty cannot last long in a nation that thinks of its authority as a polite suggestion.”

It is important to understand the true meaning of anarchy. Anarchy comes from Greek ἀναρχία, which is typically translated as ‘without rulers.’ More precisely, it means ‘without beginning to take the lead.’ This is not the same as ‘without rules’ or ‘without leaders.’ Having a ruler means that there are no rules because the ruler has authority over the rules and not vice versa. That the lead is not taken does not mean that no one can lead because leadership can be freely given. This is well-understood in every aspect of life other than politics. In the words of Mikhail Bakunin,

“Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. …But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognize no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such an individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.”[2]

Additionally, compulsion and initiatory force are not equivalent. This is because compulsion may take the form of defensive force or of less violent means such as shaming and ostracism. Thus, if human beings require authority (and Pendleton does not prove that they do), a libertarian social order is quite capable of compelling people through contract law, ostracism, and private military forces.

Mischaracterization

Pendleton laments that not many libertarians will be swayed by his arguments, but does not understand why. It is not the case that libertarians are “far too busy sketching intricate political systems on paper to be bothered with considerations of human psychology.” Libertarianism, properly understood, is anti-political; its primary interest in political systems is in finding ways to destroy them without causing unnecessary damage to the social fabric. As for considerations of human psychology, they should lead one to reject the state as an enabler and multiplier of evil in the world. Ultimately, libertarians are not swayed by his arguments because they are easily refuted, as shown both above and below.

The Definition of Liberty

Pendleton writes,

“Liberty, as we now know it, is a set of unquestionable boundaries that are owed to all citizens: the right to peaceable assembly, the right to free speech, the right to a free press, and so on. The problem with these ‘rights’ is that they are very enticing ideas that are very murky in their specifics. They exist in the minds of Americans as a hazy bundle of entitlements, as things that they are owed, rather than things that they must earn.

The greatest problem with this notion of liberty as an entitlement is that once citizens start declaring rights as ‘universal’ and ‘God-given’ there is no mechanism to stop them from continually inventing new ones. The ‘right to privacy’ or the ‘right to universal healthcare’ are muddled ideas that our founding fathers never anticipated. Jefferson and Madison almost certainly would not have approved of them, but they are ideas that have as much legitimacy as America’s own Bill of Rights: if Madison can conjure up new rights with a few quill strokes there is likewise nothing to stop Supreme Court justices from doing the same thing. And so the list of entitlements owed to Americans steadily grows longer as its list of responsibilities dwindles.”

He correctly criticizes the contemporary understanding of liberty in liberal democracies. As I have explained elsewhere, these rights belong to private property owners within the spaces that they own. No one has a right to assemble, speak, print, and so on within private property if the owner disagrees with such activities. Those who would do so are trespassing and thus subject to physical removal. The current problem is that the state has greatly interfered with private property. This is a problem of the commons, and the only solution is to eliminate the commons and return it to private ownership.

From here, as Pendleton realizes, it only gets worse. When people fail to connect rights to logic and ownership of property, or more simply, to thought and action, they confuse negative rights with so-called “positive rights.” These positive rights cannot be valid because their provision violates the negative rights of other people. For instance, a right to healthcare implies that someone must be forced to provide healthcare, even if it against the provider’s wishes to serve that person.

But though he correctly identifies the problem, Pendleton proposes an incorrect solution. He seeks to restore the ancient Roman ideal of liberty rather than to correct the errors in the practice of modern liberty. The Romans viewed liberty in a collective sense, as imposing responsibilities to the state in eschange for individual rights. In truth, liberty is neither a list of entitlements nor a reward for serving society or the state; it is the result of gaining and defending private property. With this understanding, it is not ironic at all that libertarians would condemn a system which subordinates the individual to a collective as fascism (or more appropriately, as communism).

Rationalism and Empiricism

Pendleton claims that the Roman notion of liberty has the example of Singapore while the libertarian has no compelling models; only fantasies and Somalia. Implicit in this claim is a sort of historical determinism that demonstrates a lack of courage and imagination to look beyond what has been and see what is possible but as yet unrealized. As explained above, Somalia has shown improvement without a state. And fortunately, libertarians have more than fantasies; we have a priori theory. In the words of Hoppe, “A priori theory trumps and corrects experience (and logic overrules observation), and not vice-versa.”[3] This is because one may use rationalism without using empiricism, but one cannot use empiricism without using rationalism. That rationalism is independent and empiricism is dependent establishes a clear hierarchy between the two ways of knowing. Of course, this will not convince a strong empiricist of the historical determinist variety, but this has no bearing upon the truth value of the argument.

That being said, it is worth considering why there are no empirical examples of a stateless propertarian society in recent times. The obvious answer is that states initiate violence to sustain their operations, and libertarians have yet to suppress this aggression with enough defensive force to stop it. The other, less obvious explanation is that those who govern in statist systems know at one level or another that their institutions are unnecessary for the functioning of society, but that most people are more empirical than rational in their thinking. It is for this reason that they cannot allow a working example of a stateless society to be created, as this would permanently turn the masses against the state. They thus use force not only to maintain their power, but to ensure that most people never consider alternatives which do not include them.

Conclusion

Pendleton closes by contemplating the issues on the horizon for America, from racial tensions to Islamic terrorists, though he says nothing of the various economic issues. However, the “furious, explosive derailment” he fears is not only unavoidable, but necessary. The current system cannot be fixed; it must end in either a controlled demolition or a chaotic collapse. In any event, the answers are to be found in the restoration and enforcement of private property rights and freedom of association, with physical removal for those who challenge these norms. It is best to work toward emerging from this chaos looking neither like Singapore nor like Somalia, but as something completely novel in time memorial: a functional stateless society of covenant communities.

References:

  1. Hans-Hermann Hoppe (2001). Democracy: The God That Failed. Transaction Publishers. p. 218
  2. Bakunin, Mikhail (1871, 1882). God and the State. Mother Earth Publishing Association. Ch. 2
  3. Hoppe, p. xvi.

Book Review: Islamic Exceptionalism

Islamic Exceptionalism is a book about the relationship between Islam and the modern nation-state by American author Shadi Hamid. The book explores the role that Islam has played in the development of the Middle East, as well as the currently ongoing conflicts there. The book is divided into eight chapters, each focusing on a different Muslim country or other aspect of the situation.

The first chapter begins with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the 2013 coup against Mohamed Morsi two years later, and the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood members by the Egyptian military. These are contrasted with the activities of the Islamic State. Hamid spends much of the chapter laying out the subject matter and structure of the rest of the book, which include the role of Islam in political affairs, the unique history and teachings of Islam, and the effects that this history and these teachings are likely to have. Hamid’s explorations of these questions leads him to question the mainstream liberal narrative of Whig historiography, democratic supremacy, and progressive determinism, though he never quite manages to reject this narrative. He contrasts Muslim countries which have experienced great political unrest, such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria, with those that have not, such as Iran, Indonesia, and Malaysia. He then explains the differences between contemporary Muslim countries and European countries in the 1950s, suggesting that what worked in Europe will not work in the Middle East. Hamid ends the chapter by contemplating the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

Hamid goes into a history lesson of Islam in the second chapter, as the present cannot be understood without knowledge of the past. The idea of glorious achievements threatened by internecine killings permeates Islamic history from the beginning, and this coupling continues to shape the Middle East today. The decline and fall of the Ottoman caliphate has left a longing for the return of a caliphate, and ISIS has been more than happy to try to meet this demand. He compares the founding of Islam to the founding of Christianity, as well as sharia law to halakhic law. The relative flexibility and adaptability of Islam compared to other religions is explored in order to explain the simultaneous perceptions of Islam as both modern and medieval. The chapter ends with a discussion of the Christian Reformation, which segues into the next chapter.

The Islamic Reformation is the subject of the third chapter. Contrary to popular belief, Hamid shows that such a reformation has already occurred, as Islam adapted to modernity in a way that Christianity failed to do. The line of thinkers that led to Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, is discussed alongside the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Salafism. That Islamism only makes sense in a modern context is an important point that Hamid makes here, which is an example of the larger truth that a term which describes everything really describes nothing. The founding and principles of the Muslim Brotherhood are addressed next, with emphasis on the differences between Banna’s view of Islam and the less observant practices of Muslims in prior centuries. The second half of the chapter returns to the 2013 massacre in Egypt, then goes back to Banna’s time and moves forward through the Brotherhood’s history of being suppressed under Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat.

The fourth and longest chapter continues the story of the Muslim Brotherhood, detailing how its members have responded to the 2013 massacre. Here, Hamid turns to interviews with Brotherhood members, many of whom are now in exile to escape imprisonment by the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The massacre changed the minds of many in the Brotherhood, whose stance on political change had always been to play the long game and make gradual gains over decades. While the leadership was largely unmoved by this, the younger rank-and-file became radicalized. The Brotherhood’s shift to nonviolence in the 1970s has always been doubted by some as merely a tactical move, and this shift may well be undone. Hamid presents the differing views on the nature of the state and political change of the Muslim Brotherhood versus the Islamic State, and most of those interviewed were not willing to support ISIS. The youths Hamid interviews have come to understand the need to break the Westphalian order, but Hamid cannot seem to grasp this idea.

The fifth chapter considers the case of Turkey, in which Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to take and solidify power after several cases of Islamist parties being banned. Here, the modern history of Turkey is covered, including the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate, the role of Ataturk in transforming Turkey into a modern nation-state, and the enforced secularism of that project which alienated Islamists. Once more, the localist nature of Islamic law came into conflict with the nationalism and globalism of the state. The role and path of Erdogan in changing the secular nature of the Turkish state is discussed. No mention of the failed coup attempt against Erdogan is made because it occurred after the time of publishing, and the significant changes since then somewhat date this chapter.

The example of Ennahda in Tunisia is the focus of the sixth chapter, and it presents a much different outcome for Islamists there. Seeing the bloodshed in Egypt, Islamists in Tunisia conceded their Islamism and allowed more secular interests to govern in their stead in order to keep peace and order. Hamid portrays Ennahda as being in an impossible predicament; if they moderate, they will lose their base to a more radical party, but they can never moderate enough to convince secularists to accept them.

The stark alternative presented by ISIS to the whole debate over Islam, democracy, and the modern nation-state is the subject of chapter seven. Hamid shares an interview with a man whose son left Tunisia to join Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and then ISIS, eventually dying in battle there. The discussion of Tunisia continues in this context because a disproportionate number of ISIS militants come from Tunisia. Hamid correctly recognizes ISIS as a state because it has a monopoly on initiatory force within a geographical area and provides the common functions of a state, even if the rest of the world refuses to accept this reality. He shares another important truth here: moderates tend to lose in civil wars and revolutions because they lack both the fervor and resolve to do what the extremists on all sides will do. Though Hamid predicts the eventual downfall of ISIS, it may take some time and the motivations that led to its formation can lead to other such efforts in the future.

The book concludes by summarizing the previous chapters. The last chapter begins with the attack on Charlie Hebdo‘s offices and the reaction to them, which was somewhat muted among hardline Muslims. Hamid discusses the rise of nativist sentiment around the world and the role that it plays for those who would restore older forms of governance in the Middle East. He presents another important insight: that there are no such things as universal values, at least in practice. The contradictions of imposing a democratic process by non-democratic means are explored, but in some cases Hamid finds restrictions on pure democracy to be a necessity to prevent collapse.

Hamid’s insights into the inner workings of the region are not to be missed. But the Western liberal democratic biases of the author are inescapable. Hamid is unable to process the possibility that democracy is inferior to the older pre-Westphalian order, especially for the Muslim world. This is especially irksome, given the amount of evidence that he himself finds for this possibility. That being said, Islamic Exceptionalism is a highly informative book, especially for those with only a passing knowledge of Islamic history or current events in the Middle East.

Rating: 4/5

Ethical Theories at the Murrah Building

On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and wounding 680. One third of the building was destroyed, along with damage to 324 other buildings and 86 cars, causing $652 million in damage. McVeigh was motivated by his opposition to the United States federal government and his anger over its actions in the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident and the 1993 Waco Siege. He timed the attack to occur on the second anniversary of the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

To most people, McVeigh is obviously a reprehensible criminal whose actions cannot possibly be justified. Some theories of ethics would agree with that assessment, while others would recommend a different outlook. Let us examine the Oklahoma City bombing through the lenses of deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics to see how each provides a different perspective on McVeigh.

Deontology

Deontology argues that decisions should be made by consulting moral principles. The rightness or wrongness of an act is thus determined by whether it is in keeping with such principles. Deontological theories include the Kantian categorical imperative, which says that one should act only according to the maxim that one can will that it should become a universal law; moral absolutism, which argues that certain actions are intrinsically good or evil; divine command theory, which appeals to God as the judge of right and wrong; and Hoppean argumentation ethics, which derives moral rules from the act of argumentation.

In all such theories, murder is forbidden because initiating violence to kill someone cannot be in accordance with universal law. By definition, murder is not universal but unilateral; if it would occur in reciprocity, then it is a mutual assisted suicide rather than a case of murder. The people killed by McVeigh in Oklahoma City were not the individuals responsible for the state-sanctioned crimes committed at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and were only tangentially connected to the people who were responsible. Though 99 of the 168 victims were part of the state apparatus, the vast majority were unarmed civil ‘servants’. Only eight of the victims were federal law enforcement agents and six were military personnel. The rest of the victims were civilians, and they were not being used as innocent shields by legitimate targets for defensive force. Thus, a deontological approach finds McVeigh’s actions to be completely unjust and criminal in nature.

Consequentialism

Consequentialism, or teleology, argues that the morality of an action depends upon the result of the action. Consequentialist theories differ on what results they deem important. Utilitarianism seeks the most happiness for the greatest number of people; state consequentialism values order, material wealth, and population growth; egoism prioritizes good for the self; altruism seeks good for others; and rule consequentialism functions much like deontology but uses the consequences of moral rules to select them.

The initial answer that may come to mind is that the consequences of McVeigh’s actions were 168 murders, 680 injuries, and $652 million in property damage, thus his actions were immoral. But as with many complex situations, there is an answer—namely this one—which is clear, simple, and wrong. The straightforward answer is wrong because it ignores the counterfactual of what would have happened between that day and this if the Oklahoma City bombing had not occurred. Of course, it is impossible to know precisely what the counterfactual would be, and this uncertainty is an intractable problem with consequentialism. But this should not stop us from making an educated guess.

If McVeigh had not acted, then the mentality of those wielding state power would likely have been that they could perpetrate such atrocities as the Waco Siege without penalty. After all, they hold a monopoly on criminal justice that allows them to immunize themselves from prosecution. Absent vigilantism, they are thus able to escape punishment for their misdeeds. With this in mind, in the absence of the Oklahoma City bombing, federal agents probably would have been more willing to resort to force in such cases as the Montana Freemen standoff in 1996, the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014, and the Malheur standoff in 2016. The former and latter cases did not have the personnel involved to be more deadly than Oklahoma City, but the Bundy Ranch standoff could have resulted in hundreds of deaths on both sides if it had turned into a battle. It is impossible to be certain, but McVeigh’s actions may have altered the mentality of government agents to seek peaceful resolutions to such standoffs, which may have prevented many more deaths than the 168 that McVeigh caused.

Ultimately, any consequentialist analysis requires information that cannot be acquired, so we must treat both the possibility that McVeigh altered government responses to resistance groups and the possibility that he did not. If the state would have acted the same regardless of McVeigh’s actions, then McVeigh was an evildoer. But if the Oklahoma City bombing ultimately prevented greater atrocities in the future, such as a shootout at Bundy Ranch, then McVeigh’s actions produced a greater good for a greater number, more order, and more good for others. Among consequentialist theories, only ethical egoism would certainly condemn McVeigh because he brought capital punishment upon himself, which is not a prioritization of good for the self.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics focuses on the character of the moral actor rather than on specific actions. The purpose of examining an action in virtue ethics is to find out what the action says about the character of the moral actor. The means of doing this frequently falls back on deontology or consequentialism. What is considered to be a virtue differs among formulations, and this is subject to the cultural mores of a particular place and time.

The general finding of virtue ethics in this case would be that McVeigh’s character was similar to that of many tragic heroes in ancient Greek dramas. He was motivated by a sense of justice, seeing the United States government murder its own citizens with impunity. But like the tragic heroes of old, he had a tragic flaw that brought about his downfall as well as the destruction of those around him. A tragic flaw in a well-written story could not be an obviously negative character trait, but rather a trait which is positive in moderation but becomes negative when taken too far. McVeigh’s sense of justice went to extremes and blinded him to the fact that his bomb would commit its own injustice against the innocent people caught in the blast.

Conclusion

This exercise shows the stark contrast in results that can come from applying the various normative ethical theories to an extreme act. Deontology absolutely condemns such an act as mass murder. Most forms of consequentialism cannot definitively say much of anything, but they can offer educated guesses and help us see what might make such an act a more tolerable evil than inaction. Virtue ethics offers insight into the character of a terrorist, which helps explain what could motivate someone to such an act of mass destruction. Taken together, these theories give us a comprehensive understanding of the ethics concerning terrorist activity.

Fourteen Observations on Events in Syria

On April 4, a chemical weapon attack occurred in Khan Shiekhoun, Idlib, Syria, killing at least 69 people. Western governments and media outlets have almost universally blamed the Bashar al-Assad regime for the attacks, while Russia and the Syrian government have blamed Syrian rebel forces. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley indicated on April 5 that the US may take action against Assad in response. On April 6, President Donald Trump ordered a strike of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Shayrat Military Airport in Homs province, the place that US intelligence alleges as the point of origin for the chemical weapon attack. Fourteen observations on these events follow.

1. How people die is apparently more important than how many die. A person who dies convulsing and gasping for air following a sarin gas attack is just as dead as a person who is killed with bullets, conventional bombs, fire, or any other weapon of war. But the former looks more horrifying and thus causes more of an emotional response in empathic people than videos of bombed-out buildings or machine-gunned corpses.

2. The lügenpresse is fully aware of this tendency. This is why both sensationalist journalists and propagandists for Western military intervention would rather show videos of this sort than videos of more conventional warfare and its results. This allows them to short-circuit the reason centers of the American people and appeal to their moral outrage in a selective fashion, as Western countries tend to restrict their chemical weapons usage to less lethal levels, such as using tear gas against protesters.

3. It makes no sense for Assad to have used chemical weapons and every bit of sense for the rebels. In a speech on the night of April 6, Trump claimed that “[t]here can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.” Military intelligence reports seem to confirm this. But this may be disputed on the grounds that both the United States government and the intelligence community have a long history of both incompetence and of lying to the American people. Furthermore, Assad was already holding his ground and gaining territory from the rebels, including the capture of the long-besieged city of Aleppo in December 2016. The use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces could only invite intervention against their cause, and the rebels must know this, giving them the incentive to perpetrate a false flag operation.

Of course, this does not mean that Assad or one of his generals is not ultimately responsible, as assuming rational actors would be a fatal flaw in any analysis of events in the Middle East. But the incentives run counter to that scenario and favor a rebel use of chemical weapons.

4. There is a stronger national security interest in not intervening. In his speech, Trump said, “It is in this vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” This is debatable, but even if true, larger concerns loom. On April 7, Vladimir Safronkov, Russia’s deputy UN envoy, said to the UN Security Council, “We strongly condemn the illegitimate actions by the US. The consequences of this for regional and international stability could be extremely serious.” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev charged that the US strikes were one step away from clashing with Russia’s military. Russia’s Defense Ministry responded to the attack by closing a communications line used to avoid accidental hostilities between American and Russian forces when US warplanes attack ISIS forces that are in close proximity to Russian forces. A Russian missile frigate was deployed to the area from which the two US destroyers fired missiles into Syria. None of this is beneficial for the fight against Islamic terrorism, and it makes a shooting war between nuclear-armed states far more likely.

5. Attacking Assad helps the Islamic State. Following the cruise missile strike against Shayrat, ISIS forces in Homs launched an offensive, storming the Syrian Arab Army checkpoints near Al-Furqalas. The destruction of Shayrat will temporarily prevent Assad’s forces from providing air support in the area, which could lead to ISIS gains there as well as on the Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor fronts. This is to be expected; a black swan event that negatively affects one side in a war necessarily has a positive effect on that side’s enemies, and ISIS has enough sense to seize upon this opportunity.

6. Actions like this make it difficult to take the War on Terrorism seriously. Attacking people who are at war with a terrorist state is counterproductive to winning the War on Terrorism. In fact, it raises concerns that defeating terrorism is not the true purpose of the War on Terrorism. Note that if the War on Terrorism were won, then the rationale for police statism and massive military spending would vanish. If the War on Terrorism were lost, then the state would fail at the one job that it is supposedly solely capable of performing, namely keeping its people safe. The ideology of Islamic terrorists disallows a draw, so the only other option is an endless war. An endless war allows politicians to continually expand state power and siphon money into the hands of the defense contractors who fund their campaigns. The idea that politicians care more about this than about the human lives lost on both sides of the conflict is the most cynical explanation, so it is the most likely to be correct.

7. The damage from the cruise missile strike can be easily repaired. Repairing a runway is a simple matter of bulldozing the affected areas and repaving it, which can be done in a few days. The buildings must be demolished and rebuilt, which could be done in a matter of weeks. Replacing the 20+ aircraft that were destroyed is the hard part, but Russia can solve that problem for Assad. In short, this one strike will be quite ineffective in the long term.

8. Trump’s moral outrage is inconsistent at best. The very strike that was supposed to stop civilian deaths actually contributed to them. Errant missiles missed the air base, hitting nearby villages. Five adults and four children were killed in Al-Hamrat, and another seven people were wounded in Al-Manzul. A few weeks earlier, an air strike aimed at ISIS in Mosul, Iraq killed 200 civilians. It makes no sense for Trump to be outraged about chemical weapons use in Syria but not about these atrocities carried out by the US military under his own orders.

9. Given the previous six observations, the strike makes more sense as a cynical political move than as an effort to help the Syrian people or punish Assad. As tensions escalate with North Korea, a targeted strike against Syria makes the threat of a targeted strike against North Korea more credible. This may alter the calculus of Kim Jong-un as well as the Chinese government, leading North Korea to be less aggressive and China to be more cooperative. At home, Trump faces continued allegations of links between his campaign and Russian government officials in addition to difficulties in accomplishing his legislative agenda. Acting against Syria while Russia is assisting them helps to rebut such allegations and give the appearance that he is not completely hamstrung by Congress. Trump may calculate that the number of isolationist supporters he would lose through such an act would be outweighed by the number of neoconservative and neoliberal war hawks he would win over. This combination of effects makes more sense as a motive than any humanitarian concerns.

As for future action against Syria, removing Assad would further destabilize the region and create a power vacuum which would be filled by jihadists. This would distract Trump from the aspects of his agenda that run counter to the globalist deep state. Backing down and patching over relations with Russia in a timely manner would bolster the leftist narrative of Trump as a Russian puppet. We may therefore expect more targeted strikes which leave Assad in power and do not really accomplish much.

10. Statecraft requires rational psychopathy. The unpleasant truth that no one wishes to acknowledge is that allowing third-world dictators to massacre their own citizens is the best thing we can do. As shocking as that may sound, there are only two alternatives, both of which have been tried and shown to be even worse. One alternative is to intervene decisively to help an oppressed people overthrow their ruler. This was tried in Iraq in 2003 and in Libya in 2011. The end result in both cases was sectarian violence that killed people at a faster rate than did the deposed dictators, and the same sorts of human rights abuses continued under new leadership. The other alternative is to intervene indecisively to keep a civil war raging. This was tried in Iraq and Syria in and after 2011. The end result has been the weakening of social order, the marginalization of moderate rebel groups, the growth of jihadist terror groups, and the ultimate transfer of arms to al-Qa’ida, Islamic State, and their affiliates.

The President of the United States, so long as there is going to be one, should be a person completely lacking in empathy. One should instead govern as a perfectly rational psychopath, thinking completely with the head and not at all with the heart, looking out for the interests of Americans and not for the interests of foreigners. One must be able to look at overseas atrocities and say, “This is not our problem. We are not the policemen of the world.”

11. This situation is the result of Western meddling. Syria was a colony of France from 1920 to 1946. At the beginning of this time, Mandatory Syria was divided into six states: Greater Lebanon (now Lebanon), Sanjak of Alexandretta (now part of Turkey), the State of Aleppo, the State of Damascus, the Alawite State, and the Jabal al-Druze State. This arrangement kept opposing factions in their own territories, but France had combined the latter four by the end of 1936. These factions fought for control, resulting in a large number of military coups and attempted coups from 1945 to 1970, ending only when Hafez al-Assad was able to rule strongly enough to suppress dissent. After his death in 2000, his son Bashar succeeded him. In the Arab Spring protests of 2011, Assad’s rule was challenged by various factions which sought to remove him from power, leading to the Syrian Civil War.

12. Syria must balkanize. If France had not tried to combine disparate peoples under one state and had instead left the four Syrian states separate, this bloody conflict could have been prevented. Bashar al-Assad, if he had come to power at all in this alternate timeline, would only be the ruler of a small part of western Syria. The rest of the country would have been ruled more locally and probably less oppressively by governments of their own people. This, rather than the removal of Assad followed by yet another wasteful failure of nation-building, should be the end goal of any intervention that might occur in Syria.

13. Trump has betrayed the raison d’être of his campaign. A major factor that caused people who normally do not vote for anyone to come out to vote for Trump was his “America First” rhetoric. Part of putting America first is to avoid unnecessary foreign entanglements by implementing a non-interventionist foreign policy. Many people supported Barack Obama in the hopes that he would do less damage overseas than George W. Bush. After being disappointed in Obama and seeing no difference in Mitt Romney, they gravitated toward Trump because his rhetoric was in stark contrast to that of establishment politicians from both major parties. Now he has also disappointed them, and hopefully they will come to realize that…

14. Peace can only be obtained by anti-political means. Peace is the status of being free from violence. A state is a group of people who exercise a monopoly on initiatory force in a certain geographical area. Initiatory force involves the use of violence. Thus, the very presence of a state is a guarantee of war, both abroad and against the domestic population at home. Therefore, the only possibility for peace is to have no state. The elimination of the state cannot be accomplished by political means, as political processes perpetuate the state by design. Thus, anti-political means are required.

A Case Against the Second Amendment

One of the most controversial parts of the United States Constitution is the Second Amendment, which reads:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Unlike the previous entries in this series, this will not be an argument against the substance of the Second Amendment. Rather, this will be a case against both the exact language of the Second Amendment, its efficacy, and the effect of having it explicitly codified in the United States Constitution.

Language

Let us begin with the words themselves and how their meaning has changed over the centuries. This is a common problem for those who view the Constitution as a dead document, as well as a common exploit for those who view the Constitution as a living document that they can interpret to mean whatever they wish it to mean. In the eighteenth century, ‘well-regulated’ simply meant ‘functioning properly.’ But with the growth of the administrative state, regulation has taken on the novel meaning of law without proper legislation. Likewise, the concept of a militia has also changed from that of all able-bodied males of military age to that of fringe anti-government extremists, as the federal government has usurped the role of the militia and handed it to the National Guard, which it may more easily command and control.

Next, there is the matter of security of a free state. In one sense, ‘free state’ is a contradiction of terms because the presence of a state is a guarantee of an absence of freedom. In that sense, those who seek liberty should not want the state to be secure, but rather to be continually imperiled by its own subjects. But in the language of the time, a free state was one which was sovereign over its geographical area rather than one which was subject to another, more powerful state. In this sense, the Second Amendment is correct to observe that a heavily armed populace is the most effective deterrent against foreign invasion.

Efficacy

The Second Amendment concludes by saying quite plainly now as then that ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ This is an absolute standard, setting a zero tolerance for infringement of the right to keep and bear arms. But how effective has this been? Given that the National Firearms Act of 1934 imposes taxes on certain categories of arms, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 forbids private nuclear weapons, the Gun Control Act of 1968 mandates licensing of arms dealers and manufacturers, the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 outlaws private ownership of machine guns manufactured after that date, and numerous other federal, state, and local measures further restrict what kinds of weapons one may own, it is clear that the Second Amendment is mere ink on a dead animal hide rather than an authentic protection of essential liberty against the whims of legislators.

Another concern with the Second Amendment is the same as with any other part of the Constitution. The interpretation is decided by judges who are paid by the state in courts which are monopolized by the state. Thus, the Second Amendment means whatever people in black costumes say it means, which need not be in keeping with common usage or dictionary definitions because there is no effective challenge to their power once the appeals process is exhausted. (There are the possibilities that a judge will be impeached and removed or that the Constitution will be amended, but these possibilities are rare enough to dismiss in most cases.) The incentive of people who are paid by the state is to encourage the health of the state, which in the case of the Second Amendment means that there is a conflict of interest between defending the rights of the people to keep and bear arms and eliminating the danger to agents of the state that an armed population presents. This incentivizes judges to rule in favor of restrictions on arms, which constitutes a threat to individual liberty and tends toward infringement upon natural rights.

That being said, the case law on the Second Amendment is somewhat more favorable than the legislation. In United States v. Lopez (1995), the Supreme Court struck down the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the court ruled that there is an individual right to keep and bear arms rather than solely a collective right. The McDonald v. Chicago (2010) decision extended Heller to the state and local level, while Caetano v. Massachusetts (2016) extended these decisions to all forms of bearable arms. However, other decisions leave much to be desired. In United States v. Cruikshank (1875), the court ruled that the Second Amendment “was not intended to limit the powers of the State governments in respect to their own citizens” and “has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government.” (McDonald v. Chicago largely reversed this decision.) The Presser v. Illinois (1886) decision found that states may prohibit their citizens from forming private military organizations, which protects the coercive monopoly of the state over military defense. In United States v. Miller (1939), the court found that the Second Amendment does not protect particular classes of weapons if they are not ordinary military equipment and legislators cannot imagine how the weapon could contribute to the common defense, thus hindering innovation in defense. The Lewis v. United States (1980) decision says that felons may be prohibited from possessing arms, which is troublesome due to the wide variety of peaceful activities that are considered felonious in the United States. United States v. Rybar (1996) affirmed that Congress may regulate possession of homemade machine guns, thus infringing upon the private property rights of citizens. Overall, the courts occasionally defend the right to keep and bear arms, but are generally unreliable, especially for more powerful weaponry.

To Codify Or Not To Codify

To quote Frederic Bastiat, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” Perhaps the most damaging effect of the Second Amendment is ideological in nature; it encourages people to rely upon it as an argument for their rights instead of making a stronger case from first principles. This helps to perpetuate the erroneous beliefs that rights come from the state or from the Constitution, as opposed to the correct view that rights are logical corollaries of the most fundamental right, that of self-ownership. As soon as one accepts such a statist basis for one’s rights, those rights are instantly jeopardized, for what the state giveth, the state may taketh away. The implication at that point is that there would be nothing wrong with gun confiscation if the Second Amendment could be repealed or reinterpreted by a future Supreme Court packed with progressive liberals, which is the goal of many leftists in the United States. In other countries which do not have counterparts to the Second Amendment, the laws concerning keeping and bearing arms are much more strict and invasive. But in many places with strict gun control measures, a large number of people still maintain firearms; they just do so illegally. Note that when a product is in demand and legal markets are forbidden from providing the supply to meet the demand, illegal markets will step in and make the banned goods easier to obtain than if the goods were legal but strictly regulated.

Conclusion

The Second Amendment is excellent in aspiration, but thoroughly insufficient in practice. Both the legislative and judicial branches have infringed upon the right to keep and bear arms, in flagrant violation of the promise made by the Framers. It is thus necessary to make a stronger case for private armament on both the theoretical and practical fronts. Theoretically, the case for keeping and bearing arms should be made from the first principles of self-ownership and private property rights. Practically, those who seek liberty must recognize and make use of the fact that one effectively owns that which one can take and defend. Put plainly, the right to keep and bear arms is not secured by some magical parchment or by agents of the state, but by the ability and willingness of the owners of those arms to use them in self-defense against anyone who would attempt to take them.