Thursday, September 12, 2013

Alternet is an Idiot... Again.

It's time for Round 3 of "Alternet is an Idiot"!

For the uninitiated, here's Round 1, and Round 2.

This time, they have created a test to see if the libertarians in your life are "hypocrites", and let me tell you... It's fabulous. It's called "11 Questions You Should Ask Libertarians to See If They're Hypocrites". That's a bit of a weird title, considering the author asks wayyyy more than 11 questions. I guess I shouldn't be surprised to find out an Alternet writer can't count properly, but whatever.

According to RJ Eskow of Alternet, we - libertarians - "have a problem".
"Their political philosophy all but died out in the mid- to late-20th century, but was revived by billionaires and corporations that found them politically useful. And yet libertarianism retains the qualities that led to its disappearance from the public stage, before its reanimation by people like the Koch brothers: It doesn’t make any sense."
I'm sure this would come as a surprise to the numerous libertarians - including myself - who did in fact exist absent any knowledge of the Kochs or anything else during the late 20th Century, but even if it were true, perhaps we might attribute the growing resurgence of libertarian thought to be partially the consequence of the overbearing statism that has so pervaded American society and government over the last several decades.

Of course... That would conflict with this website's other persistent claims that the second half of the 20th century were marred by libertarian, free-market "fundamentalism" and that everything from wars to financial collapse were a result of these - otherwise completely non-existent - libertarians.

Oh well. Honestly, I'm too tired of this game to go through every idiotic thing the author claims is true about libertarianism.

The caricatures found in the article are many, predictable, and tedious. Here's a snapshot:
  • We're all for being selfish. 
  • Our ideas have no ties to reality. 
  • Cato, Koch, and Reason are all scary boogeymen. 
  • We're shills for big-money interests.
  • We think rich people are the best people and poor people are stupid. 
  • We want to destroy the environment. 
  • We worship Ayn Rand.

Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah...

There is so much epic stupidity and ignorance found throughout this article that I have no interest in working my way through it point by point. One of my favorite bits in the lead-up to the point is this:
"Randian libertarianism is an illogical, impractical, inhumane, unpopular set of Utopian ravings which lacks internal coherence and has never predicted real-world behavior anywhere."
Yeah.

An economy and society crippled by regulations with lovingly compassionate titles actually written by and for a select group of politically connected cronies which insulate them from competition and privilege them with bailouts and state protections wasn't at all predicted in Atlas Shrugged...

Noooooooooope. Not at all.

Anyway, the central point here is that we are big old hypocrites. Or, most of us are. So idiot Eskow conveniently provides us with a helpful litmus test to see whether or not we are, or are not, hypocritical. Unfortunately, he inserts all of his questions into a thick fog of sophistry, so it's a little hard to directly answer.

That's why I felt like it'd be a good idea to reformat the test to make it easier to actually take. For all my libertarian hypocrite friends.

The Libertarian Hypocrisy Test (re-formatted to actually look like a test):

Alternet idiot writes the following to set it up:
"Let’s say we have a libertarian friend, and we want to know whether or not he’s hypocritical about his beliefs. How would we go about conducting such a test? The best way is to use the tenets of his philosophy to draw up a series of questions to explore his belief system."
For the purpose of this test, let's - totally irrationally - assume that RJ Eskow actually understands even the most basic concepts that underline the "tenets of" libertarian philosophy. He clearly doesn't, but that's completely commonplace for these kinds of polemics, and hell... it's his test, so he can frame it how he wants.

Let's go through the questions. I'll share my answers... Feel free to answer each question for yourself.
Question 1: "Are unions, political parties, elections, and social movements like Occupy examples of “spontaneous order”—and if not, why not?"
Yes.

Though, there is a small caveat here. Spontaneous order refers to the act of humans interacting with each other voluntarily and setting up norms, institutions, and rules without involving the initiation of force. It's a process, not an outcome. Of the listed groups of people, unions & major political parties frequently use force to impose outcomes on people - by, for instance, using tax-payer's money to fund party conventions, or punishing people with fines & jail for not hiring union workers, etc. Theoretically, however, a union could - and should - be a great example of a spontaneous order that arises to improve the conditions of working people under a situation where there might otherwise be power-imbalances favoring the employer.
Question 2: "Is a libertarian willing to admit that production is the result of many forces, each of which should be recognized and rewarded?"
Of course production is the result of many different types of activities. How banal. Even the most basic understanding of how markets work should include a solid recognition of the complexity and interconnectedness found throughout the entire structure of production in every industry, for every purpose. Libertarians are typically the most cognizant of the myriad "forces" (a bad word choice) that go into producing goods & services.

What do you think "I, Pencil" is all about?



As for "rewarding" each of these things... I'm not really sure what Eskow is actually asking here.

In a free market, services and goods are provided via bidding and voluntary negotiation with individual suppliers. People are rewarded in accordance with those negotiations and in relationship to the value they're adding to the buyer or seller.

Sometimes that value is low to the buyer and high to the seller - like an intern working for free to gain on-the-job training and work-experience. Sometimes the value is very high to the buyer and very low to the seller - like the knowledge and experience someone like Mark Cuban might bring as a consultant to a small start-up. There just isn't one unified answer of what constitutes a good price.

These are all pretty simple issues of supply and demand.

Not sure what is even here to be "hypocritical" about... Which I suppose is why a couple follow-up questions are necessary here.
Question 3: "Retail stores like Walmart and fast-food corporations like McDonalds cannot produce wealth without employees. Don’t those employees have the right to “coordinate their actions with those of others in order to achieve their purposes”—for example, in unions?"
Of course. Coordinate away.

However... McDonald's also doesn't have any obligation to deal with the union. That's the part of a free society and freedom of association that cuts both ways. Real hypocrisy would be to believe that unions had the right to organize labor and offer a list of demands, but employers had no right to say to say no and hire other people.

...which... I suspect would be pretty easy for McDonald's. Just sayin'.
Question 4: "Is our libertarian willing to acknowledge that workers who bargain for their services, individually and collectively, are also employing market forces?"
Uh. Yes. How many times do we have to answer this question? It's just the same one, over and over.

YES!

People in a libertarian society are absolutely free to organize themselves into labor unions, to engage in collective bargaining, to shame their employer for bad conditions, to write articles, picket, buy TV and magazine ads, and state their case as loudly and publicly as they'd like, and to try to get the best deal they can possibly negotiate for their services.

I have never in my life met a libertarian who thinks otherwise. The only thing we have a problem with regarding unions is their propensity to use the law to force employers to deal with them when they don't get their way, and to use the law to compel people into membership.

Are we done with unions yet?
Question 5: "The bankers who collude to deceive their customers, as US bankers did with the MERS mortgage system, were permitted to do so by the unwillingness of government to regulate them. The customers who were the victims of deception were essential to the production of Wall Street wealth. Why don’t libertarians recognize their role in the process, and their right to administer their own affairs?"
Who's role in what process? What?

Fraud should be punished. Breaking contracts, coercing people into signing unconscionable contracts through deception, and stealing people's money should be punished.

I must be missing something since I don't see a cogent question here.
"That right includes the right to regulate the bankers who sell them mortgages."
Ohhhhhhhhhhhh.... Ok.

Wait...... No... I still don't really understand how this is supposed to expose "hypocrisy" for libertarians. Maybe I need some more clarification from the author.
"Libertarians say that the “free market” will help consumers. “Libertarians believe that people will be both freer and more prosperous if government intervention in people’s economic choices is minimized,” says Cato.

But victims of illegal foreclosure are neither “freer” nor “more prosperous” after the government deregulation which led to their exploitation. What’s more, deregulation has led to a series of documented banker crimes that include stockholder fraud and investor fraud. That leads us to our next test of libertarian hypocrisy: Is our libertarian willing to admit that a “free market” needs regulation?"
Oh! I see. What I thought was the question wasn't the question.

The answer to the actual question is: Yes. But not in the way the author thinks.

Markets do need regulation. What they don't need is the chaos created by government-imposed regulations and special protections. I understand that the author is confused by this idea... That's mostly because he's an idiot and believes that regulation is synonymous with government-created policy.

It's not.

Every single instance of an act passing which removed
or modified one piece of "regulation", included vastly
more new laws which increased the overall regulatory
burden on the financial industry.
Financial deregulation causing the financial crisis is 100% bollocks.

Firstly because no such meaningful deregulation actually happened, and secondly, because the real problems came out of other policies and protections provided to major financial institutions by their pals in government. Things like implicitly and explicitly guaranteed bailouts, special protections against losses on highly leveraged assets, laws which actively promoted sub-prime lending,

Unacceptable risks were taken because profits were guaranteed by law to remain (mostly) private while losses were to be socialized. This moral hazard creates an environment rife for abuse and fraud.

What I'd like to see done to fix this problem is two-fold.

1. Actually free the financial market.

This doesn't mean special handouts and countless regulations that favor big firms over small ones. It means let companies actually compete for people's financial business, and let them go bankrupt when they make bad choices. This puts a lot more pressure on banks to be wiser with other people's money.

2. Prosecute the hell out of the fraud and actual cases of deception. Let customers who were cheated actually sue banks, and reduce the limits of managerial liability such that the people making decisions about the actions of the bank have some skin in the game.

Re-align the incentives so they actually make sense. Do not just create another layer of incompetent, easily corruptible bureaucracy that works to write rules favoring the biggest, richest and most well-connected bankers at the expense of everyone else.

Oh... And while we're at it, let's free up the currency as well and end the Fed.

All in all, Cato is right. A more free economy would be far better at protecting consumers than the less-free one we've increasingly had my whole life.

By the way... Remember back at the top where the author said that libertarians had all but disappeared in the late 20th-Century? If true, how was it that we got a bunch of totally libertarian "deregulation" passed? Just curious how that would be possible if all the libertarian ideas disappeared. Let's just ignore the contradictions though, shall we.

Moving on.
Question 6: "Does our libertarian believe in democracy? If yes, explain what’s wrong with governments that regulate."
I'm going to assume that by "believe in democracy", our idiot actually means "believe that democracy is a really great system that morally legitimizes government actions."

If so, then... No.

Libertarians believe in the non-initiation of force.

There are plenty of democracies around the world that produce awfully anti-libertarian and illiberal outcomes... including our own here in the US.

I might turn the question around on the idiot author, actually. If you like democracy for its own sake, and you think there's something magical about it that makes the laws produced by such a system legitimate, do you ever object to any laws?

Do you reject democratically produced outcomes which make women and minorities second-class citizens, or criminalize the harmless activities of gay people? Do you object to the drug-war? Do you recognize the legitimacy of democracies which produce thoroughly theocratic governments?

Democracy isn't a magic bullet that makes everything anybody votes on morally sacrosanct.

If people at Alternet actually believe that it is, they're much bigger idiots than I thought, and obviously, I already have no respect for their intelligence as it is.

The problem with any form of government - including democracy - is that ultimately the outcomes rest on forcing the minority into acquiescing with the majority opinion regardless of what that opinion is. Libertarian minarchists tend to recognize that no system is going to be perfect, and entertain the idea that a Democracy with strong and immutable protections placed around individual liberties (ie. the purpose of the Bill of Rights) which are not subject to Democratic whim may be the best possible system.

I will entertain that argument. I don't accept it on faith, however, and I certainly do not think there's anything beautiful about Democracy by itself.
Question 7: "Does our libertarian use wealth that wouldn’t exist without government in order to preach against the role of government?"
Oh. This one is always fun.

It's a great question because it forces an "hypocritical" answer that is impossible to escape given the very conditions libertarians are advocating against. It's like calling a slave a hypocrite for advocating abolitionism while still sleeping in their master's barn.

Basically it's the political philosophy version of grabbing someone's arm and slapping their own face with it, while saying "Quit hitting yourself!"

Allow me the opportunity to keep 100% of the money that is currently taxed from me, allow people to actually create companies and markets for the goods & services government currently monopolizes by violent coercion, and then let's talk about the hypocrisy of this activity.
Question 8: "Many libertarians will counter by saying that government has only two valid functions: to protect the national security and enforce intellectual property laws. By why only these two? If the mythical free market can solve any problem, including protecting the environment, why can’t it also protect us from foreign invaders and defend the copyrights that make these libertarians wealthy?"
Frankly, the debate between minarchists and anarchists about the optimal means of promoting a free society is far beyond the intellectual capacity of this writer and his website. Debates between libertarians about whether or not intellectual property counts as property that can be defended by a government are also beyond his comprehension.

^anarchist
I will simply note that many libertarians believe that government has a role in protecting people's lives, liberty, and property via establishing courts and police. One argument in support of minarchy in this regard is that anarchy would leave a vacuum of power typically filled by the most violent person who can terrorize the greatest number of people. A very, very small government limited to protecting individual rights would then be an improvement if the goal is to maximize individual liberty and allow people the greatest autonomy over their own lives.

There are anarchists who argue otherwise and think that the government is by definition an entity that abridges people's individual liberty, and thus cannot be expected to defend it, or really do anything but grow from minarchy into autocracy.

On the IP note, the author goes on to say this:
"For that matter, why should these libertarians be allowed to hold patents at all? If the free market can decide how best to use our national resources, why shouldn’t it also decide how best to use Peter Thiel’s ideas, and whether or not to reward him for them? After all, if Thiel were a true Randian libertarian he’d use his ideas in a more superior fashion than anyone else—and he would be more ruthless in enforcing his rights to them than anyone else. Does our libertarian reject any and all government protection for his intellectual property?"
This one generally does. I even published an article about it.

It's a hotly debated issue though, and certainly not one so easily settled by a moron who doesn't even understand the basics of libertarian philosophy.

Anyway... Here's another fun assertion setting up another great hypocrisy question:
Question 9 & 10: "Our democratic process is highly flawed today, but that’s largely the result of corruption from corporate and billionaire money. And yet, libertarians celebrate the corrupting influence of big money. No wonder, since the same money is keeping their movement afloat and paying many of their salaries. But, aside from the naked self-interest, their position makes no sense. Why isn’t a democratically elected government the ultimate demonstration of “spontaneous order”? Does our libertarian recognize that democracy is a form of marketplace?"
Because the outcome of elections rest on being able to initiate force against all those individual people who did not vote for your candidate or your government.

Shouldn't this be obvious?

The libertarian position rejects the initiation of force on the basis that individuals have the moral right to engage in whichever actions and behaviors they think are best with their bodies & property, provided that they don't prevent others from doing the same... It's as close to a universal position as it's possible to get.

I do what I do, you do what you do, and we can cooperate together or act separately as we each see fit as long as neither one of us initiates force against each other.

It's the essence of a peaceful society.

Elections create conditions where some individuals assert their moral right to control the apparatus that makes rules and initiates force against all the individuals within the territory dominated by that government. But government isn't some kind of magic filter where rights I don't have by myself (ie. I have no right to force you to do what I say just because I say it), can be granted to elected officials.

Let me use a concrete example. You don't have the moral authority to murder me right now. By getting 100 people together who all vote on whether or not they can murder me, each of whom individually has no moral authority to even cast a vote on that issue, you don't magically create that authority.

Democracy isn't a marketplace, and it's a grotesque misunderstanding of what markets are if you don't recognize the difference between coercing people who disagree with you into either participating in your value system or going to jail, and offering people the opportunity to trade with you and walking away if the trade is unacceptable to either party.
Question 11: "We’re told that “big government” is bad for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is too large to be responsive. But if big governments are bad, why are big corporations so acceptable? What’s more, these massive institutions have been conducting an assault on the individual and collective freedoms of the American people for decades. Why isn’t it important to avoid the creation of monopolies, duopolies and syndicates that interfere with the free market’s ability to function?"
For the gajillionth time. The initiation of force is unacceptable. 

Bigness really doesn't have anything to do with it.

Big government is particularly scary and awful because government is at its core nothing but violence. The more powerful that government is, the bigger it is, and the more control it has over everyone's daily lives, the more violence we're inserting into human interactions.

Do this or go to jail.
Don't do that or go to jail.
Pay this fine, or go to jail.
Pay your taxes, or jail.
Stay out of this area, or go to jail.
Answer my question, or go to jail.

...and if you don't want to go to jail?

We'll shoot you dead.

The reason "big" corporations aren't worrisome to me in general is because they cannot force me to interact with them. No company can require me to buy their products or send me to jail. At least, they cannot without colluding with government. To the extent that any corporation uses the state to create rules, and all the special protections I mentioned earlier, which favor their expansion and crush their competitors, I'm very concerned.

I'm not concerned because of their "bigness", however. Plenty of not-so-big companies are raking in all kinds of ill-gotten gains.

I'm also not especially worried about monopolies that form without government assistance and protection. Firstly, because they're exceptionally rare. Free markets are pretty robust, and monopolies eventually become non-competitive as they get bigger and less agile. Markets are filled with great examples of entrepreneurs creatively destroying behemoth competitors when the barriers to entry are low.

Barriers to market entry are virtually always products of government interference into the market - often on behalf of incumbent businesses. That is where the danger lies.

Monopolies qua monopolies can be bad for consumers, but the fact that they're bad for consumers tends to mean they die off very quickly as a new competitor that creates more value for buyers enters the market and poaches the monopoly company's unsatisfied clients.

So... Find me an example where a monopoly existed for any prolonged period of time that was both:
  • Hated by consumers, and...
  • Not protected from competition by the government
...and maybe, this argument would have some merit. Not much, but at least more than zero.
Question 12: "Does our libertarian recognize that large corporations are a threat to our freedoms?"
Sure! But again, this is only to the extent that the corporation is actually advocating the use of violence to get what they want.

To quote one of my all-time favorite lines from Milton Friedman (scary, libertarian economist!) from a 1978 interview he did for Reason Magazine (evil, Koch-funded libertarians!!):
"Business corporations in general are not defenders of free enterprise. On the contrary, they are one of the chief sources of danger....Every businessman is in favor of freedom for everybody else, but when it comes to himself that's a different question. We have to have that tariff to protect us against competition from abroad. We have to have that special provision in the tax code. We have to have that subsidy."
Please ponder this for a second.

This is one of the heroes of modern libertarianism - who, by the way, was quite active during the very period the Alternet article claims had no libertarians - speaking 35 years ago. Far from deifying "big business", rich people, or corporations in general, he is criticizing them for favoring government privileges over freedom for everyone.

Big businesses that use the state to create barriers to market entry for their competitors, businesses that request bailouts and corporate welfare paid for by taxpayers who go to jail if they don't comply, businesses that lobby for subsidies, and income guarantees, and who support all kinds of regulations on their industries - which is how regulation actually comes about in most cases - which make compliance very hard for small entrepreneurs and insulates the big political cronies from competition... These are corporations to be feared.

But in the end, it's not the corporation itself that grants the favors or writes the laws. It's all the politicians and people in government. At the end of all of this, it all comes back to the powers granted to (or more often simply taken by) the state.

The power to regulate is the power to destroy, and that power is almost always used against the little guy in
support of the wealthy incumbent who's paying for the politicians' next election.

People who don't understand this constantly misunderstand the libertarian position on business and regulation.

Oh... And now we have some "Extra Credit Questions" as well! Goodie.
Bonus 1: "Ayn Rand was an adamant opponent of good works, writing that “The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves.” That raises another test for our libertarian: Does he think that Rand was off the mark on this one, or does he agree that historical figures like King and Gandhi were “parasites”?"
Uhh... False.

Rand was opposed to forcing people to do what you think counts as "good". She was absolutely in favor of people engaging in charitable activities when they voluntarily elect to do so. Taking a single quote out of context, and without understanding her point is just bad form.

And to go on with this nonsense, and set up a bizarre false dichotomy whereby agreeing with Ayn Rand (on something completely misstated by the author no less) means you must reject the good works of someone like Martin Luther King? It's gone from just being abysmally stupid to actually shameless.

For the record, here's a pretty important quote by Ms. Rand that might shed some light on her feelings about MLK:
"Racism is a doctrine of, by and for brutes. It is a barnyard or stock-farm version of collectivism, appropriate to a mentality that differentiates between various breeds of animals, but not between animals and men... [It is] the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced by his internal body chemistry, which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors."
As far as I know, she was generally a fan of Dr. King. The Ayn Rand Institute is, writing:
"On Martin Luther King Day--and every day--we should focus on the proper antidote to racism and the proper alternative to racial thinking: individualism. We need to teach our children and all our citizens to look beyond the superficialities of skin color and to judge people on what really matters, namely, 'the content of their character.'"
Yeah... That sounds like some truly "adamant" opposition to "good works" to me.

Failing to understand that Rand - and actual libertarians (she's an Objectivist, and rejected other forms of libertarianism, FYI) - advocate all kinds of voluntary action, but reject coercion, should be embarrassing, and asserting that libertarians (or at least Ayn Rand) rejected doing "good things", because you grossly misunderstand this idea, is just... well... idiotic.

What's hard to understand about this?

Since it seems that the Alternet crowd has the intellect of a small child, let me try to simplify this:

Voluntary action = good.
Coercion = bad. 

If you want to engage in charity, and help other people, and you are not forced to do so by someone who will throw you in jail if you don't, that's awesome by any libertarian standard. What's more, Martin Luther King, Jr. had a number of fairly libertarian tendencies as well - for example, his iconic quote on civil disobedience:

 

King did not say, "Hey, if the law was created democratically, it's A-OK!", and why would he? Most of the laws affecting his community were racist and extremely harmful, and entirely created via majority-rule, democratic elections. Democracy cannot replace individual freedom if you want to have a peaceful society where anybody is actually able to "do good".

Lastly...
Bonus 2: "Libertarianism would have died out as a philosophy if it weren’t for the funding that’s been lavished on the movement by billionaires like Thiel and the Kochs and corporations like ExxonMobil. So our final question is: If you believe in the free market, why weren’t you willing to accept as final the judgment against libertarianism rendered decades ago in the free and unfettered marketplace of ideas?"
I suppose listing the hundreds of academic and philosophical works, papers and other scholarly articles on the subject of libertarian philosophy written by people who were neither funded nor had anything to do with either of those people wouldn't be convincing?

It certainly would be too time consuming for me at this point.

Notably, when I reasoned my way into believing that people were rightfully autonomous individuals and that freedom & property rights were the root of a prosperous society, Peter Thiel wasn't a billionaire, and I'd never heard of the Koch Brothers. I just read a lot of history, some economics, and thought long and hard about philosophy, starting with the question, "Do I own myself?"

That said, I do work for one of them now, and it's awesome.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Awesome article!!! Thank you so much for putting in the time to write this rebuttal. It was thorough and just plain great!

Anonymous said...

Uh...wow are you an ignoramus, as could be expected of anyone who's a libertarian knucklehead. I don't blame Bruce Bartlett for unfriending you a bit. It's shocking he put up with you as long as he did.

Anonymous said...

The previous commenter is a very typical Bruce Bartlett acolyte. He just calls you names instead of saying anything useful or responding to any of your points. He's learned well from his master.