Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Libertarianism in 30 Seconds

An IHS alumn wanted to create a wikipedia entry that would serve as a forum for discovering an "elevator definition" of classical liberal. An elevator definition is an explanation of a word or idea that's short enough to convey in an elevator ride. The rule of thumb is a thirty second time limit.

This is a valued project as most people don't know what a libertarian is and have little interest in discovering what it means to be one. But the wiki people rightly concluded this is not what the online encyclopedia is for.

Thus I offer LL&L as a forum. This post will be labeled under "Ongoing Posts" to the right so users can update and reference the discussion with ease.

If you comment using the "Anonymous" option, please sign your name at the end to make responding less confusing unless you want to remain nameless.

Driving While Resurfacing

If libertarians really want to make a freer society instead of daydreaming about it, perhaps we should focus on how ridiculous the law can be with a comical but true story.

Yesterday afternoon a police officer followed up on a call that someone was erratically driving a Zamboni in a local ice rink. When the cop arrived at the scene the driver was having lunch with a friend. Noticing tell-tale signs of alcohol use the officer administered a blood test on the man who registering .04 points above the legal limit. He was arrested for drunk driving.

If the goal of drunk driving laws is to keep us safe, how is arresting this man—who drove in a private space with no one else around and didn’t go faster than nine miles an hour (a Zamboni's max speed)—pose a threat to anyone? It doesn’t, of course, but I’ll guarantee you that it will be included in arrest statistics that area politicians will cite to convince the public they are safer.

Superheroes of Liberty

While waiting at the airport last week for the flight home, I got into a discussion with some IHSers about super heroes. It made me think of The Dark Knight Returns, a comic a friend of mine once told me about. In this grimy future, Superman is the lackey of a US President and Batman is retired, though he returns to his crime fighting ways in part one.

By the fourth part, Superman is deployed to Latin America to put down a military force on a small island. This leads to the USSR launching a nuclear warhead which will unleash an EM pulse and shut down electricity to North America. Chaos reigns in the streets and Batman leads an army of followers to restore order in Gotham City. The government sees Batman as an embarrassment and a threat and sends Superman to put him down.

Batman vs. Superman captures eternal struggle between liberty and force. Batman is businessman. As a loner, he’s not a big fan of authority. He donates to private charities. He’s a vigilante. He even saved the notes that would become Human Action from the Nazis. Batman is a libertarian.

Superman is a little trickier at first. In the first Superman movie, his dad tells him that if he helps people all the time they won’t know how to help themselves. A very libertarian theme. But if you look deeper, that’s about all Superman has in common with classical liberals. Superman thinks of people as weak; Clark Kent personifies his view of humanity. He enforces whatever the law says. In a recent Justice League Unlimited episode, Superman sternly says he’d “never fight the government,” not even if Lex Luther was elected president. Speaking of Luther, Superman’s main villain is a businessman. And like many people’s view of government, Superman can do almost anything masterfully. Superman is a statist.

In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman dons a super-suit powered by kryptonite to fight Superman. Does kryptonite resemble reason as the only force that can smash statism? I doubt it was intended in such a way but it certainly works. Something to ponder.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Welcome To the Family

Astute visitors to LL&L would notice that there are two new blogs under IHS Alumni: FLOW, penned by Michael Strong, and Cantillon’s Paradise, authored by David Skarbek. One can only hope they reciprocate.

I met both these sharp guys I met at last week’s seminar and I encourage all of you to add their sites to your regular blogging ritual.

Mike is the Director of Educational Programs at the Institute and doesn’t look much like his picture. David is an anarco-capitialist, as opposed to myself who’s a minarchist. Clearly there’s potential for a catchy-titled debate: David vs. David where we explore the right role (if any) of government. I’m certainly interested in having this debate, though I don’t know how we’d do it. I’d also have to find some Prozac so I could be mentally accustomed to the idea of defending the state. Whoa.

By the way David, where did you get that Calvin cartoon on the June 21st posting?

Monday, June 27, 2005

Speaking of Tom Cruise

This is just funny.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

I'm Back

And I have stories. At the top of list is James Buchanan who spoke at the seminar. His speech was about religion, libertarianism and how they actually meld together very well. It’s a shame, he says, that most libertarians are suspicious of religion because the two can work so well together.

Libertarians claim no authority over others thus people can believe what they want without conflict. Communism, on the other hand, requires the populace to lionize the government, crowding out any prospect of competition. There is only one moral authority and that’s Big Brother. Libertarians simply do not claim to be so god-like.

It’s a good, though underdeveloped, point and it was swimming in my mind as I prepared to get caught up in the news. And what do I see? Scientologist Tom Cruise battering Matt Lauer on the Today Show about antidepressants. Matt questioned Cruise’s comments concerning Brooke Shields, who admitted such drugs helped her with depression, and everything went to hell. Some quotes:

No, you see. Here's the problem. You don't know the history of psychiatry. I do.

Cruise: The thing that I'm saying about Brooke is that there's misinformation, okay. And she doesn't understand the history of psychiatry. She doesn't understand in the same way that you don't understand it, Matt.

Lauer: But a little bit of what you're saying Tom is, you say you want people to do well. But you want them do to well by taking the road that you approve of, as opposed to a road that may work for them.
Cruise: No, no, I'm not.
Lauer: Well, if antidepressants work for Brooke Shields, why isn't that okay?
Cruise: I disagree with it. And I think that there's a higher and better quality of life. [Emphasis added]

Cruise: Matt. Matt, Matt, you don't even — you're glib. You don't even know what Ritalin is.

Lauer: But you're now telling me that your experiences with the people I know, which are zero, are more important than my experiences.
Cruise: What do you mean by that?
Lauer: You're telling me what's worked for people I know or hasn't worked for people I know. I'm telling you, I’ve lived with these people and they're better.
Cruise: So, you're advocating it.

See how he turned that around to an outrageous accusation so he didn’t have to answer the question? There’s an overwhelming arrogance in Tom’s words as he echoes the beliefs of his faith. Anyone that disagrees with him is just ignorant or stupid. He cannot be wrong. I don’t claim that all scientologists are egotistical jerks, but some institutions are more prone to such individuals than others.

This is why libertarians are so suspicious of religion because most of it is based on telling people how to live their lives. Some beliefs aren’t so superior and with no one claiming Ultimate Authority, libertarianism meshes well with them. But others would like nothing better than to strip away a person’s freedom to determine how they will live their lives. Libertarians can respect the belief, but not the attitude; that’s the problem.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Off To the East

Starting tomorrow I'll be in Virginia for an IHS workshop on social change and won't be back until the 24th. I suggest your take this week to browse our extensive archives; the summer of last year was particularly active. Have fun.

Letters to a Libertarian

I don’t know when it happened, but at some point I became a conservative.

At least that’s what the Conservative Book Club thinks. I got a letter a few weeks ago from them offering to a copy of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History if I sign up for their organization. From what I understand, the Guide is actually a pretty good book and tells some economic truths about the New Deal and the Marshal Plan.

That’s not all because this is where things get strange. By now I’m used to being thought of as a conservative for those who don’t know what a libertarian is, but this is the first time someone thought books authored by Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and David Limbaugh would be a tempting offer. That’s right. I can get great deals on books by those who advise shouting matches rather than calm communication with liberals, believe the Patriot Act doesn’t violate civil liberties and insist marrying whomever you wish isn’t a right, respectively.

As usual in politics, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing because a few days ago I got a letter asking me to subscribe to the American Free Press, a liberal newspaper. The AFP piece tried to sell me with phrases like “corporate elite” and “Media Monopoly” (their capitalization).

Here’s a bit of free advice: if you are an organization that proudly advocates one side of the aisle or the other, then focus on economic liberty (for the right) or civic liberty (for the left) to get the libertarian dollars. If you want to paint yourself as freedom-loving in general, then stop it because you’re both pretty crappy at it.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

House Develops Conscience

The House voted to limit the Patriot Act as it pertains to libraries and bookstores. Finally. Now all they have to do is remove the nine billion other over-extended laws--and get the Senate and Pres to cooperate--and then we'll be getting somewhere.

Of course, that's unlikely because the President has already threatened to veto the change. If what Mr. Bush says is right, that the terrorists hate us for our freedom, then why is the Administration so bent on making us less free?

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Get Out Your Checkbook

While it looks like tropical storm Arlene won't be turning into a hurricane, she is a tumid reminder that Pay-For-People-Too-Stupid-Or-Cheap-To-Move-Out-Of-The-Danger-Zone Season is upon us. Hurricanes are sure to be a plenty this year (just like they have been for thousands of years), and with it comes property damage and government checks.

When a flood in 1996 smashed my hometown of Davenport (luckily I was no where near the flood-zone) I heard a lot of people asking why so many live on the Mississippi. I bet my bottom dollar some of them live on the Atlantic coast in the southeast. Do I really have to reciprocate?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Greed: A Definition

Wow I haven’t posted in a while. That’s partly because I haven’t heard anything that’s really sparked a desire to write an article, but mostly because I’ve been busy taking advantage of stress-free enjoyment before fall semester preparation goes into high gear.

So I’d thought I’d take this opportunity and talk about something fundamental in the capitalist and anti-capitalist camps: greed.

Greed is one of those things everyone thinks they know what it is. We usually say it with a sneer. It is the attribute of evil and detached people who care nothing more than indulging in their vice. For many anti-capitalists, greed is the lifeblood of the free market demon: the binding force that ties in all arguments against capitalism. Like money, it is the root cause of all evil.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no set definition of greed. From economists to ecologists, from pundit to pop culture, greed means different things. Generally speaking it hinges on two distinctions with concern to material wealth: the nature of the desire and the relative value of the object in question.

For most, the first characteristic is about wanting (as opposed to demanding). Massive pillars of popular morality, such as Jesus and Gandhi, believed wanting of material things was being greedy and therefore evil. Greed as a matter of want is generally accepted as a signature aspect.

But you are not being greedy just because you want stuff. Both modern and ancient philosophers concluded that want is not always bad. A person should not be condemned because they want food or shelter in order to survive. Thus greed is sometimes equated with “want beyond need.”

This of course means that everyone—including all members of the Catholic Church—is going to hell. Surely there are scant exceptions but can you not think of anyone that does not desire beyond basic food, shelter and clothing? Even the poorest of people want to do more than merely survive.

Modern society has tacitly understood that want beyond need is inadequate so we have adapted the meaning in two different ways. First, we define greed as want beyond what’s earned. If Bob earns $50,000 a year but wants $100,000, he is being greedy. This line of thinking carries problems. Someday I would want to earn a six figure income, even though I haven’t done enough yet to justify that income. Am I being greedy because I set goals? People shouldn’t be deterred from desiring a better life just because they can’t justify it instantly.

Conceivably, protectionist pundits and anti-capitalists understand that people wanting to do more with their lives is a good thing, as long as they are of a sympathetic people. Few would call small businesses and middle class folk greedy the same way corporations and billionaires are. In the mainstream context, greed is set aside only for certain classes. It is want beyond what’s accessible to most people. Whoever “most people” are remains dubious, for the line between the well-off and the wealthy is a matter of context and perception. Thus it is perfect for popular media because the “greed” label can be applied to anyone as long as you juxtapose them with someone who isn’t as successful.

It appears that the popular belief of greed only applying to certain groups (and the desire to be like that groups) stems from humanity’s ancient roots. The rich were those of kings and knights and merchants that curried favor with the ruling class. The greed was often truly evil because they did not merely want more than they deserved, they took it by force if their threats were not taken seriously. Demanding what’s owed (whether it is beyond need or beyond the masses) is certainly not evil, but demanding beyond what’s earned is the hallmark of tyranny.

Modern thinkers get confused. Taking what you do not deserve is a zero-sum game, one with a victor and a loser, gain and loss. For thousands of years this was how most fortunes were amassed and often thought of the only way they could be cultivated. It was greed and because it was at the expense of others; it was a sin.

Yet today, citizens and firms hold greater fortunes than was the richest of kings. Almost as a reflex, we equate them with those nasty tyrants without ever stopping to remember that the people—for the most part—bestowed the wealthy’s fortunes on them. It was amassed through voluntary exchanges and thus pleasing to both parties.

If we constrain our definition of greed to merely taking unearned property, then it is always evil. But if we accept more popular perceptions—greed as desire beyond need or as the want of excess—then we have to acknowledge it is not always immoral. In fact, the rewards of wealth are a power motivator that makes society as a whole richer and happier. That is the hallmark of a positive sentiment: surely greed can be ethical as well as evil.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Market Be a Harsh Mistress

It is inevitable. Whenever free people gather, markets emerge. This is true from the lowliest of small towns to the largest global societies. It’s even true when the stage in question isn’t really there.

World of Warcraft is a Mass-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG). On my server (Azgalor), there are over 12,000 characters with nearly 8,000 of them on my side (Alliance). Players create some of these as secondary characters, which they use for various purposes. But it’s still a lot of active minds.

These minds do most of their economic activity at the Auction House (AH), which, for the Alliance, is in the rather unremarkably named Ironforge. Countless items are traded at the AH, including herbs which people make into potions. By far the hardest herb to come by is the Ghost Mushroom. It’s needed some powerful potions but can only be found in small numbers in remote and dangerous places. For a while, they were going for one gold each (which is a lot considering one of the most expensive thing in the game—the epic mount—costs 900 gold).

This is where it gets interesting. A friend of mine often sells these mushrooms because they generate so much cash (making them available to lower levels like myself). But he noticed they were selling incredibly fast, even at that high price and even though he was “farming” for them all the time. So in true supplier form, he raised his price.

Doing this on the AH is very hard because undercutting is a common tactic. But since these mushrooms are hard to come by and my friend has other characters on his account, he thought he’d give it a try. He sent the goods to his pair of “alts” so he could sell them under their names. He even contacted another vendor of the ‘shrooms, telling him the price was rising. This other vendor thought it was a great idea; apparently his mushrooms were going fast, too.

Overnight the price doubled to two gold, and it looked like it was the consensus of four different players.

My friend gladly declared to me that he loves gouging people. I calmly told him “gouging” is actually impossible, unless force is involved. This is a lesson he quickly learned because he couldn’t sell his wares. One gold may have been too little, but two gold was too much. And to make matters worse, some people who weren’t selling them before began to undercut his bids. Apparently, they didn’t think one gold was enough to even bother.

I’ve just checked the price of the mushrooms and currently they are selling at just over one gold piece, my friend included. People don’t control markets, markets control people.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Sense and Sithability

I saw Episode Three yesterday. The dialogue was corny and most of the acting was poor, as predicted. But for some reason I couldn’t describe, I found myself thinking “This isn’t half bad. It’s actually okay.” Maybe it was the epic battle scenes, the overarching conspiracy plot, seeing the wookie planet or discovering how Darth Vader became Darth Vader, but I wasn’t completely disgusted.

Yet as I think about it more and I realize it’s a tragedy. The most interesting part of the movie—the conspiracy—is drenched in several layers of crap. Hat tip to Maddox’s review which helped me sort through these issues.

Beyond the dialogue and acting, there were cutsy additions, overwhelming and unnecessary special effects, poorly executed character development and nasty cases of inconsistency. But Maddox doesn’t go far enough. While he rightly pointed out how unreasonable Anakin’s switch to the dark side was (check out the cartoons here and here), that problem pales in comparison to how easily the Senate throws aside democracy in favor of a dictatorship. It takes just one speech about how bad Jedis are—one speech—and people are cheering for an emperor. Excuse me, what? The war just ended, the democracy is on the winning side and Jedis are famous for being the good guys. No power hungry tyrant—not Hitler, not Napoleon, not Caesar—could pull this off. But Palpatine did?

All of these things were clear to me when I was watching the film, but like millions of others I still walked away with a positive opinion. Why? Why is it so hard for people to realize it’s a crappy movie? The simple fact is we don’t want it to be.

The movie answers a lot of questions people had from the far more likeable trilogy. It explores characters we care about and connects them to fonder memories from earlier movies. It revolves around an epic and powerful story about greed, deception and betrayal. Thus we are willing to ignore how badly the story is told in order to accept the story itself. What we forget is that there are hundreds of well told stories with similar plots. Remember that next time someone praises Episode Three.