Category Archives: Dialectics

Molinari Article Now Available!

My reply to Gus diZerega’s essay, “Turning the Tables: The Pathologies and Unrealized Promise of Libertarianism,” which appeared in the Autumn 2019 issue of Molinari Review, is now available online as a pdf. The article explores various dialectical libertarian themes. Check it out here!

Applied Austrian Economics

Today, I’d like to bring attention to two videos that deal with topics surrounding the Austrian school of economics.

The first is the Henry Hazlitt Memorial Lecture given by my long-time friend and colleague, Ed Younkins: “Ayn Rand and the Austrian Economists” [YouTube link]. Ed is particularly qualified to have delivered this very interesting lecture. He has authored many books and essays exploring the interconnections between Rand and Austrian theorists, including Flourishing and Happiness in a Free Society: Toward a Synthesis of Aristotelianism, Austrian Economics, and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (2011). He was also a contributor to the Spring 2005 Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (JARS) symposium, “Ayn Rand Among the Austrians,” for which he wrote the essay, “Menger, Mises, Rand, and Beyond.” That symposium featured important essays by a dozen authors, including George Reisman, Walter Block, Roderick T. Long, Peter Boettke, and Steven Horwitz. And as a coeditor, with Roger Bissell and me, of The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom (2019), Ed also contributed an essay to that anthology, “Freedom and Flourishing: Toward a Synthesis of Traditions and Disciplines,” in which he argues for an integration of Aristotelian, Randian, and Austrian insights.

Clearly, this is a subject matter that has preoccupied Ed for many years. In this lecture, Ed draws from the neo-Aristotelian realist core in the works of Carl Menger, founding father of the Austrian school. Ed sees fruitful connections between Menger’s approach and that of Ayn Rand. He makes a case for integrating the praxeological insights of Ludwig von Mises with a larger normative (and meta-normative) vision, drawn not only from Rand but from the neo-Aristotelian philosophers, Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl. (It should be noted too that Ed and the Dougs were all on the Advisory Board of JARS for years, so it’s nice to see continuing cross-pollination!) And he addresses the thought of Murray Rothbard, who sought to reconfigure Mises’s Kantian-influenced praxeology on surer Aristotelian footing. As Ed puts it, the neo-Aristotelian and Objectivist worldviews can provide a more robust context for Austrian economic insights. And there is much to be gained from the intellectual exchange of these perspectives.

The only Austrian theorist not discussed in Ed’s presentation is Friedrich Hayek. Hayek departs from Misesian praxeology and is not generally considered a neo-Aristotelian. But there is much affinity between Hayek’s critique of constructivist rationalism and Rand’s rejection of rationalist thinking. On this basis alone, I have long argued that an engagement between Hayekian and Randian perspectives can be fruitful—and I’d strongly encourage integration of key Hayekian insights in any attempted integration of Austrian theory and Objectivism. (I explore Hayek’s views in depth in my book, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, and I engage the Hayekian and Randian perspectives in my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, especially chapter 8.)

Coincident with the release of Ed’s lecture is a YouTube presentation by two dear friends: Ryan Neugebauer (Ryan N) and Ryan McGaughey (Ryan M), or as I like to call them: “Ryan Squared” (I can’t provide a superscript ‘2’ here, but you get the idea!)

This discussion, “Austrian Economics, Political Economy, and the Case for the Mixed Economy” [YouTube link], is as provocative as its title suggests. Their aim is to invite feedback as they move toward a coauthored essay that uses Austrian insights to make the case for a mixed economy.

The Ryans begin with a discussion of my work on dialectical libertarianism, specifically Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism and its critique of Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism (ancap). With dialectics—the art of context keeping—as methodological backdrop, they seek to promote the project of human freedom and personal flourishing with a recognition of the conditions that exist. They oppose reductionists on either side of the dualistic divide—those anarcho-capitalists who envision the market’s absorption of all governmental functions and those socialists or communists who propose the government’s absorption of the market. This false alternative leads the purists in both camps to embrace what Karl Popper once called “canvas cleaning.” The ancap would ‘push a button’ to eliminate the state as surely as the communist would ‘push a button’ to demolish the market, no matter how many bodies are left in the wake of wiping the slate clean. Moreover, even if such a button could be pushed, the proposed resolution ignores the need for a cultural transformation that might nourish and support any such radical social change.

The ‘mixed economy’—that catchall term for various mixtures of markets and states—has existed for eons and there is no foreseeable future in which this phenomenon will wither away. Indeed, it is no coincidence that classical economics was viewed as the study of political economy, for politics and economics have been inextricably intertwined in various ways. Ultimately, the question is: What kind of mixture is optimal for the nurturing of freedom and flourishing?

Before even considering this question, however, the Ryans’ focus here is on the ways in which the Austrian school of economics has helped us to understand the nature of a market economy. As Ryan M puts it, the Austrian school has provided core notions that were essential not just to the marginal revolution spearheaded by Carl Menger, but to the tradition he founded. Among those ideas was Menger’s insistence that value is not inherent in material objects, but in the subject’s valuation of those objects. This is the kind of ‘subjectivism’ that Ed Younkins views as fully compatible with Menger’s Aristotelian realism and Rand’s Objectivism, insofar as material objects are evaluated in an agent-relative manner that is fully engaged with the world, rather than cut off from it. (Rand distinguished her Objectivist alternative from the classical objectivist position, which she dubbed “intrinsicism,” insofar as it placed intrinsic value on the objects in the material world, rather than value-as-evaluated-by-a-conscious-subject.)

Other core notions in the Austrian tradition include an appreciation of the epistemic role of markets and an understanding of the non-neutrality of money. In his works, Hayek explained the function of the price mechanism in transmitting inarticulate (tacit) knowledge across social networks as a means of coordination. And, as Ryan M emphasizes, the Austrian view of the non-neutrality of money is crucially important to Austrian business cycle theory. Austrian theorists cast light on the differential ways that inflationary infusions of money redistribute wealth to those who are its first beneficiaries. In his 1938 work, Theory of Money and Credit, Mises pioneered this view in a way that fully embraced the discipline of political economy. While Austrians long championed the notion that money as an institution evolved through the division and specialization of labor, they also recognized the state’s intimate involvement throughout history with coinage, banking, and structural variations in the supply of money. Hence, to say that money is not neutral is not merely an economic observation; it is a profoundly political one as well. Mises’s approach was a scathing indictment of static equilibrium models in favor of a process orientation. It also pointed to a class dimension in the business cycle, a dimension explored more comprehensively by Mises’s student, Murray Rothbard.

This intermingling of economics and politics shows up in both Austrian economics and libertarian politics. Indeed, as Ryan N observes, it is often difficult to separate Austrian economics from the purest libertarian politics upheld by certain Austrian economists. Some Austrians, most notably Hayek, departed from these purist demands, favoring political means for the provision of social safety nets. The Ryans wish to utilize the economic tools of Austrian theory in ways that might bolster the case for a mixed economy. They are not unsympathetic to anarcho-libertarian ideals. But in the real world, those ideals have never been actualized. They might be implicit in some real-world social relations, but the rules of the game have been corrupted throughout human history. What is called “capitalism” today is not the “unknown ideal” of its advocates. In “capitalism: the known reality,” as I’ve called it, the structures of property ownership were historically constituted by the enclosure of the commons, conquest, and colonialism such that any notion of Lockean ‘just acquisition’ is rendered almost incomprehensible. To this extent, the dichotomous view of market and state is ahistorical, for the economic and the political have always been organically linked.

The Ryans maintain that those of us who are concerned with justice can’t rewind history and undo the damage of centuries of wealth and land redistribution. But we can attempt to make up for it. And that is the springboard for what the Ryans propose. Given the context that exists, how might Austrian insights be used to improve our society?

Moving forward—in building the case for a mixed economy, indeed, for a better mixed economy—I’d encourage my friends to address issues raised in the Austrian literature by two of its contemporary representatives: Don Lavoie and Sanford Ikeda. In National Economic Planning: What is Left? (1985), Lavoie is concerned with those state-centered mixed economies that tend toward the militarization of economic life, bolstering not only the welfare state, but the warfare state as well. This organic conjunction of welfare and warfare is something that has been a part of U.S. history, but it has had a global impact. And it has deep class dimensions.

Critiques of the mixed economy have been offered by Marxist, public choice, and Austrian thinkers. Marxist theorist Paul Mattick published a 1964 essay, “Dynamics of the Mixed Economy,” that explored these issues. Ikeda’s work, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism (1996), draws from both public choice and Austrian insights to address the “spontaneous order” that is distinctive to political processes in real existing mixed economies.

Any case for the mixed economy should grapple more fully with this literature.

I very much enjoyed both Ed Younkins’s lecture and the Ryan Neugebauer-Ryan McGaughey presentation and I highly recommend both YouTube videos to Notablog readers. Links below.

Practical Politics for Left-Libertarians

As of this date, despite the presence of various third-party candidates in the 2024 election cycle, it is virtually inevitable that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden is going to serve another term in the White House. But there are other political visions that are awaiting an audience.

As an advocate of dialectics—the art of context-keeping—I have long stressed that even the loftiest of political goals must begin with the conditions that exist. Or, as I like to paraphrase good ol’ Don Rumsfeld: We plan our way toward a better future based on the conditions that we have, not on the conditions we wished we had. There is no magic button that we can push to suddenly transform our society into one that nourishes human freedom and personal flourishing. This can be daunting for those of us who advocate radical social change—that is, change that emerges from a deeper understanding of the systemic and historical roots of a society’s problems as the means to resolving them.  

There are many different strains of libertarian thinking that have lent themselves to this radical project. Today, my very dear friend Ryan Neugebauer has published on Medium what he calls “A Dialectical Left-Libertarian Political Platform.” While there are many different dialectical left-libertarian approaches to contemporary problems, here, Ryan attempts to bring together a wide variety of practical, real-world strategies that would “unshackle society.”

I’m sure that readers coming from diametrically opposed political perspectives will be both attracted to—and abhorred by—various proposals that Ryan puts forth in this paper. There is no doubt, however, that Ryan’s political program is panoramic in its approach. He provides a check list of ways to free-up markets, by shrinking the intellectual property regime, tackling restrictive zoning laws, and addressing land value taxation. He discusses public options in healthcare, universal basic income or negative income taxes, education, gun control, drug prohibitionism, police accountability, restorative justice, immigration, energy policy, foreign policy, diplomacy, and global trade. Along the way, he also discusses “bottom-up” libertarian municipalism and cooperatives, while embracing a laissez-faire policy on contentious social issues.

However you receive any proposal put forth by Ryan, he is clearly committed to focusing on the “overall socioeconomic and political systems that we currently have” as the foundation for all that might be—while using eclectic strategies at our disposal in an effort “to increase freedom, equality, justice, and flourishing” within that context. On that basis alone, he’s passed the dialectical test resoundingly. Check out his essay here.

The Project of Personal Flourishing

My very dear friend Ryan Neugebauer has published a wonderful Medium piece on the topic of personal flourishing. “Personal Flourishing for Everyone: A Commentary on Human Flourishing Accompanied by 25 People Exploring Personal Flourishing for Themselves” begins with a brief discussion of how the issue of human flourishing has been highlighted in both philosophy and psychology—from Aristotle’s focus on eudaimonia to the PERMA model developed within the tradition of Positive Psychology. Ryan recognizes the dialectical interconnections between freedom and flourishing, seeing an organic link between them: “You aren’t flourishing if you don’t have freedom, and you aren’t truly free if you aren’t flourishing.” But the central question here is: “What does ‘flourishing’ even entail?”

Ryan recognizes that there is no single way to flourish. In expanding on his vision for his own personal flourishing, he “explore[s] the many beautiful and unique ways that people flourish,” through the testimonies of 25 individuals. Though there is much differentiation in their outlooks, Ryan keenly observes “that since we all have a very similar biology and nature, you will see a lot of overlap throughout.”

I’m among the individuals interviewed for Ryan’s project. As I state in that interview, “personal flourishing is all about relationships—my relationship to myself and my relationship to others.” Folks can check out more of what I meant by that—and what two dozen other people say about their own unique visions in this insightful essay.

One of the nicest things to say about this compendium is that I have learned much about many people I have come to know and care for, while wanting to get to know many more people with whom I’ve never had the pleasure of interacting. Thanks so much, Ryan, for putting this project together!

Check out Ryan’s Medium article here.

New C4SS Article on Dialectics

Today, Center for a Stateless Society published my newest essay: “It Really Does Depend on the Context: Ben Burgis and the Analytical Marxist Critique of Dialectics.” As I write:

The title of this essay recalls the Congressional hearing that took place on December 5, 2023, in which Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University, seemed to dodge difficult questions by uttering the phrase “it depends on the context.” The phrase immediately became meme-able, even the butt of an opening “Saturday Night Live” skit. New York Times journalist A. O. Scott (2024) wrote that more than any other word, be it “plagiarism” or “genocide,” “Gay’s fate was sealed by a single word. … The word was ‘context’.” Scott’s larger point, of course, was that throughout the heated controversy, there was, in fact, a “rigorous avoidance of context” — the context of election-year politics, unending global conflicts, the crises in higher education, and so forth.

My purpose in this essay is not to relitigate that Congressional hearing. Rather, it is to focus on the method for which keeping context is primary. That method — dialectics — addresses societal problems by exploring their many overlapping and shifting contexts in a dynamic world.

Check out the “full context” here!

For discussion, see here, here, and here.

Jonathan Rauch on the History of LGBTQ Erasure

Over the years, Jonathan Rauch’s prolific work has delved into many provocative political and cultural topics. The openly gay author, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has been a strong proponent of same-sex marriage and a gallant critic of attacks on free thought.  His newest contribution to The Atlantic, “The U.S. Should Apologize to Gay People” (26 January 2024), is a riveting piece of journalistic research, exploring the ways in which the U.S. government led a campaign to erase LGBTQ people from public life.  

Rauch’s investigation exemplifies a genuinely dialectical approach to the study of history. By that I mean, Rauch is concerned with exploring the full context that shaped and was shaped by political, cultural, economic, psychiatric, and social institutions, all working in tandem toward the oppression of LGBTQ people in the United States. He traces the ways in which these institutions became reciprocally reinforcing preconditions and effects of one another, leaving a tragic wreckage of individual lives in their wake.

The author reminds us of a time when “the U.S. government fired homosexuals, the military discharged them, and police arrested them.” But this well-known history sheds little light on the systemic policies that “were not discrimination of any ordinary sort.” Rauch admits that even he had “not fully appreciated” the full historical scope involved. He’s very clear that “[b]ecause society targeted what it identified as ‘homosexuality,’” he uses that term throughout his essay, even though it applies broadly to “[p]eople who today would identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or gender-nonconforming,” all of whom were targeted. He writes:

Beginning in the 1940s and continuing for more than six decades, the United States waged a campaign of legal, social, and psychological obliteration against its homosexual population. … The campaign was initiated by the federal government but recruited all of society. The pressure could be felt everywhere. It found you not only at work, where you could be fired, or in bars and clubs, where you could be arrested, but also on the street and in public spaces, where you could be harassed or assaulted; in a doctor’s care, where you might be deemed mentally ill; at home, where you saw gay people ridiculed and pathologized on TV. …

The goal … was not merely to disadvantage homosexual people; it was to erase homosexuality from every corner of public life. … Some of what America did to its LGBTQ citizens would have been right at home in places such as prewar Germany, Communist East Germany, and any number of repressive states today. … The campaign stands, at its peak, as America’s purest national experiment with totalitarianism. Although not the cruelest or deadliest of America’s historical oppressions—no populations were decimated or relocated; no people were enslaved—it stands apart in its use of every governmental and social channel to eliminate the very thought of “deviance.”

Whereas totalitarianism is typically thought of as “centrally planned and imposed,” in the United States, “a decentralized system of mutually reinforcing repressions” had much the same totalizing effect. Rauch recognizes how various structures, institutions, and practices across American society fortified one another. “Official acts of persecution, executed loudly over many years, could not fail to echo in the culture at large; and indeed, they created a permission structure for blatant prejudice. Mass media amplified the message that homosexuality was disgusting and terrifying.” This “entire system of erasure was backed by violence,” as LGBTQ people were all too often singled out for street bullying, threats, and assaults. Moreover, the psychiatric profession provided “both legitimacy and impetus for the eradication of homosexuality,” becoming “the most soul-crushing cog in the repressive machine.” The psychiatric use of electroshock therapy, lobotomization, and other gruesome techniques to tame sexuality were matched by coerced resignations and blackmail in the private sector and interrogations, arrests, and prosecutions in the public sector.

Rauch continues:

The arrests, the raids, the firings, the networks of informants, the coercive investigations, the surveillance, the obliteration of privacy, the abuse of medicine, the drumbeat of street violence, the disruptions of social gatherings and family life—each element of the regime supported and amplified the others. Only by standing back and seeing the regime whole does one appreciate how all of society was bent toward repressing every aspect of homosexual life, wherever it might appear. The goal was to suppress not just deviant activity but deviant expression and even deviant thought. That was what made it literally totalitarian.

Rauch’s investigation in this remarkable essay is staggering in its scale. He examines how interlocking structures of oppression amounted to a virtual “declaration of war” on homosexuality. Some of the battlegrounds in this war could be found in the actions of various commissions, Congressional and Senate hearings, agencies as diverse as the Foreign Service, Civil Service, and FBI, and the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and State. It extended even into the Oval Office, when, “in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower issued his infamous Executive Order 10450, one of America’s most grotesque civil-rights violations, declaring ‘sexual perversion’ to be a security threat. The effect was to authorize all federal departments and agencies to root out and terminate sexual deviants. … [H]omosexuals were fired automatically, without excuse or exception.”

This federal effort was met by state and local “enforcement of anti-homosexual measures,” which involved systematic “surveilling, entrapping, arresting, harassing, exposing, and prosecuting homosexuals at previously unknown rates.” Targeted by laws prohibiting “solicitation, indecency, lewdness, loitering, and obscenity effectively criminalized the mere act of flirting, socializing, or hanging out.”

In 1973, even after the American Psychiatric Association had “removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, … the damage lingered for decades.” In that very same year, Rauch explains,

Farrall Instrument Co. of Grand Island, Nebraska, proudly advertised a line of devices for home-psychiatric treatment of male homosexuality. The ‘Visually Keyed Shocker’ showed alternating slides depicting conventionally attractive women and men (‘stimulus scenes’). The latter were accompanied by an electric shock. If you were a latent homosexual and desperate for a ‘cure,’ you could buy one for $600 or more.

In a moment of poignant self-reflection, Rauch, who was 13 in that year, tells us:

This was the world I grew up in … Everything I saw and heard conveyed that something was wrong with me, and that I must keep it secret, especially from the people I loved and depended on. So warped was my inner world that, until I was 25, I could not bear to face the blatant truth about myself and managed to believe that I was asexual, some kind of freak who could never love anyone (a story I told in my 2013 book, Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul). In that respect, though I never owned a “Visually Keyed Shocker,” I administered a full course of self-erasure in the privacy of my mind.

Many years later, on January 9, 2017, Secretary of State John Kerry posted an official apology on the State Department’s website, “for the department’s relentless, decades-long persecution of homosexuals. By January 23, the page was gone, removed in one of the first acts of the incoming Trump administration. The government was sorry for two weeks.”

That such acts of erasure continue prompts Rauch to call on the United States to join the governments of the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and others, which have apologized for “past abuses of homosexuals.” He further demands “restitution to living victims of government arrest, firing, or military discharge.” This is most assuredly not “pandering to modern grievance culture.” In Rauch’s view, it is the righting of a systemic injustice in accordance with American ideals.

The author warns us that as today’s “conservative activists crisscross the country seeking to wipe homosexuality and transgenderism from school libraries, from history classes, and from other curricula,” there is an eerie similarity to the campaigns of yore. His words are timelier than ever as illiberal assaults on LGBTQ people are heightened throughout this nation’s increasingly toxic culture wars.

My discussion here, which quotes liberally from Rauch’s important essay, offers only a fraction of its unsettling contents. I urge folks to read every single word of this raw historical reckoning.

You can access the article on the site of The Atlantic. It is also archived here.

Some Facebook discussion of this entry can be found here.

Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics

I want to take this opportunity to highlight a new book by Roger Bissell and Vinay Kolhatkar: Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics: Toward a New Art and Science of Self-Actualization (Ethics Press, 2023). As I state in a promotional blurb: “This book is an accessible and well-written contribution to the neo-Aristotelian tradition, upholding the twin values of human freedom and personal flourishing. The authors present a provocative distillation of ideas drawn from a mighty array of interdisciplinary studies. Even those who disagree with any aspect of this work will find themselves challenged by the high quality of its arguments. A must read especially for fans of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand.”

Praise has come from others as well:

Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics takes applied eudaimonism along roads less travelled, by way of Ayn Rand, David Norton, Chris Sciabarra, and Den Uyl and Rasmussen. With extended visits to Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology, Nathaniel Branden’s clinical philosophy, some varieties of evolutionary psychology, and Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory. Bissell and Kolhatkar develop an accessible account of a humane, meaningful life that is significantly different both from Positive Psychology and from previous Randian treatments. Their model of four orders of humaneness is worthy of further examination.” – Robert L. Campbell

“Roger Bissell and Vinay Kolhatkar have a great appreciation for Aristotle, which comes across clearly even as they also seek to modernize those elements of Aristotle’s work where later developments in physical or social science call for it. The book is well-researched but easily accessible to the general reader. The result gives them a plausible way to construct a theory of how to live a meaningful and humane life.” – Aeon J. Skoble

“In this ambitious and well-argued book, Bissell and Kolhatkar provide a clear and coherent framework within which they have adapted and expanded upon ideas from Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Ayn Rand, and several contemporary neo-Aristotelian thinkers. The authors have accomplished this while also marvelously and systematically integrating insights from philosophy, biology, psychology, and other social sciences and humanities.”- Edward W Younkins

“Any person seeking advice about how to live his or her life has a huge number of books to choose from, but Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics is one of a small number that can credibly claim to build upon Aristotle’s wisdom. Roger Bissell and Vinay Kolhatkar offer a distinctly Neo-Aristotelian view of what it means to live well in the 21st century.” – Winton Bates

My congratulations to both Vinay and Roger!

Don Lavoie and the Knowledge Problem

I first met Don Lavoie when I was an undergraduate at NYU. We became very dear friends and followed similarly focused professional paths.

Sadly, in 2001, Don passed away at the young age of 50. But his important work on the “knowledge problem” is among his most significant legacies. Indeed, his insights are deeply appreciated by those of us who adhere to a dialectical vision of human freedom and personal flourishing. That was one of the reasons I welcomed Nathan Goodman​’s wonderful contribution, “Don Lavoie’s Dialectical Liberalism“, to The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, published in 2019, and for which I was a coeditor.

Among those very promising young writers who are carrying forth Don’s remarkable legacy is my friend Cory Massimino​. As Cory writes in his recent essay, “Don Lavoie on the Continuing Relevance of the Knowledge Problem“:

Lavoie considered himself a “radical” in the sense that he thought “our society is in serious trouble and demands a sharp departure from current policies” and affirmed the need to “transcend—through principled and concerted social action—war and militarism, political oppression, and special privilege, and to set in motion progressive forces that will begin to solve such difficult human problems as poverty, disease, and environmental decay.” … For Lavoie, the knowledge problem informed not just a radical critique but a radical vision, a lively, humanistic, cosmopolitan, and emancipatory vision of cultural, scientific, and economic progress through peaceful social cooperation, dynamic experimentation, and mutual exchange. As the knowledge problem continues to be misunderstood, underrated, or downright ignored, and as human freedom continues to be trampled on, it’s vital we keep the legacy and, more importantly, the ideas of Don Lavoie alive and well.

Amen. Check out Cory’s article!

“Conversion Therapy” & The Tragedy of Alana Chen

This article can also be found on Medium.

I have long known about the tragic suicide of Alana Chen, a 24-year old woman who was found dead near the Gross Reservoir in Boulder County, Colorado in December 2019. Chen’s death has been the subject of much controversy. She was a devout Catholic, who dreamed of being a nun someday. But at the age of 14, she confessed to a trusted priest that she thought she was attracted to women. And for all intents and purposes, that confession was the beginning of the end.

Alana was a victim of 7 years of “conversion” or “reparative therapy” — an attempt to dislodge the “impure” thoughts of same-sex attraction. The “pious” counselors who engage in this kind of “therapy” employ an arsenal of tools that equip them to wage psychological and spiritual warfare on their victims. What they leave behind, what needs repairing when they are finished, are the fractured souls of those who earnestly sought their sincere spiritual guidance and were taught instead to disown their humanity and to hate the love that was trapped inside them.

new 8-part podcast series, “Dear, Alana,” on TenderfootTV, produced and narrated by Simon Kent Fung, offers us a grueling, shattering portrait of Alana’s life and death. As noted in the official trailer to the series, Fung had access to Alana’s texts and two dozen journals that chronicle her “deep faith, love of fashion, and dream of becoming a nun.” But Alana “harbored a secret,” and when she shared that secret with her priest, she “was instructed not to tell her parents.” For seven years thereafter, she “covertly received conversion therapy which her family believes played a role in her fate.” Fung’s journey into Alana’s past enables him to share the striking similarities of his own story, as he grapples with “the truth of what happened to Alana,” in “an unraveling mystery and … poignant spiritual memoir about teenage rebellion and spiritual manipulation.” It is a series that details “the price we pay to belong and the systems that pay no price at all.”

I don’t want to say too much about this series. It must be heard in full. It will upset you. It will make you angry. And it will provide a hint at how flagrant abuses of clerical and clinical power are a significant aspect of the ways in which power relations operate in our society.

For many years, I’ve argued that power relations are manifested on at least three distinct levels of generality — the personal, the cultural, and the structural. On the personal level, when an individual’s method of awareness is corrupted by therapeutic practices that cut them off from their own emotions and even their bodily integrity, power is being exerted. On the cultural level, when a religious institution creates an atmosphere of intolerance, subjecting its parishioners to moralizing dictates about every thought and action they deem “impure”, preying (not just “praying”) on guilt, shame, and fear, power is being exerted. And when this translates into economic and political practices that attack the individuals and groups being marginalized, power is being exerted. The reciprocal ways in which each of these levels reinforces the others are crucial to a whole system of oppression. Those who fight for human freedom and personal flourishing cannot underestimate the interlocking components of that system.

Ayn Rand opened her 1970 essay critiquing modern education, “The Comprachicos,” with her own translation of a passage from The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo. For reasons that will become apparent, it’s worth reproducing, in part, here:

The comprachicos, or comprapequeños, were a strange and hideous nomadic association, famous in the seventeenth century, forgotten in the eighteenth, unknown today. … Comprachicos, as well as comprapequeños, is a compound Spanish word that means “child-buyers.” The comprachicos traded in children. They bought them and sold them. They did not steal them. The kidnapping of children is a different industry.

And what did they make of these children?

Monsters.

Why monsters?

To laugh.

The people need laughter; so do the kings. Cities require side-show freaks or clowns; palaces require jesters. … To succeed in producing a freak, one must get hold of him early. … Hence, an art. … They took a man and turned him into a miscarriage; they took a face and made a muzzle. They stunted growth; they mangled features. … Where God had put a straight glance, this art put a squint. Where God had put harmony, they put deformity. Where God had put perfection, they brought back a botched attempt. And in the eyes of connoisseurs, it is the botched that was perfect. … The practice of degrading man leads one to the practice of deforming him. Deformity completes the task of political suppression.

The comprachicos had a talent, to disfigure, that made them valuable in politics. To disfigure is better than to kill. … The comprachicos did not merely remove a child’s face, they removed his memory. At least, they removed as much of it as they could. The child was not aware of the mutilation he had suffered. This horrible surgery left traces on his face, not his mind. He could remember at most that one day he had been seized by some men, then had fallen asleep, and later they had cured him. Cured him of what? He did not know. Of the burning by sulphur and the incisions by iron, he remembered nothing. During the operation, the comprachicos made the little patient unconscious by means of a stupefying powder that passed for magic and suppressed pain.

Rand went on to use this metaphor in her indictment of the pedagogical methods at work in contemporary education. She remarked that educators had reversed the process, leaving traces of the damage they had done not on the face of a child, but on his mind. “To make you unconscious for life by means of your own brain,” Rand wrote, “nothing can be more ingenious.” These are “the comprachicos of the mind.”

I could not help but see the parallel between what Rand wrote in 1970 and the nightmarish realities of the practices of “conversion” therapy. That this is often done in the name of religion is even more ironic, given Hugo’s passage. For if one believes that God provided harmony and perfection, one can see the deformity, the degradation, the “botched attempt” that leaves in its wake broken souls. And the more these souls become aware of their “suppressed pain”, of the reality that they are “botched”, the more trapped they feel, such that the only way out is at the end of a noose at the bottom of an empty reservoir.

Both Hugo and Rand were right that this deformity completes the task of political suppression. In actuality, what it achieves is the suppression of the human heart, the repression of the human mind, the oppression of human life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The political attack on the LGBTQ+ community that we are witnessing today requires a multipronged assault on a person’s psychology, methods of awareness, and moral sense. It requires fostering an illiberal culture of intolerance that undermines a person’s ability to flourish by inculcating guilt, fear, and hatred. It is ironic that the reactionary culture warriors often attack “drag”, but they wear drag of a different sort. They wrap themselves in the vestments of religion and turn the holy into the unholy. Where they see life, they create death.

The Culture Wars are not insignificant. The forces of reaction know this. They are providing the cultural and moral weapons that make the current political assault on LGBTQ+ lives and liberties possible. Their cultural values must be exposed for what they are. And they must be fought.

Alana Chen’s spiritual maiming made possible her death. For Alana, spiritual disfugurement was the necessary prelude to suicide. Those who destroyed her soul have blood on their hands. Her death will not be in vain.

My sincere thanks to Simon Kent Fung for bringing this podcast series to fruition. I implore readers to listen to the entire series. It can be found on multiple platforms here.

If you or someone you care about may be at risk of suicide, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988, or go to 988lifeline.org.

Kevin Carson’s “I, Pencil Revisited”

Kevin Carson‘s “I Pencil, Revisited”

My dear friend Kevin Carson has provided us with a highly provocative critique of Leonard Read’s classic essay, “I, Pencil”. I commented on it on another thread, but thought it useful to post on my timeline.

I was always impressed with Read’s illustration of the ways in which countless market actors make use of dispersed knowledge in globally interconnected ways — all in the production of the simple Pencil.

Kevin states very clearly in his paper that he agrees, “as far as it goes”, with the “superiority of coordination by a price system over central planning”. He states further that Leonard “Read is entirely correct — so far as he goes — both in touting the importance of distributed knowledge under any economic system, and in celebrating the usefulness of allowing the formation of market-clearing prices as a tool for coordination.”

But, and it’s a BIG Butt … Kevin is focused here on the larger historical and systemic context within which current market processes operate. And on that count, I think he’s offered highly valuable insights into the centuries of “coercion at a systemic level” that created “the background against which the entire process took place.”

I don’t want to say too much about the essay, because it offers lots of rich history behind both the Read essay and the actual systems at work in the production of the Pencil.

I will say, however, that Kevin had me at “The Stations of the Pencil” (that’s one classic subtitle). His comment, early on, about the massive state involvement in railroad transportation (“Of course we all know what an exemplary product of the Invisible Hand the national railroad system was”) is indicative of just how, throughout virtually every step of the Pencil’s production, the influence of political economy is key to the entire process.

Terrific piece, Kevin. Highly dialectical! Bravo!

Check it out at the Center for a Stateless Society here.

Postscript: There’s a nice Facebook discussion on these topics. Check it out here. In that discussion, I wrote further:

I purposely opened my commentary on Kevin’s piece with my observation that “I was always impressed with Read’s illustration of the ways in which countless market actors make use of dispersed knowledge in globally interconnected ways — all in the production of the simple Pencil.” Nothing in Kevin’s essay has diminished my appreciation, not only of Read’s elegant way of expressing the coordinating capacity of markets, but also of Hayek’s profoundly important discussions of “The Use of Knowledge in Society”. Like Steve Horwitz, I am on record (in three books and too many articles to count) as being a champion of that Hayekian epistemic insight and of the benefits of the division of labor and knowledge.

That said, a few points in response—and here, I don’t presume to speak for Kevin, only for myself:

1. I don’t think it’s off topic to situate Read’s essay in the socio-economic-cultural context in which it was published. Sometimes even the best arguments for markets can—and have been—used by others as an apologia for the system as it exists.

2. I think there is much to be gained by making transparent the nature of “capitalism: the known reality”, that is, the real conditions under which capitalism evolved, all of which were deeply embedded in processes that were as much political as they were economic. I don’t think that bringing attention to that reality diminishes the lessons learned from Read’s essay; but I do think it’s certainly worth noting that so many of the resources and processes that Read highlights have been historically tainted by political/state intervention.

3. For me, the “right” and “left” libertarian distinctions are ultimately about values, and each is an umbrella term for much variety therein. On these value distinctions, I would certainly place Steve, Kevin, and myself within the “left” end of the libertarian continuum.

In another comment, I made the following points:

Since Steve Horwitz has been mentioned in this thread, I thought it would be best to have Steve speak for himself (on the question of ‘left’ and ‘right’, not to mention ‘capitalism’ vs. ‘socialism’).

Back in 2005, when Steve and I were both writing for the Liberty & Power Group Blog, I wrote a piece called “Capitalism: The Known Reality“, with which Steve wholeheartedly agreed. Steve wrote in response (“Thoughts on Sciabarra“):

1. I tend to call myself a “radical libertarian” as well. I prefer that to “anarchist” or “market anarchist” or even “anarcho-capitalist” for two reasons. One has to do with the rhetorical problems the anarchist label raises, but the other is that whether or not I’m an anarchist depends upon my mood that day. More seriously, I don’t think the case for anarchism is completely convincing. My disposition is to accept it but I’m not completely convinced enough to use that label (rhetorical problems aside). Understand, of course, that I think the set of issues where government might be justified is pretty small, hence my comfort with “radical libertarian.” The fact that I see myself as a person of the left who happens to believe that markets and other voluntary institutions are the best means to the left’s ends also makes me comfortable with the “radical” label. (Having been called a “PC libertarian” and a “neo-conservative,” not to mention a fraud and a liar, in the last 48 hours, labels are kind of fun these days.)

2. In my “Comparative Economic Institutions” course, I spend part of a very early class day explaining why I will NOT use the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” in that class (a promise I keep to a large degree). My reasoning is Hayek’s – the terms were both invented by those sympathetic to socialism. Moreover, the very terms bias the debate. To add some more meat to Chris’s argument, look at the words themselves. “Capitalism” suggests a “belief in capital” and it puts capital as the central organizing principle around which the system is built, or at least around which “the goods are delivered.” By contrast, “socialism” suggest a “belief in society as a whole” and puts society as the central organizing principle or recipient of the benefits in that system. I would suggest that both implications are incorrect (i.e., capitalism [truly free markets] doesn’t primarily benefit capitalists, and socialism benefits the few at the expense of the many).

More important, though, is that neither term speaks to the institutional arrangements that each system requires. Thus, I prefer the language of “markets” and “planning” to “capitalism” and “socialism.” Although these are not without their problems, they have the advantage of allowing us to talk about how social coordination will take place in each system and what varieties of arrangements those fundamental coordination processes might produce. For example, we can talk about markets in which there is worker ownership or not. And with planning, we can talk about the differences between, and challenges facing, democratic planning institutions versus more centralized, autocratic ones. This dichotomy forces us to ask questions about how social coordination takes place and what sorts of institutions forward it. It should lead us to ask “how do/would markets work?” and “how does/would planning work?”

It also gives us room to talk about real world systems as being neither purely markets nor purely planning, and to explore whether the coordination processes can be combined, or whether one will tend to crowd out the other (or at least cause unintended undesirable consequences) when they are significantly mixed. It provides an institutional analytic framework for doing applied work, including exploring economic history.

In any case, Chris’s post is right on, both as a question of how to talk to the Left and as a really serious question of how libertarians understand our own worldview.