“Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out.” — Oscar WildeIn the wacky world of American politics, if you as an employer have a religious objection to paying for your employees’ contraceptives, it is you who is contemptuous of religious freedom.As the New York Times editorial board lectured a judge who thinks otherwise, “the […]
Socialism is the big lie of the 20th century. While it promised prosperity, equality, and security, it delivered poverty, misery, and tyranny. Equality was achieved only in the sense that everyone was equal in his or her misery.In the same way that a Ponzi scheme or chain letter initially succeeds but eventually collapses, socialism may […]
Six months ago, I stepped out from the shadows of the United States Government’s National Security Agency to stand in front of a journalist’s camera. I shared with the world evidence proving some governments are building a worldwide surveillance system to secretly track how we live, who we talk to, and what we say. I […]
I opened a new bottle of probiotics this morning, and it had one of those circular seals on the top. You know, the one that reads, “Sealed for your protection.”And that seal got me thinking… how much protection do we need? How much security is enough?How much homogenization, pasteurization, disinfection, national security, etc…. do we […]
Last spring, Barack Obama told the graduating class of Ohio State University:“Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems… They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because […]
In the Huffington Post last week, Glenn Greenwald, Slate contributor Ryan Gallagher, and Ryan Grim had an investigative piece reporting that the NSA had been tracking the online porn-viewing habits of several Muslim leaders whom it viewed as radicals. A top-secret document shows that the agency was considering exposing these firebrands’ Internet dalliances as a […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
A few months ago at a demonstration against the president of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, a Canadian citizen made the following claim: “We don’t have guns, we are not Americans, we are civilized.” A few days before, in early July, a train of the company had run away and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing […]
From the Tongue-In-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that her committee will hold a “major review into all intelligence-collection programs.” This surprising declaration followed the revelation, through documents leaked by government whistle-blower Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been listening to the […]
From the Tongue-in-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. – The complex negotiations aimed at bringing a long-term solution to the federal government’s expenditure and debt problem have produced an unconventional proposal. “Although the solution only focuses on a tiny fraction of government expenditures,” declared President Barack Obama, “it is a step in the right […]
I’ve just spent a harrowing weekend reflecting on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the pamphlet that came out in January 1776 and turned the public toward seeking independence from Britain. I say harrowing because the distance between the ideals found in this pamphlet and those of today’s America is so vast as to be nearly unrecognizable.The […]
It was a wild ride last week in the world of the Deep Web, that section of the Internet that requires special tools to access. The feds took down the site called Silk Road and claim to have arrested its founder and administrator. The news streams were filled with lurid tales of derring-do in this […]
Want to know just how invasive the state is going to get in the United States?Well, take a look across the pond.In terms of the large, invasive state, we English are way ahead of you guys. We’re a good 50 or more years further down the road to serfdom.Nineteenth-century Britain was about as glorious a […]
A tense drama unfolded this week with the virtual shutdown of vital government agencies: the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Labor Relations Board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as many other such federal agencies. Without them, the Founding Fathers could not have imagined the republic.Even if fewer […]
Three months after Edward Snowden’s leaks began to reveal the extent of the U.S.’ mass surveillance program, “serious people” are beginning to make the case that it’s time for the outrage and indignation to subside and give way to a “national conversation” about the future of surveillance. So has the moment come for us to […]
A sixth-grader has been suspended for drawing an inappropriate picture. The drawing did not include any gun, but showed a checkpoint backed up by a SWAT team carrying flower pots while an unarmed drone hovered above.The suspended girl, whose name is kept secret at the request of her family, said she “just wanted to draw […]
The second part of this two-part article reveals an untold part of the story about how they were stopped last time. And shows how, if not again stopped, how it could lead to a fundamental loss of civil rights and freedom on the Internet.The offending legislation was barreling down the track, seemingly — even in […]
Two years ago, Hollywood, no kidding, masterminded a plot to, in effect, steal the Internet (by criminalizing certain conduct, booby trapping the Web in ways that few non-mega-corporations could cope with). There are signs, as perceptively flagged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that the perps are back at it. We should care.This two-part article reveals […]
It has now been nearly two centuries since French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and compared American democracy to the French variety. The Martian asked his Earth correspondent to redo the comparison.The typical Frenchman thinks that Paris is the center of the universe, life without a baguette is not worth living, France is […]
I was at the Canadian border, headed toward the freedom that exists a few feet beyond the last security check. I was gently waved down a side corridor.Ninety minutes later, I was let go, but not before something truly alarming happened. I’m pretty sure that the Canadian government captured a mirrored version of my smartphone […]
Fort Meade, MD – The United States, the least unfree country on Earth, is fighting a major invasion of the Blueshirts.The most visible Blueshirts constitute a 50,000-plus army that occupies all the airports in America. Recognizable by their blue shirts and their inquisitive eyes and hands, they search and humiliate all Americans trying to leave […]
Sometimes, the news of the day causes me to say, “Huh?” The New York Times revelations last month about NSA programs and activities to enhance the agency’s ability to spy on ordinary citizens prompts today’s “Huh?” Who knew that our every phone call, Internet post and tweet is being recorded by the government?I have operated […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Oh, how the media love a good strike. Look at these fast-food workers and peasants standing up to the owners of capital! They aren’t going to take the oppression anymore. The suits in the boardrooms had better shape up and stop hoarding all that money. They need to give it up to the men and […]
Like all great historical ideas, the project of licensing journalists so that they may benefit from the First Amendment was born in a very modest place. In fact, it began in the most modest of all places: the brain of Dianne Feinstein, U.S. senator from California.The new law, which was just adopted by Congress and […]
The position that there need be a state is too often taken for granted.The main body of Sartwell’s book Against the State is dedicated to destroying the arguments for a state from the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel. In fact, one thing that becomes crystal clear in reading Sartwell’s book is how bad the […]
Crispin Sartwell is someone you should know. He is doing important work in recovering forgotten greats in America’s anti-authoritarian tradition. Among other works, he’s put forward a lean and powerful book titled Against the State.In what follows, you’ll see why he’s my favorite living philosopher. Sartwell will take you on an intellectual tour de force […]
[Address delivered at FreedomFest, Las Vegas, Nevada, July 14, 2012]
I am an optimist about freedom…and not just the abstract concept but living freedom in my own time. It is not that I’m mentally deficient…and it is not because I haven’t been paying attention.
Every morning I wake up and browse about 20 newspaper or media sites in order to stock the two daily newsfeeds I maintain. So I have no illusion about the condition of the world or about the immediate future. It is dismal.
I expect the worst of the economic, the political turmoil we are all going to have to deal with will hit in 2013 or, perhaps, the last months of this year. I expect the hard times to last for at least several years.
And, yet, I’m an optimist. As bizarre as it may sound, my current attitude arose as a result of my turning 9/11 over and over in my mind. I gave a lot of thought to what my relationship to the state was and what it should be. Nothing has politically shocked as much as the 9/11 experience.
I call it an experience because, for me, 9/11 was far more than the terrorist acts that occurred on one day. For me, it was and is primarily America’s reaction in 9/11′s wake. The entire nation seemed to give up on freedom. America seemed almost eager to surrender every freedom on which it was built. And the police state came into being so fast.
To me, the symbol of 9/11 and the legacy it left America – or, rather, the legacy America chose to embrace – can be seen at the airports where the Bill of Rights has been obliterated. Customers line up like criminals to permit uniformed agents of the state sexually assault them and their children, they allow their possessions to be pawed through. More than allow it…many people demand it in the name of security and then turn angrily on anyone who even raises the question of civil liberties.
I have been involved in libertarianism or Objectivism since I was 15 years old but after 9/11, after seeing the ease with which a police state established itself, I wondered if I had wasted my life.
The title of my presentation this morning is “Two Attitudes Toward the State” and I want to explain two attitudes between which I’ve swung for many years and are still present within me today.
Before moving onto them, however, I should be clear that I am talking about attitudes and not my evaluation of the state, which remains unchanged. The state is a thug.
Basically, it relies upon two things to elicit cooperation from people in order to ‘convince’ them to surrender their rights and wealth.
The first is the myth of legitimacy; this is the notion that an electoral process or a hereditary line-of-succession or “fill in the blank” establishes an elite group who consist of politicians and those with political pull. These elite individuals somehow have the ‘right’ to tell other individuals what to say and what to do with their own body. They live by a double standard. Theft is wrong except if done by them in the form of taxation. Killing innocent people is wrong except if done by them in the war against terrorism.
Today the myth of legitimacy is being widely seen for what it is: a myth. Every day, fewer and fewer people believe in the legitimacy of the elites. And without that myth, their actions are being seen for what they are: a vicious double standard that excuses theft and murder. This means the state has to increasingly use the second method by which it elicits your cooperation: raw force or the threat thereof. And a sure sign that the elites have lost legitimacy and know it is the fact that they are becoming more violent toward their own citizenry by the hour.
So…I have no illusions about the condition of the world and my evaluation of the state has not changed.
I should return to attitudes. The first attitude toward the state that I want to examine was best expressed in a talk by David Friedman in which he assured the audience there was an Italian saying that translated into something like “It is raining again…PIG OF A GOVERNMENT!”
I remember wincing in my seat because I had a sudden vision of myself, standing in an open street, with my fist raised in fury at the political injustice of the drizzle hitting my face. The meaning of the saying, of course, is that many people blame everything on government. This hit too close to home. I was spending so much time railing against the State that I was running the risk of defining myself by what I oppose. I was taking the state inside myself and allowing it to filter my approach to life and determine many of my emotional reactions.
To some degree that process is inevitable. Sometimes the state seems to be everywhere. As long as you care about injustice, you’re going to react deeply at the sight of it. Frankly, that reaction is not something I intend to root out from within myself. I like it. Even if the reaction doesn’t always ‘feel’ good – sometimes it can feel almost sickening – it is something I prefer to the alternative of not caring.
Having said that, I also want a life in which I am not constantly reacting to injustice, constantly crying out against the state. I’ve seen too many good people burn out, I’ve seen them become bitter, or just lose their joy in living. And, so, after 9/11, I tried to find a balance in how I ‘consume’ the state…if you want to use an economic term. Or, in how I filter the state, if you want to use a psychological term.
An invaluable resource in that quest has been Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience.” Specifically, I turned over and over the story of his famous one-night stay in jail for refusing to pay a tax…and what happened directly after his release. And here I’ll let Thoreau speak for himself…
“It was formerly the custom in our village, when a poor debtor came out of jail, for his acquaintances to salute him, looking through their fingers, which were crossed to represent the jail window….My neighbors did not thus salute me, but first looked at me, and then at one another, as if I had returned from a long journey. I was put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker’s… When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party…” Thoreau journeyed off with a swarm of children who moved joyfully through the fields and forest. At one point, Thoreau paused and noted to himself, “in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.”
Upon his release from jail, Thoreau felt no rage toward his neighbors, no bitterness. He did not brood or rail against the injustice of his arrest. He shed everything but the insights he had gathered from the experience. And, then, he went about what he called “the business of living.” That is a wonderful phrase. The business of living.
When a tax collector knocked on his door and confronted him with the demand to pay up, Thoreau probably asked himself the same question I’ve been asking myself since 9/11. Namely, what is my relationship to the State? In answering, it is important to understand that Thoreau’s refusal to pay the tax was not the act of a determined political dissident; it wasn’t part of a pattern in his life through which he fought for the ideal of freedom. Thoreau refused to pay because he knew the specific tax would support the Mexican-American war, which he thought was immoral; rendering support to the war violated his sense of decency. In short, he did not want to cooperate with evil.
But unless and until the state literally knocked on his door, Thoreau was happy to go about the business of living as though the state did not exist. His insight while standing on a high hill is simple but profound: “and then the State was nowhere to be seen.” The essay “On Civil Disobedience” is sometimes titled “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” and that is a mistake. Thoreau did not believe people had a duty to confront the state except when it sought to make you an accomplice in the oppression of others. Anyone who stands up against injustice when the state is not at their door but at someone else’s deserves applause. But they should not do so at the expense of their primary duty, which is to live as deeply and honestly as possible. The primary business of life is living.
It is far more difficult today than in Thoreau’s time to find places where the state cannot be seen. But, perhaps, this makes it more important for us all to try.
These are the two attitudes toward the state that define my relationship to it. On the one hand, I still shake my fist at the sky and shout PIG OF A GOVERNMENT! On the other hand, I aggressively try to expand the areas of my life about which I can say “Here there is no state.” These are areas like my home, family, friends, my community, writing, working…these are areas where the government does not define or in most cases even affect what I do or how I feel.
In a sense, and it is a simplistic sense, what these two opposing attitudes express is a distinction that is key to the entire structure of libertarianism: the distinction between state and society which is most often expressed in economic terms. The standard expression comes from Franz Oppenheimer’s book The State in which he contrasted what he called “the political means” with “the economic means” of acquiring wealth or power. The political means is the use of force – the State; the economic means is cooperation – Society. By using force the unproductive State feeds on the productivity of Society.
Instead of making an economic distinction, however, I am making a psychological one. The attitude “PIG OF A GOVERNMENT!” is who I am in relationship to the State; that is my reaction when it knocks on my door and on the door of others. That reaction remains within me and I’ll be expressing it for as long as the State keeps knocking.
The attitude “here, there is no State” is who I am in relationship to Society as I go about the business of living. It involves a commitment. As much as possible I don’t use the services or so-called ‘benefits’ the government offers but seek private means instead. I explore alternative currencies and means of exchange like barter. I join networks of individuals who cooperate together for mutual benefits. In short, I am taking my life back from the state and privatizing it.
Oddly enough, the attitude of ignoring or obviating the State – again, as much as possible – may well be the most effective strategy for countering it. That’s not my purpose; my purpose is the business of living. But by privatizing your own life, you make the state increasingly irrelevant, which is what politicians fear most. They are desperate to be part of our lives, to teach our children, to regulate our work, to read our messages and hear our phone calls, to dictate our medical choices… And the most effective personal response when the State knocks at your door may well be to not answer even by the act of raising your fist.
My new book The Art of Being Free provides the background – the underpinning if you will – for what I’ve presented this morning. I will be at Laissez Faire Book table for most the conference so feel free to drop by…and buy. Thank you.