DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

Essences, Orcs and Civilization: The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism

By David Brin, Ph.D.

The Problem

Have you ever attended one of those rare open-forum debates where the Democratic and Republican candidates actually let themselves face -- or are trapped into facing -- representatives of small, dissenter parties? Often the Libertarian Party candidate does rather well. Intelligent, knowledgeable and sometimes skilled at debate, the Libertarian makes a lot of good points... one more reason why great efforts are usually made to exclude them.

And yet, I'll bet none of you have actually turned your back on the candidate and watched the audience instead.

Do so! Especially when the Libertarian weighs in against the bloody awful "War on Drugs."

Watch the audience! They sit up as the Libertarian Party candidate dissects the horrible illogic of this endless prohibition campaign. Its futility. Its counterproductive habit of benefiting social predators while leaving behind only a trail of shattered lives. People aren't fools. They know most of this already, as evidenced by recent (albeit timid) trends away from the draconian penalty philosophy of the 1980s. At this point, audience members lean forward, nodding, and the Republican and Democrat on-stage begin to sweat...

... only to smile in relief, as the audience sags back in their chairs with a murmur, with a groan. People do this the very moment that the Libertarian switches from complaining about the Drug War to presenting his alternative --

-- which is often blanket and immediate legalization. Not incremental common sense like decriminalizing marijuana -- around which a growing consensus is already building -- but unfettering all addictive or dangerous compounds without delay, as a matter of basic principle. No compromise. No pragmatic halfway measures. No innovative or experimental public health approaches to contagious addiction or proposals to support a scientific push to find out -- at last -- what addiction really is. Just the ideologically pure prescription. And people aren't buying it.

Go ahead, call them fools. Why not? It's what you've been doing for decades. The voters are idiots! It feels good to say that, right?

Alas, pragmatically speaking, that won't change any minds. And it sure won't get them to vote for you!

In a market -- one of your beloved markets -- an entrepreneur who presents the same product over and over, deriding customers for not buying it, would be the real fool. You'd laugh at such a fellow and tell him he deserves what he gets -- bankruptcy. Yet, you never view your political program that way, do you?

No. Instead, it's the same lapel-grabbing doctrine. Your fellow citizens are fools because they voted time and again for statists like Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Are you ever going to forgive the American public for FDR? It happened seventy freeping years ago... let it go!

This habit of contempt is demeaning, futile and self-defeating, on so many levels:

  1. Science has learned recently that contempt and indignation are addictive mental states. I mean physically and chemically addictive. Literally! People who are self-righteous a lot are apparently doping themselves rhythmically with auto-secreted surges of dopamine, endorphins and enkephalins. Didn't you ever ask yourself why indignation feels so good?

  2. It gives voters the creeps.

  3. Libertarianism isn't the only dogma that encourages true believers to wallow in contempt for the masses. But only among Libertarians is contempt so blazingly and blitheringly hypocritical! Think about it. Your fundamental postulate -- the core basis -- is a belief that people, left alone, can be trusted with more than a burnt match! They should be treated like grownups, capable of making their own decisions, right? Yet, your excuse for failure is that they are fools. You can't have it both ways! (See Questionnaire section #3 "The Toxicity of Ideas.")

  4. It gives voters the creeps.

  5. If this civilization is so stupid, fallen and flawed, how come it's the first one to produce so many Libertarians?

  6. It gives voters the creeps.

  7. Contempt is utterly redolent of the Look-Back Worldview!

You, who raised your hands earlier, nearly all of you pledged fealty to the Look-Forward view. And yet, you behave as if fixated in the older, traditional direction. Nostalgic, bitter, past-oriented. Otherwise, you would have let go of FDR long ago, as an artefact of our primitive ancestors! Ancestors who did pretty well -- all considered -- with the tools at hand.

If you really held a Look-Forward view, you'd spend your energy forging the next product, not bemoaning the past.

Think about it. The vague feeling -- contrary to all evidence -- that freedom had some better day long ago. That liberty and markets are some kind of ideal, a state of grace, from which we have fallen because of an error or sin... in this case, the sin of government. Can't you see the similarities to all those other faith-based systems that you claim to despise? The nostalgist tradition pulls even at you, the most modern of men and women, people who love to read science fiction and claim to be gung-ho about the future.

Go back to that magnificent polemic by John Perry Barlow that had you all nodding in agreement moments ago. Recall how Barlow propounded that everything happened "invisibly to most of us"? It feels good to be one of the few who see The Truth. Not only does he share this general thrust with the security mavens and officials he opposes. The fundamental roots are similar to the terrorists' own deep need to feel special and in-the-know -- superior in some profound way over the clueless rabble.

Can we step back to see that this emotional need to feel superior runs deeper than any of our superficial differences over politics and ideology? It makes you far more like your opponents than you would ever like to admit.

In other words, spanning all extremes of reason and morality, it's human.


[image from Jim Bovard]

Propaganda

Want to question some more assumptions? Pick up your questionnaires again. Let's talk about propaganda.

I sometimes ask audiences to name the most relentless indoctrination campaign the world ever saw. Some mention Stalin or Hitler. Others cite some major religions... or Madison Avenue advertising. Come, raise your hands and tell us which campaign you think most thoroughly brainwashes your fellow citizens, here and now.

Inevitably, quite a few claim that today's mass media push conformity on a hapless, sheeplike population. It's a smug cliché -- since it implies that a select few have risen above to shrug off the conditioning. Is that how you see yourself? Yes?

I'll bet you cannot name, offhand, a single popular American film of the last forty years that actually preached conformity, or homogeneity, submission, or repression of the individual spirit. Go ahead, try.

That's a clue!

In fact, the most persistent and inarguably incessant propaganda campaign -- appearing in countless American movies, novels, myths and TV shows -- preaches quite the opposite message! A singular and unswerving theme so persistent and ubiquitous that most people hardly notice or mention it. And yet, when I say it aloud, you will nod your heads in instant recognition.

That theme is suspicion of authority -- often accompanied by its sidekick/partner: tolerance.

Indeed, try to come up with even one example of a recent film that you enjoyed in which the hero did not bond with the audience in the first ten minutes by resisting or sticking-it-to some authority figure! Rebels are always the heroes. Conformity is portrayed as worse than death. Even in war-flicks, irreverence for some pompous commander is a necessary trait. Often, the main character also presents some quirk, some eccentricity, that draws both ire from an oppressor and sympathy from the audience.

Oh, you do hear some messages of conformity and intolerance -- but these fill the mouths of moustache-twirling villains, clearly inviting us to rebel contrary to everything they say. Submission to gray tribal normality is portrayed as one of the most contemptible things an individual can do -- a message quite opposite to what was pushed in most other cultures.

This theme is so prevalent, and so obvious, that even though you can probably see where I am going with this -- and hate the inevitable conclusion -- you aren't going to dispute the core fact. You have to sit there and accept one of the most galling things that a bunch of dedicated individualists can ever realize -- that you were trained to be individualists by the most relentless campaign of public indoctrination in history, suckling your love of rebellion and eccentricity from a society that -- evidently, at some level -- wants you to be that way!

Oh, the ironies abound.

Consider a normal, decent Republican and a normal, decent Democrat. Both simmer in resentment against groups they consider oppressive authority figures! The Democrat worries about undue accumulations of influence and power by religious fanatics, plutocrats and faceless corporations. The Republican stews over undue accumulations of influence and power by snooty academics, technocrats and faceless government officials. And oh, yes. Libertarians like to pick one authority figure from column A -- religious fanatics -- and bureaucrats from column B.

When you put it this way -- the answer is "Duh!" All of those elites merit watching! Put in this context, it seems there is a dram of wisdom in all three parties. We've been guarding each others' backs for generations, while never lifting our heads enough to recognize how similar the basic attitude is, motivating even some of those whom we oppose.

Our main difference lies in which elites we choose to worry about -- a matter of individual fixation and inclination. And that, too, is a clue, ladies and gentlemen.

Let me ask, what are you feeling right now? Nothing could more clearly delineate the differing worldviews that underlie all ideologies.

Those of you who are romantics and Platonic essentialists probably feel simmering resentment at this moment. You've just been told that suspicion of authority -- a private, special trait that you thought you shared with just a few friends -- was actually spoon-fed to you and millions of others, including some of your worst foes! How dare this impudent sci fi author come and tell me it's the most normal American trait! Dammit, I invented individualism! Rebellion too. And black leather, for that matter.

Right.

To you pragmatists in this room, who look forward toward the end-goal of a truly free, happy and prosperous civilization -- and don't give a damn about indignation or ideological purity along the way -- this news about pervasive suspicion of authority couldn't feel better! It means you are winning, boys and girls. The whole momentum of society is with you... and me... including the moral of every movie, book and song!

Moreover, you can help steer this unstoppable momentum. If you care to learn how.


[image from NY Daily News]

Natural Law?

Look again at the questionnaire on ideology. Did you ponder an honest answer to the followup portion of Question Number Two? Let me repeat it.

How did you acquire your present opinions?

The widespread tendency -- documented by generations of sophomore psych majors -- is for people to attribute their own beliefs to logical appraisal of the evidence.

In contrast, opponents are seen as having acquired their opinions because of propaganda, venal advantage or flaws in their personal character. (It's what your opponents believe about you, folks.)

In other words (unsurprisingly) we all tend to want to think better of ourselves and to denigrate our foes. We are rational and virtuous; we use reason. They are stupid or corrupt.

Are libertarians exceptions to this human tendency? According to a recent poll in Liberty Magazine, more than 85% of subscribers credited their own beliefs to "rational analysis."

On the other hand, the same poll showed a marked trend in readership attitudes, across the 1990s, away from admiration for "essentialists" such as Rand and Rothbard and toward "consequentialist" pragmatists such as Hayek. Does this portend a movement away from 20th Century ideological determinism and the pseudo-religious avowal of a lost state of grace?

Let's put this another way. Did anyone get as far as Numbers 8 and 9 on the questionnaire? Ideologues often declare their central postulates to be "natural laws." For example:

  • Marxists deem it axiomatic -- beyond question or argument -- that the value of a product or service derives solely from the human time-labor invested in it.

  • Liberals claim that equality among people is "self-evident."

  • Social activists argue that any suffering or unmet human need automatically has priority outranking all other considerations.

  • Purist abortion foes declare an a priori and perfectly discrete onset of sacred human life at the moment of conception.

Want to reach a predetermined conclusion? Choose a "fundamental" axiom that automatically produces that conclusion, making any argument with this conclusion futile! By anchoring such claims in bedrock, an ideologue makes further discussion impossible. Those who disagree are either evil or stupid. Voila.

But shouldn't such postulates about human nature correlate -- at least a little -- with science and history?

Take belief in the ex nihilo appearance of a human soul at the very moment of conception -- the justification for pure/ideal opposition to abortion (as opposed to a pragmatic opposition aimed at reducing the incidence through education and empowerment of women). Science has never found a distinct moment when a cluster of colloidal proteins and membranes becomes soulful or human. Instead we see a murky, gradual acquisition of human characteristics that continues for a long while after birth -- one more example of an analog world, not one subject to our prim demands for digital (on-off) laws.

Are libertarians immune to this tendency?

How about the oft-heard claim that market laws are physical laws, as fundamental as gravity? Oh it's a grand declaration, as appealing as any of those made by other ideologues. But does it hold up?

More important, does it serve any useful purpose other than making the declarer feel good? Is it necessary? Or can libertarianism stand on its own feet without making quasi-religious declarations of faith?

Try this historical fact: On every continent where humans discovered both agriculture and metallurgy, gangs of bullies swiftly grabbed up metal implements and proceeded to take other men's women and wheat. They then -- always -- strove to create a pyramidal social structure led by a narrow ruling class. By guaranteeing that their sons could do the same, feudal-overlords ensured their own Darwinian reproductive success at the cost of others. Oh, and the few "markets" that existed in those days just happened to suit the interests of the king.

Question: this near-universal pattern, spanning six millennia, seems to match which of the following "natural" human postulates: the labor theory of value; it is self-evident that all people are created equal; markets are as natural as gravity; elites tend to conspire and cheat, unless others hold them accountable.

Alas, most 19th and 20th Century ideologues assiduously avoided facing the implications of sciences like biology, which show that Darwinian nature features an awful lot of ruthless predation -- so much that it seems almost fundamental.

Oh, the reflex toward predation can be overcome -- dolphins show glimmers of altruism, dogs can be trained to guard sheep, and people can learn to cooperate or compete fairly. But even a glance at our ancestors shows that feudal-predators were more common than free markets.

Are market laws "natural laws"?

Frankly, I hate this metaphor! It is an insult to true libertarianism, redolent of the Look-Back view and the crutch of believing in a sacred-lost state of grace.

Markets do not arise out of natural law. If they did, there would have been more markets in the past.

I'd rather look at markets in a completely different way -- as ingenious human constructs.

The modern market is a magnificent hand-crafted, opportunity-generating machine! An artifice created by ingenious human beings, utilizing sophisticated skills, technologies -- and all that they have learned from centuries of hard experience with their own complex natures. A machine that may still be in its youthful, awkward phase, yet already showing great potential for maximizing wealth, liberty, and happiness -- the three great desiderata -- while minimizing the all-too human tendency toward predation -- our tendency to cheat like hell and prevent the other guy from ever having a chance to compete.

Oh, sure, natural law makes you feel virtuous and chosen. It vitiates the arguments of opponents without ever having to listen to them or grapple with their objections.

On the other hand, the Machine Metaphor suggests that we're finally past feudalism and most of those other simpleminded failure modes. Indeed, our perpetually improving invention will continue to accelerate, outstripping older, primitive markets the way a jet outspeeds a horse. It implies we're fully embarked on a course that leaps beyond Darwinian destiny, with potential that is virtually limitless.

True, it also implies a continuing need to tinker and improve market design -- something that's anathema to romantic purist libertarians who control the movement from the ground up. It also means that we must constantly be wary of successful entrepeneurs who later fall for the most deeply-human temptation -- to cheat! (A wariness you will never see at the Cato Institute, for example, in their reflex to defend wealthy elites, no matter when, how or where.)

For those who have long idolized markets as gods, it may be discomfiting to envision them instead as youthful, awkward, still-learning and yet full of potential. Like us.

But the machine metaphor also offers advantages. It means that we can apply the tools of anticipation, and especially the resiliency that comes from the quick-reacting talents of a myriad diverse component-citizens, reacting assertively to rapid change.

It also means that -- as brilliant inventors -- we can take credit for the fecundity of markets, rather than shrugging and attributing it all to some sacred happenstance-twist in the Big Bang, 14 Billion years ago. Something out of our power, like the ratio of the electron to the proton mass.


[image from examiner.com]

Pragmatism and Complexity

Don't downplay the distinction between these two ways of viewing the time-flow of wisdom -- the nostalgic / romantic / purist / Look-Backward worldview versus the progressive / pragmatic / Look-Forward view. This is an ancient struggle, crossing all superficial boundaries of political ideology.

Take, for example, feminism. The very word is rejected by countless women scientists and other female working professionals... in much the same way that "libertarianism" is dismissed as a fringe cult by many freedom-loving Americans... because the words have come to seem irrelevant to those laboring with day-to-day concerns. These people have no time for theories. They want to solve problems. That can be a complicated process.

You want complicated? What could be more complex than the law? It's a tangle of regulations, rules and exceptions, getting thicker every year. Hatred of lawyers is the most common manifestation of American suspicion of authority. The growing shelves of regulations would seem to prove that we're NOT on the right path. That we're on our way to libertarian hell.

Well, I agree that regulation can be the devil's tool. But so is oversimplification of important issues. So let me tell you a little story about an eye-opening epiphany I once had -- way back when I was taking flying lessons.

There we all sat, in ground school, studying maps covered with shaded blue zones called terminal control areas and a dozen other terms and acronyms. To fly a private plane -- even before 9/11 -- meant wading through a morass of details. In this kind of zone you have to report into a controller and get specific instructions. In that zone you circle left and report only when descending. The very shapes of these control areas would drive you crazy -- "upside-down wedding cakes" with all sorts of slots and holes cut in them. One guy from Europe sneered at the complexity.

"Back home, we just report our vectors and flight paths all the time. This complexity is tyrannical!" And my fellow Yanks nodded, in reflex agreement. We all muttered: "Damn bureaucrats!"

Only then it struck me, like a blow. We were looking at the zones of control... not at the holes!

The TCAs and other zones had been designed by committees, mostly made up of retired private pilots. The zones had all sorts of complex shapes because, during committee meetings, these guys would keep saying -- "Y'know, there's no safety reason to regulate this patch of sky, right here. Carve it out! Let pilots do whatever they want in there." Hell, for years you could fly right over Los Angeles International Airport, in the VFR Corridor, a notch cut right out of the LAX TCA, without ever reporting in. The result? A whole lot of exceptions that expanded the net total of rules.

Complexity of rules... as evidence of freedom? Wrap your head around that one.

But should we be surprised? Just six thousand years out of the caves, we are trying to do stuff that no one even imagined possible before. Cavemen are trying to make a fine, decent, evenhanded and fair civilization, one that maximizes freedom and creativity while minimizing predatory cheating. And get this, friends -- we don't know how! Not yet. So we pile up rules and exceptions and then more rules to deal with the exceptions to the exceptions...

Hey, don't get me wrong. I'm standing here, at this gathering, because I don't especially like rules! They chafe me and I look forward to a day when our children will know vastly more than we do about human nature. What it takes to behave as mature, competitive, cooperative and decent citizens. An age when there may be only two remaining laws -- as portrayed in the famous libertarian-utopian science fiction story, "You Were Right, Joe":

  • Thou shalt not offend others.

  • Thou shalt not allow thyself to be offended too easily.

Think how much better we'll have to be, in order to live by such simple rules! May our grandchildren be smart and good, and formidable enough to be worthy!

Robert Heinlein portrayed this kind of libertarian view of the future. Contrast his portrayals of tomorrow with the bitter, angry, resentful and blaming stories that one so often sees in libertarian SF -- stories in which the author denounces every consensus social and legal decision made by contemporary American culture -- a culture that brought him into being, trained and fed him and provided enough readers to let him live in comfort, while subsidizing him to spin resentment fantasies. (More on libertarian SF later.)

No, complexity isn't the disease. It's a symptom. Sometimes a symptom of incipient tyranny and bureaucratic meddling! Or just plain thieving mischief, like the way tax complexity masks innumerable billion-dollar ripoffs by small groups of influential cronies. Yes, fight that!

But also recognize that sometimes the heaps of rules arise out of awkward good will. Because the people saw something wrong and their representatives tried to do something about it. Often in silly, stupid and self-defeating ways, true! But not necessarily with oppressive intent.

It is the proper role of libertarianism to oppose government regulation and meddlesome complexity! I'm not saying you should abandon this role. But it should be in a spirit of leadership... even cheerful competitiveness, offering a better way to solve what the people see as problems. Your resistance ought to show the way toward something better... not the glowering temper of a sullen teen, who hates all rules simply because they are rules.


[image from Clker.com]

De-Regulation

I'm here to talk about deep assumptions that underlay all forms of ideology, hampering political agility. I could (and have) easily confront almost any other ideological grouping with many of the same perturbing puzzlers! Almost any sincere group of idealists can profit by re-examining its assumptions, discovering which are essential and useful... as opposed to those that are simply bad habits, inherited from a too-rigid past.

Still, today I am especially interested in how all this applies to Libertarians. And for you folks, there's a surface assumption that I want to address briefly, in passing.

When it comes to imposing or eliminating government regulation, which of the major parties is the "lesser of evils"?

Elsewhere I go into this in some detail, discussing some unseen aspects of the great big "Two Party System" that the Libertarian Party and its members really ought to think about. And yes, from your perspective there is an awful lot to dislike about both the Republicans and Democrats.

But are they the same kind of opponents? Or is there an underlying difference in the roles they play, stymieing libertarian objectives.

Again, I'll leave this for another time and place, but let me tease you with one hint: there is reason to believe that one of the two majors is your natural and honorable opponent. If libertarianism achieved its deserved place on the political landscape, this group would be the strong and worthy adversary for you to compete with openly, offering sovereign citizens differing ideas about how to create a better world.

The other opponent represents interests that cannot ever allow you to stand up and be heard. Its opposition is not based on a differing approach to problem-solving, but upon its own survival, which is predicated upon preventing you from ever getting a chance to be heard.

Not enough of a hint? Well, for now, just try on one irony. We are used to the cliché that "Democrats favor freedom in the bedroom while Republicans favor freedom in the boardroom." But look over the last 30 years. How many industries have been deregulated to a degree that's more than cosmetic? I count trucking, banking, real estate, telecommunications, airlines and parcel post. And the "industry" of the Welfare Program. Now ask, how many or these major steps were taken as Republican initiatives and how many Democratic?

Another case where you may slap your foreheads in surprise and say: "huh!"

But let's get back to the deeper matters afoot -- questions and assumptions about the very way that we think about ideology and progress.

Next... can one be an optimistic libertarian?