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December 2020

Libertarians -- Not Utopians, Not Cynics

[Letter to the Editor published in Washington Post ca. Dec. 11, 1993. I was at a conference of libertarians near Washington on the day it was published, but none of them mentioned it to me.]

There is no factual basis for E. J. Dionne's charge that libertarians are "utopians." ["Libertarian Lure," op-ed, Dec. 6] It is an easy label to slap on anyone, and Dionne will get away with it because few readers are familiar with us, but no one who has even glanced at our publications could believe that we ignore "messy realities." Most libertarians think that because reality is so irremediably messy, voluntary cooperation under a strong, impartial common law system is the most practical, flexible way to deal with it. Unprovoked threats, force and extortion tend to have socially mischievous effects, and we think it is foolish to expect better results when well-intentioned governments use them than when private citizens do.

Unlike utopians, we don't hope to transform humans into angels or to make them cogs in some wonderful new system. We simply want governments to stop doing harm, and to let society manage its own problems by lawful means. Human societies have always had ways of looking out for children and old people, helping the poor and making people be responsible. For example, to adapt to the massive changes of the late 19th century, all sorts of voluntary mutual help groups, insurance and pension funds developed. Governments supplanted these (and outlawed some) not because they failed, but because of a Utopian faith in technocrats and large monopolies.

It will take a few years for society to wean itself from government, because much of its immune system, its shock absorbers, its lubrication, its ability to adjust, has been taxed and regulated away. As Meng-tzu observed 2200 years ago, "When taxes exceed 10 percent, the very old and the very young are rolled into canals and drainage ditches." It's especially hard to be generous and tolerant when nothing we own is secure, and everything is up for grabs by one political faction or another.

It seems that when libertarians aren't being called utopian or euphoric, we're accused of being cynics. Actually, we are squarely in the middle on the question of human goodness: we believe that people are pretty much good enough to govern themselves, but not good enough to govern each other very much. That is the view of human nature upon which America's system of government is founded.

John Crouch
Williamsburg, Va.

Before "rights," the invention of "we," "mine," and "not" made us human -- Bart Wilson

Book Interview: The Property Species: Mine, Yours, and the Human Mind

"In his new book The Property Species, Chapman University law professor Bart Wilson offers a strikingly original look at the origin and meaning of private property.  Unlike scholars who argue that property is a 'social construct,' Wilson argues that property is a deeply and uniquely human practice.  Incorporating insights from history, linguistics, law, and his own laboratory experiments, Wilson illuminates the means by which our ideas of private property originate and gain their moral and legal force.   In this conversation our Teleforum will examine how the institution of private property marks human beings as 'the property species.'" LISTEN

How the Left-Right Divide Can Help Society Improve

"Haidt isn’t just scolding liberals, however. He sees the left and right as yin and yang, each contributing insights to which the other should listen. In his view, for instance, liberals can teach conservatives to recognize and constrain predation by entrenched interests. Haidt believes in the power of reason, but the reasoning has to be interactive. It has to be other people’s reason engaging yours. We’re lousy at challenging our own beliefs, but we’re good at challenging each other’s. Haidt compares us to neurons in a giant brain, capable of “producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.” Our task, then, is to organize society so that reason and intuition interact in healthy ways.

"... You don’t have to believe in God to see this higher capacity as part of our nature. You just have to believe in evolution. Evolution itself has evolved: as humans became increasingly social, the struggle for survival, mating and progeny depended less on physical abilities and more on social abilities. In this way, a faculty produced by evolution — sociality — became the new engine of evolution. Why can’t reason do the same thing? Why can’t it emerge from its evolutionary origins as a spin doctor to become the new medium in which humans compete, cooperate and advance the fitness of their communities?"

-- "Why Won’t They Listen?" by

Longtime ACLU leader champions the right to donate anonymously and bigly in politics:

... Philanthropy: Do you consider private giving a form of free speech? 

Strossen: Absolutely. And, much more importantly, so does the U.S. Supreme Court! In philanthropy, as well as in campaign contributions, what the court has held is that whether it’s on behalf of charitable assistance, some social-justice movement, a policy cause, a political candidate, a publishing platform, whatever, if the government says, “You may only spend X amount of money, and not more than that,” it is limiting your ability to convey your message effectively.

Philanthropy: Do you think donors have a right to be private or anonymous in their giving?

Strossen: Absolutely. And the Supreme Court supported this, interestingly enough, in a case that involved a corporation. Corporations include not just businesses but also nonprofits and other groups where individuals band together. But some critics dislike corporations and ask why they should have free speech, why they should they have the right to spend money in support of their ideas. The Supreme Court, though, has recognized both of those rights, and the right of incorporated groups to do their work anonymously. This came together in a historic case in 1958, involving a corporation some people considered disreputable—the NAACP. Like most other social-justice organizations, like most public-interest organizations all across the ideological spectrum, the NAACP is organized as a not-for-profit corporation.

Back in 1958, Southern governments were upset with the NAACP’s crusade against racial segregation, and they used whatever tools they could to try to stop the NAACP. One of their most potent threats was to require the NAACP to turn over lists of its members and donors. The Supreme Court recognized that if people had to reveal their identities, they would be exposed to hostility from critics, and many of them would have to end their support of the NAACP. If the court had not protected donor anonymity, NAACP and its civil-rights causes would have been completely undermined if not destroyed.

. . . 

Philanthropy: One argument in your book is that when speech rights are curtailed, even on behalf of a vulnerable population, the vulnerable end up suffering for it.

Strossen: Yes. If you allow restrictions on speech where there are sharp differences in viewpoint, then of course over time it’s predictable those who are likeliest to be silenced are marginalized groups. That is exactly the pattern that we’ve seen throughout history and around the world. 

It seems ironic to me that those who support censoring hate speech usually start with the premise that there is overwhelming oppression built into our society—systemic injustice. Well, if they are right, the last thing they should want is to hand over to our government more discretionary powers to discriminate. 

Philanthropy: There was a hearing on Capitol Hill last year titled “How the Tax Code Subsidizes Hate,” asking if “hate groups” should have their charitable status revoked.

Strossen: One person’s hate group is somebody else’s love group. Black Lives Matter has been labeled a hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled as hate groups people who just have a different perspective from the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

One organization I’m very familiar with is the Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF has been on the opposite side of the ACLU in many cases, and we could not disagree more strongly on some key issues. But I oppose their being labeled as a hate group. The idea of the IRS having the power to label hate groups is really frightening. It’s giving the government the power to suppress citizen action on the basis of ideological agreement or disagreement, which is really, really frightening.

"Interview with Nadine Strossen," Philanthropy, Fall 2020

Why are liberals liberal?

I don't think it makes sense to trace a single psychological/character/personality trait as the cause of political beliefs. How do you like it when they do that to us?

Progressives have a lot of notions in common, but they can arrive at them for various personal and environmental reasons, including that that's what the people around them and raising them believed. The most common thread seems to be a belief that sublime, transcendent abstract entities like "society" or "the international community" are not merely metaphoric tools for describing people's interactions, but are actually more real and more important than real live individuals; that these abstractions have more agency and authority than all individuals put together.

This is supported by the common sayings, valid in some ways and dangerously wrong in others, that things are "greater than the sum of their parts," and that people should live for "something larger than themselves."

A contempt for individuality, for individual rights and responsibilities, is more a result of this than a cause, and for some liberals it presents an irrepressible conflict with other truly liberal beliefs that they have drawn from their patriotism, religion, or just from being thinking and humane people. That's the stage I was at for a while, when I didn't know anything about economics, but I could tell that the government wielding economic power over people would constrain their political freedom.

-- John Crouch, responding to the great Robert Bidinotto, who wrote:

UNDERSTANDING THE LEFT. After nearly six decades of direct experience, observation, and study, I have come to some firm conclusions about the ideological left (as opposed to those "liberals" who are simply compassionate toward others). I think it all revolves around the left's war on self-responsibility. They HATE that concept. In their worldview, if you create something good in the world, "You didn't build that"; but if you do something bad, "You couldn't help it." Either way, they HATE the notion that anyone (meaning: themselves) should be held accountable for their status in life. ... Ideological leftism is all, only, and *always* about advancing the Narrative of Personal Irresponsibility. It is the morality play that holds individuals responsible for every other man, woman, child, tree, plant, animal, or degree of temperature on the planet...but not for *themselves* as individuals.