Category Archives: Foreign Policy

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.

An Ongoing Tragedy

Violence and warfare have been a part of the human condition for millennia. But in a world consumed by hateful tribalism and balkanization, we are robbed of the very foundation upon which any peace, freedom, and human flourishing must be built. My heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones and whose lives remain in jeopardy due to the ongoing tragedies in the Middle East.

Welcome to the Culture Wars: Pride Month Edition!

This article also appears on Medium and on C4SS.

The Woke Nightmare That Doesn’t End!

It’s in commercials! It’s on storefronts! It’s on social media, on television shows and streaming platforms! We may not be able to define what “woke” is, but, dammit! Like any obscenity, we know it when we see it! They’re ramming it down our throats and shoving it up our asses! Okay, okay, not the best metaphor to use during a “Pride” month celebrating sodomy. But you know what I mean!!!

Just a couple of months ago, Bud Light suffered a backlash because it hired a transgender spokesperson who shared a sponsored post on their Instagram account on the weekend of the NCAA Basketball Men’s and Women’s National Championship. Kid Rock stood up for family values when he used a semi-automatic rifle to shoot up cases of Bud Light for all to see!

Then, Target got caught in the crossfire of another controversy when it removed some “Pride” merchandise from some of its stores to avoid backlash. (And what is it with this “Pride” stuff anyway!? You don’t see Straight Pride Parades! Gimme a break!)

Founded on solid Southern Baptist Christian values by a man whose WinShape Foundation gave millions to bolster conversion therapy, Chick-fil-A’s COO (son of the founder) has always been steadfast in his opposition to same-sex marriage. But even they have now been infected by the Woke Virus! They hired a VP of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”!

As if that were not the ultimate indignity, the Texas Family Project, which has joined with Defend Our Kids to protect “our children’s innocence by uncovering and highlighting the left’s public displays of sexual degeneracy”, has announced: “We take no pleasure in reporting that Cracker Barrel has fallen.” Imagine that. We now have to be subjected to the outright pornographic display of a rainbow-colored rocking chair in a Cracker Barrel Instagram post! The Southern-born Old Country Store chain had the utter audacity to desecrate its Instagram feed with this:

You know it’s the end of the line when this company — a company that once fired employees because of their sexual orientation, that was forced to pay an $8.7 million settlement because it “discriminated” against black employees and mistreated black customers, a company that put the “Cracker” in Cracker Barrel (H/T EY) — goes woke! What is this world coming to?

And mind you, this whole woke nightmare is nothing new. Companies of every brand have been “taking lefty positions on political issues” for years now. Social media platforms and search engines like Google are hammering us with “left-wing algorithms”. In 2019, Nike recalled its Betsy Ross Flag Sneakers after Colin Kaepernick, who had the insolence to take a knee during the national anthem, criticized the design. Even AirBNB, Lyft, and Uber had the gall to protest former President Donald Trump’s America First immigration ban!

Is it any wonder that our courageous state legislators have risen to combat this tide of immorality?! Over 650 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced across 46 states to protect our families, our children, our very social fabric.

Does all this sound a little unhinged? A little hysterical maybe? OVER THE TOP?

Welcome to the Culture Wars: Pride Month Edition!

WTF is Happening?

It was in 2018 that Ross Douthcat introduced the phrase “Woke Capital” in the New York Times. But it was already part of the zeitgeist. Derek Thompson in The Atlantic noted the “politicization of the public sphere” that was leading “nonpartisan companies to take one partisan stand after another.” Thompson wrote:

In many cases, America’s corporate community has become a quiet defender of socially liberal causes. Nearly 400 companies filed an amicus brief in 2015 urging the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage, including Amazon, Aetna, Apple, American Airlines, American Express, and AT&T (and those are just the ones starting with the first letter of the alphabet). Hundreds of executives, many from tech companies, signed a 2017 letter urging the president to protect immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by saving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. When North Carolina passed a law against transgender-friendly bathrooms, the NCAA announced in 2016 that it would pull its college-basketball tournament from the state (and other companies withdrew their business, too).

Make no mistake about it, however. Though some corporate types are no longer quiet in what may in fact be a genuine endorsement of progressive social justice causes, many put their fingers in the air just to see which way the wind blows. As my friend Ryan Neugebauer observes:

Liberal Corporate Capitalism in its welfare-statist form seeks a stable society for profit generation. It doesn’t care what kind of families you have, who you have sex with, or what gender you identify with. All it cares about is profit generation. So, in the 1990s, a corporation could throw gays by the wayside when it was much more acceptable to be anti-gay and then do a 180-degree spin in today’s climate, with very pro-gay policies because the national opinion has changed. Profit determines values and actions.

Despite its general endorsement of conservative economic policies of lower taxes and fewer regulations, companies cannot bolster their bottom line by alienating more and more consumers through exclusion. Nor can they broaden the pool of cheap labor by opposing immigration. Still, even in today’s climate, by seeming to endorse a gospel of inclusion, many businesses are now alienating traditionalists. Just for noticing or marketing to marginalized groups, companies are being eviscerated by traditionalists as exemplars of “woke capitalism” and “woke corporatism”. This is not unusual. As I stated in a recent essay, “as privileged groups of people sense that they are beginning to lose a grip on their ‘traditions’, they fight like hell — [even] passing laws and regulations — to keep them in place. But the very dynamics of the market society they claim to value are such that traditions are among the practices that are often brought into question. That’s one of the reasons that Friedrich Hayek himself proclaimed he wasn’t a conservative.”

A Digression: The Problematics of “Woke” and “Capitalism”

It should be noted that, throughout all these discussions, I am bothered by the problematic usage of such terms as “woke” and “capitalism”.

As I’ve argued before, the very word “woke” verges on becoming what Ayn Rand once called an “anti-concept” insofar as it entails some kind of “’package-deal’ of disparate, incongruous, contradictory elements taken out of any logical conceptual order or context”. Indeed, at this stage, it has become a mere pejorative, which in the hands of its ‘opponents’ is used as a bludgeon against any legitimate social justice cause. So, the moment I hear that word coming out of the mouths of its ‘critics’, I know exactly what they’re talking about. It’s an all-inclusive four-letter word to denigrate anyone who is interested in addressing the historic marginalization of people because of their race, religion, belief, sex, sexuality, or gender.

But problematic terminology is not restricted to the word “woke”.

For nearly twenty years now, I’ve avoided using the word “capitalism” to describe the socio-economic system that I value. That word was coined by left-wing critics who understood the system’s history in stark contrast to the “unknown ideal” projected by its ideological defenders. As I reiterated in a recent essay, “just as the state was not born of a bloodless ‘immaculate conception’, so too, capitalism, ‘the known reality’, like every other social system, arose from a bloody history. It emerged through the state’s violent appropriation of the commons, enclosure, and mercantilist and colonialist expropriation.”

Libertarian defenders of capitalism have typically used various modifiers to distinguish their model from the historical realities: whether they call it “free-market capitalism” or “laissez-faire capitalism” or even “anarcho-capitalism” in contradistinction to state capitalism or crony capitalism, they project an ideal that has never existed. That’s problematic not only for its defenders but also for its critics. Its defenders can’t easily bracket out state intervention when the state has been so integral to the historic formation of the system. And its critics can’t easily bracket out state intervention when many of the ills of the system are generated by it.

Laissez-faire capitalism has never been, is not, and never will be. Granted, by any measure, state interventionism has increased exponentially in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But not even the “Gilded Age” of nineteenth-century capitalism was absent such intervention. In virtually every industry — from transportation, energy, and manufacturing to the crucially important banking sector, it is big business that has led the march toward full-throttle corporate state capitalism, thru government subsidies, grants of monopoly, regulatory formation or capture, and a foreign policy of intervention abroad.

The economic instrumentalities of the system have always been organically intertwined with the politics of the state. It’s no wonder that theorists who focus on this area of study call it “Political Economy”. It has always been political. And it always will be.

The Importance of Markets

While capitalism has never provided us with free markets, or even freed markets, the importance of markets cannot be underemphasized. Markets long pre-date capitalism. But even within capitalism, at their best, they are conduits of human sociality. And for those who respect the value of “markets, not capitalism”, they can be useful, even virtuous, tools for the dissemination of social knowledge and the peaceful proliferation of exchange along a wide continuum of human interactions — whether through interpersonal, cooperative, or communal arrangements.

But if history has shown us anything, it’s that markets are not neutral. There can be markets in the slave trade, markets in human trafficking — all sorts of markets serving ends that no humanist can support. Markets are always embedded in historically specific cultural and structural contexts. This means that markets are shaped not only by the structures of politics and economics, but also by the cultures within which they function. Markets will tend to reflect the cultural attitudes of those communities they serve. If the dominant culture of a community places a high value on cosmopolitanism, markets will tend to reflect the tolerance and diversity that cosmopolitanism enriches. And if the dominant culture of a community places a high value on illiberalism, markets will tend to reflect the intolerance that such illiberalism breeds.

Because markets are not neutral, it should also be understood that market actors are not neutral. The idea that prior to “woke capitalism” companies were sashaying down the runway of nonpartisanship is laughable at best. Not saying a word is a political stance. Acting in ways that fortify “traditional” values is a political stance. Just because companies didn’t explicitly ‘market’ their products by slapping the colors of the ‘rainbow flag’ on them does not mean that they were being apolitical. If not rocking the boat helped corporations to sell products in states that had a history of segregation and Jim Crow or a history of criminalizing same-sex relationships and alternative lifestyles, their silence was a political stance. And sometimes, as in the case of Cracker Barrel and many other companies, corporate America regularly adopted policies of exclusion directed against marginalized groups.

The Proliferation of Identity Politics

Given that we have always lived in a political economy, and that markets are never neutral, why does it seem that we have reached a point in history where there is this vast proliferation of groups at war with one another? And why has this manifested with such virulence in identity politics?

On these questions, we can draw lessons from two of capitalism’s most vocal defenders: Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand. It was Hayek who argued in The Road to Serfdom that as the state comes to dominate more and more of social life, state power becomes the only power worth having. This sets off a war of all against all, in which groups vie for political power at the expense of one another.

Rand saw further that this power struggle was endemic not only to political economy, but to the very genesis of the state, which was born from “prehistorical tribal warfare.” Political elites have historically perpetuated racial hatred, scapegoating and subjugating racial and ethnic groups to secure power. But “the relationship is reciprocal,” said Rand: Just as tribalism is a precondition of statism, so too is statism a reciprocally related cause of tribalism. “The political cause of tribalism’s rebirth is the mixed economy,” marked by “permanent tribal warfare.” In Rand’s view, statism and tribalism advance together, leading to a condition of “global balkanization.”

Since statism and tribalism are fraternal twins, as it were, and the “mixed economy” has always existed in some form, Rand argued that intensifying state domination of social life has an impact on every discernable group, not just every economic interest. Every differentiating characteristic among human beings becomes a tool for pressure-group jockeying: age, sex, sexual orientation, social status, religion, nationality, and race. Statism splinters society “into warring tribes.” The statist legal machinery pits “ethnic minorities against the majority, the young against the old, the old against the middle, women against men, welfare-recipient against the self-supporting.” Her point here is a keen insight into the inexorable nature of social conflict. Given that these are the conditions that exist, given that “this is a society’s system, no power on earth can prevent men from ganging up on one another in self-defense — i.e., from forming pressure groups.” Got that? In self-defense.

Identity politics, which has proliferated since the 1960s and 1970s, has been characterized as “a political approach wherein people of a particular race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social background, social class, or other identifying factors develop political agendas that are based upon these identities.” Typically, “identity politics is deeply connected with the idea that some groups in society are oppressed and begins with analysis of that oppression.” But here’s the thing. An insidious form of “identity politics” has always been at work in this country. It began in this country as a tool of the oppressors, not the oppressed. It began with the “Western” conquest of indigenous peoples, the building of a slave economy, and, later, the tyranny of Jim Crow segregation. “Identity politics” was ensconced in this country’s constitution the moment it allowed states to count three-fifths of enslaved people toward their congressional representation. It was furthered even after slavery met its bloody end in the Civil War, when Southern states relied on Jim Crow laws and the KKK to subjugate, oppress, brutalize, and murder ‘uppity’ blacks who wanted to pursue their own rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

So, let’s not kid ourselves when we look at marginalized groups today as caught up in some kind of grand woke conspiracy to destabilize white, male, heteronormative elites. White, male, heteronormative elites were using their identity as the basis for political policies for more than 200 years before marginalized groups began to use political and economic means to redress power imbalances. In self-defense. That doesn’t make it right or wrong, but it does put things in perspective. It also helps us to understand why right-wing traditionalists are now using their power to reassert their historically privileged status.

Concluding Thoughts

That said — let there be no mistake about where I stand on the frontlines of the culture war.

I am on the side of those who have been marginalized and who are fighting against the encroachments of right-wing reactionaries who seek not merely to take away the hard-won freedoms of the oppressed but who are engaged in a cultural campaign against any semblance of “virtue signaling” on behalf of the oppressed.

Even if that “virtue signaling” takes place in the simple act of selling a rainbow-colored rocking chair during Pride Month.

Given my long-time association with libertarianism, I’d like to address, in this concluding section, the campaign against “wokeness” that has manifested in libertarian circles.

I have long identified as a dialectical libertarian. Indeed, given my own values as expressed here and elsewhere, I am a dialectical left-libertarian. For years, I criticized those right-libertarians who had fallen into the trap of reductionism: reducing all issues to the cash nexus or to questions concerning The State and The Market. Rand rightfully criticized libertarians for being oblivious to the role of culture in the struggle for human freedom and personal flourishing — for it is culture that typically engenders bottom-up social change.

Given my dialectical predilections, I appreciated the fact that by 1990, libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard, who had long believed in the sole necessity of a “nonaggression axiom” as the basis for a libertarian society, finally recognized that libertarianism could not succeed without a “certain cultural matrix”, which he called “Liberty Plus”. Those in right-libertarian circles who followed him have indeed placed greater emphasis on the importance of culture. But in doing so, they’ve embraced reactionary cultural norms.

The libertarianism that nourished me in the late 1970s and early 1980s welcomed cosmopolitan values. Today, right-libertarians have championed a stultifying cultural conservatism in their attempts at “Getting Libertarianism Right”. Mind you, it’s not just “right”, but “alt-right”: it is a vision that aims to build a stateless society based on such “Western” “family” values as hierarchy, white-male dominance, the segregation of the races, and the expulsion of “degenerates” (that is, those who identify as LGBTQ+).

As I argued in Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, this vision of “Liberty Plus” will result in minus liberty. Hayek long noted that markets evolve in ways that will challenge traditions. That is part of their dynamism. In an increasingly interconnected, global community, right-libertarians seek a society that will use private property as a tool to hermetically seal off their own chosen set of deplorables. They oppose state-enforced segregation and state-enforced integration, but their anarcho-capitalist vision of private property fiefdoms is based on the centrality of exclusion: the power to segregate, to separate, or to annihilate those whose values they deem as destructive to their bizarre vision of social order.

There is no foreseeable future in which such an anarcho-capitalist social order might be possible, let alone feasible. Hence, we are left with an obscenity far greater than the rainbow-colored rocking chair sold by Cracker Barrel or any of the Pride merchandise offered by Target.

When those who are supposed to be on the frontlines of the battle for a free and open society end up embracing illiberalism of the worst sort — and its war on difference, diversity, and tolerance — I can think of no more insidious way of undermining the struggle for human freedom and individual authenticity.

The Challenges of Becoming: Looking Back — and Ahead

(This Notablog entry is a republication of today’s Medium article.)

I am a political and social theorist committed to a “dialectical libertarianism,” an emancipatory research project that anchors human freedom and personal flourishing to a deeper exploration of the larger systemic and dynamic contexts that nourish them.

I am the author of a trilogy of books — Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (1995), Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995; 2d ed, 2013) and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (2000) — that laid the foundations for this project. I am the coeditor of two other books — Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand (1999) and The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom (2019) — and countless essays on everything from politics, economics, and intellectual history to filmmusicculture, and sexuality. I am also a founding coeditor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, published by Penn State University Press, which just concluded its twenty‑three-year history as the only critical, interdisciplinary, scholarly periodical devoted to the study of Rand and her times.

It is no coincidence that the last book I authored was published in the year 2000. After 2+ decades of coediting The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, producing the equivalent of two robust anthologies per year, it was impossible for me to focus exclusively on my own writing. Still, over that period, I wrote over 3,600 Notablog posts (including multi-part series installments on 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic) and over 80 articles published in various venues, while participating in countless discussions on Facebook and other forums.

Nevertheless, with the conclusion of the journal, I am poised to focus more than ever on writing, which remains my greatest passion. I begin a promising new chapter in my life that will extend my dialectical libertarian project in ways that grapple with the difficult realities and problems of our world — and of my world.

One thing I have learned is that it is both necessary and useful to draw important lessons from all the diverse thinkers and traditions I have encountered throughout my life. My motto has always been: Take the gems of wisdom wherever I can find them. Give credit where credit is due. Criticize that which requires criticism. And move the f&*k on. This last aspect is the most helpful — insofar as it has steered me away from the kind of ideological rigidity that all too often undercuts critical thinking, especially self­-critical thinking, essential to personal learning and growth. The key to that growth has been to accept challenges — even when they arise in ways over which I have no control. It is in those unwelcome instances that I have gained a sense of my own efficacy to rise above. But not without struggle. And not without help.

Where I Have Been

From my beginnings in Brooklyn, New York, still my hometown, even in my earliest years in elementary school (Morris H. Weiss, P.S. 215) and middle school (David A. Boody Junior High, I.S. 228), I was empowered by teachers who challenged me to think critically and who offered constructive criticism as a guide to learning. I began my high school studies at an incredible institution, John Dewey High School, which had a Pass-Fail grade system. Entering that school with a more conservative politics, I was encouraged to pursue my passions in a noncompetitive setting. I completed all the course offerings of the Law Institute (now the “Law Academy”) and studied with many wonderful teachers, including Ira Zornberg, who taught the first class ever offered on a high school level about the history of the Holocaust. It had a profound impact on me insofar as it documented the horrors possible to human beings under barbarous social conditions.

A gifted and learned teacher, Ira also served as advisor to the school’s social studies newspaper, Gadfly, of which I became editor. I knew I was making an impact when one of my lead essays, a conservative critique of the school’s Young Socialists club, was found baptized in a boy’s room urinal. The shock and awe of encountering that sight was softened a bit, since the cover page was printed on goldenrod-colored paper.

In my senior year, I took a year-long college-accredited advanced placement American history class with Social Studies Department Chair, Larry Pero. It was during this course that my conservatism was fundamentally challenged by the first Ayn Rand book I ever read: Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Rand’s critique of the “New Fascism” of those on both the right and the left who favored corporatist government-business “partnerships” and especially those conservatives who supported the segregationist “state’s rights” policies of Southern apartheid, nationalism, the “slavery” of conscription, the Vietnam War, and the war on women’s reproductive freedoms was a revelation. And it targeted in a polemically charged manner, those very aspects of conservative thought with which I was uncomfortable. I read all of Rand’s nonfiction before moving on to her novels, short stories, and plays.

Rand’s work opened the door to a universe of libertarian literature that embraced not only “free markets” but “free minds” as well. Indeed, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that cosmopolitan form of libertarianism challenged my whole understanding of the left-right dichotomy in American politics. I read the works of Austrian-school economists such as Ludwig von MisesFriedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard, and the revisionist works of New Left historians Gabriel KolkoJames Weinstein, and others. This libertarian turn was nurtured during my undergraduate years at New York University, where I was a triple major in politics, economics, and history (with honors). NYU gave me the opportunity to study with many insightful political theorists, including Gisbert Flanz and H. Mark Roelofs, and many great historians, including Gloria MainPatricia BonomiRichard Hull, and Vincent P. Carosso — for whose class on twentieth-century wars and the American economy I wrote what would become my first professional essay, published in The Historian (May 1980): “Government and the Railroads During World War I”. NYU also provided me with access to its distinctive Austrian economics program, in which I studied formally with such scholars as Israel KirznerMario J. RizzoGerald P. O’Driscoll, and Roger Garrison. Even the neighborhood around NYU was a source of libertarian learning. Laissez Faire Books at 206 Mercer Street was a mecca for anyone who wanted to peruse through the literature of liberty. I spent many precious hours in that bookstore. Beyond the confines of the university, I attended conferences that featured a host of libertarian luminaries, from Roy Childs to Leonard Liggio. These gatherings were sponsored by such organizations as the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, whose Vice President, the late Walter Grinder, provided me with immeasurable encouragement and guidance.

Through my continued participation in various Austrian seminars and colloquia at NYU, I met many others in the tradition who had an impact on my intellectual growth, including Rothbard and Don Lavoie. Rothbard’s work inspired my brief flirtation with anarcho-capitalism. Though I grew to reject the right-libertarian approach for its descent into illiberal private-propertarian fiefdoms, I remain inspired by the ideals of a philosophical anarchism, insofar as it draws from diverse traditions offering free and autonomous alternatives to domination, centralization, and authoritarian social relations.

That said, Rothbard’s work heavily influenced my choice of topic for an undergraduate honors thesis, where I applied my knowledge of Austrian economics to an understanding of the ebb and flow of labor strife in American history. Even in this pursuit, I was not content with finding an ideological ally as my thesis advisor. I selected Daniel Walkowitz, a labor historian, to challenge me further as I worked toward completion of my senior honors thesis, “The Implications of Interventionism: An Analysis of the Pullman Strike”.

In defense of that thesis, I learned firsthand about the hostility that could often mar scholarly engagement. On my committee was Albert Romasco, who had written a 1965 book, The Poverty of Abundance: Hoover, The Nation, The Depression, which, unbeknownst to me, was the subject of a scathing critique by Rothbard in Studies on the Left (Summer 1966). Romasco was so irritated with my “ideological” framework that he scolded me: “Maybe you ought to go into political theory instead of history!” When I told Murray that Romasco had given me a whipping in my oral defense, he laughed heartily and explained that it was no doubt a knee-jerk reaction to my use of his own articulation of Austrian business cycle theory throughout my thesis. Romasco was also none too thrilled with the fact that I’d been instrumental in inviting Murray to speak before the History Department on “Libertarian Paradigms in American History”.

Murray gave me indispensable advice during this period; he urged me to carve out my own intellectual niche. I don’t think he was very happy with the area I eventually specialized in, insofar as he knew that my dialectical sensibilities had inspired me to write a critique of his work as part of my doctoral dissertation. My embrace of this explicitly dialectical methodological approach to libertarian social theory grew out of my deepening relationship with a great intellectual of the left academy, sparked by my on-campus student activism.

On the advice of Milton Mueller, National Director of Students for a Libertarian Society, I became a founding member and chairperson of its NYU chapter. SLS was galvanized against Jimmy Carter’s reinstatement of Selective Service Registration. On May Day 1979, I joined with other antidraft, antiwar activists of “The New Resistance” in Washington Square Park, chanting “Fuck the Draft”. As David Dellinger, one of the Chicago Seven, fired up the crowd of around 350 people, I handed out antidraft pamphlets to well-dressed G-men wearing sunglasses standing on the sidelines.

I also became editor of the NYU Politics Journal, Spectator, and wrote op-eds in the Washington Square News, including one that criticized the college for its incestuous relationship with the U.S. Defense Department, which was threatening to withhold funding because of NYU’s antidiscrimination clauses protecting LGBTQ students. By this point, I was out and proud, and where better to be so than in New York’s Greenwich Village, home of the historic Stonewall Riots?

My writing and activism caught the eye of Bertell Ollman, the famed Marxist professor in the Politics Department, who wrote the book on Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, in addition to being the creator of a board game that stood as a proletarian foil to “Monopoly”. “Class Struggle” sported cover art of Nelson Rockefeller arm-wrestling Karl Marx. Bertell wasn’t the first Marxist I encountered at NYU; I studied with Marxist economist James Becker in the first semester of my freshman year. But without a doubt, Bertell was the most provocative.

My illuminating conversations with Bertell changed the trajectory of my entire intellectual and professional life. Alongside those conversations were many that I had with the late Don Lavoie, who had become a cherished friend. In many ways, my journey mirrored Don’s. Whereas he had earned his Ph.D. in the Economics Department, with Austrian-school theorist Israel Kirzner as his mentor and Marxist James Becker on his dissertation committee, I would eventually earn my Ph.D. in the Politics Department, with Marxist theorist Bertell Ollman as my mentor, and Austrian economist Mario Rizzo on my dissertation committee. Don was among those who were very supportive of my work; he would later feature my first book, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, as one of the required texts in his George Mason University course, “Comparative Socio-Economic Systems.”

On April 22, 1981, NYU-SLS and the Center for Marxist Studies jointly sponsored a discussion with Don and Bertell, “Freedom: Libertarian versus Marxist Perspectives”. As I’ve written in a previous Medium article, this debate was an eye-opener for me. In his exchanges with Don, Bertell threw down the gauntlet: “Libertarians are a little bit like people who go into a Chinese restaurant and order pizza.” The central issue, Bertell argued, is: What’s on the menu, given objective conditions and constraints? There may be lots to choose from, wildly different meals that one can order in a Chinese restaurant, “but pizza isn’t one of them.” I felt as if Bertell had brought into question the whole libertarian enterprise. Too much of what I’d heard in libertarian circles was based on atomistic “state of nature” assumptions and prescriptions that had no apparent applicability to the real world. Radical thinking of any hue — thinking that seeks to identify the roots of social problems — must start from somewhere, not from the nowhere of utopian premises. The very word “utopia” means “no place”.

Already steeped in Rand’s neo-Aristotelian emphasis on the importance of grasping the facts of reality as a means toward changing them, I was highly receptive to Bertell’s exposition of dialectical methodology. Aristotle, after all, was the first theoretician of dialectics, heralded by Hegel himself as its “fountainhead”. A genuinely dialectical and, hence, radical method of examining the world requires that we begin with somewhere, with the real world as it exists, and with the understanding that we are part of that world, embedded in it, that we can never grasp it as if from some Archimedean, God-like “synoptic” perspective.

One of the core methodological principles of dialectics is that one cannot examine any issue apart from the ways in which it is situated in a larger systemic context examined across time. As such, dialectics is the art of context-keeping. Every issue is constituted by a cluster of relations — that is, its connections to other issues, facts, events, and problems. These connections cannot be ignored without doing irreparable damage to our ability to grapple with and/or resolve the issues or problems at hand. Tracing relations is key to understanding how any issue, fact, event, or problem came to be what it is — while providing clues to what it can be, might be, or ought to be.

I was profoundly excited by the challenges of thinking dialectically. But if I wanted to study with a master dialectician, I had to engineer a course correct.

Nearing the end of my undergraduate years, I had initially hoped to earn a joint J.D./Ph.D. — and applied to both law schools and graduate programs in history at Columbia, the University of Chicago, and NYU. Unfortunately, my scores on the 8-hour marathon LSAT were a barrier to my acceptance to any of those university law schools (though I was accepted to Fordham Law, which did not offer a joint degree program). Having taken the comparatively puny 3-hour GRE a week after the LSAT, I scored very high and was accepted to all the graduate programs at those universities.

Bertell advised me to switch my graduate major from history to politics. He also told me that it was less important where I studied and far more important to base my choice on the person who would mentor me through my doctorate. I knew that NYU was the place to stay — and it certainly helped that NYU offered me a full scholarship for my doctoral program, just as it had funded virtually my entire undergraduate education. I also knew that Bertell, more than any other scholar, would challenge me to understand the views I opposed and to grapple with my own views in a self-critical manner. I made the change.

As a graduate student, I studied with many fine scholars, including sociologist Wolf Heydebrand, who exposed me to the work of the Frankfurt school in his comprehensive course on the “Logic of Inquiry”. But it was my studies with Bertell that most energized me — courses on Marxism, fascism, dialectical method, seminars in political philosophy, and independent studies that enabled me to probe even more deeply into dialectics. He was a mentor without parallel. More than any of the classical liberal, libertarian, or Austrian scholars I knew, Bertell encouraged my dialectical investigations and their applications to libertarian social theory. He had worked closely with libertarians in the past and had enormous respect for their principled stances against the draft, war, and imperialism, having befriended both Rothbard and Liggio in the Peace and Freedom Party. Moreover, he had been a Volker Fellow at the University of Chicago under Hayek. He was enthusiastic over the direction of my master’s thesis, “A Brief Survey in Methodological Integration: Dialectics, Praxeology, and Their Implications”. He was a strong presence in the department who defended the topic of my dissertation and guided me toward the completion, with distinction, in May 1988, of my doctoral thesis, “Toward a Radical Critique of Utopianism: Dialectics and Dualism in the Works of Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, and Karl Marx”. The sections on Marx and Hayek contributed to what would become Marx, Hayek, and Utopia; the section on Rothbard contributed to Part II of Total Freedom. As for Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, it was Bertell who persuaded me to delve into Rand’s Russian roots, seeing in her those dialectical methodological elements endemic to the Russian Silver Age and the lessons she would have learned at the University of Leningrad, from which she graduated.

The Personal and the Political

Educational institutions are not the only — or even the most important — avenue for our personal growth. I was born into a working-class family of Greek and Sicilian ancestry, which placed an enormous emphasis on the value of learning and teaching. My mother, a garment worker for most her life, was the first in her family to get a high school diploma (from James Madison High School); my sister, Elizabeth, was the first in our whole extended family to get a bachelor’s degree, master’s and professional degrees as well. She would go on to become a beloved educator who would impact the lives of countless students and colleagues. My loving father, who had worked as an eye setter in a doll factory before becoming a cargo worker with Trans World Airlines, had died in 1972, when I was 12 years old. My Uncle Sam, a graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School and a veteran of World War II, who painted everything from ships to houses for a living, was like a second father to me. He stoked my earliest political interests with a unique blend of fiery commentary and humor. He died in 1994 from prostate cancer. A year later, my mother died after a 5-year battle with lung cancer. Throughout those 5 years, my sister and I, along with my brother Carl (a virtuoso jazz guitarist and teacher) and sister-in-law Joanne (a terrific singer and voice teacher) took care of our mom with great commitment. And when she passed, we continued to take care of each other.

More than anyone, however, my sister was my guide in all things great and small. As a person who suffered with congenital health problems, I was blessed to live with her my whole life. She was my indefatigable supporter, both spiritually and materially, advising me on my educational and personal choices, and by my side for every medical procedure I endured. These lifelong medical issues have been detailed elsewhere, most explicitly in a 2018 Folks interview. Suffice it to say, I was born with a serious illness, known as Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome (SMAS), which, by the time I reached puberty, became a life-threatening condition. It was definitively diagnosed by the great physician, Hiromi Shinya, who was an endoscopic pioneer. A duodenojejunostomy saved my life in 1974, but a variety of side effects from that intestinal bypass surgery led to more than 60 additional surgical procedures — for everything from inguinal hernias and kidney stones to intestinal bleeding. These medical complications emboldened my resolve as a strong advocate for myself and for those I loved. So, when my sister became seriously ill in November 2020, I was her primary caregiver, until the day she died in November 2022.

What I say here about “living with disabilities” is not universal; I can only speak for myself. Though it is impossible to know how things would have turned out in the absence of my disabilities, this much I can say: I am thankful that I have had such caring family, friends, and classmates throughout my entire life, and I believe that I am a far more caring and empathetic person having had these experiences.

But the struggles I’ve endured from these life-long medical problems have been immense. Indeed, I would never have been able to pursue my education at NYU without the enormous help I received from professors, fellow students, and the Office of Disabled Student Services. When my doctoral studies were complete, I found myself unable to work in the traditional academic job market. An earlier attempt at employment in the heart of midtown Manhattan as a business researcher had failed, largely due to my inability to sustain a 9 to 5 workday — though, in fairness, even if I were well, it was most likely doomed from the start insofar as it educated me on the hierarchical mediocrity and stultifying conformity of the corporate world.

In the face of these difficulties, I had no clue how to monetize the achievement of a Ph.D. without the ability to teach and lecture. It was as if my world had come crashing down. Even with Bertell’s help in sponsoring my appointment as a non-salaried Visiting Scholar to the NYU Department of Politics (1989–2009), it took me years to secure post-doctoral fellowships so that I could begin the process of writing my Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy. The trials and tribulations of getting that trilogy published — and the scathing reviews and condemnations it initially provoked — could fill volumes of its own.

And here is where the personal and the political ultimately collide. As a young libertarian college student, I had initially resisted seeking Social Security Disability (SSD) because of my principled opposition to the welfare state. That I, and my whole family, had paid taxes and suffered under the crushing financial costs imposed on us by a healthcare system marred by institutional decay, didn’t seem to matter. At least not until health insurance companies were charging us prohibitively high premiums, not even covering many of my medical procedures. My family was being crippled financially and it nearly bankrupted us.

My decision to pursue SSD came with great personal anguish. When some of my libertarian friends were telling me that things would be better under the “unknown ideal” of free market healthcare, it wasn’t helping me to grapple with the now. They criticized me for my lack of “consistency” and “purity”. It was as if they were tone deaf to the inner contradictions of the system. But I remembered the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay on “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

As my principled opposition to government assistance came face-to-face with structural realities, I accepted the necessity of pursuing disability benefits without any sense of remorse. I refused to sacrifice my life on the altar of “consistency” and “purity”; I could not serve the cause of freedom or personal flourishing as a libertarian martyr.

Though I finally began receiving Social Security Disability benefits in the 1990s, it would take many years for my family to emerge from the financial nightmare left behind, not only from my illness, but from my mother’s as well. By the time our debts were paid off, my sister, the family’s primary breadwinner, was struck down tragically by a life-threatening illness of her own. The financial burdens of my care and my mother’s care paled in comparison to the burdens she faced.

A woman who had worked her entire life did not qualify for Medicaid because she was deemed too “wealthy” (as the recipient of a pension and Social Security retirement benefits) and yet, not “wealthy” enough to sustain her own healthcare. We had no choice but to beg for money through a GoFundMe campaign for her. We raised a staggeringly large sum of money only because of the generous contributions that came from thousands of people whose lives she touched as an educator. Not everyone is that lucky. And nobody should ever have to be put in a position to beg for their lives because the system makes it impossible for them to survive. I thought I had seen it all with my own health problems, but the inhumane aspects of the U.S. healthcare system were laid bare by what I witnessed throughout my sister’s devastating illness. It’s a story I will detail another day.

Where I Am Now

Nevertheless, what we raised allowed my sister to die with dignity at home. No stranger to grief, having lost so many loved ones, and all too familiar with the stages of what grieving entails, I am being ever-so-gentle with myself as I process a heart-shattering loss beyond anything I have ever experienced in my entire life. Though my sister provided for me in life — and, to a limited extent, in death — I remain in a precarious situation of long-term financial uncertainty. It is yet another challenge I will have to figure out, with the help of family and friends.

Unlike my sister, however, my healthcare costs will not be the source of financial collapse. I know that, as a disabled man, I could never have survived without Social Security Disability, Medicare, and, later, Medicaid. Despite benefiting from the generosity of family and friends, no amount of charitable giving could have rescued me from certain death without the kind of health insurance I required to keep me medically stable.

Where I Am Going

This essay has told the story of where I have been and where I am now. Where I am going poses yet another glorious challenge.

My love of writing is an extension of my love of life. Now, unencumbered by colossal editing responsibilities, I have begun writing much more extensively on the nature of dialectical libertarianism.

It must be emphasized that while I was the first person to coin the term, “dialectical libertarianism,” my trilogy focused enormous attention on the presence of dialectical modes of analysis in the works of many important thinkers in the classical liberal and libertarian traditions. It may have taken nearly a quarter century, but I am grateful to have lived to coedit a book on The Dialectics of Liberty, which includes contributions from nearly 20 other contemporary thinkers extending this dialectical paradigm in challenging and sometimes diametrically opposed ways, encompassing both “right” and “left” variants, and everything in-between. Indeed, even I don’t agree with every application therein! Dialectical libertarianism is marked by a focus on context specificity. But it is not a monolith; the diversity of approaches on display in that anthology is just one indicator of the vitality of an evolving project.

My convictions can be spelled out on three interconnected levels, “the three Ps”, if you will: the Philosophical, the Political, and the Personal:

Philosophically, the influence of Rand, Nathaniel Branden, and the neo-Aristotelian tradition is deeply ingrained in me insofar as I uphold all those life-affirming values that constitute what it means to be fully human and, therefore, fully social. It should be noted that these values are not to be dismissed as particularly ‘right-wing’, since even Marx expressed a parallel neo-Aristotelian eudaimonistic perspective (on this point, see Scott MeikleCarol Gould, and Sabeen Ahmed.) We are integrated beings of mind and body — and our capacity to nourish our self-esteem and self-worth is best fostered under social conditions in which we are more free. By contrast, that capacity is inhibited under conditions in which we are less free. In broad terms, my vision for social change promotes the organic unity of human freedom and personal flourishing within a cosmopolitan culture of tolerance that is respectful of difference — whether it be along the lines of race, color, creed, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, or gender. If these sound like ‘left-wing’ “New York values”, they are. And I’m proud of them.

Politically, getting ‘from here to there’ requires a more nuanced method for understanding how to act in an imperfect world. All the institutions of civil society and state, be they markets, nonmarket and communal associations, or government agencies, are imperfect because people are imperfect. It’s a cliché, but a true one at that, to say that in moving toward social change, we ought not to make the perfect become the enemy of the good. Self-righteous moralizing over how we have failed to achieve an illusory ‘perfection’ is no friend of freedom or flourishing.

Freedom abstracted from real conditions is an illusion; flourishing without such freedom is an impossibility. And that is the problem with all ideologies that become one dimensional and rigidified: If they are wedded to “principle” without any consideration for the hard facts, they become useless abstractions, making it impossible for any human being to flourish under any conditions. A dialectical approach neither dilutes nor deludes. It doesn’t dilute the project of human freedom and personal flourishing because of its “impurity” or its “inconsistency”. The impurities and the inconsistencies lie not in dialectical libertarianism but in the system that it encounters. A dialectical approach enables us to analyze that system and to act based on the flawed conditions that exist. Hence, it does not suffer from the delusions of those abstract premises that underlie the moralistic pronouncements of some libertarians.

Ultimately, we act within the context of the system we have, not the system we wished we had (H/T DR).

That’s why I believe a social safety net is both necessary and unavoidable. Whether any system could ever arise that would make such a social safety net superfluous is an academic question. I am not oblivious to the impoverishing effects of markets that have been distorted by licensure, regulation, and land and intellectual property monopolies — all tools of the politically privileged rich and powerful. Free-market economist that he was, Hayek himself advocated a social safety net to mitigate the effects of systemic hardships through public healthcaresocial securityand other forms of social insurance. But he also understood the class character of bureaucratic, administrative, and regulatory institutions. He argued that these institutions often benefited those who were most adept at using their instruments, which is why the worst tend to get on top.

However, the institutionalized poverty that the current system engenders makes a social safety net an inescapable reality for those who cannot afford to live. And that net will become wider to the extent that this system makes it increasingly difficult for so many to survive. Given how untenable these harsh realities are, any genuinely emancipatory movement must address what needs to be changed — and how to change it. Whatever shape a future, freer society takes, it’s going to require both analysis and activism with the use of dialectical scalpels, rather than ideological sledgehammers. It requires a dose of empathy that speaks to our common humanity and our common struggles.

I have written elsewhere of my antipathy to all the conventional “isms” — be it “socialism” or “capitalism”. While I endorse the left-libertarian idea of “freed” markets, I reject the use of the word “capitalism” to describe my politics. The very word “capitalism” was coined by its critics, as Hayek has shown. Its historical genesis was nothing like the “unknown ideal” of “vulgar” libertarianism (rooted in the intellectual mistakes of “left” and “right” conflationism). Just as the state was not born of a bloodless “immaculate conception”, so too, capitalism, “the known reality”, like every other social system, arose from a bloody history. It emerged through the state’s violent appropriation of the commons, enclosure, and mercantilist and colonialist expropriation.

Ayn Rand was right that libertarian ideals could never be achieved by merely ridding us of the state, that the project of human freedom and personal flourishing is not reducible to a mere political question concerning the state’s existence. Like the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci before her, Rand understood that no structural change could occur from the “top down”; its achievement requires a massive ideological and cultural shift from the “bottom up” that would ripple throughout a society’s economic and political formations, ridding us of the structural causes of poverty and systemic decay, and the repressions of public and private institutions that subvert individual autonomy and empowerment. So much of our current illiberal culture breeds toxicity and intolerance on both ends of the conventional political spectrum. That’s why challenging conventions and changing culture are crucial to the achievement of a free and open society. It’s also why the right-libertarian’s endorsement of liberty conjoined to deadening reactionary cultural values is at odds with the dynamic processes of spontaneous order that often bring into question, and undermine, traditional mores. As I put it in Total Freedom, this kind of “Liberty Plus” will result in minus liberty.

Just as societies are always evolving, so too, we are all in the process of becoming — a point understood by thinkers as varied as AristotleHegel, and the New York-born writer, poet, and activist Audre Lorde.

Personally, that process is endemic to the pursuit of my own happiness and all that it comprises. I am dedicated to living. At the core of living is love: love of self, love of others — and love of writing. I am happy that I’m now spending more time writing, reading, and learning — all pleasures that intersect with passion. But even more importantly, I’ve been enjoying precious moments with those without whom I would not be here. Even in the face of palpable loss and grief, I continue to build a meaningful life — of fun and friendship. This process of becoming is the most fundamental challenge that I embrace with all my heart.

Special thanks to my very dear friend Ryan Neugebauer for inspiring me to bring this essay together and for being among my most cherished blessings.

See Facebook for comments here and here.

Don Lavoie Lectures, 1980-1981, Part III

Having unveiled the first of three YouTube presentations featuring the late Don Lavoie on February 13, 2023 (on “Immigration”), and the second on February 20, 2023 (“Planned Chaos: The Failure of Socialism”), I am proud to present the finale to this series today, “Freedom: Libertarian versus Marxist Perspectives: A Discussion with Don Lavoie and Bertell Ollman”, which was recorded at New York University on April 22, 1981. This nearly two-hour dialogue was sponsored jointly by the Center for Marxist Studies and the NYU chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society. Because it was such a long discussion recorded on cassette tapes, there are small gaps in the conversation due to the necessity to flip or change the cassettes when necessary.

As I explained in my opening essay to this series, this presentation is, by far, the one dearest to my heart. It challenged me profoundly and motivated me to continue my studies at NYU on the graduate and doctoral levels, with the great Marxist theorist Bertell Ollman as my mentor and doctoral dissertation advisor.

Wherever one stands on the issues discussed herein, it is worth noting that each of these thinkers understood the other’s perspective thoroughly. As I have pointed out in previous posts, Bertell not only knew of libertarianism, but had worked closely with libertarians such as Murray Rothbard and Leonard Liggio in the Peace and Freedom Party, and he was a Volker Fellow under F. A. Hayek at the University of Chicago. Don studied Marxism; he read and grappled with the entirety of Marx’s work, and Engels’s work, and of the broader Marxist literature. This is not a man who would have had the audacity to get on a stage to attack Marx and “Marxism”, while simultaneously admitting that the only work by Marx he had ever read was “The Communist Manifesto” as an undergraduate in college.

Despite their opposing interpretive perspectives, Don and Bertell had a depth of comprehension for the intellectual traditions they engaged. Each makes significant points of methodological, substantive, and historical importance in an atmosphere of mutual admiration and respect. Their dialogue exemplifies a humane exchange of ideas, something that has become an anomaly in today’s toxic ideological environment.

I urge folks to listen carefully to this finale of the Don Lavoie Lectures, 1980-1981; it’s a lesson not only in content but in the art of civility.

On Facebook, in various discussions, I had this to say:

Don’s thinking evolved considerably over time. Many in the Austrian school deeply appreciated his enormous contribution to the calculation debate (his dissertation on “Rivalry and Central Planning”), given his emphasis on such epistemic issues as the role of tacit knowledge in interpersonal transactions and the price system. In later years, they were less enamored of his turn toward hermeneutics and a kind of Hayekian anarchism.

But even in his ancap days, he always championed progressive values, and as I have said on many occassions, he would have been aghast at the right-libertarian reactionary shift. He was among the most humane thinkers and people I’ve ever known.

It should be noted too that at this time, he hadn’t yet completed his doctorate and was even referring to Bertell as “Professor Ollman”, in deference to his position in the academy. And Bertell, given his command and presence, could often dominate a conversation. (As an aside, that wasn’t as much of a problem in later years with me because … well… I have a Brooklyn motor mouth and sometimes he couldn’t get a word in edgewise.)

In any event, I’m really happy that I preserved these materials for posterity. And it was nice hearing 21-year old Chris with the same Brooklyn accent of 63-year old Chris (minus the four-letter words).

One other thing I wish to re-emphasize about this discussion between Don and Bertell. Something a bit more personal.

Bertell knew me as an undergraduate in the NYU Department of Politics, and in my work in the history honors program with the Marxist historian Dan Walkowitz, from whom he heard “wonderful” things about me. He also greatly admired all the campus activism I was involved with in the antiwar, anti-imperialist, and antidraft protesting I was doing with Students for a Libertarian Society. By the time this presentation occurred in April 1981, I had had so many conversations with him but had never taken a single undergraduate course with him. He kept driving home the point that it was less important where I pursued my doctorate and far more important to pursue it with a mentor I could not only work with, but learn from. A mentor who could challenge me. And he wanted to be that mentor.

Having already been accepted to the master’s program at NYU in the Department of Politics, this discussion between Don and Bertell, more than any other, convinced me that Bertell was the mentor I was looking for. When he made that comment that libertarians were “a little bit like people who go into a Chinese restaurant and order pizza,” it rocked me to my core. As he used to say, there may be lots to choose from, wildly different meals that one can order in a Chinese restaurant, “but pizza isn’t one of them”. He emphasized over and over again: What’s on the menu for social change?—given the real conditions on the ground, the objective conditions and constraints with which we all live.

I chose Bertell as my mentor because I wanted to be challenged; I wanted to think more critically about my own social and political values. I could not embark on a career of writing unless I began with that kind of rigorous critical self-reflection.

And so I took formal courses with Bertell on Marxism, fascism, and, of course, dialectical methodology; I took independent studies with him; he was my doctoral dissertation advisor and followed me thru to the completion of my PhD. He even went on to loudly and publicly endorse all three books in my Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy.

And through it all, having adopted the “dialectical libertarian” mantle, I believe that Ollman’s question continues to resonate and is as relevant today as it was in 1981 when he asked it. I continue to ask libertarians of all stripes: What’s on the menu for social change, what kinds of social changes can we advocate and pursue, given the conditions that exist?

Sadly, so many of the responses I continue to get remain much too ideologically rigid, undialectical, and ahistorical for my tastes. We are all guided by basic values and frameworks, but if one’s values and one’s framework cannot accommodate the complex realities and structural rigidities of our particular time and place, then at the very least, a shift in our perspective on things is requisite to our acting in—and upon—the world we seek to change.

Don Lavoie Lectures, 1980-1981

Throughout my life, I have learned from so many brilliant teachers and colleagues. Some of them became among my most beloved friends. Among these was Don Lavoie.

Having been introduced to libertarian thought in my senior year of high school, I chose to go to New York University partially because of its well-known program in the Austrian school of economics. I had started out as a double major in politics and history (with honors). Don—whom I met early in my undergraduate years—would later encourage me to expand into a triple major, adding economics to my already full academic plate. If anything, this expansion only enabled me to study more extensively with Austrian-school theorists, including Israel Kirzner, Mario Rizzo, Gerald O’Driscoll, and Roger Garrison. Through various colloquia and seminars, I came to know so many others, including Murray Rothbard and Pete Boettke and a whole generation of up-and-coming students of the tradition.

Don and I had some interesting and ironic scholarly parallels between us. He had written a 1981 doctoral dissertation, “Rivalry and Central Planning: A Re-examination of the Debate over Economic Calculation under Socialism”, in which the Austrian-school Kirzner was his dissertation advisor, while Marxist James Becker sat on his dissertation committee. By the time I had finished my own doctoral dissertation in 1988 (“Toward a Radical Critique of Utopianism: Dialectics and Dualism in the Works of Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, and Karl Marx”), my dissertation advisor and mentor was the Marxist political theorist Bertell Ollman, while Austrian-school theorist Mario Rizzo sat on my dissertation committee.

These parallels of a sort continued into our professional lives as well. I truly enjoyed Don’s 1985 book, National Economic Planning: What is Left? as well as his later works on the interrelationships of culture and economics and on the important methodological implications of hermeneutics to the study of economics. Citations to—and discussions of—his important contributions can be found throughout my “Dialectics and Liberty” trilogy, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and especially Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. His enthusiastic endorsement of my work went way beyond simple promotional blurbs; indeed, he was the first professor to adapt any of my works for classroom use. Marx, Hayek, and Utopia was among the texts he used for his Autumn 1996 George Mason University course on “Comparative Socio-Economic Systems.”

You might say that we were part of a mutual admiration society. Over and above all this, Don and I became close friends. He was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, and supportive friends that I ever had. His death at the age of 50 in November 2001 was a devastating loss to me—and so many others whose lives he touched.

So, there is a certain poignancy to my presentation of the “Don Lavoie Lectures, 1980–1981”. I am so happy to have retained three of his talks presented at New York University during my undergraduate years. These talks were taped on a small cassette recorder and trying to preserve them digitally—only recently—proved somewhat daunting. They are of varying lengths and sound quality. I’ve done everything I can to preserve their integrity in digital transfers. It should be noted, however, that because cassette tapes need to be flipped over, there are a few dropouts in the continuity of the featured discussions. And because older cassette tapes tend to lose their inner lubricant, the content will sometimes sound as if it is moving in slow motion. None of this discouraged me from moving ahead with this long-overdue project.

First, a little background on their history.

One of the perks of my attendance at NYU was that, as cofounder of the NYU Chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society, I had developed relationships with a broad social network of intellectuals, many of whom I invited to speak at various events sponsored by our campus club. My involvement with NYU-SLS began in 1979, as the national organization joined with other antidraft groups to mobilize against Jimmy Carter’s reinstatement of selective service registration. On April 19, 1979, I was part of a boisterous protest in Washington Square Park, in which David Dellinger, one of the Chicago Seven, fired up the crowd of around 350 people. As chairperson of the NYU chapter, I was among those chanting in unison, “Fuck the Draft”, as I handed out antidraft pamphlets to well-dressed men wearing sunglasses standing on the sidelines. Could the FBI have made it any more obvious that they were observing the “New Resistance” take shape?

The antidraft rallies were only the beginning. NYU-SLS began to sponsor many events over the years, inviting a diversity of speakers who provided radical libertarian perspectives on everything from abortion and the drug war to the history of government interventionism at home and abroad.

On three occasions, Don Lavoie was among our featured speakers.

Each of these presentations shows a different side of Don, who had not yet completed his doctorate. No matter how much his perspective evolved over the years, Don was, in some respects, one of the earliest left-libertarians, if by that we mean somebody who was always invested in the progressive goals of the left, even if he was critical of the means by which certain segments of the left attempted to achieve those goals. He deeply appreciated the tradition of radical social thinking and was committed to reinvigorating radicalism in ways that were neither traditional nor conventional.

I will be rolling out these presentations on a weekly basis over the next three weeks.

The first talk that premieres today, February 13, 2023, is a brief one (it runs a little over 20 minutes). It was part of a panel discussion at a Human Rights Forum held on March 11, 1981, sponsored by NYU-SLS. In it, Don presents a hardcore libertarian perspective on immigration and open borders. In the current political environment, where so many remain suspicious of the ‘illegals’ among us, Don’s words continue to challenge us to think outside the box.

In the following two weeks, I will feature two lengthier presentations on my YouTube channel.

On February 20, 2023, I will present a talk (with Q&A) that Don gave on September 23, 1980, as part of a series of lectures that NYU-SLS dubbed “Libertython”. “Planned Chaos: The Failure of Socialism” is over 90 minutes in length and echoes many of the themes that Don reiterated in his 1985 book, National Economic Planning: What is Left?

On February 27, 2023, I will present the final installment: “Freedom: Libertarian versus Marxist Perspectives: A Discussion with Don Lavoie and Bertell Ollman”, which was recorded at New York University on April 22, 1981. This nearly two-hour dialogue was sponsored jointly by the Center for Marxist Studies and NYU-SLS.

That finale is, by far, the one dearest to my heart. Listening to it today, I find myself deeply drawn to many of the important methodological and substantive points made by Bertell and many of the historically rich issues raised by Don. And yet, it was from this wonderfully humane exchange of ideas that there emerged a classic line by Bertell that I cited in Total Freedom—and it would have a huge impact on my approach to libertarian social theory. As I wrote:

Ollman was fond of saying that libertarians, progressive though some of their ideas might be, were anachronistic—or, worse, irrelevant—in their prescriptions for social change. In a 1981 debate with libertarian theorist Don Lavoie, he opined: “Libertarians are a little bit like people who go into a Chinese restaurant and order pizza.” The issue here is: What’s on the menu, given objective conditions and constraints? There may be lots to choose from, wildly different meals that one can order in a Chinese restaurant, “but pizza isn’t one of them”. For Ollman, libertarians advocate a quasi-anarchistic system that is simply not within the realm of existing possibilities, for it abstracts from history and from current material and class conditions. “Society provides the necessary conditions for intentional human activity,” [Roy] Bhaskar argues similarly, and this “essentially Aristotelian” model stipulates that people can only fashion “a product out of the material and with the tools available to [them].”

For me, it was as if Ollman had thrown down the gauntlet in his “Chinese restaurant” analogy. He challenged my framework in a profound way. Over time, in studying with him, I re-oriented my thinking to be less concerned about utopian “unknown ideals”. After all, it was Thomas More who coined the word “utopia”, from the ancient Greeks, deriving it from ou-topos, meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’.  A genuine radicalism must begin from somewhere. It must be focused more dialectically on the wider context of the real conditions that exist upon which any ideal of any kind might be built. As I argued in Total Freedom, my own perspective recognized this challenge as “a double-edged sword,” with “a need to cut both ways in our attempts to bleed the socialist Left and the libertarian Right of their utopian elements—’the end of history’ or the ‘state of nature,’ respectively. A politics for the ‘end of time’ and a politics for the ‘beginning of time’ are equally utopian.”

***

One final observation. Each of these talks has a certain historical specificity—this was the early 1980s, after all, the time of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, with period-references that might be lost on some of today’s younger listeners. It should also be pointed out that Don’s own views evolved over time and his later perspective on the world is not fully reflected here. Indeed, even my own introductory comments in the second installment, “Planned Chaos: The Failure of Socialism”, provide little clue as to what eventuated in terms of my current approach to political and social theory. Still, there are universal themes at work here that speak to any era.

Ultimately, I am honored to have brought this series of presentations to a larger audience; these recordings have not been heard in over forty years. Listening to them today, I realize how much I learned from them. It is my hope that a new generation of listeners will learn as much.

This article can also be found on Medium.

Postscript (14 February 2023): In a Facebook discussion of this article, I expanded on the point that it is important to start from somewhere, from where you are, in any discussion of social change:

I would say that starting where you are is true of all GOOD thinking. Observing the facts on the ground and logically assessing the possibilities, while keeping context and looking at things from as many vantage points and levels of generality as possible (being ‘dialectical’) so as to understand any social problem and its place in a larger system of interconnected social problems, all of which have an interrelated past, present, and many possible futures (that’s a mouthful!)… is crucially important to the whole radical project of social change.

What is NOT helpful is acting as if one can wipe the slate clean and start from scratch (the kind of “canvas-cleaning” that all too many ‘revolutionaries’ have attempted to do, with brutal consequences, both intended and unintended) or acting as if one can deduce an entirely new and just society from “state of nature” principles that can’t possibly be traced back with any degree of historical, judicial, or ethical accuracy. Hence, my comment above that a “politics for the ‘end of time’ and a politics for the ‘beginning of time’ are equally utopian” — though I’d go further. The results would be horrifically dystopian in their consequences.

There is everything right about trying to get a grasp on the nature of things; it’s part of the philosophical enterprise. There is also everything right about trying to understand the nature of things in terms of how that nature is embedded in contexts of historical and systemic specificity. That is where I think Ollman’s ‘gauntlet’ made a big impact on my thinking about the world.

YouTube Index to Don Lavoie Lectures, 1980–1981

A Libertarian Perspective on Immigration (February 13, 2023)

Planned Chaos: The Failure of Socialism (February 20, 2023)

Freedom: Libertarian versus Marxist Perspectives A Discussion with Don Lavoie and Bertell Ollman (February 27, 2023)

Song of the Day #1951

Song of the Day: Sweet Cherry Wine, words and music by Richard Grasso and Tommy James, appeared on the 1969 psychedelic rock album “Cellophane Symphony,” by Tommy James and the Shondells. This anti-Vietnam War protest song was among those included on the jukebox at the Stonewall Inn in the early morning hours of this day, when that gay bar was raided by police for the umpteenth time. But the patrons fought back, asserting the authenticity of their own lives and the right to pursue their own happiness. In looking back on the Stonewall riots, some commentators have cited an urban legend that views the June 27, 1969 funeral [YouTube link] of gay icon Judy Garland—who was born 100 years ago this month (on June 10, 1922)—as an emotional catalyst for the riots late that night. This view has been challenged by many, but there is a poetic irony that gay men of a different generation once referred to themselves euphemistically as “friends of Dorothy” and that Garland’s most iconic song (and LGBTQ anthem), “Over the Rainbow” [YouTube link] (from the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz“) finds its symbolic expression in the rainbow flag of Pride (though its creator, Gilbert Baker, denies the connection). Be that as it may—today, I proudly salute the Stonewall Rebels. From the 1969 Stonewall jukebox, check out “Sweet Cherry Wine” (below).

DWR (6): Market, State, and Anarchy

Today, the Center for a Stateless Society publishes an article by my very dear friend, Ryan Neugebauer: “Market, State, and Anarchy: A Dialectical Left-Libertarian Perspective.” Though this is not strictly a part of the series I’ve dubbed “DWR” (“Dialogues with Ryan”), the article certainly evolved over a period of time during which Ryan and I have had many lengthy discussions about so many of the issues addressed in this new piece.

The article offers a wide-ranging critique of the status quo of “Liberal Corporate Capitalism”, before launching into a detailed critique of proposed “alternatives to the status quo”, including “Free-Market Propertarianism”, “State Socialism”, and “Anarchism.” Since Ryan considers himself at minimum a philosophical anarchist (as do I), much of what he has to say entails a perceptive engagement with some points of view that he himself has held over the years. Indeed, what makes the article worthwhile is that it is a dialectical combination of both critique and self-critique.

The article includes many wonderful citations, including some to my own work on the usefulness of a dialectical methodology for a critical libertarian socio-political project. Ryan grapples with the need of radicals to function on the basis of the real conditions that exist. His left-libertarian framework—a framework with which I, myself, have been associated—is one that “seeks to make the best of what we have where we are presently at and always push to do better. It will not however paralyze itself with rigid dogmas and face destruction.” He writes:

Ultimately, I fall on the Left-Libertarian side of things. I especially like its emphasis on a sustainable, non-bloated autonomism—that is, the building of spaces of autonomy in the now and outside the current system. Such autonomism requires the freedom to create without asking for permission in a system that provides signals for judging individual needs and relative scarcity. This will most likely entail a complex mix of commons, markets, and cooperatives. It will also require a movement away from a system that treats land like a typical commodity, a system that encourages dependence on capitalists through subsidies, intellectual property rights laws, crony trade deals, and regulations that restrict competition. Politically, more people need “skin in the game” on a decentralized, local level

Given its wide-ranging scope and its accessible, succinct delivery, I strongly recommend Ryan’s article to your attention! Check it out here.

Coronavirus (37): An Indexical Reflection

This is the thirty-seventh and final installment to my Coronavirus series, which began two years ago on this date. This installment serves as an index to the entire series.

I use the word “indexical” not only to suggest the index herein, but as a reflection of the word’s actual meaning: a linguistic expression whose reference can shift from context to context. That is what this series has done over time; as the context has continued to evolve, not a single installment has ever been written in stone, and all of them should be subject to evaluation based on the contexts in which they were first composed. What could be more dialectical than that?

As a kind of personal “journal,” this series has been as much a therapeutic exercise in dealing with an unfathomable number of deaths in my beloved city of New York as it was an attempt to come to grips with the many issues raised by COVID-19 and the policies adopted in response to it. Ultimately, it asked more questions than it answered.

As dates go, this one has an additional degree of irony. Fifty years ago today, “The Godfather” premiered at the Loew’s State Theatre in New York City to much fanfare. The film, and its later re-edited incarnation (with its two sequels) as a chronological epic, remains one of my all-time favorites. Not for its famous tropes or its classic quotes, but for its illustration, in painstaking detail, of how the inversion of values destroys the human soul. The characters therein ostensibly try to preserve that which they value through nefarious means that lead to the loss of those values—and of life itself.

While that 1972 film drives home this point in the context of warfare among mob ‘families’, their legions of hitmen pale in comparison to the warfare perpetuated by states across the world, which have perfected the art of mass murder in a way that would make even the most ruthless of Mafia Dons blush.

In war, even in those wars fought against horrific forces of oppression, there are always consequences, both intended and unintended, that forever become a part of the political landscape. For example, the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II left in its wake the consolidation of a U.S. military-industrial complex and a national security state and ongoing policies of “perpetual war for perpetual peace”—whether it was called the Cold War, the War on Terror, or the War on Drugs. But states and their ruling classes, ever responsible for wars, have also exploited disasters—natural or man-made—to expand their powers, suppress civil liberties, and destroy the fabric of social and economic life.

That is why libertarians have been gallant opponents of state expansion, knowing full well that state actors rarely act in good faith and that governmental overreach especially during emergencies is not easily rolled back. Such emergencies have been exploited throughout history in ways that tap into people’s anxieties and fears while augmenting their obedience to a class of politically connected “experts.”

I am a libertarian—a dialectical one at that. Which means that while I retain my libertarian distrust of political and economic elites, I fully understand that we live under a certain set of institutional constraints and that the real conditions that exist give human beings highly limited and imperfect tools to deal with emergencies as they arise.

I am also a native New Yorker. I have experienced much heartache in this city, from 9/11 to Superstorm Sandy. And I have witnessed, with my own eyes, the deaths of countless fellow New Yorkers at the height of the COVID pandemic. I was utterly aghast when many of my libertarian friends were branding the pandemic an “exaggeration” or worse, a “hoax”. There has always been room to debate the effectiveness of this or that policy in response to COVID. But the epidemic of denialism that swept across libertarian circles—while neighbors to the right of me and neighbors to the left of me were literally dropping dead—only compounded my sadness. Denialism is not a strategy. It is an admission of defeat—that one has no proposals to deal with an externality, whatever its scope or fatality rate.

***

I was recently asked a very interesting and relevant question by my friend, Alexander Wade Craig: “What context have we lost in the changes COVID brought to our social lives that you think we are 1) better off for having lost, and 2) worse off for having lost?”

I acknowledged that this was a very difficult question to answer. Even though I’ve written 36 previous installments covering the pandemic and its implications, it is going to take many years to truly understand COVID-19 and the response to it—and the costs that each brought to both life and liberty. Still, this event helped to illuminate notions that we are better off for having lost, as well as notions that we are worse off for having lost—and these notions are essentially two sides of the same coin:

1) The spread of COVID-19 made it clearer than ever that the world is a global community, interconnected in ways that cannot be altered by artificially created borders. Given the ebb and flow of peoples across artificial boundaries imposed by nation-states, we learned swiftly that a virus, like the people it infects, knows no borders. What first shows up in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, in China, spreads to the Korean peninsula, Australia, Canada, France, Italy, the United States, Russia, Africa, and throughout the world. This is not a call to close borders; it is simply an acknowledgment of the unavoidable interconnections between peoples across the Earth. So, we’re better off for having lost the idea that somehow people can be isolated from one another—a rather sobering lesson, considering that the response to an infectious disease has typically been lockdowns, quarantines, and other policies of separation.

2) So, the other side of that coin introduces us to a whole litany of ‘separateness’: distancing, mask-wearing, quarantining, and so forth. Hence, just as a global pandemic illustrates that people cannot be hermetically sealed from one another (a good thing), it simultaneously leads to efforts to do precisely that: hermetically seal ourselves off from others. The effect of isolation (whether it was chosen or coercively imposed) has been increased social alienation, a rise in mental health problems, substance abuse, and overdose deaths. People of all ages, from the very young to the very old, were deleteriously affected by this isolation. I suspect that these effects will lessen over time, as the COVID ‘crisis phase’ dissipates, but we are still worse off for having lost that social connectedness for such a long period of time, no matter how necessary it may have been for various people in various contexts.

Nathaniel Branden once wrote: “We stand within an endless network of relationships. Separation and connectedness are polarities, with each entailing the other.” It’s very sad that so many people have learned the truth of this principle in such a tragic way.

Here is a chronological index to all the installments in my Coronavirus series; unless there is some huge issue that needs to be addressed in some dramatically different way, I suspect that this installment, like the last one I wrote on 9/11 (for the twentieth anniversary of that day), will be the final installment in this series. And it’s fully in keeping with my friend Tom Knapp‘s “Prime Number Obsession”—that “all sets should consist of a prime number of items.” 37 is a Prime Number! (Tom also reminds me that it’s Pi Day too!)

Coronavirus (1): School Closures (March 14, 2020)

Coronavirus (2): Disease and Dictatorship (March 18, 2020)

Coronavirus (3): Love, Pets, and Booze to the Rescue! (March 22, 2020)

Coronavirus (4): In New York State … and Beyond (March 23, 2020)

Coronavirus (5): C’mon Ol’ Folks – Do Your Part for the Sake of the Country and Die! (March 25, 2020)

Coronavirus (6): Corona-Comedy – A Little Gallows Humor To Get Us Through (March 27, 2020)

Coronavirus (7): Corona-Chaos – A Pandemic from the Political to the Personal (March 28, 2020)

Coronavirus (8): A Message from Italy (March 29, 2020)

Coronavirus (9): A Message from New York City (March 29, 2020)

Coronavirus (10): “Standing Man” as Metaphor … or Blessed are the Healers! (March 30, 2020)

Coronavirus (11): “Opening Day” and Pitching In … (March 31, 2020)

Coronavirus (12): The Trials and Tribulations of Grocery Shopping … and Living in New York City (April 3, 2020)

Coronavirus (13): New York State of Mind (April 6, 2020)

Coronavirus (14): Numbers and Narratives (April 8, 2020)

Coronavirus (15): What’s in a Number? (April 13, 2020)

Coronavirus (16): Pearls Before Swine – Comic Gems In These Times (April 16, 2020)

Coronavirus (17): Ilana Mercer on Covidiots! (April 17, 2020)

Coronavirus (18): Gallows Comics (April 23, 2020)

Coronavirus (19): Reality Check (April 23, 2020)

Coronavirus (20): A Light-Hearted Moment in the Post Office (April 25, 2020)

Coronavirus (21): Lockdowns, Libertarians, and Liberation (May 5, 2020)

Coronavirus (22): Spring Cleaning (Or Three Cheers for Sanitation Workers!) (May 8, 2020)

Coronavirus (23): Mutual Aid During a Pandemic (or Three Cheers for the Volunteers!) (May 11, 2020)

Coronavirus (24): Three Cheers for the Ol’ Folks (May 12, 2020)

Coronavirus (25): Joseph “Joe Pisa” Sanfratello, RIP (May 15, 2020)

Coronavirus (26): Gallows Humor In These Times (May 28, 2020)

Coronavirus (27): Majority Rules NY (June 25, 2020)

Coronavirus (28): Sweden is Not New York (July 16, 2020)

Coronavirus (29): Medical Procedures in the Age of COVID … And I’m Still Alive! (October 6, 2020)

Coronavirus (30): “Cuomogate” and Systemic Crisis (February 19, 2021)

Coronavirus (31): Dose #1 for a “Fake” Virus (March 18, 2021)

Coronavirus (32): Junior’s Cheesecake (or Bring On Dose #2!) (March 27, 2021)

Coronavirus (33): Dose #2 and Done—Or Not! (April 15, 2021)

Coronavirus (34): “Virtue Signaling” vs. Doing the Right Thing (August 21, 2021)

Coronavirus (35): The ABCs – Authority, Boosters, and Caregiving (November 10, 2021)

Coronavirus (36): Denialism = Death (January 5, 2022)

Coronavirus (37): An Indexical Reflection (March 14, 2022)

I will end this series with one final dose of gallows humor, something that has marked many of the installments I posted over the past two years. And let’s face it, we have needed some laughter to get us through [YouTube link].

In one of my favorite comic strips, “Pearls Before Swine” by Stephan Pastis, “The Game of COVID Life” reminds us of how crazy our lives have been upended since the beginnings of this pandemic. Here’s hoping that the Finish Line is not one of closeted isolation, but a new commitment to social life, human freedom, and personal flourishing.