The Libertarian Standard » History Property - Prosperity - Peace Thu, 16 Oct 2014 23:30:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A new website and group blog of radical Austro-libertarians, shining the light of reason on truth and justice. The Libertarian Standard clean The Libertarian Standard (The Libertarian Standard) CC-BY Property - Prosperity - Peace libertarianism, anarchism, capitalism, free markets, liberty, private property, rights, Mises, Rothbard, Rand, antiwar, freedom The Libertarian Standard » History TV-G Of Morality and Failed Business Strategies… Fri, 15 Aug 2014 21:13:35 +0000 Some time ago, back in 2013 in fact, Richard Branson published a piece on LinkedIn, under the heading of “Big Idea 2013: This Year the Drug War Ends” wherein he positied, among other things, that if the War on (Some) Drugs was a business strategy, it would long ago have been scrapped.  He’s absolutely correct. And he’s also absolutely incorrect.

The War on (Some) Drugs is not a failed business strategy, and it is dangerous to even suggest that it is. Instead, it is a failed moral strategy. If it seems counter-intuitive to you that the government should be in the business of applying moral strategies, you win a prize. The control of what enters one’s body is, at root, the very basis of self-ownership. (Admittedly, the phrase “self-ownership” is not quite the correct nuance. I don’t “own” me, I “am” me, but anyway…)

The apparent failure of the War on (Some) Drugs speaks just as much to its actual goals as to its legitimate chances for success. In other words, if the goal was to criminalize large portions of an entire generation, then it has been a raging success. However, if the goal was to prevent people from freely consuming that which they know is their right anyway, it had no hope of success in the first place, and that lesson was obvious from alcohol prohibition.

On the more general issue of business strategies, why is it is dangerous to draw such a parallel to the War on (Some) Drugs? Such a suggestion–that just because the War on (Some) Drugs is failing that we should stop it–is a trap. It is a great example of the argument from effect, a veritable fat, shiny, Red Herring waiting for the obvious, “well, people still murder each other…” retort. Let us be clear, murdering someone is an attack on them, which is morally prohibited, dare I say malum in se anyway. Me putting a substance that you don’t like into my body has nothing to do with you.

Drug prohibition is unarguably malum prohibitum and therefore simply the attempt–misguided and puritanical–to impose the choices of some on the behavior of all. Ergo, it was destined for failure. By the way, this in no way suggests that drugs are good, but then again, neither are Twinkies. Now, if one wants to argue about the possible negative results of drug usage–crime, sickness, whatever–those ostensibly resultant actions, at least those that actually infringe on others, are ALREADY against the law. They are, in fact, malum in se regardless.

If you’re in your own home getting baked or shooting up, and don’t bother anyone else, it should be no one else’s business. I might also argue that most, if not all, of the crime supposedly endemic to illegal drugs occurs commensurate with the distribution of said substances despite their illegality. Make it legal on one day and that crime stops the next day. And, if the lessons of places like Portugal are any indication, with very little, if any, increase in widespread drug usage.
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Was Robin Hood a Marxist? Mon, 16 Jun 2014 14:37:33 +0000 FreemanRobinHood300

Simon Schama could use a dose of classical-liberal theory. Most of us can be forgiven for knowing Marxist theory better than the liberal tradition — it’s hard not to drink Marxism in with our schooling and culture — but popular historical narrative really does suffer by the omission of the "bourgeois historians" whom Marx himself credits as the precursors of his class theory.

In the BBC TV series A History of Britain, Schama asks about the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, "Was this a class war, then?" (A term, he explains parenthetically that "we’re not supposed to use since the official burial of Marxism.") A pause, while the camera angle changes to closeup. "Yes," he says plainly. "It was."

"Not surprisingly," writes Schama in the print version of A History of Britain, "it was in the second half of the fourteenth century that the legends of Robin Hood … first became genuinely popular."

But as I write in "Class War in the Time of Robin Hood" in today’s Freeman, Schama is appealing to the wrong class theory if he wants to explain the mindset of the commoners marching on London in the 14th century.

I’m far from the first to offer a libertarian revision of Robin Hood’s politics, but where I focus on the ideology of his earliest historical audience, most other treatments focus on the particulars of the legend.

Some examples:

On the other hand, Ayn Rand seems to have been happy to leave Robin Hood to the socialists:

"It is said," Rand has Ragnar Danneskjöld concede in Atlas Shrugged, that Robin Hood "fought against the looting rulers and returned the loot to those who had been robbed, but that is not the meaning of the legend which has survived.

What do you think: is Robin Hood worth claiming for our tradition?

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When Evil Institutions Do Good Things: The FCC’s PTAR Law Thu, 12 Jun 2014 17:55:55 +0000 StreetTV

In my Freeman article "TV’s Third Golden Age," the summary subtitle that the magazine chose was "Programming quality is inversely proportional to regulatory meddling." I couldn’t have said it better. But does that mean that everything the FCC does makes television worse?

All laws and regulations have unforeseen consequences. That usually means unintended damage, but there’s no law of history that says every unplanned outcome is pernicious.

If you’re an advocate of a free society — one in which all arrangements are voluntary and there is the least coercive interference from governments or other thugs — history will present you with an unending series of conundrums. Whom do you side with in the Protestant Reformation, for example? The Catholic Church banned books and tortured scholars, and their official structure is one of hierarchy and authority. Easy enemy, right? Clear-cut bad guy. But the Church had kept the State in check for centuries — and vice versa, permitting seeds of freedom to root and flourish in the gaps between power centers. Whereas the Protestant states tended to be more authoritarian than the Catholic ones, with Luther and Calvin (not to mention the Anglicans) advocating orthodoxy through force. There’s a reason all those Northern princes embraced the Reformation: they wanted a cozier partnership of church and state.

This is certainly not the history I was taught in my Protestant private schools.

Similarly, most of us were schooled to side with the Union in the Civil War, to see Lincoln as a savior and the Confederacy as pure evil. But as much as the war may have resulted, however accidentally, in emancipating slaves, it also obliterated civil liberties, centralized power, strengthened central banking and fiat currencies and — to borrow from Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s great book title — enslaved free men.

"Father Abraham," as the pietists called him after his assassination, was a tyrant whose primary goal was always what he actually achieved: central power over an involuntary union. Recasting this guy as an abolitionist hero is one of the many perverse legacies of America’s official history. But it’s a mistake to simply reverse the Establishment’s verdict and claim that the Confederacy was heroic. Plenty of Johnny Rebs were fighting a righteous battle against what they rightly deemed to be foreign invaders, but even if you ignore the little problem of the South’s "peculiar institution," the Confederate government was no more liberal than its Northern rival. "While the Civil War saw the triumph in the North of Republican neo-mercantilism,” writes Hummel, “it saw the emergence in the South of full-blown State socialism.”

Reading history without taking sides may fit some scholarly ideal (actually, it seems to be a journalistic ideal created by the Progressive Movement to masquerade their views as the only unbiased ones), but it is not a realistic option. We cannot do value-free history. If we try, we instead hide or repress our biases, which makes them a greater threat to intellectual integrity.

Neither can we say, "a plague on both their houses," and retreat to the realm of pure theory, libertarian or otherwise. We have to live in the real world, and even if we are not activists or revolutionaries, the same intellectual integrity that must reject "neutrality" also requires that we occasionally explore the question of second-best or least-evil options.

I remember several years ago, when my very libertarian boss surprised me by speaking in favor of increased regulation of banking. His point was that the banks were not free-market institutions; they were government-created cartels enjoying a political privilege that protected them from the consequences of the market while they surreptitiously depleted our property and spoiled the price system that drives all progress in the material world. Ideally, he’d want the government out of banking altogether, but in the meantime having them do less damage was better than letting them do more.

It may seem anticlimactic to follow the Reformation, Civil War, and fractional-reserve banking with a little-known FCC rule about TV programming from almost half a century ago, but I’ve been reading television history for a while now (1, 2, 3, 4) as illustrative of larger patterns in political history.

The Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR) was a law instituted in 1970 to limit the amount of network programming allowed during TV’s most-watched evening hours.

According to industry analyst Les Brown, the PTAR was adopted

to break the network monopoly over prime time, to open a new market for independent producers who complained of being at the mercy of three customers, to stimulate the creation of new program forms, and to give the stations the opportunity to do their most significant local programming in the choicest viewing hours. (Les Brown’s Encyclopedia of Television)

If you still accept the official myth that the airwaves are "That most public of possessions given into the trust of the networks," as Harlan Ellison describes them in The Glass Teat, and that the federal government’s job is to manage the radio spectrum in the best interests of that public, then I’m sure you don’t see any problem with PTAR. (You can read my paper "Radio Free Rothbard" [HTML, PDF] for a debunking of this official piety.)

But a libertarian could easily jerk his or her knee in the opposite direction. How dare the central government tell private station owners what they can and can’t air on their own stations, right?

The problem with such an ahistorical take on the issue is that broadcast television was a creature of the state from the beginning. Radio may have had a nascent free-market stage in its development, but television was a state-managed cartel from the word go.

So am I saying that PTAR was a good thing? Is it like the possibly beneficial banking regulations imposed on a cartelized banking system? Should we view CBS versus FCC as the same sort of balance-of-power game that Church and State played before the early modern period of European history?

Maybe, but that’s not why I find PTAR an interesting case for the liberty-minded historian. As is so often the case with laws and regulations, PTAR’s main legacy is in its unintended consequences.

"Despite the best of intentions," writes historian Gary Edgerton in The Columbia History of American Television, "the PTAR failed in almost every respect when it was implemented in the fall of 1971."

[P]ractically no local productions or any programming innovations whatsoever were inspired by the PTAR. In addition, any increase in independently produced programming was mainly restricted to the reworking of previously canceled network series, such as Edward Gaylord’s Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk’s The Lawrence Welk Show.… Rather than locally produced programming, these kinds of first-run syndicated shows dominated the 7 to 8 P.M. time slot.

This renaissance of recently purged rural programming was certainly not the FCC’s goal, but the creation of the first-run-syndication model is one of the great unsung events in media history.

A quick note on terminology: to the extent that I knew the word "syndication" at all when I was growing up, I took it to be a fancy way of saying "reruns." For example, Paramount, the studio that bought the rights to Star Trek after the series was cancelled, sold the right to rerun the program directly to individual TV stations. When a local TV station buys a program directly from the studio instead of through the network system, that’s called syndication. But syndication isn’t limited to reruns. Studios created first-run TV programs for direct sale to local stations as far back as the 1950s, but they were the exception. The dominant syndication model was and is reruns. But two events created a surge of first-run syndication: (1) PTAR, and (2) the rural purge I obliquely alluded to above.

I write about the rural purge here, but I’ll summarize: as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, television network executives did an about-face on their entire approach to programming. In the 1960s, each network tried to win the largest possible viewership by avoiding controversy and appealing to the lowest common denominator in public tastes. This meant ignoring the rift between races, between generations, and between urban and rural sensibilities — what we now call red-state and blue-state values — in the ongoing culture wars. This approach was dubbed LOP (Least Objectionable Program) theory.

Basically, this theory posits that viewers watch TV no matter what, usually choosing the least objectionable show available to them. Furthermore, it assumes a limited number of programming choices for audiences to pick from and implies that networks, advertising agencies, and sponsors care little about quality when producing and distributing shows. (Gary Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television)

By the end of the decade, however, NBC vice president Paul Klein (who had christened LOP theory just as its tenure was coming to an end), convinced advertisers that they should stop caring so much about total viewership and focus instead on demographics, specifically the Baby Boomers — young, politically radicalized, and increasingly urban TV viewers — who were most likely to spend the most money on the most products. CBS was winning the battle for ratings, but Klein pointed out that their audience was made up of old folks and hicks, whereas NBC was capturing the viewership of the up-and-comers.

Klein may have worked for NBC, but it was CBS who took his message to heart, quite dramatically. In 1970, the network rocked the TV world by cancelling its most reliably popular shows: Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry RFD, Hee Haw, Lassie, and The Lawrence Welk Show.

In Television’s Second Gold Age, communications professor Robert J. Thompson writes,

CBS, in an effort to appeal to a younger audience made socially conscious by the turbulent 1960s, had dumped its hit rural comedies in the first years of the 1970s while their aging audiences were still placing them in Nielsen’s top twenty-five. Critics, who for the most part had loathed the likes of Petticoat Junction and Gomer Pyle, loved some of what replaced them.

I loved what replaced them, too: Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and the like. "Several members of Congress," Wikipedia informs us, "expressed displeasure at some of the replacement shows, many of which … were not particularly family-friendly." But that was the point: the networks were no longer aiming to please the whole family: just the most reliable consumers.

But despite capitalism’s cartoonish reputation for catering only to the bloated hump of the bell curve, that’s not how the market really works. It is how a cartel works, and the broadcast networks behaved accordingly, both before and after the rural purge. In the 1950s and ’60s, they aimed for the largest possible viewership and to hell with minorities of any sort. The demographic revolution changed the target, but not the tactic: aim for the big soft mass. That’s certainly how the big players would behave in a free market, too, but the telltale sign of freedom in the economy is that the big players aren’t the only players. Fortunes are made in niche markets, too, so long as there aren’t barriers to entering those niches. As I’ve said, TV is descended from radio, and Hoover and his corporatist cronies had arranged it so that there could only be a few big players.

That’s where we come back to the FCC’s Prime Time Access Rule of 1970. PTAR created a hole at the fringe of the prime-time schedule, just as the rural purge was creating a hole in the market. All those fans of Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk didn’t just go away, and they didn’t stop spending their money on advertised products, either. Before PTAR, the multitude of fans of "rural" programming would have had to settle for mid-afternoon reruns of their favorite shows (the way Star Trek fans haunted its late-night reruns around this same time). But the rural fans didn’t have to settle for reruns, and they didn’t have to settle for mid afternoons or late nights. They could watch new episodes of Hee Haw or Lawrence Welk at 7 PM. In fact, those two shows continued to produce new episodes and the local stations, which were no longer allowed to buy from the networks for the early evening hours, bought first-run syndicated shows instead. The Lawrence Welk Show, which had started in the early 1950s, continued for another decade, until Welk retired in the early ’80s. And the repeats continue to run on PBS today. Hee Haw, believe it or not, continued to produce original shows for syndication until 1992.

I loved Mary Tyler Moore, and I didn’t care so much for Lawrence Welk, but what I really love is peaceful diversity, which cannot exist in a winner-takes-all competition. The rise of first-run syndication was a profound crack in the winner-takes-all edifice of network programming.

The strategy CBS, NBC, and ABC had gravitated toward for short-term success — namely, targeting specific demographics with their programming — also sowed the seeds of change where the TV industry as a whole would eventually move well beyond its mass market model. Over the next decade, a whole host of technological, industrial, and programming innovations would usher in an era predicated on an entirely new niche-market philosophy that essentially turned the vast majority of broadcasters into narrowcasters. (Gary Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television)

This idea of "narrowcasting" is the basis of quality in entertainment (and freedom in political economy, but that’s another story).

I’m not out to sing the praises of the FCC for increasing economic competition and cultural diversity — these consequences were entirely unintended — but we do have to recognize PTAR as a pebble in Goliath’s sandle, distracting him for a moment from David’s sling.

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privcheck Mon, 24 Mar 2014 11:17:22 +0000 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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Yes, We Have No Bananas Mon, 24 Feb 2014 12:28:29 +0000 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?

Because there are many different types of apples. I’m dizzied by the variety at our local produce warehouse.

But not only is there just the one type of banana at the green grocers and in supermarkets; each banana you’ve probably every eaten is a clone of every other banana you’ve eaten. One genetic pattern manifested billions of times over, across millions of households in the past half century. And each Gros Michel was a clone of every other one, too. That’s because bananas reproduce asexually (as do potatoes, another food that’s especially vulnerable to disease — remember the Irish potato famine?).

Cavendish DNA is different enough from Gros Michel DNA that the disease that targeted the one species was no threat to the other. But any infection that can kill one Cavendish plant can wipe out the worldwide supply.

There are many reasons food activists attack Big Agribusiness — some good, some bad, and some wacky. One criticism that seems eminently reasonable to me is a concern that Big Agra puts all its billions of eggs in one giant basket.

Once upon a time, genetic diversity in farm products was built into how farming took place. Farmers farmed local land with local genetic strains of plants and animals. Chickens may have come from Asia, and Europe never saw a tomato until the Spanish brought some back from the New World, but even as trade began to go global several centuries ago, the limits of transportation and technology meant that gene pools could be local and diverse in a way that is much harder in our era of global overnight shipping and transnational corporate bureaucracies.

If an infestation wipes out the Golden Delicious, I can eat Fugi apples instead. But if the Cavendish disappears tomorrow, there isn’t yet a different banana to take its place.


In “Is mediocrity intelligent?” I wrote about the time my professor presented to the “artificial life” department at Bell Labs. In the context of a communications-research lab, artificial life was about using the lessons of biology, ecology, and evolution to make telephone networks more robust.

You may think that agriculture is more “natural” than phone switches and fiberoptics, but farming often short-circuits nature’s mechanisms to suit our short-term goals. One of the main such strategies of nature is diversity. And as I tried to illustrate, in that post, with the concept of the genetic deme (an isolated and seemingly inferior gene pool within a species), diversity means that what looks like an inferior strategy today could turn out to be the salvation of the species tomorrow.

As Larry Reed wrote recently in the Freeman,

Statists those who prefer force-based political action over spontaneous, peaceful, and voluntary initiatives — excel at distilling their views into slogans. (“A Slogan Worth Your Bumper?”)

But what I find revealing is the contradictions at play in the juxtaposition of different bumper stickers on the same car. (And when you see a whole bunch of bumper stickers on the same car, odds are you’re driving behind a left-wing statist.)


Last weekend, at a red light, I was behind a minivan that brandished three bumper stickers:

One said, “Women for Obama.”

If that wasn’t enough to declare the driver’s politics, the next bumper sticker made the claim that strong public schools create strong communities.

The last bumper stick advised us in rainbow colors to “Celebrate Diversity!”

(Pop quiz: Are bumper stickers #2 and #3 in accord or at odds?)

Now, it’s a standard complaint against leftists that they talk diversity while pushing ideological conformity. Political correctness, and all that.

But to me the greater irony is that the Left consistently pushes centralization. Eat local, buy local, but decide everything in Washington DC.

I know that there are left-wing decentralists, and perhaps they genuinely do see the important parallels between genetic diversity and political federalism, between local communities and local authority. But I keep thinking of a story Tom Woods tells of his attending a decentralist conference back in the 1990s, where he happily discovered like-minded activists from both Left and Right. But to the apparent delight of the left-wing so-called decentralists, the highlight of the event was the keynote speaker: Vice President Al Gore.

BananaBookNo, in my experience, the vast majority of people with Buy Local bumper stickers, as with the Celebrate Diversity crowd, are also often, e.g., Women for Obama — that is to say, champions of ever-more-centralized authority. I’m confident that the driver in front of me at the intersection saw no irony in celebrating diversity while advocating strong public schools — and an even stronger central government.

But in the biosphere, where diversity rules, order is spontaneous. That spontaneous order is both the cause of and the result from overwhelming diversity. There are no central strategies in evolution, only in the human world, and only in recent human history. Evolution gave the natural world hundreds of varieties of banana. The United Fruit Company (hardly a free-market firm, by the way) gave us only one.

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Batman vs James Bond Tue, 28 Jan 2014 12:20:42 +0000 BatmanVsJamesBondIn recent months, my wife and I have been catching up on the Daniel Craig trilogy of 007 movies, and I’ve been watching Batman cartoons with my seven-year-old son. So my thoughts have been full of action heroes — particularly the Dark Knight and Her Majesty’s secret servant.

I remember my father complaining about both characters and contrasting them to the lone-hero tradition of hardboiled detectives and their fictional forebears, the cowboys.

G.I. vs Private Eye

In fact, my father’s point to my preteen self was a continuation of a point he made to me when I was about my son’s age. I’d just gotten a set of “Undercover Agent” accessories for my GI Joe doll (we didn’t call them action figures back then). Gone were the camouflage fatigues and assault rifle; now Joe sported a dark trench coat and a walkie-talkie.

GIJoeUndercoverAgentI said, “Look dad: It’s GI Private Eye!”

My father explained to me that my rhyming name for my new hero was self-contradictory. A GI was an American soldier, an official agent of the US government, whereas a “private eye” was a private individual, a lone hero in the fictional tradition. If dad had been more of a libertarian, he would have said that the military agent is paid by coercively extracted taxes and operates by state privilege, whereas the private detective is an agent of the market, authorized only by private contracts, and liable to the same restrictions as any individual citizen. My father doesn’t talk that way, even now, but he would acknowledge that description as making the same point.

So after GI Private Eye, I grew up with an awareness of the distinction between heroes like James Bond, who was funded and sanctioned by the government, and heroes like Philip Marlowe, who was funded by private clients and sanctioned only by his personal code of conduct.

Astin-Martin vs the Batmobile

Now, a few years later, my father was making a different but related point about James Bond, this time inspired by my love of another toy: my Corgi Astin-Martin DB5, James Bond’s super spy car from the movie Goldfinger. “Look dad, isn’t this car cool?”

1964_Corgi_Aston_Martin_DB5Ever philosophical, my father saw the car as symbolic, not only of that state-agent/private-individual divide he’d addressed a few years earlier with my GI Joe, but also of a divide in heroic literature. James Bond worked for the queen, he explained, in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He was a knight for the monarch, and this tricked out vehicle from MI6’s Q Branch was the 1960s adventure-fantasy equivalent of the nobleman’s armor and mount.

I believe he felt the same about the Batmobile, but there are several important distinctions, some that put the historical emphasis on the “knight” in the Dark Knight, and some that put the “World’s Greatest Detective” more in league with the private eyes of American detective fiction.

For one thing, the medieval knight was a soldier for the king because he could afford to pay for armor, weapons, and a battle horse. He could afford to head off into battle instead of plowing the fields — and he could afford the time required for training between wars. The king didn’t pay him to be a knight. He paid the king for that honor. As far as we can tell, James Bond isn’t paying out of pocket for all those vodka martinis, and he certainly didn’t commission Q Branch for any of his gadgets. 007’s license to kill makes him a hired gun, even if he does restrict his paid murders to those sanctioned by his government.

Batman, on the other hand, pays his own way.

The Dark Knight of Liberty

Like most of the medieval knights, his wealth originally came from privilege more than trade. The Waynes are old money. Even “stately Wayne Manor” suggests aristocracy, and where Superman’s Metropolis is shiningly new and forward looking, gothic Gotham is old, with deep roots in Europe. Frames of Batman on the rooftops harken back to Quasimodo atop Notre Dame.

But while WayneCorp may well have risen on government contracts, Batman is not on the payroll. Bruce Wayne is spending his own money to fund his war on crime. This may put him in the ranks of the feudal warriors, but it sets him apart from agent 007.

Finally, who are the bad guys?

For Bond, they are the enemies of the state — meaning that they are whoever Her Majesty says they are. In both the books and films, they are invariably evil, so James Bond will look like the good guy when he finally defeats them, but ultimately the double-O agents are weapons: the government aims them at its enemies and pulls the trigger. We know full well from history who ends up in the crosshairs.

Even my favorite fictional private eyes, however independent and heroic they may prove to be, don’t go looking for trouble until a client hires them to do so.

But for Batman, the enemy is crime — not mere violators of legislation and statute law, not people who manufacture without regulation, trade without license, or copy digital patterns in violation of copyright. A true comic-book fanboy could probably dig through back issues and show us the exception, but I can’t recall Batman ever even picking on drug users.

For Batman, as for libertarians, a crime isn’t a crime without a victim. And it is the victims Batman is fighting for; they are proxies for the parents he was too young and scared to rescue from the back-alley gunman. In the versions of the backstory that I prefer, Batman can never avenge his parents’ deaths, so even the target of his vengeance is a proxy: not a human criminal but crime itself. And by “crime,” I mean rights violations, violence against person and property.

The Dark Knight may be on a perpetual quest, but it is not for a king; it is for the people.


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On Libertarian Factionalism, Our Critics, Conservative Associations and State Power Mon, 27 Jan 2014 15:59:21 +0000 The generation of libertarians seen in such outfits as SFL excites and encourages me. I especially approve its efforts to cleanse the movement of the type of bigotry that emerged after years of the libertarian movement’s circumstantial alliance with conservatives to battle against New Deal liberalism. Finally, young libertarians seem poised to differentiate themselves entirely from rightwing mythology and error.

I worry, however, that many of the young libertarians, particularly centered around the DC institutions, might lose sight of the importance of radical anti-statism. This all relates to something I can best explain by way of a little autobiography.

I was always a cosmopolitan libertarian. Although I had my origins on the right, I have favored gay marriage and open borders since I was in junior high in the mid-1990s. I have always disliked the notion that white upper middle class men were somehow the most persecuted minority. I have always seen law enforcement’s treatment of people of color as one of the greatest problems in American culture. I have, with varying degrees of intensity, long been sympathetic to such leftish concerns as feminism and the need for the poorest to be liberated from the state infrastructure that keeps them down.

There are many like me who in the 1990s tended to see our values most represented in institutions like CATO and Reason, and who were suspicious of the seemingly conservative tendencies of other libertarians, such as those associated with Ron Paul.

The main reason so many of us were repelled by these cosmo groups and attracted to the paleos in the following decade was simple: 9/11 and the following response by the government seemed to illustrate that we were wrong to assume that CATO-style libertarians were more “liberal” than the paleos. Cato took years to seriously confront the issue of torture. Whereas many libertarians in the beltway began equivocating on border issues just when they got even more important, the paleos, in contrast, began rethinking their earlier skepticism of immigration in the age of Bush. On the police state, the paleos became abolitionists and radicals just as other libertarians became defenders of the FBI and CIA. In the last decade, it was the Rothbardians that radicalized the movement on police abolition, IP abolition, and military abolition.

The most dangerous form of bigotry in American culture from 2001 on, at least at first, seemed to be Islamophobia, and the Randians and mainstream libertarians went soft just as the state was rounding up innocent people and throwing them in dungeons such as at Guantánamo. Starting in the Bush administration, a CATO scholar started defending the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping and John Stossel publicly defended it on the Colbert Report. Efforts to reach out to liberals during the second Bush term often came from the very cosmo libertarians who were for the Iraq war, and who, for what it’s worth, tended to equivocate on abortion rights and immigration as well.

On what I consider the number one issue of the last decade and a half—war and militarism—the cosmo libertarians dropped the ball, time and again: on torture, on bombing Afghanistan, on the timetable in Iraq, on detention policy, on surveillance, on military recruiters on college campuses, on the warfare state as such.

Everyone realizes finally that the war on terror has become the biggest single threat to our liberty, the method by which the state has finally virtually destroyed privacy altogether, the main engine of government growth, the main fuel of the lawless presidency, the reason we have cops with tanks and battle rifles even in small towns. And directly and indirectly, the most bigoted policies in the last generation have been advanced in the name of a cause that too many libertarians have been at best ambivalent on. The war in Afghanistan today seems obviously horrible to almost everyone, but when it most mattered—when we had a chance to stop the bloodshed and the inevitable cascade of unending conflict and death that bombing and invasion would inaugurate—the whole mainstream libertarian movement was busy rubbing shoulders with the most corrupt Republicans since the Nixon administration.

The Rothbardians, even the socially conservative Rothbardians, were always right about these, some of the very biggest issues of our day. They also opened the door to other forms of radicalism, and, indirectly at least, Ron Paul activism has appeared to vastly radicalized the movement and brought in far more women and minorities. The radical anti-state, war-hating, peace-loving, establishment-condemning message of Rothbardian-Paulianism has, in its own way, made the movement far more cosmopolitan. Indeed, I think the welcome change in libertarian demographics to better represent the general population has many roots in Ron Paul activism.

At the same time, fringe cultural conservatives, in all their reactionary quirkiness, can be found in the “respectable” libertarian factions as well. There are famous race realists who hang out with the think tankers. I’ve seen Christian Reconstructionists tabling at a regional SFL event. The Birchers and Patriot types have as much a grip on libertarian activism in the west as in the South. And of course, the Republican impulses of many factions of the movement—even those enlightened enough to support gay marriage—have long tainted the movement with corporate apologia and, by proxy, rightwing culture warring. Before the NYT attacked libertarians for ties to neoconfederates, the New Yorker attacked us for ties to the Koch Brothers, and you had better believe that progressives will remember that exposé long after they forget about the NYT one.

The New Yorker attack was unfair, and brought on a wave of progressive conspiracy theorizing about how libertarians were allying with Republicans to abolish the state according to the philosophical platform of pacifist Robert LeFevre. My point is, we will always be attacked, our unsavory associations will always be cited but they are rarely necessary, most of our enemies hate libertarianism in its pure form more than they have conservatism, and practically every faction of our movement is vulnerable.

I have become far more ecumenical over the last couple years. I have taken a lesson from my model of a libertarian scholar, Robert Higgs. This ecumenicism might lose me some friends, but I don’t want to have any more enemies among libertarians. I see great value in much of what many of these organizations do, and I think there are very important issues on which my biggest allies over the last decade or so aren’t the most correct.

But I do want the younger libertarians to understand something: the mainstream libertarian organs, as great as they are—and they are great—have also made bad associations and have failed to uphold our values as times. Some of them won’t admit it, but many of them were wrong about what became the most pressing issues of our day.

The truth is not to be found in sectarianism. Please consider that.

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Habeas Corpus in America Thu, 16 Jan 2014 16:16:23 +0000 Adobe Photoshop PDFReview of The Power of Habeas Corpus in America: From the King’s Prerogative to the War on Terror by Anthony Gregory. Cambridge University Press and the Independent Institute, 2013.

Anthony Gregory is a great friend of mine, and I am honored to have the opportunity to review briefly his splendid new book, Habeas Corpus in America.

A few comments about the book itself are in order before sojourning through the content. First, it is a beautiful volume. I suppose we can thank Cambridge University Press for that. The cover itself contains the text of Abraham Lincoln’s order to suspend habeas during the Civil War – a very nice visual touch. The forward is written by the erudite constitutional scholar Kevin Gutzman. The book is written in three parts: history of habeas corpus, application of habeas corpus after 9/11, and a section titled “Custody and Liberty” exploring the future of habeas. Multiple appendices then analyze various habeas cases, and the customary selected bibliography and historical term explanations follow. It is long, thorough, sweeping, and powerful – but also pretty expensive. I suppose we can thank Cambridge University Press for that as well.

Habeas corpus is generally understood as the legal right not to be detained arbitrarily by the government. It is considered a foundational principle of Western legal systems, even of natural law itself. Still, habeas corpus is widely misunderstood, especially on a historical level. Anthony Gregory’s work on the history of habeas corpus and its application in America levels a damning charge against the American federal government and challenges the reader to reconsider the common assumption that the federal government protects liberty by showing how and why they abridge this fundamental right.

In the history section, Gregory explains that the origins of habeas corpus are not as simple as we are generally taught. Writs had traditionally been used by governments to command obedience. Contra the oft-assumed pure libertarian origins of the writ of habeas corpus, habeas was initially a privilege of the nobility in England. The Magna Carta itself was pushed upon King John by the Barons of Runnymede for their own personal protection. Expanding the writ to all citizenry took considerable time, and highlights the mixed and often paradoxical history of habeas in the West.

Habeas corpus emerged in America as a revolutionary rallying point. Gregory writes in Chapter 3:

Not only did habeas radicalize the colonists; the colonists soon radicalized habeas, extracted from it the purest pro-liberty element at the core of the judicial writ, and adopted through practice a libertarian version of the writ that prevailed in the late colonial era up until the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. First the colonists had to claim the writ as their own, which happened not so much through inheritance from Britain but with indifference or even hostility toward formal English institutions.

Compared to most other habeas corpus episodes, the initial expansion of habeas in America was a bottom-up affair. Nevertheless, over time the federal government acquired the means to do with habeas whatever they willed. Indeed, built into the Constitution itself is a mechanism to destroy habeas: “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” (Article I, Section 9) During the debates on adoption of the Constitution, anti-federalists decried this language as unduly granting power to the federal apparatus, since it alone would hold the power to determine when someone was acting in “rebellion” and that “public safety” required suspension of habeas. The clause also highlights that this power is a government privilege. In other words, you do not have a right not to be detained arbitrarily, but rather this is something you get from the government. What the government gives, of course, it can also take away. Thus we see that habeas corpus as a government power throws us into a paradox: Can the government be expected to wield such power justly when it alone has the power to rule when it is a party to the case?

Indeed, multiple incidents through America’s history shows that at no time has the federal government been incapable of justifying suspension of habeas when their plans require it. Whether the military commissions of Abraham Lincoln, the detention of Japanese-Americans in World War 2, or the indefinite detentions of the Bush-Obama era, where the feds have will they will make up a way.

Again, the American experience suggests that the history of habeas corpus is complicated and somewhat contradictory given its importance both in our shared cultural tradition and in concrete reality. Habeas corpus is both overvalued and undervalued, sometimes for right reasons and sometimes for wrong reasons. Fundamentally, the principle stands but this society must change if habeas abuses are to be righted. To Gregory, the end-game solution is simple: “A society needs more than the judicial order to secure its freedom. It needs to value that freedom in itself.” Understanding the history and application of habeas corpus is only part of the solution, the next is to change the culture from the inside.

Anthony Gregory’s excellent book pushes the truth about habeas corpus and the atrocities of governments forward. I am confident that any student of legal history and of freedom philosophy will find his work very beneficial.

This post was originally published on on January 16, 2014.

Note: This book is a bit pricey, so if you do not think you will purchase it, encourage your local library to check it out to spread Anthony’s great work!

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The Pestilential State Mon, 25 Nov 2013 17:55:39 +0000 Mongol siegeThe Mongols surrounded the city walls. Genoese merchants hoped to wait them out inside the Black Sea trading city of Caffa. Technically these European merchants were guests of Uzbeg Khan of the Golden Horde. But the Genoese had become unwelcome. They repeatedly disrespected the authority of Islam and the khan himself. They dared to trade in Turkic slaves and had even summoned Italian troops to repel the previous khan’s soldiers. Now, when one of their own had killed a Muslim in the port city of Tana, these foreign "guests" defied the law by giving the murderer sanctuary here in Caffa, then refusing entrance to their hosts and rightful rulers at the edge of the Mongol Empire.

This time, there would be no reinforcements from Italy. Instead, the Mongols would fall to the invisible arrows of a plague that had followed the Silk Road from the arid plains of central Asia. While the Genoese were safe within the city of Caffa, the Mongol bodies piled up outside its walls.

In many respects, this scene was an echo of earlier history. The Greeks had fallen to plague outside the high walls of Troy, if Homer’s telling is right. The Bible says that Sennacherib ended his siege of Jerusalem because "the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians … and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead.…" According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, the Lord’s weapon was plague.

But the Mongols of the Golden Horde did something unprecedented both in the history of warfare and the history of disease. They piled their dead into catapults and hurled them over the city walls, raining diseased corpses on the besieged Genoese.

Unlike the Trojans and the Jews, the merchants were not on their home turf. And because Caffa was a port city, they could board their ships and flee the Crimea. It seems they brought the plague home with them.

"If this account is correct," writes bacteriologist Mark Wheelis in a paper for the Center for Disease Control, "Caffa should be recognized as the site of the most spectacular incident of biological warfare ever, with the Black Death as its disastrous consequence."

A century later, the population of Europe was only half the size it had been before the plague came west.

But even if the disease reached the West by way of the late Mongol Empire, causing what Wheelis calls "the greatest public health disaster in recorded history," ultimate blame for the cataclysm may not fall to the Mongol khan or his soldiers. Instead we should look to the conduct of European monarchs — and one in particular.

I tell the rest of the story in today’s featured article at FEE:


Black Death and Taxes

They had more to do with each other than you might think

NOVEMBER 25, 2013

The plague and the Little Ice Age didn’t do Europe any favors. But the excesses of the State amplified the damage.

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Watching Illegal TV in Turkey Mon, 14 Oct 2013 11:25:56 +0000 RightwingTV Last month, I wrote in the Libertarian Standard about Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling and the end of the Golden Age of Television and about Serling’s preference for government interference over that of the advertisers.

Last week the Freeman published my article "TV’s Third Golden Age," about our present era in which quality dramas are moving from cable TV to the Internet, where they finally enjoy less interference from both advertisers and government regulation. The Internet is freer than television ever was.

In that article, I also give a little more background on JFK’s assault against the TV industry and how the deregulation trend of the 1970s and ’80s produced TV’s second "golden age." (Can you guess what brought it to an end?)

Paul Cantor, The Invisible Hand in Popular CultureBecause I mention the University of Virginia’s Paul Cantor in the Freeman article (as I did in "The Golden Age at Twilight" and "Price Theory a la Rupert Murdoch" here at TLS, as well as in "Did Capitalism Give Us the Laugh Track?" in the Freeman), I emailed Professor Cantor a link to the article.

Having just returned from the annual meeting of the Property and Freedom Society in Bodrum, Turkey, Cantor wrote this wonderful reply (which I quote with his permission):

This is a terrific article and thanks for sending it to me (and mentioning me in it). I’m glad to see that Thompson seems to be on board with us on these issues. I own his book but haven’t read it yet. It’s nearing the top of my "to read" pile, and you’ve pushed it up a few places. It’s good that we’re not alone on these issues.

As I recall what you wrote about radio, all this could have happened back in the 1920s if a subscriber model had been adopted for radio instead of the broadcasting model. Essentially, we’re finally getting where we should have been in the first place — real consumers for TV. I notice that young people now have no interest in seeing TV as broadcasted. They want direct access and know how to get it. When I was at Hans-Hermann Hoppe‘s recent conference in Turkey, I was amazed at how current the young people from central and eastern Europe were with American TV — maybe one episode behind on BREAKING BAD. When I asked: "Is BREAKING BAD broadcast in your country?" they stared at me as if I were saying: "Do dinosaurs still roam the plains of Poland?" They were getting the show — well, frankly, I don’t know how they were getting the show, but it was definitely online and quite possibly illegal.


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