Category Archives: Austrian Economics

Empathy—and Dismay

On Facebook, I gave a H/T to my friend Joshua Zader for his re-posting of this graphic on the subject of “empathy” …

As I wrote on Facebook, this encapsulates one important way by which to celebrate the goodwill of the holiday season: Learning empathy.

I added: “If I’d boxed myself within the conventional left-right continuum, I would never have opened my mind to learning from a Marxist mentor (Bertell Ollman), who both encouraged me and challenged me in my growth as a student of intellectual history. (In fact, Bertell was more encouraging of my work on Ayn Rand than 98% of the folks in Rand-land.) I’ve been enriched by drawing from all parts of the ideological spectrum. The very origins of what it means to be “dialectical”—grasping the full context—emerges from the art of dialogue, and it is through such dialogue with those outside our framework that we evolve intellectually, psychologically, and even emotionally.”

Well, I’d like to say that this message got through loud and clear, but it never ceases to amaze me how consistently people show up to demonstrate the point of the posts—in reverse.

Before you know it, my opinions on the nature of the Enclosure Acts and of the origins of capitalism suddenly took center stage, with one person suggesting that I’m parroting “Marxist” and “totalitarian lies.” I pointed out that in Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, I critique Marx on a number of issues, including his theory of history. I give credit to Marx on a methodological point: the dialectical method applied to the analysis of social problems, a method that goes back to Aristotle and that has been used to varying degrees by thinkers in the classical liberal/libertarian tradition, from Menger to Hayek to Rand. I most definitely reject the materialist theory of history. 

Well, that just took us down a road that had nothing to do with the topic of the thread, but which illustrated what happens when folks refuse to give you the benefit of the doubt or to adopt even a remotely charitable interpretation of your views.

First, it should be noted that empathy doesn’t mean that we are required to empathize with those who are out to kill you. I would limit it to folks with whom we just might have some civil disagreements … not folks looking to gouge my eyes out. In civil discourse, I think much can be learned from Nathaniel Branden, who stated in his essay, “Objectivism and Libertarianism“:

About ten years ago, I came across a saying from the Talmud that impressed me profoundly. I have not been able to stop thinking about it. I have often wondered what might have happened if I’d had the chance to discuss the idea with Ayn—if there would have been any way to break through. Who knows what might have been different in the years that followed?

The line that so impressed me was: “A hero is one who knows how to make a friend out of an enemy.”

After nearly 50 comments, I concluded with the following statement:

Well, before I turn in for the night, I’d like to extend my thanks especially to those who understood the spirit of this post. My empathy is alive and well, not just at this time of year, but all year round.

For those who didn’t quite get the spirit of this post, I’ll repeat what I said above, alluding to my half-Greek, half-Sicilian ancestry: “The ‘Greek’ side of me is always trying to find reasonable common ground with an open heart. The ‘Sicilian’ side of me tells me when no common ground is possible, and I’m like: ‘Fuhgedaboudit! Enough with this!'”

Given that no common ground is possible in some instances here, I’ll therefore conclude with “Fuhgedaboudit! Enough with this!”

Many more threads to follow… to the delight of some and the dismay of others. G’nite, folks!

Facebook: Philosophers as Profile Month 2021 (I)

Philosophers as Profile Pictures Month is an annual event in which we get to show off all the useless knowledge we gained through our humanities education. It’s also a chance to introduce people to lesser known philosophers/quotes and spur discussion! Participate by changing your profile picture to a philosopher (and one of their quotes) you especially like and post the photo/quote here in the event. Feel free to change your philosopher as many times as you want for the month of December!”

For my first profile pic of December 2021, I have chosen Don Lavoie (1951-2001).

Don Lavoie

There are important lessons … to be learned from both the successes and the failures of the twentieth century’s revolutionary movements. The triumphs of these popular revolutions seem … to be evidence of the power of ideology, while the reversals are evidence of the weakness of most of the particular ideologies that have driven these revolutions. They have generally striven to drive the current oppressors out of power, only to replace them with new rulers. If an ideology is found … that can transcend this mere replacement of rulers, aiming instead at a society without need for rule of some of its members by others, but in which, in some sense, the people can democratically rule themselves, then the triumph might be secured.

— Don Lavoie, National Economic Planning: What is Left? (1985, pp. 233-34)

In the Facebook discussions that followed, I added the following:

Don was one of my very dearest friends and one of the most intellectually challenging people I’ve ever met. We followed parallel trajectories in many ways: He had an Austrian-school advisor (Israel Kirzner) and a Marxist economist (James Becker) on his dissertation committee; I had a Marxist advisor (Bertell Ollman) and an Austrian economist (Mario Rizzo) on my dissertation committee.

On a personal level, Don was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of my work on the integration of dialectical method and libertarian social analysis. He was also the first professor to integrate one of my books (Marx, Hayek, and Utopia) into his curriculum (his course “Comparative Socio-Economic Systems”, in 1999).

I look forward to digitizing and uploading onto my YouTube channel some of his many lectures given before the NYU chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society. The lectures are on immigration, US Foreign Policy, and a discussion on Marxism vs. anarcho-libertarianism with Bertell Ollman (my mentor), all having taken place at New York University.

The “Omicron Delta Epsilon” Conspiracy?

When I got my BA at New York University (in history, politics, and economics), I was inducted into the International Honor Society for Economics: Omicron Delta Epsilon.

I couldn’t help but notice that the “Delta” variant of COVID-19 has now been followed by the “Omicron” variant. And for those who have a short memory, the first strain that originated in the United States was called the “Epsilon” variant.

So there you have it! “Omicron”, “Delta”, and “Epsilon”—all variants of SARS-CoV-2 … not necessarily proof positive that this is all a conspiracy of the economists, but anecdotal evidence that economics remains the dismal science! (Oh take it easy, my economics colleagues! Ever hear of gallows humor?)

Take What You Want and Move the F&*K On!

This is a Facebook post from my friend Ryan Neugebauer. I’m reposting it here because I’ve been thinking the same thing for a long time, given my experiences on social media. From Ryan:

I’ve noticed that there are trends for hating on certain thinkers/figures in different political spheres. People in both groups will chastise them and make them out to be valueless.”In left-wing spaces it will be Ayn Rand or some free-market economist (Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, or Friedman). In right-wing spaces it will be Karl Marx, Saul Alinsky, Noam Chomsky, or some self-described Socialist politician.

I have NO USE for this kind of tribalism. I take insights from thinkers across the political spectrum. I’ve read people like Edmund Burke, G.K. Chesterton, F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Benjamin Tucker, Mikhail Bakunin, P.J. Proudhon, Kevin Carson, and numerous others. Some of those are Traditionalist Conservatives, Classical Liberals/Right-Libertarians, left-wing Anarchists, as well as State Socialists & Social Democrats.

I have disagreements with all of the thinkers I read. Some more than others for sure. But I won’t throw an entire person out just because of significant disagreements. I won’t pretend they don’t have insights just because I really hate something they say. I take the good, understand and reject the bad, and simply move on.

It’s important to learn to engage diverse thinkers and not close yourself out. It’s also important to be reasonably charitable and not write someone off entirely unnecessarily.

Though this approach will not help you with group membership in a political tribe, it will help you with being a better thinker and a better interlocutor. So please choose that over fitting in.

And let me just add: If you’re not capable of thinking outside the square of a stultifying ideology, you’re impoverishing your own critical thinking abilities. My own approach for every thinker I’ve ever read has always been the same: Take what gems you can find in each writer and/or school of thought you are exposed to; criticize that which you reject (but PLEASE, OH PLEASE understand what you’re accepting and what you’re rejecting!), and MOVE THE F&*K ON!*

* This is a play on the old Spanish proverb often quoted by Ayn Rand and her followers: “God said, take what you want and pay for it.”

Postscript: In the Facebook discussion that followed, I made these additional points:

1. Evil may be real, and we can call it for what it is. But there are many insights that one can glean from thinkers that many libertarians and Objectivists might consider “evil”. Many of those on the left brand Rand and Hayek as evil, as apologists for a system of exploitation, but if left-winger Slavoj Zizek can find value in Ayn Rand, and “postmodernist” Michel Foucault can find value in F. A. Hayek, surely those on the other side of the divide can find something of value in the works of Hegel, Marx, Engels, and others.I, myself, give enormous credit to Marx for bringing a dialectical sensibility to the analysis of social relations. As I point out in my “Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy” (Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism), it was Hegel who viewed Aristotle as the “fountainhead” of dialectical inquiry (and he used that word), which compelled the theorist to look at every issue, problem, or event by tracing its relations to other issues, problems or events within a wider system across time. Both Marx and Engels did enormously important work in applying these insights to the analysis of social systems, crediting Aristotle (in the words of Engels) as “the Hegel of the ancient world,” among “the old Greek philosophers [who] were all born natural dialecticians … the most encyclopaedic intellect of them, [who] had already analyzed the most essential forms of dialectic thought.”

Even Lenin (!) worked on a lengthy treatise dealing with dialectics, in which he praised Aristotle for providing theorists with “the living germs of dialectics and inquiries about it.”

One can reject so much in Hegel, Marx, Engels, and others, and still marvel at the ways in which they applied this essentially Aristotelian mode of inquiry to the analysis of social relations, systems, and dynamics. The whole point of my own trilogy was to reconstruct that mode of inquiry as a tool that could be used fruitfully by libertarian social theorists. And for this project, I had to face the wrath of scores of folks who labeled me a nutjob.

Well, I may still be a nutjob—but I stand by my conviction that dialectical inquiry is something of great value, and that there is much to be gained by studying the works of those on the left who have used it. I may disagree with many of their conclusions, but I can still give credit where credit is due and, as I said in my post, “move the f&*k on.”

2. As someone who embraces dialectical method (the art of context-keeping), it is context above all that matters here. Which is why we can take the gems from other thinkers and reinvent them, reconstruct them, invert them, and place them in a larger context that speaks to the real conditions that exist, in our attempts to change them fundamentally.

JARS: Dedicating and Rededicating …

Over the last twenty-one years of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, we have lost key members of the JARS family. In 2005, one of our cofounders—the man with the vision to create this journal—Bill Bradford, passed away. This was followed by the deaths of original Advisory Board members Larry J. Sechrest in 2008 and John Hospers in 2011. David Mayer, who joined the Board of Advisors in 2012, died in 2019. And in June 2021, we were greatly saddened to learn that Steven Horwitz, another Advisory Board member from the class of 2012, lost his battle with multiple myeloma.

It is in Steve’s memory that we will dedicate the forthcoming December 2021 issue of JARS, published by Pennsylvania State University Press.

But dedications of this sort require rededications to our mission—as we continue to be the only nonpartisan, biannual, interdisciplinary university-press published, double-blind peer-reviewed scholarly periodical devoted to the critical examination of Ayn Rand and her times. To that end, we are proud to announce the addition of four new Advisory Board members and one new Editorial Board member (and fuller bios for these folks will follow in our December 2021 issue):

We are also pleased to announce that Roger E. Bissell, another prolific contributor to JARS since its debut in 1999, has become an Associate Editor. Roger is an independent scholar living in Antioch, Tennessee. A research associate with the Molinari Institute, he has edited no fewer than ten books and is the author of more than three dozen scholarly essays in philosophy and psychology and four books, including How the Martians Discovered Algebra: Explorations in Induction and the Philosophy of Mathematics (2014) and What’s in Your File Folder? Essays on the Nature and Logic of Propositions (2019). He is also the coeditor, with Chris Matthew Sciabarra (me!) and Edward W. Younkins, of The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom. A lifelong professional musician, he has an M.A. in music performance and literature (University of Iowa) and a B.S. in music theory and composition (Iowa State University).

In welcoming these individuals, we remain profoundly grateful to all of our editorial and advisory board members for their continued support, which is integral to our ongoing intellectual journey.

Stay tuned for what promises to be a blockbuster December 2021 issue of JARS!

Steve Horwitz, RIP

I am very sorry to report this devastating news. My long-time colleague and friend, Steve Horwitz, passed away this morning. His wife, Sarah Skwire, has confirmed that he died around 5:15 am.

Steve had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma back in 2017. He was a warrior in facing this diagnosis and battling this disease, and an inspiration to countless thousands of people for his very public sharing of his trials and tribulations.

Steve was first and foremost a wonderful human being and a very dear friend. But he was also a thought-provoking scholar of the highest order. He was long associated with St. Lawrence University, and later became the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. In 2020, he was the recipient of the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Steve and I first met way back in the mid-1990s; his important work in the area of Austrian economics and on the progressive nature of market institutions (which would culminate in his wonderful book Hayek’s Modern Family) led me to spotlight his contributions to the “dialectical” turn in libertarian thought, in my book Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (2000). So enthused was he with the dialectical project that he gladly accepted an invitation to contribute a wonderful essay (“The Dialectic of Culture and Markets in Expanding Family Freedom“) to the 2019 anthology, The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, which I coedited with Roger Bissell and Ed Younkins.

Our professional relationship also extended to Rand studies; he was a contributor to two of the symposia published by The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies: one to our 2003 discussion of Rand and progressive rock (“Rand, Rush, and De-totalizing the Utopianism of Progressive Rock“) and another to our 2005 centenary symposium on “Ayn Rand Among the Austrians” (“Two Worlds at Once: Rand, Hayek, and the Ethics of the Micro- and Macro-Cosmos“).

In 2012, Steve would join the journal’s Board of Advisors. Anytime I asked him to do a peer review, he accepted the project, even if he was tempted to torch some of the essays he had been asked to read. If I heard even the slightest hesitation from him, I’d take a line from the 1959 film version of “Ben-Hur“: “We keep you alive to serve this ship! So, row well and live” [YouTube link]. It became an ongoing mantra between us—anytime either of us suffered a medical setback. He told me I inspired him in my lifelong struggles with a congenital intestinal illness, and I’d tell him, “Are you kidding me? You’re an inspiration to all of us!”

My heart is broken. I want to extend my deepest condolences to Steve’s family and friends, and wish to say that I share their sorrow, while celebrating his extraordinary life.

Steve Horwitz (1964-2021)

Addendum: When asked about how we could keep Steve’s memory alive, I said:

Early on in Steve’s career, he, like Don Lavoie before him, showed a certain indebtedness to the highly dialectical approach of the hermeneutical tradition. Paul Ricoeur once said that a text is detached from its author and develops consequences of its own—transcending its relevance to its initial situation and addressing an indefinite range of possible readers.

As long as there are people who can read what Steve wrote and listen to what Steve has said, his work, his life, his legacy, will live on.

Revisiting Kolko’s “Triumph of Conservatism”

In light of our recent discussions of the history of “capitalism”, check out Chris Wright​’s succinct 2018 summary of Gabriel Kolko‘s trailblazing work on the Progressive Era. Kolko has been taken to task by many, but even those who disagree with aspects of his work, such as my pals, Rob Bradley​, and recent JARS contributor, Roger Donway, have readily acknowledged that Kolko blew “to smithereens the smug narrative about Progressivist regulation,” “disproving the old stereotypes of Gilded Age businessmen as uncompromising pro-capitalists and Progressive reformers as do-gooders. He showed that industrialists had not been as laissez-faire or reformers as high-minded as Progressivism alleged.”

The Facebook discussion that followed from my cross-posting of this led me to reproduce in whole a note from my Journal of Ayn Rand Studies-published review (vol. 20, no. 2, December 2020, pp. 340-71): “Free Market Revolution: Partial or Complete?” (references therein):

For my own comparison of the parallels between Rand’s critique of the neofascist mixed economy and that offered by Kolko, see Sciabarra [1995] 2013, 311–12. The debate over Kolko’s historiography—particularly in light of the fiftieth anniversary of his profoundly influential Triumph of Conservatism—has spiked in recent years. Bradley and Donway (2013) devote an article to a reassessment of Kolko’s revisionist perspective on the Progressive era, including his study of Railroads and Regulation (Kolko 1965). They argue correctly that industries, such as railroads, were essentially “feudal” from their inception (Bradley and Donway 2013, 564). They take issue with the neo-Marxist premises in Kolko’s conceptual framework and Kolko’s questionable interpretations of some of the data. Still, as critical as they are, they conclude: “Ourreinterpretation of Kolko in light of libertarian thought should not take away from Kolko’s success in amending the simplistic Progressivist interpretation of American history. The present review merely points out that a libertarian, anti-Progressivist interpretation of Progressive legislation should be freed from Kolko’s leftist framework and supported by better evidence” (575). They repeat that point in a later essay (Bradley and Donway 2015): “Unquestionably, Kolko did valuable work in disproving the old stereotypes of Gilded Age businessmen as uncompromising pro-capitalists and Progressive reformers as do-gooders. He showed that industrialists had not been as laissez-faire or reformers as high-minded as Progressivism alleged.” The authors also issued a correction with regard to their criticism that Kolko had doctored a quote by railroad magnate James J. Hill (see Bradley and Donway n.d.). But even in a forthcoming reply to Stromberg’s defense (2019, 43) of Kolko’s admirable avoidance of historical “reductionism” (on display in the work of many pre-revisionist left-wing historians), they credit Kolko for having blown “to smithereens the smug narrative about Progressivist regulation, spread by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and his ilk, which dominated American historiography during the Forties, Fifties, and early Sixties” (Bradley and Donway forthcoming; see also Bradley 2014). Ironically, Kolko provided a back cover blurb for Bradley 2009, praising it as “[f]ascinating, comprehensive . . . far surpassing my own history of political capitalism in the 1960s.”

Bradley and Donway’s criticisms notwithstanding, Kolko is certainly not the only revisionist historian who has written on the corporatist nature of the Progressive political agenda. For example, see essays by William Appleman Williams, Martin J. Sklar, Murray Rothbard, Ronald Radosh, David Eakins, James Gilbert, and Leonard Liggio in Radosh and Rothbard 1972. Also see Weinstein and Eakins 1970; Green and Nader 1973; Liggio and Martin 1976; Sklar 1988; Horwitz 1992; Lindsey and Teles 2017; Rothbard 2017; Holcombe 2018; Newman 2019a.

Newman (2019b) places special emphasis on the principle that “personnel is policy,” that is, those who are appointed to regulatory agencies will often dictate the trajectory of the policies in question. He argues convincingly that, like all legislative processes, the establishment of regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, emerged out of the push-and-pull of conflicting interests, some inimical to business, others fully in favor of using political means for business consolidation. Newman shows “that regulatory capture is a dynamic process that does not follow a deterministic path because control of an agency depends on the commissioners appointed who are continually changing over time” (1038).

“Rent-seeking”—as outlined by public choice theorists such as Gordon Tullock, James Buchanan, and George Joseph Stigler—is made all the more complicated with the “division of power among regulatory agencies that have overlapping jurisdictions, [requiring] special interests . . . to make sure that they have control of multiple commissions in order to accomplish their objectives” (1040).

It should also be noted that Arthur Ekirch, whose work Rand praised, was equally impressed by the theses of revisionist historians on the left. Ekirch remarks that way back in 1944, Friedrich Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom had warned that the rise of state capitalism, “[t]he progressive abandonment of freedom in economic affairs[,] . . . was leading to a similar destruction of political and personal freedom” (Ekirch [1955] 1967, 310). He highlights the complementary contributions of both Robert Wiebe (1962) and Gabriel Kolko (1963; 1965) toward our understanding of the emergence of a form of “state socialism” or “state capitalism” in which business has been among the chief designers and beneficiaries of the regulatory apparatus from its inception (Ekirch 1974, 143–44).

Gordon Adams (1981) provides another provocative perspective on regulation. Though Adams focuses on “the politics of defense contracting,” his insights are equally applicable to the give-and-take that takes place across all regulatory agencies. The “Iron Triangle,” as Adams famously characterized it, constitutes the relationship between congressional committees, regulatory bureaucracies, and the industries being regulated—that is, the dynamic and systemic interrelationships between congressional committees that create bureaucratic regulatory agencies, which are designed to serve their “constituencies.” But the constituencies of each regulatory agency are not “the people.” Indeed, Adams argues that the constituencies in question are the actual industries being regulated. And so, the entire regulatory state has emerged in a way such that industries push for regulations, which enable them to block entry into markets, using money to buy various forms of “pork barrel” legislation, while lobbying and courting members of Congress and gaining key personnel appointments to the very regulatory agencies that were ostensibly created to “protect” the public from corporate “excess.” See also Higgs 2006. Regulation also helps to socialize risk for a whole panoply of industries—from health care insurance companies to the most blatant of industrial polluters. See Sciabarra 2020 and LaCalle 2019, respectively.

— from my review of the Yaron Brook-Don Watkins book, Free Market Revolution, published in JARS’s December 2021 issue (pp. 362-63, n. 12)

Thinking Outside the Box (II): The World You Desired Can Be Won

After my last post, “Thinking Outside the Box: You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains,” I received quite a few public and private comments from people—left and right—wondering if I’d lost my mind (or my soul) because I do not use the word “capitalism” to describe my politics.

It’s nothing new, folks. I stopped using that word back in February 2005, and stated why in my short piece, “‘Capitalism’: The Known Reality” on the Liberty and Power Group Blog—and subsequently re-published on the site of the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS). I should note, for the record, that one person on another Facebook thread said that if I’ve linked to C4SS, I’m “probably broken” already. Well, if this be treason—linking to a site that has so many wonderful contributors and associates, and that also carries some of my work—I warmly embrace my “Humpty Dumpty” spiritual essence!

Back in 2005, when I wrote that piece, I was, in fact, reaching out to the “left or to any other category of intellectuals” because, I argued, “[r]eal communication depends upon a full clarification of terms; if we end up using the same term to mean different things, I fear we’ll be talking over each other’s heads for a long time to come.”

But that piece did not simply signify a shift in rhetorical strategy. I maintained then, as I do now, that historically constituted “capitalism” has never been the “unknown ideal” of Ayn Rand’s narrative. We can stand here and debate this for eons, but it’s not going to change the reality of how the system that came to be known as “capitalism” emerged—as I stated in my last post—very much the product of state forces that worked at the behest of large medieval landowners, using such tools as the enclosure acts to nullify peasant land tenure rights and, through the legacy of colonialism, wholly dispossess many indigenous populations. If the state has always been involved with the social system known as “capitalism”, then the Randian goal of radically separating the state from the economy such that it is no longer a political economy is indeed an “unknown ideal.” It has never existed. Whether it can exist is another question.

Which leads me to my next point.

Just because I abandoned my use of the word “capitalism” sixteen years ago does not mean that I forfeited my libertarian convictions; I still believe that genuinely free markets—or as William Gillis has called them, “freed markets“—can be a catalyst for radical social change.

Some folks have said publicly and privately that I’m a “useful idiot” for Marxists and communists because I dropped my use of the term “capitalism” as a descriptor of my politics. Well, being called a “useful idiot” for my positions is nothing new! I was called a “useful idiot” for Saddam Hussein when I opposed the Iraq war and the view held by some orthodox Objectivists that the only way to “win” the war on terrorism was to annihilate the “savages” of the Islamic Middle East in a nuclear genocide.

But hey, why stop there? After all, my mentor, Bertell Ollman, was a Marxist (and also a Volker Fellow who studied under F. A. Hayek)—and he gave me more support in the creation of my “Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy” (which consisted of three books: Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism) than most libertarians. I guess I’m a “useful idiot” for Bertell too, and have been “sucking up” to the left to prove my worth throughout my entire life!

Gimme a break!

I have spent the last forty years of my professional life fighting against the view that dialectical method is the exclusive property of the left. Dialectics is a mode of analysis that requires us to look at social problems not as isolated units, but as contextually embedded within a larger system across time. It is a tool of inquiry that must be embraced by those who favor radical libertarian social change if they are to achieve it. One cannot attack structural (that is, political and economic) oppressions without looking at the ways in which personal and cultural social relationships and institutions reflect and perpetuate them.

One doesn’t gain friends and influence people by pissing off the socialist left for using a method typically associated with them, and pissing off the libertarian right because they accept the socialist view that “dialectics” is indeed an exclusively “Marxist” method (except that it should be relegated to the dustbin of history).

Reality check: Even Hegel declared that Aristotle was “the fountainhead” of dialectical inquiry. My reconstruction of libertarian social theory as a dialectical project is, at its core, a call for a neo-Aristotelian methodological revolution to bolster the cause of human freedom. But, obsessively footnoting scholar that I am, I have always given credit where credit is due to all those thinkers and schools of thought—be they on the left or the right—that have led me to this conviction.

One of the most important things I learned from Ayn Rand was the moral imperative to trust the judgment of my own mind. Rand warned against the fallacy of “thinking in a square.” I’ve always challenged myself to “think outside the box” because it is the only way to keep evolving intellectually and personally, to keep learning. I will not be boxed-in by the established categories of others. And I take to heart Rand’s clarion call: “The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.”

How we get to that world does not entail a mere rhetorical debate over the use of terms. It entails an understanding of what those terms have meant historically—and an honest and civil discussion of what kinds of strategies might be best in achieving that world. We live in a toxic political environment in which some of us can’t help but view our ideological opponents as sub-human. I, myself, have expressed plenty of anger over the course of 33 installments to my series on the Coronavirus to be tempted to succumb to incivility. I do my best to avoid it but none of us is perfect.

So make no mistake about it: I am no less a radical, dialectical libertarian today than I was sixteen years ago, or forty years ago, when I began this intellectual, and profoundly personal, journey.

Thinking Outside the Box: You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains

This was something I posted on Facebook, in a discussion in which folks were using words like “socialist” and “capitalist” to define their political points of view:

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that a lot of people I respect and admire identify themselves as “socialists” and some even as “capitalists.” I think we have gotten to the point, however, where these terms are almost indefinable without a mountain of modifying adjectives such that we find ourselves twisted into neo-logistic pretzels.

Having been introduced to libertarian thinking through Ayn Rand, who embraced capitalism “the unknown ideal”—that is, something which has never existed in the way she defined it (it was, essentially a Weberian ideal type)—it took years for me to abandon that term for good (in 2005), because capitalism “the known reality“, like virtually every social system before it, and any “post-capitalist” or “socialist” system after it, has been built on blood and massive state oppression.

Oppression must be opposed across political, cultural, and social dimensions—and to me, this is essential to any project aiming for human freedom and individual flourishing within a communal context. I have found all these terms to be like ideological straitjackets, which led me to embrace “dialectical libertarianism” as that to which I adhere. This of course has its own linguistic baggage, but I think that the politics of change needs to transcend right and left, “capitalism” and “socialism” (scare quotes intended), enabling us to embrace the kernels of truth in Menger, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Rand, and so forth, on the one hand and Marx, Proudhon, Gramsci, Chomsky, Goldman, Luxemburg, Bookchin, and so forth, on the other hand.

Again, though I deeply respect people for whatever labeling they’ve chosen, and the ways in which they’ve defined it, I think we need to begin the process of breaking out of this binary divide. Every time we embrace any term or phrase that has this much baggage, we face the impenetrable problem of communicating with people who simply can’t think outside the intellectual boxes to which they are accustomed, the boxes that make them feel “safe” but that never challenge them to “check their premises” (to use a Randian phrase). There’s got to be a better way of moving this dialogue forward. The “dialectics of liberty”—and our very lives—depend on it.

On Facebook, the discussion advances. I added the following points:

Too many people are talking past each other and the definitions of “capitalism” and “socialism” have never been stable, partially because the “real” history is in stark contrast to the “ideal” definitions being offered, even by these system’s most ardent defenders.

Let’s focus on Ayn Rand herself, for whom definition of terms must accord with reality. She saw capitalism as “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.” Very nice description—but “ideally conceived.” (I might add that Rand also embraced similarly “ideal” conceptions of “selfishness” and “government” that were just as starkly different from the overwhelming conventional understanding of these terms.)

Capitalism did not have a virgin birth through the homesteading of untouched lands and the sanctity of “individual rights”. The whole schema of private property and the consequent recognition of the “individual rights” to such property only happened after the state—working at the behest of large medieval landowners—used such tools as the enclosure acts to nullify peasant land tenure rights and, through the legacy of colonialism, wholly dispossess many indigenous populations.

“Capitalism” in its origins—like every other “social system” before it—was bathed in blood. Hardly in accord with the Weberian ideal-type “definition” that Rand provided.

The well-known record of “socialism” in the twentieth century is also bathed in blood. The description of “socialism”, given by Karl Marx himself, was that of a post-scarcity society in which the abundance of goods is such that each can take according to their needs, without sacrificing anyone else in the process. Again, “ideally” conceived. No “socialist” country has ever been built upon such “post-scarcity” and the results have been murderous.

I would prefer not to speak in terms of these “isms” as goals because their history has severely tainted any possible rational understanding of what a genuinely free society might look like. Given the historical records of both “capitalism” and “socialism” and the role that the state has played in the founding of both “systems,” I’d prefer to sidestep the whole binary discussion. We might wish to talk in terms of such things as “markets” (which, as Pete Boettke once said, grow “like weeds” throughout all historical periods). Or better still: “freed markets“, that is, markets “freed” from the insidious role of political, institutional, and cultural forces that undermine the achievement of human liberty and individual autonomy. And freed and voluntary markets as such can have many different incarnations, from worker cooperatives to exchange relationships.

I have found that the usage of words like “capitalism” and “socialism” just does not advance the discussion, no matter how clearly one defines them—especially when the “ideal” definitions depart so dramatically from the real, historical record.

Liberty Resources

My friend Daniel Blois (aka Daniel Bastiat) has begun a new project worthy of your attention (and not just because he cites some of my work under the topics of “Dialectics” and “LGBT”). It’s called “Liberty Resources” and Daniel tells us:

I started a new project that I thought would be very useful: A single location repository for liberty-themed topics. I am not done – I will be adding many more sources. I haven’t even started on articles yet, just books. I want people’s feedback on this.

Tell me what other topics need to be in there. Have any sources that I missed that should be in specific topics? Do certain topics need a better label descriptor? Are certain sources under wrong topics?

If anyone wants to help me with this endeavor, it would also be appreciated.

Check it out!