Category Archives: Pedagogy

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.

Sifting through the Noise

We all face the problem of “epistemic flooding,” in which we are overwhelmed with information through online algorithms that appeal to our biases. Whether from the right or the left, it is incumbent on us to be diligent in our approach to information and how it’s presented. Being critically engaged with that information requires more than just recognizing any logical fallacies that might be at work. It requires stepping outside our “preferred” outlets and challenging not only views that we oppose but also our own grasp of the issues.

A fine piece appearing on Medium today, written by my dear friend Ryan Neugebauer, addresses this problem. “Sifting through the Noise: Thinking and Engaging in the Age of Mass Media and the Internet” focuses on how the mass media cultivates an atmosphere in which “people have fallen down the rabbit hole of online conspiracy theories,” placing many of us in an “emotionally charged echo chamber” of confirmation bias, which “closes us out of information/perspectives contrary to whatever we may hold dear …”

Ryan asks: “[H]ow do we strike a balance that sifts through the noise, helps us to think better and be better informed, keeps us out of reinforcing echo chambers, and preserves our sanity and decency when engaging in the process?” The essay provides various strategies for achieving this.

One strategy in particular strikes me as crucial. In critical engagement with those whose ideas we oppose, we should not strawman their arguments. It is best to “steelman” our opponent’s perspective and critique their arguments in their “strongest form possible.” Charitable readings are helpful in more ways than one:

Even using the term “opponent” can come across as too antagonizing or adversarial. It’s better to think of each other as conversation partners in disagreement or in a quest to figure things out. Let’s not approach the situation like we are in an arena getting ready to destroy the other, but rather in an open-ended conversation trying to figure out the best position. That invites friendly, civil dialogue rather than each person being put on the defensive and getting increasingly agitated or angry. Additionally, each person is looked at as someone who has something to offer the conversation rather than someone who is simply wrong and in need of correcting. This also lowers the temperature in the room and makes each person feel valued.

I can’t think of a more humane way to approach our interlocutors in an era of immense divisiveness. The whole essay is a worthwhile read—including the resources it reveals. Check it out here.

New C4SS Article on Dialectics

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

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

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

Check out the “full context” here!

For discussion, see here, here, and here.

“Conversion Therapy” & The Tragedy of Alana Chen

This article can also be found on Medium.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what did they make of these children?

Monsters.

Why monsters?

To laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Elizabeth Sciabarra: A Celebration of Life

In honor of my sister. Register here for the event on May 6, 2023.

The Enragés: Dialectics with Ryan & Eric

I was delighted to listen to a new podcast of The Enragés at the Center for a Stateless Society (to which I was recently added as a fellow). The show is hosted by my dear friend Eric Fleischmann, who interviews yet another dear friend, Ryan Neugebauer, on his enlightening article, “Market, State, and Anarchy: A Dialectical Left-Libertarian Perspective” (previously discussed on Notablog here).

I have known Eric since he was a junior in high school, and have had the pleasure not only to read and comment on his work but to highlight his music as well. As for Ryan, we’ve known each other for five years now, and our ongoing dialogue has been a Notablog feature. Ryan has recently begun building an impressive series of self-reflective articles on Medium, detailing his many journeys—intellectual, personal, and spiritual. The courage and vulnerability exhibited in these essays speak volumes.

Aside from my friendship with these two wonderful individuals, they have both been, in many respects, students of my work. The good news is that they have had an impact on my life and work as well; I’ve been challenged by—and learned from—each of them.

The first question out of the gate deals with how we were introduced to one another and on how my dialectical libertarian approach impacted their thinking. It then proceeds into a wide-ranging discussion that lasts nearly an hour-and-a-half. They confront a diversity of issues, including the nature of ‘freed’ markets, the commons, authority, class conflict, and the state. Nearly every political ‘ism’ under the sun is addressed, from free-market-propertarianism and state socialism to distributism, democratic socialism, and anarchism (in all its varieties).

Most pleasing is the way in which they put dialectics to work, focusing on the structural and dynamic problems generated by the system that exists. They both repudiate binary thinking and navigate the tensions we face in our analysis of apparent opposites. And in their exchange, they place high importance on the necessity to adjust to changing contexts in our prescriptive thinking.

Ryan’s fine article is enriched by a commitment to genuinely progressive ideals. But ideals—inspiring though they may be—act primarily as guideposts in carrying forth an agenda for social change. As Eric puts it, Ryan shows that an array of traditions promising social change on both the left and the right often skip the most important starting point for prescriptive thinking: that context matters, that we must begin by asking the questions: “Where are you? What do you have? How did it get there? And what can we do to improve people’s lives in that situation?”

This podcast provides us with a thoughtful exchange that is fully accessible in its substance, conversational in its tone, and not lacking in a sense of humor. Indeed, when Ryan jokingly refers to himself as “Mr. Addendum” or uses phrases like “It depends [on the context]”—he’s preaching to the choir!

Check it out C4SS, Stitcher, Before It’s News, Twitter, and YouTube (see below)!

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)

DWR (7): On Free Will, Rand & Branden

Notablog readers should be familiar with my “Dialogues with Ryan” series, which began on November 7, 2021, and continued with Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6. Today, I add my reflections on a new live streaming video that my friend Ryan Neugebauer posted earlier this afternoon. In it, he discussed a wide range of issues, including the debate over libertarian free will, soft determinism/compatibilism, and hard determinism, the Libet experiment, the self and to what extent it’s an “illusion”, religion and religious ritual, and John Vervaeke’s views on the meaning crisis (a subject to which I will return later this year, when I complete Vervaeke’s brilliant series on the subject). Ryan asked me to comment on the views of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden with regard to the free will issue. Below are my lengthy comments:

***

I was finally able to watch the full stream and, like the earlier one, I thought it was wonderful. Since I was invited to say a few words, I’ll try to do so in a concise manner! (STOP LAUGHING! I will TRY!)

  1. On the libertarian free will vs. hard determinism debate, I agree with you 100%. I’ll preface this by saying I am a political and social theorist by profession, neither a trained philosopher nor a cognitive scientist. But, as you know, I look at things from a dialectical perspective, and this almost always leads me to charting a middle course through ‘extremes’ of all kinds. Like you, I too don’t like labels such as ‘soft determinist’ or ‘compatibilist’, but I think these approaches seem far more context-sensitive than the polar alternatives. I think that no choice is made outside a context and that context includes a mixture of in-born qualities, cognitive and emotional development distinct to each individual’s experiences, the social and cultural context within which we live, and the ways in which these contexts either nourish and promote or constrain and inhibit our ability to make choices. Hence, we choose, but our choices are never made outside a context, which both frames and influences them. (How much and to what degree is an open question…)
  2. I mentioned the work of Nathaniel Branden during the stream, but I’ve also been asked to comment on Ayn Rand’s approach to the issue of free will. While hard-core “Objectivists” will tell you that Rand was an ardent advocate of what is today known as ‘libertarian free will’, contained in her comment that the choice “to think or not to think” is the essence of that approach, it is true, as you note, that it’s far more centered on what she and Branden called the ability to volitionally raise or augment our focal awareness. That’s a far more meta- approach to this question (what Rand and Branden saw as a ‘psycho-epistemological’ issue).

    But I think she and Branden end up far closer to the ‘soft determinist/compatibilist’ view than most people realize. Each recognizes that there are myriad experiential factors that go into any individual’s capacity to augment focus and Rand was particularly critical of the anti-conceptual means exhibited in both culture and education, which undermined children’s abilities to augment focus and to move toward critical thinking. Having those abilities stunted by what she called ‘the comprachicos’ (a term meaning ‘child-buyers’, borrowed from Victor Hugo’s “The Man Who Laughs”), Rand argued that the cognitive damage done to people from a young age was fully in keeping with a distorted social system that required the stunting of that ability, the inculcation of obedience, and the bolstering of hierarchical authoritarian social structures.

    Branden, of course, went further, insofar as he added a substantive psycho-therapeutic dimension to this issue. He used an array of clinical techniques based on an integrated biocentric view of the human organism (with no bifurcation of body and mind ever implied), designed to help individuals in their own lives and in the context of the larger culture and social system in which they live to ‘break free’ of many of the constraints imposed by this context. Neither he nor Rand suggested that it was possible for anyone to jump out of their own skin and view things from a ‘synoptic’ vantage point outside the larger context of which they were a part, since we are both creatures of it, and creators of it. But he was committed to helping individuals reclaim aspects of their disowned selves, so often a product of their embedded past patterns, influenced by personal, cultural, and structural factors.

    I know that we often joke about the Randroids; I have been a frequent target of their scorn and they have been a frequent target of my ridicule. And they have done, in my view, more damage to the legitimately radical and enlightened elements in Rand’s approach than any of her critics.

    That said, my take on Rand has always charted a ‘middle course’ between the extremes of those acolytes and sycophants who believed she had popped out of the head of Zeus as a modern goddess of wisdom and those critics who have ridiculed her as a cult figure of no philosophical, intellectual, or critical importance. I reject both approaches unequivocally. I state that here only because what I’ve said about Rand above might strike those on either side of this divide as … surprising.