Monday, December 26, 2011

Noah Smith on Ron Paul's Texas Libertarianism

Noah Smith has a post examining the shortcomings of Ron Paul's Libertarianism based on its ignoring the local bully factor.
I have often remarked in the past how libertarianism - at least, its modern American manifestation - is not really about increasing liberty or freedom as an average person would define those terms. An ideal libertarian society would leave the vast majority of people feeling profoundly constrained in many ways. This is because the freedom of the individual can be curtailed not only by the government, but by a large variety of intermediate powers like work bosses, neighborhood associations, self-organized ethnic movements, organized religions, tough violent men, or social conventions. In a society such as ours, where the government maintains a nominal monopoly on the use of physical violence, there is plenty of room for people to be oppressed by such intermediate powers, whom I call "local bullies."
The modern American libertarian ideology does not deal with the issue of local bullies. In the world envisioned by Nozick, Hayek, Rand, and other foundational thinkers of the movement, there are only two levels to society - the government (the "big bully") and the individual. If your freedom is not being taken away by the biggest bully that exists, your freedom is not being taken away at all.
Read the rest at Noahopinion
The liberty of local bullies
by Noah Smith
(h/t Kevin Fathi via email)

My comment over there:
Anarchism is a political philosophy that places liberty of individuals at the apex of the value system in terms of which policy is determined. There are many flavors of anarchism on both eft and right. Contemporary Libertarianism is a congerie of various flavors of anarchism of the right, which are also called anarcho-capitalism and individualist libertarianism, Economically, this is laissez-faire capitalism. The left has its corresponding flavors, called anarcho-socialism, for example. Outside the US, this is called libertarian socialism.
We are going to be hearing a lot more about anarchism in the coming years, since lies at the heart of both the Tea Party, which has already positioned itself politically and garnered a modicum of power, and the Occupy movement, which has not yet coalesced as a political force.
Anarchism is essentially opposed to institutionalism. Strict anarchism rejects institutions in all forms, holding that institutions are loci of power, and politics is essentially competition for power among vying groups, which inevitably leads to the attempt of one group to control other groups and individuals.
The challenge for strict forms of anarchism is to explain how the local bully problem can be avoided in the absence of some form of institutional governance. The challenge for loose forms of anarchism is to explain how minimal institutionalism can be contained.
In a complex world with a global economy this is a daunting challenge indeed. It would seem that both the strict and loose forms of anarchism required some policing power to prevent abuse. And that introduces the potential for both violence and the capture of a monopoly on violence by some individual or group.
Many contemporary LIbertarians and anarcho-socialists have not really though this through. As a result their nostrums are not only unconvincing but also if followed, counterproductive on their own terms.
This can have extremely untoward consequences. For example, Mikhail Bakunin presciently warned that Marx and Engel's notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat would result in tyrannical dictatorship. On the other hand, laissez-faire capitalism tends toward monopoly capitalism and unbridled rent-seeking, as we are already witnessing in the US and other developed countries, where business has managed to remove government regulation, oversight and accountability. (link)
We are going to be hearing much more about anarchism and its various flavors in the coming year, so I plan to be examining it more closely in future posts. Interest in it is a rising trend among youth, and it is going to be with us for a long time.

Those who were politically active in the Sixties and Seventies probably remember that this was a hot topic then, too. It's been kept alive by public intellectuals like Robert Nozick on the right and Noam Chomsky on the left, and now it is re-entering US politics through the Tea Party and Occupy. So expect to be hearing a lot more about it either specifically in terms of policy discussions, or implicitly in terms of the buzz around these movement.


Nathan Tankus said...

"Anarchism is essentially opposed to institutionalism" i have yet to meet or read a single left anarchist who is opposed to institutions. please provide a citation for this

Tom Hickey said...

ANARCHISM: The philosophy of a new social order based on
liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.
— Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays, p. 35

Institutional arrangements are based on rules. Rules are the means of governing. Rules limit individual freedom, even self-imposed rules if one makes a rule that one cannot change previously made rules rules at will.

Nathan Tankus said...

"Anarchy does not mean without rules, but is a philosophy and social system without rulers.[3] Some people incorrectly define anarchy as no rules or boundaries, but that most certainly would be a world of chaos and confusion. The distinction between rules and rulers is important. Likewise, anarchy does not mean a social system without leaders."

Tom Hickey said...

That is not strict anarchism. You are quoting a loose anarchist.

I have lived in strict anarchist groups. Take my word for it, no rules, not even self-imposed ones.

Tom Hickey said...


Electeds complain we don't have official spokespeeps or liasons 2 negotiate w/. What if they tweeted 2 us? #transparency cc:@MikeBloomberg

Nathan Tankus said...

"That is not strict anarchism. You are quoting a loose anarchist.

I have lived in strict anarchist groups. Take my word for it, no rules, not even self-imposed ones."

I'm not sure what criterion your using for "strict" and "loose" anarchism. Every anarchist I've ever met from a co-founder of food not bombs to Howard Zinn thinks that anarchism means "not no rules, just no rulers". David Graeber has expressed similar attitudes. I think you're confusing the individualist anarchists for all anarchists.

Tom Hickey said...

Strict anarchism of the left is perhaps best summarized in St. Augustine of Hippo's dictum: "Love and do what you will."

Dilige, et quod vis fac — Augustine, Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John

Love exists beyond all rules and it alone can provide the solidarity required for a truly free community with no need for either rules or rulers. For love is a law unto itself and it cannot be framed as any rule constructed of reason or a set of rules to be followed behaviorally.

For those who live in the present, the next right step is intuitively obvious, and those who love unconditionally automatically take the whole into consideration without thinking.

This is the teaching of perennial wisdom.

Nathan Tankus said...

again, you're associating individualist anarchism with "strict" anarchism. I think this terminology is misleading. The vast majority of anarchists that I've met in Occupy Wall Street are social anarchists, not individualist anarchists. If you truly are interested in engaging with these thinkers, you should focus on what they actually think.

Tom Hickey said...

Strict anarchists would say that loose "anarchists" are pissing in the wind — that they have lowered the bar, which will come back to bite them through the inevitable rise of issues like local bullying. It is already a growing problem in the Occupy movement, where some are complaining that the process is being sidetracked or even hijacked for expediency. For instance, who controls the purse with neat a million dollars in it is becoming a sore spot.

Achieving strict anarchism takes enormous commitment to change oneself, and many people naturally feel that political exigencies do not permit that. Strict anarchists see this tendency toward expediency as sliding down the slippery slope that will result in organization rather than free community.

Admittedly many people in movements like Occupy are not committed anarchists or even anarchists at all. Moreover, as I mentioned previously strict anarchy, which alone results in individual freedom in free community, is very difficult to achieve, let alone scale. This greatly complicates matters.

My own conclusion is that strict anarchy and therefore individual freedom in free community requires an expended level of consciousness that is far above the norm characteristic of collective consciousness at present.

But my conclusion is also that unless there is a transformation of collective consciousness, it will not be possible to achieve the ideals that anarcho-socialists seek to secure due to issues like the rise of local bullies. This was all examined in depth intellectually in the lead in to the unsuccessful European revolutions of 1848 and elaborated on in their aftermath.

It is also my conclusion that anarcho-capitalism leads to the same conditions that typify history, where owners dominated and exploited the rest of society. It's the socio-political economic version of right is might in the industrial age.

Nathan Tankus said...

I see, so these nameless "strict" Anarchists are the only real anarchists and Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, David Graeber and every other social anarchist I've ever met are "loose" anarchists and aren't "committed" anarchists who have "sacrificed" their ideals for "political expediency". You might be able to recognize that I don't take this argument very seriously. Why should this nameless, faceless, small group of anarchists get to claim that all other anarchists aren't really anarchists? Why are these nameless anarchists more important to engage with then these anarchists who i actually know about?

Tom Hickey said...

If you truly are interested in engaging with these thinkers, you should focus on what they actually think.

My impression is that they are mostly not anarcho-socialists or else they are confused about what they think because for the most part they haven't really thought things through. There are other issues, too, like people who think that they have thought things through trying to steer the process their way, and meeting resistance, which slows or stops everything. This is very much a movement in the making. Everyone is enthused at this early stage, but the heavy lifting is yet to come.

I am not faulting anyone in particular since it is really not possible to "think things through" other than theoretically. But Occupy is not a theoretical movement. It is attempting to affect change practically. This means working through a process, which they are doing. and that is good.

What I do see, however, is a view that is pretty widespread that technology can provide alternatives like direct democracy and digital money that will reduce or eliminate political and economic problems. I think that his is largely naive because what needs to be changed is primarily collective consciousness.

Admittedly, there is a reciprocal interaction between collective consciousness and material conditions. But simply changing material conditions will not miraculously change collective consciousness any more than rearranging business conditions will eliminate cheating. New says of cheating will just be developed unless consciousness is changed, too.

Previously in history, revolutions that were successful were largely spontaneous, although managed in some ways by activists if not "leaders." But if a revolution is successful it has to translate that success into governing. This is really where the problems arise and not revolution in history has successfully resulted in a free society. The American revolution was quickly hijacked by an elite and democratic populism was first marginalized and then suppressed violently. It's been downhill since.

The only free communities of which I am aware are those choosing to live underground in the outlaw area and concealing themselves to avoid detection.

In my view, the best way forward for the Occupy and related movements is to emulate Gandhi's satyagraha (non-violent resistance). Of necessity, the movement must remain leaderless and leaders will not be tempted to assert themselves openly, since they will be targets for the authorities. So the issue of control is not likely to develop in the early days, or even before victory — whatever that would look like is extremely unclear at this point.

Nathan Tankus said...

ok I think i need to be a bit more direct to get an answer. Are Noam Chomsky and David Graeber Anarchists and was Howard Zinn one?

Tom Hickey said...

Why should this nameless, faceless, small group of anarchists get to claim that all other anarchists aren't really anarchists? Why are these nameless anarchists more important to engage with then these anarchists who i actually know about?

An unfree society does not tolerate free people very well. The fundamental operating principle of free people associating in free communities is: Be transparent to your friends and invisible to your enemies, realizing that anyone who attempts to control you in any way is an enemy.

Tom Hickey said...

ok I think i need to be a bit more direct to get an answer. Are Noam Chomsky and David Graeber Anarchists and was Howard Zinn one?

They are loose anarchists in my view. That is not necessarily a criticism because they are attempting to effect political change and trying to do that in terms of strict anarchism is not possible absent a massive shift in collective consciousness.

Karl Marx was a pioneer in several extremely important senses. In the first place, he was trained as a philosopher and he was the first philosopher to be chiefly empirical rather than theoretical. Secondly, he was one of the founders of what grew into the science of sociology. Thirdly, he was accomplished in history and economics, too. From this expanded vantage point, he concluded that the trend of progress is toward greater liberalization. As a theoretician, he concluded that this process would unfold on its own in time based on changing condition. However, as a political activist he sought to give the trend a push. While the revolutions of 1848 were unsuccessful, Marxism did eventually become enormously influential, but it a way that Marx himself would have abhorred and would have repudiated. By compromising in the name of expediency, he got hijacked by thugs and rascals, just as the purist Bakunin had predicted.

Zinn, Chomsky, and Graeber are very smart people who have thought things through carefully. I am sure that they realize what Marx realized, too. History unfolds on its own track, and individuals and groups have little means to shape that unfolding if the time is not conducive.


Tom Hickey said...


Zinn, Chomsky and Graeber (and many others) have all provided ideas to facilitate shaping change. Zinn passed away before the change he sought for has come to pass, and Chomsky is quite elderly now. David Graeber is young (50), an accomplished theoretician, and a leading activist. He is definitely spearheading the development of the Occupy movement from the perspective of loose anarchism. He is a major player and is going out on a limb and putting his butt on the line.

I don't want to detract from what any of these people have done or are doing. It is part of the unfolding of the historical process. Zinn and Chomsky were before their time, With Graeber it may be different.

However, I can't get too sanguine yet. I recall how we all thought that victory was at hand when Nixon resigned in disgrace and the US had to withdraw from Vietnam ignominiously. We all though that we had won. Well, we did in a way, in that the countercultural revolution was a fantastic success.

But politically, there was no win at all, and thing began going disastrously the other way with the election of Ronald Reagan. It's been all downhill since.

Economically, the counterculture was shameless commercialized, often by the musician heroes and heroines. Even by Woodstock (1969) it was already becoming a travesty. In addition, the proliferation of drugs killed the spirit, and finally it ended up a pathetic fad. In spite of it all, it transformed American culture and through America the world.

What happened that the countercultural revolution was successful culturally but a dismal failure politically? There was no ability to follow through. Nixon had trounced McGovern even tough the whole anti-war and countercultural movement was working actively for him. That was really the high point, and after that utter and complete defeat, the movement evaporated and people went off to do their own thing. By the early to mid-80s it was over and only traces remained on the surface and isolated pockets beneath the surface.

Hopefully, things will turn out differently this time. I am encouraged in this regard by the analysis of Ravi Batra and Strauss & Howe, who see another great awakening underway. If it happens, however, it will be due to the shift in Zeitgeist rather than any specific cause. There will be a lot of factors that went into it, including the groundwork laid by countercultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies.

The countercultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies was anarchistic in spirit but there were relatively few committed anarchists involved, a few loose and very few strict. Most people were lured by the promise of freedom, but never really approached it in a serious way. The result was license.

This is a chief reason that that movement lacked staying power once major goals were accomplished, like the end of the Vietnam War. Then all but the diehards got co-opted by the glitter, and even fell for the slogan, Greed is good. Over time even many of the former diehards succumbed.

So this is neither easy, nor guaranteed. But we can take heart that history has a liberal bias, so while change may not happen quickly, it comes about inexorably in its own due course.

Tom Hickey said...

I should clarify what I meant by the protestors thinking they had won when the US was forced to withdraw from Vietnam ignominiously. It doesn't mean that the protestors were anti-American in being gratified at this.

The protestors believed, wrongly, that the US had learned a bitter lesson about projecting power abroad for reasons other than national defense. The thinking was that using war as an instrument of foreign policy was now over for good.

However, the lesson that TPTB learned instead was that the draft was a political liability. The consequence was transition to a professional army to avoid that political liability, which resulted in an even worse situation. That just meant that projection of military power was even easier than before, as subsequent events go to show. So mark that one up as a loss.

Things don't always turn out the way one thinks.

Laura said...

So now you can be in favor of capitalism and claim to be an anarchist. Wonderful.

Must American culture hijack and destroy the meaning of every ideological term it encounters? Right Libertarianism has no place in Anarchist thought outside of the US.