OK, this is getting silly

by John Holbo on April 12, 2010

Leaping heroically into the Golden Age of the 1880’s fray, Bryan Caplan now has a post up on EconLog arguing that … well, I’ll just quote the final paragraph:

I know that my qualified defense of coverture isn’t going to make libertarians more popular with modern audiences. Still, truth comes first. Women of the Gilded Age were very poor compared to women today. But from a libertarian standpoint, they were freer than they are on Sex and the City.

I cannot honestly say that the author provides any serious defense of this proposition.

UPDATE: pending a better explanation, heur wins the thread:

Caplan has a friend, also a libertarian, who said something stupid to his wife concerning the 1880s, and is now in a great deal of trouble. Caplan owes his friend a very large favor, and so now makes good on his debt by writing this post, intended to make his friend appear less stupid (and therefore less offensive to his wife). Since Caplan’s marriage is stronger, contractually, he is better able to bear the brunt of his wife’s annoyance. Thus what appeared at first to be ideological obstinance turns out to be an interesting application of the concept of comparative advantage, and an illustration of the bonds that can be formed between persons even in the absence of coercive state power.

{ 122 comments }

1

Witt 04.12.10 at 12:54 pm

The prior paragraph is astonishing as well.

Even if you think you can condemn coverture on libertarian grounds, the letter of the law rarely makes a difference in marriage. In modern marriages, spouses can’t legally “forbid” each other to take a job, but as a practical matter they still need each others’ permission. Husbands aren’t legally required to hand over their earnings to their wives, but if a guy suddenly stops depositing his paycheck in their joint checking account, he can’t avoid dire consequences by protesting, “I’m within my legal rights!”

The mind reels.

Can this man not tell the difference between the “dire consequences” otherwise known as “having a fight with your spouse,” and those that consist of knowing that the full coercive and imprisoning power of the state is on your spouse’s side?

2

rea 04.12.10 at 1:00 pm

But from a libertarian standpoint, they were freer than they are on Sex and the City . . .

. . . because on Sex and the City, everyone is required by the director to follow the script.

3

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 04.12.10 at 1:04 pm

Did Caplan write this with a straight face, or was he just having a lend?

Yet the fact that women were unable to vote in defense of their “basic liberty rights” doesn’t show that American political system denied them these rights.

4

John Holbo 04.12.10 at 1:06 pm

“because on Sex and the City, everyone is required by the director to follow the script.”

That’s actually a very good point.

5

chris y 04.12.10 at 1:15 pm

I’m with D&OoSG. The parsimonious explanation is that he’s pulling Wilkinson’s plonker.

6

Substance McGravitas 04.12.10 at 1:16 pm

Libertarian Caplan proposed removing the right to vote unless a voter could pass an “economic literacy” test. Hooray for liberty.

7

aaron 04.12.10 at 1:19 pm

I suspect that a lot of his argument rests on this strange claim:

“In economies with primitive technology and big families, it makes perfect sense for men to specialize in strength-intensive market labor and women to specialize in housework and childcare – and for default rules to reflect this economic logic.”

Which is a pretty terrible way to characterize America in the 1880’s onward. If you want to make that claim for a century earlier, you might have some limited traction, though I think it still falls apart in all sorts of ways. But the 1880’s is by any reasonable standard a period of massive industrialization in which, in quite recognizably modern terms, the sort of gendered division of labor he describes makes no sense at all, except as a means of tying down female labor. In other words, he’s quite obtusely focused his argument on the first historical moment when that kind of claim has exactly zero validity.

8

Chris Bertram 04.12.10 at 1:21 pm

I thought this was pretty astonishing too:

bq. Most non-libertarians will naturally answer that women couldn’t vote. But from a libertarian point of view, voting is at most instrumentally valuable.

So is his view that if the value of a particular right is merely instrumental then the denial of that right to a distinct segment of the population constitutes no restriction on their freedom? Compare: “the right to stay in hotels is at most instrumentally valuable”, does it follow that the denial of the right to stay in hotels to black people is not a restriction on their freedom?

9

indregard 04.12.10 at 1:26 pm

The great thing about Caplan’s absurdity is that it pinpoints the notion of “libertarian freedom”. It’s as if he says: “Who cares if you are forced into subordination by an entire society — including formal rules — constructed to benefit the very principles of patriarchism? Formal freedom to choose non-marriage, ie. a miserable life outside marriage and, therefore, outside legal romance, is all the freedom libertarianism entails.”

It really is a spot-on description of the difference between formal freedom given to abstract entities without human traits and real, human freedom.

But I believe Caplan is right in one sense. His assertion about freedom is the true consequence of libertarianism, and it sort of makes (real) freedom inconsequential for the evaluation of a society given libertarianist principles. There are few libertarianists who would defend it to this length, but that only goes to show that they aren’t really believing their own principles.

As soon as a wedge of human, non-mechanic evaluation of real freedom enters into libertarianism, the house of cards collapses, because if you accept this mode of evaluation in some cases, but not in others (for instance if you do not accept slavery or female subordination within libertarianism, even when based on a mutual contract), you are making exactly the kind of real, human evaluation that you are prohibiting.

But the only alternative to this collapse of the house of cards is to do precisely what Caplan does: Admit that freedom in the libertarian sense is fully compatible with unfreedom, and that is a cute way to do reductio ad absurdum on your own theory.

10

J— 04.12.10 at 1:28 pm

11

Harry 04.12.10 at 1:32 pm

The point is just that whether or not you have the liberty (the ability to act on your will to do X) is not intrinsically connected to whether you are able to act to protect that liberty if it is threatened. The liberty is, presumably, less secure if you cannot protect it, but if it’s there, it’s there. Witt’s point is pertinent (and apparently Caplan doesn’t get that, but presumably Wilkinson et.al. get it, and will give him a hard time).
CB’s analogy is unfair, because denying black people that right does deny them the freedom to stay in hotels. But denying them the right to vote only denies them the freedom to act within the state in a certain way that no-one (acc to Caplan) has a fundamental right to do. It is equality (which does not matter to Caplan) not freedom that is denied. Entirely consistent with requiring an economic literacy test for voters to qualify as voters. This is why Caplan, if consistent, ought to be a staunch defender of very stringent licensing requirements for people to become parents because the power libertarians give to parents over their children is orders of magnitude greater than the power democrats give individual voters over other people.

I’m not trying to make libertarianism sound more appealing.

12

Barry 04.12.10 at 1:41 pm

This is the comment I left there:

“You know, this latest ‘libertarian’ brouhaha reminds me of the pedophilia crisis in the Catholic Church, in that it’s really, really hard to find an argument which won’t be eagerly seized upon by apologists. It certainly confirms the stereotypes about libertarians.”

13

Mitchell Rowe 04.12.10 at 1:47 pm

7:
A very good point. The role of women in the war economy during the first and second world war supports this.

14

ScentOfViolets 04.12.10 at 1:49 pm

Most non-libertarians will naturally answer that women couldn’t vote. But from a libertarian point of view, voting is at most instrumentally valuable.

I’m curious as to the justifications for breaking away as colony of England. I had thought it was that whole “no taxation without representation” thing, but I’ll readily acknowledge that I may be wrong.

Going back a few threads, isn’t this just another example of libertarians having rather odd definitions of things like “freedom”, “coercion”, “liberty”, etc? Coincidentally, I’m sure, but isn’t this like those crimes a citizen can be charged with, like “resisting arrest” and “failure to comply with a lawful order” that don’t mean what the average person think they would mean?

15

Mitchell Rowe 04.12.10 at 1:51 pm

“The point is just that whether or not you have the liberty (the ability to act on your will to do X) is not intrinsically connected to whether you are able to act to protect that liberty if it is threatened.”
Harry this seems to be a stretch. Is a liberty that can be taken away at any time really a liberty? I would argue that it would be better labeled a privilege. Something available to a few when those in power choose to give it to them, but not a “liberty”.

16

FlyingRodent 04.12.10 at 1:56 pm

I think a few folk are extending far too much charity here. By far the most likely explanation for the huge, gaping flaws in libertarian ideology is that libertarians really don’t care at all how their fantasy utopia would affect other people. There is no “blind spot” regarding women, minorities etc. – the truth is that they just couldn’t care less about them and would rather not talk about them, if possible.

Ignoring these issues is also good for them tactically. For as long as libertarianism attracts 99% well-to-do white guys who don’t like paying taxes, they can plough on under the illusion of intellectual coherence. Having absolutely no constituency on either side of the Atlantic serves libertarians well, since they don’t have to deal with troubling matters like selling their ideology to the public. As a political theory, libertarianism exists untainted by the requirements of practicality, it’s no coincidence that that’s just the way its adherents like it.

17

Nathan 04.12.10 at 1:56 pm

It seems like he is trying to argue that the welfare state didn’t lead to increased freedoms by arguing that increased freedoms never happened instead of simply arguing that the welfare state had little to nothing to do with it.

Man, it sucks being a libertarian sometimes.

18

aaron 04.12.10 at 2:01 pm

ScentofViolets, I think you can (and I’m sure they have) come up with a libertarian read on the revolution that would subordinate voting to the general complaint that England was imposing on the colonies’ economic freedom. And that was a huge part of what was at stake, and the reason things like the Boston Tea party happened: Britain’s sense of the colonies was as a place to be exploited, not developed, and the growing commercial interests there wanted tariff reform as much as anything else.

“Representation” as a point of contention becomes a lot more important post-Jacksonian democracy, I would guess, when American democrats were re-creating the revolution as a usable history for their times. And while a lot of the more populist state governments (PA, for example) really did massively expand the franchise as a result of independence, the federal synthesis of 1787 meant subordinating a lot of that emphasis on franchise to the imperative to incorporate and consolidate . In short, as I understand it, 1776 expanded the franchise because populism was on the ascent and it was necessary to give local yokels a stake in the new system (which many were quite resistant to). Buy 1787 happened in the wake of various hinterland backcountry rebellions and so populism and democracy was a lot more questionable to the (extremely elitist) framers, in large part, the thing that a strong central state was necessary to control and subdue.

This is, of course, a highly debated topic, and this is just my take on it; I’m trampling over all sorts of different historical arguments in doing so.

19

ScentOfViolets 04.12.10 at 2:04 pm

“You know, this latest ‘libertarian’ brouhaha reminds me of the pedophilia crisis in the Catholic Church, in that it’s really, really hard to find an argument which won’t be eagerly seized upon by apologists. It certainly confirms the stereotypes about libertarians.”

Are those the ones that say libertarians will insist beyond all reason that they are still “really” right?

Anyone on usenet in the glory days of this tribe? The years 1996-1998 inclusive were pretty good ones for them. Then the internets were crawling with members proclaiming that they were the cleverest, canniest people ever on the grounds that they worked in the nascent information technologies and were being paid beaucoup bucks for their expertise without any sort of fancy union or government interference. As I recall it, these type of people, the semi-pros and the half-skilled are who replaced the intellectuals, largely drawn from the humanities who were formerly representative of the median libertarian. Thus, not being scholarly types who were up on the tradition of research, they often had to resort to these sorts of arguments after making statements that were flatly at variance with their claims. Iow, another point against them is that they are lousy tacticians; they don’t just want to win the war, but every battle as well. No willingness to engage an opponent on any issue will ever be labeled as a mistake.

In still other words, libertarians would be a lot better off if they got a better class of people to represent them. Kling, Caplan, McArdle, et al simply are not of that class. And I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m bookmarking these threads here and elsewhere to bring them up later. Such is the power of the internets.

20

Mike 04.12.10 at 2:08 pm

@10

If that isn’t a glaring signal to run away from Kaplan’s work I don’t know what is.

21

John Holbo 04.12.10 at 2:09 pm

I really am puzzled as to what definition of freedom he’s working from.

22

Chris Bertram 04.12.10 at 2:19 pm

That seems odd to me Harry, though I grant that equality is engaged too. In cases where there is some (non-fundamental) right to phi that is granted to some and denied to others, it sure seems correct to say than those denied the right to phi have their freedom to phi restricted. The unequal distribution of that right to phi makes the restriction salient in a way it might not otherwise be, but whether all or some are prevented from phi-ing is surely, inter alia, a restriction on the freedom of those who are so prevented.

23

NBarnes 04.12.10 at 2:19 pm

Freedom from taxes, of course. I’d thought it was pretty well established that that’s the only freedom that libertarians are really concerned with.

24

Steve LaBonne 04.12.10 at 2:19 pm

I really am puzzled as to what definition of freedom he’s working from.

It’s the state of being in which well-off white guys don’t have to pay taxes.

25

ScentOfViolets 04.12.10 at 2:19 pm

This is, of course, a highly debated topic, and this is just my take on it; I’m trampling over all sorts of different historical arguments in doing so.

Oh, you’re doubtless correct. I’m just pointing out that the original post was not, er, as well researched as it might have been, and that subsequent attempts to patch up the holes have been just as hasty and half-baked. I’ll repeat what I just said a few moments ago and say that as a tribal characteristic, when libertarians find themselves in a hole, they can’t help but keep digging themselves in deeper and deeper, no matter what, all the while proclaiming that they’re actually on a hill. Often they’ll throw in the tidbit that those standing around the rim of the pit and jeering at them are just too stupid or dishonest to admit that they’re really standing at the base of a towering edifice in the presence of greatness. Because of her distinctive ability to do this on a daily basis, week in and week out, year after year, I’m tagging this one as Megan’s Disease.

Punditwise, you seem to have to have this type of, um, seitzfleisch would be the nearest term I can think of, the ability to remain immobile and steadfast in the face of an accumulating pile of errors if you want any sort of career at all. It’s what all the great ones have, in various quantities.

26

HMDK 04.12.10 at 2:19 pm

Mitchell Rowe:
“Harry this seems to be a stretch. Is a liberty that can be taken away at any time really a liberty? I would argue that it would be better labeled a privilege. Something available to a few when those in power choose to give it to them, but not a “liberty”.”

In other words it IS liberty, always and forever, and as much as anyone will see, for those not in charge.
Your wallet, your “liberty”, your life, to name them in the order they seem to matter to libertarians, starting with the most precious first, can ALWAYS be taken from you by a state determined enough, or by a company determined enough, or any other entity. Please name ONE liberty that can’t in some way be taken away.

27

Steve LaBonne 04.12.10 at 2:20 pm

Great minds think alike!

28

P O'Neill 04.12.10 at 2:21 pm

We’re back to the Superfreaks saying that the same era was a golden age for prostitutes.

29

Harry 04.12.10 at 2:22 pm

What, you think he owes you a definition of freedom?? Isn’t that a bit demanding…

I think it’s something like Milton Friedman’s on which “freedom to X” is something like “the absence of coercion by other people with respect to attempts to do X”. ON this definition, the generosity Mitchell objects to is warranted — one is free to X if others do not interfere, even if there is no security to that freedom (which is what I’d say in response to Mitchell). Like many libertarians (but not Friedman, and not some others like Wilkinson who, I suspect, is, like Friedman, more of a classical liberal than a libertarian) Caplan tends to think of the government as the only coercing agent we should be concerned about; which is why Witt’s comment 1 is on the mark. But social norms that inhibit people from considering trying to X do not interfere with liberty on this definition, nor do disabilities, or stunted ambitions.

I do agree with the excessive generosity point — I’m doing it for fun, not out of generosity.

30

Phil 04.12.10 at 2:28 pm

As I noted on the other thread, I was particularly struck by this:

If by “marriage” most people mean “monogamous marriage,” it’s reasonable for monogamy to be the default rule. If by “marriage” most people mean “a marriage where the wife needs her husband’s permission to work,” it’s reasonable for that to be the default rule.

…and if arrangement X is the default rule, most people will conform to it most of the time without the law ever being involved, therefore the law on coverture was meaningless and can be left out of the reckoning.

So Caplan’s idea of freedom extends to freedom for people (including privileged groups) to make and enforce rules governing the behaviour of other people (including un-privileged groups), subject only to the second-order requirement that those rules command general assent. (Which most behaviour-governing rules do, by and large.)

This is an extraordinarily capacious idea of libertarianism. (Actually enslaving another person would still be a no-no, but beyond that I’m not sure what freedom-reducing behaviour it would rule out.) Caplan seems to get to it quite logically, though.

31

HMDK 04.12.10 at 2:38 pm

Well, Phil, that’s just the thing…
a turd by any other na… well, you know.

32

Mitchell Rowe 04.12.10 at 2:40 pm

HMDK
I grant that no liberty is absolute. However, there is a difference between a liberty guaranteed by law and a privilege granted on the whim of one who has power over you. In the first case you can seek some redress if your liberty is violated unlawfully in the second case you cannot.

33

roger 04.12.10 at 2:54 pm

Elections will always threaten any system of economic arrangements that benefits the wealthiest. Libertarianism wholeheartedly endorses a system of economic arrangements that benefits the wealthiest. Thus, libertarianism cannot but find elections either a secondary matter in a society that maximizes “freedom” or even something that should be abolished. The libertarian would much prefer a strong man leader, who can prevent unions and preserve freedom against the will of the majority.

This seems logical to me.

34

Steve LaBonne 04.12.10 at 2:57 pm

The libertarian would much prefer a strong man leader

cough “Pinochet” cough

35

alex 04.12.10 at 3:01 pm

Personally, I can’t wait for Libertopia. I’m going to celebrate by walking up to libertarians and shooting them in the face. [Unless they have guns. Then I'm going to snipe them.] As an expression of my commitment to individuality and my belief in personal freedom, of course.

36

HMDK 04.12.10 at 3:07 pm

“I grant that no liberty is absolute. However, there is a difference between a liberty guaranteed by law and a privilege granted on the whim of one who has power over you. In the first case you can seek some redress if your liberty is violated unlawfully in the second case you cannot.”

Well, no, there really isn’t. There is a fiction of it. The U.S. has pretty clearly demonstrated that. It used to be that no one was above the law, not even the president.
Does anyone actually still beleive this? Did anyone ever, except as a means to further some other political point?
I mean, being responsible for the deaths of thousands…
Curious, we’ve never seen an american president actually reap what he sowed.

37

Sebastian 04.12.10 at 3:08 pm

I’ll stay, though, that I’m pretty impressed by how Caplan is getting his ass handed to him on a platter by the commenters of Econlog – I would have expected them to be a more docile crowd.

38

HMDK 04.12.10 at 3:10 pm

“Steve LaBonne 04.12.10 at 2:57 pm

The libertarian would much prefer a strong man leader

cough “Pinochet” cough”

Bingo.

39

Mitchell Rowe 04.12.10 at 3:16 pm

HMDK:
“Well, no, there really isn’t. There is a fiction of it”
So you are saying that the right of women to own property is a fiction? That women do not currently have the right to legally own property and to take someone to court for depriving them of their property? Are you saying that the right of women to be secure in their person, even from their husbands’, is a fiction?

40

HMDK 04.12.10 at 3:23 pm

Yes, Mitchell, that’s exactly what I’m saying!
Well, no. And you damn well know it isn’t.
I’m saying that in the end, the power of the law comes from its enforcibility.
And maybe you don’t think it’s easier to enforce laws disadvantegous to those already kept at arms lenght, than to those already in power, but, hey… I’¨m just not that oblivious.

41

kth 04.12.10 at 3:25 pm

What Caplan seems to mean is that most of the freedom enjoyed by the characters on “Sex and the City”, relative to women in pioneer days, comes chiefly from 3 sources: (1) family planning technology (2) changing social norms (3) government prohibition against discrimination in education, hiring, lending, etc.

According to libertarians, none of these pertains to ‘liberty’ in the slightest: no one has the right to society’s approval, and no one has the right to an education or a job even if she is the most qualified candidate. In fact, the latter mandate from the government means that women are less free now than then, since they are no longer free to discriminate against blacks or other women.

I thought we all knew that the libertarian concept of liberty is a stunted and formalistic one, but I guess it’s good for everyone else to be reminded every once in a while.

42

Heur 04.12.10 at 3:32 pm

Alternative explanation: Caplan has a friend, also a libertarian, who said something stupid to his wife concerning the 1880s, and is now in a great deal of trouble. Caplan owes his friend a very large favor, and so now makes good on his debt by writing this post, intended to make his friend appear less stupid (and therefore less offensive to his wife). Since Caplan’s marriage is stronger, contractually, he is better able to bear the brunt of his wife’s annoyance. Thus what appeared at first to be ideological obstinance turns out to be an interesting application of the concept of comparative advantage, and an illustration of the bonds that can be formed between persons even in the absence of coercive state power.

More seriously:

Caplan argues: Coverture, preventing married women from owning property or signing contracts, is only a problem if there were no alternative contracts for entering into marriages, and there were!

Caplan then cites prenups, which created a trust to hold property existing prior to the marriage, on the female side, for her heirs; the woman herself had no control over the property, and one fails to see how this resolves the problem at all.

The most hilarious paragraph in the post is of course the one where Caplan attempts to dismiss marital law as unimportant, arguing that relationships between husband and wife are really hashed out between the two of them apart from any law.

The best defense for this suspected parody is that Caplan is trying to mount some argument about the amount of possessed liberty defined simply as the absence of effectuated coercion. So marital law COULD be coercive, but since husbands and wives usually didn’t resort to it to settle disagreements, it was never actually effectuated (a bizarre argument for anyone remotely familiar with how negotiations work, but I see no better one available, and I am concerned that Caplan is woefully unprepared to hold his own in any marital argument).

43

Mitchell Rowe 04.12.10 at 3:41 pm

HMDK
“Yes, Mitchell, that’s exactly what I’m saying!
Well, no. And you damn well know it isn’t.”
That has to be the most confusing thing I have read all day.

So are you granting that a liberty secured by law is preferable to a privilege granted on the sufferance of another? If you are then we are in agreement. I never argued that I thought liberties were absolute or that laws effected everyone in exactly the same way.

44

HMDK 04.12.10 at 3:54 pm

Well, Mitchell, I guess so, except I don’t make quite the same distinction between them. Not anymore, at least, as regards the U.S.
Because the legal checks and balances has to actually work.
So, while so far, in my own country, they still seem to hold up, somewhat, this does not mean I regard them as some sort of panacea, especially in places where they can be easily circumvented.
In fact, I think we do agree; our difference being the degree of trust we’re willing to place in the distinction.

45

Jason McCullough 04.12.10 at 3:59 pm

@FlyingRodent: Pretty much that they don’t care about non-economic freedom, yes. To elaborate on what I said in the last thread in a less churlish manner, I guess you could describe Libertarians as having a personal values stack rank consisting of their abstract interpretation of economic freedom to the exclusion of all else.

Kind of like how pro-lifers (who say, at least) they value the life of the child over all other considerations, leading to the extremes supporting abortion bans when it’ll kill the mother, or pro-choicers (who say, at least) they value the choices of the mother over all other considerations, leading to extremes supporting of third-trimester no-requirements abortion. I do not remotely want to discuss abortion as a result of bringing those examples up, but that’s the closet analogy I can think of.

Maybe if libertarians stopped using “freedom” in conservation with non-libertarians when their definition so wildly varies…..

46

ChrisJ 04.12.10 at 4:48 pm

“Freedom from taxes, of course. I’d thought it was pretty well established that that’s the only freedom that libertarians are really concerned with.”

That, and freedom from any responsibility whatsoever for the welfare of those who share the planet with them.

47

silentbeep 04.12.10 at 4:57 pm

I read that Caplan article last night and couldn’t believe it. And my first thought was: has this person actually seen the show? the movie? wtf?

I’m sorry but Caplan has forced me to go here: Carrie owns her own brownstone. That’s the sort of economic freedom that a single woman in 1880s America just would not have (by 1900 most states had laws allowing some rights for married women owning property). Is he going back in some time machine to tell women at Seneca Falls “you don’t know how good you have it, just wait forty years” ? I don’t see how I am suppose to take this person seriously, who tellingly, isn’t a woman.

I’ll try to be polite: that whole Caplan post was bovine excrement.

48

Mitchell Rowe 04.12.10 at 5:01 pm

HMDK
Fair enough.
Thanks for clarifying.

49

Harry 04.12.10 at 5:15 pm

The funny thing is that a non-libertarian might be able to say that the women in Sex and the City are less free (or no more free) than in the 1880s, because social norms constrain them more, or just as much, or something like that (I’m thinking of the view of freedom that Jerry Cohen would attribute to loopy Germanic-sounding professors from the 1880s in one of his stand up routines). Hardly something a libertarian would want to say.

50

David in NY 04.12.10 at 6:32 pm

I think all the sex and Jim Crow stuff is only a partial response to the Reason notion that this was a golden age. One can perhaps imagine alterations in the legal status of blacks and women that would be consistent with the kind of government we had in the 1880s’. But aren’t the recurring economic crises — e.g., the Panics of 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, and 1893 — the kind of thing that justifies a larger central government; and from about 1945 to 2008 didn’t we get away without that sort of thing? And isn’t Riis’s How the Other Half Lives an indictment of the kind of thing that needed correcting? And how did people survive in their old age in those days? Large numbers in poverty, I believe.

I haven’t followed all the comments on this subject, but hasn’t this sort of thing been missing, and isn’t it the really important part?

51

David 04.12.10 at 6:39 pm

Oh, Bryan. I can top that. I read Atlas Shrugged in one marathon 24 hour period the day before starting my senior year (well, I fudged ans skipped the middle 70 pages or so of JGs radio tantrum). I’ve never read any Rand since then.

52

Substance McGravitas 04.12.10 at 6:45 pm

But aren’t the recurring economic crises—e.g., the Panics of 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, and 1893—the kind of thing that justifies a larger central government

No because free market free market free market.

53

Ombrageux 04.12.10 at 6:50 pm

These people, neocons and libertarians, are unabashed troglodytes. As my Grandmother would say, “un-ah-bashed!”

54

David in NY 04.12.10 at 6:50 pm

“No because free market free market free market.”

Thanks. Silly me. How could I have forgotten.

55

ChrisJ 04.12.10 at 7:07 pm

“No because free market free market free market.”

You forgot the genuflect, genuflect, genuflect that goes after each invocation of the diety.

56

David in NY 04.12.10 at 7:15 pm

By the way, want to correct my earlier complaint that few had pointed out the economic problems, both societal and individual, that were endemic to the laissez-faire Gilded Age. Substance McGravitas and a few others had referred to them.

But it’s still been a secondary theme here, when you might think that it would be the stronger response to libertarians, who seem to think of liberty almost entirely in economic terms (except that, since they all would have been Rockefellers, the most important thing was “no income tax”).

And free market, genuflect. Also.

57

Alice de Tocqueville 04.12.10 at 7:33 pm

What Flying Rodent @ 16, and ScentofViolets @ 19 and 25 said.

Are there any libertarians who have graduated high school and are allowed out of their rooms?

58

JLR 04.12.10 at 7:38 pm

“Are there any libertarians who have graduated high school and are allowed out of their rooms?”

Sadly, the field of computer programming is polluted with them. They all think they are self-actualized geniuses of the first order. der Wille zur Macht and all that.

59

Western Dave 04.12.10 at 7:40 pm

I can’t believe I’m about to write this: the original Boas article that kicked this whole thing is off is pretty interesting. And the responses have been pathetic:
“yes, yes, of course your right, but that doesn’t require us to change our thinking at all!”
http://reason.com/archives/2010/04/06/up-from-slavery/print

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David in NY 04.12.10 at 8:03 pm

Yes, the Boas article seems to have been written by a thoughtful grown-up, who understands that liberty has many dimensions. The Hornberger piece, against which most of the comments here have been directed, not so much.

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leederick 04.12.10 at 8:04 pm

I think Caplan’s problem is that he’s looking at coverture from the perspective of the the woman. If you look at it more broadly, the concept’s obviously offensive to libertarians. If someone’s wife infringes your property rights, you won’t be able to sue her in person – you have to sue her husband and look to his financial resources (including his liabilites) for recompense. Similary, what about these women’s husbands? Coverture meant that had what was essentially a set quite wide-ranging non-contractual obligations to support their dependent wives, which interferes with their own freedom to contract. So, no his defense of coverture from a libertarian standpoint doesn’t really stand up.

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Doctor Science 04.12.10 at 8:08 pm

@Western Dave:

I saw that article a couple days ago, and thought, “hey, this is Reasonable” /rimshot/, but though the comment count was barely over 400 I wasn’t going to go there. Is there anything good in the comments, or is it the usual abandon-all-hope?

I must agree with John that Caplan’s post is kind of hilarious. The practice he is trying to kinda sorta defend (couverture) is precisely the loss of the freedom modern libertarians hold most dear, the right to private property. Married women lost not just the tax bracket of your choice’s worth of their private property, but *all* of it — proving that, as any 19th-century novel will tell you, the rapacity of the government is as nothing to the rapacity of one’s nearest and dearest.

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David in NY 04.12.10 at 8:14 pm

Coverture was pretty damn offensive. I did not fully appreciate this until I read my 4X great-grandfather’s will (1816, Worcester Co., MA), in which he disposed not only of his own property but also of his still-living wife’s dresses, jewelry, etc. (after leaving her a life estate in them). Somehow the notion that she could not even dispose of her own personal items made it really seem wrong to me, though this was doubtless not the greatest economic effect it had.

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mds 04.12.10 at 8:28 pm

alex @35:

As an expression of my commitment to individuality and my belief in personal freedom, of course.

You’d best hope that their estate planning didn’t include a provision to be avenged by the private security company they’ve contracted with. Better yet, get a contract with a more powerful security company first … if you can afford it.

I’m pretty impressed by how Caplan is getting his ass handed to him on a platter by the commenters of Econlog – I would have expected them to be a more docile crowd.

Indeed, perhaps this can be a teachable moment provided by all the genuine right-libertarians in the commentariat to correct the thinking of obscure fringe elements such as Bryan Caplan and Arnold Kling, or various of the crew at Reason. If nothing else, the more subtle ones will be able to further hone their argument for an “improved 1880s” by providing more detail on how the good developments since then didn’t require federal government action, while the bad developments did.

And speaking of the term “right-libertarians” in the context of “Are there any libertarians who have graduated high school and are allowed out of their rooms?”: Could we perhaps start using at least this fine of a filter, instead of the blanket term “libertarian”? Note that Wilkinson is already closer to the side of the angels on this, and he has some left-libertarian tendencies. (Which, in our current political climate, is to say that he can almost make out Kevin Carson and other mutualists at the horizon, while Chomsky remains red-shifted beyond visibility.) By increments, we could then start more frequently referring to minarchism (mentioned in a prior thread), anarcho-capitalism, etc, etc. Eventually, we might be able to place the most laughable recurring strains of libertarian thought into categories precise enough that not even Sebastian could engage in deliberately disingenuous quibbling about them. Though that is probably setting the bar unreasonably high.

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David in NY 04.12.10 at 8:58 pm

I must recommend the comments to Caplan’s post to one and all. This, however, seemed to me to be of more general application:

“Y’know I get that when you wrote this you were thinking about some vague libertarian ideas of freedom from government intervention and taxes and all that crap. And that’s great. But what you forgot to think about were actual women, and what they might actually have wanted from their lives.”
Commenter Shinobi

Pretty much the failure of libertarianism in general, if you ask me.

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parse 04.12.10 at 8:59 pm

Yes, the Boas article seems to have been written by a thoughtful grown-up, who understands that liberty has many dimensions

It does seem that way, but Boaz is a libertarian, so we know that’s not true. We wouldn’t want Boaz to change our notion of what a libertarian is, so we must instead change our notion of what Boaz is. Given that no libertarians have graduated high school, we can’t imagine Boaz might be a thoughtful grown-up with some understanding of liberty. Alternative explanations, anyone?

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David in NY 04.12.10 at 9:21 pm

@parse, no. 66

Um, if you’re trying to attribute anything but the italicized part of your comment to me, that’s unfair.

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parse 04.12.10 at 9:35 pm

David, in NY I absolutely wasn’t trying to attribute the non-italicized portion to you. In fact, I wanted to contrast your fair-minded observation about Boaz the the mostly-unchallenged sneering at libertarianism easily observed throughout the thread.

I regularly read two libertarian blogs–Reason’s Hit and Run and Radley Balko’s The Agitator. Neither has much in common with the caricature of libertarianism so prevalent here.

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Substance McGravitas 04.12.10 at 9:38 pm

the caricature of libertarianism so prevalent here.

The caricature provided by Kling and Caplan and Hornberger?

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David in NY 04.12.10 at 9:45 pm

Well, parse, thank you. I do think that Substance McGravitas has a point, however. They’re not all like Boaz, and by their reactions to him, they’re proving it.

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tsam 04.12.10 at 10:00 pm

Haha! Sex and the City.

Make believe TV shows should always be used for historical comparisons. Well done.

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Charlie Brown, Libertarian 04.12.10 at 10:02 pm

Why’s everybody always picking on me?

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parse 04.12.10 at 10:14 pm

The caricature provided by Kling and Caplan and Hornberger?

No, the caricature presented when, instead of commenting on the genuine idiocy demonstrated by particular libertarian pundits, people want to suggest that no libertarians have graduated from high school or that, as I learned on a previous thread, all libertarians are virgins, or that these people, neocons and libertarians, are unabashed troglodytes. That kind of thing.

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ScentOfViolets 04.12.10 at 10:32 pm

alex@35:

As an expression of my commitment to individuality and my belief in personal freedom, of course.

Uh, Sailor Ripley?

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Steve LaBonne 04.12.10 at 10:38 pm

That kind of thing.

Then they should stop- pace the rare exceptions like Boaz- sounding every bit as stupid, ignorant and naive as the stereotype would have it. When more of them do, only then will intelligent people engage them instead of laughing at them. Not holding my breath though.

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parse 04.12.10 at 10:53 pm

Then they should stop- pace the rare exceptions like Boaz

You may be a better judge than me at determining whether Boaz is a rare exception. I spend a fair amount of time reading libertarians who present interesting arguments, found pretty regularly on the blogs I’ve mentioned, and not much at all reading, say, Megan McArdle, who doesn’t produce much I’ve found interesting. But I’m not going to accept your assessment of the state of libertarianism without additional evidence.

Beyond that, some of the characterizations are offensive to me even if libertarianism, by and large, is unrealistic or unhelpful. The crack about virgins, for example. The suggestion that you can judge a man’s intellectual or political acumen on his success in seducing women is one I’d normally expect CT commenters to find jejune, but when applied to libertarians, it’s not merely ignored; it’s celebrated.

Meanwhile, I found that Ron Paul, for all his serious shortcomings, was better on so many issues–the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the drug war, domestic surveillance, corporate welfare–than virtually of his opponents, Democrat and Republican alike, in the 2008 campaign. That makes it hard for me to understand why libertarians merit such particular opprobrium.

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Steve LaBonne 04.12.10 at 10:56 pm

Beyond that, some of the characterizations are offensive to me

As a libertarian should know, there’s no right not to be offended. Bite me.

(Ron Paul certainly doesn’t believe in liberty where women’s bodies are concerned.)

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John Mark Ockerbloom 04.12.10 at 10:58 pm

It’s about English rather than American law, but Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century does a pretty effective job at demolishing the idea that the coverture laws were largely irrelevant or innocuous.

The epigram that opens the book is also of potential interest to this thread: “It was a saying of Jeremy Bentham’s, that ‘if the Poor had more Justice they would need less Charity:’–If Women had more Justice they would have no need of appeals to sympathy. “

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Keith 04.12.10 at 11:00 pm

Meanwhile, I found that Ron Paul, for all his serious shortcomings, was better on so many issues—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the drug war, domestic surveillance, corporate welfare—than virtually of his opponents, Democrat and Republican alike, in the 2008 campaign. That makes it hard for me to understand why libertarians merit such particular opprobrium.

If you’re so far around the bend, Parse, that you find a perennial gold bug and blimp wrangler like Ron Paul to be anything but a joke, then you may want to revisit some of your core assumptions. Either that or seek professional help.

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Memory 04.12.10 at 11:12 pm

Listen, this is a pointless debate. Whoever the libertarian person referred to in the post is, they are not engaged in an intellectually honest task and are simply not worth anyone’s time and effort. Read any well-researched history on the social and economic character of the late 19th century and you will find that the basic factual claims being thrown around by these people are false.

Since I know a bit about economic and labor history but not gender and marriage, please allow me to make my point in that realm and establish that one should not consider this to be a worthwhile debate. Setting aside excellent historical studies, even competent social scientists have identified the lived reality of this period as being overwhelmingly restrictive on any of the dimensions that one might associate with ‘liberty.’ For example, when I teach this era on labor history to undergraduates, I assign Ton Korver, Gregory Clark, Charles Perrow, and William Roy. Any reasonable history of the use of the labor injunction alone would be enough to clarify the coercive nature of the regime governing industrial labor. Unless you are completely delusional about the ‘voluntary’ nature of the labor contracts of this period (and if you are then you might enjoy reading Weiss (1986) on Private Detective Agencies and Labour Discipline), you can not honestly call economic relations at all free. And speaking of William Roy, the genesis during this period of largely unaccountable rights-bearing corporate entities capable of exercising power through the legal system, the elected political system, and the use of private coercive force should for any honest person jam a wooden stake through the heart of the mythology masquerading as history being peddled here. If the waves of reform since the 1880’s accomplished nothing else, their placing of some limitations on the ability of a synthetic person to mobilize political and coercive power would alone constitute an enormous advance for individual liberty.

My point is that characterizing 1880 as a period of admirable “freedom” is sufficient evidence of either a degree of ignorance of dishonesty that precludes meaningful debate. The only reasonable response to such a claim is to politely suggest that the speaker inform themselves about the period, perhaps providing suggestions for their reading if they are interested, and reconsider their position. Wasting time with anything else is rather like the proverbial agreement to discuss cavalry tactics at Austerlitz with the person claiming to be Napoleon.

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Mike Furlan 04.12.10 at 11:14 pm

parse 04.12.10 at 10:53 pm

That makes it hard for me to understand why libertarians merit such particular opprobrium.

Let me make it easy for you:

http://newsone.com/nation/casey-gane-mccalla/opinion-ron-paul-is-a-white-supremacist/

There may be no theoretical reason that libertarianism must always degenerate into white supremacy, but the empirical evidence is overwhelming.

Sad, because as you said, not all of their ideas are bad.

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parse 04.12.10 at 11:23 pm

As a libertarian should know, there’s no right not to be offended. Bite me.

I’m not a libertarian. And the observation that I find something offensive is something less than a claim that I have a right not to be offended.

(Ron Paul certainly doesn’t believe in liberty where women’s bodies are concerned.)

Absolutely right. Do you think that might be one of the reasons I said Paul had serious shortcomings, and expressed support for some of his positions , rather than for his candidacy?

Keith, when a perennial gold bug and blimp wrangler is right on so many issues where prominent Democratic politicians are wrong, I’m still wondering why libertarian is a dirty word and Democrat isn’t.

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Substance McGravitas 04.12.10 at 11:23 pm

Whoever the libertarian person referred to in the post is

Why he is a Cato scholar, as is prickly Arnold Kling. Perhaps they answer to David Boaz, who is a Cato VP.

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J— 04.12.10 at 11:33 pm

It’s Cato scholars all the way down.

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Keith 04.12.10 at 11:59 pm

Keith, when a perennial gold bug and blimp wrangler is right on so many issues where prominent Democratic politicians are wrong, I’m still wondering why libertarian is a dirty word and Democrat isn’t.

Because as wrong as Democrats are sometimes, they’re still right more often than lunatics like Ron Paul. The party that gave us civil rights stands head and shoulders above Ron Paul, who isn’t even right often enough to compete with a stopped clock.

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parse 04.13.10 at 12:17 am

Keith, how often is a stopped clocked right? Is it right on the drug war? Is it right on the war in Iraq? Is it right on eminent domain abuse? Is it right on corporate cronyism? Is it right on indiscriminate police surveillance? If libertarianism can guide even a “lunatic” to the right side of these positions, it can’t be all bad, can it?

The Democrats may be the party that gave us civil rights; they are also the party that gave us Jim Crow.

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ScentOfViolets 04.13.10 at 1:13 am

You may be a better judge than me at determining whether Boaz is a rare exception. I spend a fair amount of time reading libertarians who present interesting arguments, found pretty regularly on the blogs I’ve mentioned, and not much at all reading, say, Megan McArdle, who doesn’t produce much I’ve found interesting. But I’m not going to accept your assessment of the state of libertarianism without additional evidence.

Parse, speaking as one individual, I could care less about whether or not you “accept your assessment of the state of libertarianism”. I’ve come to my own conclusions independently long since, and the madcap spinning regarding this peculiar liberty of the 1880’s by people who damn well should have known enough to do a little research before spouting off is just the cherry on top.

Now, if you want to persuade me otherwise, feel free to present your argument and the evidence supporting it. But I’m guessing you’d much rather be the person who gets to say “I’m not convinced”. Another libertarian/conservative bit of rhetorical dishonesty, btw.

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Substance McGravitas 04.13.10 at 1:25 am

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Doctor Science 04.13.10 at 1:58 am

David in NY, I’m going to remember that story, it really brings the non-emancipation of women home.

I assume this pair of your ancestors was fairly well-to-do — enough to need a will and to have heirloom jewelry. And they were of the Founders’ generation. Yet your grand-(nth)-mother literally did not own the clothes on her back — even if she *made* them.

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parse 04.13.10 at 2:16 am

I’ve come to my own conclusions independently long since. . . Now, if you want to persuade me otherwise, feel free to present your argument and the evidence supporting it.

Well, what’s your conclusion? Is David Boaz a rare exception to the high school virgins who represent the remainder of libertarian pundits?

My conclusion is there are enough blogging libertarians making a useful contributions to political thinking that reflexively sneering any time the work “libertarian” is mentioned is unmerited, and identifying the philosophy with its worst exemplars does more harm that good. My evidence is the two blogs I’ve mentioned, which for me meet the very low standard I’ve set all by themselves. Your mileage may vary.

Another libertarian/conservative bit of rhetorical dishonesty, btw.

I’m neither a libertarian nor a conservative. I’ve spent my life working on the left, with a primary focus in gay liberation and sexual freedom, dating from a time when state power was far more likely to be used against those ideals rather than in favor of them. (Not that you can reliably count on state power to be used in favor of them now, at least not in the U.S.) It’s not surprising to me that such experience would leave me with some sympathy for aspects of libertarian thinking, even though my own beliefs are completely different on issues like property and community.

(That same history might account for the whiff of homophobia I get when someone sneers at libertarians for being virgins, an epithet that gets lobbed far more often than its status as a complete non sequitir would lead you to expect.)

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Substance McGravitas 04.13.10 at 2:19 am

identifying the philosophy with its worst exemplars

Its most representative exemplars.

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parse 04.13.10 at 2:29 am

Its most representative exemplars.

Well, that’s a question that remains open for me. My own experience is limited and to a great degree self selected, so I’m not assuming it is representative.

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mds 04.13.10 at 2:29 am

If libertarianism can guide even a “lunatic” to the right side of these positions, it can’t be all bad, can it?

Never mind the fallacy of “What’s so bad about endorsing right things for the wrong reasons?” Why aren’t you a libertarian? It’s possible to reach those positions without the baggage that requires one to publicly long for a return to the small government of the Gilded Age, especially from a left-libertarian direction. Yet it’s the Gilded Age crowd whose “caricaturing” you rail against, without apparently having any idea who the people in question are (Hint: Hornberger’s piece was posted at Reason). Which seems a peculiar activity for a non-libertarian to undertake.

On the other hand, you’re a Ron Paul admirer who is deeply invested in gay liberation and sexual freedom, and who, as a lifelong worker on the left, gets vis libertarianism primarily from Hit and Run, a collection of minarchists and anarcho-capitalists with a strong conventional conservative bent. And who expends great energy whingeing about how unfair it is to tar right-libertarianism with the stated beliefs of major proponents of right-libertarianism. Yeah, this is becoming reminiscent of Floyd Alvis Cooper territory. If this is the case, well done.

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ScentOfViolets 04.13.10 at 2:36 am

My conclusion is there are enough blogging libertarians making a useful contributions to political thinking that reflexively sneering any time the work “libertarian” is mentioned is unmerited, and identifying the philosophy with its worst exemplars does more harm that good. My evidence is the two blogs I’ve mentioned, which for me meet the very low standard I’ve set all by themselves. Your mileage may vary.

Why do I get the impression that if I had put as much effort in the other direction as you did here that you not only wouldn’t “be convinced”, you’d castigate me as a hypocrite for the very laziness a lot of us find in the tribe? In any event, this was an extremely poor attempt at persuasion. Dare I say unschlolarly?

Another libertarian/conservative bit of rhetorical dishonesty, btw.

I’m neither a libertarian nor a conservative.

Did I say that you were? Or are you attempting to attribute to me something that I did not say? If I say it is something of a trademark of the libertarians I have known to be intellectually lazy, does that mean that only libertarians are intellectually lazy?

Please. Try harder. Now, this time, please, try to make a persuasive case to get me to believe otherwise about libertarians.

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Substance McGravitas 04.13.10 at 2:37 am

Well, that’s a question that remains open for me.

Cato.

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ScentOfViolets 04.13.10 at 2:42 am

(That same history might account for the whiff of homophobia I get when someone sneers at libertarians for being virgins, an epithet that gets lobbed far more often than its status as a complete non sequitir would lead you to expect.)

I’d also add that this “whiff” you get is almost entirely in your head. In case it’s not obvious to you yet, a lot of us criticize libertarians for having rather off-the-wall theories of human behaviour (which, unsurprisingly, leads to the frequent suspicion that a lot of these types get their politics from the likes of Robert Heinlein.) Far from being a non sequitur, this type of sneer is just more of the same accusation, dressed up a bit to keep it entertaining. And yes, libertarians do seem to have odd notions about relations between the sexes. Sorry, but look at what Caplan is quoted as having said up above.

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Steve LaBonne 04.13.10 at 2:49 am

Concern troll [p]arse is concerned.

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parse 04.13.10 at 3:24 am

Why aren’t you a libertarian?

Because I disagree strongly with the libertarian position on property and community. I think a comittment to individual liberty is enormously important, but I don’t think it’s enough

And who expends great energy whingeing about how unfair it is to tar right-libertarianism with the stated beliefs of major proponents of right-libertarianism.

It hasn’t really been that much energy, and I’m recently unemployed. I hadn’t noticed the criticisms were limited to right-libertarianism, but if I mentally read “right-libertarianism” into every comment on this thread were “libertarianism” was written, I have a far different reaction.

Did I say that you were (a libertarian nor a conservative)?

Well, you said I was probably a person who would want to say something that you identified as another libertarian/conservative bit of rhetorical dishonesty, btw. You were certainly entitled to infer from my response that I understood you to be labeling me a libertarian/conservative, even though I didn’t explicitly say that you were. I think my inference about your remark is similarly reasonable.

I’d also add that this “whiff” you get is almost entirely in your head. In case it’s not obvious to you yet, a lot of us criticize libertarians for having rather off-the-wall theories of human behaviour (which, unsurprisingly, leads to the frequent suspicion that a lot of these types get their politics from the likes of Robert Heinlein.) Far from being a non sequitur, this type of sneer is just more of the same accusation, dressed up a bit to keep it entertaining. And yes, libertarians do seem to have odd notions about relations between the sexes. Sorry, but look at what Caplan is quoted as having said up above.

I didn’t connect homophobia to a general critique about libertarianism but to the specific dismissal of libertarians as virgins. That libertarians might have add notions about relations between the sexes doesn’t rescue that particular jocular dismissal of libertarians from non sequitir. Plenty of people who fuck a lot have odd notions of relations between the sexes, and plenty of virgins have perfectly common notions about them. If I were to present the “high school virgin” theory of libertarianism as the “most representative exemplars” of criticism of the philosophy, I’d be guilty of the same thing I’m complaining about. But I’ve seen enough principled and engaging critiques of libertarian thinking to believe, ScentofViolets, that you and Steve LaBonne don’t have anything useful to contribute.

Substance McGravitas, your reference to Cato is, for me, pertinent but not dispositive.

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ScentOfViolets 04.13.10 at 3:42 am

Chuckle. Parse, you do realize that you’re contradicting yourself in how and what you quote from paragraph to paragraph, as well as how you respond to it, right?

What are you, a virgin?

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Substance McGravitas 04.13.10 at 4:09 am

Substance McGravitas, your reference to Cato is, for me, pertinent but not dispositive.

If the most important libertarian organization in the country if not the world cuts no ice, should it make a difference if all of these stupids have appeared in the not-at-all-capable-of-free-market-support Reason?

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Steve LaBonne 04.13.10 at 4:11 am

No true Scotsman libertarian.

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Substance McGravitas 04.13.10 at 4:11 am

Indeed.

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Chris Bertram 04.13.10 at 6:34 am

Oh wonderful, Caplan has “replied to his critics”

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/04/women_liberty_a.html

… by getting a bigger shovel and digging harder.

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CBrinton 04.13.10 at 6:45 am

Caplan, in response to his commenters, has doubled down on the crazy:

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/04/women_liberty_a.html#comments

“[T]he key question is the extent to which these laws [against contraception, etc.] were enforced and changed behavior. How many Gilded Age women were actually prosecuted for fornication? Laws against contraception and reproductive education were probably a bigger deal, but it’s still easy to exaggerate their impact on women’s freedom. How many young women in 1880 didn’t know how to avoid pregnancy? How many actually would have used the crummy contraceptives of the time even if they were perfectly legal? . . . . I know that non-libertarians won’t be satisfied, but the point of my post was to show that women had more libertarian freedom in 1880 than they do today, not convert skeptics to libertarianism.”

I don’t think Caplan has to worry about converting anyone to libertarianism with his arguments.

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StevenAttewell 04.13.10 at 7:32 am

I think Memory hits it on the head at 80:

When libertarians talk about liberty or economic freedom, they mean “property.” We’re right back at John Locke’s “the turf my servant cuts” (and I have a sneaking suspicion that we never left) – what’s mine is mine, and to hell with anyone who argues otherwise, or who might have a claim to what I say is mine (i.e, if they actually cut the turf, or because their people had been living on the turf for a couple hundred years). The only liberties that count are the liberties of the propertied.

Because, as Memory points out, the only point-of-view that libertarians have is that of the property-owner/proprietor (and maybe sometimes the anti-union worker, but only as long as his demands for independence are directed away from his boss). Because to this day, the <a href= "http://realignmentproject.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/industrial-democracy-for-the-21st-century/&quot; workplace is still the least free place in the world – but the moment you ask a libertarian to draw some lines between government surveillance and employer surveillance, etc., they develop selective deafness.

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StevenAttewell 04.13.10 at 7:34 am

Got cut off there.

* the least free place in the world is the workplace (see http://realignmentproject.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/industrial-democracy-for-the-21st-century/). But if you try to get a libertarian to analogize between government surveillance and corporate surveillance, or government denial of due process and corporate denial of due process, they suddenly develop selective deafness.

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Anarcho 04.13.10 at 7:50 am

“But from a libertarian standpoint, they were freer than they are on Sex and the City.”

None of this is remotely surprising once you realise that “libertarians” (i.e., propertarians) are not interesting in liberty. Once you realise that their great love and foundation of their ideology is property then their obvious anti-liberty pronouncements become understandable — wrong, but understandable given their (flawed) ideology and its premises.

Thus there is no contradiction between “libertarians” like Robert Nozick and Walter Block defending “voluntary slavery” (compare Block’s serious defence to David Ellerman’s classic satire “The Libertarian Case for Slavery”). There is no contradiction in “libertarians” opposing unions (i.e., denying workers freedom of speech, association and assembly). There is no contradiction in “libertarians” supporting massive inequalities in wealth which reduce “liberty” of the many to picking masters. There is no contradiction because they are interested in property, not liberty.

Feminist (and genuine libertarian) writer Carole Pateman discusses this in her work (such as The Sexual Contract and Self-Ownership and Property in the Person: Democratization and a Tale of Two Concepts ). As she was in an anarchist group in the 1950s, she knows what libertarian really meant and so tends to call “libertarianism” contractarianism.

What gets me is that others do not call them on this and call them propertarians! Particularly as they stole the term “libertarian” from the left, from anarchists (who first used it in 1858, a century before the right tried to appropriate it). If people started to call them “propertarian” rather than “libertarian” then their anti-liberty positions would make sense and we can get on with trying to increase, not reduce, liberty for the many…

And how do you tell a genuine libertarian from a propertarian? Ask whether they agree that “property is theft!”

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novakant 04.13.10 at 8:50 am

Why aren’t you a libertarian?

Could we at least make some effort here no to succumb to the efforts of a rather small group of people to appropriate a concept with a wide variety of meanings and equate it with their very specific version. FWIW, Wikipedia lists these varieties of “libertarianism”:

Anarcho-capitalism
Geolibertarianism
Left-libertarianism
Libertarian conservatism
Libertarian socialism
Libertarian transhumanism
Minarchism
Mutualism

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dsquared 04.13.10 at 9:16 am

I had not previously been aware that Sayyid Qutb was a libertarian theorist, but if that’s the way Caplan’s going (and as far as I can see it is) then I bet there’s tons of money in it.

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FlyingRodent 04.13.10 at 9:41 am

I’ve always suspected that, if the nation’s small children were to get together and produce their own political ideology, it would be very, very harsh on baths and bedtime and very big on the inalienable and natural right of the individual to eat whatever sweeties he or she liked, no matter how bad for their teeth it is.

Don’t know why it sprung to mind here, though.

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Dan 04.13.10 at 9:42 am

And how do you tell a genuine libertarian from a propertarian? Ask whether they agree that “property is theft!”

Seeing as we’re quoting Proudhon, why not ask them whether they believe “property is freedom”, instead?

In some sense I have no problem agreeing that the foundation of libertarianism is property – but it’s property in one’s person that is the key, and that is something I think libertarians have no reason to be ashamed about advocating. How you can pretend to believe in liberty and deny self-ownership, I have no idea.

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Dan 04.13.10 at 9:45 am

Also, the irony of somebody asserting in the same post that a) property is theft and b) libertarians stole the label “libertarian” from the left, is not lost on me. (Personally I’d be quite happy to give the term up if the left were to give us “liberal” back.)

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Doctor Science 04.13.10 at 11:41 am

Anarcho:

I agree with you that Caplan et al. are ostensibly propertarians. What is astonishing here is to see them twisting themselves up to defend a system in which a large proportion of the population could not own property or make contracts: women in the 1880s were not economically free. It is, I hope, ripping off the mask of “libertarians believe that people should be free economic actors” to reveal the face: plutocracy.

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mds 04.13.10 at 12:59 pm

Also, the irony of somebody asserting in the same post that a) property is theft and b) libertarians stole the label “libertarian” from the left, is not lost on me.

Well, it’s lost on some of us, Alanis. Which is to say, those of us who know that (a) and (b) are talking about fundamentally different things. Would “appropriated the label to use for a different, more restrictive system, while usually acting as if their system were the only one to which the definition applies, thereby muddying the philosophical waters” work better than “stole” to make the distinction? It lacks brevity, though. Regardless, I suspect Anarcho was not claiming that royal libertarians and their ilk had literally stolen intellectual property from the left. More that they philosopically corrupted the concept of liberty by using it as cover for inanimate property rights absolutism backed up by state coercion or its practical equivalent.

How you can pretend to believe in liberty and deny self-ownership, I have no idea.

Me either. I suppose you could ask some of these previously-mentioned modern minarchists who call themselves libertarians, and see what they say. Again, though, I’m pretty sure that deep down Anarcho doesn’t really deny self-ownership, but rather the supposed natural law that extends that ownership to land or to the abstraction for representing the labor of other people known as “capital.” Suggesting that hostility to “property” with its almost universal definition in that context is equivalent to denying self-ownership, though? There needs to be a Latin term for “changing definitions in midstream.”

Could we at least make some effort here no to succumb to the efforts of a rather small group of people to appropriate a concept with a wide variety of meanings and equate it with their very specific version.

I was trying to delicately point this out, to no avail, at Comment 64, novakant. Unfortunately, this is what Anarcho is getting at, and Dan is helping to underscore from the right-libertarian camp: that “libertarian” has been largely co-opted to refer to a narrow band of similar right-wing philosophies, by those within and without. It might sting to abandon the exclusive use of the word “liberty” to reactionary royal libertarians, or at best to Tucker aficionadoes, but it’s probably too late. Will Wilkinson is about as left as it’s permissible to be and still get the label by default. Hence Chomsky and Kevin Carson have to be anarchist and mutualist, respectively, rather than libertarians.

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alex 04.13.10 at 1:34 pm

What’s ‘self-ownership’? Does it only exist in opposition to the idea of being ‘owned’ by someone else, or is it supposed to have a substantive content? Isn’t it, for an anarchist concept [if that is what it's supposed to be] assuming rather a lot about the concept of ‘ownership’? Do I need to ‘own’ myself in order to have freedoms? Why can’t I just have the freedoms, without the cranky ‘self-ownership’ concept tagged on?

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Nabakov 04.13.10 at 2:25 pm

Let’s face it, a true libertarian should also be a true anarchist.

‘ Anarchy is not lack of order – its lack of ORDERS ‘

Yet today’s faux libertarians always wimp out just as they get to that threshold. “But someone has to order someone to cut my turf.”

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mds 04.13.10 at 2:26 pm

What’s ‘self-ownership’?

In the context it was originally brought up? I believe it’s shorthand for the belief that enclosure and the appropriation of the value of someone else’s labor are the ultimate expressions of individual liberty. Outside of that, I think it’s getting into Hegelian territory. But don’t worry, you can simply “have the freedoms,” too. Just be thankful that there are moral philosophers out there, patrolling the Platonic Continuum in their bathoscaphes to protect the conceptual foundations of those freedoms.

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Nick 04.13.10 at 3:41 pm

“What’s ‘self-ownership’? Does it only exist in opposition to the idea of being ‘owned’ by someone else, or is it supposed to have a substantive content?”

Both. It means that you have the right to dispose of yourself as you see fit so long as you don’t violate the equal rights of others. ‘Ownership’ implies absolute control within a particular sphere of possible actions.

If it was meant to justify the enclosure movement, it did not do it very well at all.

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StevenAttewell 04.13.10 at 4:05 pm

Dan – property in one’s person is not what’s actually being contested here – although I’ll note that the “propertarian” solicitude for the “property in one’s person” of workers seems to be mysteriously absent. It’s precisely the “turf my servant cut” property, or the “ground that I decide to leave fallow but still belongs to me” property that’s being debated here.

And I think that Nabakov and mds point to important historical inconsistencies, where “property” rights are defined so as to advance the interests of the propertied classes against people whose property is in their person, or in a share of the commons.

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roac 04.13.10 at 4:47 pm

Yay! I have been waiting for someone (SoV at 96) to mention Heinlein, to give me an excuse for publicizing my recent discovery that, just as Arthur C. Clarke thought up the geostationary communications satellite, Heinlein thought up the Segway!

It turns out that I was not by any means the first to notice, but that saves me from typing out the reference, because Googling “Heinlein” and “Segway” gets it.

It’s in ‘The Roads Must Roll,” which combines one of the dumbest technological ideas (giant moving sidewalks!) with one of the dumbest political ideas (to avoid strikes in essential industries, create a new military service to run them!) to be found anywhere in sci-fi. Which is saying a lot.

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Anarcho 04.14.10 at 7:54 am

“Also, the irony of somebody asserting in the same post that a) property is theft and b) libertarians stole the label “libertarian” from the left, is not lost on me.”

No irony, given the arguments behind why Proudhon proclaimed “Property is theft!” This is discussed in the introduction to the new Proudhon anthology, so I won’t go into it (suffice to say, property is theft because it allowed the property owner to exploit workers, i.e., steal part of the product of their labour).

The real irony is that propertarians, defenders of “absolute” property rights, stole the term “libertarian” from those who first coined it and were still using it over 100 years later. In other words, their PROPERTY rights denied our USE rights and this confirmed Proudhon’s arguments…

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Anarcho 04.14.10 at 8:02 am

Seeing as we’re quoting Proudhon, why not ask them whether they believe “property is freedom”, instead?

Not really, given that Proudhon was arguing for possession rather than property and the whole “property is freedom” argument was showing how state ownership was a bad idea. He was well aware that property became oppressive when it creates wage-labour and landlords (as he explained in “What is Property?” and elsewhere). As I said, agreeing that “property is theft” (and “property is despotism”) is a reliable indicator of whether someone is a genuine libertarian or a propertarian.

“In some sense I have no problem agreeing that the foundation of libertarianism is property – but it’s property in one’s person that is the key, and that is something I think libertarians have no reason to be ashamed about advocating.”

Except that this “property” ensures that real liberty is denied for the many, as people can sell the “property in one’s person” (i.e., their liberty) to others. This creates social relations of domination, oppression and exploitation (up to and including “voluntary slavery”). As Proudhon argued in 1840 and anarchists have argued since.

“How you can pretend to believe in liberty and deny self-ownership, I have no idea.”

Perhaps you should read what these thinkers have to say? I linked to a Carole Pateman article which explains the issues well. How you can pretend to “have no idea” of the arguments involved when they are presented to you?

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