Monday, April 12, 2010

Back on Suffragette City

The gift of David Boaz's recent PC-tarian fiasco continues to produce, including a thoughtful rejoinder from Jacob Hornberger himself. Not content to let the matter drop though, Boaz along with Cato's in-house pretend philosopher have issued their own answers. One could easily pick apart their particulars, and I will momentarily, but a general point needs to be made from the outset. The relationship between the individual and the state is the heart of the libertarian political philosophy, and it is both the history and nature of the state to intrude upon the individual's liberty. Even when exerted against a group or class of people, the state's actual intrusion occurs on the individual level against his individual rights, that individual simply happening to belong to a group. A discriminatory law is therefore not wrong because it offends a broad, abstract, and often vaguely defined collective attribute of many individual persons such as race, class, religion, skin color, or sexual preference. It is wrong because of what it inflicts upon the individual liberty of that person, the attribute of his race, class, etc. being only the occasion of its infliction.

Boaz and Wilkinson fundamentally mistake the nature of "racism," "sexism," and all the other negative isms that are commonly use to collectively define a category of infringements upon the rights of the individual, and do so by confusing the targeted characteristic for the individual himself, against whom the actual physical wrong is committed. Such mistaken orderings amount to little more than crudely formulated displays of identity collectivism, and as the simple substitution of "class" for "race" et al illustrates, they are fraught with with fundamentally Marxian premises.

It should also be duly noted that Boaz et al completely neglect another important dimension from their crude historical analyses, to wit: the embrace of classical liberalism as an intellectual movement. Even as the 19th century in practice fell far short of its libertarian ideals, those same ideals flourished in its intellectual culture. Is it simple coincidence that the century to which Hornberger refers produced such luminaries as Frederic Bastiat, Richard Cobden, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, Carl Menger, Lysander Spooner, Alexis de Tocqueville, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry George, William Graham Sumner, and dozens of other like-minded thinkers on whose work much of the modern libertarian movement of today rests? Is it also of little significance that many of these same thinkers were roundly embraced and celebrated as the leading minds of their day? Given what bilgewater passes for "intellectual thought" in the present day, perhaps the 19th century was a "golden age" of sorts after all.

On to the particulars though...

After acknowledging that Hornberger made absolutely no specific longing to pre-1865 America but rather the 19th century in general, Boaz, with Wilkinson's assistance, attempts to modify and extend his argument from blacks to women (and gays and every other Politically Correct category of shared human attributes). Thus they rant about Hornberger's supposed neglect for those who lacked "meaningful rights to political participation" and so forth. Hornberger makes no such neglect save for benign omission of a point so self-evident that it need not be harped upon, though harpies his interlocutors happen to be. It causes wonder, however, to witness the likes of Boaz and Wilkinson in their apparent reduction of the measure of a free society into something so ultimately meaningless and so notoriously fraught with statist manipulation and irrational displays of misplaced exuberance as the elective franchise. The people may elect an Obama and they may vote themselves a welfare state, but by golly they exercised a "meaningful right to political participation" and therefore must be freer than the past when such franchise was not universal! Briefly setting aside overwhelming evidence that the expansion of mass democracy in the United States only gave rise to bigoted populist windbags with a propensity for statist intrusions upon liberty, both economic and personal, there is a delicious irony to be found in its use as a measure of a free society by two individuals who frequently announce their own disgust with the ballot box, or sing praises of others who abstain from this largely frivolous act.*

*This writer has long tended to concur with Spooner's observation that "man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist" and therefore only exercises the franchise to obtain "some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own." But such thoughts may be beyond the comprehension of persons who fundamentally conflate collective identity politics with the inherent antagonism of an individual's relationship with the state, and what the latter says of his own free exercise of rights.

That much duly noted, it is similarly mistaken to respond, as Wilkinson does, that in 1880's America "well more than half the population was systematically and often brutally denied basic liberty rights" on account of the state's own discriminatory policies against persons of targeted racial, class, and gender attributes. One may duly denounce the feudal era English common law concept of coverture impeding female property rights, yet also recognize what Wilkinson does not, namely that (1) such laws were drastically diminished through the enactment of Married Women's Property Acts and Privy Examination statutes in the majority of states between 1809 and the early 1850's, (2) the 19th century in general saw a marked liberalization of laws regarding women's rights in general including the elective franchise, which preceded the federal 19th amendment on the state level by upwards of 5 decades in some cases, and (3) no necessity exists to assert that all 19th century females would find themselves little more than the status of slaves because their husbands, to whom it may be fairly assumed a large number were happily married, retained a stronger legal standing to contract in a court of law.

Jim Crow, which was again a sin of government against the individual at the most fundamental level, serves to fully illustrate the fault of government even when it is comparatively smaller than today, though again its wrong is so self-evident to the libertarian that harping upon it serves little legitimate purpose beyond an artificial attempt to quash an argument that one also happens to be losing. Of course even the most horrendous acts of overt state segregation against blacks (which actually reached their peak amidst the inflamed populism of the early 20th century's "Progressive Era," not the comparatively benign, even if far from perfect, political era that preceded it) did not completely deprive them of economic freedom. Indeed, this was the central point of Booker T. Washington's autobiography, "Up From Slavery," and the defining message of his thoroughly libertarian career as an educator and thinker: Permit us, as individuals, to better ourselves through the exercise of economic freedom...which brings us to a second bit of irony, wherein Boaz apparently missed the entire message of the same work whose title he appropriated to make his original dig at Hornberger.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What next, Boaz? Slavery Reparations?

In case you may think David Boaz's recent attack on Jacob Hornberger is anything other than evidence of a recurring pattern in which he exhibits a full-fledged subscription to the intellectually slothful doctrine of Political Correctness, he has now joined the cadre of usual suspects in denouncing Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's proclamation of "Confederate History Month" for failing to include a hollow "feel good" apology for slavery.

The actual policy effect of an addendum condemning slavery is of course meaningless, and its sole purpose is an act of shallow political pandering to a wholly un-libertarian interest group of professional race-baiters who make their livelihoods in manufacturing racial controversy and using it to manipulate the political system in a thoroughly statist direction. The Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons are not worth the time, energy, or even attention of any thinking libertarian. But Boaz knows that, and is apparently quite okay with pandering to them nonetheless. Boaz also knows that any thinking individual recognizes the inherent evil of slavery, and need not dwell upon restating it to the detraction of all further intellectual discourse on any historical subject it may have tainted. For the same reason, we need not qualify every single discussion of murder with a boiler-plate condemnation of the inherent evil of murder. Or of rape. Or of theft at gunpoint on the side of the road (except when it's the government doing that theft, and the gun-toting highwayman also carries a badge). All thinking people know these wrongs to be obvious, thus eliminating the need to incessantly restate them...unless an entirely different purpose is sought or intended from their repetition.

The next pressing question then is whether Boaz recognizes that ulterior purpose (as a reputed intellectual he likely does), and if so does he adhere to its statist tenets in advancing it?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


For all its internecine squabbles, the libertarian movement has thus far managed to remain relatively insulated from the leftist cultural phenomenon known as PC, or Political Correctness. The reason is not difficult to isolate. The underlying premise of Political Correctness is the belief that the essence of every individual is his or her collective association with a group - a race, a gender, a sexual preference, a religion, a medical affliction - and that membership in that group fundamentally defines his or her interaction with all other levels of society, which is to say other collectively identified groups. In such a setting moral right and wrong is taken to derive not from acts infringing upon the rights of individuals or causing them injustice and harm, but rather acts that are perceived to infringe upon group identities and group sensibilities - including group sensibilities taken to a radical extreme in which even the most obscure perceived slight is construed as "racist," "bigoted," "homophobic," and simply social taboo. And as is typical of such social paradigms, certain persons are also designated the victims of history, the perpetually oppressed, though not as individuals but rather through their membership in a certain collective group. And for every perpetually oppressed is a perpetual oppressor group, compared to which no greater evil exists.

Starting to sound uncomfortably familiar? Substitute the word "class" for "race," "proletariat" for "black/gay/hispanic/non-Christian," and the word "bourgeois" for "rich white male" and you get a better picture from whence the nonsense of Political Correctness originates, and why it exists in such self-evident contradiction with libertarianism.

Yet the PC bug is a pernicious one, and it too has started to infect our movement. Its carriers come with little surprise, though two particular PC-tarians have been unusually aggressive of late: David Boaz and Tom G. Palmer. Boaz has long toed the politically correct line, dating back almost a decade to his bizarre Jesse Jacksonite crusade against the Mississippi state flag over its Confederate imagery. And readers of this blog already know of Palmer's bizarre Confederate fixation, which rears its ugly head even when such a topic is neither appropriate to the discussion at hand, nor even relevant to the muddled point he seems to be making. Each also recoiled in feigned horror over the manufactured Ron Paul newsletter "controversy," which "offended" them far more than even the most statist elements of the tax and spend big government socializing Bush and Obama administrations. (In fairness, Boaz assures us that he does not ever vote for candidates who support the Warfare-Welfare state or trample on personal liberty...he just donates to their campaigns instead). But today's Boaz rant, promptly endorsed by Palmer, was far more insidious, in that it attacked a fellow libertarian not for anything he said that may have been construed as offensive. Instead, the Palmer-endorsed Boaz screed attacked its target for what he did not say (and what he had no reason or need to say as it was of little relevance to his point).

Boaz's point of outrage? An innocuous column by the Future of Freedom Foundation's Jacob Hornberger on the decline of individual liberty in America. Boaz's objection centered around Hornberger's demonstrably valid contention that the United States of the 19th century was generally a time of smaller government, freer markets, and less overbearing and omnipresent federal intrusion into the daily lives of its citizens. To make his point Hornberger referenced a widely revered historical figure, that most libertarian of the primary founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. What, precisely, was the offending passage? Evidently the following:

First of all, let’s talk about the economic system that existed in the United States from the inception of the nation to the latter part of the 19th century. The principles are simple to enumerate: No income taxation (except during the Civil War), Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, economic regulations, licensure laws, drug laws, immigration controls, or coercive transfer programs, such as farm subsidies and education grants. There was no federal department of labor, agriculture, commerce, education, energy, health and human services, or homeland security.

And just what was so wrong with that passage, and with citing Jefferson? Well as any PC Nazi will tell you, by simple omission Hornberger defied the PC paradigm in which all of American history is a pattern of weaker groups exploited by strong, wealthy, greedy, white males. Since Boaz evidently subscribes to that PC paradigm, he finds a fault in Hornberger's silence on slavery. And he then uses that silence to lump Hornberger into some sort of association with all those dirty rotten "neo-confederates," whatever that may be (other than a not-so-vieled pejorative reference to the Mises Institute, which Boaz gratuitously inserts in the middle of his discussion) who join "organizations" and argue that the Union win in the Civil War was a bad thing on the net for liberty. Mockingly, Boaz queries: "Did Mr. Hornberger really forget that 4 million Americans were held in bondage when he waxed eloquent about how free America was until the late 19th century?" Though he quickly backed away from further implying Hornberger to be a closet slaveocrat, simply asking this question cannot be construed as anything but an insult. Not to mention a suggestion that Hornberger has violated PC norms - a suggestion that Boaz reaffirms several times over by qualifying any and every good thing Hornberger has to say about the smaller government of the past with the usual list of all the classes and groups and ethnicities and sexual preferences that didn't get to enjoy all that liberty.

Now Slavery is an unconscionable wrong to any thinking libertarian. It's wrong is also so self-evident that Boaz's very line of questioning exudes all the intellectual sophistication of the Keith Olbermanns and Al Sharptons who pretend to see a sheet and a burning cross behind every critic of Obamacare...or Obama for that matter for no other reason besides the fact that Obama is black. And that is what makes Boaz's attempt to tar Hornberger so noxious. Nothing in Hornberger's column actually merits the scorn Boaz heaps upon him over slavery, and yet Boaz finds a "sin" in the very absence of evidence that such a "sin" was committed.

What's worse though is Boaz is even being dishonest about Hornberger's supposed neglect of historical slavery. True, it was not the subject of the column to which Boaz responded. But Hornberger has written about historical slavery many times before, and in strongly critical terms. Here is what he said about slavery in another column only a few weeks before the one Boaz found so objectionable:

The neocon mindset about Muslims is much like the mindset of plantation owners in the Old South. As long as the slaves were obedient, respectful, and subservient, everything was fine. Oh, sure, slaves would periodically complain about their condition in life but, by and large, such complaints were considered acceptable. What was not acceptable was resistance and opposition to slavery itself, especially when it turned violent. That was when a message had to be sent. Such an uppity attitude simply could not be tolerated.

Clearly then the root of Boaz's objection is not any legitimate quibble over Hornberger "forgetting" about slavery, but rather that Hornberger did not make slavery the singular focus of his historical discussion as the PC paradigm dictates.

But even to Boaz's rather shaky point there is a flip side. For all the fault and complicity to be found in the government-sustained institution of slavery, it is also a disservice to history to allow that fault to perpetually overshadow and thus forever taint the very real beacons of liberty and limited government we may find by looking to the American past. At stake is no less than the question of whether the events of 1776, in casting off perpetually warring, colonizing, and tax-feeding leviathan, may be considered a human advancement in the classical liberal concepts of free markets and free and limited government. If we cast aside all forerunners such as Jefferson, and dismiss the generally limited government and free market liberalism of the pre-20th century America for its fault of slavery, and if we embrace a need to ostracize other libertarians not for any actual defense of slavery but for the contrived "sin" of omission found in failing to incessantly harp upon it throughout all discussions of liberty throughout American history, then with what else does that leave us?

Stated differently, if we must always and explicitly qualify every instance historical liberty with its most egregious historical violations simply for the sake of paying those violations deference whether doing so is germane to the discussion or not, we also effectively taint and negate any value that may be gained in a comparison to the freer particulars of the past. In doing so we also necessarily resign ourselves to a position that true individual liberty is unattainable, for we are qualifying every past instance of liberty's existence, and every libertarian characteristic that the early American republic actually did exhibit, by reducing them all to the moral equivalence of that same republic's least free attribute. Boaz may not admit as much, but he spends his entire screed skipping, hopping, and dancing around this very conclusion.

It is no mystery why libertarian thinkers of much greater intellectual capacity than either Boaz or Palmer could make this distinction in their own day, even when dealing with the very same subjects that Boaz and Palmer now employ in their PC meanderings. They recognized what Boaz and Palmer do not - liberty is not a sales pitch to the slothful minds of modern political discussion, consumed in fraudulent outrage and hyper-emotional displays of offense and "hurt" over matters of frivolity.
It is not a trendy affectation of self-proclaimed enlightenment, meant to cultivate a personal image of sophistication and acceptable company. Liberty is an inherent condition of the individual, and its presence or absence is measured by that individual's relation to his fellow man under the auspices of that which asserts itself to govern him.

Even the great libertarian Lysander Spooner recoiled in horror at the outcome of the Civil War and the loss of the Confederacy - not because he disagreed with that which it affected of slavery, namely his lifelong quest for its destruction, but because it came about through authoritarian means and at a much larger and distinctly un-libertarian price. The reason for his objection was found in government, the antithesis of liberty:

"Who, but such usurpers, robbers, and murderers as they, ever established slavery? Or what government, except one resting upon the sword, like the one we now have, was ever capable of maintaining slavery? And why did these men abolish slavery? Not from any love of liberty in general - not as an act of justice to the black man himself, but only "as a war measure," and because they wanted his assistance, and that of his friends, in carrying on the war they had undertaken for maintaining and intensifying that political, commercial, and industrial slavery, to which they have subjected the great body of the people, both black and white...There was no difference of principle - but only of degree - between the slavery they boast they have abolished, and the slavery they were fighting to preserve."

One need not look far for clues of what Boaz might say of Spooner if their lifespans traversed, as it would probably consist of "reminding" the lifelong abolitionist that he had "forgotten" about the 4 million slaves.

Or what would Boaz say of Lord Acton, who in 1866 wrote Robert E. Lee to inform him "I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization, and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo." Judging by his snide remarks, he would probably dismiss the British philosopher as a "self-proclaimed" libertarian and perhaps a "neo-Confederate" engaged in the business of denying the "magnitude" and indeed overarching primacy of all things slavery, all things race, all things class, all things Politically Correct, and all things mired in the overtly Marxian analytical device of labor-reductionism in which an entire "social and economic system" is said to be defined and predicated upon the exploitation of a laboring class, with any and everything else about it that may commend itself to liberty being wholly subordinate and thus subject to dismissal.

But Acton and Spooner were genuine libertarians. They recognized the centrality of the individual's relationship with the state to his own liberty, and could accordingly explore the depth of that relationship beyond its worst (and best) particulars. Boaz and Palmer are PC-tarians who generally share and even occasionally advance on their common ground with liberty, but only through the accident of a mutual disdain for least on paper. To PC-tarians, race and class and gender and religion are conversation stoppers, their finer details and the roles they play in human interaction an unexplorable taboo that must recieve unyielding elevation above all further (and thereby precluding all further) discussion. Hornberger's real "sin" was therefore not that he neglected slavery, but that he pushed the conversation of liberty beyond the constraining effects of the PC paradigm.