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Saturday, April 18, 2020

If Adam Smith Were Writing the Wealth of Nations Today

“It is not from the benevolence of the mask maker, glove maker, or hand-sanitizer maker that we expect our person protective equipment, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

Friday, April 17, 2020

TGIF: Is Self-reliance a Libertarian Ideal?

An Associated Press article published a few days ago reported on disagreements among libertarians over what, if anything, the government may properly do about the coronavirus pandemic. My purpose here is not to comment on the quotes from the various libertarians. I prefer to focus on just one sentence by the author, Hillel Italie.

It's this one: "Libertarian principles of self-reliance and minimal government have been around for centuries."

Only the part I emphasized -- the reference to self-reliance -- interests me today.
At first, that term may seen unexceptional -- even to many libertarians -- in an article about libertarianism. A term like self-reliance (along with rugged individualism) is often associated with the libertarian philosophy, again, even by many libertarians. But is that term really pertinent? Or is it misleading and subversive of public understanding? I say the latter.
It's certainly true that libertarians believe that people should not rely on the government because government is force (to recall the quote erroneously attributed to George Washington). But by what reasoning does one equate eschewing reliance on the state with self-reliance? Is there nothing else but the self to rely on? Society perhaps? It's hardly a novel idea. It's especially not novel among libertarians.

Are libertarians against insurance for their lives, homes, automobiles, and medical needs? I don't think so. What's insurance? It's a large number of people, mostly strangers, pooling their resources in case of a long-shot catastrophic event that would bankrupt any one of the individuals. Insurance is the opposite of self-reliance, but it's perfectly libertarian.

Are libertarians against voluntary associations for fellowship and other nonmaterial values? I don't think so.

Is the symbol of libertarianism the hermit, Randy Weaver, or Ted Kaczynski sans letter bombs? Again, I don't think so.

Can advocates of a political philosophy who spend so much time, ink, and electrons praising free markets, global free trade, specialization, and the division of labor hold self-reliance as a core aspiration? Can the people often described by their opponents as "Adam Smith fundamentalists" be regarded as worshipers of self-reliance. No way! The Wealth of Nations is a paean to social cooperation. Libertarian hero Ludwig von Mises, author of Human Action, nearly called his magnum opus Social Cooperation. That's the second-most-used phrase in the very long book. What's the most-used phrase? Division of labor, another way to say "social cooperation."

I suspect that the term self-reliance actually works as a subtle smear of libertarians. It's a way to portray them as churlish, "selfish," antisocial. But as we can see, no grounds exist for that portrayal. When Simon and Garfunkel sang, "I am a rock; I am an island," they were singing no libertarian anthem -- not by a long shot. (Sorry, Neil Diamond, neither was "Solitary Man.")
Libertarians are in no way advocates of -- gotta love this one -- atomistic individualism. Rather, they are, as I suggested long ago, better described as champions of molecular individualism. They form associations for all kinds of reasons. (Alexis Tocqueville noticed this feature of early America's rather libertarian masses.)  Even the non-Aristotelians among libertarians agree that human beings are social animals, which means that the individual's best shot at flourishing is in a society -- as a long as it's a free society, of course.

When libertarians themselves are confused about this matter, they undercut their own case. I have often heard libertarians condemn the welfare state because it discourages self-reliance. I've even heard libertarians demonize people who accept food stamps and Medicaid or Social Security benefits.
But that's not the problem with the welfare state, or the social safety net. The problem is with the armed tax collector, not the recipients.

There's nothing wrong with wanting a social safety net. It's telling that when people are free to do so, they set up their own voluntary safety nets.

Before the growth of the national welfare state in the United States, working-class and middle-class Americans hedged against the risky, uncertain future by joining mutual-aid societies, also know as fraternal societies, lodges, and in England, friendly societies. These were not only sources of fellowship; they were also voluntary welfare organizations built on the insurance principle. (They were mostly member-owned societies, rather than for-profit companies.)

In the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century, working men and women joined these societies, among other reasons, to obtain various insurance benefits. They paid in when they were healthy and working, and drew benefits when they were not. Societies also paid funeral benefits so that families were not left with large debts when the breadwinner died. Some organizations even kept doctors under contract to provide affordable primary care to their members and families. (The state-linked medical societies did not like this "unfair" competition that lowered their incomes.)
Importantly, the societies were competitive and often part of nationwide networks: they boasted of their superior benefits in order to attract and retain members. Moreover, blacks and other minorities responded to racial and ethnic discrimination by forming their own -- successful -- societies. (See David Beito's history, From Mutual Aid to Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967. Also see my video.)

The libertarian case against the welfare state, then, is not that it undermines self-reliance. It's that the state is 1) coercive and 2) bound to provide an inferior product because it's a monopoly with captive customers (taxpayers).

Quite possibly, a libertarian may say he has something else in mind by the term self-reliance. He might mean that he thinks for himself. Fair enough. People ought to think for themselves, though even here we must issue a caveat. F. A. Hayek taught us that even someone who thinks for himself benefits by relying on knowledge that other people possess. Society -- the market specifically -- extends our intellects by enabling us to act on knowledge of which we would otherwise be ignorant. (Prices are carriers of such knowledge.) Yes, we each must sift through what we learn from others, but we could not flourish without that input.

Going back further than Hayek, Aristotle noted that much of what we can reasonably be said to know includes second-hand "reputable beliefs" picked up from society. I'm comfortable in saying I know the earth is spherical, but I could not confirm that personally. To be sure, which of these beliefs are accepted as reasonable is up to each individual; the proof of the pudding will be in the acting. (See Roderick T. Long's liberating Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand.)

Thus for a variety of reasons, self-reliance is no part of the libertarian vision. It's time we corrected the record.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Szasz Centennary


Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas S. Szasz (1920-2012), the most unappreciated libertarian in modern times. Beginning with his book The Myth of Mental Illness in 1961 and proceeding through dozens of books and hundreds of articles, Szasz, a Hungary-born physician and psychiatrist, spent more than half a century analyzing and debunking the myriad violations of individual liberty committed in the name of health, public health, and mental health. He dubbed the union of government and medicine The Therapeutic State.

In this cause, Szasz, who was also a historian and philosopher, not only documented the many ways in which the so-called mentally ill have been persecuted, imprisoned (involuntarily hospitalized), and tortured (drugged, lobotomized, electroshocked, etc.), he also demolished the establishment's case for the oppression and so-called "treatment" of recreational drug consumers, sellers, and manufacturers; homosexuals; would-be suicides; and other officially disapproved persons. No one was better at exposing the horror of the "war on drugs" -- it's a war on people not drugs, of course -- than Szasz. And keep in mind that when he defended the liberty of gays and lesbians, psychiatry still listed homosexuality as a mental illness. (Organized psychiatry voted [sic] it off the list in the 1970s.)

Most relevant to the world today, Szasz insisted on the traditional liberal distinction between personal health and public health, specifically, between conditions that may be harmful only to oneself and conditions that may be harmful to others, such as through a serious, contagious disease. He objected to the illiberal blurring of that line, which has justified interventions against people who have not harmed others and could not do so by, say, breathing on them. No one, Szasz wrote, has the right to declare someone else a patient -- whether sick or not -- against his will.

Many libertarians have ignored Szasz, who was my friend and mentor, because they have regarded psychiatry as beyond their expertise. But they missed the point. Szasz insisted that  libertarian principles pertain even to people who are stigmatized by the medical establishment, which has long been deputized by the state. Until someone threatens to harm or actually harms another person, the state should leave him alone.

Pick up any book by Szasz, including his collections of aphorisms, and you'll profit immensely. He was a wonderful writer and a fascinating thinker. You can find a list of his writings here. Lots more information is available at the Thomas S. Szasz Cybercenter for Liberty and Responsibility. See my post "Szasz in One Lesson" here. Other posts that I've written over the years are here, here, and here. Also see Jacob Sullum's interview here and Jim Bovard's appreciation here.

And the biggest treat of all is this video interview I did with Tom in 2005.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Why Politicians Do What They Do

I don't think politicians relish closing down the economy, nor do I think they'll be eager to do so in the future. For one thing, it's contrary to their interests. They do what they do because when all you have is a blunt instrument, every problem looks like something that can only be solved with a blunt instrument.

Anarchism and Pandemics

I highly recommend William Gillis's "Anarchism and Pandemics" at the Center for a Stateless Society site. It's one of the best things I've read so far on how a free society could deal with a serious pandemic.

Where the Coronavirus Didn't Come from

Benedict de Spinoza

Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), Ethics, Appendix to Part One, "Concerning God":
All such [misconceptions about God or nature] spring from the notion commonly entertained, that all things in nature act as men themselves act, namely, with an end in view. It is accepted as certain, that God himself directs all things to a definite goal (for it is said that God made all things for man, and man that he might worship him). I will, therefore, consider this opinion, asking first, why it obtains general credence, and why all men are naturally so prone to adopt it? secondly, I will point out its falsity; and, lastly, I will show how it has given rise to prejudices about good and bad, right and wrong, praise and blame, order and confusion, beauty and ugliness, and the like….

[J]udging from the means which [human beings] are accustomed to prepare for themselves, they are bound to believe in some ruler or rulers of the universe endowed with human freedom, who have arranged and adapted everything for human use. They are bound to estimate the nature of such rulers (having no information on the subject) in accordance with their own nature, and therefore they assert that the gods ordained everything for the use of man, in order to bind man to themselves and obtain from him the highest honor...; but in [people's] endeavor to show that nature does nothing in vain, i.e. nothing which is useless to man, they only seem to have demonstrated that nature, the gods, and men are all mad together. Consider, I pray you, the result: among the many helps of nature they were bound to find some hindrances, such as storms, earthquakes, diseases, &c.: so they declared that such things happen, because the gods are angry at some wrong done to them by men, or at some fault committed in their worship....
There is no need to show at length, that nature has no particular goal in view, and that final causes are mere human figments…. [E]verything in nature proceeds from a sort of necessity, and with the utmost perfection.... [Later he explains, “the perfection of things is to be reckoned only from their own nature and power; things are not more or less perfect, according as they delight or offend human senses, or according as they are serviceable or repugnant to mankind.”]
We must not omit to notice that the followers of this [divine-will] doctrine, anxious to display their talent in assigning final causes, have imported a new method of argument in proof of their theory—namely, a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance; thus showing that they have no other method of exhibiting their doctrine. For example, if a stone falls from a roof on to someone's head, and kills him, they will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God's will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance? Perhaps you will answer that the event is due to the facts that the wind was blowing, and the man was walking that way. "But why," they will insist, "was the wind blowing, and why was the man at that very time walking that way?" If you again answer, that the wind had then sprung up because the sea had begun to be agitated the day before, the weather being previously calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again insist: "But why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?" So they will pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God—in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance....
[H]ence anyone who seeks for the true causes of miracles, and strives to understand natural phenomena as an intelligent being, and not to gaze at them like a fool, is set down and denounced as an impious heretic by those, whom the masses adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. Such persons know that, with the removal of ignorance, the wonder which forms their only available means for proving and preserving their authority would vanish also.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

The Dog that Didn't Bark

Not so long ago we might have been seeing public-service announcements like this:
For the duration of the pandemic, please use the internet and your cell phone for essential purposes only. It is imperative that we keep the bandwidth open for emergency use. 
Thank you for your cooperation.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Flunk the State!

Knowledgeable people (Bill Gates among them) had warned for years that governments were ill-prepared for serious pandemics. The US government was not just ill-prepared; it also maintained regulatory obstacles — in the name of public health — to others who were willing and able to act.

I’d say the case for statelessness looks better all the time.