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Libertarian Paternalism: Restating the Obvious

There's been a lot of hubbub in the blogosphere lately about Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's book, Nudge. Since they dub their central thesis "libertarian paternalism," and since this new label consists of what would otherwise be diametric opposites, it is not surprising that libertarian bloggers and others concerned with increasing liberty and decreasing paternalism have a strong inclination to reject this attempt to combine the two into peaceful coexistence.

Aside from a creative use of jargon, however, Thaler and Sunstein aren't really telling us anything we didn't already know, at least not with the concept of "libertarian paternalism" itself. Sure, some of their applications of this concept are novel and interesting, borrowing from the many fruitful insights of the young and burgeoning disciplines of evolutionary psychology and experimental economics, which help us discover the limitations of human rationality - areas where our beliefs are frequently biased and irrational. But apart from these new applications, the concept of libertarian paternalism is just another way of describing the problem judges are faced with when tasked with "discovering" the content of default rules. By definition, default rules have to be in some sense paternalistic; in cases where litigants haven't explicitly contracted around the default rule, judges have to decide for the litigants because the litigants failed to decide for themselves. Whether the judge's decision is based on notions of liberty, fairness, equality, utility-maximization, or some other standard is besides the point - the point is that the judge is deciding, not the litigants. If the litigants could reach an amicable settlement on their own, there wouldn't be litigation in the first place.

It seems to me that the only thing "libertarian" about libertarian paternalism is that we are given the choice to override the default if we so choose, by contracting around it or in some other way opting out. And that is a good thing. The freedom to depart from the default rule is surely preferable, from a libertarian perspective, to good old-fashioned paternalism, in which the default rule simply *is* the only rule we get to choose from: no exceptions, no ability to opt out or contract around it. But this isn't really libertarianism as it's generally understood; it's just what is left over when we don't have all decisions predetermined (and unoverridable) by a council of experts; what we are left with when people are free to contract with each other. Actually, on second thought, I suppose this is exactly what we mean by libertarianism: the complete absence of paternalism in both freedom to contract and freedom from contract. But once these initial freedoms are respected, how judges determine the content of contractual default rules is completely up in the air, so to speak, undetermined by libertarian doctrine.

On the other hand, Will Wilkinson argues for a notion of "thick libertarianism" that recommends the content of default rules be compatible with and reinforce cultural beliefs about liberty, beliefs which are necessary if a legal system is to remain libertarian and not devolve back into paternalistic bans on contractual freedom. But from a purely "thin" libertarian perspective, one that deals with only rights and not culture, libertarianism has nothing to say about the content of default legal rules, so long as the freedom to contract around them or to opt out remains.

In the particular example that Will uses - organ transplants - I think the paternalistic case is much stronger than the thick libertarian case. Granted, Will is right that there is a legitimate risk if the default rule for harvesting organs from cadavers is opt-out rather than opt-in, for such a default rule may reinforce the idea in people's minds, and reinforce the idea in the culture as a whole, that our bodies are not our own, but belong to the collective first. Will worries that this in turn may delay or ultimately prevent the liberalization of organ markets, leading to a net loss, measured both in lost liberty and lost lives. And if the choice was between changing the default rule or liberalizing organ markets, the answer would be clear: liberalize organ markets.

But that isn't the choice before us. The prospects of organ market liberalization are about as likely as the prospects of drug market liberalization, the prospects of law production and enforcement liberalization, or the prospects of labor mobility liberalization, which is to say: not very likely anytime soon. While all of these liberalizations would provide mind-bogglingly huge benefits both in terms of liberty and wealth, and while I can foresee any of them happening within my lifetime, I cannot foresee any of them happening in the very short-term, within the next 5-10 years or so. But I can see the default rule regarding opt-in versus opt-out for organ donation changing within the next few years. While changing the default rule may not save nearly as many lives as full organ market liberalization, and might even make organ market liberalization less likely, and perhaps have other pernicious effects on the culture as well, it would certainly save a considerably huge number of lives, thousands of lives that are needlessly lost because people lack the proper incentives to donate - a lack of incentives directly caused by both the default rule and the organ market ban. I just can't see how anyone can be so certain of the potential risks of changing the default rule that they would be willing to give up the enormous benefits in human lives and liberty relative to the status quo that would accrue by changing the default rule. Are we really willing to sacrifice an incredibly large (and much more certain) number of lives now out of fear that saving those lives now would prevent the saving of even more (though less certain) lives in the future, as a result of pernicious changes in cultural norms about liberty, property, and self-ownership?

I agree with Will that "thick libertarian" concerns should influence what we think should be the content of default rules; the organ donation issue is just a particularly poor example, given that the thick libertarian concerns pale in comparison to the enormous utilitarian benefit.

Is this the only issue on which I am less libertarian and more willing to bite the bullet and compromise than Will? I think it is.

Proud To Be A Wimp

David Friedman on libertarian wimps and boors. I used to be a boor; now I am a wimp.

I credit the change primarily to this piece by Roderick Long.

Agorist Answers

Brad Spangler takes an initial stab at answering some of the questions I asked recently about agorism.

Thursday Song Lyric

Kudos to for this little ditty:

(to the tune of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious)

Um diddle diddle diddle um diddle ay
Um diddle diddle diddle um diddle ay
Even though the readership
was borderline Hitlerian
Digging up this ancient dirt
is simply quite barbarian!

Um diddle diddle diddle um diddle ay
Um diddle diddle diddle um diddle ay
From eighty-nine to ninety-five
some joking words were said
But now you've brought it back alive
and call for Ron Paul's head
It's out of context, ancient news,
We've answered this before
We don't recall who wrote those views
How can you ask for more?

Even though the readership
was borderline Hitlerian
Digging up this ancient dirt
is simply quite barbarian!

Um diddle diddle diddle um diddle ay
Um diddle diddle diddle um diddle ay
"Ron Paul is not a racist" says
a black guy in our band;
The other candidates are worse,
together we should stand;
If you believe in freedom you
should put your doubts aside,
For freedom to the Paul campaign
means "give him a free ride"!

You CosmoLifestyleOrangeBeltwayKochtoLibertarian!

Consequentialism Reigns Triumphant

Will Wilkinson "gets" thick libertarianism:

One of the embarrassments of the American libertarian movement is its failure to sufficiently acknowledge how collective bias against blacks, women, gays, immigrants etc. deprives blacks, women, gays, immigrants, etc. of their freedom. To my mind, serious forms of structural discrimination are much worse for liberty than certain kinds of coercion. Libertarians make themselves look ridiculous when they claim that everyone is fully and equally free as long as no one is coercing anyone. Now, this isn’t obvious. At least it wasn’t to me. It took me a good while to come around to this view—to see just how much structural bias does deprive people of their freedom or of the value of their freedom. But I am embarrassed that it took me as long as it did.

Here’s where I’m coming from philosophically. I am no Rothbardian or Randian. I do not understand the argument that concludes in the categorical prohibition of all coercion, but which permits some other things far more harmful to the pursuit of happiness than most ticky-tack government regulation. I agree with some aspects of the 19th century criticism of classical liberal freedom as “merely formal.” I believe that the liberty most worth caring about is positive liberty—the ability effectively to enact one’s plans, to achieve ones ends. In my judgment, a regime of strong negative rights is the best guarantee of positive liberty. Government attempts to guarantee the worth of our liberties by recognizing positive rights to a minimum income or certain services like health care often (but not always) undermine the framework of market and civil institutions most likely to enhance liberty over the long run, and should be limited. But this is really an empirical question about what really does maximize individuals’ chances of formulating and realizing meaningful projects and lives.

Within this framework, racism, sexism, etc., which strongly limit the useful exercise of liberty are clear evils. Now, I am ambivalent about whether the state ought to step in and do anything about it. Maybe I’ll get into the complexities of that question some other time. What I am not ambivalent about is that racism and sexism, etc. deprive many millions of Americans of the full value of their freedom. ...

In my opinion, it is the responsibility of decent people concerned with liberty to at least denounce, if not actively work to tear down, the racist beliefs and norms that enable liberty-killing structural discrimination. If you don’t think ending discrimination is the government’s job–that this is the sort of thing that should be done by persuasion, not force—then you should take this responsibility extra seriously. It’s your job to persuade. If you think the government should do nothing but stay out of the way, but you are indifferent to racism and people who publish racist newsletters for financial and political gain, then it is not unreasonable to conclude either that you don’t really care about other people’s liberty, or think racism has nothing to do with it. In either case, you would be wrong.

I detect a distinct, David Friedmanesque undercurrent to all this. And I like it.

Quick Thoughts on New Libertarian Manifesto

Some quick thoughts before a few hours of sleep and then school:

Just printed out and began reading The New Libertarian Manifesto.

I'm really starting to like this Konkin fellow.

Darrington tells me he had the charming weirdness of the modal libertarian, Rothbard's intended but misfired slur (embrace it, yo! modal+beltway unite!), up to and including endearing obsessions with science fiction, communal living, and funny neck jewelry. Sounds downright Patri Friedmanesque to me. (How was he on personal drug use? Just a weekend toker or perhaps something more? Or something less?)

Whatever the case, the skeletons I've so far discovered in Konkin's closet look really attractive compared to Rand's and Rothbard's.


Essay on Passions and Challenges for Social Entrepreneurship

We live in a world rife with mass inequality and social stratification. This is an odd fact for a libertarian like me—one who considers individual liberty to be the ultimate political aim--to acknowledge, let alone care about passionately. It would seem, at first glance, that liberty and equality are fundamentally at odds with each other – the first, taken to its logical extreme, leading to laissez faire free-market capitalism; the second, leading to redistributionist, socioeconomic egalitarianism of the social democratic, socialist, or communist variety. It is difficult to imagine two greater polar opposites on the (two-dimensional) political spectrum than radical capitalism and radical socialism.

But the world is not as it seems. Maximum liberty, rightly understood, may in fact not only be compatible with, but indeed require (and be required by) maximum equality, rightly understood. Under this conception, far from being at odds with each other, the two are mutually reinforcing; like two keystones buttressing each other in a mortarless arch, both elements support and necessitate the other.[1]

One way to understand this happy congruence is to avoid looking at the world in terms of zero-sum games, in which one person’s fortune is another person’s misery, where to alleviate the suffering of some, we must thereby inflict suffering on others. Instead, we could look at the world in positive-sum terms, captured by the timeworn aphorism, "a rising tide lifts all boats." This is the central insight of free trade, generally credited to Adam Smith (for absolute advantage) and David Ricardo (for comparative advantage). When two or more parties willingly enter into trade with each other, they (generally, but not always) come out wealthier and happier as a result.

The free movement and trade of goods and services, while not complete, is pretty well established as desirable and beneficial for the progress of human flourishing. While there is still much room for improvement at the margins, much of the major work here, both ideological and on the ground, has already been done. So too, the free movement of capital and information is almost universally accepted, if not ideologically, than at least pragmatically settled as the status quo for much of the world.

And yet massive poverty and inequality still exists. What is to be done? In one of those deliciously ironic twists of history, Lenin’s eternal question[2] is today being answered by the unlikeliest (unlikeliest in Lenin’s eyes, at least) of unsung heroes: Bill Gates. “Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites.”[3]

While Gates’ efforts are laudable, and, at least from a short-term perspective[4], perhaps the most utility-maximizing use for his wealth, charity of this type is, in a certain sense, zero-sum, and only sustainable so long as successful businesspeople-cum-philanthropists care to bestow their largess upon those less fortunate. Better than giving a fish, goes the old saw, is teaching the skill and vocation of fishing. Better still, though, is eliminating existing injustices that prevent poor people from practicing the skills and vocations they already know.

And chief among these injustices is the system of international apartheid[5] that prevents the free movement of—not merely goods, capital, or information—but people themselves. As much as egalitarians may focus on economic inequalities within a developed country like the U.S., these inequalities pale in comparison to the inequalities between developing and developed countries. Loosening border restrictions, thereby allowing a freer world market in labor, would do far more to benefit the world’s poor than any sort of foreign aid program ever could, and at not just no cost, but positive monetary benefit, to aggregate domestic income. Writes Kerry Howley, in an interview with former World Band economist, now Harvard economics professor Lant Pritchett in the February 2008 issue of Reason Magazine,

If the 30 affluent countries making up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) were to allow just a 3 percent rise in the size of the their labor forces through loosened immigration restrictions, claims a 2005 World Bank report, the gains to citizens of poor countries would amount to $300 billion. That’s $230 billion more than the developed world currently allocates to foreign aid for poor countries. And foreign aid is a transfer: The $70 billion that rich countries give leaves those countries $70 billion poorer. According to the World Bank study, wealthy nations that let in 3 percent more workers would gain $51 billion by boosting returns to capital and reducing the cost of production.

Not only is promoting free migration one of the greatest possible boons for helping poor people trapped in dysfunctional labor markets, and not only is it a costless[6], positive boon for the generally wealthier host communities (thereby satisfying the condition of positive-sum versus zero-sum), but promoting free migration also simultaneously promotes liberty (the liberty of poor people to travel and sell their labor; the liberty of hosts to purchase their services) as well as equality, on a massive, international scale.

Now, the harder question is how we get there from here. The obvious answer, when dealing with a problem created by politics, is solving it directly through political channels, especially through electoral politics. For reasons that I shall not delve into here[7], I do not find this approach satisfactory or satisfying. Other, more palatable approaches include:

  1. Persuading as many others of the importance of rectifying this injustice. This has the dual effect of both reducing political support for continued injustice, as well as tapping into the creativity and ingenuity of other minds for solving the problem in ways that would never have occurred to existing activists otherwise.
  2. Providing free or reduced-cost legal aid and advice to immigrants, both documented and undocumented, for those who have already made it here and for those who have yet to come, to make their journey, arrival, and stay here easier and safer.
  3. Providing other forms of social support that are systematically denied to undocumented immigrants, including transportation, bank loans, health insurance and police protection.[8]

While formulating these potential strategies, it occurs to me that there is an important distinction between the ultimate ends a social entrepreneur hopes to achieve, and the intermediate means at his or her disposal. Must both the ends and the means meet the (admittedly self-imposed) standard of positive-sum, non-transfer, sustainable interactions? While the ultimate goal of freer migration may constitute a positive-sum interaction, it is much more difficult to think of mutually beneficial (i.e. self-sustaining, non-perpetual reliance on philanthropic donations of time and money) means of achieving that goal.


[1] Expanding upon and defending this claim is beyond the scope of this paper; for more on this, see Roderick Long, “Equality: The Unknown Ideal,” a lecture presented during the Philosophy of Liberty Conference at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, Saturday, September 29, 2001

[2] “What Is To Be Done?” Lenin Collected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961, Moscow, Volume 5, pages 347-530.

[3] Pinker, Steven. "The Moral Instinct." The New York Times Magazine January 13, 2008

[4] The ecologist Garrett Hardin took an extremely pessimistic view in thinking that the short-term benefits of foreign aid would be dwarfed by the long-term costs (measured in human suffering) of unsustainable overpopulation. Hardin, Garrett. "Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor." Psychology Today September 1974

[5] Manifesto for the Abolition of International Apartheid

[6] Costless on an aggregate level, but not necessarily costless for each individual in the aggregate.

[7] See here for further explanation.

[8] For a recent, local example of immigrants’ lack of police protections, see: Feagans, Brian. "Immigrants' unlicensed stores easy prey to crime." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution January 10, 2008

Caged In By Poverty And Government

At the risk of becoming Charles Johnson's unsolicited press-agent, for linking to and quoting from his writings far more often than is healthy, I implore you to read his recent cover article in the December issue of The Freeman, Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know It.

Government anti-poverty programs are a classic case of the therapeutic state setting out to treat disorders created by the state itself. Urban poverty as we know it is, in fact, exclusively a creature of state intervention in consensual economic dealings. This claim may seem bold, even to most libertarians. But a lot turns on the phrase “as we know it.” Even if absolute laissez faire reigned beginning tomorrow, there would still be people in big cities who are living paycheck to paycheck, heavily in debt, homeless, jobless, or otherwise at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. These conditions may be persistent social problems, and it may be that free people in a free society will still have to come up with voluntary institutions and practices for addressing them. But in the state-regimented market that dominates today, the material predicament that poor people find themselves in—and the arrangements they must make within that predicament—are battered into their familiar shape, as if by an invisible fist, through the diffuse effects of pervasive, interlocking interventions.

Consider the commonplace phenomena of urban poverty. Livelihoods in American inner cities are typically extremely precarious: as Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh writes in Off the Books: “Conditions in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty can change quickly and in ways that can leave families unprepared and without much recourse.” Fixed costs of living—rent, food, clothing, and so on—consume most or all of a family’s income, with little or no access to credit, savings, or insurance to safeguard them from unexpected disasters.

Their poverty often leaves them dependent on other people. It pervades the lives of the employed and the unemployed alike: the jobless fall back on charity or help from family; those who live paycheck to paycheck, with little chance of finding any work elsewhere, depend on the good graces of a select few bosses and brokers. One woman quoted by Venkatesh explained why she continued to work through an exploitative labor shark rather than leaving for a steady job with a well-to-do family: “And what if that family gets rid of me? Where am I going next? See, I can’t take that chance, you know. . . . All I got is Johnnie and it took me the longest just to get him on my side.” ...

The favorite solutions of the welfare state—government doles and “urban renewal” projects—mark no real improvement. Rather than freeing poor people from dependence on benefactors and bosses, they merely transfer the dependence to the state, leaving the least politically connected people at the mercy of the political process.

But in a free market—a truly free market, where individual poor people are just as free as established formal-economy players to use their own property, their own labor, their own know-how, and the resources that are available to them—the informal, enterprising actions by poor people themselves would do far more to systematically undermine, or completely eliminate, each of the stereotypical conditions that welfare statists deplore. Every day and in every culture from time out of mind, poor people have repeatedly shown remarkable intelligence, courage, persistence, and creativity in finding ways to put food on the table, save money, keep safe, raise families, live full lives, learn, enjoy themselves, and experience beauty, whenever, wherever, and to whatever degree they have been free to do so. The fault for despairing, dilapidated urban ghettoes lies not in the pressures of the market, nor in the character flaws of individual poor people, nor in the characteristics of ghetto subcultures. The fault lies in the state and its persistent interference with poor people’s own efforts to get by through independent work, clever hustling, scratching together resources, and voluntary mutual aid.

The entire article touches on our recent discussion here at Distributed Republic about privilege and grinding poverty, but especially salient is Charles' choice introductory quote:

The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby trapped.

—Marilyn Frye, “Oppression,” in The Politics of Reality

Had I read Charles article before writing the above linked DR post, I think I would have placed much less of an emphasis on cultural beliefs and practices, and much greater emphasis on the legal and regulatory economic pitfalls created by the state itself. Thank you, Charles, for redirecting my attention towards the central problem.

The Greatest Weight

Close personal family friend, author, and, along with her husband--high-profile Atlanta criminal defense attorney Don Samuel--mother of nine children, five of whom are adopted, four from Ethiopia, Melissa Fay Greene writes in this week's Parade Magazine about a recent trip with her daughter Helen, 10, to visit her native Ethiopia. I can't remember the last time a piece of writing brought tears to my eyes.

It's been five years since my daughter left an orphanage in Addis Ababa and joined our family in Atlanta. Today Helen is a top soccer player, a flutist and the student president of her school. She has gained much, but much is in danger of being lost: her fluency in Amharic, her Ethiopian manners, her sense of her own history and culture.

As we pack for our 10-day trip to Ethiopia, I realize that I have no idea what my daughter is expecting to find there.

“I want to do lots of shopping!” Helen says.

“Addis Ababa is not exactly a shopping mecca,” I warn. “There’s no Target.” I want to ask if she remembers the orphanage or the beggars who line the streets. “I’m packing my iPod!” Helen calls.

Arriving at the airport in Ethiopia’s capital a few days later, we descend by creaky rental van into the city, where cars compete for right-of-way with herds of livestock. Unemployed, sick and handicapped people limp or lie on the sidewalks and median strips. Homeless children dash alongside the heavy traffic.

“This scares me,” Helen murmurs. “I don’t feel like I came from here.” Suddenly, a tall boy leans close to the window and moans in English, “Stomach zero.”

“Give! Mommy, give!” Helen cries.

She ransacks her backpack and finds a bag of bite-size Milky Ways. At the next stoplight, she serves a gold-wrapped candy to another barefoot boy who approaches. He examines it, smiles and requests another “for brother.” The van begins to accelerate. “He needs a candy for his brother!” Helen yells. “Please stop! Let me out!” But there is no stopping. My daughter falls against me, weeping.

UNICEF estimates that 4.6 million Ethiopian children have lost one or both parents, many to HIV/AIDS. Tens of thousands of street children forage in the capital; hundreds more live underground in sewers and tunnels. Some find shelter at orphanages like the one we visit on Helen’s first day back in Ethiopia.

Please read the whole thing.


I just suddenly realized something both earth-shatteringly awesome and frivolously shallow (and yes, I am completely sober): Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars and Heroes fame guest-starred as Flora Anderson in two episodes of Deadwood: "Bullock Returns to the Camp" and "Suffer the Little Children".

That is all.

Solipsism in Upright Citizens Brigade

[Language may be NSFW]

The Unexpected Pregnancy Comedy?

My good friend and fellow 2005 Koch Fellow alum Alicia Cao emailed me the following today:

This is still a really interesting article to me although the arguments being made are not necessarily original. I completely agree with her that the burdens / mistakes of sex are almost borne exclusively by the woman. And this is one of the reasons why I am so adamantly and wholly pro-choice.

I don't know how many of you saw Juno but my initial reaction to the movie was disgust. I find it offensive and obnoxious that the trauma of unexpected pregnancy for a teenage girl can be treated with such a flippant and tongue in cheek way as was portrayed in the movie by Juno. I, having suffered the consequences of sexual mistakes can never be as flippant as she was about them and I have a hard time imagining the female friends who have confided in me ever taking on the kind of attitude Juno does about becoming pregnant and giving up the baby. I hope that viewers really do realize that Juno is as the author says, a "fairy tale" and people shouldn't expect girls to act the way Juno does. Getting accidentally pregnant and/or having to give up a baby is not as emotionally simple and clean cut as the movie implies. It's a fucking ordeal.

To which I responded,

I was thinking the same sorts of things while watching Juno. I also made a connection between Juno and Knocked Up. In both movies, an unexpected pregnancy occurs at a time in a woman's life that is not merely inconvenient, but potentially devastating - professionally, financially, and emotionally. And in both movies, the pregnant woman considers abortion but then rejects it as if it's beyond the pale. I'm sure pro-life conservatives are cheering from the sidelines, but it puzzles me why we are starting to see this same sort of movie over and over again. Maybe it isn't a new phenomenon and I'm just behind the times? Maybe the rules of Hollywood movie making require a non-abortion resolution in order to have the necessary "happy ending"? Maybe showing the true pain and devastation of unexpected pregnancies just isn't financially or artistically possible in this medium?

What say you, dear reader?

Agorist Opportunity?

Rad Geek touches on an issue initially brought to my attention by my good friend Ben "Theophanes" Darrington the other evening, namely: Might the Ron Paul implosion signal an enormous opportunity that we (as young libertarians so-far untethered to any major libertarian institutions) should take advantage of as soon as possible?

Writes Rad Geek,

I’d say that recent news — Ron Paul’s next-to-last performances in early primaries, and the rippling effects of the recent brouhaha over the newsletters published under his imprimatur — is as good a reason as you could hope for for believing that time is up. Either the Paulistas unhitch themselves now or they will be carried far away from their intended destination. ...

So Ron Paul’s chances in the Republican primaries, if he ever had any to begin with, are on death’s doorstep, and all that remains on this point are a number of damning associations with his name that radical libertarians will not be able to dispel or to dissociate within the electoral forum. Those radical libertarians who have tried to use Ron Paul’s personality and campaign, warts and all, as an indirect means for educating people about and persuading them of anti-war and radical libertarian views had best give it up. Those radical libertarians who have tried to mix with Ron Paul’s other supporters as a source for new recruits had best give up on trying to work together with the Paulistas within the context of Ron Paul’s campaign, and start working on poaching them from the campaign into other projects. Any further effort at bolstering the campaign is, as far as I can see, going to be wasted effort. The campaign is just about dead in the water, and ongoing libertarian efforts to talk it up are, as far as I can tell, very unlikely to educate anyone about the real nature of libertarianism. What they are far more likely to do is undermine any efforts to educate people about what genuine radical libertarianism entails. If these efforts are not simply ignored, then what they will accomplish is not mainly to push more anti-libertarians and not-yet-libertarians towards libertarianism, but rather to push them towards associating radical libertarianism with the reactionary bigotry of the hard Right. What would be far more productive is a concerted effort to break that association, by publicly dissociating from and criticizing the Ron Paul campaign, on the grounds of clear, public, and unapologetic statements of radical libertarian principles.

So if we are to "poach" them from Paul, where should we direct them to? Will Wilkinson and others have suggested organizations such as Cato, IHS, and Reason, which are all great institutions for young libertarian intellectuals, but they are not designed to deal with and tap into the talents of your average Ron Paul activitist. The groundswell of support the Ron Paul campaign attracted cannot simply be funnelled into an intellectual movement. What made the Ron Paul movement so unique in general, and so unique for libertarian movements in particular, was not its intellectual characteristics--although those were certainly important--but its netroots funding, absurdly decentralized organizational skills, and the passion and devotion of local activists contributing inordinate amounts of time, energy, and money to a long-shot campaign for reasons that are completely beyond my comprehension.

But there is no where for them to go after the Paul campaign fizzles, and the problem here is not just that this is a huge wasted opportunity. The associated feelings of loss of time wasted in the past, pointlessness of continuing to participate in political activities in the present, and hopelessness about the likelihood of positive change in the future will lead many of these activists to give up on politics altogether (which is not necessarily a bad thing) or come to the false and unfortunate conclusion that the Paul campaign failed and was replaced with nothing because it deserved to fail and be replaced with nothing.

Ben suggested that, given my recent interest in Agorism, this might be just the right direction towards which to channel ex-Paulites. With an emphasis on direct action, a cynical, skeptical view of electoral politics, and, of course, most importantly, an overall worldview much more agreeable to mine than paleoconservatism, Agorism is where it's at, yo.

Of course, word-dropping alone is not enough to start or redirect a movement. Serious questions must be answered and major obstacles overcome before even I can convince myself that this is a worthwhile idea. Why did Agorism seem to die down (and never really catch on) during the late 70s and early 80s? Was it just too much of a personality cult centered around Konkin, without enough second-hand dealers in ideas to carry the torch any further? Did Konkin and his fellow travelers piss off the other major libertarian camps or funders? Was the lack of movement success of Agorism over the last few decades intrinsic to the ideology itself or a result of personality clashes betweem Konkin and others? Or something else entirely?

Agorist experts--both critics and advocates--please weigh in.

Treating Sunk Costs As Sunk

Call it schadenfreude, but I gleefully cheer a little inside as more and more big name (well, big to me, at least) libertarians come out against Ron Paul. Here's Will Wilkinson's witty take:

To my mind, the people who are trying to salvage something of Paul’s reputation are just making themselves look bad. No matter how much money, time, and devotion you’ve given to someone, sometimes the only right thing to do is spit on the ground and walk away, hurting. If it wasn’t before, it is now clear that this just isn’t a man who deserves decent people’s support.

I had hoped Paul would do more good than harm for libertarianism, inspiring lots of college kids to get interested in the ideas of liberty. But now I’m pretty certain that he’s done a lot of harm, causing many people to associate libertarianism with racist cranks. I think it’s pretty important then to publicize the fact that there are genuinely liberal versions of libertarianism out there. The young people who got interested in libertarian ideas through Paul need to be able to find Cato, Reason, the IHS, and other places where one can learn about classical liberalism, which isn’t about keeping the Mexicans out, deploring the abolition of slavery, or hoarding gold.

Hate to say "I told you so" to all the Ron Paul supporters... actually, that's a blatant lie, I love saying it. It's time to pull the plug on the Ron Paul "Revolution" nonsense and mercifully deliver it a much needed late-term abortion. Big ups to the Beltway, major hate to the Paleos.

Update: Well, you can't get a much bigger Beltway name than the Boaz-man himself, second to perhaps only the Kochtopus (well, maybe third after the Kochtopus and Palmer) on the Paleo shit-list. Oh, what a glorious day. Perhaps this will be the final straw for all the remaining decent people to cut their ties with the Paleos? Probably not, but one can hope.

If you haven't read Boaz's piece yet, go do so. In a word: Pwned.

Update II: For the record, I still think Paul is a decent person, who simply didn't, doesn't, but will soon enough understand how poisonous association with racism can be politically (perhaps because he knows more about Texas politics than national politics?), and didn't understand that it is far more politically poisonous to be aligned with racists than to admit to a lack of oversight over ghostwriters. Not that innocent naiveté and lack of oversight are especially admirable qualities for a man running for leader of the free world.

Remember what Nietzsche said about fighting monsters and gazing into the abyss? That playing the political game tends to make you dirty is one of the best reasons not to play the political game in the first place. As a great libertarian theorist once said, "Screw you guys, I'm going home."

Marketing The Social Responsiblity of Business

I just finished rereading the 2005 Reason magazine exchange between Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey, Milton Friedman, and Cypress Semiconductor founder and CEO T.J. Rodgers, revisiting Friedman's famous argument about the social responsibility of business. I'm not sure what my thoughts were when I first read the article on its initial publication date, but I'm now pretty throughly convinced that there isn't much substantial disagreement among any of the three participants, other than differing views on the best marketing strategy for selling an ideology. And in that respect, I think Mackey wins hands down. If we lived in an alternate universe in which the settled majority view was already thoroughgoing Randian, Rodgers' and Friedman's strategy would make sense, so as to avoid any potential deviation from the norm. But, alas, we don't live in such a world.