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In the continuing debate against Libertarians (and all other ideologues of all stripes, for that matter), here’s the bottom line: There’s only one rational ideology to adhere to, and that is to strive to be rational; there’s only one humane ideology to adhere to, and that is to strive to be humane.

Striving to be rational is not a vague, relative term: We have centuries of experience in the development of disciplined, methodical reasoning. We’ve developed scientific methodology and a wide spectrum of variations of it adapted to situations in which variables can’t be isolated, statistical data analysis, research techniques designed to rigorously minimize the influence of bias and to maximize accuracy. We’ve developed legal procedure based on a debate between competing views framed by a set of rules designed to ensure maximum reliability of the evidence being considered and to identify the goals being pursued (adherence to formally defined laws). We’ve developed formal logic and mathematics, rules of deduction and induction, which maximize the soundness of conclusions drawn from premises, the premises themselves able to be submitted to the same rules for verifying raw data and drawing conclusions from that data.

Not everyone is trained in these techniques, but everyone can acknowledge their value and seek to participate in privileging them over other, more arbitrary and less rational approaches to arriving at conclusions. A commitment to democracy and pluralism does not require a commitment to stupidity and ignorance. The mechanisms by which we balance the need for all to have their say and all interests to be represented with the need for the best analyses to prevail in the formation of our public policies is an ongoing challenge, but we can all agree that we should meet that challenge head-on, rather than pretend that the drowning out of the cogent arguments of informed reason by the relentless and highly motivated noise of irrational ignorance is the height of self-governance.

Striving to be humane is not a vague, relative term either: We have centuries of development of thought concerning what that means, including John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice”, which provides a pretty good heuristic guideline of what humane policies should look lie (they should be the kinds of policies that highly informed and rational people would choose if they didn’t know what situation they were going to be born into or what chances of life they were going to encounter). This is basically a derivation and elaboration of the Golden Rule, which exists in some form or another in virtually every major religion on Earth. We all understand that justice requires that everyone be assured the same opportunity to thrive, and while we can agree that that is a formidable challenge that is more of an ideal toward which we can continue to strive than a finished achievement we can expect to accomplish in the near future, and that important counterbalancing imperatives must be considered and pursued simultaneously (in other words, that we need to balance the challenges of creating an ever-more more robust, fair, and sustainable social institutional framework), we can also agree that it is one of the guiding principles by which we should navigate as we forge our way into the future.

So, guided by our humanity, we have a clear objective that all of our public policies should strive to serve: Maximizing the robustness, fairness, and sustainability of our social institutional landscape to the greatest extent possible, such that no individual, if fully informed and rational, would want to change any aspect of it if they did not know where or when or into what situation they would be born or what chance occurrences they would encounter in life. And we have a clear means of most effectively pursuing that objective: Robust public discourse in which we allow the most cogent, information-intensive, methodologically and analytically sound arguments regarding how best to maximize the robustness, fairness and sustainability of our social institutional landscape, on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis, to prevail.

And THAT, what I just described above in the preceding five paragraphs, is really the only ideology we need, the only ideology we should adhere to as we move forward as a polity, wise enough to know that none of us knows all that much, humane enough not to blithely dismiss –whether implicitly or explicitly– the suffering and gross injustices endured by numerous others, intelligent enough to know that the appropriate role of a democratically and constitutionally circumscribed government in the modern world cannot be intelligently reduced to a handful of platitudes, informed enough to recognize that the rule of law is predominantly a procedural rather than substantive ideal, and smart enough to recognize that it is our commitment to these procedural and methodological disciplines of informing and devising public policies that will define how intelligently, humanely, and effectively we govern ourselves.

What continues to stand against this simple and clear ideology of a commitment to reason and humanity realized through disciplined procedures and methodologies are the plethora of blind dogmas, substantive false certainties, and precipitous conclusions that litter our shared cognitive landscape. Whether it is Marxism, politically active evangelical Christianity, politically active fundamentalist Islam, Libertarianism, or any other substantive dogma which presumes to know what we are in reality continuing to study, debate, and discover, this perennial need by so many to organize in an effort to impose a set of presumptive substantive conclusions on us all, one ideological sledgehammer or another with which to “repair” the machinery of government, is an obstacle rather than productive contribution to truly intelligent and humane self-governance.

It doesn’t matter if any given adherents to such an ideology are right about some things and those arguing from a non-ideological perspective are wrong about some things; it would be extraordinary if that were not the case, because disciplined analysis seeks to track a subtle and elusive object (reality), while blind dogma, like a broken clock, stands in one place, and thus is right on those rare occasions when reality happens to pass through that spot. What matters is that we all say, “I am less committed to my tentative conclusions than to the process for arriving at them, and would gladly suspend any of my own tentative conclusions in exchange for a broad commitment by all engaged in political discourse and political activism to emphasize a shared commitment to reason in service to humanity.”

The claim made by some that libertarians aren’t against using government in limited ways to address our shared challenges and seize our shared opportunities, while insisting that the problem now is that we have “too much government,” ignores the incredible breadth and depth of challenges and opportunities we face, challenges and opportunities that careful economic analysis clearly demonstrate often require extensive use of our governmental apparatus to meet and to seize. That is why every modern, prosperous, free nation on Earth has a large administrative infrastructure, and why every single modern, prosperous, free nation on Earth has had such a large administrative infrastructure in place since prior to participating in the historically unprecedented post-WWII expansion in prosperity and liberty: Because, as an empirical fact, that is what has thus far worked most effectively. But that does not preclude the possibility that the approach I’ve identified would lead to an overall reduction in the size and role of government; it only requires that in each instance the case be made, with methodological rigor, that any particular reduction in government actually does increase the robustness, fairness, and sustainability of our social institutional framework.

The challenge isn’t to doggedly shrink government in service to a blind ideological conviction, but rather to wisely, with open eyes and informed analyses, refine our government by shrinking that which should be shrunk and expanding that which should be expanded, an ongoing endeavor which requires less ideological presumption and more analytical intelligence. We  neither need nor benefit from neatly packaged blind dogmas; we need and benefit from an ever-greater commitment to disciplined reason in service to unflagging humanity.

Now, the legitimate contention arises that that is fine in theory, but in the real world of real people, ideological convictions and irrational decision-making prevail, and to refuse to fight the irrational and inhumane policies doggedly favored by some by any and all means possible, including strategies that do not hamstring themselves by seeking an ideal that does not prevail in this world today, is to surrender the world to the least enlightened and most ruthless. To that I respond that I do not oppose the strategic attempts by those who are informed by reason and humanity to implement the products of their discipline and conviction through strategic and realistic political means, but only implore of them two things: 1) That they take pains to ensure that their conclusions actually are the product of reason in service to humanity, and not simply their own blind ideological dogma, and 2) that they invest or encourage the investment of some small portion of our dedicated resources, some fraction of our time and money and energy directed toward productive social change, toward cultivating subtler cultural changes that increase the salience of reason and humanity in future political decision-making processes. I have outlined just such a social movement in A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.

Another legitimate contention is the recognition of our fallibility, and the need to rely on bedrock principles rather than arrogate to ourselves a case-by-case, issue-by-issue analysis, much as we limit our democratic processes with bedrock Constitutional principles that we can’t elect to violate. There is much truth in this, but it either becomes one more rational consideration that we incorporate into our ongoing effort to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world, or it displaces our reason and humanity entirely and reduces us to automatons enslaved by a historically successful reduction of reality. We see these alternatives in regards to how the Bible and Constitution are utilized, by some as guides which inform their own reason and humanity and require conscious interpretation and application, and by others as rigid confirmation of their own dogmatic ideology, the latter often through selective or distorted interpretations of their own.

We’ve seen the value of improved methodology and increased commitment to methodological discipline in the realm of science, which has bestowed on us a greatly invigorated ability to make sense of a complex and subtle universe. We’ve seen the value of improved procedures and procedural discipline in law, which has increased the justness of our criminal justice system (certainly an improvement over “trial by ordeal,” or the Inquisitor’s securing of a confession by means of torture, for instance). We’ve seen the value of improved methodologies in selecting and holding accountable political leaders, through carefully monitored “free and fair” elections and the supremacy of the rule of law over individual power. To be sure, all of these are mere steps forward, not completed journeys; the human foibles they partially mitigated are not entirely erased from the new paradigms they preside over. But they are steps forward.

And, though it’s more debatable, with more and greater atrocities seeming without end challenging the assertion, I think our humanity has grown in recent centuries as well. Historians almost universally agree that a larger proportion of the human population suffered violent death the further back in time you go. Even while exploitation and inhumanities persist, they are increasingly viewed as morally reprehensible by increasing numbers of people in increasing regions of the Earth. We have, indeed, as a national and international society, improved our formal commitment to human rights, even if our realization of that commitment has woefully lagged behind. It remains incumbent on us to close that gap between the ideal and the reality.

What, then, are the logical next steps for civilization? How do we advance the cause of reason in service to humanity? The answer, I believe, is to extend and expand the domains of these methodologies and attitudes, to increase the degree to which they are truly understood to be the defining vehicle of human progress. If it’s good to have a small cadre of professionals engaging in science, it’s even better to have many more incorporating more of that logic into their own opinion formation process. If it’s good for the election of office holders to be conducted through rational procedures, it’s even better for the knowledge and reasoning of those who vote in those elections to be fostered through more rational procedures as well. And if it’s good for some of us to include larger swathes of humanity in the pronoun “we,” then it’s even better for more of us to do so to an ever greater degree.

Even if the effort to cultivate a movement in this direction only succeeds, over the course of generations, in making the tiniest marginal increase in the use of disciplined reason, and the tiniest increases in the degree of commitment to our shared humanity, by the tiniest marginal fraction of the population, that would be a positive achievement. And if, alongside such marginal increases in the reliance on disciplined reason and commitment to humanity, there is also a marginal increase in the acknowledgement that the products of disciplined reason are more useful to us as a society and a people than the products of arbitrary bigotries and predispositions, and that the recognition of the humanity of others unlike us is more morally laudable than our ancient tribalistic and sectarian reflexes, that, too, would be a positive achievement.

The influence of reason in our lives has been growing steadily for centuries and has had a dramatic impact on our social institutional and technological landscape, though it has only really ever been employed in a disciplined way by a small minority of the human population. The increase in our humanity as well, in such forms as the now nearly universal condemnation of slavery, the increasing recognition of the value of equal rights for all, the generational changes in our own society with some bigotries withering with time, can also be discerned. Even marginal increases in the employment of reason and its perceived legitimacy, and of our shared humanity being the ends to which it is employed, can have very dramatic effects on the robustness, fairness, and sustainability of the social institutional and technological landscape of the future, and on the welfare of human beings everywhere for all time. This is the path that all of our most laudable achievements of the past have followed and contributed to, and it is the path we should pursue going forward ever more consciously and intentionally, because that is what the ever fuller realization of our humanity both requires of us and offers us the opportunity to do.

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(The following is the beginning of an exchange on a libertarian’s Facebook page, with the first comment being his status update. It continued, as these exchanges often do, with my repeated suggestion that we step back from our substantive certainties and agree to base our discourse on the premise that we’re all fallible, and if we all strive to be rational and humane people, in disciplined and methodical ways, it would serve society better than our competing blind ideologies, and with this suggestion being responded to with every excuse imaginable for why it couldn’t be accepted. And this is the great ongoing tragedy of our shared existence, not just the persistence of irrationality, but the emotional investment in its preservation against all suggestions and invitations to work toward transcending it.)

KW: God Bless You for your choices, now kindly step aside as I make my own.

SH: What if your choice were to hurt others? Should I kindly step aside then? So, you have to qualify it to say “now kindly step aside unless my choice is to hurt others and good citizens need to stop me from doing that.”

But lots of things hurt others in subtle ways. We are interdependent, and our actions affect one another. So some of our laws have to recognize that there are individual actions that we each can engage in that cause one another more harm than we, as a society, can allow. For instance, if I do work in my home that produces some form of toxic waste, and I dump that waste on my own property in such a way that gets into the groundwater that others drink and causes deadly disease among those who drink it, then don’t we as a society have good reason to say that no individual can dump toxic waste on their own property?

There are so many things like that in our lives, so much interdependence, that the meme that each should be absolutely free to do whatever they choose really serves more to obscure the real challenge of determining where to draw the line between individual liberty and agreed upon limits to it for mutual benefit than to enlighten or guide us in any meaningful way.

RA: Live Free!

SH: Self-governing on the basis of slogans rather than in-depth, nuanced, and diligent thought isn’t really that good an idea. One of the things you’ll notice about every one of the most horrible chapters of modern world history is that the authors of those horrors were all always deeply immersed in moving slogans.

JW: @Steve you are dangerously close to the most dangerous slogan of all time “for the greater good”. How about, “my ability to swing my arm ends at your nose”. People have to learn to live in close proximity to one another without resorting to trying to live each others lives for them.

SH: J, our own Constitution declares the importance of governing for “the general welfare.” The fact is that I live by no slogan at all, but rather by the belief that there is only one ideology to which any of us should ever adhere: That of striving to be rational and humane people, wise enough to know that none of us knows all that much, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. That’s not “a slogan,” but rather a philosophy, and not a shallow philosophy that fails to capture the true complexity and subtlety of the world we live in, but rather one based squarely on the recognition of that complexity and subtlety.

As I’ve said repeatedly, I don’t consider the liberal-conservative divide the fundamental one, nor is it how I define my own commitments. I am committed to the disciplined use of human consciousness in service to humanity, period. That includes using disciplined reason, imagination, research, analysis, contemplation, and discourse, recognizing our limitations, uncertainties, and the value of allowing some organic processes to function without trying to impose ourselves on them at every turn. It includes many, many things that can be discussed and debated and ever better understood by ever more people.

If a person comes to that process with that attitude self-identifying as a conservative, that’s fine with me. If they don’t embrace that process at all, but self-identify as a liberal, then they’re as much a part of the problem as those who don’t come to that process at all and self-identify as conservatives. The blind ideologies are not the answer; the processes that best liberate and mobilize human genius are, including the genius of laissez-faire to the extent and in the ways and under the circumstances that laissez-faire is best recommended by our best understandings of how the world works. 

But that’s not what happens. What happens is that people come fully armed with an array of false certainties arrived at haphazardly, through socialization and indoctrination and emotional predisposition, and treat those false certainties as indisputable truths. We all do it to some extent, even those of us who do it to the least extent, because that’s how the human mind works: We reduce an infinitely complex and subtle reality to manageable form in order to function in the world, and mistake our cognitive models for the reality itself. A critical step toward being rational and humane people is recognizing that, and working with it.

But when people declare that they have the one right substantive ideology, they are digging into the opposite cognitive orientation, the cognitive orientation which clings most tenaciously to their own false certainties, and is most insulated from actual fact and reason and growing comprehension. Do I think that that is more closely associated with modern American conservatism than modern American liberalism? Yes, but that’s not really the point. The point is that all of us should strive to be wiser than that, and those who refuse, regardless of what ideology they identify with, merit criticism for refusing. 

I always refer to reason AND humanity, though in many ways humanity is implicit in reason, as long as we agree on certain underlying values of fairness and long-term functionality, because we are ultimately interdependent, and reason dictates that we recognize our interdependence and act not under the pretense that it doesn’t exist but with the constant awareness that it does. “Liberty” does not mean the absence of interdependence, but rather a particular orientation to it, a value embedded within it that only has meaning in its context. Those who neglect to understand that end up turning the beautiful and valuable concept of human “liberty” into a cruel and ugly excuse for acting in predatory and implicitly inhumane ways. 

It’s no coincidence that slave owners used the concept of “liberty” to rationalize their commitment to the institution of slavery (the greatest assault on human liberty in the history of our nation, matched only by the displacement and destruction of the indigenous population), arguing that to deny them (the slave owners) their property (their slaves) would be an assault on their (the slave owners’) “liberty” (see John C. Calhoun’s “Union and Liberty”). And it’s no coincidence that modern Tea Party/libertarian ideology is part of a continuous ideological thread reaching back into that same use of the concept of “liberty.” Knowing and understanding history, deeply and richly and thoroughly, is useful to our present understandings and commitments. 

I could go on. I could write books on this. But there is only one rational place to start, only one rational foundation to build on, and that is reason itself, not the arbitrarily claim of already having embodied it in one’s current substantive certainties (as some I’ve interacted with insist upon, as their way of rejecting the notion that we should all strive to be rational and humane people), but in a commitment to the methodologies and procedures which have proved in recent centuries to be the most robust for minimizing bias and maximizing accuracy, and using those procedures –which include debates that aren’t just shouting matches but actually adhere to the rules of debate, the rules of evidence, the rules of logic, or whose relative merits are judged by how well they adhere to them—in service to our shared humanity. 

It’s a simple premise. I think it would generally favor what are now considered liberal positions, but if I’m wrong, I’d rather surrender my own false certainties than insulate myself from reason in order to preserve them. It is the process of reason in service to humanity that I am committed to, not to any current assumption of what conclusions it leads to. 

And that’s something that all rational and humane people should be able to agree to, should be able to rally around. I know some moderate conservatives who do, and I identify more with them, am more reassured by their presence in our polity, than I am by dogmatic liberals who don’t. And if we can simply put aside the shouting matches over precipitous substantive false certainties, and instead agree to work at being that kind of a polity, a rational and humane polity, then this would be an even more admirable and extraordinary nation than it already is (if that’s what it already is), and an even greater gift to the world than it already is (if that’s what it already is). And we would leave on the margins, on the dust heap of history where they belong, the commitment to ignorance and bigotry and oversimplistic dogma that some insist on adhering to, moving forward instead as an increasingly rational and humane people. 

KW: Steve, why do you use my status to go on your diatribe. I respect your take but you immediately disregarded the simple fact that I am Libertarian and not a single one of my choices harm another. 

JW: I know better than to feed the trolls but I am going to respond to your essay Steve. Shakespeare said “Brevity is the soul of wit”. At least with the simple statements that K and I have made, a reasonable person might gather the basics of our personal philosophies. I read through your entire post and honestly could not make a determination of where you fall philosophically. Given the lengths to which you used as many words as possible to say as little as possible, I am inclined to believe that you are a statist leaning liberal that would bind us in the chains of some nebulous “social contract” that no party signs yet all are supposed to abide by. Orson Wells took such thoughts about “humanity” to its inevitable conclusion in Animal Farm where of course, all are equal but some where more equal than others. Unlike K, I will not respect your philosophy if it is one that would consign us to the politics of pull, where influence becomes the prime product of a society and the real producers are enslaved to the “greater good”.

SH: K, the whole purpose of the rule of law is that we can’t simply rely on each other to do the right thing, and that we must govern ourselves, as a people, with laws that bind us and limit us in certain ways for mutual benefit. You say that I disregard the fact that you are a libertarian and that your choices harm no one else. No, I dispute the notion that we don’t need laws because some people are not inclined to break them in the first place, or that the recognition that we do need laws is compatible with the ideologically exclusive emphasis on absolute freedom.

As for why I use your status to go on my diatribe: If one propagates defective ideas that can be harmful to humanity where I can challenge them, then I will challenge them.

J, you couldn’t make that determination because not all philosophies are dogmas, and mine is one such that is not a dogma. It is a commitment to the same foundations that inform science and law, a commitment to methodologies and procedures rather than to presumptions and false certainties. “My” philosophy is not reductionist, is not the folly of imposing on a complex world a simplistic panacea. It is, rather, a commitment to reason (which is served by disciplined methodologies and procedures that have proved their worth over the last several centuries) in service to humanity (rather than in service to some segment of humanity at the expense of other segments of humanity).

You assume I’m an adherent to your caricature of left-wing ideology, to which you relegate everyone who is not a member of your preferred reduction of reality, not recognizing the existence of any form of political economic thought that does not fit neatly into one or the other of your two caricatures of political economic thought. It’s a tidy but shallow world you live in. Maybe it’s time to consider the possibility that it’s not the last word of human comprehension. (And that’s the point, isn’t it? Knowing that we don’t know rather than insisting that we do, and, in the womb of that wise humility, actually learning, discovering, growing, approaching the challenge of engaging a complex and subtle world with imagination and analytical discipline rather than blind ideological fervor. THAT is the real political divide in America today, whether to be a raging ideologue, or an imaginative and analytical participant in an on-going enterprise.)

“My” philosophy is to start with the simple agreement among all who are willing to strive to be rational and humane people. It may seem insignificant, but I think that it is an important step, because both reason and humanity are easily lost to the zeal of blind ideologies. So, we say, “look, I know that I’m fallible, and that the world is complex, so lets agree, first and foremost, that we’re going to strive to be rational and humane, and take it from there.” it’s a good agreement to make, a good foundation to build on, and very much in the spirit of the formation of this nation, which was founded on the Enlightenment philosophy that a people can and should govern themselves rationally and humanely, debating as rational citizens rather than merely clinging to ideological assumptions.

Once we make that agreement, we can discuss how to realize it. Clearly, scientific methodology is better than other preceding and generally more haphazard approaches when it comes to understanding empirical phenomena, to ascertaining factual and systemic knowledge. Similarly, legal procedure is preferable to, for instance, trial by ordeal, for ascertaining guilt or innocence, or ascertaining facts and applying the law to them. These are developments over recent centuries that have increased the role of rationality in our lives. We can work to extend their domain beyond the halls of academe and the courts of law, and to employ more of their logic, and reap more of their benefits, in public discourse in general.

And it all starts with something as self-evidently desirable as simply agreeing to strive to be rational and humane people, and giving that agreement priority over any other ideological commitments.

George Orwell (not Orson Wells) wrote “Animal Farm” about an ideology coopted in service to oppression. Any ideology can be used as such a pretext, even one that claims to exist for the opposite purpose (as, indeed, Communism itself did). Ideologies always insist that every other ideology is the road to Hell, and that they alone provide salvation. It’s a common theme. They use rousing symbols and slogans to proclaim themselves the defenders of some noble ideal, and then, if they are not more procedurally than substantively oriented, inevitably betray that ideal.

A commitment to humanity is not a commitment to totalitarianism. But a failure to commit to humanity, to commit to reason, is an invitation to the institutionalization of irrationality and inhumanity, as has so often happened in so many times and places. Ironically, Libertariansim has something fundamentally in common with Marxism, and that is profound and oversimplistic political economic dogmatism. Marxism identified the state as the solution to all problems, and Libertarianism identifies the market as the solution to all problems, though economists well understand that neither is and that both have a vital role to play.

We should all act more like economists and less like ideologues when discussing economic issues. We should, in general, all strive to act more like rational and humane people, wise enough to know that we don’t know much, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. That should be our one and only ideology

By the way, the concept of ‘trolls” on Facebook has clearly become distorted to mean “anyone who invades an ideological echo-chamber with any perspective discordant with that of the pariticpants of the echo-chamber.” If that is the new definition of “troll,” than I’m proud to be one, because these echo-chambers are unhealthy to our democracy and do poor service to the growth of reason and understanding. We need, instead, a robust, informed and informative, rational and disciplined, public discourse, where ideas are exchanged and challenged, and we work together to improve our understandings and our ability to cooperate for mutual benefit.

I would limit the term “troll” to mean anyone, on any thread, whose contribution is intended or designed to drown out signal with noise, and reduce rather than increase the informativeness and rationality of the discourse taking place.

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(This essay originated as a response to a Libertarian commenting on another Libertarian’s Facebook page, making the familiar argument about why Jeffersonian democracy, emphasizing minimal government, was both the intention of our Founding Fathers, and is the best form of government possible.)

As you might have gathered, I like the dialectic, so here’s both the antithesis to your thesis, and the synthesis of the two:

Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton wanted stronger central government than Jefferson did (thus, the first incarnation of our perennial, unintended and undesired,l two-party system was Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans v. Hamilton/Adams’ Federalists, the latter pretty much meaning the opposite of what it does today: a strong federal government). The country was a product of these competing views, and has continued to be carved on the lathe of a similar dichotomy throughout its history, to excellent effect. The Constitution itself was the first victory for the “stronger federal government” side, requiring convincing a population that considered each state a sovereign…, well, “state,” in the original and still used sense of a sovereign political unit.

These arguments to a reluctant public were made, most cogently and famously, in The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay arguing for the need to create a sufficiently strong central government. This was in response to the failed Articles of Confederation, which did not provide a sufficiently strong central government.

The history of the country ever since has been one of a punctuated growth in power of the central government. I know that I just stated your major contention, but I don’t see it as a necessarily bad thing, or a betrayal of our founding philosophy: It is, rather, the articulation of lived history with founding principles, since the latter guided the process and form of the former. We retained strong protections for individual rights within the context of that strong federal government: Free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to organize, freedom of press, freedom of religion, protections from police (i.e., state) overreach into our private lives.

In fact, the stronger federal government has been primarily responsible for, and grew in response to the demand for, the extension of those protections of individual liberty; extending them to categories of people to whom they had been denied, and extending them to protect people from the overreaches of individual states as well as the federal government.

The genealogy of Libertarianism, and the argument on which it depends, while exalted by its association with Jefferson, is in fact characterized more by its defense of inequality and injustice (see also The History of American Libertarianism). From the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil War, it was the argument of slave owners resisting the abolition of slavery, the southern statesman John C. Calhoun famously arguing in Union and Liberty that a commitment to “liberty” and to the protection of “minorities” required the protection of the “liberty” of the “minority” southerners to own slaves! This argument was the argument of the “states’ rights,” small federal government ideological camp. That camp lost by losing the Civil War and by the abolition of slavery.

From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era, the states’ rights, small federal government ideology was invoked to preserve Jim Crow and resist the enforcement of Constitutional guarantees to protect the rights of minorities (in the modern sense of the word), especially African Americans. That camp lost by a series of Supreme Court holdings (most notably Brown v. Board of Education) and the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (by which President Lyndon B. Johnson knowingly and willingly lost southern whites, who had until then formed a major branch of the Democratic Party, to the Republican Party, where they have since resided, and continue to comprise a large portion of the adherents to this perennial ideology).

Contemporary Libertarianism is the logical next step in this progression, after having resisted the abolition of slavery in the name of “liberty,” and the passage of Civil Rights legislation and Court holdings in the name of “liberty,” it now opposes the further confrontation of the legacy of that racist and discriminatory history by insisting, falsely, that “we’re all equal now, so any attempt to address, as a nation, the injustices still embedded in our political economy and culture is a deprivation of the liberty of those against whose interests it is to do so.” In other words, just as in those previous incarnations throughout our history, this particular concept of “liberty” still means “my liberty to screw you.”

Libertarians, conveniently, don’t see it this way, because it is a passive “screwing,” one that involves leaving in place institutionalized, but not legally reproduced, inequities and injustices. It is, as it has been before, the insistence that “we’ve done enough, and need do no more,” just as the defenders of slavery considered acquiescing to a national constitution was enough, and the defenders of racism considered acquiescing to abolition was enough, modern Libertarians think that acquiescing to a formal, legal end to racial discrimination is enough,and that it is an affront to their “liberty” to attempt to address as a nation, as a polity, the non-legally reproduced but deeply entrenched inequality of opportunity that persists in our country (see, e.g., The Paradox of Property).

This national commitment to ever-deepening and ever-broadening Liberty, including equality of opportunity without which liberty is, to varying degrees and in varying ways, granted to some and denied to others, involves more than just the African American experience: It involves women, Native Americans, gays, practitioners of disfavored religions (such as Islam), members of ethnic groups who are most highly represented in the current wave of undocumented immigration (such as Hispanics), basically, “out-groups” in general. It’s no coincidence that Libertarianism is so closely linked to Christian Fundamentalism and militant nationalism: It is an ideology that focuses on a notion of individual liberty that is, in effect and implementation, highly exclusive and highly discriminatory. (There are, it should be noted, branches of Libertarianism which are more internally consistent, and, at least, reject these overt hypocrisies, while still retaining the implicit, passive, retention of historically determined inequality of opportunity described above.)

History has demanded increasing centralization of powers for other reasons as well: an increasingly complex market economy with increasingly difficult-to-manage opportunities for centralized market actors to game markets in highly pernicious ways (due to information asymmetries); increasingly pernicious economic externalities increasingly robustly generated by our wonderful wealth-producing market dynamo (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems and Political Market Instruments); in general, a complex dynamical system that is highly organic and self-regulating, but not perfectly so, and without some pretty sophisticated centralized management is doomed to frequent and devastating collapse.

(This is why, by the way, every single modern developed nation, without exception, has a large administrative infrastructure, and had in place a large administrative infrastructure prior to participating in the post-WII explosion in the production of wealth. The characteristic that Libertarians insist is antithetical to the production of wealth is one of the characteristics universally present in all nations that have been most successful in producing wealth.)

The tension between our demand for individual liberty and minimal government, on the one hand, and a government adequately large and empowered to confront the real challenges posed by our increasingly complex social institutional landscape on the other, is a healthy tension, just as the tension among the branches of government is a healthy tension. We don’t want one side of any of these forces in tension to predominate absolutely: We want the tension itself to remain intact, largely as it has throughout our history. Through it, we took the genius of the Constitution, and extended it to constraints imposed on state and local as well as federal government, recognizing through our experience with the institution of slavery that tyranny doesn’t have to be vested in the more remote locus of government, and the resistance to it doesn’t always come from the more local locus of government. And through it, we took the genius of the Constitution, and extended it through the lessons of history and the pragmatic demands placed on our national self-governance by the evolution of our technological and social institutional context.

The pragmatic, moderate, flexible, analytical implementation of our ideals that has resulted, protecting the true liberties that we treasure, extending them to those who were excluded, deepening them in many ways for all of us, and allowing, at the same time, for us to act, as a polity, through our agent of collective action (government), in ways that serve our collective interests, is what serves us best, and what we should remain committed to, with ever greater resolve.

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I have posted before on The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, discussing the amount of noise in the blogosphere. But what I’ve increasingly become aware of is that the problem goes beyond this. There is, from many quarters and by many dynamics, a very virulent reaction to signal, in which noise is aggressively generated to interfere with signal as it emerges.

I encounter this with particular force on right-wing facebook pages, and, among them, libertarian/tea party facebook pages most of all. Most recently, on Colorado Republican State Senator Shawn Mitchell’s page, he and his friends very transparently demonstrated a commitment to burying posts that were inconveniently factual and rational under pure noise.

Within a day, as I was simultaneously responding to a global warming denier on one of Mitchell’s threads by listing the actual empirical evidence, and to someone oblivious to the history and nature of property rights on another thread, who insisted that taxation to mitigate anyone else’s poverty is theft, by linking to and expanding on The Paradox of Property, and as the signal-disrupting noise machine was revving up again, Mitchell blocked me from his page.

It’s always telling when a group of people implicitly admit that the only way they can win a debate is by locking out the opposition and holding the debate in their absence. It’s telling when they respond to invitations to all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, aware that none of us has all the answers, by hurling pejoratives. It’s telling when they respond to “you may be right about everything and I may be wrong about everything” with no similar or reciprocal admission that there is any chance that they might not be completely correct on every single belief that they hold.

And this is exactly what defines that ideological faction. It’s not the substance of their beliefs, which I strongly believe are laden with irrational and counterfactual conclusions, but rather the simultaneous insulation of those beliefs from any intrusion of reason or evidence and promotion of them to the status of absolute truth, that is truly culturally and politically pathological.

As I explain in Scholarship v. Ideology, there is a continuum of modalities of thought ranging from ever-more irrational and blindly ideological in (often self-defeating) service to compassionless selfishness, to an ever-increasing commitment to the application of reason to reliable evidence in service to humanity (as well as enlightened self-interest). Approaching the pole of pure irrationality and dysfunctional belligerence, there is a two-step process employed by which completely unsupported beliefs are first insulated from reason and evidence and then assumed to be unassailable truth on no rational basis whatsoever (also described in Scholarship v. Ideology).

The first step is an appeal to a relativistic argument that all opinions are equal, and that therefore any counterargument to the ideological position that mobilizes reason and evidence can in no way claim to be privileged over the arbitrary opinion itself, even simply by being a more compelling argument. In this relativistic step, “reason” is always defined as completely subjective, formal logic dismissed as “your reason, but not mine,” and evidence whose reliability is better ensured by the methodologies designed to do so replaced with a combination of selective and manufactured factoids assembled solely to “prove” the desired conclusion.

The second step, ironically enough, is a dismissal of any other claim to the same relativism of the first step, insisting that to harbor any uncertainty regarding the arbitrary opinion that was insulated from reason and evidence in the first step would be to make the error of relativism, and that therefore the arbitrary opinion is indisputably the absolute truth. The most obvious example of the product of this two-step process is religious fanaticism, in which Faith, by definition, is insulated from reason and evidence, and then promoted to the status of absolute truth.

(I have posited, by the way, that there may be such a thing as “pure faith,” that has no reductionist object of belief but rather a deep sensation of belonging to a sublime reality, that might be conducive rather than an obstacle to the ever-fuller realization of human consciousness. See, for instance, “Is Religion A Force For Good?” and A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization.)

But there are many quasi-religious, fanatically cult-like, ideologies that make no explicit reference to the divine. They utilize the same modality of thought, the same tactic of insulation from reason and evidence followed by promotion to indisputable absolute truth, and they are toxic to civil society and civil discourse. They not only are sources of adamantly-propagated noise drowning out the signal of disciplined thought that serves us far better, but they are actually targeted waves of such noise, determined not merely to compete with the signal by the rules of reason and evidence (which, on some level, adherents recognize is a losing strategy), but to jam the signal by any and all means available.

The currently most virulent and troubling secularized cult of irrational dogma is the libertarian/tea party movement, which is comprised of a combination of smaller “pure” factions (those who are not social conservatives or theocrats), and larger “hybrid” factions (those who combine libertarianism, social conservatism, theocratic tendencies, and a commitment to the preservation of inequitable distributions of wealth and opportunity into a “worst of all worlds,” internally inconsistent, ideological blend)

It is, as I have often said, a movement of organized ignorance, not merely insisting on its arbitrary false certainties, but zealously committed to imposing them on the world, regardless of the real costs to real people. The iconic moment was the choice to blackmail the nation with a threatened self-inflicted default of our financial obligations as a nation by refusing to raise the debt ceiling –a formality that has always been automatic, and in most nations IS literally automatic– because of the complete dysfunctionality of failing to do so, in service to an economic policy that even conservative economists opposed (the extension of the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, in the midst of a recession). Predictably, it resulted in a downgrading of our national credit rating, which only served to further deteriorate our fiscal and economic health.

I am adamantly committed to the marketplace of ideas, to the belief that all views should be aired, should compete, and, hopefully, the most reasonable and well-evidenced and humane will be the ones to survive that process. But when some factions, some cults, try to drown out other voices, even if only within their own echo-chambers, those factions are stifling rather than facilitating that process of the competition of ideas, ensuring that, for themselves at least, their ideas never have to compete against any others.

To be sure, this goes on to some extent in other kinds of echo chambers, including echo chambers on the left, and it is just as wrong and dysfunctional when it does. But this cultish, dogged irrationality is not what defines any other ideology currently in vogue anywhere to the same extent as it defines contemporary conservatives. Indeed, it is their anti-intellectualism which sometimes leaps out most vividly, their rejection of scholarship as a liberal conspiracy, their rejection of journalism as a liberal conspiracy, their rejection of reason applied to evidence in any context or any manner as a liberal conspiracy.

If that’s a liberal conspiracy, then it’s one to which we all should belong.

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Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

History is unpredictable. As George Will has aptly put it, historical patterns repeat themselves until they don’t. I’m not going to proffer a grand theory about fanatical overreach and inevitable reaction, as though it were an immutable universal truth. But I will point out that, from time to time, when things swing too far in one direction, the reaction gains the more lasting victory.

There is another pattern that frequently reappears, perhaps a more constant one, one around which a simple military motto formed millenia ago: “Divide and conquer.” Or, as Ben Franklin put it, accompanying his famous sketch of a dissected snake, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

The Tea Party has been gracious enough to put the modern Republican Party on the wrong side of both of these trends. They have zealously and implacably tried to move the country farther right than even our right-leaning mainstream can easily stomach, and they have done so in a way designed to fracture by far the largest, and currently only viable, conservative party in the United States.

There is a lesson in this for the Left as well, a lesson many of my friends on the left are as ill-equipped to learn as their emotionally if not ideologically, similar counterparts on the Right: Don’t demand everything you are certain that reason and justice irrefutably recommend, but rather act with an eye to long-term sustainable success. I’ve often been critical of many on the Left for failing to heed this advice (see, e.g., “The Fault, Dear Brutus….” and Cluster Liberals v. Network Liberals).

We should not see-saw with zealots on the Right, taking turns yielding our advantage to the winds of our passions. Rather, we should actually be the party of reason and humanity, of patience and foresight and goodwill. If we could just commit to that, we would inevitably win the future. Instead, we are as committed to shooting ourselves in the foot as our more foolish opposition is, leaving everyone hopping and howling but no one leading the nation and world into a brighter future.

The last most famous moment when the Left threw its advantage was during the 1960s and 70s, when the country was reacting against Vietnam and Watergate, when hippies were culturally dominant, when Broadway sang of “the dawning of the age of Aquarius.” Thanks to that excessive euphoria, that overconfidence, in service to an unbalanced and unrealistic (even if somewhat refreshing) idealism, it became the prelude of the Age of Reagan Conservatism instead, which laid the groundwork, in a way palatable for that age, for the more extreme right-wing fanaticism of today. (Reagan, of course, the modern conservative messiah, would be drummed out of today’s Republican Party in a heartbeat, far too liberal was he for the new breed of glassy-eyed conservative cultists).

The Tea Party was heady with its brief ascendency, deluded into believing that they represented mainstream America, certain that God and Truth were on their side. They became a magnet for religious fundamentalists and libertarians, not always compatible ideologies but somehow generally hypocritical and inconsistent enough for many in their respective ranks to believe that they were one and the same. And as they held the country hostage (by refusing to vote for a raise in the national debt ceiling, a vote which had heretofore been routine due to the national self-destructiveness of failing to do it) in service to what virtually all economists, conservative and liberal, considered bad fiscal policy (extending the Bush tax cuts), forcing a downgrading of our national credit rating in the process, more and more people began to recoil in horror and disgust, as they should have recoiled long before. (See, e.g., Bargaining v. Blackmail, Why A Bad Deal Might Be The Best Deal Right Now, and Response to a Right-Wing Myth for discussions of that shameful episode.)

The Republicans had a real chance to defeat Obama this year, not necessarily justly, but simply due to the criteria by which people vote. The economy is still soft, and unemployment is still high. The current president is always held responsible for such things, no matter what the reality he inherited, and no matter how successful he was in turning the tide in a positive direction.

Obama, a black intellectual moderate liberal with a Muslim name who spent much of his childhood in an exotic foreign country, triggered a complex web of deeply entrenched American bigotries, failing to be innocuous enough to hopeful but easily disillusioned moderate supporters, failing to be zealously unrealistic enough to starry eyed believers that he could snap his fingers and change the world into their vision of what it should be, and continuing to be “foreign” enough to maintain the enmity of the ultra-conservative xenophobes who saw in him something inherently “un-American” and never liked him in the first place. A united and focused Republican Party would have had a relatively easy time toppling him in 2012.

But, thankfully, it apparently was not to be so. It looks like it is the Republicans’ turn to shoot themselves in the foot, overzealously demanding what too few Americans identify with, rejecting their best candidate and insisting on horribly defective alternatives (Santorum, the religious nut-case; Perry, the intellectual light-weight; Gingrich, the unlovable grinch; Paul, the extreme libertarian who would have surrendered to Hitler and left Jim Crow intact in service to the purity of his understanding of “liberty”). Despite the fact that Romney is the last man standing, Santorum and Paul supporters remian implaccable, unwilling to accept the “moderate” (oh! horror of horrors!) Romney.

Let this be a lesson, fellow progressives: Press our advantage when we have it; don’t squander it by overreaching. The world is moved by inches, sometimes over a threshold, but only when that threshold has been arrived at. Don’t mistake what’s right for what’s immediately possible, and don’t insist on what can’t be currently attained at the expense of what can be. But, all the while, lay the foundations for the giant leaps of the future, for those foundations are laid through work that does not register immediately, and only culminates after many unsung but vitally important labors. If we were wise enough and disciplined enough to follow this advice, the world we bequeeth to our children and our children’s children would be that much closer to the ideal we aspire to.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

(The following was in response to a right-wing poster who had “steam coming out of [her] ears” over some left-wing commentator suggesting that “conservative values” was code for racism. She ended by saying that “we have to take back this country, or we are screwed!”)

You’re right Susan: “Conservative values” isn’t code for racism; “taking back this country” is.

The United States was born with slavery, fought a Civil War to get rid of it (against people who adhered to a very strong “states’ rights” political philosophy, much like a certain political faction of today), then endured another century of Jim Crow, which was abolished in a Civil Rights Movement confronting a new version of that extreme “states’ rights” perspective (much like a certain political faction of today), and has since fought an uphill battle to address the social injustices that remain embedded in our political economy, against a faction which clings to a strong “states’ rights” philosophy.

Or is it “liberty”? A great antebellum statesman wrote a tome called “Union and Liberty,” about the threat of federal tyranny to the liberty of minorities. His name was John C. Calhoun, the minority he was concerned about was southern slave owners, and the “liberty” that was being threatened was their liberty to own slaves. There’s a long tradition in America of using the word “liberty” to mean preserving the advantages of the few at the expense of the many.

You doubt that that’s what today’s use of the word means? Do you know the two peaks in the last century of the concentration of wealth, the inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity? I’ll give you a hint: Both dates are notable for being immediately followed by the two largest, catastrophic economic collapses of the last century. And both dates are also notable for following a decade or two of the ascendance of a notion of “liberty” which favored unregulated, unchecked, predatory redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the extremely wealthy. Those two dates are 1929 and 2008.

And from whom, exactly, are you “taking the country back”? Blacks (except for the few who have become exactly like you)? Hispanics? Gays? Muslims? I see conservative threads insisting that every act of Sharia law somewhere in the world, or every court respecting the free exercise clause of the United States Constitution (which conservatives revere by crapping all over), is proof that we’re being taken over by it. And the uber-lame argument is that Islam isn’t REALLY a religion, but rather a plot for world conquest, which distinguishes it from Christianity by being spelled with fewer and different letters.

Probably the most infamous racist movement in 20th Century world history was one in which a whole country spiralled down into a belligerent hysteria over a group perceived to be “foreigners” living among them, who needed to be rounded up, detained in unpleasant detention centers, and removed, in order to preserve the purity of the nation. And it’s also well on its way to being an infamous racist movement of the 21st century, across an ocean and among people who take offense at being called “racist.”

Yeah, you keep right on “taking the country back,” because we sure don’t want it stolen by all of those “others.” Right?

Yeah, I get it. You mean “take it back” from the “socialists.” The people who helped ensure that the United States Constitution empowered Congress to tax and spend in the General Welfare (you know, the Founding Fathers?). The people who 80 years ago started to put into place the administrative structure and welfare state that has formed a part of the foundation of every single country that partook of the post-WWII explosion in prosperity. The people who passed an overdue Civil Rights Act that established that “liberty” and “property” don’t mean the right to discriminate against people on the basis of their race (a law that Rand Paul said he wouldn’t have been able to support). You want to take America back from the Americans who founded it, who fought for it, who have molded it, and who are it. That’s not “taking it back.” That’s just “taking it.” And we’re not going to let you.

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(The following post was a comment I made on a Facebook thread that began with the poster seriously suggesting that Obama was moving toward arbitrarily imprisoning people on the Right who disagree with him, as evidenced by his referring to some Republican candidates as “extremists,” combined with the unfortunate provision for indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” in the NDAA. My comment below was a direct response to someone asserting that if I thought Obama might be right in his characterization of those Republican candidates, then I don’t know Obama well enough, implying that Obama is by definition always wrong.)

It’s not enough just to say that those you disagree with are wrong. You have to make the case. And if you’re not making the case, you’re just making noise.

There’s harmless noise, and there’s harmful noise. If you believe, for instance, that Amon-Ra requires you to hop on one foot at sunrise and sing Egyptian incantations to an arthropod, knock yourself out. No harm done. But if you were to believe, conversely, that all human beings who do not belong to your cult are possessed by demons which must be exorcised by those possessed being doused with gasoline and set on fire, and were part of a significant group of people believing this and reinforcing the belief among one another, well, that would be a lot more worrisome, because someone might start to act on that belief, and that would be a serious breach of the rights of those having their demons exorcised.

All human discursive noise falls on a continuum defined by these examples, from the most benign and harmless to the most violent and destructive. The noise your not-so-little cult makes is a lot closer to the end of that continuum defined by the latter example than the one defined by the former. In fact, the biggest act of domestic terrorism in American history was committed by a member of your cult, striking a blow against the federal government and its perceived incursions on liberty by blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds of innocent people, including dozens of children in the day care center housed in that building.

Granted, such an atrocity could have been committed by any fanatic of any stripe, and, as we say in statistics, an N of one is meaningless. But, in this case, we don’t just have the N of one to inform us, but also a considerable quantity of confirming evidence: A huge rise in armed citizen militias running around with grease painted faces and semi-automatic rifles, training to save this country from the dictatorship in your imaginations. Rhetoric that informs a potentially violent and consistently destructive zealotry, such as the motto “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” The problem, of course, is that extremism has a life of its own, regardless of what it claims to be in defense of, and that motto is precisely the motto that would have been echoing in Timothy McVeigh’s mind, rationalizing for him the irrational and horribly destructive.

That’s not to say that there aren’t kernels of truth in some of your positions. The history of the United States has been characterized by a consistent, punctuated growth in executive power. The concentration and exercise of both governmental and corporate power in America involves several troubling tendencies, such as the indefinite detention of people labelled as enemy combatants, and the influence of corporate money in determining electoral and legislative outcomes. There are real issues to be understood and addressed as wisely and effectively and functionally as possible. But the rule of law is first and foremost a commitment to a process, to a set of procedures that are consistent with our fundamental law, and have developed in service to it. People who don’t get that are the biggest real threat to the Constitution that this country faces, because they want to replace our actual rule of law with their particular ideological presumptions of what the law should be, claiming that there is no ambiguity or possibility of disputing their positions, when very clearly there is, as all people who actually study and implement the Constitution realize.

And that brings us to the freedom of speech. Members of my fictional cult who believed in burning the demons out of those who disagree with them are on the boundary between protected speech and criminal incitement of violence. Were they to merely assert that all who disagree with them are possessed by demons and must be opposed, then they would have clearly fallen on the side of protected speech. Were they to encourage and advise followers to actually douse people with gasoline and set them on fire, inciting them to commit imminent acts of violence, then they would clearly fall on the side of criminal incitement of violence.

Your little cult clearly falls on the side of protected speech. It’s not even a close call, and no one I know of has ever suggested that it is a close call. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t destructive and potentially dangerous, it just means that part of our legal framework, a very fundamental and important part, is that we recognize that we have to allow and protect all speech that isn’t imminently inciting violence or in other limited ways crossing a line that had to be drawn (e.g., libel, maliciously igniting a panic “in a crowded theater,” etc.), because that is a real and necessary bulwark of liberty. We all get that, even us demons who, metaphorically speaking, need to be doused with gasoline and set on fire.

I agree that the speech of the KKK and of American Nazis, as well as of American Communists and Socialists (groups to which exceedingly few on the Left in America belong, despite the crazed rhetoric to the contrary) and Evangelicals, all has to be protected, regardless of whether I or anyone else finds it odious, destructive, and disgusting, as long as it doesn’t cross the line to the incitement of imminent violence. I certainly agree that your speech, which, for the most part (though not always, nor by all adherents), is less odious than that of the KKK and American Nazis, is protected speech. I have no interest or desire to see force used to silence you. I prefer to see reason and goodwill used to debunk you.

We live in a country facing many real challenges, as has been the case throughout our history, and will be the case throughout all time in all places. We have established an excellent though imperfect system for addressing those challenges, which we can continue to refine, which is still firmly based on our Constitution, which has evolved around that Constitution by necessity and by design, and which real patriotism demands a complete commitment to. It is more procedural than substantive, more focused on how we arrive at our conclusions than on what those conclusions must be. That is what the rule of law really is. That is what our Constitution really stands for. And you folks, for all of your claims to be the defenders of the Constitution, are in reality it’s most fervent opponents in America today, because you claim that your particular ideological substantive conclusions should take precedence over our evolved rule of law and the procedures by which we maintain and implement it. Such people are the kind of people most likely to blow up buildings and kill innocent people, because, as you say, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” But extremism in defense of anything other than reason and goodwill most certainly is a vice, because extremism in defense of anything other than reason and goodwill is too open to interpretation, too susceptible to the errors of blind ideological passions.

The value of liberty is that it serves humanity well. Those who become warriors of liberty divorced from a commitment to humanity are not serving either liberty or that which liberty itself serves, but are rather serving their own blind fanaticisms, at everyone else’s expense.

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Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

The current Tea Party concept of “liberty” to mean “what’s mine is mine” was most eloquently articulated by John C. Calhoun in Union and Liberty, in which he argued that any attempt to deny southern slave owners of their right to own slaves was an infringement on their (the slave owners’) “liberty,” and should be opposed as such with arms (which, of course, happened a couple of decades after he published it). Calhoun also argued for the protection of “minority” rights, by which he meant the rights of southern slave owners to own slaves.

There is a direct and unbroken line connecting those who opposed ratification of the U.S. Constitution, through those who advocated “nullification” doctrine (that each state has the right to ignore the federal government at will), through the southern secessionists, through the southern opponents to Civil Rights legislation and jurisprudence, to the modern Tea Party.

They are, happily, the losers of American history, whose loss has meant real freedom and real opportunity for hundreds of millions who would otherwise have been denied it. But those whose ideology keeps getting thankfully relegated to the dust heap of history are relentless, incessantly trying to “take back America,” by which they mean a return to some semblance of previous eras characterized by Jim Crow, slave ownership, and the completely dysfunctional Articles of Confederation, not to mention the onset of The Great Depression.

The connection to slavery and Jim Crow is a historical continuum, not a current identity. Virtually no one today identifies themself as an advocate of slave ownership. Relatively few, but some, state opposition to the federal engagement which put an end to Jim Crow. Many oppose current federal efforts to address the legacy of that history still extant today.

My point is not that by being a modern Libertarian you are an advocate of slave ownership, but rather that the history of modern Libertarianism belongs to those who were advocates of slave ownership. Those who succeeded to slave owners defended Jim Crow. Those that succeeded to defenders of Jim Crow oppose any federal commitment to social justice.

It is a logical continuum, with a shared underlying philosophical thread: “What’s mine is mine, as a matter of basic principle, regardless of the injustice of that distribution of wealth and power, regardless of the historical violence implicit within it, and regardless of how politically and economically dysfunctional the belief is.”

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

 

The Daily Show – Dancing on the Ceiling – Tax Cut Religion Get More: Daily Show Full Episodes,Political Humor & Satire Blog,The Daily Show on Facebook

I have no commentary to add to this, other than that already made in posts such as Response to a Right-Wing Myth, More Dialogue With Libertarians, Dialogue With A Libertarian, and A Frustrated Rant On A Right-Wing Facebook Thread. It’s just too irresistable to ridicule the ridiculous, and no one does it better than Jon Stewart.

Though it’s no longer timely, this spoof of Glenn Beck (who spoofs himself better than anyone else ever could) is one of my all time favorites:

The Daily Show – Conservative Libertarian Get More: Daily Show Full Episodes,Political Humor & Satire Blog,The Daily Show on Facebook

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(The following is a comment by David K. Williams, and my response to it, on the same Facebook thread excerpted in A Frustrated Rant On A Right-Wing Facebook Thread.)

David K. Williams said:

All of your dissembling is merely a justification for the forcible implementation of your “good ideas” (after all the studying and deliberating is done) on those that do not wish to have them implemented. That is immoral.

Individual autonomy is very dangerous, indeed. So dangerous, the statists that do all of your studying and deliberating fear it.

The “progressive” movement you describe of Woodrow Wilson and FDR (and Teddy Roosevelt, for that matter) is all about the learned intellectuals with Ph.Ds knowing what is best for everyone and implementing plans via government force. I think you and I can agree with that.

You just happen to believe in the wisdom of the intellectuals. I do not. History is not on your side.

1) We are interdependent, and live within a society which imposes formal and informal constraints on us as an inherent fact of reality. You are no less trying to “forcibly implement your good ideas” on others than I am, because you are arguing for a particular public policy regime, with particular implications. You have accepted certain institutions that are founded in force, such as the definition and protection of absolute private property rights, as somehow inherent in nature (when they simply are not, but rather are themselves a political economic artifact), and therefore are blind to the fact that their forcible imposition is no more morally pure than the forcible imposition of some other version of property rights.

Don’t get me wrong: Private property has many virtues, and I defend it as an integral aspect of a well-functioning political economy. But it is NOT a moral imperative, and it is NOT the absence of force!

Private property historically came into being through violent force by some against others, a theft perpetuated across generations through inheritance, and which has implications even today. It is no coincidence that the descendants of former slaves and the former conquered indigenous population of this country are grossly overrepresented among the impoverished of this country; it is the direct consequence of the “morally unassailable” default that you have chosen to worship. Ironically, it not only leads to greater social justice to modify that regime on the margins, it also leads to greater robustness and sustainability in the production of wealth, making it the more reasonable path by all measures.

2) My statement that both too much individual autonomy and too much collectivism are dangerous (using your word) referred to the indisputable fact that error can be found on both extremes. In one moment, you deny any commitment to absolute individual autonomy, and in the next invoke it, playing a shell game rather than making an argument. So let me address the shell you’ve currently placed your pebble under, the one that insists that individual autonomy is an absolute and unassailable good, period. By that logic, individuals would have to be granted the autonomy to murder, rape, steal, drop nuclear weapons on each other, and, in general, engage in any behavior that any individual chooses and finds him or herself able to. That would be a Hobbesian paradise of the war of all against all, and a life “nasty, brutish, and short.” No semi-rational person really believes that that’s the way we should govern ourselves.

So, individual autonomy is a value with limits, a practical reality we have spent our history exploring and defining. Justice Holmes famously said, for instance, that one’s right to free speech doesn’t extend to shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, because that would be destructive mischief that we, as a society, should and must restrain. Once you recognize that individual autonomy isn’t an absolute ideal, but rather a value to be maximized in balance with other values, then if becomes completely arbitrary to argue from the position of it being an absolute ideal. The debate then becomes one regarding whether it is a value which trumps other considerations in this or that circumstance. You can weight it more or less heavily if you like, but you can’t simply circumvent the discussion of whether in this or that circumstance a commitment to individual autonomy takes priority over a commitment to our ability to function as a society and to continue our lives with some minimal degree of security and tranquility.

Yes, there are wonderful platitudes obfuscating this reality. “Those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither.” But does that mean that those who would trade the liberty of individuals to build and use nuclear weapons, or to drive around in tanks armed with the most destructive of weapons, for the security of living in a society governed by the rule of law, deserve neither? No, of course not. The challenge of drawing the line continues to exist, and your insistence that it be drawn far to one side cannot be defended by any platitude or any absolute value, because even you recognize that the line does indeed need to be drawn. You are insisting on drawing it arbitrarily at one extreme. But you have no argument other than a blind religious zeal that insists that that’s where it should be drawn, a zeal which carefully dismisses all thought and analysis as the mischief of intellectuals.

3) What I advocate isn’t some pre-packaged idea that you can refer to and dismiss, but rather the notion that we should ALL strive to exercise reason and universal goodwill to the best of our ability, and to govern OURSELVES by recourse to disciplined and procedurally sound reason and goodwill to the best of our ability. Just as in all human endeavors, we do benefit from a division of labors, but it is a division of labors within the context of a democracy, in which competing interests and competing views have ample opportunity to make their case, and to advocate for their position. Ph.D.s shouldn’t have any final word, though neither should their particular expertises be thrown overboard for fear that the inclusion of expertise in our national discourse is somehow antidemocratic.

We do indeed need to include professional understandings of complex phenomena in our public policy formation, because there are in fact a multitude of complex physical, economic, geological, hydrological, and generally systemic phenomena implicated in our shared existence. The anti-intellectualism of insisting that all specialized knowledge is anathema to human welfare if ever employed in our endeavor of self-governance is so patently absurd, I marvel that anyone can continue to argue it.

4) History isn’t on my side in asserting that the product of intellectual endeavors can and does serve our collective interests? Really? Our modern, industrial, science-based, technological economy is something that most people would prefer to toss aside in favor of a pre-industrial, pre-modern existence? So, at least in some spheres of our shared existence, you would agree that intellectual endeavors have borne fruit, no?

The question is whether that general truth (that intellectual endeavors contribute to our collective welfare) applies to our self-governance. The historical evidence, despite your selective insistence to the contrary, strongly demonstrates that it does. The post-WWII economic boom, experienced only by those nations that had put in place a modern, research-oriented, procedurally heavy, scientifically enriched (complete with advisory panels to deal with all aspects of our existence) administrative infrastructure, proves me wrong? You are conveniently selective in your review of human history, serving not well-reasoned and well-evidenced conclusions, but rather only a blind ideology.

Your conclusion that “history proves me wrong” is based on selecting those instances in which some intellectual doctrine has been implemented, and has been a failure, while neglecting to include any examination of those instances in which anti-intellectual doctrines have been implemented and have been failures, or those instances in which intellectual doctrines have been implemented and have been successes (including the intellectual doctrines at the heart of the U.S. Constitution, which drew heavily on Enlightenment era intellectual thought).

You are correct that intellectualism is no guarantee of success, but wrong that its inclusion, on average, leads to inferior results than its exclusion. Even the most spectacular of failed intellectual doctrines -Marxism- was not the only intellectual doctrine, or even the dominant economic doctrine, of its day (which means that competing intellectual doctrines, when and where they were implemented, led to far superior outcomes). And it is just one example of failure, cited in a vacuum. By the same logic, one could argue that human flight is impossible, because some attempts at it have failed, or that surgery is always fatal, because I can cite examples of when it has been fatal. It is such an absurd logical fallacy that, again, the marvel is that you are able to rely on it so heavily.

Furthermore, the anti-intellectualism that you espouse has a far worse track record than the intellectualism that I espouse. Though Marxism started out as an intellectual doctrine, once implemented in service to totalitarianism, it too became anti-intellectual in its orientation, persecuting intellectuals who, en masse, were active in opposing the totalitarianism in its name. In all of the totalitarian societies you cite -Soviet Russia, Nazi German, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Islamic Fundamentalist states- the governments have shared with you your anti-intellectual bias, and have persecuted rather than deferred to intellectuals in service to it.

No, we are not freed from the challenge of life on Earth by deference to intellectuals. But we would be wise to increase the efficacy of our participation in those endeavors by ever-greater inclusion of intellectual discipline, emulating our Founding Fathers and the spectacular success they achieved. Given a choice between haphazard, relatively unexamined popular assumptions, and carefully arrived at, procedurally disciplined, sensibly tentative understandings, while the former can be right and the latter wrong in any given instance, on average the latter will outperform the former. Greater good is produced in the long run, wiser decisions arrived at, by all of us paying close attention to those procedurally disciplined understandings, and forming our own understandings with a certain degree of respect for the disciplines that have proven themselves most effective at reducing error and increasing accuracy. Again, the notion that wiser conclusions are formed by avoiding such methodologies flies in the face of our historical experience, rather than being proven by it, to an extent that borders on insanity.

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