Tuesday, September 2, 2014

We Need to Talk, Really. Generations Talk Past One Another on Liberty

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In my state, the decision whether it is legal to make retail sales of (not possess or use) alcohol is decided at the county level.  In practice, this has resulted in half of the counties which are smaller and more rural staying "dry" while the larger more urban counties turn "wet" one by one.  My own county became wet a few years ago.  The general trend is not always true though, a county in the middle of the state containing one of our larger cities just voted down a proposal to go "wet."

What has happened behind the scenes is that the large retailers, such as Wal-Mart, want to sell everywhere and have grown tired of waiting on the citizens of each county to make that decision on their own.   These interests have arranged to send to the ballot a state-wide proposal which would take this decision out of the hands of each county and make the whole state "wet."

I am a member of a good state-based Liberty-friendly Face Book political discussion group and this issue produced a sharp difference between the majority of members- mostly older limited government conservatives, and a smaller and younger contingent that is libertarian, maybe even anarchist, in their outlook.   As a localist I of course argued for letting the citizens of each county decide where they wanted the rules while the young libertarian/anarchists applauded centralizing this decision on the grounds that it was absolute tyranny for others to tell them what they could or could not sell in their own business.

The dispute was sharp, but I am on good terms with the L/As in our other Face Book relations and nothing we were saying to one another changed that or was going to change it.  Still, the older conservatives who ran the group deleted the whole discussion.  The argument between the two groups troubled them.  By deleting it, I suppose they were hoping that this display of disunity could be swept under the rug and we could all stand together for liberty in general.

The thing is, it isn't going away.  The young liberty minded people have a philosophy of government, one which will cut across many issues in a way which will be objectionable to old school limited government conservatives and localists alike.  The moderators may sweep this one issue under the rug, but it will come back on another issue.   That is because the older limited-government conservatives (LGCs) and the younger libertarian/anarchists (L/As) use different means to evaluate public policy issues and they are talking past one another mostly without realizing it.

The LGCs tend not to have an interconnected philosophy of government.   They mostly make their decisions from their gut and use 'common sense' about when government has gone too far.   They look at issues one at a time and don't connect them to some over-arching principle.     I can understand that, because it takes a lot of work to develop a comprehensive and coherent philosophy about anything.   Most of the LGCs don't like government enough to want to put in that kind of effort on a philosophy of government.  They just want, in most cases, it to be smaller and less expensive.

This is also one big reason why LGCs keep losing.   When a minor policy change occurs they often don't even understand that they are under attack until the left, which obsesses on government and often actually does have a well thought out philosophy, has advanced their goals until the outcome is almost a fate accompli.  They don't get stirred up until it starts to step on their toes, and thus LGCs are often reactionary.  The left initiates a change, then the LGCs get up in arms about it.  But you can't win by playing defense all the time.   You have to understand what your aim is if you want to achieve it, and you need a filter to help you understand whether or not each idea or politician who comes down the pike is going to help or hurt in achieving that aim.

This lack of a comprehensive philosophy also explains why LGCs are disappointed so very often by politicians.   The establishment can just pick one of their own to make a few belligerent statements which sound good to LGC and they will trip over themselves to support them.   Nevermind that the politicians has made some policy changes in other areas which ought to be red flags for the LGCs, or that they make establishment hires.   Without a comprehensive filter the means of catching the early warning signs that candidate X is a fraud simply does not exist.   No wonder LGCs have spent so much of the last 20 years dashing from one would-be champion to the next, only to be disappointed each time.

But my main point for this article is that the younger generation, the L/As, have an integrated philosophy of government.  They have a filter to which they apply all policy proposals and screen all candidates.  Their philosophy centers around the non-aggression principle.  This is the idea that it is wrong (even for the government if there is one) to initiate force or fraud.  This is based on the principle of self-ownership, that each person is their own sovereign and thus there is no magic being called "government" with any more power or moral permission to use force than the individual.  By this standard, laws which to LGCs seem to be trivial irritants or even desirable restrictions which reasonable people agree to because certain activities have a long history of resulting in public harm, are to the L/As unbearable tyranny, and gross infringements of what they declare to be their "rights".

The root of the conflict is this, the LCGs have no filter which permits a systematic evaluation of policy, and the L/As have a flawed filter which cannot distinguish between true government violations of fundamental rights and minor inconveniences over regulations which are commonly understood to be part of the price of living together in a civilized society.

As I said before, it is hard work developing a valid philosophy of government.  Humans take the easy way out whenever they can.  For LGCs, this means pretty much ignoring the subject entirely, for L/As this means picking up a truncated, simplistic and incomplete philosophy of government which is too brief to really contain all of moral reality as it pertains to government.  Albert Einstein once said "Everything should be a simple as possible, but no more so."   It is likely that the libertarian position, and certainly the anarchist position, is simpler than is possible.

While it may be too simple to serve as a workable and just philosophy of government, it serves well at giving the younger generation a superficially plausible basis to feel morally superior to LGCs and true statists alike.  Too be fair, the younger generation has been put into a very difficult spot by their elders.  They have been handed an economy crippled by debt, a political landscape controlled by two corrupt and big-spending party machines, and a government which is moving aggressively against more and more of our true fundamental rights each day.  In such an environment, a philosophy which the younger generation can throw in the face of their elders and say "who are you to tell me that I can't smoke pot" from a nominal moral high ground is very appealing.

It is so appealing that I am telling those of you in my generation and above that avoiding the subject is not going to work.  Hoping it will go away will not work.  Trying to charm your way around it won't work.  If that is your plan, or if you have no plan, then you are going to lose the next generation, because even though what they have in terms of ideas is flawed, if you don't have anything better to offer them you will lose them.  You can't beat something with nothing.

It does not matter that they are getting it wrong.   A philosophy which lumps having to drive to the county line to buy your whiskey in the same category as suspending the 2nd amendment is obviously too coarse in its categories.   That they could support the idea of taking a decision to make alcohol sales legal from the county level, closer to the individual, and moving that decision to a central location, farther from the individual, is clearly the wrong direction almost no matter what the decision.  Supporting the expansion of the central state's power when it does as you wish will leave us all with an oppressive central state.   Especially for the anarchists among them, if they are counting on the central state to promote their version of "liberty" on people in counties against their will, they are doing "liberty" wrong.  They become exactly what they preach against, and I have coined the term "liberauthoritarians" to describe them.

None of that matters though, if limited government conservatives don't finally make the decision to do the hard work which should have been done many years ago and adopt a more comprehensive philosophy of government.  A philosophy against which we can measure any proposed government policy and any candidate for public office.  Naturally, as the author of the work "Localism, A Philosophy of Government" I hope you will make Localism your standard.   If you find one more to your liking, use it instead, but by all means adopt one.  Its the only way we can start talking to one another, not just past one another.


  1. "It is likely that the libertarian position, and certainly the anarchist position, is simpler than is possible." I think that is a good observation. In some of my thought experiments about how a liberty minded community might govern itself, I run into issues regarding how principals of freedom and non-aggression could be implemented in a practical set of laws. Land use rights and zoning laws are an example. Do you know of any modern communities who have successfully implemented a liberty based philosophy into their laws? If so, what compromises were necessary or workable (if any), and what issues do they struggle with? Thanks.

  2. Like you I don't know of any. The example I have been given tend to be either small isolated islands where everyone was related (Iceland 500 years ago) or their really was a functioning government on which the nominal anarchist position piggy-backed (such as Ireland 1000 years ago where the voluntary court system which had the power to make outcasts of people was backed up by kings who hunted down outcasts).

    I do think the NAP is a good principle, but I have a science background and in science a "principle" is something that is generally true but to which there are exceptions. A "law" is something that has been shown to be true every time without exception. I suspect they are taking a very good principle and trying to make it operate as a law.