Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Stay classy, America

This doesn't directly impinge on me, since my subnormal conversational skills, palpable insecurity, unsettling lack of eye contact, facial expression, or vocal intonation, and abhorrence of the accursed light of the sun make the threat something of a moot point, but it still caught my attention: Pseudo-nonpartisan political group Rock the Vote has put out a new video urging people not to have sex with anyone opposed to health care reform. (Hat tip: Crash Landing.)

Ironic, really. Whenever I see something in the news about the efforts of liberal statist groups like Rock the Vote, "I wish these people would stop trying to fuck me" are usually the first words to pop into my head.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

I suppose straddling the line between socialism and fascism counts as "bipartisan"

The debate over health care has had me thinking about the question of where to draw the boundary between a a private firm intertwined with or heavily regulated by the government and an arm of the state that merely maintains the forms of the private sector. It's been frequently pointed out, correctly, that the obvious purpose of the "public option" is to serve as a Trojan horse for single payer. Even without the public option, though, the "reforms" that seem most likely to pass would effectively eliminate private insurance.

The most frequently referenced issues, now that the public option seems to be out of the running, are the insurance mandate and insurance for people with preexisting conditions. The mandate is basically a payoff to the insurance industry: The government imposes new controls on them requiring them to do things that do not make financial sense if you're actually in the insurance business, and in return the government will force everyone to buy their product. The insurance companies get more money, the government gains greater control of health care, and the benevolent champions of the working man in Washington, D.C. get to impose a large, regressive I-swear-it's-not-a-tax on everyone.

In this scenario, in what meaningful sense is the insurance industry "private" any longer?

The insurers would be government agencies in everything but name, and the insurance they “sell” would simply be a welfare program (albeit one that, like social security, would produce a net transfer of wealth from the relatively poor to the relatively rich) disguised as a commercial transaction. They would exist to serve purposes chosen by the government, their activities would be controlled by the government, and their funding would be given directly to them by the entire population under threat of government force. They would have some internal autonomy and some scope to compete with each other, but that means little to this issue. Even communist countries experimented with letting the managers at state-owned factories make some independent decisions. They'll be about as "private" as a public school district.

The only notable difference, so far as I can tell, is that the people in charge of distributing insurance will be making a hell of a lot more money than your average Department of Health and Human Services manager.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Is actually learning some basic facts about a politician before you start worshipping him too much to ask?

So, President Obama has announced the deployment of more troops to Afghanistan. To their credit, more liberals have attacked this decision than I expected. In many such cases, however, my respect is somewhat tempered by the fact that many of them are getting indignant about the fact that their beloved has betrayed them by doing exactly what he had always explicitly said he intended to do. Obama advocated the idea of escalating in Afghanistan well before he was elected, after all. He became the "peace candidate" because he was Not Bush, and Bush was a warmonger, and so Not Bush must be a great lover of peace. QED.

The result is actually remarkably similar to the subject of a recent post, the myth of Leon Trotsky the good Communist. Both men have an admiring mythology built around them that is not only at odds with the facts, it is explicitly contradicted by the glorified hero's own words!

This is a predictable outcome of both the way Barack Obama ran his presidential campaign and the way most of the media covered it. The elections always heavily emphasize general concepts tied to strong emotions- Freedom, Hope, Compassion, Children, Patriotism, Danger, Those Other People We Can't Stand- but Obama went further in emphasizing cheery platitudes and good vibes over actual policy and political philosophy than any other major politician I can recall in my lifetime. He was a unifier, he was pragmatic, he was nonideological, he was understanding he was hopeful, he was an historic milestone in America's racial history, he was Not Bush. Most of the mainstream media, thoroughly biased in Obama's favor and not especially politically incisive even at the best of times, indulged this.

John McCain often wasn't all that much better, his persona heavily dependent on his military service and on the reputation as a "maverick" that he had received during his stint as the media's favorite Republican earlier in the decade. I'll say this much for McCain, though: I doubt anyone supported him because they had fallen under the impression that he was a peacenik or a supporter of gay marriage or an opponent of big business.

It's not that Obama didn't have concrete beliefs- his campaign site had an extensive platform outlining his proposed policies. And yet, such was the fervor around him that he was able to rally a passionate following with the most vacuous campaign since "Tippecanoe and Tyler too". He isn't anti-war, but he's a man of powerful charisma who seemed like he ought to be, and who people wanted to be anti-war
, and that was enough.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

The "uninsured Americans" Trojan horse

One of the main issues that allegedly motivates calls for health care "reform"- be it instituting single-payer, a "public option," insurance mandates, requiring insurance companies to accept all patients or charge the same amount regardless of risk, or some combination- is the problem of people who can't get insurance because they are poor or already too sick to get insurance. The problem, we are told, is that people with preexisting medical conditions can't get insured, and thus are either deprived of medical treatment or are impoverished paying for it. Similarly, people too poor to have insurance let problems fester untreated because of the expense. The extent of this problem is exaggerated greatly, since the most commonly cited statistics lump people who can't get insurance together with people who have simply chosen not to, but it does exist.

As is so often the case, this is a problem with roots in previous government interventions. The tax code and various government regulations encourage people to use insurance for everything medical-related, including routine and foreseeable expenses, which encourages greater consumption and less concern for cost, which drives up the price of medical services, which increases the amount of money the uninsured have to pay out of their own pocket. Another contribution to the plight of the uninsured comes from all the various conditions and treatments the law says insurance companies MUST cover, which outlaws stripped-down insurance polices that would be within the reach of more people.

Fixing that is out, needless to say, since the people who most loudly profess their concern for the uninsured are generally the same people who would scream bloody murder at the thought of people who can't afford gold-plated insurance buying a more modest version they can actually afford. To many people, actually getting the disadvantaged more access to medical care is less important than being able to boast about being the sort of big-hearted idealist who believes the disadvantaged should have access to the best medical care imaginable, and big-hearted idealists don't lower themselves to facing the unpleasant tradeoffs that exist in a world of scarce resources.

It's certainly a plight that ought to inspire sympathy, harming people whose lives are already harder than most. It's not surprising that this issue would loom large in any criticism of the existing system. There's a question that is almost never raised, however: What does any of this have to do with the proposed reforms?

As a libertarian, I think these people could be helped far more effectively and justly through market processes and civil society, if only the government would get out of the way, but what if I were a statist setting out to aid the uninsured? For a moment, let's take it as given that any sort of deregulation is off the table, and that this is a problem that requires a government solution. In that case, the solution to the problem is quite obvious: Set up a government assistance program, funded out of general tax revenues, for people who can't get insurance and have it buy them medical care as if it were an insurance company. It would, essentially, be a “public option” specifically for people who are currently shut out of private sector insurance due to poverty or illness.

Problem solved, and with far less government expense, distortion of the marketplace, inconvenience to the general public, or divisive political acrimony than any of the actual major proposals. There is potential for fraud and abuse, but no more so than any other welfare program and probably less than many. As government solutions go, this is relatively simple, and it's really just a logical extension of things the government already does now. It's modest size and consistency with the precedent set by existing forms of government assistance would make it far less controversial than what's actually being proposed.

Supporters of greater government involvement in health care have other arguments for their program, of course, but the issue of the involuntarily uninsured is simply irrelevant to the question of whether the health care system as a whole needs some sort of radical change imposed by the government. If you're really concerned about a small segment of the population being deprived of a resource and want the government to make sure they have access to it, give them the resource. When faced with the plight of people who can't afford food, liberals generally advocate giving them food stamps or monetary benefits. They don't use the needs of the desperately poor to argue that the government should nationalize agriculture or run Public Grocery Stores to compete with Wal-Mart and Safeway.

This ought to be a political slam dunk, winning support in Congress from every Democrat and many moderate Republicans. Libertarians and some fiscal conservatives might object, but there would be nothing like the storm of controversy that has raged. It wouldn't preclude further legislation creating other government interventions relevant to other problem areas of the health care system if they are needed. If Obama had proposed it upon taking office it would have almost certainly passed already; that is surely a selling point given how frequently we're told that getting help to the uninsured is a dire necessity that must be accomplished quickly, before more lives are lost. The need to help people who can't get insurance is cited by liberal supporters of health care reform more than any other issue, and this would address that problem quickly and without holding the issue hostage to far more intense arguments over proposals for more sweeping government intervention.

There are limitations to my proposed alternative It wouldn't turn every American into a captive customer of the insurance industry. It wouldn't allow the government to turn private insurance into a concealed welfare program where taxes paid to support beneficiaries are disguised as payments to supposedly private companies for their services. It wouldn't give the government greater control over everybody's personal health care choices. It wouldn't create a means for the government to crowd private insurance out of existence altogether.

It would, in short, solve (as well as a government solution can, anyway) the problem that provides the lion's share of the justification for a major increase in the government's involvement in medicine care without setting the stage for the destruction of private sector health insurance and total state control of medicine. And what “reformer” worth his salt would want that?

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Trotsky myth

Over at A Terrible Blogger is born, blogger rmangum has a post speculating about why Leon Trotsky's reputation has been so strong among so many Western intellectuals, given the ample evidence that the idealized image of a man who would have created a humane, non-repressive communist state if only he hadn't been outmaneuvered and exiled by Stalin is pure fantasy. He attributes this to the fact that Trotsky's image was far more intellectual than that of Joseph Stalin, making him easier for Western intellectuals to identify with.

I think there's something to that. It fits in with the Western intelligentsia’s attitude toward the crimes of Stalin- the Moscow Show Trials and purges of his own Party comrades like Kamenev and Zinoviev always loom much larger than horrors like the Ukrainian terror famine, even though the latter took far more lives. The famine killed millions of nobodies, peasants, whereas the Show Trials were directed at people Western intellectuals actually identified with and felt empathy for. There’s another reason I would place more emphasis on, however.

The state always disappoints, if judged according to its own promises and propaganda, and communist states tend to do so more dramatically than most. The Western Left always seems to be looking for a left-wing despot to idolize, but as a given tyrant’s crimes become harder and harder to hide or ignore admiring him becomes increasingly awkward and a new, less tarnished idol needs to be found. Stalin gave way to Trotsky, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Min, and the like; now it's Che Guevara.
The advantage Trotsky has over most of these rivals is that – like Che Guevara- he was never a head of state, and thus offers far more open space to imagine what might have been.

The fact that he died violently- again, like Che Guevara- gives even more chance to ask, "What if?", as well as adding the sanctity of martyrdom and the romance of a life gloriously burning out instead of fading away. Death also saved him from living long enough to be associated with communism as it looked in its later days in Europe- dull, gray, crumbling, unromantic, uncool.

If we're knowledgeable of Trotsky and honest with ourselves about him and about communist regimes generally, we know that what might have been would have been horrible, but his lack of political power means that, unlike Joseph Stalin (or Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, etc.), there is no mountain of human corpses tied prominently, specifically, and unambiguously to him that can spoil our fantasy by forcibly directing our attention to his true nature.
Instead, communists and communist sympathizers can use him as a blank canvas to paint their own dreams.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

The Berlin Wall and the fruits of liberty

20 years ago as of Monday, the citizens of East Berlin penetrated the Berlin Wall and gained access to the West. The wall's physical destruction would not be completed for weeks, but its power was broken. My paternal grandmother was born in Germany, usually spent a few months out of the year staying with her sister in West Berlin, and had relatives who had escaped from East Germany. She lived just long enough to see the Wall destroyed before passing away in March 1990. One of her relatives gave me a piece of the Wall, which I still have.

At Econlog, David Henderson has a post about how he explained the event to his 4-year-old daughter back in 1989. I recommend the whole thing, but what jumped out at me the most was a brief aside. Recounting his discussion with his daughter about all the East Germans crossing the border for the first time, Henderson remarks in passing:

The media reported a few days later that the candy shops in West Berlin had sold out.
Something about this little detail was very striking to me. In my experience, most discussions of Communist oppression focuses heavily on a few specific areas, and above all on censorship and control of ideas. (Things that directly impinge on the psychological and material interests of intellectuals and journalists, in other words.) The material deprivation caused by Communism does get some attention, but much less. Acknowledgment of it, not surprisingly, mostly involves the striking, dramatic, and visual- people standing in line for hours to buy bread, the dull grayness of Eastern Bloc cities.

What doesn't get much attention is the day-in, day-out lack of things that make life in a wealthy country like the United States more pleasant for the great majority of the population. I do not use scratchy, sandpaper-like toilet paper. Barring natural disaster or freakishly cold winter temperatures, I take it for granted that water will come out of my sink's faucet when I turn the knob. If my shoes are worn out or my clothes are torn up, I'm confident that replacements will be readily available for me to buy. On Halloween, like the one that just passed, candy is so cheap and plentiful that children can go door to door asking to be given candy for free. and most households will cheerfully oblige them.

There are few things more revolting to me than the spectacle of some hyperprivileged Western leftist who enjoys a degree of wealth and material comfort that would be the envy of almost every human being who has ever lived pontificating on the evils of "greed" and "consumerism" and praising some oppressive, impoverished socialist hellhole for its superior spiritual values or sense of community or committment to "social justice" or whatever, and this is a big part of the reason why. The difference between a country with a comparatively free market and the sort of society they defend isn't just a matter of whether people have colossal gas-guzzling vehicles or plasma TVs or "McMansions" or the opportunity to buy, to use the sort of epithets anticapitalists like to trot out, "cheap junk" and "stuff they don't need." (It's depressing how much antimarket rhetoric boils down to whining that other people don't share your personal tastes and dressing it up as moral indignation.) It's about whether people beyond some small political elite get to enjoy the innumerable little improvements to their daily lives that free markets provide with such ease and abundance that we don't even stop to think about them.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Like maggots to carrion

Ever find yourself in a position where you think most of the people who share your opinion on the proper course of action are utterly repulsive? Watching the response to the arrest of Roman Polanski, as his apologists rally to defend him against the unsophisticated flyover country types who think raping a 13 year-old kid is kind of a big deal, has been demoralizing.

There is one and only one argument advanced by people opposed to prosecuting Polanski to which I assign any relevance- his victim does not wish for him to be prosecuted. Crimes are committed against individuals, not the state or “society,” so I believe that the decision to demand restitution and/or vengeance rightfully belongs to the victim; if they no longer want the crime prosecuted, so be it. The idea that a crime committed against a particular person is a crime against all of us, merely by virtue of being part of the same society, carries the implicit claim that the victim in some sense belongs to the public and not herself, a noxious notion in general and perhaps especially objectionable in the case of sexual crimes. I’d like to see Polanski nailed to the wall, personally, but he didn’t rape me.

(This does raise the related question of what people are morally entitled to do about a known violent predator living in their midst if the victim does not demand restitution or retribution. If use of force is justified, it would have to be justified by something other then retaliation for the original crime, and whatever the answer, people would have no business compelling the victim to assist or participate.)

However, I don’t for a moment think that any significant number of Polanksi’s defenders believe that- anarchocapitalists being somewhat thin on the ground in the media- so that’s hardly a satisfactory explanation for their defense of Polanski. In any case, aside from libertarians and some feminists, arguments against prosecuting Polanski are not generally taking the form of, “Polanski is reprehensible and it would serve him right if he were made to pay for his crime, but if his victim prefers to drop the matter we should respect her wishes.” It's rarely even about alleged problems with his original trial and conviction. It goes further than that, much further.

Polanski’s arrest brought a stunning outpouring of support from figures on the political Left and in the entertainment industry. Not all, by any means, but it’s remarkable how many people have tried to defend Polanski in one way or another: Because his exile is punishment enough (being an acclaimed, prosperous filmmaker in Europe instead of America- its just like something out of Les Miserables!) Or because the victim was was asking for it, and/or the victim’s mom was asking for it by leaving her daughter with Polanski. Or because the crime happened so long ago, or because it’s wrong to do vengeful, unforgiving things like prosecute a man for raping a 13 year-old when by now he’s probably too old and frail to do it again. (I’d be curious to see how many of the people I’ve seen take this tack would say the same thing about a Catholic priest who molested a child three decades ago.) Or, in some of the more bizarre examples I’ve seen, because the intensity of some people’s disgust with Polanski is a symptom of how Americans are ridiculously uptight and fussy about sex, or because Polanski’s loudest detractors are mostly conservatives who didn’t complain about Bush invading Iraq and causing far more suffering than one measly rape, or because people are just condemning Polanski so they can feel self-righteous.

(In my experience, there is usually no one more self-satisfied and self-righteous, more certain of their moral superiority, more proudly and smugly judgmental, than the person who says that morality is relative, or that morality does not exist, or that we should not judge others.)

The support for Polanski is especially jarring when you consider the fact that Polanski is one of the most prominent and dramatic living examples of what most people consciously left-of-center supposedly regard as one of the great evils of the world. Polanski is a wealthy, prestigious man who has used his superior place in society to gravely harm and exploit someone far less powerful than himself and get away with it. Give him a monocle and he could be an allegorical character named Rich Privileged Oppressor in a left-wing version of a medieval morality play.

Also interesting, for similar reasons, is the existence of some feminists who have joined in. (And a great many of Polanksi’s apologists in general would almost certainly self-identify as feminists if asked.) Interesting, but not surprising; anyone who was politically aware during the Clinton years should have seen this coming. Polanski isn’t nearly as politically important as President Clinton was and isn’t getting the same sort of political firepower brought to his defense, but the basic phenomenon is familiar.

There really is no limit whatsoever to the depths to which some people will descend to defend a member of their tribe or someone they've elevated above the level of us mortals, is there? None. Polanski rapes a teenage girl, escapes justice to spend decades basking in luxury and adulation, and is shown more concern, support, and sympathy than genuinely innocent men falsely accused of rape can ever dream of. I feel like I need either a drink or a shower.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Support for Male Survivor

WARNING: The first, third, and fourth links in the first paragraph of this post lead to written descriptions of rape. For those interested in this topic, a listing of all posts at The Superfluous Man concerning sexual violence and related issues can be found by clicking here.

It's only come up as a post topic on this blog once, because I don't feel qualified to do the subject full justice, but one issue I have a strong interest in is attitudes towards male victims of sexual violence, and particularly adolescent and adult rape victims and abused children who have reached adulthood. I grow more and more convinced that mainstream attitudes towards this issue are an invaluable and largely ignored window into the monstrous callousness that lies at the heart of statism's justifying ideology, and I hope to write about that some day if I can put my thoughts on the matter together well enough, but for now I simply hope to encourage greater attention to this evil as a matter of basic humanity. Libertarian blogger and activist James Landrith, who endured a torrent of ridicule and contempt to speak openly about being a male rape survivor, was the principle catalyst that led me to delve more deeply into the issue; Wendy McElroy was also invaluable.

Whatever spats they may have, the cultural Left and cultural Right come together on this issue: These men don't exist, if they exist they don't matter, and if they dare to claim that they do exist and matter they should be despised, shamed, stigmatized for supposedly being future predators themselves, and silenced, and their suffering denied, belittled, minimized, anomalised into irrelevance, or blamed on the victims themselves. One runs into all sorts of vile things on the internet, but routinely and unashamedly expressed attitudes towards this issue from both young and old, feminist and traditionalist, male and female, are still singularly astonishing in the staggering quantity and intensity of stupidity, malice, cruelty, and sheer evil on display.

I bring this up because (Hat tip to Toy Soldiers) the organization Male Survivor has suffered a drop in donations due to the economic downturn. Male Survivor is an extremely admirable organization dedicated to helping male victims of rape and sexual abuse and providing information about this largely ignored issue. Politicians seeking political points for their "compassion" have no reason to care about them. Celebrities looking for a hip social cause to attach themselves to don't talk about them. People aren't pinning ribbons to their shirts to express their concern and support. But these men and boys are real, and the crimes against them are real, no matter how hard the rest of the world tries to avoid thinking about it. If you give to charitable causes and have something to spare, please consider donating to or otherwise assisting Male Survivor.

Update: Had a few of the links jumbled. It's fixed now.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Let a million death panels bloom

Here's an article from Great Britain about Christine Ball, a woman who had to fight to save the life of her mother, Hazel Fenton, after the government's doctors decided her mother (who is currently still living, nine months later) had only days to live when she arrived at the hospital with pneumonia and decided, over Ball's objections, to deny her food and let her starve to death as part of the hospital's "Pathway" program for the terminally ill. Fenton went without food for twelve days before her daughter was able to convince her doctors to relent.

This only came out in public because Christine Ball was willing to 1. challenge the opinion and expertise of the doctors, and 2. continuously and persistently argue with them until they backed down. I doubt that happens very often, given the quasi-priestly status the medical profession has, so I'd be surprised if this were some isolated incident that came out because it just happened by sheer chance to involve one of the rare people who would speak up. Of course, I'm the kind of awful cynic who wonders if the additional government involvement liberals are advocating in health care now might set the stage for even more government control down the line, and gets suspicious when the police claim that the security cameras in the station just happened to break down and stop recording 30 seconds before a calm, compliant suspect with no criminal record suddenly went berserk and had to be cudgeled to death in self-defense, so perhaps I'm biased.

This is a valuable reminder that the idea that government health care would involve "death panels" is just irresponsible Republican scare mongering. "Death panels" suggests some sort of centralized decision-making body choosing who to dispose of, and carries the implication that such a body would have known, readily identifiable members subject, at least in theory, to public scrutiny and accountability.

Baseless right-wing nonsense! Hospital administrators or individual doctors can decide who isn't worth trying to keep around without bringing the federal bureaucracy into it, and quietly let them die (or kill them outright, Dutch-style) without unduly agitating reactionaries who think there's something bothersome about giving people fatal drug overdoses without consulting their opinion on the matter, or abandoning deformed babies to die, or just killing them, or whatever else wins the endorsement of the Enlightened and Compassionate and Progressive. (I will be shocked if open advocacy of legal infanticide has not become a common, mainstream position among American liberals within the next 20 years, and among moderates within 30.) There's no need for "death panels" or other conservative bogeymen when the staff of your local hospital is already perfectly qualified to decide which people are surplus to the government's requirements and act accordingly.

Hat tip: Crash Landing.

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Reality outstupids parody once again

I was up very late last night, as is my habit (one of the nice things about a job done mostly from home is that if I want to sit at my computer playing Victoria: Revolutions at 3:30 AM, that's my prerogative), and I saw the news that Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize minutes after it started hitting news sites. I honestly thought it was some sort of joke until I punched "Barack Obama Nobel" into Google and got some confirmations.

I suppose I shouldn't get my dander up about the sanctity of an award that has been given to Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger (though at least both of them received their award for significant involvement in actual peace-ish activities), but this is absurd. It's as if an article from The Onion ridiculing the Obama cult of personality somehow rose from the page and took over the real world.

There was a widespread perception that Paul Krugman's Economics Prize was politically motivated as an anti-Bush gesture, but there was a time- before he became the Platonic Form of the Partisan Hack walking the earth in human guise- when Krugman actually was a contributor to the science. Obama's award has been justfied on the grounds of his alleged intentions: he thinks it would be sort of nice if there were no nuclear weapons and people in the Middle East didn't murder each other so much. (It should also be noted that some of Obama's anti-nuclear statement were in the context of trying to intimidate North Korea and Iran, the latter of which he has openly threatened with military force for failing to comply with inspections.)

Meanwhile, he continues to wage Bush's war in Iraq and intends to escalate the war in Afghanistan. He has escalated the bombing of targets in Pakistan, killing hundreds of noncombatants, and has threatened preemptive attacks on Iran. These are the actions of a man awarded the world's most prestigious award for makers of peace. Given that we now have such thorough confirmation that The One is indeed an infallible, transcendent being, could we just stop beating around the bush, have the Senate declare Obama a god, and be done with it? We could throw in the Hugo for Best Fanzine, the Stanley Cup, and the Outstanding Asian-Americans in Business Award while we're at it; his qualifications for those are at least as strong.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

"Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That's good!"

Gene Callahan talks sense on a pet peeve of mine- overuse of the term "hater." It's an obnoxious term not only because it's usually absurdly hyperbolic, but because it frequently carries the implication that anyone who doesn't like whatever the speaker likes- or just doesn't like it as intensely- must be driven by mindless ill will, because God knows no one could ever have actual reasons for not enjoying the movie Twilight as much as you did.

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Friday, October 02, 2009

Dodging a bullet

I just read that Chicago is no longer in contention to host the 2016 Olympics, eliminated by the International Olympic Committee in the first round of voting. As a Chicagoland resident who lives a few minutes from the city itself, all I can say is Thank God. One less excuse for the city and state governments to suck our blood when the inevitable cost overruns start pouring in. (To give some sense of what Illinois is like, let me point out that we currently have one former governor in federal prison for corruption, and his successor was recently indicted by the federal government on corruption charges that include, among other things, an attempt to extort kickbacks from a children's hospital and trying to sell Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat.) I shudder to think of the orgy of corruption and boodle-grabbing that would have ensued if the bid had been successful.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

The soft bigotry of low expectations

Perusing Hit and Run, I encountered this post about some police caught on video who, having stormed a house during a drug raid, decided to settle in and spent several hours playing a bowling game on the resident's Nintendo Wii.

My instinctive reaction to reading this news is an illustration of how my expectations have changed over the course of the 15-16 or so years I've been interested in politics. I can remember a time when reading this story would have left me appalled at the police's misuse of property and lack of professionalism. Circa 2009, I read the post and my immediate response was, "Well, at least they were kept out of any other mischief for a few hours..." It's a sad thing when something that once would have dismayed you now seems almost refreshing by comparison.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

"I prefer 'extortion.' The X makes it sound cool."

At last, an excuse to work a Futurama quote into this blog. I'm stunned that it actually took me three years.

In a recent interview with George Stephanopoulos, (Hat tip to Psychopolitik) Barack Obama was asked to address one of the objections to Obama's proposal to force everyone to buy health insurance. (This is in large part to subsidize the costs of another common liberal goal- forcing insurance companies to insure more people at a loss, thereby turning insurance into disguised welfare. Most of the people uninsured by choice are fairly young, and the old are on average wealthier than the young, so this is a nice example of how much of the modern welfare/paternalist state actually redistributes income upwards.) Anyway, the following words were exchanged:

STEPHANOPOULOS: You were against the individual mandate...


STEPHANOPOULOS: ...during the campaign. Under this mandate, the government is forcing people to spend money, fining you if you don’t. How is that not a tax?

OBAMA: Well, hold on a second, George. Here -- here's what's happening. You and I are both paying $900, on average -- our families -- in higher premiums because of uncompensated care. Now what I've said is that if you can't afford health insurance, you certainly shouldn't be punished for that. That's just piling on. If, on the other hand, we're giving tax credits, we've set up an exchange, you are now part of a big pool, we've driven down the costs, we've done everything we can and you actually can afford health insurance, but you've just decided, you know what, I want to take my chances. And then you get hit by a bus and you and I have to pay for the emergency room care, that's...

STEPHANOPOULOS: That may be, but it's still a tax increase.

OBAMA: No. That's not true, George. The -- for us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. What it's saying is, is that we're not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore than the fact that right now everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase. People say to themselves, that is a fair way to make sure that if you hit my car, that I'm not covering all the costs.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it may be fair, it may be good public policy...

OBAMA: No, but -- but, George, you -- you can't just make up that language and decide that that's called a tax increase. Any...


OBAMA: What -- what -- if I -- if I say that right now your premiums are going to be going up by 5 or 8 or 10 percent next year and you say well, that's not a tax increase; but, on the other hand, if I say that I don't want to have to pay for you not carrying coverage even after I give you tax credits that make it affordable, then...

STEPHANOPOULOS: I -- I don't think I'm making it up. Merriam Webster's Dictionary: Tax -- "a charge, usually of money, imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes."

OBAMA: George, the fact that you looked up Merriam's Dictionary, the definition of tax increase, indicates to me that you're stretching a little bit right now. Otherwise, you wouldn't have gone to the dictionary to check on the definition. I mean what...

Notice how hard Obama works to dodge the question. His entire initial reply ignores it completely; even after Stephanopoulous presses the issue, he tries to focus on his alleged rationale for the mandate and not the aspect of it he was actually asked about. The fact that this sort of rhetoric routinely works is a demonstration of how many people simply switch off their minds when their attention turns to politics. Consider how obvious this sort of evasion would be if it were applied to private life:

JT (Friend of mine, full name withheld to protect the innocent): Hey, where'd you get this high-definition TV?

John: The neighbors bought it a few months ago, so when they were gone on vacation last week I broke into their house and carried it away.

JT: What? You just took their property without permission? Isn't that stealing?

John: Well, hold on a second, JT. For years, we've been missing out on the superior image quality modern storage media make possible because we've been watching a standard-definition television that's nearly a decade old. Now I can play Call of Duty 4 in the resolution it was made for!

And my version doesn't even cover the best part, when Obama kicks things up from mere non sequitur to outright surrealism by arguing that the definition of the word "tax" is not relevant to the question of whether or not the mandate is a tax. A child could see through this in normal life, but in politics it often slips by people.

This puts me in mind of an old movie trope. You've probably seen it at least once: The villain, negotiating with the hero, promises not to kill somebody- one of the hero's friends, for instance- in order to gain the hero's trust or win some concession. The hero believes him, because federal labor regulations apparently require anyone who engages in fictional heroics in a visual medium to drink a bucket of lead paint before they begin their struggle against evil. The villain then says that he only promised that he wouldn't kill the person in question, and orders one of his minions to do it for him while he mwahahas in amusement. In like fashion, Obama's proposed insurance mandate doesn't force people to give their money to the government, it merely forces people to give their money to private companies strongly connected to the government. Completely different!

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Manslaughter and other foibles

It's a bit late in the day to write about this, but its been fermenting in the back of my mind ever since the the news coverage of Ted Kennedy's death started. I actually expected Kennedy’s passing to be an even bigger deal than it is, given the American fascination, and a specially the American media’s fascination, with the Kennedys. Still, what we got was ridiculous enough, with days of wailing in the media and endless glorification of Kennedy’s supposed “compassion” and "service." There’s one thing that especially struck me.

It is a commonplace among libertarians that government leaders routinely do things that would cause them to be regarded as fearsome criminals if done without the halo of state power- looting people of their wealth, burning down cities, and so forth. I also find it interesting, however, to see the extent to which even actions that don't fall under the moral free pass given to "matters of state" get swept away.

One thing that always irritates me about the hagiographies that fill the media, and for that matter a lot of discussion by regular people, whenever a major politician dies is the way they deal with embarrassing aspects of the politician’s life that can’t be swept under the rug entirely: It is admitted that, though the deceased was of course a great man, he was “flawed.” This has been said a number of times about Ted Kennedy.

This is an interesting use of the word, and a nice example of how to be literally accurate and grossly misleading at the same time. My paranoia, tendency to slouch, and near-total inability to produce comprehensible human speech when I go to my neighborhood bar and the owner's daughter says hello to me are flaws. My elementary school gym teacher’s laziness was a flaw. The Trix Rabbit’s intemperate obsession with sugary cereals is a flaw.

Careening off a bridge into the water because of your drunk and reckless driving, leaving your passenger to her fate under the water, and then spending the next few hours- during some of which your passenger may still have been alive and hoping for rescue- trying to find a way to avoid telling the relevant authorities who might have saved her because you don’t want to damage your political career, and finally coming clean 9 hours later when you realize the authorities have already found the body rises several notches above the level of "flaw."

If you or I did that, the result would be the everlasting contempt of everyone who found out about it, and probably prison time. Most people would regard it as the defining moment of our lives, the act that defined our character. When a major politician does it, well, he was a complex person and we shouldn’t let one thing dominate our perception of such an important figure and great leaders often have feet of clay and hey, nobody’s perfect, right?

Bill Clinton would be another good example- office workers making dirty jokes and lewd remarks constitutes sexual harassment worthy of legal action, but the governor of a U.S. state having a female subordinate brought to his hotel room by a state trooper, propositioning her, and then responding to her rejection of his sexual advances by brandishing his genitalia does not. An extremely powerful man committing perjury while giving sworn testimony related to a female subordinate’s sexual harassment lawsuit isn’t a big deal, either.

Ted Kennedy, however, takes it to an even more impressive height (or depth): he kills an innocent woman formerly employed by his brother with his reckless, callous behavior, and when the nation’s biggest media outlets and most powerful statesmen summarize his life it is a footnote, too petty a matter to mar his glory. Ted Kennedy was a Great Man, the Lion of the Senate, a giant; Mary Jo Kopechne was an ant, as we are, and it is of no account if a few insects get trampled.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

New article

I've got a new article at Strike the Root. Have a look.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

A time for gibbering panic

Back in June, the nation was rocked by the murder of abortionist George Tiller by a radical anti-abortionist and the murder of museum security guard Stephen Johns by an elderly Neo-Nazi. The result was a tremendous frenzy in the media, with much exultation about how this proved the grave menace posed by right-wing terrorists and the need for everyone to shut up and do what our newly enthroned Dear Leader says. I talked about that a bit here.

It has now been confirmed that the fatal shooting of anti-abortion protester Jim Poullion in Owosso, Michigan was because of Poullion’s politics; the shooter was apparently outraged by Poullion’s protest signs. When combined with such events as the murder of Private Andrew Long by an opponent of the war in Iraq, I'm sure the establishment media, always evenhanded, will recognize the menace left-wing extremism poses and address it in the same way that they have addressed right-wing crimes, providing us with plenty of:

Grave warnings about the threat of left wing-violence

Pious hand-wringing over how left-wing politicians and pundits share the blame for these deaths by creating an atmosphere of terror and hatred against conservatives and other critics of the ruling party- e.g. The hysteria and vitriol with which any expression of dissent against the Democrats has been greeted since the beginning of Obama's administration

Angry condemnations of liberals who whip up violent hatred by attacking conservatives with hateful "code words" such as "fascist," "theocrat," "warmonger," "neocon," or "racist"

Calls for government suppression of the sort of "hate speech" that incited Poullion's murder

Frequent comparisons of pro-choice advocates, antiwar demonstrators, and other people who disagree with the Republican Party to murderous left-wing political movements such as the Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge, Shining Path, and the Red Army Faction
And so on. If recent history is any guide, I'm sure there all sorts of creative ways to declare any meaningful opposition to the Republican Party inherently illegitimate, now that we've seen the horrible results of just letting people disagree with them in such an irresponsible fashion.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Caring about the war is so 2008

The end of August marked the close of what is now the bloodiest month for the United States forces in Afghanistan since its presence began there in 2001, with 45 confirmed deaths. I haven’t seen any numbers for Afghan deaths, but given the escalation in violence it seems likely that they were high as well. As you may recall, Afghanistan is where President Obama wants to increase American troop numbers.

I wouldn’t blame the average person all that much if they didn’t recall it, though. It’s not given much attention, compared to the former President Bush’s military decisions. Nor is it criticized very much, since the bulk of the antiwar movement apparently slipped into a coma during Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony and is now descending into a permanent vegetative state.

The rapid drop-off in interest really is remarkable. Principled exceptions exist, but often only throw the rest into sharper relief. For instance, Cindy Sheehan has continued her antiwar campaign into the new administration, calling on Obama to end the war just as she did George W. Bush and protesting at Martha’s Vineyard during Obama’s presence there.

And yet, the woman that so much of the press couldn’t get enough of now barely warrants a mention from either the press or many her former comrades and supporters, something she herself has commented on. I suppose some of the media indifference can be attributed to the fact that the novelty element is gone now that she’s been known for a few years, but the very fact that she is continuing her crusade against the war even with Bush gone seems like something I would expect to draw interest- one of the things that originally made her famous was her utter relentlessness, and so her willingness to go after Democrats as fiercely she did Republicans is a dramatic illustration of the very trait that made her noteworthy to begin with. Apparently, though, the heartbroken mothers of dead soldiers just aren’t very interesting without a Republican in the White House.

I expected most of the American Left to lose interest in the war issue once Obama was in office, and especially once Obama started to escalate American military efforts in Afghanistan. Similarly, I expected them to start finding torture, attacks on civil liberties, and unrestrained executive power much less bothersome once they were wielding those weapons themselves. Perhaps above all else, I expected their whole “dissent is patriotic” shtick to fade away as well. However, I really didn’t expect the change to be quite so abrupt. It's a demonstration of an important lesson libertarians need to keep in mind- neither liberals nor conservatives are actually very good on the issues they're supposedly on the right side of.

This phenomenon- and especially the hysterical liberal reaction to the supposed menace of right-wing extremists with the temerity to use their outdoor voices at protests- reminds me of a scene in the novel 1984. At the height of a Hate Week rally, an Ingsoc Party official is whipping the crowd into a frenzy against Oceania’s hated enemy, Eurasia. Mid-speech, he is quietly handed a document by one of the other officials and instantly starts railing against Oceania’s hated enemy Eastasia, with whom Oceania has always been locked in a deadly struggle alongside Oceania’s steadfast ally Eurasia. The crowd, noticing that all the Hate Week posters still say that Eurasia is the enemy and has always been the enemy, conclude that traitors are trying to sabotage Hate Week by spreading confusion and lies, and in their righteous outrage begin tearing down and destroying posters bearing slogans they had been shouting themselves only moments before. (I don't have the book in front of me, so I may have mixed up Eurasia and Eastasia. Which would be quite fitting, of course.)

I think a lot of it is sincere, in the sense that many of the people acting this way are not motivated by cynical partisan point-scoring and really do feel that things that were outrages crying to Heaven for justice when done by the Bush administration suddenly stop mattering when Obama is in charge. People can have tremendous power to believe things they weant to believe, and too many people have too much emotional energy invested in loving Obama and hating Bush as the definitive evil in American history to start wondering how different they actually are. Much the same can be said of many conservatives.

I wish that weren’t the case- in some ways I find the idea of people behaving that way, and the power of the human mind to warp itself to escape reality, more disturbing than the idea that they are simply amoral hypocrites. Tribalism is a powerful thing, and the drive to believe- not just say, but truly, genuinely believe- what you want to believe is probably even stronger.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Superfluous Man at Networked Blogs

I wanted to let everyone know that if you're a Facebook user, you can now join this blog's network via Networked Blogs. I also have a feed on Twitter under the name "superfluousjohn."

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Making violence easier

The taser has become almost omnipresent in stories of police misconduct and brutality. (Rad Geek and The Agitator are good sources on this and related issues.) Despite the fact that it was largely sold to the public as a less-lethal alternative in situations that might otherwise result in a suspect being shot dead or pummeled into submission, I suspect the taser encourages violence and tolerance for violence by looking less violent than conventional instruments of brutality.

Conscience is not a purely intellectual affair. Feelings like compassion, indignation, and revulsion don’t come only from being aware of an act or situation that we regard as bad according to the moral principles we hold; they also come from gut-level reactions to sensory stimuli that are in turn shaped by our attitudes, psychology, culture, and biology. This is well-known, of course, but I don’t think the implications of it are discussed enough.

While being tasered is painful, and potentially dangerous or lethal, I suspect that for a lot of people, seeing it done to an innocent person doesn’t cause the same horror as seeing someone being beaten with a nightstick or pummeled with bare fists. A beating looks brutal; prodding someone with an electronic gadget doesn’t look as bad, even though it may still be terribly painful and dangerous. Thus, less horror and less public outrage. Perhaps it’s an instinctive response; humans and their forerunners evolved facing the threat of blunt force trauma, but not anything like an electroshock weapon.

They may make it easier for the perpetrators as well. It makes me think of the Milgram experiment, in which a significant number of average people were willing to torture another person with increasingly painful electric shocks, even after their “victim” (actually an actor in cahoots with the researcher) started screaming for mercy, and in some cases even when they were given reason to seriously believe that their victim was dying.

How many of the people who were willing to inflict what they believed was agonizing pain with electrical shocks would have been willing to inflict the same amount of suffering if, instead of a button to trigger an electronic device, they had been given a club and told to beat a helpless victim with it, and go on beating them even as they screamed and pleaded for mercy? My guess is very few. Because, in the same vein as before, poking someone with an electric doohickey is unlikely to feel as viscerally violent as brutally beating someone, and so a conscience that would recoil from the latter might be able to live with the former.

This isn’t to say that removing the tasers would be a panacea; there are deeper cultural problems behind police brutality, in both the cops who do it and the citizens who tolerate and excuse it, and there’s plenty of police brutality carried out with lower-tech methods. However, I think it does have an effect on the margins. Equipping those who wield coercive authority with a means to inflict suffering that partially bypasses the usual mental mechanisms that restrain violent aggression is a recipe for trouble.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Race and police misconduct

I’ve been following the case of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates with some interest. (Here's a quick bit of background, in case you've spent the last few weeks living in a sensory deprivation tank or on some sort of eremitic desert religious retreat.) On the one hand, I’m glad to see a police abuse of power get some serious attention. On the other hand, it’s saddening (though not unexpected) to see how much attention is paid to a Harvard professor being wrongly arrested and briefly detained when cases like the cold-blooded murder of Kathryn Johnston by Atlanta police and their subsequent attempt at a cover-up barely seem to warrant mention at all.

It’s interesting and unfortunate how mainstream opinion on the issue has split into the following two camps:

1. The police officer who arrested Gates, James Crowley, was motivated by racism, and therefore the arrest was not justified.

2. The police officer who arrested Gates was not motivated by racism, and therefore the arrest was justified.

This conspicuously leaves out the possibility that the arrest of Gates was not motivated by racism, but was nevertheless unjustified. I don’t doubt that black men are more likely to suffer mistreatment from law enforcement, but there’s ample evidence that there are plenty of police willing to abuse anyone who irritates them on an equal-opportunity basis, and thus far there does not seem to be any evidence that the arrest was racially motivated.

So, why the focus on the supposed racial angle to the almost total exclusion of everything else? I think part of the answer actually ties partially into my recent post contrasting the far left with mainstream left-liberals. Remember, one of the defining traits of the mainstream Left is that government-related unpleasantness is never the product of systemic flaws in the nature of the government itself.

If this is your worldview, the idea that the police are racist is paradoxically comforting.
Suppose it were the case that the unjust arrest of Henry Louis Gates, as well as the more extreme and gruesome examples of police misconduct that ironically get much less attention, were all motivated by racism. That means that the problem can be fixed with just a modest tweak to the system: all you need to do is get rid of the racists in the police department and replace them with non-racists, and things will be fine. There are no deeper issues with the underlying system, just some individual bad apples. There is no need to worry about the possibility that there are problems with law enforcement that might be inextricably tied to other aspects of American statism, aspects that many people like.

(As an added bonus, this also redirects the blame to voluntary society. If the behavior of the police is not the product of something inherent in the system they work for or the position they hold in it, then presumably it must be the result of the society they came from- their families, communities, churches, popular entertainment, or just the culture in general. The more dysfunctional voluntary society is perceived to be, the more pressing the need for the government’s help will seem.)

For those who reflexively defend the police, focusing on race also has benefits. People frequently treat a refutation of the most commonly heard argument for a proposition as a conclusive disproof of the proposition itself. If the case of alleged misconduct against Gates (or anyone else) turns out to have no racist motivations, and racism is the only imaginable cause of police misconduct, then the police are vindicated.

This is not to say that racism is not a genuine factor in police misconduct; there are ample cases where it clearly is. However, I think the focus on it here actually serves to shield police misconduct rather than expose it. The public is presented with two possibilities, both of which absolve the system itself. This tendency is reinforced by the dominant ideology of journalists and other opinion-makers themselves. The good-government progressivism that dominates the mainstream media rules out the possibility that statism is inherently damaging or corrupting, whereas the idea that everyone outside a small clique of enlightened liberal thinkers is a bigoted neanderthal seems almost omnipresent.

Potential factors coming deriving from the nature of the government and laws themselves- an environment where so many peaceful and largely invisible acts are illegal that the police are encouraged to treat everyone like criminal suspects or hostile foreigners under military occupation, the invasiveness and brutality needed to effectively enforce such laws, attitudes among both police and the general public that turn law enforcement officials into an elite quasi-military class that is largely unaccountable to civilians, the sort of personality that is disproportionately likely to be drawn to a job with broad coercive authority- do not come up. This is an outcome congenial to both sides of the mainstream political spectrum, since neither side is eager for the public to seriously question the near-infinite reach of the modern state into daily life.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Roderick Long could use your help

Roderick Long of Austro-Athenian Empire and the Mises Institute has fallen into financial crisis as the result of some sort of credit card company billing screw-up (See here and here), and has requested emergency help in the form of either donations or loans. Long has been a significant influence on my own thinking and ideas, so if you like what you read here please consider chipping in something to help him out. And if you haven't before, check out his essential essay "Equality: The Unknown Ideal."

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Seeds of Libertarianism on the Left, Part II

We now come to the follow-up to my previous post on libertarians reaching out to the Left, and why the far Left offers better prospects than mainstream left-liberals. Last time, I talked about the idea of spontaneous order in voluntary social action. This time, I’d like to go into differences in attitudes towards the existing system.

The foundational belief of mainstream left-liberalism in America is that the modern American interventionist state is an essentially benevolent and positive institution. Without it, we would be Hobbesian savages or the wretched serfs of top-hatted plutocrats. The system is enormously beneficial and generally works well, and when it fails to work well it is because some malevolent outside force has harmed or interfered with it. (E.g. “Special interests, “market fundamentalists,” and so on, who are given much the same role as Trotskyite “wreckers” under Stalin or the Devil in many Christian sects.) Thus, the answer to any problem is to have the right people in control. If they are and yet some area of the government is still not working as advertised, that means the government does not currently have enough money and power, and should be expanded so that the right people will have the resources they need to do good.

Left-liberalism is thus antithetical to libertarianism; they are not, as it is sometimes claimed, sibling ideologies who disagree on details. Fundamental to libertarianism is the idea that the problems of statism are systemic, and improving the situation is not a matter of giving the machinery a tune-up or trying to find a better operator or removing a wad of gum that some malicious person has stuck into the gears. The state will never have the knowledge or the incentives or the coordinating power that the free market brings to bear.

Furthermore, not only does state action fail to perform as advertised, it is usually not meant to perform as advertised. Seemingly idealistic actions by the government almost invariably have some politically connected person or group profiting in the background. If the interventionist state’s justifications are taken at face value, much of its past and present behavior is inexplicable, and predictions of its behavior based on this assumption have a very poor track record. If the state is viewed primarily as a means by which the powerful can enrich, glorify, and emotionally gratify themselves at the expense of others, however, the actions of those in the government are both comprehensible and much more predictable.

Concentrated interest will always have stronger incentives than dispersed interests, and the powerful and privileged will always be better-equipped to control the state than the weak and oppressed. The problem is not that our government is malfunctioning, or has been hijacked or corrupted. The problem is that the government is working just as it is meant to work.

(Minarchist libertarians believe that some minimal night watchman state that actually works as advertised is possible, but like anarchist libertarians they agree that the interventionist state is bad by nature and not merely because the wrong people run it.)

This is not a revelation to the seasoned libertarian, but I think it’s worth spelling out in detail to make the contrast clear. This way of thinking is quite alien to most people. I think some 90’s conservatives came pretty close to it, but unfortunately that movement’s growing focus on the personal vileness of Bill Clinton led many of them astray by drawing fire away from the state itself. American liberals never even showed that much potential; even when many liberals were warning of an imminent descent into fascism and/or theocracy, there was little or no suggestion that the problem with the government went any deeper than Bush and his clique, who were somehow uniquely evil, their actions without precedent.

Liberal love for the state is unconditional. They treat the state the way an idealized mother treats her hooligan son: she might criticize the bad crowd Junior has started hanging out with, or insist that he tuck in his shirt in at church, but ultimately she always stands up for Junior, always insists no matter what he does that he’s a good boy at heart, and if he does something horrible it’s because someone else must have put him up to it.

Here, some areas of the far Left have much more to recommend them. Anti-market leftists misunderstand the market economy, and many of them (including a lot of ostensible anarchists) believe that the state could be the friend of the average working person with a suitable overhaul, but they have this going for them: they usually don't believe it's our friend now.

They are much more likely than mainstream liberals to see the government actions they rightly object to- corporate welfare, for instance- as part of a systemic problem, and not as merely an unfortunate and unintended glitch in a system that is for the most part benevolent. There is far more understanding that setting things right is not merely a matter of putting the right people in charge. Most importantly, they are far more likely to realize that the problem is that the state is working just as it is meant to. The government acts as an engine of exploitation and oppression because that’s what it’s for. That is its nature.

Left-anarchists usually grasp this; even statists like the Greens often have some idea. Their misunderstandings of market economies leads them into serious errors, such as regarding economic freedom as a form of government aid to plutocrats lumping it in with its opposite, government privilege. Nevertheless, in this important respect they have a much deeper understanding than most people.

This is by no means universal, to be sure, since a lot of avowed left-wing “anarchists” are little more than big-government liberals or full-blown authoritarian state socialists with a more bellicose and pseudo-radical rhetorical style, and I don’t take their supposed hostility to statism any more seriously than I do the Republican Party’s. Nevertheless, there are still plenty who do possess this important libertarian insight.

That alone isn’t enough, of course. Communists, Nazis, and the Taliban would all probably agree that the current system is fundamentally flawed too, after all. However, the reasons at least some of the antimarket Left condemns the current system overlap with libertarianism to a much greater extent than other ideologies, and the Left has other libertarianism-friendly traits, as discussed in my last post on the subject, and hopefully in a follow-up to this one.

The importance of this commonality is considerable. The progressive/good-government viewpoint is the bedrock of mainstream politics, accepted by both parties. It is the overwhelmingly dominant doctrine taught in the public schools, the news media, popular entertainment, and the churches. Whatever grave problems there are with the radical Left’s thought, they have at least partially rejected one of the central legitimating myths of modern statism, and that’s a rare thing.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Palin 2012: Somewhat Less Godawfulness You Can Believe In

I’m actually a little sad to see Sarah Palin go. I was no fan, but of the four candidates and running mates during the election- McCain, Palin, Obama, Biden- I found her the least objectionable. I admit that my opinion may be shaded by my reflexive sympathy for virtually anyone who manages to inspire such an impressive eruption of raw hate from the Democrats, but put alongside the relentless denigration of private life in voluntary society and creepy calls for “service” to the state that dominated the rhetoric of both McCain and Obama, she seemed like the only one of the four to have any real regard at all for the value of activities other than glorious self-sacrifice to the Fatherland. Perhaps that’s part of the reason her large number of children seemed to hit such a raw nerve with some; it suggests an unseemly interest in selfish, uncommunal, drearily bourgeois activities like family.

However much both McCain and Obama may talk about community and family and the like, at the core of both of their visions is the idea that service to the state is the highest of all callings and the basis of a virtuous and meaningful life, unlike the petty selfishness of voluntary society. One of the things that has always repulsed me about both the great bulk of the American Left and the neocon and “national greatness” portions of the Right which John McCain exemplifies is their disrespect for the things of normal, day-to-day life for the average person- work, family, business, social groups and organizations, personal interests, neighbors.

It’s a common attitude, widely shared by fascist militarists, spoiled lefty bohemians, and five-year old boys, but it was troubling to see how pervasive this juvenile attitude has become in both parties. Despite the frequent cracks made about her intelligence, it sometimes made me feel like Palin was the only adult in the whole campaign.

I realize that it’s rather sad to praise a politician for being merely authoritarian rather than implicitly totalitarian. What can I say? If you’ve been kicked in the crotch five or six times in a row, a mere kidney shot comes as a sort of relief.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my pejorated name

Kevin Carson has an interesting article at the Center for a Stateless Society about the assorted meanings of the term “socialism,” which at one point was self-applied not only by statists but by individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker. Among the left-libertarians, there has been some effort to reclaim the term and use it in this sense.

I sympathize with this desire. I’m still bitter about the loss of the term “liberal”; my frequent practice of referring to the American mainstream Left as “left-liberalism” instead of just “liberalism” probably has as much to do with spite as it does with terminological precision. That said, rehabilitating the word “socialist” seems like an even greater lost cause than “liberal,” which still has at least some pro-freedom connotations in everyday English.

It’s too bad since, as Carson points out, “socialism” would be a pretty good term for libertarianism were it not already taken. Instead, perversely, the defining trait of people who are today called “socialists” is the desire to minimize or destroy the power of people in communities willingly working together for mutual benefit and replace it with a system of control and compulsion through the threat of force. When people speak of “socializing” an industry, they mean removing it from the control of society and giving it to an elite.

Once you cease to identify the society and the state, it really is quite bizarre. Such an ideology deserves the name socialism only if your idea of “society” is something along the lines of a prison farm.

It’s frustrating that many of the terms that have been used for libertarianism- liberalism, capitalism, individualism, anarchism- are so thoroughly poisoned by widespread association with ideas hostile or antithetical to it. “Libertarian” itself may suffer this fate, given the continuing abuse and distortion of the term by opponents of the free market. When I consider the fact that the machinery of public opinion is largely controlled by people whose ideology depends on confusing terminology and distorting the difference between economic freedom and economic statism, I suspect it may be unavoidable in the long run.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

You kids, with your Twitter and your rap music and your internal combustion engines...

I've created a Twitter feed for this blog, as well as for other politics-related writing I do on line. My username is superfluousjohn, or you can go to my feed by just clicking here.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Democratic Party I grew up with

I feel sorry for whoever owns the company that makes those “Dissent is Patriotic” bumper stickers. Their stock price must be in the toilet by now.

I have thought for years that the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building was the best thing that ever happened to Bill Clinton during his administration, and probably the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party in decades. Overnight, the rising hostility to the government was all but emasculated as the Democrats and their media lackeys gleefully painted anyone who seriously criticized them as the murderous spiritual kin of Timothy McVeigh. Any meaningful dissent was proclaimed to be automatically illegitimate; anyone who objected to federal power now had blood on their hands. It was the greatest propaganda coup the government could have asked for. I always found liberal complaints during the Bush years about how hateful, vitriolic, and intolerant conservatives were to be incredibly hypocritical; it's as if the Y2K bug deleted their memories of the 20th Century.

Watching the response to the news of the murders of abortionist George Tiller and Holocaust Museum guard Stephen Johns, the most striking thing was the barely-disguised triumph on display. Given how hard Barack Obama’s partisans have worked to portray anyone who opposes the Chosen One as a racist, a lunatic, or some sort of cryptofascist, this is a godsend and they're playing it for all it's worth. Now there are bloodthirsty right-wing terrorists hiding under every bed, and anyone who has ever had the temerity to criticize the government while a Democrat was in the White House is potentially one of them.

It doesn’t help that so many liberals seem to be brought to near-hysteria by the sight of actual opposition even at the best of times. The media coverage and commentary when the “Tea Party” movement at the forefront of the news was a case in point: the suggestions that it was somehow fascistic or antidemocratic to have a gathering to protest the new president’s policies, the accusations of racism on the basis of absolutely nothing except the conviction that anyone perverse enough to oppose Obama must be racist, and the utter confusion when presented with idea that economic freedom or being able to keep what you earned actually matter to some people.

It was especially striking when contrasted to the kid gloves with which the fashionable lefty thugs at anti-globalization protests are handled when they decide to start smashing up some local buildings and cars. Given the attitude shown towards peaceful protests at the Tea Parties, I can only imagine the utter pants-wetting terror that would have ensued if the tea partiers had started vandalizing buildings, throwing rocks and debris, or brawling with police. The media would be dutifully shrieking in hysteria before the first shard of shattered glass hit the ground. And all that was before there were any actual bloody shirts to wave.

Much as the conservative reputation for supporting economic freedom is badly overblown, liberal support for civil liberties and things is usually pretty superficial, a few honorable exceptions aside, as is their supposed concern for separation of powers. Rather like conservatives, they will often talk a good game about the freedoms they claim to support when out of power and then change directions when they get control.

Many liberals spent the last 8 years acting as if George W. Bush was a uniquely wicked figure whose policies just sprang fully-formed into being like Athena. But the developments of the past 8 years were not an aberration or a change in direction, they were a continuation of past trends with a firm basis in past precedents from both parties, many of them established by our most honored past statesmen. If Bush achieved greater heights of oppression, power-grabbing, and usurpation than previous presidents, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants. Many of Bush’s most condemned practices, such as torture and his refusal to acknowledge the constitutional limits of his office and the separation of powers, are just the natural evolution of the Bill Clinton administration. Bush’s principal innovation was to have the United States government torture people in-house rather than outsourcing the job to friendly regimes in Third World hellholes.

So, there is no reason to expect any serious support of civil liberties from the Democrats, especially if there are more violent incidents tied to opponents of the current administration. I expect the idea of outlawing "hate speech," as most Western democracies do, to move from the leftist semi-fringe to a more mainstream position. (Which is especially worrying when you consider how promiscuously the word "hate" is used by many liberals when describing opposition.) Erosion of privacy, security from search and seizure, and due process will continue; I’ve been saying for years that Bush’s homeland security machinery would end up being used against domestic right-wingers, and I’m even more confident of that now.

Obama has all the accumulated powers built up by George W. Bush, a domestic law enforcement establishment that grows more militarized with each passing day, and much stronger support among the opinion-shaping class and institutions than Bush could have ever dreamed of. Things could get ugly.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Fr33 Agents

Not long ago, as I mentioned here, I got a position as one of the bloggers for Bureaucrash. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter there was a change in leadership and, it appears, in the direction of the organization. As a result, I've departed from my blogging post there. As the old saying goes, God never closes a door without opening a window, and then quickly slamming the window shut again on your fingers as you try to climb through. Or something like that. I'd like to give a big "Thank you" to former Crasher-in-Chief Peter Eyre for giving me a shot there.

Happily, there is good news. Thanks to the efforts of some former Bureaucrashers, a new group called Fr33 Agents is up and running in order to create a new network for libertarian activists. It's just getting underway, but the site looks pretty nice already and I encourage everybody to give it a shot. And if you feel you don't currently have enough contacts in the all-important White Male Alienated Loners Ages 25-40 demographic, swing by my profile and add me as a friend.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Review of Economics for Real People

We're always on the cutting edge here at The Superfluous Man, and so I'm happy to bring you a review of 2004's Economics for Real People: An Introduction to the Austrian School by Gene Callahan. In all seriousness, though, it's an excellent book for anyone who wants to explore the subject of economics and is looking for a place to start. It's also great for anyone who wants to get an overview of some of the distinctive features of Austrian economics and the ideas of important figures like Ludwig von Mises without the risks involved in carrying around economics treatises so massive that they threaten to collapse into singularities and gradually consume the earth from the inside out.

Suite101 made me submit an actual photo of myself- never a good idea- for my profile and said I was supposed to smile in it. That's something I try to avoid in daily life, because I look like a complete jackass whenever I smile. (I also sometimes have an annoying, shrieky, mad scientist-like laugh that I find embarrassing, so I pretty much do whatever I can to avoid ever displaying any positive emotions whatsoever when other people are present.)

I bring this up because I wanted to prevent anyone who saw my profile picture from getting the impression that I write while popping Quaaludes and/or sitting in a big cloud of marijuana smoke. Not the case. I achieve that dopey, confused look with no performance-enhancing substances of any kind.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Acceptable targets

Gay marriage has been prominent in the news this week, which got me thinking about recent events. Some of you may recall the recent case of Carrie Prejean, a contestant in the Miss USA Pageant. In the course of the pageant, the contestants were asked their opinions on various social and political questions. When asked what she thought of gay marriage, Prejean answered:

Well I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one way or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. You know what, in my country, in my family, I do believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there. But that’s how I was raised and I believe that it should be between a man and a woman.
Something of a media shitstorm followed in the wake of this, with Prejean vehemently condemned in many quarters. I disagree with her comments, though I think the torrent of loathing and ridicule directed towards her in the media has been excessive and cruel. In any case, Miss Prejean enjoyed a period of infamy for the remark and was roundly condemned as a bigot in the media and many places online. It was, I thought, an oddly disproportionate response to a near-nobody expressing what is still, unfortunately, the opinion of most Americans. In 2007, a political figure of some note who had been asked his opinion on gay marriage said:
I'm a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.
This statement does not seem substantively different from Prejean, though it is certainly better-expressed. As well it should be, since these words were spoken by none other than Barack Obama, then a Senator from Illinois. Obama’s supports civil unions, but his opposition to gay marriage remains unchanged since making this statement.

So, where’s the anger? Large swathes of Prejean’s critics- and many supporters of gay marriage in general- have argued that any opposition to gay marriage is necessarily rooted in bigotry, and regard support for it as not merely right but a requirement to be considered morally decent. You’d think Obama’s stated opposition would draw more fire. Likewise that of Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden, who believe the same thing.

Some figures on the Left have, to their credit, taken Obama to task for his views on this issue. For the most part, though, not a whole lot is said, or at least not loudly, and certainly not with the same fury, and it seems odd to me that Prejean gets the hammer dropped on her while the President of the United States- who probably has a bit more potential influence on the matter- largely gets a pass.

Of course, when people have invested their hopes in a leader or savior, or in an organization or movement, they can often start screening out or rationalizing things that would otherwise anger or disgust them. (See Cheryl Cline’s posts here and here. Hell, see most “limited government” Republicans during the Bush Administration. Or the previous Bush’s administration. Or the Reagan Administration. Or the Nixon administration. Or the Eisenhower administration.) I’ve also seen how many liberals- a few admirable dissenters aside- are reconciling themselves to Obama’s lack of enthusiasm for civil liberties, and quietly accepting things that people were screaming bloody murder about under Bush.

On several occasions while growing up, I hit a wall hard enough to leave my knuckles bleeding. The wall had nothing to do with why I was angry on these occasions, but I was so agitated that it was either the wall or somebody’s skull. I couldn’t confront the person who had actually caused my distress. That was partly because I feared facing him, but it was also partly because it was too upsetting to fully, consciously acknowledge the truth about this person. I wanted to believe that he was good, that he valued me. To stand up and say, “The way you treat me is wrong” would have clashed with that. This is a common defense mechanism.

I suspect a lot of Obama supporters who support gay marriage don’t know his actual position on the subject; they just assume, because they admire him, that he shares their beliefs. However, I’m sure plenty do know. If you believe that opponents of gay marriage are despicable bigots, AND you’re one of the many people who greatly admire Obama and consider him a great man, you’ve got a problem on your hands. The Obama phenomenon fired many people’s hopes and won their hearts in a remarkable way. I don’t think Bush ever had that kind of effect; he had plenty of admirers and even a messianic aura for some, but he didn’t create the sort of ecstatic “in love” sensation that Obama brings out in a lot of people.

As I’ve written on before, having hopes raised and then smashed is painful. So, too, is accepting that someone you’ve put on a pedestal isn’t what you thought they were. Even if you don’t have an especially strong attachment to Obama, seriously criticizing him can be uncomfortable if your friends or colleagues do. This is especially true on an issue where, if liberals were to take their own rhetoric seriously, many of them would have to declare Obama not merely mistaken but morally reprehensible.

Enter Carrie Prejean- a person who prominently displays the same flaw as Obama for the whole country to see, but in whom liberals have no emotional investment. She’s an ideal human punching bag. And just like a punching bag, you get a satisfying thump when you hit her without having to worry about hurting your hands or ticking off someone who knows how to punch back. Her pageant remark was a perfect opportunity to make a stand for gay rights without the costs, either emotional or social, of going after someone more relevant. Her very unimportance makes her ideal. I think this idea has implications for a lot of issues, and not just for Democrats, but this is long enough for now.

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