…and a pony too

by Chris Bertram on March 6, 2004

Belle Waring has a brilliant lampoon of utopian libertarian discourse .

{ 24 comments }

1

asg 03.06.04 at 5:58 pm

The irony in calling it a lampoon, of course, is that none of the people she paraphrases are utopians, and all of them are talking about which imperfections are acceptable.

The rest of it is the typically snide approach along the lines of “David Friedman said this. But only an idiot would say that. Isn’t he hilarious?” If that’s a brilliant lampoon I’d hate to see a stupid one.

2

Rich Puchalsky 03.06.04 at 8:26 pm

There’s actually been a lot of theoretical argumentation against Friedman et al, if you think he’s worth it. Try http://world.std.com/~mhuben/libindex.html.

3

bill carone 03.06.04 at 10:52 pm

Chris (and Belle),

Do you really believe, e.g., that stateless societies would have no way to protect people from and deal with rapists?

I can’t see how you could think that, unless you are uninformed, completely misunderstand Friedman’s argument, or don’t understand the terms of the argument itself (e.g. not understanding what Friedman means by “government”).

Friedman might be wrong, and there are smart arguments against his (and all libertarian) positions. The linked post is simply harsh and witty; it doesn’t seem to address the views it is trying to skewer.

I can’t see it as a good satire, much less a “brilliant lampoon.”

4

bad Jim 03.07.04 at 1:46 am

Perhaps they ought just to have summarized the writers and said, “There has to be a pony in here somewhere!”

5

djw 03.07.04 at 2:36 am

bill carone asks: Do you really believe, e.g., that stateless societies would have no way to protect people from and deal with rapists?

Which is a strange question, because Belle Waring originally wrote:

Now, everyone close your eyes and try to imagine a private, profit-making rights-enforcement organization which does not resemble the mafia, a street gang, those pesky fire-fighters/arsonists/looters who used to provide such “services” in old New York and Tokyo, medieval tax-farmers, or a Lendu militia.

Which pretty clearly suggests that she thinks systematic rights-enforcing might well take place without a state. In fact, she’s indentified the alternative model. Problem is, it’s a model most sane people would want to exclude from their utopia.

6

Belle Waring 03.07.04 at 6:24 am

I’ll settle for harsh and witty. I wasn’t trying demolish libertarianism in some philosophically rigorous way. Still, I think my summaries were fair ones.

7

Chris Bertram 03.07.04 at 10:00 am

One of the reasons I liked Belle’s post and it made me laugh was that I recognized myself. I’m happy as Larry when discussing questions like whether self-ownership is tenable on small islands inhabited by two people one of whom is quadraplegic the other of whom has expensive tastes. De te fabula narratur, as KM would have said. Can’t you libertarians see that what you say in all seriousness can come across as faintly (or more than faintly) ridiculous? And can’t you laugh at yourselves?

8

David Sucher 03.07.04 at 5:00 pm

Bill C.,
Good question.
And I think that the answer is that people would invent The State.

9

bill carone 03.07.04 at 5:58 pm

DJW,

I looked at the part you quoted; it doesn’t address any of the arguments Friedman et. al. make about why such a system wouldn’t be like the mafia.

I also looked at the following:

“Now wish that people should, despite that lack of any restraint on their actions such as might be formed by policemen, functioning law courts, the SEC, and so on, not spend all their time screwing each other in predictable ways ranging from ordinary rape, through the selling of fraudulent stocks in non-existent ventures, up to the wholesale dumping of mercury in the public water supplies.”

Again, no evidence of knowing the arguments. It seems as if, without the state, Belle thinks that “ordinary rape” can’t be dealt with.

That prompted my question and comments.

10

bill carone 03.07.04 at 6:14 pm

Belle,

“I’ll settle for harsh and witty.”

Lots of people do; it’s how I would describe Michael Moore and Ann Coulter (uh, oh; I just Godwin-ed :-). Your post seems quite similar to their work; that’s probably why I became angry when I read it.

“I wasn’t trying demolish libertarianism in some philosophically rigorous way.”

There is a difference between “not being philosophically rigorous” and “not addressing any arguments at all.”

“Still, I think my summaries were fair ones.”

Your summaries seem fair (I only skimmed the Reason debate), until you put your own voice in (i.e. “No shit sherlock” “Look – Halley’s comet”, and the rest of the post outside the three summaries).

None of your post supports the idea that e.g. Friedman’s positions are analogous to simply “wishing for a pony”. Isn’t that what you were trying to do with your post?

11

bill carone 03.07.04 at 7:47 pm

Chris,

I can’t argue with you that you found it funny.

I can argue that you have bad taste in satire if you think Belle’s post is a “brilliant lampoon.”

Belle’s post could have been an attempt at _satire_ or simply a _jest_ (i.e. just trying to be funny at someone’s expense, without trying to say anything important or interesting. Like fictional accounts of court jesters). It could be many other things, but let me limit it to these two for now.

If it was a satire, it failed to engage the arguments it was trying to engage, correct? If so, it is a bad satire, whether or not you found it funny.

If it was just a jest, it failed to sufficiently indicate that it was. In other words, people might read it and think Belle was actually trying to say something, instead of just “playing the fool.” In fictional accounts of court jesters, you would never take what they say seriously (funny hats, silly faces and all that). Belle, on the other hand, seems to say intelligent things all the time; I don’t see why I shouldn’t think she was trying to say something important in this case as well.

“Can’t you libertarians see that what you say in all seriousness can come across as faintly (or more than faintly) ridiculous?”

Again, if it is just a jest, then you can point out the ridiculousness of any position and hope to get a laugh. Everyone knows that you aren’t really saying anything, you are just trying to be funny.

In a satire, you actually need to think things through. Lots of things sound ridiculous, but are true. If you claim that something is ridiculous without dealing with the arguments that show it is true, you are acting deceitfully and therefore unethically.

Imagine I wrote something like the following, “Statisticians are full of shit; here’s what they say. Here is a pregnancy test that is 99% accurate. However, statisticians argue that if you score positive on this test, you shouldn’t be 99% certain of being pregnant. How stupid is that? They clearly have no idea about how the real world works.”

How ridiculous of statisticians to say this, right? No? It’s completely true and makes perfect sense to people who actually know what they are talking about? Come on, can’t you laugh at yourself for being so ridiculous?

“And can’t you laugh at yourselves?”

This is only a defense available to jesters, not satirists. I see no evidence that Belle was jesting; it seems like she wanted her views to be taken seriously.

If Belle isn’t meant to be taken seriously, I can laugh (and, as with all good jesters, I would laugh at her as well as her targets) but she needs to telegraph it better, since she doesn’t have a reputation of being a fool.

If she is meant to be taken seriously, then I shouldn’t laugh at bad satire any more than at a joke told badly, right?

As an example, Michael Moore is quite a good fool, but a horrible satirist. Same with Ann Coulter, although I don’t find her harshness as funny as Moore’s.

12

Henry 03.07.04 at 8:04 pm

A lot of criticism of Belle’s post here; but nobody seems to want to take on her main point, which is a telling one. If anarcho-libertarians want to argue seriously that non-state forms of enforcement can protect property rights, defend against rape etc, they need to come to grips with the problems that these non-state forms of enforcement are themselves going to impose. The responses to this problem in the debate that Belle refers to are hand-waving, more or less – Barnett saying that public goods problems don’t really exist if you’re sufficiently imaginative, Friedman claiming on the basis of unspecified evidence that private enterprise can provide an adequate supply of public infrastructure. Frankly, I’ve a lot more respect for libertarians who are prepared to bite the bullet on this (a la Neal Stephenson’s _Snow Crash_ ) and acknowledge that their ideal society would have plenty of warts too.

13

bryan 03.07.04 at 8:41 pm

‘None of your post supports the idea that e.g. Friedman’s positions are analogous to simply “wishing for a pony”. Isn’t that what you were trying to do with your post?

I thought her post supported pretty clearly that Friedman wasn’t going to get the nice shit he wanted, in which case he might as well wish for something else that was nice and which he would never ever get, like a pony. If you want to make a legitmate argument here you might like to argue why Friedman could get what he wanted, not just stupidly refuse to hear the argument someone else made.

‘If it was just a jest, it failed to sufficiently indicate that it was. In other words, people might read it and think Belle was actually trying to say something, instead of just “playing the fool.” ‘

or, reading this: ‘ You see, wishes are totally free. It’s like when you can’t decide whether to daydream about being a famous Hollywood star or having amazing magical powers. Why not — be a famous Hollywood star with amazing magical powers!’ they might assume that Belle was pointing out the foolish nature of much that calls itself Libertarianism.

‘In a satire, you actually need to think things through. Lots of things sound ridiculous, but are true. If you claim that something is ridiculous without dealing with the arguments that show it is true, you are acting deceitfully and therefore unethically.

Imagine I wrote something like the following, “Statisticians are full of shit; here’s what they say. Here is a pregnancy test that is 99% accurate. However, statisticians argue that if you score positive on this test, you shouldn’t be 99% certain of being pregnant. How stupid is that? They clearly have no idea about how the real world works.”

I’m wondering if you have any idea as to how satire works? I don’t think that Belle’s post qualifies as Satire, then again she didn’t say it was a Satire anywhere (there was a reference to a lampoon somewhere which is mildly related to one of the secondary usages of satire, in the same way that most forms of humor are related.) So I don’t see where the Satire comes in, other than that you chose two types of discourse, jesting and Satire, of which this post could have been an item. I think your choice was rather dishonest, given that you define jesting as making a fool of oneself and Satire you don’t define at all.

you do however say this:
‘In a satire, you actually need to think things through. Lots of things sound ridiculous, but are true. If you claim that something is ridiculous without dealing with the arguments that show it is true, you are acting deceitfully and therefore unethically.’

Satire, as a literary genre (which is the only way I know of approaching it, you evidently think it is some sort of powerpoint presentation,) has never struck me as being especially above deceit or obliged to deal ethically, please show me a referent great work of satire and I will show you the deceits and the misuse of ethics in it – if you cannot refer to any such great work, and I doubt that you can, I will refer to ‘A Modest Proposal’.
In Satire a thing that sounds ridiculous but is true is generally still ridiculous, that a dullard makes the true ridiculous is proof of his dullness, a brighter person would find a way to make the true plain. Thus Satire is generally filled with characters making commensensical observations in the most ridiculous manner. This prepares us for the point in the Satire where the ridiculous is, as a rule, made commonsensical.

As a general rule I suppose that Satire has somewhat failed if the subject can actually laugh at themselves instead of dying from the mortification (given the Irish ancestry of the term), but the impression you give of Satire as being something that one should dourly appraise for its logical neatness is even worse.

Finally, your arguments above may have some worthy aspect to them, which I am wholly unable to discern, but given your long focus on a subject which I have some expertise in, and you evidently have none, I can’t give them any credence, richly deserved, poorly deserved, or undeserved.

14

Micha Ghertner 03.07.04 at 8:54 pm

Henry,

You can’t expect Barnett and Friedman to give a fully satisfying account of a radical political position in the very limited amount of space provided to them in the Reason debate. Both have written extensively on the very problems you cite: Barnett in The Structure of Liberty among other places, and Friedman in both The Machinery of Freedom and Law’s Order, not to mention numerous journal articles.

And if that’s not enough, see Bruce Benson’s The Enterprise of Law and various journal articles.

For quick introductions to this area of thought available online, see Friedman’s chapter, “Police, Courts, and Laws–on the Market” and Bryan Caplan’s Anarchist Theory FAQ.

15

bill carone 03.07.04 at 10:40 pm

Bryan, thanks for your response.

“I’m wondering if you have any idea as to how satire works?”

I used a technical term in a non-technical way; forgive me. I’m using the English word “satire” to mean a harsh and witty takedown of an opponent’s arguments. What literary term would you use for this? I’m happy to use whatever word you wish :-)

“I thought her post supported pretty clearly that Friedman wasn’t going to get the nice shit he wanted”

I just re-read the post. Can you quote such an argument for me? I can’t find one.

“you might like to argue why Friedman could get what he wanted,”

My point is that Friedman et. al. make many arguments about the issues in Belle’s post (see Micha Ghertner’s post above), none of which she addresses in any way. So she cannot say that their arguments are like “wishing for a pony.” Unless, that is, she is merely jesting.

“define jesting as making a fool of oneself”

Literally, though, not in the way this phrase is usually used.

In other words, if Jerry Seinfeld misrepresents facts and arguments on his TV show, it doesn’t matter; his only goal is to get a laugh. In this sense he is “making a fool of himself” all the way to the bank. :-) I preferred the “trying to be funny, not trying to say something important” way of thinking about it.

Note that this gives the ultimate defense for a jester: “Don’t you have a sense of humor? Don’t take yourself so seriously.”

A satire doesn’t have this defense; it is trying to make you “die of mortification,” not make you laugh. You can’t claim that someone shouldn’t take something seriously if you meant it seriously, right?

Belle’s post didn’t strike me as a jest; I thought it was trying to say something important, and say it harshly and wittily. In that it failed to address the arguments at all, it failed to be a good satire.

“Satire as being something that one should dourly appraise for its logical neatness.”

I don’t know about “dourly appraise” or “logical neatness”, but if it fails even to address it’s target’s position, it must be a bad satire, mustn’t it?

16

Micha Ghertner 03.07.04 at 10:53 pm

Bill,

Excuse me for being a bit rude, but one of the things you must learn about online discourse is that you cannot respond to humor (even failed attempts at humor; after all, humor is in the eye of the beholder, i.e. depending on whose ox is being gored) with serious criticism. Humor is the ultimate trump card: humor trumps serious argument, good humor trumps mediocre humor, and so on. Responding to humor with seriousness comments is like bringing a spatula to a pillow fight, or something. Actually, now that I think about it, that would be pretty damn funny…

17

Tom T. 03.07.04 at 11:29 pm

It’s interesting how debates on one far end of the political spectrum can pull people on the other end toward the middle. If Belle’s post is any guide, the anarcho-capitalists are causing the left to start praising the virtues of the police and defending the social benefits of private stock ownership.

18

Micha Ghertner 03.07.04 at 11:44 pm

Shhh, tom t., that’s all part of the vast libertarian conspiracy.

19

Patrick Taylor 03.08.04 at 12:22 am

Frankly it wasn’t scholarly enough, it lacked an appropriate bibliography (hello … footnotes???) and it did do a poor job of defining its terms. And am I alone in wondering what the heck the scientific methodology was?

I demand that the peer review committee that let that “lampoon” be published be fired immediately!

:: Ahem ::

But seriously, did I miss a meeting or have lampoons ever been required to consider specific arguments? A lampoon is a written attack ridiculing a person, group or idea, it’s not a reasoned argument (that’s the other room, this is abuse).

In any case, I’m not sure there is a single satire in all of literature that could meet Bill’s criteria, so it’s probably a bit demanding to expect Belle’s “bonne bouche” to fit the form of a formal satire.

It was funny and witty, Belle (and yes a bit harsh and biting, that was good too). It wasn’t comprehensive, but cripes, the humour is in the brevity. I enjoyed it alot … especially the pony bit.

20

bryan 03.08.04 at 10:03 am

‘I used a technical term in a non-technical way; forgive me. I’m using the English word “satire” to mean a harsh and witty takedown of an opponent’s arguments. What literary term would you use for this? I’m happy to use whatever word you wish :-)’

Well I was actually thinking of this before I got online this morning; it doesn’t strike me that Belle’s post qualifies as anything I would consider a lampoon, a parody, or satire, in that she doesn’t anywhere build a fictitious model of her subject, she quotes Friedman and the rest, but does not construct a scene in which their faults will be shown at their worst (I would consider some focus on the actual personalities involved for even a lampoon). Therefore I can only conclude that she ridicules libertarians but does not satirize, lampoon, or parody them.

Ridicule does not, of course, have its own genre (though as a form of rhetoric it has its own well-understood modes,) it is pretty vague and just means to make seem ridiculous.

It is rather difficult for me to know if Belle adequately made anarcho-libertarians seem ridiculous, given that anarchy of all sorts has always struck me as somewhat ridiculous (despite my being attracted to them, as I am also attracted to Brazil in Carnival season.)

21

Kieran Healy 03.08.04 at 10:30 am

Can’t you libertarians see that what you say in all seriousness can come across as faintly (or more than faintly) ridiculous? And can’t you laugh at yourselves?

Looks like the empirical evidence is accumulating on this one.

22

bill carone 03.08.04 at 3:08 pm

Hi all, thanks for your responses.

I thought the following was uncontroversial:

A good satire (or lampoon, or work of ridicule) must show at least a minimal understanding of the people, groups, or ideas that it is ridiculing.

Am I wrong here?

Micha, note that I am arguing against Chris, not directly against Belle. If Chris had posted “Belle has an amusing incoherent rant” I wouldn’t have had anything to say.

Patrick, do you really mean to say that you have never read a satire that showed a minimal understanding of its target? I can’t believe that.

Chris, Kieran, I am not directly interested in libertarian aspects of this; I’m not a libertarian. I was interested first in why Chris thought it was a brilliant lampoon, then I became interested in the whole “laugh at yourself” comment.

It is usually used incorrectly, it seems to me; it only applies to jests, when the only goal is to get a laugh. Think court jesters, Seinfeld, etc. You’d never argue with them, or get mad at what they say, unless you don’t have a sense of humor.

Once you try to say something important behind the humor, the defense no longer works, right?

I can’t imagine a good satirist hiding behind “It was only a joke.” Can you? A satirist is trying not only to get laughs, but destroy the target. If it misses the target, it is a bad satire, right? And no one should laugh at a bad satire, right?

Again, if Belle’s post is an irrelevant piece of fluff, just read for yuks, then fine; but it doesn’t look like that to me.

23

GMT 03.08.04 at 4:36 pm

If there were a market for your kind of cant, Chris, some entrepreneur would recognize that and develop it. Since that hasn’t happened, your [sic] just another example of typical government subsidized liberalism.
[/wurlitzer]

24

bill carone 03.09.04 at 5:39 pm

“Can’t you libertarians see that what you say in all seriousness can come across as faintly (or more than faintly) ridiculous?”

It’s one of Bernard’s irregular parts of speech:

My views are nuanced and well-thought-out.
Your views are counterintuitive.
His views are ridiculous.

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