Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The TSA Stole My Belt Buckle... For Safety.

I am livid. Angry. Filled with rage.

A few minutes ago (as of this posting, a few hours), I lost my favorite belt buckle to the TSA at Los Angeles International Airport, because - they claimed - it was a "replica" of a gun.

What kind of a gun, you might ask?

A 1950s Flash Gordon-style RAYGUN!! A fictional weapon. A child's toy.

Here it is:

A photo posted by CitizenA Media (@citizenamedia) on

On my flight out to LA, I dealt with the same issue with an imperious and stupid TSA supervisor who tried to take the buckle under the same pretenses at DCA until I protested long enough for her to get the top level supervisor in the terminal.

I wrote about that event on Facebook when it happened two days ago:
"Now that I'm in a restaurant in Philly, I have time to share more of the stupidity. First, they did a bag check, which happens to me every time I fly anyway, so who cares. When I walked over, the guy said, "Yeah, there's something in there that's kind of shaped like a gun," to which I replied, "Yeah. It's a belt buckle."

He pulled it out of the bag and looked at it. Yep. Belt buckle. He didn't seem like an idiot, but he called his supervisor over, who instantly made it clear to me that she was one of those petty authoritarian, logic-impaired idiots you often come to expect in positions of middling power in law enforcement. Her word was law... Even when, you know, it wasn't actually law. She said, "Listen, you can either go back out of security and put this in your check luggage (which I don't have), or we'll confiscate it."

But this is honestly my favorite belt buckle, and I'm me, so - realizing I was speaking with a woman with the brainpower of a block of Parmesan cheese - I looked at her and said, "You understand that this is a belt buckle, right? It is not a danger to the safety of anyone nor is it against the law to carry. I have also traveled with this belt buckle all over the country and it's never been a problem. So please explain to me how exactly you would justify taking it."

Her response was to suggest a hypothetical scenario. "What if", she postulated, "you take this object out of your bag and point it - like a gun - at a police officer? He would have no choice to assume that it was a gun, and take action against you."

Now... Let's leave aside for a second that the entire premise behind this argument is that police officers are too dumb and hopped up on their own power that they can't recognize a dangerous weapon from a belt buckle in the shape of a 1950's toy ray gun. I'm glad she recognized this reality, but I don't think she really processed what it says about law enforcement in America. But leaving that aside... Why in the hell would I ever take my belt buckle and point it at a police officer?

To this, she had no answer.

She also had no answer to the point that even if I did that, it would represent a danger to me and not, say... an airplane full of people.

At this point, she got red in the face and loudly declared that she wasn't going to argue with me or "have a debate about this". "You have two options. That's it," she said. So I asked to speak with *HER* supervisor. Fine. She took the belt buckle and walked it over to some other guy far out of earshot and talked to him for a bit while someone else came over and talked to me. Also seemed like a fairly reasonable guy.

Eventually the woman came back, curtly handed me the buckle and said, "Here you go. Have a good flight, sir.""
By the way, while fighting me over my belt buckle, the TSA had absolutely no problem with the straight razor blade I had in my suitcase for shaving. Not that they should, but... At least terrorists have actually used razor blades in a major attack. I cannot say the same about a belt buckle made to look like a Flash Gordon prop.

Needless to say, on my return flight to DC, I assumed that I would deal with the same nonsense and kept the buckle outside of my bag and put it in one of the plastic tubs, hoping that it would be easier for them to clearly see what it was and why it was posed absolutely no danger to anyone.

Unfortunately, I had left my hotel too late and LA traffic was terrible as per usual, so by the time I arrived at the airport, my plane was already boarding. So when the officers took the buckle and called their supervisor to ask about what they should do, I simply did not have time to battle them up the chain of command again. Instead of miss my flight, I had no choice but to leave it with them.

I'm also kicking myself (again) for not recording the whole thing. I was so busy looking at the clock and worrying about missing my flight that I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Plus, I think that in spite of everything I've seen and experienced, and in spite of everything I know to be true about the growing police-state in America, and my philosophical beliefs, I think I STILL subconsciously hold onto a mental model of people in uniform that says, "If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to worry about."

This mental model is and always has been incorrect.

But seriously wrap your minds around what this means. Our "Transportation Security Administration" cannot recognize the difference between the following things:
  1. A belt buckle and a prop replica.
  2. A fictional/toy gun that has never existed in human history outside of sci-fi & fantasy stories, and a firearm/weapon that actually exists.
  3. An object that poses a danger to others... and... a goddamn belt buckle.
I ran the whole way to my gate with my pants falling down as my belt had no way of fastening, and barely made my flight. I was the last person to board the plane.

Do I really need to go on a long-winded jag about how ridiculous this is? The TSA is busy protecting you from the scourge of novelty belt buckles. Meanhile, their track record of stopping an actual threat: terrible.

But on the upside, the TSA is really good at one thing: stealing items from travelers' luggage.

Are you angry? I am.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hands Against the Wall: My experience with out-of-control Port Authority Police

On Thursday, October 9th, 2014, I boarded the Northeast Regional Amtrak from my home in Washington, DC to Penn Station in New York City. 

A day which began with incredible promise ended with my hands against the wall of a building while being accosted and intimidated by an aggressive, out-of-control, Port Authority Police Officer - in spite of having committed absolutely no crime.

This is my story:

Allow me first to begin by talking about why I was in New York.

I was in NYC that night to attend the annual Fellows Dinner for The Moving Picture Institute. For those who don't know, MPI is an incredible organization dedicated to developing the careers of talented, aspiring filmmakers who are interested in promoting freedom through entertainment media, with financial support and mentoring opportunities.

I became a fellow of their Rising Filmmaker Program in 2010, when I was awarded a grant to produce two films on the history and philosophy of the Bill of Rights. While no one would look back on those two short films as anything special, MPI's support at that time enabled me to change the trajectory of my career in entertainment and achieve my goal of becoming a full-time multimedia producer for libertarian causes.

Without The MPI's support, I would not be where I am today.

Their annual fellows dinner is an opportunity to connect with donors and other filmmakers - many of whom are good friends from NYC or Los Angeles that I don't get to see very often. A lot of these folks - myself included - are documentarians, journalists, and narrative filmmakers; and we're all freedom fighters. Here's a list of some of the projects MPI has supported over the years: http://www.thempi.org/mpi_films/

MPI itself was co-founded by Thor Halvorssen, a Venezuelan freedom advocate who also created the Human Rights Foundation and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; and who has presented on human rights abuses at venues around the world, including the United Nations. Thor is a bold and courageous man.

WATCH him take on the Venezuelan representatives at the UN when they absurdly tried to gain a seat on the UN's human rights council.

I ate dinner at Thor's table during the event, in fact.

My point in sharing all of this is not just to show how proud I am to be associated with The MPI (extremely) or to explain to everyone what kind of an event I was at (ie. intimate fancy gala, not frat party); but also to fully contextualize what happened after my friend and I left Tribeca Grill to return to our hotel.

This setup is so everyone can clearly understand precisely how ironic (or at least poetic) our interaction with the police state that is New York City really was that night.

So, here's what happened.

The event started at 6:00 PM with a cocktail reception. They held a short film screening at the Tribeca Film Center's theater at 7:00, followed by a 7:30 private dinner.

By about 11:00 PM, dinner was over, and guests were mingling and enjoying connecting with each other. At this point, the staff started nudging us out the door so they could clean up and go home themselves. Since MPI had put most of the out-of-town folks (including myself) up at the SoHo Grand hotel about a half a mile away, many of us decided to go back there and continue our conversations at the hotel bar.

I ended up walking back with a DC friend, Matthew Szewczyk, who moved to Los Angeles a couple years ago to work as a commercial director.

As you can see on the map below, the Tribeca Grill and the hotel aren't too far away from each other, but the streets are disrupted by some parks and the Canal Street entrance to the Holland Tunnel, so the easiest way to get there is a little circuitous.

And therein lies our mistake.

Instead of heading directly East from the Tribeca Film Center, Matt and I walked uptown along Hudson Street.

We were engaged in conversation, and although I used to work and go to grad school in this area, I wasn't really paying attention to the fact that we'd gone too far. We'd walked a ways up before I realized that we'd have a painful time getting across Canal, and suggested that we just cut across over to West Broadway from wherever we were if we could.

So we turned down Vestry Street and headed to the end of the block, hoping to get across that way instead. Alas, there was a low fence at the end of Vestry, which at the time, we assumed was just there to stop cars from going the wrong way onto the street marked on the map as I-76.

At that point, Matt suggests that we just hop the low fence and keep going. Not ideal, but it seemed fine to me, so we tossed our program booklets and DVD from the dinner over the fence and my friend started to jump over.

As he got about halfway over the fence, we heard a man on a bullhorn from across the street shouting at us not to go that way.

Of course, our books and such were already on the other side, and Matt was halfway over already so he shouted back that he would just get his books and we'd go back the way we came... Which is exactly what happened. He landed on the other side, grabbed the booklets and DVD, handed them to me and climbed right back over to the acceptable side.

No harm, no foul... Or so we thought.

A few seconds later, as we began walking back out the way we came, a couple of goons wearing coveralls that had some kind of Port Authority markings on them showed up and told us to stop while they and the guard-stand guy across the street with the bullhorn figured out "what to do with us." They didn't ask us if we would stick around for a few minutes, they simply demanded that we don't go anywhere.

These men were not police. They did not present any identification. They did not have any authority of any kind to detain us. And they were not being polite.

Keep in mind also that this is taking place at the end of a dark, unpopulated dead-end street in New York City, in the middle of the night.

It was extremely creepy.

As my friend and I continued to walk up the street, the goons said that cops were already on their way to talk to us. We heard the sirens. They weren't lying.

At this point, we knew that we'd be interacting with police officers.

Now... Note that Matt and I are both people who spend a lot of time working in an issue space as filmmakers who take human rights, liberty, and the growing American police state extremely seriously. Way back in 2010, I produced a short piece on police abuses in America being more worrisome than international terrorism and small-government political activism.

Since then, I've produced and contributed to films that deal with police abuses ranging from my documentary, "No Vans Land", which (among other things) touches on intimidation and violence against immigrant entrepreneurs competing with taxis and city buses, to work with the Institute for Justice exposing the practice of police profiting from taking people's property without so much as a conviction via civil asset forfeiture, which was recently brought to the national spotlight by John Oliver's "Last Week, Tonight".

Matt is currently working on a film about drone surveillance called "The Right Hand of God".

But even if we weren't particularly attuned to this stuff, we've all recently seen horrendous abuses in New York City, with an NYPD officer choking Eric Garner to death; who, by all accounts a sweet man whose heinous crime was selling untaxed cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island. Not to mention the recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which sparked massive riots and exposed tremendous corruption throughout the St. Louis area police force.

We both intellectually know the risks of dealing with police very well, and we were prepared for what was likely coming our way.

The first thing Matt did was ask was if I had any drugs on my person. As someone who has never smoked a cigarette, let alone been high or had the slightest interest in drugs of any kind, the answer was - of course - no. The second thing he did was suggest that we should both get out our phones and begin recording video of what was about to happen.

Matt pulled out his phone and began recording just as a squad car with lights flashing and sirens blaring rolled up to the curb next to us. I did not get my phone out in time, not that it would have mattered, given what happened next.

Officer Pasquale Carpentiere
Mere seconds later, an officer of the Port Authority Police Department - Officer Pasquale Carpentiere, PAPD Badge #: 2562 - jumped out of his cruiser, and shouted at us to turn around and put our hands against the wall of the nearest building. We immediately complied.

Matt still had his phone in his hand, with the camera pointed toward the officer.

And wouldn't you know it... The very first thing the officer did was jam his knee into my friend's back, shoving him against the wall and attempt to confiscate his phone. At this point, my friend protested and tried to hang onto his phone, but the officer got extremely aggressive, violently taking the phone from his hands while shouting at both of us telling us to comply and stop resisting. In no way had either of us "resisted" anything, though once the officer took my friend's phone, we both clearly told him that he had absolutely no authority to do that and that he was in violation of the law.

For those who don't know, It is 100% legal (and extremely important!) to record police officers on duty. 

Officer Carpentiere did not acknowledge this point or return the phone. Instead, he claimed that we were being non-compliant with his requests (completely false), and that my friend's phone "might have been a taser".

Utter. Nonsense.

My friend's phone was out and visible from the very beginning, his hands were up and held against a wall, and neither of us made any motion whatsoever toward the officer. From the moment Officer Carpentiere arrived, we complied with each of his demands. There is absolutely no way he could have possibly mistaken the phone for a taser.

Even if he did briefly believe it to have been dangerous, within a few seconds of holding it he would have known that it was not. Yet, once he confiscated it, the officer did not return the phone to my friend immediately upon inspection.

Again, we registered our protests against this action.

Matt reminded the officer that it was unconstitutional to take private property without cause, and that in no way was it acceptable. The officer's response? Something very close to: "Are you a lawyer? No? Well then, shut your mouth."

It was clear that the phone would not be returned any time soon, so my friend suggested that I take out my phone from my pocket and begin recording the rest of our interactions. A great idea, except that the minute I began to do so, Officer Carpentiere shoved me against the wall and grabbed my wrist while aggressively telling me that either I could keep my phone in my pocket where it was, or he would take it as well.

I opted to keep it in my pocket. Who knows what the officer would have done with it.

Ever since this encounter I have wondered if I should have had my phone out from the beginning so that I could have captured a second camera angle and kept a more tangible record of what happened to us. Upon reflection, I don't think it would have mattered.

After the initial round of intimidation and displays of force, Officer Carpentiere took my friend's phone and both of our IDs back to his squad car with him as he sat down to "write a summons".

The whole time the officer was sitting in the car, Matt was asking to have his phone back, and for a "white shirt" (supervising officer) to be called to the scene. At one point, Carpentiere told us that he would give the phone back when he was done, and because of my friend's "belligerence", he would take as long as he felt like.

When Officer Carpentiere finally returned with the summons and the phone, easily over 15 minutes later, it was clear why he held onto it. The recording Matt had made of the officer's aggressive behavior was gone. Deleted by the officer. I know Matt will do his best to recover the data, but that may not be possible.

Had I immediately filmed these events, it seems most likely that I'd have had my recordings deleted as well.

The officer's behavior was unethical, disgusting, and - again - ENTIRELY ILLEGAL.

By this point, a second officer - Officer Miller - had arrived to support his compatriot. Miller seemed to be a different type of cop compared to Carpentiere. Our interactions with him were not immediately hostile, he did not raise his voice or treat us violently.

I wonder very much whether or not, had he been the first responder, things would have gone the way they did. Who knows.

Ultimately, Matt was given a summons to appear in NYC court for "trespassing". I wasn't. We were told that this was because the officer had reviewed security camera footage (or talked to someone who had), and that I wasn't on tape going over the fence. I suspect it may have also had something to do with the difference in my demeanor vs. my friend's. As you might imagine, once his phone was taken and he took a knee to the back, Matt wasn't exactly happy.

I tend to be pretty even-keeled in stressful situations, and spent most of the time trying to make sure that we didn't get shot or arrested for no damn reason. Freedom-fighter or not, I'm not particularly interested in dying at the hands of a stupid cop power-tripping on his own aggressive machismo.

And make no mistake... There were several points where I believed this to be a legitimately possible outcome, given the way Officer Carpentiere behaved towards us from the beginning.

45 minutes or so into our nightmare, the supervisor arrived. I did capture that entire interaction on camera.

See below:

There are a couple things I'd point out about this. For one thing, I'd note that the very first thing the supervisor did when he arrived on the scene was have a private conversation with Officer Carpentiere outside of our listening or recording range. I don't know what was said, but it made it fairly clear from the outset how the conversation would go.

I'd note also that the supervising officer says a lot of stuff that would make sense if events had unfolded the way he assumed.

For those who don't watch the video, the supervisor assumes that Matt made some quick movements toward his pocket that set-off the negative interaction with Officer Carpentiere. Based on that assumption, most of what he says is understandable - if I were a police officer, I too would be wary of someone in a dark alley reaching for something I couldn't see. I might even react "with prejudice."

But... That's not what happened.

Matt's phone was already out and in plain view when the officer arrived! And as he could see literally everything we were doing at all times and we had complied with each one of his requests immediately (not to mention the fact that the call he would have received could only have referred to us possibly being in a place we weren't supposed to be, with nothing actually criminal, violent, or in any way threatening having taken place), there was never any question of danger to the officer except to the extent that the mere act of recording his actions itself posed a threat.

I've since pondered some other curious aspects of the experience that make the notion that Officer Carpentiere was reasonably acting out of concern for his safety absolutely ridiculous.

Consider that not once did he pat either of us down. Matt's question about drugs turned out to be pointless... Even if we did have drugs on us, Carpentiere didn't even look for them. He didn't ask us if we were carrying any weapons. If he had patted me down, he might have even noted something odd or questionable in my pockets that night. Apart from my wallet, keys, and cellphone; I was carrying about a dozen USB flash drives (preloaded with my two most recent documentaries, to share with attendees of the dinner), which would have probably seemed strange had he bothered to check my blazer.

And that's the thing... He didn't care about any of that. He didn't even ask us why we were there or what we were doing. It was quite clear that the officer did not believe we were a danger to him in any way.

The only thing he cared about seemed to be the phone and the fact that we were recording him.

In the end, waiting for the supervisor was kind of a waste of time. Predictably, his sole purpose was to back up Officer Carpentiere. He gave Matt an opportunity to file a formal complaint, but the likelihood that that will go anywhere seems slim to none.

Eventually we concluded our conversation and left. By the time we made it back to the hotel, many of our peers were wondering where we had been, and we had quite the story to tell.

Final thoughts...

Remember... This whole ordeal occurred for no other reason than because two guys took a wrong turn while walking back to a hotel from a gala dinner for people who make films about human freedom. That's it. And yet, the best thing I can say for this entire experience is that we didn't get killed.

So what have I learned, if anything?

For one thing, I'm now a lot more acutely attuned to the visceral reality of dealing with police. It's one thing to empathize and report other people's experiences as a documentarian. It's quite another to live one of your own.

I'm also not so convinced that recording police encounters is necessarily a viable option in most cases. If having your phone out immediately turns a bad situation into a dangerous one as it did for us, and the only record of police abuse is deleted by the officer while you are required to press your hands against a wall or lie on the ground, then it really doesn't do anybody a whole lot of good. There are a bunch of apps that purport to help people with these kinds of things, but as far as I can tell, they're mostly based on automatic/real-time uploading of video files to the internet.

But what if you don't have strong enough signal for that to work, or what if it doesn't go through in time?

A better app, in my view, would be one where you could start a video recording and have it continue to run until you enter a password, or your phone dies. Had my friend or I had something like that the other night, it's likely that we'd have proper proof of this officer's abuses - including his attempts to stop or delete the recording.

That said, I am much more likely now to record (from a safe distance) any encounter I see someone else having with police. I would encourage absolutely everyone to do the same.

Do not assume that because police have stopped or are detaining or arresting someone, that the person has done something wrong. While my friend and I were up against the wall for a half an hour, numerous people walked by. I don't know what they thought of us, but at one point, my friend shouted "No drugs! Just books!"

At this point, I honestly think it's safer to assume that police are just as likely to be shaking someone down for no reason as they are to be "protecting and serving" in any meaningful way.

Lastly, I would like to take a moment and acknowledge that if my friend and I were not well-spoken, educated, white guys, the whole situation would likely have played out extremely differently. I do my best to treat all police as individuals, just like I do everyone in life, but the statistics are what they are. Police violence and "officer-involved shootings" are far more likely to happen in cases where the victim is non-white.

This experience makes me even more empathetic to this problem.

I wasn't drunk. I don't do drugs. I'm not a violent or aggressive person in any way. I'm practically a pacifist, and mostly a teetotaler. I don't own any guns, and although I would love to carry a multi-tool or a knife on me most of the time, even that has been beaten out of me by years of interactions with security guards at airports and State/Federal buildings. I was wearing nice clothes, and spoke calmly to every person I dealt with that night.

The worst thing either Matt or I had been accused of - and the reason for which police were called to the scene in the first place - was hopping a fence, picking up a couple books, and hopping right back over when we were told not to.

Yet... We spent our night with our hands up and our heads down, getting yelled at and threatened with jail and the confiscation of our property by police like we had just robbed a liquor store.

If it can happen to us, it can absolutely happen to anyone.

And now, with that... I'm happy to take any and all questions. I will also try to edit this post to include more links and additional video if we can recover the important stuff.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Thick... Thin... Or just LibertarianismPLUS?

This is going to be exceptionally long. It's an essay that has been floating around in my brain for several months, and I'd like this to be the only time I write a piece like this for a long, long time so I wanted to do it right.

I haven't submitted an official entry into the "Is libertarianism enough?" debate up to this point for a few reasons, but for the most part, I have simply been too busy to do it justice.

Mostly I've been busy making this:

Since January, I've produced multiple films, notably this new half-hour documentary for my www.honestenterprise.tv project called "Locked Out"; I attended a film festival with "No Vans Land"; caught up on what's happening in entertainment at SXSW in Austin; I gave a talk about occupational licensing after a screening for law students in Illinois; and a whole lot more.

There are more important things going on than get into the latest bit of bickering about who is and who is not a qualified libertarian. To be honest, I wish everybody involved in this particular fight could, or would, say the same... But to my chagrin, these issues persist and at least in my social sphere, a lot of terrible ideas keep getting promoted and I suppose I should actually say something about it.

So.... As a quick overview for those who aren't totally familiar with what we're talking about:


There are many in the libertarian community who would suggest that "libertarianism", as a philosophy, does not offer enough guidance on how to be a good person, and they would like to enhance libertarian ethics with an additionally prescribed set of social preferences, behaviors, and in many cases - outcomes. Some might call this "thick libertarianism".

To explain what this means, I go to anarchist writer, Anthony Gregory, from a conversation I had with him about the topic:
"Thick libertarianism comes from Charles Johnson and Roderick Long. They are philosophers. Thickness is a concept in philosophy generally. It's been totally misunderstood by its critics. I don't understand why honestly.
All thick libertarianism means itself is that the philosophy is not totally reducible to the NAP (Non-Aggression Principle)."
To paraphrase a little bit, the idea of "thick" libertarianism in its raw form, is simply that "other values" beyond simply initiating force against others are important to libertarianism.

Unlike many people who are currently on board the "we should all be thick libertarians" train, Anthony views  "thick" libertarianism in a pretty broad way. It's not just about enhancing libertarianism with a specific set of social preferences (ie. liberal egalitarianism, feminism, leftover ideas from the dregs of critical theory, etc.). In our conversation, he explained that a person who claimed that Austrian economic theory is more a part of libertarianism than Chicago School economics would be every bit as "thick" a libertarian as someone who claimed that libertarians must also embrace feminism or care about "social justice", because in each case, the person is claiming that there is more to libertarianism than simply not initiating force against others.

Or... To quote Charles Johnson, one of the original users of the term in this context,
"...not only left libertarians defend the claim that libertarianism should be integrated into a comprehensive critique of prevailing social relations; so do paleolibertarians such as Gary North or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, when they make the equal but opposite claim that efforts to build a flourishing free society should be integrated with a rock-ribbed inegalitarian cultural and religious traditionalism."
In this conception of the word "thick", any set of concerns beyond freedom from government coercion that is greater than zero would be enough to label someone a "thick", or at least "thicker" libertarian.

Fair enough... I'm mostly fine with this definition, though it is pretty broad and rests on at least one dubious claim. The premise that libertarians are concerned with "aggression", or the initiation of force, only when it is carried out by the state is horribly flawed.

In fact, I would argue that that view explicitly confuses the philosophy in an extremely important way.

Libertarians believe that all human beings should be bound by the same ethical rules regarding the use of force, and it is because these ethical rules are considered to be universal that we reject initiations of force against innocent people by government actors as well. Whatever is unethical for the private individual - ie. theft, murder, kidnapping, etc. - remains unethical when that individual has put on a government uniform. This separates us from most other political philosophies, since most inconsistently grant special authorities to the political class because they treat ethics as conditional on a person's role in society.

As a primer, a few years ago Red Shift Media made this great animation to explain this idea:

Note both that the "NAP", such as it is, is a conclusion based on the premise of self-ownership, and that it starts with the private violations of liberty and proceeds to the more obfuscated state violations.

Nearly everyone of any libertarian persuasion - as a foundational tenet of the philosophy - abhors coercive or rights-violating behavior wherever it is found, and in over 15 years of participating in this community, I have not met a single person who believes that it is the exclusive domain of the state.

Have you ever met a libertarian who criticizes police brutality, but thinks that private domestic abuse is totally fine? Have you ever met a libertarian who thinks that taxation is unethical, but stealing someone's car is totally cool?

I sure haven't.

So I think it is a critical error to define libertarianism's core as being only - or even chiefly - concerned with "state" violence. It may be true that libertarians tend to spend more time talking about the state than private actors, but this certainly doesn't mean libertarians don't care about private coercion, it merely reflects a reality that the state is vastly more of a threat than random acts of private violence against people & property.

The vast majority of libertarians I've ever met - even the thinnest of the thin - still don't support private acts of aggression as a matter of principle. And everybody has concerns beyond the issue of aggression, because we're all actually multi-faceted individuals.

Without biasing the results, I would bet quite a lot that if you got together a bunch of self-identifying libertarians and surveyed them with questions like...
  • Do you believe that certain kinds of social behaviors are more or less conducive to political freedom?
  • Do you believe that government is the only institution that can be coercive?
  • Do you oppose the initiation of force or coercion in social interactions as well as interactions with the state?
  • Even if non-aggression is the only thing that matters to make a society "libertarian", is that the only concern that you have when considering what makes a society that you want to live in?
  • Is child abuse wrong?
...their answers, in order, would almost uniformly be:
  • Of course.
  • No. 
  • Absolutely.
  • Duh.
  • Yes!
I believe this would be true of the overwhelming majority of libertarians regardless of whether or not they considered themselves thick, thin, or mesomorph.

Everybody has preferences. And everybody I have ever met as a libertarian who has spent more than five minutes thinking about society realizes that there are numerous types of additional, non-coercive, behaviors which are broadly helpful to encouraging more freedom, yet which have nothing to do with libertarianism directly.

Here is a relevant example.
Assume that Society A and Society B share the same legal protections on freedom of speech. You will not be arrested, prosecuted, or thrown in jail for anything that you say in either society.

Society A is inviting of debate and civil discussion, and does not shout down opposing or unpopular viewpoints. People in Society A seem to genuinely enjoy boisterous and sometimes vigorous conversation, even when people's opinions are oppositional.

Society B is hostile towards contentious discussion & debate, but the people do not support their disapproval with legal or social coercion. If you say something the people of Society B dislike, they will not threaten or act aggressively toward you, your family, or property. They will avoid you, tell you to shut up, and wherever possible make you feel unwelcome.
Given the above scenario, I would argue that the overwhelming majority of libertarians would say that they would both prefer to live in Society A, and that Society A seems more conducive to keeping speech free over the long term than does Society B.

I would also argue, however, that while Society A is preferable for many reasons, it is not "more libertarian" than Society B in any meaningful sense.

Neither society condones coercion at the state or societal level. So the preference of A over B isn't a preference built around a "libertarian" concern, but around extra-libertarian concerns which are - in some ways - tangential, but non-essential to defining the philosophy. Tons of behaviors and traits can be positive or negative for an individual or (arguably) a society without having anything at all to do with libertarianism.

Practically speaking, this distinction matters a great deal, and not only do I think this separation of concepts is okay, I think it's good.

More on that later, but first, a brief interlude:


Since it's caused a massive amount of confusion to many people lately... Coercion is a specific term referring to a specific type of behavior. In short, I'm happy with the following definition:
:: the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats.
However, since this definition was recently perplexing to someone I was talking to, let me follow this up by further defining that force in this context clearly means:
:: strength or power exerted upon an object; physical coercion; violence: to use force to open the window; to use force on a person.
And... The word, threat refers specifically to:
:: a statement of an intention to inflict pain, injury, damage, or other hostile action on someone in retribution for something done or not done.
I am defining these terms not to invite even more debate over what they "actually" mean, but because quite frequently I have found that it is entirely impossible to have a discussion with a certain group of people wherein I use the word "coercion" and they don't conflate that concept with a million other - sometimes totally contradictory - ideas.

If you don't like my definition... Fine. But for the purposes of the discussion I'm trying to have right now, I will be using the word frequently, and I want to be absolutely clear about what I mean.

Coercion is physical violence, and threats of pain, injury, or other damage through the means of physical violence.

We could theoretically have a more nuanced conversation about the specific point at which non-force or indirectly forceful behaviors become harassment and coercion, but these are special situations which describe a small subset of human interaction and which often need to be addressed case by case. They are the gray area, but it's not as much area or as complicated to define as many people think.

The important thing is that coercion does not encompass other concepts like "shaming", "ostracism", "seduction", "encouragement", "enticement" or any of the other ways in which people try to influence behavior without resorting to violence or threats of violence.


Now that that's out of the way, here's why my side-note matters:

Libertarianism as an ethical philosophy is highly concerned with the concept of coercion, so we need to be clear about what that means. There are many varieties of libertarian thought that extend from numerous philosophical traditions, so there are a lot of premises one could rely on to reach the same conclusions, but fundamentally, the essence of it was summed up by John Locke four-hundred years ago:
"All mankind... being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions."
Or as I like to say it.... Libertarians hold a pretty basic ethic: "Don't hurt people, and don't take their stuff." 

Alternatively, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes libertarianism broadly as a philosophy predicated on the idea that people are self-owners, and:
"...that each agent has a right to maximum equal empirical negative liberty, where empirical negative liberty is the absence of forcible interference from other agents when one attempts to do things."
This is the core.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that deals rather specifically with the appropriate role of violence against individuals and their legitimate property in society. It outlines how people should interact with each other in very broad terms, and says - in essence - that the only ethical interactions between people are voluntary.

American Libertarianism is a negative rights tradition... It's not merely the support of "liberty", whatever that means to whomever is using the term.

The dividing line is coercion: Harming someone or threatening them in order to get them to do what you want is, therefore, anti-libertarian.

The Non-Aggression Principle is really just a shorthand for this concept.

This is often misunderstood, I think... Both by people who like and dislike the idea of the NAP. The Non-Aggression Principle is not a premise or an axiom (although it can be axiomatic). It is a conclusion about what's ethically best for humans. And really, it's a paraphrasing of many conclusions.

And honestly, it's not even my favorite description of the libertarian ethic, but as shorthand goes, I think it's fine.

You can be a libertarian and believe an enormous variety of other things about life and the pursuit of happiness. The only thing you cannot do is advocate for the use of coercion in order to support your other goals.

And this brings us back to "thick" vs. "thin" libertarianism.

The position I support, as outlined above, is what most people would refer to as a fairly "thin" philosophical position... I have no other concerns beyond a person's use of force when I am considering libertarianism qua libertarianism. As I will explain in a second, I think that this broadness and openness to a multitude of personal preferences is what makes it a good and robust political philosophy.

But for many people, a thin libertarianism just isn't enough. Which brings me to...


In one of the most prominent recent essays on this topic, Will Moyer's "The Limits of Libertarianism", Moyer sums up his point as follows:
"While eliminating the state is a massive multi-generational project, it is in many ways only the first step. Human flourishing is the ultimate goal. And if libertarians think they can dust off their hands and head home just because the state is in ashes, they’re wrong. The state is the most obvious and brutal source of power and hierarchy, but it’s far from the only one. The state is a giant engine for deforming human culture, and what’s left over once it’s smashed isn’t a foregone conclusion. It will be up to humans to reshape and remake culture and society in the way that suits us best. This will have to include examinations of race, class, gender, sexuality, relationships, religion, social institutions, and traditions in the absence of the state apparatus. It will have to include disassembling other forms of hierarchy – both violent and non-violent."
In cartoon form, Moyer is basically saying this:

It's a whole other blog post to explain why this is wrong, but lets start with the obvious: The state is the great amplifier of bigotry and poverty. Don't believe me? Go back up to the top of this and watch "Locked Out".
Here we have the essence of what I think most people think modern "thick libertarians" actually believe, and where I think the real problems come in.

And regardless of whether or not you consider Moyer's to be the only type of "thick" libertarianism (it's obviously not), it's certainly the only one anybody is really talking about right now. Perhaps you live a very different experience than I do, but loads of people talk to me on a daily basis about importing leftist egalitarian social values (and embarrassingly poor economics) into libertarianism... But literally no one talks to me about Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

So this is where we have to shift focus.

The issue is no longer simply about whether or not "thick" libertarianism in general makes sense - and I really think it doesn't - now we have to talk about a specific iteration of thick libertarianism... The type advocated by the Will Moyers of the world.

I would describe it as follows:

In this iteration, it's not enough to oppose the initiation of force or the coercion (which again, yes, "coercion" does mean something specific!) of people into doing things we wish them to do against their will and allow the world to be whatever it ends up being through voluntary means. To be better people, we must all also push for a world to conform to Moyer's specific view of what is best - which means "disassembling" all forms of "hierarchy"... Or in the parlance of "left-libertarian" high priest, Kevin Carson, "No Masters, No Bosses".

But here's the thing... What is "best" for society is unknown, highly debatable, and hotly debated.

For me, it's a good thing that libertarianism is not a prescriptive philosophy beyond rejecting the use of coercion and initiating violence!

It doesn't tell you what religion you have to be, what you have to think about global warming, or whether or not you should spend your time gardening and hiking in the woods or playing video games in your air conditioned man-cave. It doesn't dictate to people what types of ends they should be using their freedom to pursue, merely that everyone should always be free to pursue the ends of their choosing - provided that they don't inhibit anyone else's freedom to do the same.

What's so great about this is that it's the one political philosophy where Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindi's, Atheists... Hell, even Raelians, can come together and choose their own versions of what makes a fully-realized human, and pursue those independent philosophical ends.

I think this is libertarianism's biggest strength, not a weakness.

All this talk of what libertarians "should" believe beyond the idea that their interactions with others should be voluntary, only serves to divide what is otherwise the biggest tent imaginable - the ideal of human freedom. 

So, circling back to the "No Masters, No Bosses" idea and the elimination of hierarchies, not to mention the infusion of tragically collectivist feminism, intersectionality, critical theory, and all the other leftist claptrap that is currently en vogue in some parts of the libertarian community is a little troubling to me.

Can you be a libertarian and hate hierarchies? Of course.
Can you be a libertarian and a feminist? Yep.
Can you be a libertarian and spend all day talking about privilege? Sure.
Can you be a libertarian and think that racism is the defining issue of our time? Absolutely.

"Should you" be a libertarian and all of those things? Wellllllllllllllllllllll........ I'm not so sure.

One of the things that makes libertarian ideas more robust when actually applied in societies is that freedom and individualism leads to - in Nassem Taleb's words - a kind of "anti-fragility".

This is an extremely Hayekian sort of a point, but in short, the fact that a free society is one in which everyone is pursuing their own values and goals and where different people are experimenting with different models of entrepreneurship, financial arrangements, marital & personal relationships, different types of social communities, and applying their own unique twists on every other aspect of life is good, precisely because none of us knows perfectly what is "best" for ourselves and certainly not for others.

We're all pursuing different aims, and the aggregate of different people's actions is what we call "culture", "the economy", and rather importantly: "society". And what is beautiful about the libertarian political philosophy is that it opens the door to millions - billions, even - of individual experiments on how best to live life.

Since the only unifying trait libertarians - to be libertarians - must share in common, is a commitment to allowing voluntary interactions between people to take place unabated, everyone who does not impose their will on others by force or threats of force can be rightly considered "libertarians" and exist under the tent together.

 But this doesn't, and indeed, probably cannot mean that we all actually agree with each other on what "best" looks like.

Libertarianism is - contrary to its detractors' claims - NOT a utopian philosophy.

Unity, equality of outcomes and status, and other egalitarian concerns really only come from the barrel of a gun.

A free society is a diverse society. Sorry.

So some people may very well hate hierarchies and want to earn their living working in a communal cooperative, horizontally-structured, worker-owned business. But then, many others do like hierarchies... The bosses bear the risk, reap most of the rewards, and are responsible for tough decisions, while the employees are rewarded less financially, but often earn a comfortable living without the stress of management or the huge risk of failure.

Some businesses may function best horizontally - the folks at Zappos seem to think so. But many others don't, because they need fewer cooks in their management kitchen.

To demand that everyone must abandon all hierarchies - even voluntarily - is to miss the Hayekian lesson at play here.

The same problem exists when "left-libertarians" start telling everyone that they must take up metaphorical arms against the so-called "Patriarchy", or adopt feminism and critical race theory into their world-view. Apart from the fact that most of the arguments presented from those schools of thought feature more holes than the best block of Jarlsberg, telling other people what they "should" believe in order to be better - or "thicker" - libertarians is still kind of ridiculous.

Social preferences also vary widely.

Some people want to be monogamous, some polygamous, some gay, some straight, some bisexual or pansexual, some people are asexual. Some people like guns, others like sports, some like the ballet and art museums, some people like to surf, others like to sit at home and play video-games...

In the immortal words of Hoban Washburne:
"Some people juggle geese!"
And that's ok!

But here's the real shocker... It's even ok when you think other people's preferences are negative. Individuals have just as much right to believe that certain behaviors in themselves and others are wrong as they do to believe some are right. And as long as they don't use violence to impose their views on other people, they can voice their opinions and advocate for their version of the kind of society they want to see.

That is, this is how people behave in a peaceful society... And I'm a libertarian because I don't want any other kind.

Decentralization is good. Humility is good. We don't all know what's best.

Thick-libertarians to everyone else... Who needs friends?
Demanding that all "libertarians" suddenly adopt a single set of additional, non-essential, preferences in order to conform to one vision is really missing the point of what it means to be free individuals and is pointlessly divisive within an already fractional and marginalized community.

This doesn't mean that self-identified left-libertarians can't comment on other people's lives, or that they can't have an opinion on what's good or bad for other people to do. Of course they can, and I think should, advocate for the world they want to see.

Without employing violence, or threats of violence, everyone is still left with a myriad number of ways to get people to come around to their preferences. Enticing people into liking what you like is great. Persuasion & seduction are totally fine. But so too are the non-coercive forms of negative reinforcement - like shaming and mockery, even ostracism in some cases.

So Will Moyer can rail against heirarchies. My former partner can spend her days misinforming people with the latest fact-free Tumblr slacktivism crusade. But this should be separate from the issue of libertarianism. Creating a new "Libertarianism+" as I'd like to call it just doesn't make any sense. In case you miss the reference, I'm comparing this newfound left-libertarian "thickness" to Atheism+ the PZ Myers-led infusion of lefty progressivism into Atheism, as if a lack of belief in a god requires someone to agree with specifically progressive ideas on tax-policy.

As a atheist and a libertarian, I think such ideas are completely idiotic.

Thus I also think it's idiotic to believe libertarians should also retain a set of leftist egalitarian social values. It ruins everything robust and anti-fragile about the philosophy while polarizing people into factions, creating enmity, and sowing discord.

And on top of that, many of the ideas most of those folks are supporting are absurd to boot.

Personally, I think you're a much better person if you are nice to people, and don't treat anyone any differently on the basis of anything other than traits like honesty, generosity, intelligence, and kindness.

But if you choose another set of values to live by, and by which to judge your relationships with others, as long as you don't impose those values on everyone else by force, you can still be a libertarian... Yes, even if you have beliefs I think are incredibly stupid, or even mean.

Just don't threaten violence, injury, pain, harm, torture, imprisonment, etc., or actually carry out those threats in order to get people do what you want them to do, and you get to be a part of the libertarian tent.

It's that simple.


Ok. One more thing.

Now that I've established that I think "thick" libertarianism of any kind is kind of a mistake, depending on how broadly you view that idea; and now that I've explained why I think that the type of thickness most people are advocating for right now tends to be especially absurd, I want to make a couple points about marketing.

This is not a point about libertarian philosophy. It's a point about how people perceive libertarians and what we can do to affect that perception.

I've been talking about this issue publicly for over 5 years. In 2009, on this blog, I wrote about why "It's Time for Free Marketer's to Learn About Advertising!" and I have been putting my money where my mouth is ever since.

This is NOT a philosophical point about
libertarianism. It's a practical point about
marketing libertarian ideas.
The kind of person you are and the way you carry yourself in your interactions with others matters, and the fact is, most people do not judge a philosophy of any type by it's content. They judge it based on the actions and words of its adherents, and by their interactions with the people who fit the philosophy's label.

If people's primary association with libertarians leads them to believe that we are a bunch of obnoxious, rude, mean, bigoted jerks who lack empathy or concern for others, they will assume that this is a product of our philosophy. If the majority of libertarians they meet believe in conspiracy theories, they'll assume our philosophy is the province of conspiracy loons.

So purely as a point of marketing, there are some people I wish were more prevalent and vocal about libertarian ideas, and many people I wish would not talk about it with anybody.

For better or worse, if you're a libertarian, you're a part of our community and you're contributing to community culture. We are not separate from culture. We are culture. What we do defines it. And as a part of our community, you're representing everyone - not just yourself - every time you talk to people about it. So just take some time and think about what you say and how you say it.

Here are a few do's & don'ts from my perspective.

  • Try to be polite, kind, and patient
  • Present your ideas positively, offering solutions and benefits instead just talking about problems
  • Be welcoming of all people and conversations
  • Have a high threshold for stress and frustration
  • Pay attention to pop-culture and current events
  • Have fun and maintain a sense of humor
  • Make friends, not enemies
  • Be angry, unnecessarily spiteful, or rude
  • Say unnecessarily offensive things
  • Generalize based on race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation
  • Promote conspiracy theories and tenuous connections between events and people
  • Be overly negative or condescending
  • Lie or build your case on fallacies or false evidence
None of us will ever be perfect about any of this, but being concerned with the experiences of others is valuable, and if you want to support any set of ideas publicly, you must be credible. And while my Do's & Don'ts won't make you better at being a libertarian, I think they will make you a better advocate for libertarianism.

The "customer" is the one you want to buy your ideas.
Please, do consider the things you believe and the way you act, especially if you want to increase human liberty broadly. The goal shouldn't just be to get as many people riled up as possible... The goal should be to get new people curious and interested in your ideas without - wherever possible - alienating anyone. That's how we get net gains... and net gains are the goal.

Red-meat rallying cries and polemic bromides may get some people excited, but they turn other people off just as quickly. This is as true for radical feminists as it is for conservative Christians.

In short... Just try to be cool, guys.

Finally, the last piece of advice I have ties everything back to the beginning of this post. There is one more thing that I desperately wish everyone would start doing and really take to heart.

To be blunt, nearly everyone who currently spends most of their time telling other libertarians what they "should be doing" to promote freedom in society has absolutely no credibility.

There's an epidemic of people seriously lacking in money-mouth.

People who don't have any experience working with, talking to, or presenting ideas publicly to people who aren't already in the club without alienating 50% of their audiences and creating enemies have absolutely no business telling other libertarians how it's done. Until these folks stop exclusively criticizing their allies from inside the bubble, and actually start trying to present ideas to the unconverted in a meaningful way, there's just no reason to take most of these people seriously.

Internal challenge and debate is important, but remember that the point of the whole thing is about engendering a free society and to do that people across the political and philosophical spectrum need to be convinced to become more libertarian. That doesn't happen if all we do is bitch at each other.

If you spend all your time writing essays (like this one, ironically enough) analyzing "the movement" and telling other people in our own community what they're doing wrong, you're not spending that time actually making a case for freedom to the people who matter - the people who don't already understand and agree with the core ideas.

Don't just keep bickering with your friends. Make a movie, write a book, do a podcast or a radio show, learn an academic discipline and teach a class, do some original reporting...

Do something, and do it for non-libertarian audiences.