Monday, December 20, 2010

Santa Claus: America’s Most Wanted Fugitive

WASHINGTON, DC—A joint federal-state task force intends to apprehend Santa Claus, whom it regards as a dangerous fugitive, Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Chet Waldron told reporters yesterday.

Among the factors making Claus a “person of interest,” according to Waldron:
  • Claus’s entry of private property makes him guilty of civil, and probably criminal, trespass.
  • Claus’s immigration status is in question. He has repeatedly entered the United States without a passport.
  • Claus appears to have purposefully avoided the inspection of the goods he has imported into the United States by customs authorities and the payment of relevant tariffs.
  • Self-described “pro-family” groups have asked the administration to take action because Claus’s provision of toys to children interferes with their parents’ rights to oversee the upbringing of their offspring without adequate supervision, since many popular toys may encourage attitudes and behavior of which parents disapprove or legitimize values and lifestyles parents find objectionable.
  • The fact that Claus has failed to provide information about the contents of the packages he carries has raised questions about whether any of his actions violate US drug or money-transfer laws.
  • Claus enters and traverses US airspace using a custom-built vehicle that lacks approval by the Federal Aviation Administration. Further, FAA officials note that he does not file flight plans, lacks a pilot’s license, and flies through darkened skies guided only by a tiny bioluminescent red light, in a clear violation of traffic safety regulations.
  • Justice Department attorneys have raised questions about Claus’s willingness to distribute his products for free, asking whether doing so violates anti-dumping rules.
  • There is no record that Claus, who clearly “conducts business” in the United States, has eever obtained a business license.
  • Some items delivered by Claus are believed to have been produced in violation of US patent and copyright laws and international treaties.
Clause defenders had hoped that the arrival of the Obama administration would lead to reduced emphasis on the planned Claus prosecution. But the presence of vocal Claus critics—including Secretary of State, said to regard Claus as a “persistent threat to national security,” and Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole, who has been quoted as urging the North American Air Defense Command to “shoot the old guy out of the sky”—in the upper echelons of the Obama administration suggests that Claus will continue to be a federal target.

US Senator Joseph Lieberman (Ct.) has called on the White House to support designating Claus’s North Pole workshop a terrorist organization. “We’ll see how long people keep supporting this bastard when they realize we can seize their assets and lock them up in Guantanamo,” Lieberman enthused to a National Press Club audience.

While the administration has yet to formally endorse Lieberman’s proposal, “We’ll keep looking,” Waldron told reporters. “Americans concerned about their safety can be sure that we’re going to put a stop to this persistent threat.”

This is an altered version of a piece originally drafted by George Getz, who deserves full credit for the idea and much of the text. I discovered the original at Independent Political Report.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Humanizing Air Travel

It is gratifying in the extreme to see consumers responding in increasingly vociferous fashion to the accelerating dehumanization of air travel: kudos, in particular, to the founders of We Won’t Fly. It would be truly exciting if ordinary people managed to persuade the USG to retreat by ending the pat-downs and pornoscanners.

But it would be very unfortunate if, should they win this battle, passengers let up the pressure for more decent traveling conditions. Yes, the TSA has gone too far; but it’s never not gone too far. While the latest indignities are atrocious, if we treat the air travel regime in place before they began as largely acceptable, we will provide incontrovertible evidence that, like the frog in the proverbial kettle, we’ve become far too tolerant of abuse.

Even before 9/11, air travel was often unpleasant. There was too much screening; too much passenger time and energy were wasted on dealing with security theatre. But during the past nine years, we’ve moved from the antechamber of hell to its seventh or eighth circle. To take some obvious examples:

  • Our ability to check in at the last minute has been impeded by rules that preclude checking in less than thirty minutes before take-off. (Remember Robert Hayes’s last minute pursuit of Elaine onto her flight in Airplane? Presumably, it wouldn’t even be possible under today’s asinine rules.)
  • More broadly, our time is wasted by tedious security screenings that simultaneously necessitate our spending far more time in airports than we once did and subject us to persistent and repeated indignities. We’re forced to remove our shoes, to permit our belongings to be searched in a far more detailed fashion than we once did, and to surrender harmless nail clippers and toothpaste tubes to thugs backed up by other thugs with guns.
  • Perhaps most irritatingly, in order to avoid making the screening process even longer, people without tickets aren’t allowed to come to airport gates to see off or collect their friends.
And the entire process is designed to treat everyone like a potential criminal. It’s this process, and not merely the use of this or that screening device or security technique, that has to end. A few tweaks here and there simply aren’t sufficient to fix the problem.

(1) The most basic feature of any solution has to be the recognition that the TSA’s security theatre is a response to factors created by the USG’s foreign policy. Suicide terrorism isn't a product of blood-lust or religious mania, however much those things may facilitate it: it's a (completely immoral) reaction, born of powerlessness and frustration, to imperial violence. If the USG really wants dramatically to reduce the risk of suicide terrorism, it simply needs to leave Iraq, leave Afghanistan, and close its network of military bases around the world (a move that would, conveniently, also save taxpayers [at least] hundreds of billions of dollars).

(2) As long as it continues to provide or regulate air travel security, passengers must keep demanding that the USG roll back air travel security regulations, at minimum, to their pre-9/11 level.

(3) Ultimately, though, the USG needs to get out of the airport security business. Consumers themselves need to be free to decide just what kinds of risks they're willing to tolerate: they should be free to choose low-risk/low-intrusiveness airlines or minimally-lower-risk/high-intrusiveness airlines (the deliberately tendentious formulation reflects my conviction that the real impact on passenger safety of Gestapo tactics is limited). (One qualifier: airlines that negligently allow passengers to be harmed in virtue of the imposition of risks greater than those for which the passengers contracted, or which negligently allow third parties to be harmed by suicide terrorists’ use of planes, ought to be subject to appropriate sorts of tort liability. This would presumably affect airlines’ security policies.) Michael Chertoff can fly under whatever conditions he likes; I just don't want him and his corporate paymasters determining under what conditions I do.

Responding to an earlier version of these remarks, an acquaintance observed that airlines could use responsibility for security as an excuse for higher prices and bad service. No doubt. But it is difficult to imagine a less consumer-friendly environment than the one that obtains now. And since airlines and airports would have reason to compete on the convenience-and-dignity vs. security mix, there would, at any rate, be pressure for the treatment of consumers to improve. At present, by contrast, airlines and airports have no reason to give consumers’ concerns any weight at all.

Passenger anger at airport indignities can play a crucial role in making air travel more humane. But it can do so only if passengers continue to protest until they are treated like valued customers rather than criminals and slaves—until the root causes of suicide terrorism are addressed, post-9/11 indignities are eliminated, and, ultimately, air travel security arrangements are set by mutual agreements between airlines and consumers.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cranick Fire Fund

Tom Knapp has just alerted me to the existence of a PayPal account, CranickFireFund@Yahoo.Com, designed to help the victims of the Tennessee fire that’s received so much attention of late. I would encourage readers to consider supporting this fund.

The Fulton Fire Fiasco

The decision by a Tennessee fire agency to deny service to a family with a burning house because the family had failed to pay the agency’s subscription fee (the agency was operated by the city of Fulton but provided service to non-residents on a subscription basis) has prompted sustained discussion throughout the blogosphere, with repeated claims that the incident demonstrates inherent difficulties with the fee-based provision of fire services. Implicitly, then, statists are inclined to see the incident as supporting an argument for state provision of such services, and thus for statism more generally.

The story is complicated, as such stories always are, by the facts. The incident happened, it appears, because the homeowners’ grandson started a fire too close to their home. The decision not to provide service was evidently a long-standing city-council voted policy, and the fire-fighters’ insurance apparently wouldn’t cover them if they provided service to a non-subscriber. On the other hand, the homeowners had apparently received fire service on a previous occasion when their service subscription was similarly unpaid (they evidently paid the day after they received the service), and so might reasonably have expected that they would in this case, too. It would be easy to become engrossed in the details of this particular story; but I’d like to take a step back and think about the big-picture issues it raises. I don’t believe it has to be seen as offering any support for statism.

Fire Service Is Not a “Public Good”

Characteristically, statists maintain that the state needs to deliver a good if it is “public” or “collective”—roughly, such that, if it is provided to anyone in a given public, it is effectively available to all the members of the public, including those who opt not to pay. The standard public goods argument for the state suggests that public goods will be undersupplied on the market for this reason.

There are all sorts of interesting things to say about this argument, but the important thing to notice is that it doesn’t apply here. Fire service is, in general, a private good: providing it to one person doesn’t entail providing it to everyone. So it’s not clear why it shouldn’t be provided on the market, even on the statist’s own preferred criterion.

Fire Services Should Not Be Tax-Funded

The statist answer, in this case, seems to be that the consequences of not providing service are so devastating that it is better to de-link fee payment and service provision. For the statist, this means funding services via taxation.

There are three obvious objections to the statist’s solution to the problem. First, the extraction of taxes at gunpoint by the state is itself unjust. Second, even if tax extraction to fund fire service provision were legitimate, a state powerful enough to extract taxes to be used to support fire service provision would obviously be powerful enough both to extract taxes for other, less desirable, purposes and to engage in other sorts of mischief. Third, if funding for fire service provision is delinked from expressed consumer demand for fire service provision and is instead set politically, funding levels are likely to be inefficient and unrelated to actual need or demand.

Why It Might Seem Reasonable to Deny Service to a Non-Subscriber

If fire service is not funded by taxation, does that means that it needs to be funded by subscriptions? And, if so, must a subscription-funded agency deny emergency service to non-subscribers?

Tom Knapp has made a very plausible case for denying service here and here. (Art Carden’s comment on the story is not altogether conclusive, but might be read as a case for something like Tom’s view.) Tom argues that subscribing to a fire service is like placing a hedged bet. If the odds are low that one will need the service, it will always be tempting not to pay one’s subscription. However, providing fire service is a capital intensive business (trucks and fire houses are expensive) and one with ongoing operating costs (firefighters need to spend long periods on-duty, even when they’re not fighting fires, so they’ll be available when fires actually occur). If people don’t subscribe to a fire agency, the agency will lack the resources it needs to function in a consistent manner on an ongoing basis. And the only realistic way to ensure that they will subscribe is consistently to deny service to non-subscribers.

Duties and Consequences

This approach raises concerns of two kinds.

(a) It seems to involve support for arrangements in accordance with which firefighters will stand idly by and allow their neighbors’ homes to burn, thus violating what would generally be regarded as a moral responsibility to eschew indifference to the vulnerability of others to harm.

By referring to this responsibility, I’m not suggesting that there is a general duty to prevent any and all harms. Rather, my claim is that, per my preferred version of the Golden Rule, I ought to prevent or end a harm to you in a given set of circumstances if I would resent your refusing to help me in similar circumstances were our roles reversed. Also, to be clear: I’m also not arguing that force may be used to require people to fulfill the duty of limited beneficence that follows from the Golden Rule or to punish them or secure compensation from them if they do not do so.

(b) It obviously leads to a terribly undesirable result: someone’s home is destroyed, even though the cost of saving it is significantly less than the value of the home itself.

It is, of course, possible to respond to (a) by noting that there is a duty on the part of firefighters in the imagined situation to all those in a position to benefit from the provision of fire service and willing to pay subscription fees. It might be maintained that one would be ill-serving paid-up subscribers if one rendered assistance in this case, since doing so would increase the odds that potential subscribers would fail to pay their subscriptions, and so limit the ability of the agency to meet its capital and operating needs and protect existing subscribers. Paid-up subscribers willing to pay subscription fees might well have reason to resent the provision of service in this case if it prevented them from receiving service when they needed it. Firefighters might recognize, in turn, that their reaction would be the same as that of the subscribers, and that they would therefore act unreasonably if they provided services to non-subscribers.

This is not a silly argument, and I do not want to treat it dismissively. It is surely right that obligations to all subscribers might trump the responsibility to show limited beneficence to non-subscribers in danger of suffering severe fire damage. However, it is possible to imagine arrangements that would not require fire agency personnel to stifle their compassionate responses and to refuse to prevent immediate, proximate potential loss but that would simultaneously ensure adequate service to those willing to pay their fair share of service costs via subscription. And such arrangements are surely preferable to those that make adequate service levels possible while requiring a firefighter to suppress her or his desire to help someone else in serious danger.

Competition as a Guarantor of Emergency Service to Non-Subscribers

Perhaps the firefighter need not be concerned, because another fire agency would step in were one agency to decline to provide service. Roderick Long and Bob Murphy both see market competition as a crucial source of security here. And it surely would be as regards subscription fees, for instance. On the other hand, it seems as if a competing agency would confront the same incentives as the agency initially contacted by the fire victim: if the competitor agency operates with a subscription-based funding model, it runs the risk of discouraging the subscriptions it needs for ongoing, consistent operation if it opts to respond to a call from a non-subscriber. So it, too (if Knapp’s argument about the economic challenges faced by a solo agency is correct) might find it counter-productive to provide on-the-spot services to non-subscribers.

Imposing High On-the-Spot Charges as a Way of Ensuring Regular Subscription Payments

But perhaps this criticism assumes that the non-subscriber pays only the subscription fee. Trey Givens, David Henderson, Long, Murphy (see here and here), and Jacob Hornberger all suggest that an economically rational fire agency would have been willing to deploy and extinguish the fire for some appropriately high on-the-spot service fee—one significantly in excess of the standard subscription rate. Long suggests that the victim be asked to “pay full price.” Murphy proposes “a penalty rate.” Givens suggests “a premium for on-the-spot requests” and notes that “[t]he firefighter who negotiates a decent rate for . . . [on-the-spot service] would get praised for his initiative.” Henderson endorses an approach featuring an on-the-spot charge that is “a high multiple of the annual fee.” And Hornberger maintains that “a private fire department would have the incentive to have pre-written contracts in which an owner who had failed to purchase fire protection would be asked to agree to pay, say, double the costs of putting out the fire.”

I think it is possible to be more precise than this. If Knapp is correct, as I believe he is, that the hedged-bet analogy is appropriate, then a homeowner will be inclined to avoid paying the subscription fee as long as she estimates that it will be more efficient for her to pay the on-the-spot fee. The question, then, is: at what level should the on-the-spot charge be set to discourage homeowners from declining to pay the subscription fee? The answer seems relatively clear: at a level such that the on-the-spot charge, when discounted by the actuarially determined likelihood that a given homeowner will need fire service, exceeds the subscription fee. A safe estimate of this likelihood might be 0.25% (thanks to Tom Knapp for dialoguing about this and related matters). If this estimate is correct, the on-the-spot charge would need to be over $30,000. A rational consumer would judge that paying $75 on an annual basis would make more sense than paying, say, $32,000 in the event of a fire.

(An aside: it appears that one reason the Fulton fire agency stopped providing service to non-subscribers outside the city limits was that it was difficult to get them to pay after the fact. I think Hornberger is right that “pre-written contracts” would help; and I share Nathan Byrd’s view that a contract providing the fire agency with a lien or other security interest in the property would help to ensure payment.)

The Claim That Letting a Home Burn Would Ensure Regular Subscription Payments More Effectively than Levying a High On-the-Spot Charge

Knapp’s objection to this analysis is, if I understand him correctly, that the odds of losing $32,000 will seem so low in a case like this that people simply won’t pay the subscription fee. Thus, the only way to ensure that subscription fees are consistently paid will be refusing to protect a non-subscriber’s home pour encourager les autres. I don’t want to deny the obvious motivational power of the image of a neighbor’s home burning. But there are at least two reasons why one might not necessarily accept this conclusion.

First, recall that the suggestion is that someone would judge paying a fire-agency subscription unnecessary in view of a possible $32,000 on-the-spot charge because of her estimate of the probability of actually needing fire services. But notice that she’s going to make the same estimate of the probability of a home fire without the possible availability of an on-the-spot alternative to a subscription. What’s going to change, of course, is her estimate of the cost of the fire. If her house is worth $320,000, the potential value of the $75 investment in fire service certainly increases. However, the potential pay-off for making that investment is still enormous even given the availability of an on-the-spot fee, and many of those not willing to make the investment in one case can thus be expected not to make it in the other.

Non-subscribers obviously fall into two groups: the lazy and forgetful on the one hand and rational calculators on the other. Someone who’s lazy and forgetful—who would have purchased a subscription but has simply neglected to do so—is not going to be affected by incentives. Ex hypothesi, she’s simply not thinking about the problem. Learning that someone else lost a house by not paying a fire agency subscription might awaken her from her neglectful slumbers, but so might learning that someone else had had no choice but to pay $32,000 because of having declined to pay such a subscription. By contrast, a genuinely rational calculator would certainly make the judgment that paying $32,000 in the event of a fire is less efficient than paying a $75 annual subscription.

Second, setting the on-the-spot fee at the level I have envisioned would enable the agency to cover its costs even if significant numbers of people chose to avoid the subscription fee and gambled on not having to pay the on-the-spot charge. Of course, this might mean that cash-flow was not as consistent as it would be in the case of subscriptions (and it is not clear that this is so, given that subscriptions would likely be paid at different points throughout the year, and perhaps somewhat erratically). But it would be considerably easier, with substantial payments by non-subscribers in hand, for the agency to opt for debt-based financing. It could borrow against its expected income, including income from on-the-spot charges. And it could build the cost of interest payments into the on-the-spot charges (perhaps increasing them from $32,000 to $35,000).

Alternatives to Subscription- and Debt-Based Funding for Fire Agencies

The conversation to-date has operated on the assumption that subscription and debt were the only mechanisms available for an envisioned fire agency to fund its operations. The fire agency has effectively been envisioned as (i) a member-funded cooperative (a reminder that “the market” need not mean the realm of for-profit commercial transaction) and (ii) a free-standing entity delivering only fire-related services. It is possible to envision at least three other options. Selecting any of them (and they could in some cases be combined) could make a fire agency that offered services to people who had not paid subscription fees more viable.

1. The agency could explicitly incorporate a charitable component in its operations. Community members able to do so could be asked to either to (a) cover the costs of subscriptions for particular persons or to (b) contribute to a fund designed to cover the emergency provision of services to non-subscribers. (Presumably (a) would be less subject to abuse, since it would be possible to assess genuine need on a case-by-case basis and exclude free-riders.)

2. The agency could bundle services of various kinds (insurance more generally and protection against violence are obvious examples) and could obtain needed operating funds in connection with its other services. This might allow it to have larger cash reserves and, in effect, to borrow from itself rather than from an interest-charging lender, “paying itself back” from on-the-spot fire service charges. (Thanks to Kevin Carson for outlining a version of this option to me.)

3. The agency could operate on a for-profit basis, obtaining funds, therefore, not only from customers but also from investors. The investor-provided funds could obviously cushion the agency in cases in which subscriber payments were low.

In principle, it seems as if any of these options, or several in combination, would make it possible for a fire agency to provide on-the-spot services to non-subscribers (perhaps for less than the sort of on-the-spot charge I have discussed here) and still maintain the resources needed to cover its capital and operating costs.


Private fire agencies like this one (CHT David Henderson) operate successfully in today’s economy. But critics of the market have argued that the behavior of the Fulton fire agency, even though government-operated, is evidence that the market cannot be trusted with the provision of fire services and that these services must be entrusted to the state. There are good reasons to avoid giving the state responsibility for fire services or anything else. But anarchists must still acknowledge that statist critics are right to note the morally troubling nature of the denial of service to a fire victim who had failed to pay a fire service subscription.

There are, roughly, two possible, contrasting responses anarchists can offer to the charge that the market-based provision of fire services leads to morally disturbing behavior. On the one hand, they can argue that the actions of a freed-market fire agency that behaved like the Fulton fire agency would be morally justified, even if harsh, because only by denying service to non-subscribers could the agency ensure that it received the subscription payments it needed to operate successfully. On the other, they can maintain that freed-market fire agencies would have alternatives other than denying service to non-subscribers and trying to operate with wild cash-flow fluctuations.

While I believe that the first option could be a morally responsible one, and while the assumptions about human behavior that underlie it may be correct, I have sought here to argue that we are not required to accept it and that other alternatives may be preferable in that they might make it possible for a freed-market fire agency both to provide emergency services to non-subscribers and to maintain a satisfactory financial position. Charging sufficiently high on-the-spot emergency services fees could be sufficient to incentivize rational calculators (and at least some of the otherwise lazy and forgetful)—who might under other circumstances be inclined to gamble that they would be better off not subscribing to a fire service—to pay low annual subscription fees. Charging high on-the-spot fees would also make it possible for agencies to maintain operating reserves and would render it easier for them to cover their costs effectively with debt-based financing if they needed to do so. Delivering some services as a charity (supported by appropriate fundraising) would enable a fire agency to provide emergency on-the-spot services to non-subscribers while enhancing its reputation. Bundling fire and other services would make it easier for an agency to assist those charged high on-the-spot fees without losing needed operating funds. And adopting a for-profit business model would enable an agency to secure needed funds from investors, and so to depend less on subscriptions—rather than on-the-spot charges—for financial stability.

The behavior of a tax-funded agency operated by a monopoly government is not necessarily a particularly good guide to the likely actions of a freed-market fire service. But statists have enthusiastically pointed to the Fulton tragedy as evidence that the market cannot be allowed take responsibility for fire safety. The actions of the agency can be seen as an understandable, if imperfect, response to the need to ensure satisfactory ongoing funding. But rather than defending it on this basis, I think freed-market advocates should point to alternate business models that would enable a freed-market fire agency to thrive even if it provided emergency services to non-subscribers. High on-the-spot service charges set in light of the likelihood of needed service, debt financing, charitable fundraising, service bundling, and investor funding could all contribute to the success of such a model. Thus, it can reasonably be argued that a freed-market fire agency need not behave like the Fulton fire department, and that a key criticism of non-state methods of service provision, and so a key argument for the necessity of the state, therefore fails.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cultural Roots and Collective Identity in a Libertarian Society

In general, a libertarian society would be hospitable to people’s cultural roots and col­lec­tive identities.

Placing one’s life story in the context of a larger, more inclusive narrative can help to give one a sense of meaning and direction. Some of the tales we tell for this purpose are religious, some metaphysical, some scientific, some ethnic, some cultural. Political libertarianism would not deprive anyone of the sense of identity conferred by any of these stories—unless, of course, it could only be preserved by force—and would doubtless contribute to the flourishing of a significant number. Cultural libertarianism might undermine some of these stories, but would certainly leave many undisturbed.

Varieties of Libertarianism

Political libertarianism opposes aggression—the initiation of force—by individuals, including those acting under the color of law. Cultural libertarianism seeks peacefully to undermine hierarchies in workplaces and other social institutions; to promote individual freedom of self-development, self-definition, and self-expression; and to foster an ethos of openness, dialogue, and critical reflection on social norms. Proponents of cultural libertarianism argue plausibly that their position emerges from the same respect for the value of freedom that underlies political libertarianism; that people who are not consistently skeptical about positional authority will find it difficult to sustain a free society; that the assumptions that ground some cultural arrangements are inconsistent with those embraced by political libertarianism; and that aggression frequently makes possible the maintenance of hierarchical social arrangements, even if those arrangements are not themselves aggressive.

Political Libertarianism and Collective Identity

Political libertarianism would leave people free to form whatever non-violent social arrangements they might like and to remember and celebrate whatever narrative sources of cultural identity they might opt to embrace. Do you claim the story of the Israelites following Moses through the wilderness as your own? Are the Cluniac monks your spiritual ancestors? Do you see the Boxer Rebels as your forebears? Political libertarianism leaves you free to identify with them, to celebrate what you judge to be their accomplishments, to treat them as central to your own heritage.

Creating Space for Identity

Indeed, it is important to emphasize that your ability to preserve and share a cultural identity you cherish would be greater in a politically libertarian society than it is in societies dominated by states. By taxing people, states claim resources their subjects could have used to preserve identity-constitutive places, objects, and traditions. But the state poses more serious problems for those who want to nourish particular cultural identities.

The state’s haphazard identity-preserving projects are funded in part by taxes paid by members of minority cultures who may have little interest in preserving the artefacts or life-ways on which the state focuses the resources it has acquired. In addition, even putatively liberal states frequently suppress or relocate cultural minorities; and state-owned media and schools can operate to erase regional dialects and other signs of sub-cultural distinctiveness. At the same time, because governments overseeing increasingly diverse societies frequently wish to treat all cultural groups inclusively, state-funded cultural projects tend often to be instances of characterless pabulum, with little or no capacity to contribute to the transmission of any particular cultural identity. Further, when the state claims the authority to safeguard a majority culture, it almost unavoidably also claims a hegemonic role as interpreter of that culture—often distorting or reconstructing it in perverse ways, or co-opting its values and symbols as sources of legitimation.

The existence of state-owned property and employment by state agencies creates endless opportunities for conflict over cultural matters in statist societies. Which religious symbols may be displayed on public land? Will officially led prayers be permitted in state schools? Which holidays will be officially recognized? Which culturally significant dress codes will teachers, soldiers, judges, or nurses be allowed to follow? Different interest-groups with the ability to influence the state can engage in repeated contests over such matters, each seeking to ensure that the state works to preserve particular identity markers. The end result is that cultural, religious, and ethnic communities come into conflict with each other, and that pressure to avoid any expression of distinctiveness increases.

The problem is only exacerbated when the state opts to use force not only to manage affairs on the property it claims for itself but also to constrain people’s freedom with respect to admittedly private property in the interests of preserving or suppressing particular cultural identities. The French government’s bans on the public wearing of the burqa and on the wearing of the hijab in state schools are obvious examples—they prevent people from using their own property in relation to their own bodies. So are efforts in New York and elsewhere in the United States to use the state’s claimed power to regulate land use to prevent the construction of religious structures. In statist societies, people’s peaceable attempts to express their identities and nourish their traditions can be opposed by actual or threatened state violence.

In a politically libertarian society, by contrast, members of varying cultural groups would obviously be free to spend their money as they chose. They would not be required to subsidize others’ cultural preferences. They could erect monuments and houses of worship, put iconic images on display, at their own discretion on their own property. They could invest in efforts designed to preserve objects and practices and memories they cherished. They could operate schools that transmitted their beliefs and habits.

Obviously, conflicts over the proper uses of places and things with multiple cultural meanings will not go away in a politically libertarian society. However, by removing these conflicts from the realm of politics, by assigning responsibility for the contested sites or objects to particular people or organizations in accordance with outcome-independent rules, a libertarian society can in some ways localize their intensity, reducing the likelihood of spill-over clashes, and render them more manageable.

Aggression and Culture

In a politically libertarian society, people would be free to retain cultural roots and collective identities—and unlikely to confront many of the conflicts over cultural issues that the state unavoidably creates. Such a society would thus not only be free from state-related tensions that often prompt the suppression of cultural particularity but also provide more room for cultural expression than a statist society. At the same time, however, it would not and could not make room for any and all practices designed, even in good faith, to preserve deeply valued cultural mores. For a society that genuinely embodied political libertarianism would be one in which a norm precluding aggression was rightly understood as a necessary prerequisite to social peace and to both individual and cultural flourishing.

In such a society, the claim that a given practice somehow supported the preservation of this or that group identity would obviously be insufficient to justify the practice if it involved aggressive attacks on persons or their justly claimed property. To take obvious examples, clitoridectomy, infibulation, and foot-binding could not be regarded simply as expressions of particular cultural preferences, to be treated with the same deference as habits of dress and efforts directed at the preservation of historically significant monuments. As instances of aggressive force, they would clearly fall beyond the pale in a politically libertarian society. (I prescind from those cases in which those who would otherwise clearly qualify as the victims of these aggressive acts indisputably render free and informed consent to them. Cultural libertarianism surely embodies a commitment to discouraging such consent and the beliefs and attitudes underlying it.) So, too, would the use of physical force to exclude people from trading relationships, prevent people of the purportedly wrong sort from living in particular neighborhoods, or keep people from destroying or altering their own property in ways likely to eliminate or distort objects of cultural significance.

Some kinds of collective identities might not survive if those who valued them could not use force to preserve them. To this, the advocate of a libertarian society will have no reasonable choice but to say: so be it. A politically libertarian society would leave room for many cultures and collective identities to flourish, but it would obviously not be equally welcoming to all. Only those which people were prepared to own without the threat of force would survive and thrive. Of course this would remove one means of preserving and transmitting collective identities. At the same time, however, it would ensure that those who shared those identities did so voluntarily and were thus more personally invested in them—and so more likely to preserve and transmit them—than might be the case in a society in which they were preserved by force.

The Limits of Libertarian Culture

While a politically libertarian society would nourish diverse collective identities, a society that was also culturally libertarian might be friendly to fewer such identities.

Individuality and Identity

Cultural libertarianism is fundamentally individualistic, so it might be thought that a fully libertarian culture would have no room for collective identities at all. But there is surely no reason to suppose this. For the sense in which libertarianism affirms individualism need not entail any deep-seated conflict with the affirmation of a densely textured cultural identity. It is quite possible to be an individualist who cherishes a sense of place, who treasures the contribution historical predecessors have made to his or her sense of self, who recognizes the importance—indeed, the inescapability—of learning about the world and one’s place in it from one’s traditions. Cultural libertarianism need involve no commitment to a Promethean view of autonomy, an existentialist vision of self-creation, or a naïvely foundationalist rejection of tradition. One can be a cultural libertarian without aspiring to be the deracinated individual of philosophical fantasy.

Cultural libertarianism is animated first and foremost by a desire, positively, to see the full range of human possibilities explored and put on display and, negatively, to avoid the suppression of dignity, freedom, creativity, and uniqueness that occurs when people are subjected to the whims of hierarchs, experts, blue-noses, busy-bodies, and paternalists. In short, cultural libertarians “don’t want to push other people around . . . and . . . don’t want to be pushed around themselves” (Murray N. Rothbard, letter to David Bergland, June 5, 1986, qtd. Justin Raimondo, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus 2000) 263-4). Seeking neither to push nor to be pushed is quite compatible with seeing oneself as part of a wider whole, with making sense of one’s own story in light of a more comprehensive narrative.

Rejecting Illiberal Identities

But if support for cultural libertarianism need not mean opposition to collective identity in principle, it is still certainly the case that it does mean rejection of particular sorts of collective identities. Cultural libertarianism will certainly prompt rejection, for instance, of racism and of multiple varieties of nationalism.

It is quite possible to be a peaceful racist—to avoid racially motivated violence against person or property while nourishing prejudice and fostering and engaging in unwarranted discrimination. One may quite non-aggressively develop and cling to a sense of oneself defined by identification with one group of people on the basis of their race and dismissal of others on the basis of theirs.

A narrowly political libertarianism may have nothing in particular to say about this sort of non-aggressive stance. But it seems likely to fall foul of a more broadly cultural libertarianism. Even if it is itself expressed non-violently, this kind of racism can prompt violence. Racialized distributions of wealth and social power are often rooted in past acts of violence—enslavement and dispossession are particularly clear instances. Racism features an implicit unwillingness to see people as particular, as individual, and a penchant for reducing them to sets of stereotypes. And the underlying sense of the moral equality of persons that grounds libertarianism’s rejection of statism is, at minimum, difficult to square with racial prejudice.

None of this means that the cultural libertarian will judge it appropriate to use force to punish the racist for thinking bad thoughts or to prevent anyone from catering non-aggressively to racist tastes. But the cultural libertarian will be quite aware that, without statist privilege to sustain it, racism in the context of economic life will prove to be prohibitively costly over time. In addition, the libertarian—here, the purely political libertarian will have no quarrel with the cultural libertarian—will favor remedies for past acts of injustice that may often serve to reduce the aggression-based power of the racist. The cultural libertarian will also strongly favor the use of non-violent forms of social pressure—shunning, public shaming, peaceful boycotts, and peaceful protests and strikes—to challenge the racist’s behavior.

Cultural libertarians will actively discourage racism. And, more fundamentally, the widespread adoption of libertarian cultural values would make it difficult for anyone to sustain a sense of self rooted in racial superiority or exclusivity.

There is no obvious incompatibility between embracing cultural libertarianism and identifying with a particular place—provided one simply values its treasures for their own sake, or prizes its contribution to making one who one is, rather judging other places to be objectively inferior. G. K. Chesterton and Bill Kauffman provide obvious and appealing models for an admirable localism. Conventional nationalism is another sort of creature altogether, however.

Nationalism characteristically involves loyalty, not to a revered place as such, but rather to the nation-state. The libertarian can hardly welcome a willingness to cheer for “my country, right or wrong,” not only because to support wrong-doing is to risk moral corruption but also because “my country” really means, not people and places dear to my heart, but rather the implacable apparatus of the state.

Nationalism too often finds expression in violence, especially militaristic violence—whether of an irredentist variety or in support of state expansion. Of course it need not. But the cultural libertarian will be wary of its capacity to underwrite aggression.

He or she will also look askance at nationalism’s frequent valorization of state boundaries, which often fail to track culture or geography meaningfully. There may be little connection between the actual people and places on which one’s loyalty focuses and the borders of one’s state. Similarly: sensitive to individuality and diversity, the cultural libertarian will also recognize that the geographic territory claimed by nation-states is characteristically home to people with varied cultural identities. Loyalty to the nation often seems to mean loyalty to the majority in a particular region, or perhaps to a minority that holds the reins of state power. As a variety of collectivism, nationalism too frequently seems to involve the erasure of the particularity of those who don’t identify with the majority’s culture—including members of minority cultures, people who identify with multiple cultures, and people in some sense within the majority culture who seek in one way or another to transform it.

The territory claimed by an enormous nation-state may arguably be not only too arbitrarily demarcated but also too extensive to provide a manageable focus for personal loyalty. A genuinely local perspective may often prove more compatible with human-scale attachments. This does not mean, of course, that one can or should ignore the role of others who are not local in shaping one’s identity and experience. The Loiner may recognize London as a world quite different from his or her own while still acknowledging that Trafalgar Square memorializes events without which life in Leeds might be very different indeed. But this need not provide an opportunity to smuggle nationalism in through the proverbial back door, for we can reasonably treasure our connections with geographically dispersed people and places—ones it would never occur to anyone to link with us under the same national umbrella—that have helped to make us who we are.

Preserving Identity in a Libertarian Culture

Whatever the fate of national and racial loyalties in a libertarian society, tensions surrounding families will doubtless be unavoidable. A society that tolerated aggression against children would hardly count as libertarian, but families unavoidably shape children in innumerable peaceful ways, and there will surely be those of culturally libertarian bent who will seek to challenge what they see as illiberal indoctrination of children by parents. In a politically libertarian society, not only individuals but also families and other groups in search of mutually reinforcing support for their distinctive worldviews and life-ways could obviously craft communities, territorial or virtual, in which their critical mass could allow them to counter the effects on each other of what they saw as objectionable elements of the wider culture. At the same time, it is easy to see that a society that created space for diversity would, indeed, render it difficult for any sub-cultural group to ensure wholesale identification with its traditions by all of its members.

Cultural libertarianism will tend to militate against a range of habits and practices that might be seen by some people as integral to their collective identities. Identities of some sorts—I have already instanced racism and many sorts of nationalism, but there are obviously others—will not be likely to survive in a libertarian culture. Others will persist, and perhaps even thrive, while being transformed by libertarian attitudes that undermine subordination and exclusion. And it would be unfair to deny that the loss of some cultural forms is a genuine loss, in the sense that it deprives people of patterns of existence and ways of understanding themselves and others that offer meaning and order to their lives. Those committed not only to political but also to cultural libertarianism will need to remind themselves and others that there are costs associated with the embrace of freedom.

But this is hardly reason to treat cultural libertarianism as underwriting cultural decline. To repeat: no more than political libertarianism does cultural libertarianism require or promote the abandonment of all sources of collective identity. Those that respect freedom and individual particularity can thrive in a libertarian culture. To be sure, the very capacity of some life-ways to fostering meaningfulness and order may be seen as depending on their immunity to criticism and their appearance of inevitability, and they will lack both in a culture of liberty. But an awareness of possibilities for improvement and a denial of uncritical regard to previously established cultural authorities can be quite compatible with continued esteem for and identification with traditions and communities and ways of life that offer people meaning and identity.

Libertarianism and Identity

A politically libertarian society will create space for many different kinds of identity-maintaining ways of being human—more, in general, than a society in which aggression is legitimized. Only those collective identities maintained through the use of force will be excluded from such a society, and we will be, I believe, well rid of them. A society that is not only politically but also culturally libertarian will likely be free of such sources of identity as racism and nationalism. But this kind of society can still welcome local loyalty, and any number of other identity-conferring relationships compatible with regard for individual dignity and freedom and the diverse forms of human flourishing.

I submitted a version of this essay to the 2010 Chris R. Tame Memorial Prize essay competition. Stephen R. L. Clark and Kevin Carson both provided insightful comments on an earlier draft.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Two Cheers for Conspiracy Theories

I don’t have much of a dog in this race. But I confess that I’m put off by blanket attempts to distance anti-authoritarian politics from “conspiracy theories.”

In practical terms, whatever the literal meaning of the words, a conspiracy theory is an account of an event that differs significantly from the account of the event endorsed by the mainstream media and the political establishment—characteristically in a way that can be seen as injurious to the establishment’s interests, and often involving the attribution of responsibility for mischief to the establishment or its agents.

If those C. Wright Mills called “the power elite” are essentially thugs and bandits—as a sensible class analysis suggests that they are—then there is surely good reason to expect them to engage in theft and violence. If political leaders are selected for their ambition—and so their willingness to put principle to one side—and their inclination to serve the interests of the power elite, there is surely good reason to expect them, too, to engage in theft and violence. Thus, there’s an argument to be made that a story suggesting that members of the power elite or their retainers in the political class are up to no good is more likely to be true than a similar story about an ordinary member of the population.

Similarly, if the members of “the power elite” play a significant role in shaping both state policy and the stances of media companies, there is good reason to assume that the stories injurious to the interests of the power elite are less likely to receive support from the mainstream media and government officials than stories beneficial to their interests. So it is sensible to expect that true stories of misdeeds by the power elite will not be endorsed or publicized by the mainstream media.

That the members of the power elite and the political class are more likely than ordinary people to be involved in plunder and murder and that the mainstream media are unlikely to give much attention to stories of their involvement in such activities does not, of course, show that any particular story about elite misconduct that is ridiculed in the mainstream media is correct—each such story should be gauged on its own merits. However, it does provide good reason to suspect that some conspiracy theories might be correct and to refuse to dismiss such theories simply because they are treated as silly by the mainstream media.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Class Struggle, Conservative Style

Codevilla, Anthony. The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do about It. New York: Beaufort 2010. Pp. xxvi, 150. Index. 978-0825305580. $12.99. Paper.


Class is a libertarian issue.

When today’s believers in free markets hear someone mention “class struggle,” they may be tempted to think of Karl Marx. The rhetoric of class conflict has been largely Marxist during the past century. But students of libertarian history know that classical liberals Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer pioneered class analysis before Marx (he gave them credit for doing so). Class was a central feature of the work of such libertarian stalwarts as Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Jay Nock, and Frank Chodorov. Class theory formed the heart of libertarian and one-time SDS leader Carl Oglesby’s neglected classic, The Yankee and Cowboy War. An article on class theory was featured in the very first issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies. And class analysis has continued to be an aspect of the work of such otherwise very different libertarian scholars as Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Roderick T. Long.

A simple way of getting at the difference between Marxist and libertarian versions of class analysis is this: for orthodox Marxist class theory, the problem is private property; for libertarian class theory, the problem is aggression.

Orthodox Marxism has tended to see class stratification as rooted in the institution of private property. Random differences in circumstances and endowments will lead to disparities in property. The existence of property rights will enable the wealthy to consolidate their holdings, transmit their property inter-generationally, and create an entrenched ruling class, which dominates political and economic life. Thus, the only way—according to orthodox Marxists—to deal with problem of poverty and oppression that results from class stratification is to dispossess the wealthy of the capital goods they’ve been able to acquire because of the property system and to eliminate the institution of private property in capital goods entirely.

Libertarian class theory, by contrast, sees the institution of private property as a bulwark of freedom, as long as it protects property that has been justly acquired—acquired by what Oppenheimer famously termed the economic means: characteristically, by homesteading unowned land or physical objects or receiving property through voluntary transfer from others. However, libertarian class theory maintains, from the very beginning of organized human society, some people have preferred to use force (or fraud) to obtain property—to employ the political means of obtaining wealth. For their mutual protection, and to make extracting wealth from others easier, some of the thugs engaged in the use of the political means created governments; a combination of propaganda, memory loss, and the tendency to treat existing arrangements as beyond question covered these governments with a patina of legitimacy.

Not all the thugs occupied government positions themselves, of course. Many simply welcomed the protection the government provided for their ill-gotten gains and concentrated on making more wealth. Without directly participating in politics, they improved their economic positions by ensuring that their existing property holdings were treated as legitimate, by stealing land and other resources (in partnership with the government or with its blessing), and by extracting privileges from the government—often lubricating its machinery with their wealth—that enabled them to increase their possessions. Others joined them as beneficiaries of state privilege. Some people who might have become wealthy initially through voluntary exchange could also use their wealth to secure privileges from the state. And some people who acquired governmental power because of their skills at electioneering or bureaucratic infighting used their positions not only to do the bidding of the wealthy but also to gain wealth and enter the economic elite themselves.

For libertarian class theory, the ruling class comprises those people who control the state and those whose wealth and social influence depend primarily on state-secured privilege (who are generally, in turn, either members of the first group or behind-the-scenes manipulators of those in the first group). Following C. Wright Mills, we can refer to those at the top of the twin political and financial pyramids as “the power elite.”

For libertarians, as Jeremy Weiland has put it, “the free market [would] eat the rich”: in a market genuinely liberated from politically secured privilege—including patents and copyrights, tariffs, land engrossment by the state, and state control of the money supply—it would be much harder for people to sediment great wealth and even harder for them to keep it. Competitive pressure would make it difficult for people to hang on to great fortunes. Contra the Marxists, the free market is the enemy, not the friend, of economic and social stratification. The rigged markets that obtain in today’s corporatist economies, by contrast, do indeed help those who already have wealth and power to retain it.

The libertarian enthusiasm for revisionist history—championed especially by Murray Rothbard—is inexplicable without an understanding of the centrality of class analysis to libertarian thought. Libertarian revisionism emphasizes that civics textbook explanations of economic-cum-political events, which take politicians’ high-flown rhetoric about philosophical ideals and military necessities at face value, frequently mask the self-interested pursuit of power by economic elites. The revisionist approach possesses more explanatory power if, as libertarian class theory holds, there really are distinguishable common interests and socio-cultural characteristics that link influential people and both encourage and enable them to manipulate the political process to their benefit.


Given the importance of non-Marxist class analysis for libertarians, it might seem like good news that Boston University’s Angelo Codevilla has made a contribution to the genre. In The Ruling Class, Codevilla argues that America has a ruling class—consisting of the people who “hold[] the commanding heights of government” (xv), those, “whether in government power directly or as officers in companies,” whose “careers and fortunes depend on government” (11). The Ruling Class is made up of “relatively few people supported by no more than one-third of Americans” (7). That third of Americans is, roughly speaking, socio-culturally liberal and, at the same time (and not coincidentally from Codevilla’s point of view) enthusiastic about expert management. While Democrats tend to support the Ruling Class, “[t]he Republican Party” hasn’t “disparage[d] the Ruling Class, because most of its officials are or would like to be part of it” (5).

The interests and concerns of the Ruling Class, Codevilla maintains, are sharply at odds with those of the rest of us. Well, about two-thirds of the rest of us—socially conservative people Codevilla calls “the Country Class” or the “Country Party.” The Country Party’s defining characteristics are its conservative attitudes regarding “marriage, children, and religious practice.” It favors civil society over the state as a means of solving problems, and prefers home schools to government schools. Politically, it “can be defined in terms of its lack of connection with government, and above all by attitudes opposite to those of the ruling class” (53). (Since the Ruling Class is said to valorize science, it is perhaps not surprising that Darwin is blamed for promoting elitism [16-7] and belief in evolution is identified as a sign of being “bitter about America” [19].)

The Country Class believes in human equality (57). And we can see what Codevilla’s getting at when he says this as a version of what Roderick Long has labeled equality of authority: no one is by nature anyone else’s boss; and attempts by experts paternalistically to manage others’ lives are rightly causes of anger. Thus, Codevilla opposes top-down planning, and notes that the Country Class “views the way people live their lives as the result of countless private choices rather than as the consequence of someone else’s master plan.” But he simultaneously assures the reader that “[t]he Country Class is not anti-government, just non-governmental” (53). Apparently members of the Country Class can be “government officials or officers of major corporations whose decisions will have far-reaching effects” (54). It is unclear how to square this possibility with the claim that the Ruling Class consists of everyone associated with the state, as all government officials and most officers of most major corporations certainly are.

“The Country Class,” Codevilla asserts, “thinks that individuals, and in special circumstances local elected officials—not federal or state bureaucrats—have the right to decide what kind of light bulbs a home should have, how much water should flow from a shower nozzle, what kind of toilet you should install” (56). (One might think local elected officials were officious meddlers just like federal or state politicians and bureaucrats. Perhaps they know more about local conditions. But this on its own doesn’t give them any more justified authority over other people’s lives.)

On its face, Codevilla’s proposed division sounds very much like that of standard libertarian class analysis—especially when he argues against corporate bailouts (1-2), notes the ruling class’s penchant for non-defensive, imperial warfare (23), assails “crony capitalism” (xx, 30-1), complains about the elite’s penchant for “picking [economic] winners and losers” (33), notes that the ruling class is bipartisan (3), fingers organized medicine as a politically privileged group (39), and objects to rule by paternalistic, managerial experts. When he writes that “[t]he Country Class is convinced that big business, big government, and big finance are linked as never before and that ordinary people are more unequal than ever” (55), populists and left-libertarians alike can be expected to cheer.

Codevilla argues that the ruling class’s power continues to grow as people are encouraged to accept the authority of culturally sanctified experts. And his brief against managerialist paternalism will ring true not only to libertarians but to decentralists across the political spectrum: we don’t need experts to run our lives, and trust in professionals, combined with a dismissive attitude toward ordinary people’s capacity for good judgment, can easily be seen as laying the groundwork for friendly fascism.


But the fact that Rush Limbaugh is credited as the author of the book’s preface will alert even the not-too-careful reader that this is not a libertarian book. The problem is that Codevilla often seems to lose sight of the difference between cultural and political-economic divisions.

For instance, the Country Class as intensely patriotic (59), despite the ease with which patriotism can be associated with just the sort of abuse of power against which members of the Country Class are supposed to—somewhat inconsistently—protest. Codevilla also seems to miss the degree to which the state is thoroughly involved in supporting the preferences of the Country Class. Contrasting the preferences of the Ruling Class and the Country Party, Codevilla maintains that, “left to themselves, Americans use land inefficiently in suburbs and exurbs” (33). Similarly—also, presumably, when left to themselves—“Americans drive big cars, eat lots of meat and other unhealthy things, and go to the doctor whenever they feel like it” (34). He seems blissfully unaware here of the impact of land-use policy, tax policy, and road construction policy on people’s living, driving, eating, and health-care consumption patterns.

The pro-family agenda he attributes to members of the Country Class challenges “emptying marriage of legal sanction, promoting abortion, and progressively excluding parents from their children’s education” (72). Codevilla articulates a disconnected set of attitudes that link the members of his Country Party: opposition to “higher taxes and expanding government, subsidizing political favorites, social engineering, approval of abortion, etc.” (52). It might be thought that opposition to abortion could be implemented legally only through “expanding government” and that involving the government in reducing or eliminating abortion was precisely a matter of “subsidizing political favorites”—of enabling some people to see their preferences implemented without having to pay the full cost of doing so. Obviously, this will not be the case if one judges that abortion is murder; but Codevilla certainly offers no argument for thinking this, or even much in the way of an elaboration of the details of a worldview within which it would make sense.

Codevilla is frustrated by the evacuation of religion from the public square, and he suggests that members of the Country Class are as well. Obviously, again, it’s hard to see how this has much to do with the desire not to be bossed around that clearly animates members of the country Class. But set that to one side for a moment: I fear sometimes that people who say things like this are simply tone-deaf to the ways in which members of religious minorities—adherents of religious traditions other than Christianity, moderate and liberal Christians, and non-religious people—experience the deployment of Christian symbols and language in the public sphere. The problem is not that people should be silenced when they want to give voice to their religious identities. The problem, instead, is that the state must either be neutral in ways that many people will find exclusionary, or else it must take stands that others will find exclusionary. There is no problem with religion in the public square if that means on the editorial pages of newspapers, on movie screens, in vigorous conversations between neighbors. The problem arises, instead, because when people say they want religion in the public square, what they often really mean is that they want religious convictions and communities to shape the policies of the state—or at least to have the opportunity to do so. If the state were a purely voluntary association which its members were free to abandon, there would be no problem with the presence of religion in its decision making. But the state is not voluntary: it is coercive. It claims territory and then demands that anyone in that territory submit to its demands and fund its activities. For this kind of organization to be shaped by religious principles is to open the door to religious tyranny. The only real solution to the problem of religion in public life is to ensure that all public life is state-free, organized on the basis of fully voluntary cooperation.

Codevilla bizarrely denies Ronald Reagan, an immensely successful and powerful politician with intimate connections with the wealthy and powerful, membership in the Ruling Class (75). Why? Because Codevilla asserts, without evidence, that Reagan shared the agenda of the Country Class. Since he did not in fact do much of anything to reduce state management of people’s lives, since he actually grew the federal government substantially, it seems far simpler to maintain either that Reagan deliberately deceived the members of the Country Class or that he shared their views but didn’t care much about them. To blame Ruling Class advisors for Reagan’s failure to adhere to Country Class values is as naïve as blaming establishmentarians a generation younger for keeping Barack Obama from ending war, torture, domestic surveillance, and corporate bailouts. In each case, it’s hard not to be reminded of the Russian serfs who really believed that, if the tsar actually understood what they were undergoing, he would be only too happy to liberate them—why, oh, why, they wondered, did his corrupt and wicked courtiers keep him from knowing the truth.


In the course of distinguishing the Ruling Class from the Country Class, Codevilla dismisses official apologies for such clusters of events as the use of nuclear weapons against noncombatants in World War II, the slave trade, and the institution of slavery (which he trivializes by writing: “some Americans held African slaves until 1865 and others were mean to Negroes thereafter” [25]) as apologies offered by elites on behalf of their inferiors, from whom they implicitly distance themselves in the act of apologizing.

The temptation to self-righteous condemnation of others is real and persistent. And if Codevilla had simply observed that no one has the right to apologize on behalf of anyone else, his argument would carry more weight. Of course, to acknowledge that would be to acknowledge that the United States as a going concern is a fiction, that people are responsible for their own actions, and that an entity that claims to act on behalf of others without their express consent lacks legitimacy. That hardly seems like the sort of argument he wants to defend, however.


The basic problem with Codevilla’s characterization of the Country Class’s putative agenda and identity is that the various elements don’t fit well with each other. Commitments to equality of authority, appreciation for civil society, and opposition to managerialism can be shared by a wide range of people, many of whom may value abortion rights, find marriage uninteresting, and loathe Christian radio. It is easy to see why someone who shared Codevilla’s family agenda would object to progressive managerialism; but there is no particular reason why someone who opposed progressive managerialism should be inclined to share Codevilla’s family agenda. There is not much, really, that links the Country Class’s social conservatism with its opposition to managerialist authority, unless opposition to managerialism is defined as an aspect of social conservatism. But the question would still be: what connects the various aspects of social conservatism thus defined?

I think this is because Codevilla’s work calls attention to two distinct problems, which he does not always clearly distinguish: the role of expert authority in our society and the role of the power elite in our society. It stands to reason that the power elite will employ experts to do its bidding. And experts may attempt self-aggrandizingly to increase their own social power. But it is crucial to distinguish between the managerial class and the ruling class.

He seems to maintain, with a straight face, that identity—embracing the values of educated, socio-cultural liberals—has more to do with membership in, and the agenda of, the ruling class than political and economic power. And this seems simply wrongheaded. The mistake is in supposing that what matters most about the Ruling Class is its members’ cultural identity or that its members’ primary goal is to force cultural change on the members of the Country Party. People often enjoy remaking others in their own images; but the principal objectives of America’s rulers seem to be much more prosaic than Codevilla’s narrative of culture war might seem to suggest: they want money and power, at home and abroad, with privileges for favored corporations, the various organs of the national security state to keep order domestically, and a global military presence to ensure access to resources and compliant cooperation with corporate interests around the world.

It may be—I offer no opinion on the matter—that a third of Americans (Codevilla’s figure) embrace generally liberal, cosmopolitan cultural values and that two-thirds are, in some important respects, more traditional in orientation. It may also be the case that many members of the power elite tend to be culturally liberal. But it obviously doesn’t follow that members of the power elite are unwilling to implement the culturally conservative preferences of “the Country Class” (they certainly seem to be when it’s politically beneficial to do so) or that no members of the power elite are culturally conservative.

Codevilla might be read as implying that statist leftists interested in the environment, for instance, were part of the ruling class; it would be more reflective of his argumentative approach, and far more consistent with a libertarian class analysis, to see environmentalists and advocates of human rights, say, as manipulated sources of rhetorical cover for corporatist politicians on the Democratic side of the political aisle, just as sincere proponents of free markets are consistently co-opted by Republicans. While there are surely exceptions, it is safe to assume that very, very little in the way of legislation or policy that doesn’t serve the interests of one segment or more of the power elite is ever adopted or implemented. In general and over the long-term, the rules aren’t made over the objections of politicians; and, in general, and over the long-term, politicians either are, or serve the interests of, members of the power elite. And it’s the economic and political manipulation engaged in by the power elite—think vast industry bailouts, subsidies disguised as consumer protection regulations, imperial warfare, the growth of the national security state, the legitimation of torture—that really ought to be troubling to coastals and heartlanders, the socio-culturally conservative and the socio-culturally liberal alike.

A similar problem with Codevilla’s narrative is that it seems to imply that government served the interests of ordinary people at some point before the rise of Progressive-era managerialism. While the power of the state over ordinary people’s lives was certainly less in 1800 than it is in 2010, and while politicians doubtless didn’t have quite the same sense of themselves as capable of managing the minute details of other people’s affairs, politicians didn’t serve the people. The Puritan strand of American intellectual and cultural life—which ultimately helped to birth Progressivism—was certainly far from inert. And politicians served the interests of the economic elite—as its lackeys or as its members—quite as much in earlier eras of American history as they do now, given the tools the political system made available to them.

Libertarians don’t share Marxism’s view that market freedom is responsible for society-wide injustice. Indeed, for libertarians, the restrictions on market freedom imposed by ruling-class privileges are focal instances of injustice. But libertarians do share with Marxists the recognition that the ruling class sits atop the state, enriching its members at gun-point—at the expense of everyone else. For libertarian class theory, the division between those who deploy or reap massive profits from aggressive force on the one hand and those who are the victims of that force on the other is the division that matters. Codevilla and those who read The Ruling Class appreciatively should focus on that division, at which he gestures, rather than the cultural rift with which he seems sometimes to confuse it. Despite the superficial appeal of Codevilla’s analysis, libertarians, at any rate, have no reason to let themselves be drafted as conservative foot-soldiers in the culture war.


It is interesting to note that there are few, if any, arguments for the inferiority of the political, religious, and cultural positions Codevilla attributes to the Ruling Class. He seethes with resentment at many of these positions but he rarely tries to refute them; he simply assumes that Country Party readers will share his revulsion at the Ruling Class’s misbehavior. Perhaps the fifty-one pages of this 176-page book devoted to the texts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are designed to provide the rationales for his positions. If so, he does not explain how.

While he does not talk philosophy, however, he does talk strategy. The Republican Party is hopeless as a vehicle for Country Class aspirations, Codevilla acknowledges. The Democratic Party is the party of the Ruling Class. So the Country Party needs a political movement of its own. But such a movement, even if successful in ousting the Ruling Class, would face severe challenges. Most importantly: how would it avoid becoming entrenched and oppressive? As long as the penchant for entrenched power is explained simply as a product of progressive managerialism, then it might seem as if people with the right cultural values could simply turn the machinery of state around. We find much the same attitude expressed by leftists frustrated by elite dominance of the Democratic Party.

But if the problem is the state itself, there’s a more serious challenge to confront. If the people who run the state are almost unavoidably going to be members of the power elite, if the power elite can exert pressure on the state that others cannot, if the average public official is going to be more ambitious and thus less principled than the average person, then it seems as if a simple replacement of personnel won’t do the trick. A major cultural shift wouldn’t be sufficient to do so, either. Thus, we return to the basic solution to Codevilla’s problem, the one he keeps ignoring: if you want to get rid of the ruling class, you’ve got to get rid of the state. You’re got to strike the root.

Codevilla calls for cutting the size of government drastically. But he picks on such typical conservative whipping boys as the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts. A stateless society would not tax people to pay for the activities of entities like these, of course; but the impact not only on the public purse but also on people’s freedom and safety would be far, far greater if there were dramatic cuts in the government’s military budget. If foreign bases were closed, if the military were limited to defensive action within some reasonable range beyond US borders and its resources aligned accordingly, or if a standing army were eliminated entirely in favor of the kind of militia envisioned by the Founders, the consequences would be far more revolutionary than anything Codevilla explicitly mentions.

Codevilla seems repeatedly to step close to the brink and then step back. So, for instance, he writes: “to subject the modern administrative state’s administrative agencies to electoral control would require ordinary citizens to take an interest in any number of technical matters” (84). But it is the administrative state itself that it is a crucial aspect of the problem of disempowerment that so troubles Codevilla and the members of the Country Class. Why not eliminate the various administrative and regulatory agencies entirely, rather than asking how they might be managed differently?

Though Codevilla stresses the Country Class’s purported commitment to equality of authority (even if he doesn’t use the phrase), he does not, I think, take the implications of this kind of equality seriously enough. If he did, he would deny the authority of the local government officials as much as that of the federal and state-level ones. He would realize that the political conflicts over family and religion will prove interminable as long as there is a state apparatus for influence on which groups with different cultural agendas can contend. He would see that the real problems with the evisceration of civil society and the elimination of personal freedom can’t be solved unless the state itself is defanged.

Cultural politics serve to distract people from the fact that Mills’s Power Elite is, as Codevilla suggests, engaging in plunder on a grand scale. The managerial technocrats who do the bidding of the Ruling Class may come disproportionately from a particular cultural sub-group (though Codevilla offers no real evidence that they do). But it is the Ruling Class itself that is the problem. And Codevilla’s wrestling in his final chapter with the question of the nature of the political institutions needed to prevent the resurgence of the Ruling Class highlights the reality he seems unwilling to acknowledge: that Ruling Class plunder will persist as long as there is a state for the Ruling Class to control. The only way to eliminate the power of the Ruling Class is to eliminate the state.

A much shorter version of this review will appear in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.