Friday, April 17, 2015

TGIF: Patience and Empathy: Keys to Presenting the Freedom Philosophy

It goes without saying -- I hope -- that we libertarians should be patient and empathetic when we talk political economy with nonlibertarians. Patience and empathy are generally virtues, of course, but libertarians have an additional reason to practice them in their political lives: they are keys to effectively presenting new ideas.
We ask a lot of people when we ask them to appreciate the merits of our political philosophy. (I’m assuming the goal is persuasion and not mere self-gratification.) We should think back to when we first encountered the philosophy. None of us started out understanding it. We had to read, think, and talk with people more advanced in their understanding than we were. Even a fledgling libertarian who starts out favorably inclined intellectually and emotionally to the philosophy needs time to digest the ideas. I can recall running newly acquired, but not-yet-well-understood, libertarian ideas by friends, parents, and siblings -- only to be stumped by their questions and objections. I had to go back to the books or my libertarian teachers for further study and contemplation. The process takes a long time. Leonard Read used to say it takes a lifetime, and I believe him. Keeping this truth in mind will help shape our approach to nonlibertarians. Don’t underestimate the persuasive power of empathy.
Think what we’re asking of nonlibertarians. All their lives they (and we) were taught that government is the source of social order. It’s easy to believe this because government is so visible. It’s got all those big buildings filled with bureaus and people doing things that they say are indispensable to social order. Signs of disorder are easily attributed to nongovernment sources. (Rising prices associated with inflation are easily blamed on the greed of sellers.) Then we libertarians come along and say it’s not so. Perhaps we quote Proudhon (maybe without knowing it was Proudhon who said it): “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order.” Are we crazy?
Or perhaps we try to explain what Thomas Paine wrote so beautifully in Right of Man:
Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government. [Emphasis added.]
We can say those things, but why should anyone believe us? If the primacy of liberty were true, people would have heard long before we came along, right? Order without a conscious creator of order? It’s counterintuitive. 
Libertarians have a good story to tell, but it’s complicated. How many of us breezed through Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner, and Henry Hazlitt? (Okay, maybe a few did.) Most people need to hear the story several times before it even begins to make sense and appears worth looking into. But before that can happen we need to get their attention. We need to give them a reason to question their worldview. That’s no small task.
The idea of spontaneous, or undesigned, order is crucial to persuading nonlibertarians that we are worth listening to. Most people like freedom. They want to live worthwhile lives, and they understand that this requires self-direction. Following a path set by someone else is intrinsically unsatisfying. What holds them back from embracing total freedom is their understandable fear that “too much” freedom would produce chaos. Sure, they value freedom, but they value order too. “We can’t have everyone running around doing whatever they want!” they say. Even if you explain the nonaggression obligation, they may not be fully convinced because they can envision chaos resulting from nonaggressive acts. They grew up believing that the Great Depression -- mass long-term unemployment, poverty, hopelessness -- was a natural market event that required government intervention to reverse. It’s no easy task to scrape away layers of misinformation. It requires patience, and patience requires respect and empathy.
Some libertarians of a deontological bent may not want to cater to people who are apprehensive about the consequences of freedom. These libertarians insist that morality would compel them to favor freedom just as enthusiastically if they expected the worst kind of chaos to result. Of course, they don’t think chaos would result, and despite themselves, they spend a good deal of time describing the good consequences of freedom and the bad consequences of government intervention. (That’s what economics is for, isn’t it?) In the face of bad consequences I’d still favor freedom too -- though less enthusiastically -- and I would not be hard on people who think consequences matter. We’re not likely to get far trying to persuade people to embrace freedom and not worry about how things might actually turn out. (This, by the way, doesn’t make me a consequentialist, or utilitarian, however. See “The Moral Case for Freedom Is the Practical Case for Freedom” and “The Consequences of Liberty.”)
In the end, the success of the libertarian movement depends a great deal on its advocates. The ideas of course are important, but if libertarians do a bad job of presenting those ideas, most people will never give them a chance.
It’s up to us.
Sheldon Richman keeps the blog "Free Association" and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What the Hell Are We Doing in Yemen?

The U.S. government has charged into another civil war in the Middle East. When you find yourself repeatedly asking, “Will they ever learn?” the answer may be that the decision-makers have no incentive to do things differently. What looks like failure may be the intended outcome. Quagmires have their benefits -- to the ruling elite -- if American casualties are minimized.
The Obama administration is assisting Saudi Arabia in its bombing of Yemen, creating -- in concert with the Saudi embargo -- a humanitarian catastrophe in the Middle East’s poorest country. Civilians are dying, and what infrastructure the country has is being destroyed.
Why? Secretary of State John Kerry says the United States won’t “stand by while the region is destabilized.” Kerry is a veteran, and presumably a student, of America’s Indochina war. So he must know that bombing is a terrible way to prevent destabilization. Kerry isn’t stupid -- but that means he’s a liar and a demagogue.
Note that he says “the region,” not “Yemen.” Why would a civil war in Yemen affect the region? Because according to the official narrative, faithfully carried by most of the news media, Yemen is under siege by agents of Iran, the Houthis.
Iran today serves the same purpose the Soviet Union, or the International Communist Conspiracy, served from the end of World War II until 1989-91, when the Soviet empire collapsed. Iran is the all-purpose arch enemy on which virtually any evil can be blamed. So the war party and its Saudi and Israeli allies tell us every day that Iran is on the march, controlling capitals throughout the Middle East: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and now Sana’a.
But this is absurd. Iran is not on the march. George W. Bush knowingly delivered Baghdad to Iran-friendly Iraqi Shiites in 2003. The Assad regime in Syria is a long-time Iranian ally that Obama and his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, declared open season on, emboldening al-Qaeda and its more-virulent mutation, ISIS. Iran’s friends in Lebanon, the political party Hezbollah, formed itself in response to Israel’s 1982 invasion and long occupation. None of these demonstrate an aggressive Iran. A better explanation is that those alliances help Iran cope with the American encirclement. (Recall: the CIA overthrew Iran’s democratic government in 1953 and was complicit in Iraq’s 1980s offensive war against Iran, in which Saddam Hussein used U.S.-facilitated chemical weapons. Since then, U.S. presidents and Israel’s government have attacked Iran in many ways: economic, cyber, proxy-terrorist, and covert.)
And what of Yemen, where the Houthis drove out the U.S.-backed autocratic president while also fighting declared enemies of the United States, Sunni al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Yemeni affiliate of ISIS? Yes, the Houthis practice a kind of Shiite Islam, Zaidi, but it differs importantly from Iranian Shiism. In fact, the Houthis are merely the latest manifestation of a long-oppressed Yemeni religious minority seeking autonomy from the central government. After years of being frustrated, lied to, and double-crossed, it finally moved on that government. Say what you will about the group, but don’t call it an agent of Iran.
Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a menace, but the kingdom is hardly credible, and the Obama administration is likely to be placating the royal family now that a nuclear deal with Iran may be at hand. As independent researcher Jonathan Marshall notes, “Decades before Iran became an enemy, however, Saudi Arabia began intervening in its southern neighbor [Yemen]. Besides grabbing land, the Saudis poured vast sums of money into Yemen to promote its extreme brand of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. In 2009, it invaded northern Yemen to attack the Houthis, unsuccessfully.”
Marshall adds, “Washington has also inserted itself in Yemen’s civil conflicts for decades.”
Of course Washington has been killing Yemenis with drones -- not all of them even “suspected terrorists” -- since 2001, when the corrupt and oppressive government in Sana’a became an ally in the “war on terror.”
“Yemen’s government repeatedly used U.S. military aid to support an all-out assault against the Houthis (“Operation Scorched Earth”),” Marshall writes, “causing extensive civilian casualties.”
As we should know by now, U.S. intervention is no innocent mistake. 
Sheldon Richman keeps the blog "Free Association" and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Yemen: Who's Who?

If you want to understand what's going on in Yemen, the location of the latest civil war into which the U.S. government has inserted itself, see Jonathan Marshall's excellent "How Washington Adds to Yemen's Nightmare" at

Friday, April 10, 2015

TGIF: Libertarians Must Get History Right

Understanding history as best we can is important for obvious reasons. It’s particularly important for libertarians who want to persuade people to the freedom philosophy. In making their case for individual freedom, mutual aid, social cooperation, foreign nonintervention, and peace, libertarians commonly place great weight on historical examples most often drawn from the early United States. So if they misstate history or draw obviously wrong conclusions, they will discredit their case. Much depends therefore on getting history right.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Real Nuclear Threat in the Middle East

To get a sense of how badly the regime in Iran wants sanctions relief for the Iranian people, you have to do more than contemplate the major concessions it has made in negotiations with the United States and the rest of the P5+1. Not only is Iran willing to dismantle a major part of its peaceful civilian nuclear program, to submit to the most intrusive inspects, to redesign a reactor, to eliminate two-thirds of its centrifuges, to get rid of much of its enriched uranium, and to limit nuclear research -- it must do all this while being harangued by the nuclear monopolist of the Middle East -- Israel -- which remains, unlike Iran, a nonsigner of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and faces no inspections or limits on its production of nuclear weapons.
This is something out of Alice in Wonderland. The Islamic Republic of Iran, born in 1979, has not attacked another country. (With U.S. help, Iraq attacked Iran in 1980.) In contrast, Israel has attacked its Arab neighbors several times its founding, including two devastating invasions and a long occupation of Lebanon, not to mention repeated onslaughts in the Gaza Strip and the military occupation of the West Bank. Israel has also repeatedly threatened war against Iran and engaged in covert and proxy warfare, including the assassination of scientists. Even with Iran progressing toward a nuclear agreement, Israel (like the United States) continues to threaten Iran.
Yet Iran is universally cast as the villain (with scant evidence) and Israel the vulnerable victim.

Friday, April 03, 2015

TGIF: Libertarian versus Welfare-State Property Rights

Last week I set out Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long’s argument that libertarianism can’t be reasonably dismissed as strange. (A modest objective, to be sure.) After all, Long writes, mainstream libertarianism holds that each individual has a right not to be aggressed against, aggression being defined descriptively (not normatively) as the initiation of physical force. What’s weird about that? To those who object that libertarians believe in only that right and no others, Long responds that other alleged rights, say, positive welfare rights, would have to conflict with the right not to be aggressed against, making for an incoherent theory. As I summed up the argument:
If people had rights in addition to the right to be free from aggression, that would indicate that they had enforceable claims against others whose alleged rights violation did not entail the use of aggressive force. (If it did entail the use of aggressive force, we would ... not be talking about an additional right.) That would in turn indicate that the one whose alleged other right is violated could legitimately use force to compel others to act in a certain way. (Remember, that’s an important part of what it means to have a right.) But since by stipulation those others had not used aggressive force, the force used against them in defense of the alleged other right would itself entail aggression.
In other words, Smith’s right to be free from aggression would clash with Jones’s proposed other right. That is incoherent, unless we dump the right not to be aggressed against -- which would open up a horrendous can of worms.
But that was only one half of Long’s paper. It’s worthwhile to look at the second half.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

America’s Foreign-Policy Makers Endanger Us

American politicians frequently declare that the government’s first duty is to protect us from foreign threats. If that’s so, why have they embroiled us in the Middle East?
Instead of keeping us safe, they seem to strive to put us in harm’s way by provoking one side or the other in sectarian, ethnic, tribal, and political conflicts. With one glaring exception -- Israel versus Palestine -- the U.S. government has been on almost every side of these complicated conflicts at one time or another, depending on the geostrategic context.
Considering that record, maybe we should reassess this thing called government. Perhaps if we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t need it.