The Day We Fight Back – #StopTheNSA

I shouldn’t have to write anything like this. It should be painfully obvious why privacy is important. It should be blindingly clear why it is wrong to have the National Security Agency put tracking devices in your computers, collect all your phone calls and emails, and turn on your webcam to spy on you directly.

These things are just not permissible.

Sadly, American society has become all the more accepting of these things in the past decade. Perhaps accepting isn’t the right word; maybe it is “resigned.” Either that or they just think they have nothing to hide, which is a painfully stupid thing to say.

A world without privacy is a world where we lack individuality. Sure, we share a lot of things on our social media accounts. But the point is we choose to share. We don’t have others deciding what is public and what isn’t. With all of our secrets laid bare, suddenly we start to censor ourselves, to conform, to stop being ourselves.

Think of what happened to people in East Germany or Soviet Russia. Think of the social atomization that went on in these societies. The pain, the fear, the terror.

A society cannot survive without privacy, without civil liberties, without individuality. A democracy cannot survive.

That is why I too am fighting back against the NSA. Stop it today. Stop it before it stops all of us.

Why Banning Learn To Code Bootcamps Is A Modern Atrocity

Over the past week, my Twitter feed has shown me at least two or three stories out of California on the state banning learn to code bootcamps. As someone who last year discovered had a natural talent for web coding and actually enjoyed it, leading to a career shift, this story dismays the hell out of me.

From VentureBeat, “California regulator seeks to shut down ‘learn to code’ bootcamps”:

BPPE, a unit in the California Department of Consumer Affairs, is arguing that the bootcamps fall under its jurisdiction and are subject to regulation. BPPE is charged with licensing and regulating postsecondary education in California, including academic as well as vocational training programs. It was created in 2010 by the California Private Postsecondary Education Act of 2009, a bill aimed at providing greater oversight of the more than 1,500 postsecondary schools operating in the state.

These bootcamps have not yet been approved by the BPPE and are therefore being classified as unlicensed postsecondary educational institutions that must seek compliance or be forcibly shut down.

“Our primary goal is not to collect a fine. It is to drive them to comply with the law,” said Russ Heimerich, a spokesperson for BPPE. Heimerich is confident that these companies would lose in court if they attempt to fight BPPE.

Heimerich stressed that these bootcamps merely need to show that they are making steps toward compliance: “As long as they are making a good effort to come into compliance with the law, they fall down low on our triage of problem children. We will work with them to get them licensed and focus on more urgent matters,” Heimerich said.

The question, really, is why there needs to be such burdensome regulation in the first place.

What happens at these bootcamps is that students come, they learn to code, they gain a valuable skill, and they can later turn that into a job. While the bootcamps cost between $10,000 – $20,000, they only last about 10-12 weeks, much less than the minimum $40k a year parents must shell out for 4-5 years of college. These bootcamps are a great opportunity: not only do the students get training in an actual, real world skill, but they do it for a lot less than a traditional college and they don’t waste 4-5 years unable to collect a paycheck, but can get right into the coding world with a job.

California regulators are citing “fraud prevention and safety concerns” as their reason for barging in and imposing themselves, but let’s be honest: that is not the case whatsoever. I would bet dollars to donuts that what’s really behind the regulators’ push is some market incumbent–some college, school, provider, whatever–that sees these bootcamps as a threat to its market share and wants them to be regulated so hard they go out of business, or at least until they stop being a threat. This is how the vast bulk of regulation in the United States comes about.

And here, because we are talking about education, knowledge, and individual empowerment, it’s especially atrocious. Any time someone steps in to prevent another from learning, well, mere words cannot describe how horrific such a thing is. I would never say it’s as bad as, say, the Holocaust, but it is truly a terrible thing. Knowledge is what empowers people to take control of their lives, better themselves, and in turn better all of the world. Knowledge knows no boundaries, no limits–except those imposed by the jealous and short-sighted. And even then, it will get out. You don’t need the bootcamps to learn how to code and get a job as a programmer, but it helps. A lot.

I myself was working in PR and media relations until the end of 2012. In 2013 I was very fortunate to have a friend recommend me to take a job in web programming, as he knew I had studied it a long time ago with my father. I was initially nervous, as I hadn’t done it in a long time…but before I knew it, I was becoming an expert on a completely new (to me, anyways) content management system, and was becoming an ace at HTML5, CSS3, and working my way into new forms of JavaScript. I became intimately familiar with responsive web design (taking one online course to help) which is a huge boon with the rapid growth of mobile web usage. This has opened all sorts of doors for me, and moreover, I actually enjoy it tremendously. It has turned me away from a period in my life where I was struggling to find what I was good at and could do for a day job, and was banging my head against the proverbial wall to do so, and into a life where I see possibilities and growth and a future and something I can do. Will it be easy? Of course not. It’s life. Life will never be easy. But now that I have this knowledge I have gained and taught myself, there is at least a path forward. That’s all anyone can ask for.

Why on Earth would regulators deny students this same empowerment? This is a modern atrocity.

2014 Predictions Part 3: Everything Else

With little over 24 hours left in 2013, it’s time for my last predictions for 2014. I couldn’t be arsed to do two more bits, so I’m just doing one more blog post, and hopefully will keep this short.

Without further ado:

We’re gonna get dumber next year

2013 was the year of stupidity, or just another year of it. We also had a lot of internet hoaxes (hoaxi?), ranging from a stupid spat on an airplane which turned out to be completely false, a story about how Iron Maiden followed it’s music pirates, and a few others. Over the past year, the credibility of online sources went really downhill.

While part of me wants to lay it at the feet of outlets such as Buzzfeed, Upworthy, ViralNova, and Breitbart, in reality the problem is really us, the consumers. We simply do not take the time to examine what we hear or read critically. Mainly, this is because we don’t have the time, nor the resources, to do so. But still, people can and should be raising their eyebrow in a Spock manuever more often. It’s a shame we don’t.

I honestly expect it to get worse. People are offloading so many cognitive functions to others–hoping for experts and the “news” to tell them everything–that they just won’t think about things.

Also, in a related vein, I see the phenomenon of trying to create viral posts by outfits like those mentioned above increasing dramatically, before suffering some sort of backlash and dying…only to be replaced by something even more grotesque. You know what I’m talking about: “This Guys Had A Great Plan Going, But What Happened Next Changed Everything.” It’s a technique that has annoyed a lot of people, though nowhere near enough to actually change things.

So that’s depressing.

Quality of discourse will suffer

Ever had socio-political, economic, theological, or any other debate online? Yeah. They’re gonna get worse next year. More ad hominem, more fallacies, more refusal to even research their own opinions (and probably demand you to do it for them), more just plain stupidity.

How do I know? Call it an educated guess. The longer I’ve lived, the worse and worse these discussions have gotten.

No significant change in religion

Dunno if anyone’s said there’s going to be an uptick in atheism next year, but I’m calling it now: there won’t be any significant change in anything religious next year. Maybe a point or two fewer Christians calling themselves evangelical, but probably not even that.

Cable companies will continue to suck (your money)

So I bought my parents a Google Chromecast for Christmas so they could watch their ABC shows online without having to physically plug in the laptop to the TV. (They’re old, you know.) However, we just discovered that starting Jan 6th, they’re going to need a provider code from their TV provider in order to watch ABC shows online.

They don’t have a “provider.” They get their shows over the air, via digital broadcast.

This is the way of the cable companies twisting the arms of the networks to force consumers to buy hideously expensive cable/satellite packages instead of just cutting the cord and using Roku (or a Chromecast). This will continue throughout 2014. My question is when it actually ends; when will the jig be up? 2015? 2016? 2020? Later? I don’t know. But it seems to me that it will happen sooner or later. Probably sooner. Then people will watch what they want online, including with all the ads.

Just not soon enough, unfortunately.

Kansas City Chiefs Crush The Seattle Seachickens To Win Super Bowl XLVIII

I’m calling it now. I’m also calling my bank to reassure myself I have enough money to cover my losses.

2014 Predictions Part 1: Politics

Recently, a friend of mine noted that not enough people–mainly pundits–actually put their reputation (and even money!) on the line and make hard predictions. He admired a lefty blogger for doing so last year when said blogger made a line-in-the-sand prediction that everyone would be sold on Obamacare by today. (Naturally, my friend disagrees with this lefty blogger on several issues, though not all.) That got me thinking to what predictions I would make, so, well, at the end of 2013, here are a few.

I’m probably not going to make anything definite, or super-hard; I always try to hedge my bets as there’s always a degree of uncertainty. You can never be 100% certain about something; if you are, you’re probably wrong. But then I’m not sure about that either.

And also, because this turned out to be longer than I expected, I’m breaking it up into parts. Part 1 is politics; part 2 will be science & technology; I may be a part 3 for society; with part 4 a catch-all for anything miscelleanous, if I get to that.

So, here are some predictions I have for 2014, along with some that go a little beyond that…

Continue reading 2014 Predictions Part 1: Politics

Employment & Free Speech

So A&E (apparently) suspended Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the Robertson clan from Duck Dynasty, for homophobic & racist statements he gave in an interview. Naturally, there’s been a lot of outrage on all sides.

Let’s get something clear: this is not the First Amendment. That applies to the government, not private employers. Don’t even think of making it a First Amendment issue. Matt Yglesias is completely right on this. (And I disagree with him on a lot of things.) So let’s just get that out of the way: First Amendment applies to government, not to private employers.

However, be that as it may, is it still right for companies to terminate or suspend employees over voicing opinions and views, no matter how backward or detestable they may be? Sure, companies may have a right to do so, but it does not make it right. It may also be completely legal, but again, not right. It’s very clear it is legal, but it is not at all clear that it is right to me.

Libertarians frequently talk about the chilling effect on speech whenever government censors. What libertarians don’t talk about is the chilling effect when companies censor. Now, to a large degree, this is because employment is a largely voluntary activity. If you don’t like your company, you can leave. You can even blow the whistle and enjoy certain legal protections.

But you still have to deal with the consequences of those actions. And one of those consequences is losing your paycheck. In a world that is the end result of a century of rampant inflation, losing your paycheck means a lot of struggle and hardship. (Okay, it did before the rampant inflation too, but not nearly as much. With things costing less, I think it was easier to compensate.) To speak your mind and possibly lose your source of income that pays for your housing, food, clothing, transportation–everything–is one hell of a chilling effect.

Now that doesn’t really apply to Phil Robertson. He’s clearly well off and will not be harmed by this whatsoever. But most of us are not Phil Robertson. We don’t have those resources to fall back on. Even if we may have some resources, we may be facing hardship we are not ready to face.

The problem with then saying “Nobody should be fired for voicing their opinions” is that you have a free association issue. People should not be forced to associate themselves with people they don’t want to. That includes corporate management that wants nothing to do with a person who vocally articulates hateful or otherwise harmful rhetoric. I wouldn’t want to be around a gay-bashing homophobe, and I suspect most A&E employees don’t either. So by mandating some sort of “don’t fire” principle, you’re effectively forcing people to pal around with people they really don’t want to.

And that creates a whole heaping load of problems on its own. I mean, hello: hostile work environment lawsuits.

I want to make it clear that I don’t support homophobic or racist rhetoric. However, if that’s the content of Robertson’s speech, I’m still not sure that suspending him was the right thing for A&E to do. I also want to make it clear that I think that employers should not terminate employees based on voicing their opinions outside the office, so long as they are not bashing the company, the company’s clients, or even possibly the company’s vendors. I also want to make it clear that any resolution towards these problems should not involve new legislation; we know how that creates a horrible, unmitigated mess.

In short, I am very conflicted. I think good, sensible employers will realize they cannot punish employees for voicing their opinions and will not do so. Bad employers will, and they will lose talent and suffer. But at the same time, I hate what the guy has said and I wouldn’t want to work at a company if such speech was allowed to run rampant in the office. Yet if companies start punishing employees for speaking their mind, what kind of a world would we be living in?

And this is the real world, unfortunately, where nothing is easy and you get your dilemmas for free.

Image: By Njallis (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Scrapping The Welfare State, Giving Out Cash, & A New Future for Liberarianism

Man, that title sounds hella-pretentious, but it’s immediately what came to my mind reading this article by Matthew Feeney on, Scrap the Welfare State and Give People Free Money. It is a fine argument for replacing our current welfare system with a form of basic income, which I have come around to over the past two years (roughly) living in Washington DC. After leading in with the recent news that Switzerland has created a basic income (on top of their preexisting welfare system, which is dumb) he gives this key passage (emphasis mine):

Without the Swiss proposal being attached to drastic welfare reforms the plan is, I think, unfeasible. However, that the particular proposal in Switzerland is not ideal does not mean that libertarians should shy away from proposing something similar. Being morally comfortable with some degree of government wealth redistribution might be contrary to anarchism, but it is not contrary to libertarianism, and were libertarians to argue for replacing the current welfare system with a basic national income we would be better positioned to not only highlight the fact that libertarianism is not the heartless and selfish philosophy it is commonly portrayed as, it would allow for a more humane and effective way to deliver welfare than the current system on offer.

I’m sure that will greatly offend the Rothbardians in the audience, but I really don’t care about those guys anymore.

Matthew also makes this other key point, which is that the welfare system actually hurts and dehumanizes people:

In discussions about welfare it is astonishing how often the current system is portrayed as humane, just, or charitable. However, one of the tragedies of the current welfare system is that it strips welfare recipients of their dignity while treating many of them like children, and functions on the underlying assumption that somehow being poor means you are incapable of making good decisions.

Many welfare recipients are required to undergo drug tests, despite the fact that many Americans take illegal drugs while still being good parents and holding down a job. If employed professionals are able to fulfil their duties at work while also maintaining a recreational drug habit, why should welfare recipients be treated differently? In fact, in the last year welfare recipients in Utah were found to test positive for illegal drugs at rates less than the national average, and in Arizona 87,000 screenings between 2009 and 2012 yielded one positive test result.

Perhaps the best example of the demeaning nature of the current welfare system is the SNAP program, otherwise known as food stamps, which works by giving recipients a card that can only be used to buy a selection of government-approved goods. Alcohol, tobacco, pet food, and vitamins are only some of the products that those on food stamps cannot buy because the powers that be have determined that they know what is the best lifestyle for food stamp recipients.

Since I moved to DC, and “enjoyed” it’s sky-high prices for rent, food, utilities, clothing–well, everything–I’ve started to abandon my old view that we shouldn’t have welfare, period. As much as I do not like the idea of welfare itself, or the idea of wealth redistribution whatsoever, I now realize a couple of things:

  1. The American public will never buy a political system completely lacking in wealth redistribution, period. You can call this stupidity, you can call this a decline in American virtues, you can call this the bandwagon fallacy, you can call it whatever you wish–but it is reality. No matter how much I would prefer a more Nozickian (or heck, more Randian) government, the majority of Americans will consistently vote against such an idea. Trying to push that view is just a waste of time, energy, and resources.
  2. As much as I would like  a more Nozickian state, and a completely free market economy, the current welfare system has so thoroughly ruined poor Americans there is no way to abruptly transition to a welfare free society. There are millions of Americans trapped in a cycle of poverty, a cycle partially perpetuated by the government (at all levels), and we’re going to be able to just switch and leave them behind. We have to light a path out of that and into the next stage. To us the words of philosophy professor Michael Munger, it’s not so much a libertarian destination as it is a libertarian direction–and I’m okay with that.

Considering that, the only real alternative available is a negative income tax. I’ve come to champion this proposal of Milton Friedman’s, for multiple reasons.

  1. It combines both welfare reform and tax reform in one package, making it more likely to get libertarians and conservatives onboard.
  2. It is more effective at helping the poor, so it should (in theory, anyways) be attractive to leftists.
  3. Unlike other universal basic income schemes, it is actually sustainable.
  4. It does not trap anyone in poverty, but instead lifts them out; poverty trap problems are neatly dealt with.
  5. I believe that it also avoids the problem of disincentivizing work; while those under the threshold do get money, they still have an opportunity to gain even more money past that threshold instead of receiving nothing. Also, many would appreciate a safety net to fall back on should their business attempts go awry, which may encourage them to go out and be more productive, rather than sit back and do nothing out of fear.

About a week ago, on Bleeding heart Libertarians, philosopher Fernando Teson laid out the basics of a philosophical school he called “sufficientarian liberalism.” I don’t want to quote the entire thing, because it’s brilliant, but it’s essentially where I have come to be. Teson notes that most libertarians readily acknowledge that free markets and (classically) liberal societies generate tremendous wealth and are the best tool for bringing people out of poverty. He then adds:

Here I take a different tack. Classical liberals should endorse a political system that includes a safety-net for the poor while simultaneously abolishing virtually all other barriers to market entry. This means no more subsidies, no more tariffs, no more licencing of professions, no more burdensome regulations, no more state-run education, no more barriers to immigration, no more unproductive public spending, and no more bloated bureaucracies (you can add an appropriate public-goods proviso.) Call this view sufficientarian liberalism. The view is sufficientarian, not egalitarian: it advocates state redistribution of resources only toward those who cannot provide for themselves.

Sufficientarian liberalism can be philosophically justified. In the Doctrine of Right Kant argues that to sustain the civil condition the state must provide means to those incapable of providing for themselves. But the state cannot legitimately redistribute resources beyond this, because doing so would encroach on people’s protected freedoms. The only legitimate reason for coercion is the establishment and maintenance of the civil condition. That is why the state can punish criminals: the state hinders the freedom of someone, the criminal, who has hindered the freedom of his victim. Now property-less persons cannot act autonomously because they are subject to the permissions and wishes of others. Therefore, the state must provide them with the material means of acting autonomously, as required by the civil condition. If you are charmed by this view, then you have a first-order, ideal justification of the sufficientarian liberal state.

But suppose that Robert Nozick is right and no redistribution, not even to the poor, is justified. In that case we can no longer justify sufficientarian liberalism on first-order principles. However,  we can still defend it as a second-bestnonideal political arrangement. If the Nozickian utopia is unattainable, then classical-liberals’ best strategy might well be to support institutions that frontally address the plight of the poor. Now imagine a society where the only redistributive job of the state was to help the poor. That society would be an immense improvement over the crony-capitalist systems we endure today. If we couple a safety-net with vast deregulation of markets, and we add the fact that freer markets help the poor more than known alternatives, then the classical-liberal has the upper hand, because the defender of the welfare state has lost her main argument for big government.  If the poor are provided for, all that remains of the welfare state are subsidies, privileges, rent-seeking, and various other inefficiencies. I doubt honest egalitarians can defend that.

Although the comments section is rife with diehard libertarians and anarcho-capitalists flinging barbs, nothing here sounds too controversial to mainstream Americans. I wrote earlier about “market democracy” being a true American centrism; that was a more abstract view of things, while this is a bit more concrete (though still not a specific policy platform.) People really don’t give that much of a damn about income inequality; they only care that there are people starving and want them to be not-starving. Even the poor, I think, don’t really care if they’re making less than a Wall Street banker, they just want enough to get by. (And if they have political power, that definition can be “Let’s get the government to get us plasma TVs and a Cadillac too. I still think that would be easily dealt with in a negative income tax system.) Teson also makes the necessary point that this system would have to be combined with a deregulation wave; I don’t think an NIT on its own, without a dramatically freer market, would really help people all that much. There are a great number of government actions–such as the Dairy Price Support Program making milk more expensive, to monetary idiocy at the Federal Reserve killing the buying power of the individual dollar bill, to various regulations propping up barriers to entry and killing the competition that brings prices down–that artificially raise prices and make things more expensive, especially for the poor. Unless those things are done away with–and thus, in the process, making there a lot less poor to go around–anything else will have a blunted impact on poverty. (And though it shouldn’t be mentioned, such a plan should also include reducing the military budget by half–at least–and enacting serious entitlement reform, which may actually end up being scrapped if such a system was implemented.)

That’s a pretty damn good view of centrism to me.

I think what Feeney is writing about here is actually the future of libertarianism. He’s right that this isn’t ipso facto against libertarianism, just anarchism, which I don’t think libertarianism really is (no matter how much undead Murray Rothbard stamps his feet about it.) And while I suspect both of us are going to get a lot of flack from more hardcore libertarians who will claim we are sanctioning state theft, that has been going on for well over a century in America and centuries elsewhere; we are advocating lessening it greatly, and ultimately such a thing is going to be seen as a cost of living in society. Should there be a cost? That’s a philosophical discussion for another day.

TL;DR: I think a basic income of sorts can be justified on broadly libertarian grounds; it is clear that such a system is superior to our current welfare state; and I think that libertarians should stop beating their heads against the immovable rock they’ve been killing themselves with for decades, adopt this plan, and actually move the ball down the field beyond our 30-yard line, because it is getting to be really, really ridiculous at this point.

And I’m very, very thankful it is beginning to get a wider audience.

GOP: Listen to Libertarians; Ignore Social Conservatives

Earlier this week, Virgina voters went to the polls and narrowly elected Democrat Terry McAuliffe–who is a veritable dirtbag–over Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who is pro-life, wants to force transvaginal ultraounds, hates gays, and is a climate change denier. Meanwhile, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis picked up 6.5% of the vote as well. Naturally, this means that Republicans are blaming libertarians (and Libertarians) for this loss (while some conservatives are already blaming “ze establishment.” More on that later.)

Two major points need to be said about this. The first point is that Robert Sarvis did not cost Cuccinelli the election. Indeed, most of Sarvis’ voters, if they didn’t have Sarvis as a choice, would have either voted for McAuliffe or would have just stayed home. Indeed, one theory I have seen floated around is that he brought extra voters to the polls who may push Republican Attorney General candidate Mark Obenshain over the top against his Democratic opponent, so Republicans will have to turn around and thank the Libertarian Party (grudgingly).

As Chris Cilizza notes,  most of Sarvis’ fans would have stayed home. As Neil Stevens adds, Sarvis voters “were more interested in voting for him than they were in tipping a close election between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli.” He increased turnout and in turn highlighted a growing part of the populace: libertarians. (Even if they don’t label themselves as such.)

Here’s the second point: even if Sarvis cost the election for Cooch…


I wholeheartedly agree with my friend Tom VanAntwerp, who wrote:

Libertarian candidates do spoil elections for Republicans. And that’s awesome!

Republicans need to remember that they are not entitled to anyone’s vote. (Nor are Democrats, for that matter.) They have to run a solid campaign that promises what people want if they hope to win. And over time, when they do win, they have to deliver. When Libertarians draw enough voters away from Republican candidates such that they lose, they should take it as a sign that they promised the wrong things and delivered the wrong things.

The Republican reliance on social conservatism will continue to be a growing weakness, and Libertarians will exploit it. And if Republicans hate that Democrats win because Libertarians exists, then they should take the views of the libertarian swing vote more seriously.

Republicans and conservatives only pay attention to libertarians around election time–and that’s always with pathetic bullying antics and fearmongering of what would happen should the Democrat win. When libertarians protest at this, or after a Republican/conservative loses, there are always cries that libertarians need to work within the system, stop being purists, and learn to compromise. Never do these individuals admit that at no point did they or their candidate throw libertarians more than a symbolic bone. Never do they admit that they ignore libertarian philosophy and libertarian policy proposals, and just move brazenly on in their conservative worldview, never stopping to consider other viewpoints, that maybe if they want to win they have to build a coalition that includes them making some compromises to attract more voters.

Daniel Bier put it well in an October posting for The Skeptical Libertarian that “Small Government Is Popular–The GOP Isn’t.” And why is this the case? Because the GOP continues pushing social conservatism at a time when the country is becoming increasingly liberal on social matters. Gay marriage enjoys majority support, as does marijuana legalization. Huge majorities–even Republican majorities–support immigration reform, specifically reform that is more permissive than today’s miserable condition. And religiosity–as much as that is a word–has dropped to about 60% last year, while 20% of Americans have no religion. Among those under 30, that number is 1 in 3.

If the Libertarian Party is costing the GOP elections, then good. That’s a sign that Republicans and conservatives are turning off voters with their policy packages, and that if they want to win, they better start coming back to the center and actually start incorporating libertarian ideas in their platforms, campaigns, and policies. If they want libertarian support, then they’re going to actually have to start being more libertarian.

Unfortunately, I don’t think they will heed that lesson, since they’re already blaming everyone but themselves for this defeat. Earlier, I cited Jonah Goldberg’s criticism of the establishment, yet as it turns out, Tea Party groups didn’t spend a lot of money helping Cuccinelli either. That they flail around pointing fingers instead of being introspective on where they failed doesn’t bode well for conservatives learning a thing or two.

And, of course, it should be repeated: libertarians did not cost Republicans this election. But Sarvis did tap into a growing percentage of Americans who are libertarians, and this growing voter base is not interested in right-wing ideas on social issues. So maybe not today. But in the future, it will increasing start to cost Republicans. The only question is when they start to buy.

Blaming libertarians is not productive. Neither is consistently running socially conservative candidates, nor kepeing their heads in the sand. If conservative Republicans want to see where their problems are, they need to stand up, turn around, and take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Comment Archive: Response to Matt Zwolinski on Rothbard

I hate doing posts like this, but the comment section on Bleeding Heart Libertarians is again acting up. So to preserve my comment in case of an error, here is my comment on Matt Zwolinski’s blog post on Murray Rothbard:


Inasmuch as Rothbard actually made people question the state itself, and thus give them the alternative framework to “the state must do everything,” I can give him credit. But I think in the end Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism may have damaged the liberty movement more than it helped. One of the reasons people don’t take libertarianism seriously is because we have a ton of people running around saying we should just abolish government entirely. People don’t generally take those radical approaches that easily, not unless there is mass starvation and violence going on.

Also, the paleo strategy was really, really bad. That alone should make one question Rothbard’s judgement, if he was a “happy warrior,” and if someone would want to hang out with him. By all accounts he was kind of nutty, and if he’s writing newsletters blaming blacks for all of society’s ills, then he’s kind of not a charming and delightful person, but just a racist with a veneer of geniality.

I agree with Brennan. Rothbard is a hack, and his disciple Rockwell (and that other guy, Hoppe) has continued tainting libertarianism with some pretty despicable ideas. I’m not sure I would give him three cheers, let alone seven. Maybe one. And it would be lukewarm.

I will agree with you on that there shouldn’t be a war between BHL and LvMI types. Except for when the LvMI types express some abhorrent views on race and sexuality, but other than that, you are correct. There is a lot of common ground. (Although praxeology befuddles me a bit…)

This isn’t the first time BHL’s comment section has cocked up. For some reason their Disqus install periodically develops amnesia. I literally saw the comment number change before my eyes from 1 to 0 and back to 1 again.

Hopefully we’ll be back to me regularly posting short quips about how I’m going to be back to posting about non-political and non-theological topics but then post incessantly about politics and theology.

A Truly American Centrism

Before this week continues into the bloody mess that is the website, and the PR fiasco Obamacare is becoming for liberals and Democrats, I wanted to examine something far more promising and hopeful for America: that of the growing, silent middle.

Last week, a study from Esquire and NBC News identified a “New American Center” made up of disaffected Americans. NBC headlined their blog post with “Why our nation isn’t as divided as we think” and argued that our country, outside of the most vocal (and annoying) folks on both extremes, really isn’t that polarized. However, both Ramesh Ponnuru and Josh Feldman took issue with the study, noting that there weren’t many non-centrist categories to be in, and that the vast majority of the center was (in Ponnuru’s words) “irreligious and white.” Huh. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I fell in the exact middle when I took the online quiz.

Despite these flaws in the Esquire/NBC “study,” I still think there is an American center, I’m just not sure if it’s new. But there is a new and growing field in the realm of political philosophy that is American centrism, and always has been, it’s only been given a name recently. That field is market democracy, launched and identified by Harvard political philosopher John Tomasi, and explained at length in his fantastic book Free Market Fairness.

What is market democracy? Tomasi calls it a “research program,” which sounds clunky but apparently is perfectly apt, as classical liberalism is also sort of a “research program.” But more specifically, market democracy is:

a deliberative form of liberalism that is sensitive to the moral insights of libertarianism. Market democracy combines the four ideas I just mentioned: (1) capitalistic economic freedoms as vital aspects of liberty, (2) society as a spontaneous order, (3) just and legitimate political institutions as acceptable to all who make their lives among them, (4) social justice as the ultimate standard of political evaluation. Here is a simple way to begin thinking about this view: market democracy affirms capitalistic economic liberties as first-order requirements of social justice.

In the above quote, when Tomasi says “liberalism,” he is not just speaking about classical liberalism, but all liberalism. Tomasi divides the liberal camp into two shores on the sides of an ocean: on one side, the libertarians and classical liberals; on the other, the “high liberals” like Rawls and your average lefty who think that economic liberties are not that important and the free market is not the greatest thing in the world.

Tomasi operates from an essentially Rawlsian viewpoint, and indeed his entire book is about taking on the Rawlsian enterprise and forming a hybrid between it and classical liberalism and libertarianism. He takes the Rawlsian framework seriously, but notes that if you do so, then you must also take economic liberties seriously. Although “high liberals” who follow Rawls almost always single out economic liberties to be ignored, marginalized, or otherwise downgraded in importance, Tomasi makes the case that if you follow the rule that governments are about treating democratic citizens with dignity, then you must also give them the dignity of owning a business and earning profits. Thus, anyone who follows in the steps of Rawls–which is most academic liberals, though I think it’s a vanishingly small number of “liberals” and progressives you meet on campus or on the street or on the Internet–must also be a strong proponent of economic liberties and the free market if they want to be consistent.

One of the great aspects of market democracy, in my mind, is it’s focus not just to a social justice that takes free markets and economic liberties seriously, but also the concept of “responsible self-authorship.” Tomasi describes it thusly:

This, I believe, is not just deeply powerful and inspirational, but is actually very acutely American. Even in 21st century America, with welfare queens and people constantly demanding more welfare, most folks believe that people have their own lives to own and run, and seek to do the same for themselves. Those who agitate the loudest for more wealth redistribution are largely on the far left, and only get so much attention thanks to a frankly pathetic news system which paints a picture of poverty being far larger than it is.

Because it is a research program and not a blueprint for government or even public policy, market democracy allows a lot of room for variation and nuance. Tomasi himself outlines three concepts in his book that fall within the market democratic paradigm: democratic laissez-faire (a very minarchist government that provides minimalist safety net features), democratic limited government (a slightly larger government that resembles suggestions by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman), and “Free Market Fairness” itself, though it is a tad more abstract than the other two. What’s interesting to note is that Tomasi is not hostile to some welfare, though it is far more limited. Instead, Tomasi notes how free market capitalism has made especially the worst off in society far better than even the best off in non-capitalist societies, and (rightly) trusts in that ability to do much of the heavy lifting on poverty reduction. However, he still notes with praise for government actions to take care of the most indigent amongst us, and joins company with such luminaries as Friedrich Hayek. The concept of a guaranteed minimum income or a universal basic income do get mentioned in this book with some positive tones.

This is what I think American centrism truly is: respect for each other as individuals leading our own lives, while accepting some help for the truly, truly needy, with those falling in that category being those who are so needy they can’t even run their own lives. Although most right-libertarians would attack market democracy on the basis that it is a contradiction, when viewed through this lens, it most certainly isn’t.

The first (major) party that truly latches onto market democracy—free market individualism combined with a concern for social justice defined as responsible self-authorship—will dominate the American center and be able to take solid control of the political process. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, if you like gridlock) neither party is anywhere close to embracing this.

The Democrats and the left are most certainly not interested in treating Americans as responsible self-authors. They seek to infantilize and coddle Americans every step of the way, by paying for their insurance and dictating what they can eat, drink, wear, drive, and so on. And although masked by a veneer of progressivism and social justice concerns, the left is really just crony capitalism in disguise—robbing the poor to feed the rich. Everywhere the left is trying to administer our lives, from Obamacare fiasco to the overreaching EPA, while simultaneously giving fat loans to political allies and cronies in big business and writing more and more regulations to protect their friends from market competition that might actually force them to reduce their prices.

Regrettably, the right isn’t much better. There is, out there, a sensible center-right movement. A great representative of this is the R Street Institute (disclosure: I have blogged for R Street in the past). Unfortunately, as this brilliant webcomic shows, almost the entire right-half has been taken over by the far right. These are folks who are trying to push their own socio-cultural views on everyone else in America, and in the process ignore two things that are absolutely essential for a modern, democratic state to thrive: cultural liberalism and liberal neutrality.

By cultural liberalism, I broadly mean the freedom to march to the beat of a different drummer. Liberal neutrality is the government part of this, that the state should not promote any conception of what “the good” is. Considering the vast variety of opinions, backgrounds, viewpoints, and so on and so forth that exist in an active democratic society, not taking these two points as a given and a foundation for all public policy is suicide. When you have different groups trying to impose their views on each other, you’re not going to have any peace. Better to just have a truce and let people go their own way. Otherwise you’ll get what we have now.

And, on both sides, we have a great deal of just plain tribalism. That doesn’t help anybody.

I have noticed that centrism, in America, typically is described as a sort of movement that is led by Thomas Friedman and would be willing and able to elect Mike Bloomberg president. That sort of technocratic lefty-lite centrism doesn’t really exist beyond the DC-Boston corridor. Instead, I think it’s much closer to the idea of market democracy.

The interesting bit is that market democracy is not too far off from libertarianism, at least not a moderate rendition of it. I think market democracy can be libertarianism 3.0, and indeed must be if we’re going to get liberty pushed forward in this country. The anarcho-capitalist path of just abolishing government is a political dead end. And while I am attracted to Objectivist thought, regrettably the way that Rand phrased her philosophy has made it an instant turn-off for all but a small contingent of Americans. It seems to me that the only long-term, viable path for libertarianism is market democracy. And while it’s not exactly the same thing, there is already a burgeoning movement called “bleeding heart libertarianism” which combines free market individualism with social justice concerns.

In summary, there is a distinctly American centrism out there, and that centrism is market democracy, combining free market individualism with social justice. The idea of “responsible self-authorship” makes a lot of sense and should be the basis for politics. And I really, really wish one of these parties would come to it’s freaking senses and embrace it before things get worse. Though I won’t hold my breath.

Response to Kevin Vallier: Um, no, Christian belief is not reasonable

I am a huge fan of the website Bleeding Heart Libertarians. It’s one of the few blogs I read that is genuinely intelligent and intellectual, and while that’s probably because I don’t read too many philosophy blogs, it also makes it one of the most enjoyable. Unfortunately, every so often you get a dud. And, even more rarely, you get what can only be described as a rotten egg.

Earlier this week, public reason liberal anarchist Kevin Vallier posted Christian Belief is Reasonable, So Respect It. His basic thesis is that atheists and other irreligious folk need to give a ton of more respect to Christiansand the Christian religion.

I’m a big believer in reasonable pluralism, the notion that there are deep, pervasive disagreements about morality, politics and religion that are the unavoidable result of practical reasoning in a free society. That means I think there are non-culpable rational disagreements about all sorts of things that really matter.

But since I’m planning a series of religion posts in 2014, I thought it worthwhile to defend one of the applications of belief in reasonable pluralism that will be critical to those posts.

I believe that a reasonable, rational and well-informed person can believe in a revealed religion. That is, she not only affirms a scheme of transcendent values and a complex natural theology, but belief in a divinely inspired set of social practices and sacred texts. I am fairly confident that one can be a reasonable Confucian, Buddhist, Muslim or Jew. Due to my familiarity with Christianity, I am extremely confident that one can be a reasonable Christian.

This means that many atheists, in particular New Atheists and Objectivists, should treat the beliefs of people of faith with far more respect than they presently do.

In the above selection, the italicized parts are Vallier’s own emphasis, while the bolded fragment is my own emphasis. I intend to draw attention to the word “reasonable,” because it is upon this the crux of this argument is being made. Now, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, reasonable (in addition to the meanings of “fair, moderate no extreme or excessive”) means “being in accordance with reason.” What is reason? George H. Smith, in his seminal book Atheism: The Case Against God, identifies reason as:

“Reason,” to quote Ayn Rand, “is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.” It is by abstracting the immediately given concretes of his experience into concepts, and integrating these into still wider concepts, that man acquires knowledge and surpasses the ability of lower life forms.

He continues:

To qualify as knowledge (i.e., as a correct identification of reality), a belief must be justified; it must warrant acceptance by rational standards. If a belief meets the requirements of these standards, it is a rational belief; if a belief cannot meet the requirements–but is adopted nonetheless–it is an irrational belief.

Specifying criteria for knowledge is a complex and controversial task, and one which we shall discuss in more detail in the following chapter. For the present discussion, we may indicate three minimum requirements that must be fulfilled before any belief can claim the status of knowledge: (a) a belief must be based on evidence; (b)a belief must be internally consistent (i.e., not self-contradictory); (c)a belief cannot contradict previously validated knowledge with which it is to be integrated. If a belief fails to meet any or all of these criteria, it cannot properly be designated as knowledge.

Knowledge, of course, is basically reason’s raison d’etre. So here we have a pretty good foundation for what is reason, and thus, what is reasonable.

Vallier has three central points he addresses. His first point is theism:

The first foundational belief of the Christian is theism. It is simply obvious that theism is reasonable to anyone who is acquainted with contemporary philosophy of religion. Nearly all atheists in the literature acknowledge that theistic belief is at least sometimes epistemically justified.

Wha-ha? “[T]heistic belief is at least sometimes epistemically justified”? And this is acknowledged by “nearly all atheists in the literature”? Perhaps I have not read enough atheist literature, but this seems to me to be a rather spurious claim. Who are these atheists? When and where did they write these things? Vallier does not provide these names, so already his argument is looking weak. (Remember, evidence.)

His other point, that theism is “reasonable to anyone who is acquainted with contemporary philosophy of religion” also strikes me as rather weak. Theism is the belief that there is a god or gods who exist. Now, on the surface, this to anyone sounds like a valid claim, even if untrue. (Note that I’m not really using the word “valid” as expressed in logic.) But here comes the problem: what is (a) god?

Most people I’ve asked this question either start laughing (as in, “How can you be so stupid you don’t know what god is?”), or given me stares and/or start sputtering. (One answer was “God is god” with a nervous chuckle, as if the person saying it knew the tautology involved and it had started to crack their faith.) But the question is an important one: what, exactly, is god? As George H. Smith notes, if someone started claiming that an “unie” exists, the first thing you would do is not say “Prove it,” you would say, “Just what the hell is an ‘unie’?” As such, we need to know what, exactly, is entailed by the word “god”.

Alas, this has been a search that has been undergoing since the beginning of human civilization. You can ask innumerable people what god is, and come away with innumerable answers. This is one reason why there are so many monotheistic religions, but also within these religions so many sects, denominations, and divisions. This is not like libertarianism, where we have differences over what is the best way to achieve liberty, and what liberty in practice would mean; no, this is far deeper. At it’s core it’s that we really have no definition of god to begin with.

Many have gone through the argument that there is no coherent definition of god; George H. Smith goes into it in such depth in the first part of his book that I think it really should have been titled Igtheism: The Case Against God.. I will not reproduce Smith’s work here, but suffice to say there is a great deal of doubt as to what, if anything, the word “god” really refers to. One point is the idea that “god” is incomprehensible, lying beyond our reason. If that is the case, then by definition, belief is unreasonable. Another point, then, is to give “god” “unlimited attributes”, such as omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence. But these don’t make any sense whatsoever. How could you have these unlimited attributes, when an attribute in and of itself consists of a limitation, of a definite quality? How can there be existence without limitations when existence is defined by limitations?

So theism is not reasonable. By entailing a belief in something that is inherently unknowable, incomprehensible, and defies reason itself, it is unreasonable. You wouldn’t start believing me if I told you that we were all seeds from a celestial kumquat that cracked itself upon the world to spread salvation. Why, really, should we then believe in the existence of a “god” or “gods”? At least we know what a kumquat is. We have no clue what a “god” is.

Of course, Vallier preempts any of this by saying:

Note that you needn’t think that theistic proofs are successful to think that at least one version of one of them can be rationally affirmed by an honest person. If so, then theistic belief is reasonable. Don’t dispute me here. I’m in good company with Leibniz and Aquinas.

Vallier does not tolerate your pathetic dissent. He just dismisses it entirely. Here’s his problem: as I pointed out above, by definition, theism isn’t nreasonable (and also isn’t rational) so while an honest person may affirm it, it would not actually be a rational decision.

Perhaps this is because I am not acquainted with the contemporary literature of the philosophy of religion. Maybe I just need to get a proper education in this topic. Or…maybe it’s because the philosophers of religion aren’t half as smart as they think they are. Just a thought.

Moving along to his second point, Vallier says:

The second foundational belief is that the Gospel reports of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are reliable. Many of you probably think the Gospels are not reliable sources of information about Jesus, given that they are full of miracles and were written long after Jesus’ death by unknown individuals. That’s fine. But is your view so ironclad that a reasonable, informed person couldn’t disagree?

I think there is significant doubt as to the veracity of the Gospels. First, even though Vallier says that the gospels were written within a generation of Jesus’ death, the earliest point around when they may have been written was 50 A.D.–twenty years after Jesus died. More reliable dating by historians point around after 70 A.D., forty years later. And these were most definitely not written by eyewitnesses, but loads and loads of heresay. Now how can these be accurate? The Associated Press frequently gets things wrong minutes after they occur in a society where we have advanced technology, education, and data verification systems. Imagine trying to get the truth of something decades after it occurred in a society where irrigation is considered a bloody miracle and you think the Earth is flat.

Is my view “so ironclad that a reasonable, informed person couldn’t disagree”? Again, this gets back to what is reasonable. Resurrection is just flat out unreasonable, and I would think any reasonable, informed person would agree on that. As for the life and death of Jesus, I am not one of those atheists who says that Jesus flat out did not exist. Rather, I think there was probably a man named Jesus who did some things, was probably a social reformer and agitator, and was executed by the Romans (and backed by corrupt Jewish authorities) for his trouble. Out of his life story, without modern inventions like video and rigorous journalism and historical documentation, a tale of a divine man emerged. Mixed with previous religions who had similar resurrection stories for their divine heroes, Jesus became the son of “god” (again, whatever that is) and a new religion was born. Indeed, the most prolific promoter of Christian, Paul of Tarsus, didn’t really start proselytizing until long after Jesus was dead and the truth was in doubt.

And so what if the Gospels were written within the generation of Jesus’ death? Eyewitness testimony is notorious for being of dubious value, and that’s before we get to the truly weird stuff. If someone was saying they just saw people abducted by aliens, you would either think they’re talking about the Mexican drug cartels or were just crazy. That would be the reasonable response, at least at first.

Lastly, Vallier addresses the Trinity. This is one of the most problematic components of Christian theology, for even though Christians stridently advocate there is only one god, they worship at least three: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of the Trinity–that’s a journey best undertaken by people who have the time, energy, and willpower to do so–but a good summary is that the Trinity is a doctrine riddled with contradictions, holes, and much philosophical jury-rigging to get it to fit with everything else. To believe in this would also be unreasonable, as nothing is clear nor consistent, requirements for reason.

In summary, then, no, the Christian belief is not actually reasonable. Theism itself is rather unreasonable, being as it is a belief system centered around one or more supernatural entities that are undefinable. In addition, neither the Bible nor the Trinity can save Christian belief from unreasonableness; indeed, if anything, they only doom it further.

This is most emphatically not to say that we should disrespect individual Christians, whether in public or in private. To paraphrase a popular Christian saying, “Hate the belief, love the believer.” I have made it known on this blog where I stand with regards to the antics of such organizations as American Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as well as all those local atheist groups who vandalize or do really dumb things regarding Nativity scenes. I do not believe in taking a combative approach, especially not in public. But if you’re in a private, or at least less public setting, and someone is telling you that they’ve made a decision based on (or worse, that you have to do something because of) something that a magical being that we cannot know told them, you would obligated to say, with a straight face, “Kevin, that is absurd.”

That is different from disrespecting the individual. You are pointing out that their point is ridiculous. Pointing out the ridiculous is not disrespect, but if it be disrespect, then make the most of it. We do not suffer outrageous statements and beliefs. We tolerate them for a time with children, but gradually help them grow out of it. We tend to regard anyone who seriously believes in fairies or unicorns as being either in jest or somewhat unstable. The same goes for libertarians who have discovered a bona fide socialist in this day and age.

Yet perhaps the very fact that theism is unreasonable is why it still lives. Perhaps Marx was right about the masses needing their opium. Is there a psychological or–dare I say it–spiritual need for a belief in the unbelievable? Do people need something in their hearts that exists beyond the realm of existence itself in order to give them some grounding, something to help them survive this existence? I think that’s probably the case. Just as fiction fulfills the role of “catharsis,” or release, so too does religion. (Now watch as some atheist wanders in here and says “Well duh, religion is fiction…”) So that is all well and good. The point of theism is that it is unreasonable, and humans need a dose of the unreasonable to get them through life. But that does nothing to make the belief itself reasonable or rational.

This is also, of course, before we get to some of the truly dark things about Christianity, especially those derived from its Judaic ancestry. Disobedient children are to be put to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), while those who mock a bald man are to be ripped apart by bears (2 Kings 2:23-24). How about killing women who are being raped who don’t scream hard enough? (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) Or subjecting wives to their husbands unconditionally? (Ephesians 5:22-24) Or how about cutting off your hands and feet that may give you temptation? (Mark 9:43-48) And let’s not even get started on Abraham almost murdering his son Isaac, because a voice in his head told him so. Against all reason, he takes his son up the mountain and gets ready to kill him there as an offering.

These are not only unreasonable, they are morally repugnant.

Of course, modern Christianity does not generally follow these points, yet they remain within the Bible and are not any less Christian for it. They are, of course, unreasonable, and that, more than anything, is why they are ignored.

Again, I want to reiterate that I do not advocate disrespecting individual Christians or being out and out assholes to them. But to argue that Christian belief is reasonable is a fool’s errand. It is built upon a foundation of irrationality and unreasonableness, and for many centuries openly attacked reason as being the Devil’s bride. For many people, that is the point.

I would suggest to anyone interested in reading books on atheism firstly the excellent Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith, with the warning that it is quite deep. Part 1 focuses on claims about the existence of god; part 2 is a massive, in-depth exploration of faith vs. reason; Part 3, which I haven’t gotten to yet, examine the positive arguments for god; Part 4 looks at practical consequences of belief in god. I would also recommend Richard Carrier’s Why I Am Not a Christian, an easier to read book that goes through four major reasons why Christianity does not work: god’s silence, god’s inert state, the wrong evidence for a supernatural being, and ultimately that we are just in the wrong universe for such an entity. (I understand Carrier is associated with the Atheist+ movement, which I reject, but his book is sound. His other book, Goodness without God is, to put it mildly, a bit boring. I only got through the preface.)

tl;dr: Um, no, Kevin, Christian belief is not reasonable, and I don’t really have any reason to respect it anymore than I have a reason to respect a genuine belief in fairies.

Update: Jason Brennan of BHL quotes a response to Vallier from another blogger, and underneath the quote makes this important statement:

I’m posting this because I saw similar types of responses in the commends to Kevin’s previous post. And I wonder if Richard [the other blogger] and Kevin are actually disagreeing here. I suspect–and I invite Kevin and Richard to correct me if I’m wrong–that Kevin is talking about reasonableness, but Richard is talking about epistemic justification or epistemic rationality.

Kevin claims that religious belief and theism, or at least certain instances of them, are reasonable. “Reasonable” is a technical term in public reason liberalism. Just what constitutes reasonableness is a big topic the PR liberals debate, but they all build into the concept of reasonable that reasonable beliefs are to be respected by liberalism. A reasonable objection has to be defeated; an unreasonable one doesn’t. A reasonable lifestyle has to be accommodated; an unreasonable one doesn’t. A reasonable claim has to be heard; an unreasonable one doesn’t. Etc.

In addition, PR liberals tend to hold that the category of the “reasonable” is broader than the category of the epistemically justified or the epistemically rational. Many beliefs that are not epistemically justified or that would be epistemically irrational to hold (because they are held in violation of the correct epistemic standards, whatever they are) are still reasonable. The standards of reasonableness are less demanding than the standards of epistemic justification.

Now I feel kinda dumb. I should have been the igtheist and asked just what Vallier meant by reasonable, but I figured I had a good sense of what reasonable is. Yet he’s not talking about reasonableness as reason at all; he’s talking about a technical term within the school of public reason liberalism. Moreover, this term isn’t even really defined; it seems to be a bit fuzzy. This is why asking for definitions and setting grounds for discussion are so important. Especially now that it looks like “reasonableness,” in this context, is functionally meaningless.