I was in studio on the Armstrong & Getty show this morning, to talk about some recent Supreme Court decisions, and the death of Leonard Nimoy. If you missed it, you can listen online here.
I was in studio on the Armstrong & Getty show this morning, to talk about some recent Supreme Court decisions, and the death of Leonard Nimoy. If you missed it, you can listen online here.
Of course I wanted to be Spock. How could you not? He was always supremely competent, perfectly serene, and—most importantly—immune to the tempests of emotion. A teenage boy too curious and intellectual for his own good could hardly expect to be anything but “fascinated.” It is a tribute to Leonard Nimoy’s brilliance in this role that his character became the most beloved in the Star Trek franchise, for these very reasons. No other actor who played a Vulcan in the many series over the decades that followed ever approached the success Nimoy attained. His influence on the culture goes far beyond those of a mere actor on a TV show, and enters the realm of those select few who have built ideas and references that will be cherished for generations.
But I and many others feel his loss on a personal level. And the reason is—as Virginia Postrel has so well put it—the glamor of Spock. He projected an ideal. Or so I thought at the time. As I grew, I realized what the Star Trek franchise itself realized—and what Leonard Nimoy knew all along: the whole point of Star Trek is that Spock is wrong.
Spock’s struggle with his humanity made for great dramatic (and comedic) moments—but the point of the series, the point of the character, is to dramatize the value of that humanity. Spock is at his greatest, not when he is the brilliant scientist, but when he is Jim’s friend, when he slyly jokes with McCoy, when he realizes at last that “logic is only the beginning of wisdom.” In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we first see Spock about to receive the Kolinahr medal—to commemorate that he has at last extinguished the final trace of emotion from his brain. At the last second, he is denied the award, because he still can relate to his human friends. He is ashamed of this, and seems secretly to resent Kirk and others for it. It is this that Spock must overcome. Over the course of the series and the films, what he learns is how to embrace the emotions he has struggled against. It takes death and rebirth before for him to discover how to do this, and at last, in the beautiful reconciliation scene at the end of Star Trek IV, he tells his father that the Enterprise crew “are my friends.” This is his true moment of triumph.
Nimoy knew this about Spock all the while. He knew that the character is only just hiding his feelings, hiding himself—and that he must learn to embrace who he is, not to pretend it’s not him. It was this element that made his character more than a boring robot—that made him, as Kirk says in the funeral in Wrath of Khan, the most human soul in the series. That was also a lesson that took some time for a certain unpopular, bookish kid, who twenty years ago was the second president of the Eisenhower High School science fiction club, to learn.
Spock was a wonderfully fun pop symbol, and it’s amusing to recall some of Leonard Nimoy’s tendency to nuttiness (his awful poetry; his worse records). But I’ll also take a serious moment to mourn the loss of a man who managed to bring something serious and important into my life, and probably yours.
He meant a lot to me, and I’ll miss him.
Some days ago, as guests at the International Students for Liberty Conference prepared to hear from one of their heroes, Ron Paul, three students--Aarón Shelby Baca, Mackenzie Holst, and Cory Massimino--presented "An Open Letter to Ron Paul," taking Paul and his allies to task for their bigoted and anti-libertarian positions.
Readers of this blog know that I have long warned about the shabby counterfeit of Paul's libertarian credentials. He is not, in fact, a libertarian, but an authoritarian states rights conservative, who, to name just one example, believes that the state has the right to send its armed agents into your bedroom to drag you from the arms of your loved ones if you have sex in ways the majority finds distasteful.
Baca, Holst, and Massimino were shouted down as they tried to make their case, by students so wedded to groupthink and partisanship that they would prefer to shut their ears to the truth. One cannot imagine a less libertarian attitude. But on the other hand, there are those like Baca, Holst, and Massimino, who will stand up for the truth and stand up for freedom even when those values are threatened by their friends. And those who love truth more than their friends, and love freedom enough to resist their own "side," will always have a truer claim to the label "libertarian." I for one congratulate Aarón Shelby Baca, Mackenzie Holst, and Cory Massimino for their bravery and their honesty in setting forth this long-overdue challenge to the libertarian community.
Here is the text of their letter:
Dear Dr. Ron Paul,
We would like to preface this letter by pointing out it is written with the utmost respect and appreciation for all you have done to contribute to the freedom philosophy and human liberty. However, as principled supporters of liberty, we find your appearance at the International Students For Liberty Conference troubling for a few reasons. Most of which relate to your past and current associations with certain individuals and organizations that we find un-libertarian.
We believe many of the people you have aligned yourself with and continue to align yourself with are libertarians only in name and their true ideology is one more akin to a bigoted and authoritarian paleo-conservatism. Your appearance at Mises Circle in Houston, Texas just a few weeks ago is a prime example of this.
The prevalence of an age gap in the libertarian movement has been underscored by the ideas discussed in conferences such as the Mises Circle and put forth by the Mises Institute itself. “Millennial” or “Second-wave” libertarianism is not going away and there seems to be irreconcilable differences between these new libertarians and the old guard, which includes figures such as Lew Rockwell, Hans Herman-Hoppe, Walter Block, Gary North, and yourself. In this letter, we would like to highlight the downright absurdity promoted by this obsolete style of thinking, as delineated in the racist, homophobic, and sexist undertones present in these thinkers’ writings.
The themes of bigotry at the Mises Circle and in many of your colleague’s writings are obvious. At the Mises Circle, Lew Rockwell, founder and chairman of the Mises Institute, compared the life of people under modern nation states to literal chattel slavery. We admit the state is a gang of thieves writ large. But this analogy is downright offensive to people have suffered actual chattel slavery as well as people who have relatively great living standards under modern states. Libertarians can expose the evils of statism without resorting to bad metaphors with blatantly obvious racist undertones.
Hans Herman-Hoppe, distinguished fellow of the Mises Institute, wrote just last year that, “it is societies dominated by white heterosexual males, and in particular by the most successful among them, which have produced and accumulated the greatest amount of capital goods and achieved the highest average living standards.” Hoppe has also advocated violence against homosexuals and other people who live lifestyles he doesn’t approve of, “There can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They-the advocates of alternative, non-family-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism-will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.” The racist and homophobic themes in these passages speak for themselves.
Walter Block, senior fellow at the Mises Institute, has argued, “Feminists and gays aren’t libertarians.” Also on the topic of homosexuals, Block has written, “If a seventeen year old is an adult, and voluntarily wants to have sex with an adult homosexual man, I may not like it. I may be revolted by it.” If that wasn’t clear enough, Block has made his bigoted views explicit, “I am a cultural conservative. This means that I abhor homosexuality, bestiality, and sadomasochism, as well as pimping, prostituting, drugging, and other such degenerate behavior.” In addition, he has put forth the idea that “lower black IQs” could explain productivity differences between blacks and whites. Again, the arguments speak for themselves.
Gary North, an associated scholar at the Mises Institute, is an outspoken Christian Reconstructionist and supporter of biblical theocracy. North advocates capital punishment by means of stoning for women who lie about their virginity, blasphemers, nonbelievers, children who curse their parents, male homosexuals, and other people who commit acts deemed capital offense in the Old Testament. These views are certainly not representative of the libertarianism we’ve come to know and love.
And then there’s you. The now infamous newsletters that had your signature several years ago contained rhetoric referring to people of color as “animals”, asserted that homosexuals with HIV “enjoy the pity and attention that comes with being sick,” and went so far as to sanction anti-semitic views.
When questioned about these newsletters in 1996, you told the Dallas Morning News, “Given the inefficiencies of what DC laughingly calls the criminal justice system, I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in that city are semi-criminal or entirely criminal.” You didn’t dispute the newsletters and you certainly never condemned this: “If you have ever been robbed by a black teenaged male, you know how unbelievably fleet of foot they can be,” which appeared along with your signature.
Bigoted subtext has consistently been condoned by so-called “pro-liberty” individuals; a contradiction of the most offensive degree. Liberty cannot exist if individuals of any group are viewed as inferior, whether it is outright, or merely in the connotations of an argument. Suppression means the absence of liberty; something the founding fathers of Libertarianism built up a wealth of rhetoric against. Hypocrisy to this extent cannot be permitted any longer in the libertarian movement.
In Ludwig von Mises’ classic work, Liberalism, he identified tolerance as a fundamental value of a free society, “Liberalism demands tolerance as a matter of principle, not from opportunism. It demands toleration even of obviously nonsensical teachings, absurd forms of heterodoxy, and childishly silly superstitions. It demands toleration for doctrines and opinions that it deems detrimental and ruinous to society and even for movements that it indefatigably combats. For what impels liberalism to demand and accord toleration is not consideration for the content of the doctrine to be tolerated, but the knowledge that only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace without which humanity must relapse into the barbarism and penury of centuries long past.”
This isn’t about guilt by association. It’s about condemning evil, illiberal ideas and being clear about your principles. You continue to hide behind your prestige, refusing to admit this intolerance exists, although it was your name signed on the papers, and you who allowed this bigoted mentality to perpetuate by being closely associated with the Mises Institute. As the icon of the libertarian movement, you have a duty to eliminate this intolerance, not sit back and let it destroy the cause you helped create.
Do you think the Ludwig von Mises Institute has really embraced its namesake’s crucial insight here? Do you think you have? If not, then tell us. Condemn all forms of bigotry and intolerance as unlibertarian. Denounce these connections and the ideas of sexism, homophobia, and racism that have infected the Mises Institute and by extension the libertarian movement. Reclaim Mises and true liberalism. If libertarianism is to advance in the coming century, we must continue to build a community of peace, acceptance, and tolerance and whether you like it or not, it starts with you.
Sincerely and For Liberty and Tolerance,
Aarón Shelby Baca, Mackenzie Holst, and Cory Massimino
The Blaze today carries my article on "Competitor's Veto" laws--laws that forbid you from starting a business unless you get permission from your own competition first. Excerpt:
Unlike ordinary licensing rules that require a person to have a degree or pass a test before getting a license, these laws have nothing to do with whether a person is qualified. Instead, they allow established companies a special opportunity to object whenever a person applies for a license. When an objection is filed, the would-be entrepreneur must attend a lengthy and expensive hearing, to prove to state bureaucrats that there is a “public need” for a new company.
That’s no easy task, given that most of these laws are written in such vague language that nobody knows what they mean. What is a “public convenience and necessity”? Typically it’s whatever the government says it is. And if officials decide new competition isn’t necessary, they can deny a person the right to start a new business, no matter how skilled or qualified he may be.
I recently sat down with my friend Anthony Dynar to record an episode of his podcast Torture Vision, which in this case is an apt name, since we talked about the themes of totalitarianism in The Twilight Zone, particularly the episode "It's A Good Life." That episode, based on the short story by Jerome Bixby, is a brilliant exposé of totalitarian rule.
In the podcast, I mention Gyula Illyés's poem "A Sentence on Tyranny." You can read it here.
I expand on my comments about R.E.M.'s classic song, "Losing My Religion," here.
The passage from the Psalms that I cite is from Psalm 137, when the captives hung their harps upon the willows, weeping as they remembered Zion, but "they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth."
I'll be speaking at
Feb. 18: Placer County Tea Party, about The Conscience of The Constitution - 7pm info
Feb. 28: California GOP Convention, Sacramento, about Obamacare and other abuses - 10am info
Mar 5: Boston University Federalist Society, about The Right to Earn A Living - noon info
Mar 6: MIT Young Americans for Liberty, Boston - noon info
Mar. 9: Chapman Federalist Society, Orange, Ca., (with Christina Sandefur), about the lawlessness of Obamacare - noon info
Apr. 9: New York University Federalist Society about The Conscience of The Constitution - noon info
The Missoulian today carries my article about PLF's latest economic liberty case.
Today is the birthday of one of our greatest—and least well-known—founding fathers, Thomas Paine. Although one of the best-selling authors in history, whose Common Sense largely persuaded the public to endorse American independence, Paine is often overlooked in the roll-call of American founders. That’s in part because of his notoriety as a religious free-thinker later in life, and it’s in part because his variety of classical liberalism led him to endorse early forms of wealth redistribution which gained disrepute among many of those who would otherwise be expected to keep his memory alive. It’s really a shame. Paine was a great genius and a brilliant spokesman for liberty, who deserves to be mentioned alongside Jefferson and Adams in every evocation of our founding.
For a very nice brief introduction to Paine, I recommend Christopher Hitchens’ little book about Paine’s Rights of Man. For a more in-depth, extraordinarily objective and fair discussion of Paine’s ideas, I recommend Yuval Levin’s recent book The Great Debate. But I want especially to endorse Craig Nelson’s superb biography, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, which is one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. Given how few materials are left to the biographer of Paine, Nelson does an astonishingly good job of detailing Paine’s life and influences—and yet does it all with an elegant, smooth, often humorous writing style that makes his book compulsive reading. It’s a great tribute for a writer of Paine’s great skill to be memorialized by a writer who has similar facility with the pen.
Incidentally, for those of us who cherish economic liberty, check out this passage from Rights of Man, in which Paine—making the case for the superiority of the revolutionary French constitution over the mish-mash of corruption and rent-seeking that was Edmund Burke’s prized British “constitution”—emphasizes that the former protects the right to earn a living, while the latter does not:
The French Constitution says there shall be…no monopolies of any kind—that all trades shall be free and every man free to follow any occupation by which he can procure an honest livelihood, and in any place, town, or city throughout the nation. What will Mr. Burke say to this? In England…with respect to monopolies, the country is cut up into monopolies. Every chartered town is an aristocratical monopoly in itself, and the qualification of electors proceeds out of those chartered monopolies. Is this freedom? Is this what Mr. Burke means by a constitution?
In these chartered monopolies, a man coming from another part of the country is hunted from them as if he were a foreign enemy. An Englishman is not free of his own country; every one of those places presents a barrier in his way, and tells him he is not a freeman—that he has no rights. Within these monopolies are other monopolies. In a city, such for instance as Bath, which contains between twenty and thirty thousand inhabitants, the right of electing representatives to Parliament is monopolised by about thirty-one persons. And within these monopolies are still others. A man even of the same town, whose parents were not in circumstances to give him an occupation, is debarred, in many cases, from the natural right of acquiring one, be his genius or industry what it may.
How sad that much of the same can be said of the United States today.
(Cross-posted at PLF Liberty Blog)
The measles outbreak has led to much concern about the number of people who refuse to vaccinate their children, often on the basis of false claims that vaccinations are associated with certain maladies. But while these concerns are well-grounded, it’s also rapidly become a stick with which people seek to beat their political opponents. Hillary Clinton—who contributed to the vaccine hysteria herself only a few years ago—immediately took occasion to blast Rand Paul for his perpetuation of the same myth, for instance. And since all good, right-thinking, secular scientist types know that Republicans are evil troglodytes, they’ve taken to exploiting Paul’s comments as an opportunity to replay the “Republican War on Science” trope—ignoring the fact that anti-vaccine pseudoscience is overwhelmingly associated with political liberalism. Whatever its basis, scientific illiteracy is deplorable and dangerous. But at least equally bad is economics denialism—supply and demand denialism—a phenomenon that is also found on both sides, but leans heavily left. The principles of economics are well-founded, robust, testable, confirmed, and economics can tell us with remarkable certainty that certain government policies will have harmful effects for the industry and innovation—and, consequently, for the goods and services that we all rely on—the lessons of economics are routinely ignored or tuned out by those devoted more to political ideology than economic reality.
Consider the minimum wage. It’s a simple policy to understand: the government makes it illegal to employ any person at below some specified number. This prohibition, backers tell us, will enrich working people who find the cost of living just too high.
This is economic illiteracy, plain and simple. Simple supply-and-demand (as basic to economics as gravity to physics or evolution to biology) tells us that the actual effect of a minimum price rule is to create a surplus, as buyers choose not to buy as many of what they previously bought. Set the price of widgets at $100, and people who would have bought widgets at $50 just won’t—leaving you with an oversupply of widgets. In labor markets, “oversupply” is called “unemployment.”
While a minimum wage law might benefit those lucky enough to have jobs, it comes at the expense of those seeking jobs—and particularly at the expense of those who lack skills or experience, and might otherwise have found employment by offering to work for less than the market rate. A minimum wage law doesn’t make people richer—it just makes low-paying jobs illegal. That’s one reason labor unions have long supported minimum wage hikes, which price their competition out of the market. And because it raises the cost of doing businesses, firms will be forced to cut back, or even to shut down—as San Francisco’s landmark Borderlands Books just did, in consequence of the city’s recently enacted “living wage” ordinance. As people often say, if the minimum wage is a good idea, why not make it $500/hr.? The answer makes the fallacy behind the minimum wage obvious.
Rent control, too, harms the poor by diminishing the incentive for landowners to lease out their property to people who need it. At the very least, rent control forces landowners to cut costs elsewhere, since they’re barred from charging what the property is actually worth. Thus they skimp on maintenance or upgrades. Many just choose not to rent their property at all.
More deeply, minimum wages and rent control do not help the poor because they’re based on a misunderstanding of how prices work. Prices are not arbitrarily chosen dollar amounts; they are signals that indicate the value of an item relative to other products or services on the market, and relative to the ingredients that make it up. The reason a piece of jewelry costs what it does is because it is made up of raw materials and craftsmanship, each of which could be used for some alternative purpose, but which is instead used to make that ring or necklace, instead. Prices are a way of signaling to everyone in the market how much of these ingredients go into a thing, and how much other uses for those ingredients might be valued. Commanding a shopkeeper to change the pricetags in his store, or barring a landlord from charging what the apartment is worth, or forcing an employer to add an extra zero to a paycheck—none of these things changes the economic factors—they just mess up the system of price signaling.
That’s why laws prohibiting “price gouging” are also foolish. Prices go up in emergencies because there’s greater demand. When a hurricane’s coming, and stores mark up the price for plywood to reinforce windows, they’re typically denounced as evil exploiters of the needy. What they’re really doing is telling plywood suppliers that there’s a great need for plywood in that place. If they were allowed to, plywood suppliers would then rush more wood to the site—to reap profits, and to supply a big need. Forbidding high prices doesn’t cure the shortage—it worsens it, by depriving suppliers of that information and opportunity.
Prices are also a good indication of the foolishness of many environmental policies. The price of a product or service is the consequence of countless factors: all the people who want that thing, or who could use its ingredients for something else, comparing what they’d be willing to pay for it, compared to other things. It’s all a tradeoff. But the fetish for recycling ignores these facts.
This afternoon, I saw a sign in the Sacramento airport promoting a state-sponsored recycling business that, the poster said, “creates jobs.” Yet these jobs are paid for, not by people who voluntarily support the recycling center, but by government subsidies. Why? Because there is no market demand for that service—people would prefer, if they had the choice, to spend their money on something else. Instead, the state is forcing them to pay for recycling and to “create jobs.” (Incidentally, “creating jobs” is another phrase only economic illiterates use: we do not work to “create jobs,” but to create wealth. If we could create wealth without having to work for it, we’d be better off. Labor saving devices that “destroy” jobs are a good thing because they free up people for other pursuits.)
But why do people not want recycling, when given the choice? The answer is suggested by the one form of recycling people do willingly pay for: aluminum recycling. When it comes to plastic or paper, you’re forced to pay for recycling. When it comes to aluminum, the recycler pays you. Why? Because it’s cheaper for him to reuse aluminum than to make more. But it’s not cheaper to reuse plastic or paper. It’s more expensive. What that means is, it uses more resources—it costs more time and energy to reuse plastic or paper—and that means that resources that might have been devoted to something people really do want (let’s say, cancer research or safer cars or more beautiful art or food for their babies) is instead being used on recycling. And that, in turn, is bad for the environment, because it diverts resources from their most efficient use—which is to say, it creates waste. Recycling is typically worse for the environment in the long run, because it costs more resources to reuse than to make new—expends more energy, requires more fossil fuels, wastes more time and money that could be used to make human life better.
These are not mere opinions, any more than evolution is “just a theory.” It is the basic operation of supply and demand, about which there is broad consensus in the profession, and which cannot be simply waved away under political slogans or emotional appeals to the plight of the underprivileged. Yet every year, politicians and constituents shout these lessons down, or latch on to the unusual study that seems like it might somehow finally be the exception to these economic rules. Yet if a study ever really did show that, everything else being equal, the minimum wage did not reduce employment or raise the cost of living, or that rent control laws actually increased the supply of housing, or that recycling requirements actually allocated resources efficiently—well, such a study would be as much an outlier as a physics study showing that a rock dropped from a height failed to fall, or that non-random selection of randomly mutating genes failed to result in evolution. Any such study would be revolutionary, if true—but for that very reason, should be regarded with skepticism.
Economic illiteracy, like other forms of scientific illiteracy, is dangerous. Ideologues blinded to reality, and power-hungry politicians, are just as likely to exploit it as they are to exploit the public’s ignorance of biology or medicine. Its real-world effects are the destruction of economic opportunity and the stifling of innovation that might bring about cures for some of society’s worst problems. Yet while the media focus attention on the scientific illiteracy that has caused the measles problem, or that manifests in the popularity of creationism or other pseudosciences—they ignore, and even perpetuate, supply-and-demand-denial.
"[W]hilst Men have their five Senses, I cannot see what the Magistrate has to do with Actions by which the Society cannot be affected; and where he does meddle with such, he does it impertinently or tyrannically. Must the Magistrate tye up every Man's Legs, because some Men fall into Ditches? Or, must he put out their Eyes, because with them they see lying Vanities? Or, would it become the Wisdom and Care of Governors to establish a travelling Society, to prevent People by a proper Confinement from throwing themselves into Wells, or over Precipices? Or to endow a Fraternity of Physicians and Surgeons all over the Nation, to take Care of their Subjects Health, without being consulted; and to vomit, bleed, purge, and scarify them at Pleasure, whether they would or no, just as these established Judges of Health should think fit? If this were the Case, what a Stir and Hubbub should we soon see kept about the established Potions and Lancets; every Man, Woman, and Child, tho' ever so healthy, must be a Patient, or woe be to them! The best Diet and Medicines would-soon grow pernicious from any other Hand; and their Pills alone, however ridiculous, insufficient, or distasteful, would be attended with a Blessing.
"Let People alone, and they will take care of themselves, and do it best; and if they do not, a sufficient Punishment will follow their Neglect, without the Magistrate's Interposition and Penalties. It is plain that such busy Care and officious Intrusion into the personal Affairs, or private Actions, Thoughts, and Imaginations of Men, has in it more Craft than Kindness; and is only a Device to mislead People, and pick their Pockets, under the false Pretence of the publick and their private Good."
The audio version of my book, The Conscience of The Constitution is now available on Audible.com! I understand it'll be on Amazom and iTunes soon.
Then on Jan. 29, I'll be speaking to the University of Kentucky law school chapter about Obamacare as an assault on the rule of law. More info here.
About a year and a half ago, a friend gave me a T-shirt with the slogan “Peace - Love - Liberty.” This is also the unfortunate title of a new book by my friend, Tom Palmer. But I can never see this slogan without wincing and thinking, “Pick any two.”