A Libertarian Confession

It is still Holy Week. And while I have busied myself with trifles (see previous post), I have also been doing the work of the church. So this posting will be short too. I have a song to practice for worship tonight…

In polite company I often times call myself a libertarian. (In impolite company I call myself an anarchist, which is closer to the truth.) But I feel compelled to explain exactly what I mean by this.

The libertarianism I largely espouse is prophetic. It is not law. I believe that involuntary collectivism and communalism is humanity’s inescapable lot. There is much voluntary cooperation between human beings, but there is much that is not. But that said, those who believe in the moral legitimacy of some kind of collective or communal aspirations for human beings often ignore that collectivism and communalism often times demand the unwilling sacrifice of some human beings — their time, their talent, their wealth, their lives. Those who believe in a common good often ignore the very real fact that “common good” they seek is usually seen by an individual or a tiny handful of individuals and it is imposed — with a combination of consent, assent, indifference and begrudging acceptance in the face of raw power — on the community. Most days, I doubt there is even such a thing as the “common good” at all. Just the self-interest of those individuals who have or aspire to power over others.

In fact, all that is left, then, is raw power — the power to coerce, to compel, to control what Gramsci (and, I believe, the Frankfurt School) saw as the language of discourse, so that people have little intellectual choice but to assent or agree to the exercise of power.

And power will ALWAYS — I cannot emphasize this enough — ALWAYS be used on those least able to resist it. Believe in “justice” all you wish, but in the end, the power you use creates and sustains marginalization, impoverishment, and suffering. Any power that can corral the wealthy can annihilate the poor. Any power which can elevate the marginalized can also further push them into the margins. Guess which is easier? Even well-used power will do these things eventually.

I believe libertarianism is, or can be, a prophetic critique. Individual human beings matter. No one should be sacrificed against their will for the alleged wellbeing of all. No order is so important, necessary or righteous that some individuals within that order can be thrown away because their lives are less valuable or are viewed as a threat to the community or collective. And yet, that is what all collectivism and communalism does. It throws human beings away. Regularly. And calls it righteous.

In the end, I believe it is important for those who have been marginalized, abused, and excluded from whatever involuntary community they find themselves in, from political and social power, to have safe places to flee to. Where they can build some kind of community with others like them. This is why I like big cities. And why I’m not keen on civil rights movements. I do not understand — why would anyone demand to part of a community or a society that has clearly rejected them?

That makes absolutely no sense to me.

The Hot, Hot Sounds of Araby

Another non-political post. Well, mostly.

The cover of “Dardanella,” taken while perusing a University of Chicago special song collection.

From 1918 through to roughly 1922, there was a genre of popular American tunes that focused on the exotic east, and forbidden love. This was roughly the time Rudolph Valentino was playing “The Sheikh” in movies. I’ve come across a couple such songs — “Dardanella,” which was a small-time hit, “Hindustan,” “Sheik of Araby” — but I know there are a number of others. It is a kind of orientalism in popular song, using the motifs of the seductive, unrestrained, romantic East, a place of harems and purple sunbirds (from “Hindustan”) and camels and forbidden love and whatnot. There are a few songs that refer to a place called Araby (a term probably concocted by English Romantic poets). It goes farther East, to China, but most of the romance seems to focus on what the Pentagon now calls the “Arc of Instability.”

It is interesting this is an immediate post-WWI phenomenon roughly contiguous with “Coon Songs” (oh please, don’t ask). I suspect it has a lot to do with the shock of WWI, and America’s contact with the world, which had always been seen by some elements of American culture as decadent (like the seductive East). It has been too long since I’ve read Edward Said, but I don’t know if he deals with this element of orientalism in 20th century popular culture or not. It didn’t really last very long, and aside from Valentino, it didn’t leave much of an impression. There are musical motifs that suggest the East — bouncing rhythms, minor keys, bending strings — but I’m not exactly sure what era of music they come from. (They come from somewhere.) Those motifs, those musical ways of depicting the East, are reflected in Maurice Jarre’s score to Lawrence of Arabia, but also very effectively in the Madness song “The Liberty of Norton Folgate.”

And while I’m not exactly a fan of the most current pop music (Katie Perry is about all I can take, since there’s actual music there, which cannot be said for Ke$ha or Rihanna), it is interesting to hear some of the world influences in very modern dance pop. Eventually, real Arab music will find its way into an American dance hit. Mostly because Arabs have too much music you can dance to. And they know how to use synthesizers.

This is just a long introduction to the fact that I’m going to have to write one of these orientalist songs. Not that I wanted to. But as I was struggling with sleep last night, a half-verse attached to a melody came into my head and stayed there ’til morning — surely a bad sign. “When Saud was king of all Araby / from sparkling sea to burning sand / the holy land of the Mohammedans / crisscrossed by the caravans.” Yeah, it’s doggerel, and in minor chords too. I’ve not sat down and figured this out on the ukulele, but I just know that sometime today (in amidst everything else I have to do) this will happen. It’s going to be called “Veiled Girl of Araby,” and like every other ersatz 20s song I’ve been writing since last fall, it’s going to be about love — this time, mysterious and forbidden love. I will keep true to the form.

But unlike messers Bernard, Black and Fisher, or most other Tin Pan Alley hacks scribbling away at their pianos, I have actually met a few “veiled girls of Araby.” And, I have actually been to the Araby in question. So this is going to be fun.

Hmm, now, what rhymes with Nejd?

On Hammers and Nails

Been a busy month so far, mostly with Lent, Holy Week and Easter-related activities. And it will be busy for another week or so. Anyone missing blog posts is just going to have to be patient.

But I want to write this quickly. It’s an aphorism — “To a man who has a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.” That is, the solution to any particular problem at hand tends to be based on the tools at hand. If all you have is a hammer, chances are, you will treat most problems as if they are nails, since that is what hammers are deigned to deal with. And what they deal with most effectively.

The opposite, however, is also true — “To a man who sees nothing but nails, every tool begins to look like or be used like a hammer.” (I realize that formulation is not as clever as it could be…) It is possible to be blinded by the real nature of the things in front of you, and to think that they are nothing but nails. I base this observation on my experience of the Progressive Left, which treats all social problems as if they were akin to segregation and discrimination in need of the constant and never-ending expansion of legal rights and legal equality. Everything is a nail that can only be deal with by the hammer of a never-ending civil rights movement. But the criticism equally applies to liberal internationalists and the neoconservative fellow-travelers who want to save the world. Ot just about anyone else.

Not everything is a nail, or a screw, or even a cotter pin. And not everything you can hold in your hand is a tool. I am reminded of the Taoist story of the man who was angry because the gnarled pine tree couldn’t be cut down to provide good lumber to build a house. A monk showed the man that the tree had value of its own, apart from what the man wanted to make of it but couldn’t. Sometimes problems aren’t. And sometimes tools aren’t either.

Identity and Interest

I had a conversation, when I was working at BridgeNews in Washington, D.C., with one of our economics reporters about Palestinians and Israelis. The person — whose name I cannot remember — was more than just a reporter. He had apparently invented a series of algorithms that were able to predict, with alarming accuracy, the behavior of some segment of the market or the economy or something.

The guy was also Jewish and a supporter of Israel. The second Palestinian uprising had just started, and he confessed he did not understand — why did the Palestinians bother fighting the Israelis, when that was pointless? It would be better for them to try and improve their lives by starting businesses and the like. I tried explaining that for the most part, the Palestinians were fighting for the dignity, their sense of self-worth as human beings, and that there were no Palestinian property rights an Israeli government would respect anyway.

He appeared not to understand. “Dignity does not feed a family,” he said.

There is a certain materialist approach — poverty and lack of opportunity are the cause of terrorism, for example — which assume that material lack is responsible for the world’s unrest and violence. All that needs happen is that people need to become either better off or hopeful that with hard work they can be become better. Improve material conditions, and you reduce violence. This drives much (though not all) progressive and conservative thinking on the world, for example. Whether you wish to “share the wealth” of “kickstart development,” you are subscribing to the view that the causes of most human angst are material, concrete and tangible, or somehow very closely related to the material.

I don’t but it. It is my experience — both personally and having known a number of Palestinians — that human beings will sacrifice more for intangibles than they will for concrete things. A full belly is not so meaningful if people regularly humiliate you in the process. Yes, human beings will sacrifice a great deal for people they love. In Dubai, I watched grown men suffer significant personal degradation and humiliation because they knew they needed the jobs they worked in order to care for wives, children and extended families. It happens here, too, though not quite so brutally. But there are points in which people can and do snap, in which they will no longer live with their degradation, and will rise up to do something about it. Even if it expresses itself in an inchoate burst of rage that ends up destroying the self. Which it often does.

You deprive people of their dignity as human beings at your own risk.

This all came to mind as an acquaintance on facebook asked a question — a rhetorical one, I think, to which I responded, about looking for a poor fiscal conservative who does not have health care. I don’t wish to read too much into the question, but I suspect a little bit of materialism in the question’s sarcasm (or vice versa). People vote, or should, their material interests — and I suspect (but I am open to being proven wrong) the person who asked the question is inclined to believe people do, or ought to, vote their interests. Their material interests.

But I don’t think people do. I think people vote their identities, not their interests. (Yes, the two are often intertwined.) America is the sanctified community. But what does it mean to be sanctified? Americans are good and decent people. But what does it mean to be good and decent? Americans are history’s chosen people. But what does it mean to be chosen? Progressives and Conservatives have understandings of this that overlap less and less as time goes on. (Though oddly enough, both seem to agree on the need to bomb brown people into submission.) But none of these are, on the face of it, matters of interest. They are matters of identity. Neither fills the belly or pays the mortgage or sends the taxman away happy and satisfied. All tell stories of who the self is in relation to others and to the world.

A poor person who would in many ways “benefit” from state-run health care might strenuously oppose such a thing because the sanctified community he or she believes he or she is or should be a part of doesn’t manage people’s lives that way. I, for example, do not believe the welfare state is “the sanctified community” or even a terribly caring one because the welfare state is still the state, and the state needs force to function, and while kind people do care for each other, they don’t threaten to shoot people as part of that caring. Which is what the state does — threaten to shoot people if they don’t behave.

Some Thoughts on Corporations, Taxes and Personhood

Meagan McArdle over at The Atlantic has an interesting proposition — abolish corporate taxes completely and instead collect taxes from individual human beings.

She’s written about this before, and she does so again in a piece on why General Electric probably paid U.S. federal income tax in 2010 (and also why probably is the best answer, given the complexity of corporate taxation in the United States). Taxes neither excite nor agitate me, but I suspect there is more wisdom in her position than not.

A lot of this hinges on the legal definition of corporations as persons. I’ve never been a fan of corporate “personhood.” The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010 was the right decision — not because corporations are persons entitled to free speech rights, but because corporations are covered under the last clause of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The corporation itself doesn’t have rights — it cannot — but its shareholders have rights as a group of people assembling and petitioning the government.

I recall there was, in the late 1980s, a much more egregious ruling in which corporate personhood was affirmed. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. — a monopoly power provider in Northern California — did not have give space in its billing envelopes to a consumer advocacy group which wanted to say not-so-king things about PG&E because the company had a “free speech” right not to distribute a message it disagreed with. I find this decision repugnant because the issue is PG&E’s state-granted monopoly, which makes its “customers” a captive audience. That, however, didn’t seem to enter into the decision making calculus. Oh well.

Back to McArdle. Unlike a lot on the libertarian/anarchist fringe, I don’t get all that hung up on taxes and taxation. I dislike paying for the warfare state, but that is not so much a dislike of paying taxes (I find it interesting that the people most angry about taxation are those most likely to support war, conquest and domination) as it is what taxes go for. Were America a normal country — one that did not take upon itself the management and policing of the world, or even part of it — I’d likely be a social democrat. But America isn’t, and I’m not.

The problem with taxation is that governments like collect as much as they can but they also don’t want to tax people who can fight back. Historically (and this has been true for as long as humans have written history), the rich shift the burden of taxation to the poor. And they are generally successful in doing this. It’s easier to collect taxes from the poor (they may have less money, but they cannot effectively fight back). It’s easier to have the poor support the rich, especially if government empowers them to take (or does the the taking and then transfers that money to wealthy). I do not like the language of “fair share” in regards to taxes, and I have no idea what a “fair share” of taxes from the wealthy would be. That depends on what a community or society want government to do. And we can no longer agree upon that in America.

But I do know, as much as I dislike the Progressive Era and the New Deal, that the very wealthy of those eras in the United States actually taxed themselves. That 90% top marginal tax rate was not the work of bank robbing anarchists and socialists suddenly wielding state power, it was the work of bank owning plutocrats. I’m not arguing for 90%, or any other rate, but just noting that the wealthy were not the victims they decided in the 1960s and 1970s that they would be.