Against the Libertarian Cold War

A controversy has arisen in the libertarian movement over the proper approach to the events concerning Russia, Ukraine, and Crimea. Like many such controversies, it has quickly polarized almost everyone, and has served as a proxy for long-standing factionalism within the movement. People quickly accuse each other of supporting Putin’s aggression or backing violent U.S. intervention. I myself have been accused of both kissing up to the Russian regime and dishing out State Department propaganda. This doesn’t itself show I have the right balance in my position, only that this feud has galvanized libertarians and hardened their rhetorical loyalties.

We might learn something from looking back at the 20th century. During the Cold War, most western critics of state power erred too far in one direction or the other. There were some whose opposition to U.S. wars led them to soften their assessment of communist aggression. Free-market and leftist lovers of peace both made this mistake. At the same time, many who favored economic and political liberty often let their anti-communism translate into support for American militarism and the security state. This confusion pervaded Americans across the spectrum.

We can all see this now: Yes, some antiwar Americans were obscenely soft on the communists. Well-meaning but foolish westerners said nice things about Lenin, Stalin, and Mao—and many of a more moderate tinge had no perspective of just how much worse international communism was than the U.S. system, at least as it concerned domestic affairs. Meanwhile, many libertarians and almost all conservatives ditched their supposed attachment to skepticism of government power and signed onto the U.S. Cold War effort. This American project included dozens of coups and interventions, the instruction of foreign secret police in unspeakable torture techniques, murderous carpet bombings that killed hundreds of thousands of peasants, and wars that indirectly brought about the Khmer Rouge and the rise of Islamist fundamentalism, both of which also became directly funded in the name of anti-communism.

It is easy to look back and see how westerners were wrong on both the Cold War and communist states—each of which killed millions of people and nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust.

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The Anarchism of Milk and Cereal

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Julie Eva Borowski has done it again with a solid video on the issue of libertarian in-flighting. The caricature has me saying something wonderful about the decision to pour milk in my cereal. “Beautiful anarchy!”

Well, it’s not entirely absurd. The decision to pour milk or not to pour milk is an illustration of human volition that is embodied in all our decisions. There is no police present at the moment of choice. There is no plan in place that makes us pour or not to pour. Even if there were a plan, it is likely to be ignored. It would be destined to fail.

Actually, as I think about it, there is something of a plan. According to the government, cereal is only part of a “nutritious breakfast.” You know, the pictures on the ads. There is a big glass of orange juice, a piece of toast with butter, probably another glass of milk, and probably a half slice of grapefruit. It’s absurd. I’ve never seen anyone eat all that on a regular basis with cereal. On the contrary, we shake the box in the bowl and eat. We are defying the plan, even that urged on us by manufacturers.

So yes, there is a core of anarchism in the decision to pour and eat.

And it doesn’t just stop with the pouring and eating. The anarchist dimension of production is illustrated in the very existence of milk and cereal.

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Check Your Privilege

In a recent Freeman article, “Check Your Context,” columnist Sarah Skwire brought my attention to a popular meme on the political left, both online and off: “Check your privilege.”

At its gentlest, this is advice to raise our awareness of those aspects of our personal histories that may lead to complacent assumptions about how the world works, assumptions that may limit the scope of our moral imaginations.

When it is less gentle (which is often), it is a dismissal of the opinions of anyone who is insufficiently poor, or, more likely, insufficiently left-wing. [Read the rest of the article.]

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What Explains the Brutalism Uproar?

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“Best article I’ve read in decades.”

That’s the message I received from so many people when my article “Against Libertarian Brutalism” first appeared.

A day later, I started to receive a different message.

“This article is evil and you are evil for having written it.”

Actually, the critics didn’t quite say that in those words. Mostly the language of the article’s detractors is unprintable. If I had any doubts that my piece was necessary, the reactions, some of them give new meaning to the phrase “violent prose,” removed them all. In fact, many people said that they had no idea that brutalism was a big problem until they saw the egregious responses to my piece. Thus did the persistent and non-relevant question regarding against whom this article was written answer itself.

There was another reaction that I found amusing. It came down to: heck yeah brutalism! This reaction mostly stems from the coolness factor of the word. I can only assume that the people who said this didn’t really read the piece and hadn’t entirely understood just how precise, authentic, distorted, and fundamentally awful the brutalist worldview really is.

In general, I find the debate and frenzy to be great. A writer aspires to write a piece that achieves that.

Still, I’m still not entirely sure why the article excited such controversy. What worried me at first is that I had actually underestimated the influence of the brutalist perspective. But as I think about it, and look carefully at the opposition, it really does come down to about half a dozen people. They felt accused, from which I can only conclude that my description of the brutalist mind was more evocative than I knew.

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Yes, We Have No Bananas

YesWeHaveNoBananasIn a recent post on my personal blog (“Is mediocrity intelligent?”), I talked about the importance of a diversity of strategies — even apparently “wrong” ones — to the long-term survival of a species. The corollary of course is that overinvestment in any single strategy can be catastrophic.

We see this issue at play in modern agribusiness.

As Popular Science informs us,

The 1923 musical hit “Yes! We Have No Bananas” is said to have been written after songwriters Frank Silver and Irving Cohn were denied in an attempt to purchase their favorite fruit by a syntactically colorful, out-of-stock neighborhood grocer.

It seems that an early infestation of Panama disease was already causing shortages in 1923. But the out-of-stock bananas in question were not the Cavendish variety we all eat today; they were Gros Michel (“Big Mike”) bananas, and they were all that American banana lovers ate until the 1950s, when the disease finally finished them off.

I would love to know what a Gros Michel banana tastes like. I’m a big fan of bananas and eat them every day. (Actually, I drink them, blended into smoothies.) But the reason I only know the taste of Cavendish — and the reason you do too, unless you’re old enough to have had some Gros Michel mixed into your pablum — is that Cavendish bananas are resistant to the strain of disease that wiped out our original bananas. We have to assume that the Plan B bananas we now enjoy are only second best as far as flavor goes. They may not even be first best at survival, because the banana industry is searching for a Plan C banana to take the place of the Cavendish once the inevitable crop disease sends it the way of the Gros Michel — something that they predict will happen in the next decade or two. (See Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.)

Why are bananas so vulnerable to these blights? Why aren’t agricultural scientists worried about our other favorite fruits — apples, for example?

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