This post was first published on December 12, 2011
By Andrew Dittmer, who recently finished his PhD in mathematics at Harvard and is currently continuing work on his thesis topic. He also taught mathematics at a local elementary school. Andrew enjoys explaining the recent history of the financial sector to a popular audience.
Many readers wrote in warm and thoughtful comments on the series I wrote interviewing Code Name Cain. I was unfortunately away when the series first posted, and so was not able to respond immediately. Here are some reflections.
The word libertarian originally meant anarchist, or libertarian socialist, in the sense of someone who is wary of authority in general, whether coming from the state or from property rights arrangements. However, libertarian as used today more typically refers to right-libertarians like Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Murray Rothbard. For a more complete discussion of the different uses of the word libertarian, Karl Widerquist has written a nice essay on the subject.
Widerquist points out that it “is perhaps poetically appropriate that property rights advocates have appropriated a term that was already being used by people who subscribe to the idea that property is theft, and that these property rights [advocates] now accuse anarchists of trying to steal [the term] from them.”
Fairly or not, most people today think of right-libertarians when they hear the word libertarian, and so I will from now on use libertarian to mean right-libertarian. I have personally known many libertarians, and one is a good friend of mine. I became particularly interested in libertarianism when I started to realize how powerful such ideas have become in America today. One major political party is strongly influenced by think tanks like AEI and the Cato Institute, in which libertarian ideas are extremely prominent. Although members of the Tea Party do not fit a single stereotype, they do have a strong penchant for libertarian rhetoric.
Barack Obama frequently expresses his support for the “free market” and talks about the “burden” of taxes; Republican candidates feel no corresponding obligation to express verbally their support for “democracy,” or for the existence of some taxation. If candidates of both parties now talk in ways that are conditioned by libertarian preferences, it is clear that libertarianism has made great strides.
During the series, one reader made a comment about the outlandishness of libertarian thought, to which reader Foppe appropriately replied, “That doesn’t matter – the question is whether they influence policy.”
What is Libertarianism?
The critics of libertarianism often describe it as a theory that privileges liberty, or freedom, over other values like equality, or social justice, or tradition. They often respond by agreeing that liberty is important, but that it is important to balance liberty with other essential commitments.
However, after reading a number of libertarian authors, such as Hayek, Friedman, and Nozick, it started to seem to me that libertarianism is not a theory of freedom at all. Reader Marat cited an example by libertarian Walter Block, in which a person is hanging for dear life to a flagpole protruding from the 15th floor of a high-rise. Block says that if the apartment owner demands that the person let go, and the flagpole hanger attempts instead to climb down into the balcony, then if “the occupant shoots him for trespassing… the answer is clear. The owner… is in the right, and the trespasser is in the wrong.”
In my experience, libertarians often enjoy citing examples like this, in which the freedom of the flagpole hanger to survive is trumped by the right of the owner to maintain sovereignty over her apartment. Is is possible that libertarianism is a theory of sovereignty, and not a theory of freedom?
If libertarianism is a theory of sovereignty, it is natural to wonder whether libertarian sovereignty can be just as tyrannical as the kind of governments that libertarians dislike. If libertarianism defends the rights of corporations to govern themselves as they see fit, will some people end up signing contracts that effectively make them quasi-slaves? Many libertarians specify that no one will be allowed to sign a contract to make themselves a slave. However, what if people sign contracts that effectively make them into slaves without doing so explicitly? Then they could be slaves in a rights-respecting manner – would that be okay? If not, what is the alternative? Should the government be allowed to police every possible contractual arrangement and annul the ones that it thinks could lead to effective slavery?
John Holbo of the blog Crooked Timber made an argument along these lines, arguing that a certain form of libertarianism can become something close to feudalism.
On the other hand, Widerquist has written an interesting article (A Dilemma for Libertarianism) taking this observation in a slightly different direction. He points out that the same arguments that libertarians use to defend the sanctity of property rights can be used just as easily to defend the rights of governments to tax individuals and to regulate businesses – or the rights of a hereditary, unconstitutional monarch.
At this point it becomes to seem like libertarian ideas of sovereignty can justify many different possible societies. Some of these societies would not be considered very free by normal definitions of the word.
Reader Susan the other initially wondered if the series would help us understand how to balance freedom and equality. She later decided that in Code Name Cain’s ideal world
There is no freedom and there is no equality? Hoppe-Libertarianism is so over the top it wipes dilemma off the plate. No worries at all about how to balance everyone’s freedom with everyone’s equality because emotional democracy is out of the question. CNC takes the instinct for freedom and crushes it forthwith. I was expected him to crush equality first.
Most libertarians are not in favor of restoring the property rights of native peoples who were dispossessed. But if we get rid of the claims of American Indians by arguing that their lands were taken away so long ago that we can’t possibly fix it, then (as Widerquist points out) it becomes hard to argue that governments (many of whom got their powers long before the discovery of America) should not also get to keep their rights to tax and regulate. Since pretty much no libertarian would say that governments have the right to tax and regulate as they see fit, there is a problem: it is very difficult to make the legitimacy of property rights argument work so that the correct rights are legitimate, and the incorrect rights are illegitimate. Code Name Cain wrestles with this tortuous problem in parts IV and V of the series.
The libertarian Lamont Rodgers produced a rejoinder to Widerquist’s Dilemma. While his counterarguments did not seem very convincing to me, his commenters were very excited. One said:
I was pondering this “problem” earlier with regards to the notion that aboriginal property rights inevitably force libertarians to violate their own principles. But gladly someone has already done the hard thinking for me!
Although certain libertarians are forced to deal with frustrating contradictions when trying to defend their views, they have a wide array of strategies at their disposal in order to make up for this seeming disadvantage. One is simply to ignore all signs of discomfort in the listener and proudly continue. The estimable John Médaille, who read the series before it was posted, confided that “what scares me is that libertarians will read it and take it seriously; they might find the questions perplexing, but they will find the answers brilliant.” This prediction was duly confirmed by one reader, who found that the interviewer’s “questions and replies to CNC are often childish and emotional. CNC seems like a very smart fellow, though he does have several mistakes in his axioms and conclusions.”
Another approach is to attack other people for using specific terms in “incorrect” ways, so that the discussion gets mired in questions of proper linguistic usage. Code Name Cain provided some examples of this strategy – he became angry when I said that his future society would make people slaves, or involve coercion. Fortunately, I was able to satisfy him by referring instead to people being made effective slaves in a rights-respecting manner, and to noncoercive coercion. A few readers also provided examples of this approach, insisting vehemently that it is wrong to call Rothbard, Hoppe, and CNC libertarians when they are really anarchists, or anarcho-capitalists, or neoliberals. Other readers rebutted that only libertarians who insisted on complete elimination of the state could truly call themselves libertarians. Hans-Hermann Hoppe might agree with this last view.
A somewhat similar technique is to take advantage of the fact that no two libertarians ever think exactly alike. The key is to listen to what is being said, and then announce that it doesn’t apply to real libertarians (i.e. libertarians like you) at all. Then you condemn the author for shoddy and possibly dishonest writing. If you use the phrase “straw man” a few times, there will be no need to ask questions about whether any of the author’s arguments apply to your type of libertarianism.
Code Name Cain naturally thinks of his own libertarianism as the correct variety. However, the interview series went to some lengths in order to make clear that many other (right)-libertarians have different views. See the beginning of part II and the criticism of “left-libertarians” in part III. Curiously, some readers decided that the interview series was presenting CNC as the most typical libertarian imaginable. They then complained about “straw men.”
The main point of the Rodgers response to Widerquist seems to be that (authentic?) libertarians don’t really believe that libertarian-style natural rights require a minimal (or nonexistent) government ¬– they just believe that natural rights permit such a government. Even if that were true, it doesn’t seem like much of a rebuttal of Widerquist’s main point. However, by claiming that Widerquist had misunderstood the libertarian position, Rodgers made it possible for his commenters to happily dismiss Widerquist as “a fairly unintelligent individual.”
As we have just seen, another important argumentative strategy is to slip in casual insults at someone who does not agree. CNC likes to say things like “maybe you haven’t realized it yet” and “if logic is difficult for you.” Some readers followed his example.
Libertarians are not the only people who sometimes try to make up for the lack of a substantive responses by courageously offering anonymous abuse. Some of the most entertaining insults came from the readers who thought that I was the same person as CNC, or that I shared his views. One such reader said “what a bunch of crap. So some kid fresh out of his PhD has a wet dream about a society where “brilliant” people get their fair share and bad evil government are kept in check. […] Stop imagining the world from your math dept.” Another reader reminded others that “these are the “thoughts” of an overeducated elementary school math teacher,” describing me as “an apologist for the manifestly failed libertarian economic model.”
There seems to be a lot of anitpathy towards mathematicians and elementary school math teachers out there. I knew that seventh graders frequently make fun of kids who like math, but I was a little surprised to read these kind of comments on Yves’ blog.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe is quite real. While one reader identified Code Name Cain as John Denson (adjunct scholar at the Mises Institute), it is my opinion that he is the fruit of my imagination. However, CNC was not intended to be satire in the normal sense of the word. Reader Chad, who has some familiarity with Hoppe’s work, declared that even ‘if this is an apocryphal interview, it’s not satirical hyperbole.’ StPaulite added, “the direct quotes in red are without fail more batshit than the rest of the text.”
In fact, I found Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s ideas fascinating, but it would have been quite difficult to construct a dialogue entirely from snippets of his book. Even if I had done that, there would still have been a risk of misrepresenting his thought. Code Name Cain was created so that I could try to fill in missing or uncertain details of a Hoppe-like philosophy in the most logical manner I could think of, without attributing these additions to Hoppe himself. Some fine points that a couple readers thought I personally invented were actually adapted (rather faithfully) from Hoppe’s book: in particular, the graphs in part VI showing time-preference curves for different types of individuals (compare p. 8 of Hoppe’s book).
In defense of readers that thought CNC was simply a satire, reader RanDomino cites Poe’s law: “[…] it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between sincere extremism and an exaggerated parody of extremism.”
Do Many Libertarians Agree with Hans-Hermann Hoppe?
Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, and Hoppe prefer to abolish the state, while libertarians like Nozick, Rand, and others would opt for an extremely small government that protects contracts and property rights. This is the famous dispute between libertarian “anarchists” and “minarchists.”
While the distinction is certainly important, the different kinds of (right)-libertarians often manage to coexist surprisingly well. Part II of the series quotes two non-anarchist libertarians on this subject – Bryan Caplan explains how anarchist libertarians play a symbiotic role in the libertarian world, helping other libertarians to seem more moderate, while Tibor Machan urges libertarians not to let their differences on this issue “distrac[t] from the far more significant task of making the case for libertarianism in the face of innumerable bona fide statist challenges.”
In general, however, it is surprisingly difficult to tell how “extreme” or “absurd” a given libertarian actually is. In Rothbard’s confidential 1961 memo,
he advocated “infiltrating” key intellectual strata, keeping in mind that “one scholar is worth a thousand housewives, in the matter of influence, import, etc.” Rothbard emphasized that libertarians should make a point of
never acting in a manner, or speaking in a manner, inconsistent with the full libertarian position. To be inconsistent, in the name of “practicality” is to betray the libertarian position itself, and is worthy of the utmost condemnation….
Thus, suppose that one is writing about taxation. It is not incumbent on the libertarian to always proclaim his full “anarchist” position in whatever he writes; but it is incumbent upon him in no way to praise taxation or condone it; he should simply leave this perhaps glaring vacuum, and wait for the eager reader to begin to question and perhaps come to you for further enlightenment. But if the libertarian says, “Of course, some taxes must be levied,” or something of the sort, he has betrayed the cause.
If libertarians are often careful to leave the more surprising parts of their vision of the future unsaid, then it becomes hard to tell what a given libertarian actually believes. Looking at public figures under Rothbard’s litmus test, there might be quite a few politicians who have never given a hint that they think “some taxes must be levied” – such politicians could have sympathy to Hoppe-like views, but of course we don’t necessarily know. This might explain why reader wunsacon says “my closest, devout, highly educated “libertarian” friend sounds like he has much in common with “CNC” interviewed here. And you wouldn’t know how “radical” his views are until you talk with him at length and then some weird comments slip out.”
Is Discussing Hans-Hermann Hoppe Evil? Is It a Novel Form of Red-Baiting?
The preceding discussion may bring to mind the Cold War, with libertarians in the unexpected role of communists, and critics of libertarians in the unexpected role of anti-communist inquisitors. This similarity is not accidental – in fact, Rothbard says in his memo that “we can learn a great deal from Lenin and the Leninists” in planning for a libertarian “revolution.”
However, if Rothbard was happy to learn from Lenin, not all modern critics of libertarianism are eager to take on the role of Joseph McCarthy. Some readers picked up on this parallel. Thus reader RugbyD worried that “Holding up an anarcho-capitalist as the torch-bearer for libertarians… [is] like equating all people with socialist tendencies with Stalin.”
On one interpretation, this argument seems to imply that anarcho-capitalists like Rothbard and Lew Rockwell are as dangerous as Stalin. If so, Ron Paul, who has strong links with both of them, should be treated as a frightening menace. But I think this is not quite what these readers had in mind.
Instead, these readers are perhaps proposing a new era of respectful civic discourse. For decades, anyone in America who proposed a new kind of economic system was immediately brought face to face with the threat of being labeled as a communist or a Stalinist. Speeches would immediately be made about how the noble intention to create a better society often leads down the “road to serfdom.” Even today, there are many circles in which bringing up something like a national health care system is taken as the first step to totalitarianism.
These readers might be offering us all an effective truce. In the future, minimal-state libertarians will be free to discuss their ideal society without anyone confusing them with anarcho-capitalists like Rothbard. In exchange, other people that propose other ideal societies, whether anarchist or gift-exchange or socialist or whatever, will also be able to discuss them freely without anyone confusing them with Soviet planners. New ideas will flourish. Everyone will win out.
Is Hans-Hermann Hoppe Too Absurd To Be Worth Discussing?
CNC is quick to identify certain populations of humans as being so defective that they are perhaps better considered subhuman. Ayn Rand is of course famous for denouncing people who are “scum” and “lice” and “looters and moochers,” while Walter Block has worried about immigration leading to “forced integration with […] the dregs of the world.”
Some readers suggested ignoring “extreme” or “absurd” libertarians like Hoppe (and Rothbard? and Lew Rockwell?). It is a little hard to know what constitutes “extreme” sometimes. The last conversation I had with a Ron Paul supporter involved complaints about how it was unfair that taxpayers are “coerced” into paying for the food and shelter of prison inmates. “Would you prefer that they do forced labor?” I asked. “Taxpayers should not have to pay again for the maintenance of people who have already sapped the resources of society,” he said. So yes, inmates were going to do forced labor. Later in the conversation, my acquaintance explained that this would make prison less pleasant, therefore creating an incentive for less crime. I pointed out that some people would already consider prisons to be unpleasant places. “Obviously they’re wrong,” he replied. “If prisons were really that unpleasant, incentives would operate and crime would decrease.”
Take the example in part V where Code Name Cain dispossesses an African tribe in order to produce large gains for his hedge fund. Before writing that part of the series, I ran this example by one of my libertarian friends. He agreed with CNC that CNC had not violated natural rights, and that instead the natives had violated CNC’s natural rights by refusing to be evicted.
In any event, readers who thought that some libertarians were too “extreme” to be worth discussing came to this conclusion through different routes. Some readers (including at least one libertarian) seemed to feel the same scorn for Hoppe that CNC feels for other “subhumans.” Others seemed to think that even presenting Hoppe’s views clearly was equivalent to keeping “us distracted with contrived enemies,” or presenting an “obscene and grotesque image of the infamous ‘libertarian’ .” Apparently these readers seemed very offended by Hoppe’s view of the world and did not think anyone could take it seriously – but I still wondered why they found it difficult to say:
I denounce Hoppe and believe his ideas would create a terrible society. There are other kinds of libertarians, like X, who are totally different because they believe in x, y, z, which Hoppe does not. I support them, or at least think they are people I can talk with.
No, I Don’t Think So
However, I disagree with readers who think Hoppe’s views are unworthy of comment. I often disagree with Hoppe, but I still found studying his book to be helpful in understanding certain ideas. As reader Alex points out,
Hoppe […] probably just thought it all through to the logical ends and made no effort to be politically correct or tactical in his arguments;” and this lack of reticence makes Hoppe extremely interesting
How do we treat with respect perspectives with which we really disagree? Is it best to pretend as if we agree, or as if we are above all of this? I would say that these responses can be rather patronizing. Isn’t it more respectful to argue with the other perspective directly, and to try to find the root of the conflict?
There are a couple areas where I actually agree with Code Name Cain. First, in part V, CNC makes an argument that the preferred society of minimal-government libertarians is very unlikely to be stable. As some readers pointed out, minimal-government libertarians typically oppose an incestuous relation between corporations and government regulation, and worry that regulations will be designed to benefit the stronger corporations. If a minimal government does not involve a vastly different campaign finance system than what we presently have, I do not understand how it will not involve a regulatory system full of corporate welfare and special advantages for well-connected corporations.
Second, in part VI, CNC and Hoppe argue that we cannot actually decide which economic theory is true by just examining the historical record. I don’t think this is actually true – at least, I think examining the historical record can help a lot. However, what does seem true to me is that the overwhelming majority of people choose which economic theory they support without making a detailed examination of all of the relevant historical data. Take also global warming – how many of the readers of NC have actually immersed themselves in the relevant climate science? Clearly, these allegiances are often decided for other reasons.
Now I happen to think that CNC/Hoppe/Mises’ “praxeological” approach is not a good response to this uncertainty. But at least these figures are doing us a valuable service by pointing out that we decide which theories to believe in through a procedure that is often much less like the strict scientific method than we might prefer to imagine.
Criticisms of the Arguments in the Interview
In some places my responses to CNC form a coherent argument about particular aspects of libertarian ideas; in other places CNC himself furnishes an argument against the beliefs of certain other libertarians. In the hundreds of comments on this series, surely some libertarians pointed out flaws in these arguments, or showed how CNC could have replaced his arguments with stronger ones?
No. In a couple cases, people brought up arguments that were later addressed. Aside from these, there was only one attempt at a counterargument. This was from reader indio007, who suggested that
The wrongdoing [in an anarcho-capitalist society] could never match the breadth and scale of wrong doing done by organized governments. Even if we had a lawless society of dog eat dog there would be less injustice than those cause by organized war.
Given that the security GLOs will have their own private armies and private intelligence services, I’m personally not convinced they won’t fight horrible wars – but at least indio007 and I are actually having an argument. No other critic of the series made an attempt.
Is It Already Happening?
Other readers were able to profit from a critical reading of Code Name Cain’s views. Reader Jill decided that “At some points Cain gives an accurate description of what is occurring. His remedies never seem to line up with reality.”
While working on this series, I also ended up reassessing the relevance of CNC’s views. In part II, Cain explains how the key step in creating his form of ideal libertarian society is by “delegitimizing” democracy – by constantly endeavoring to show that problems in politics are not about personalities, but about democracy as a system. While writing part II, it occurred to me that this part of CNC’s “strategy” is well under way in the real world, with public choice theorists playing a key role.
Reader propertius pointed out that the idea of having insurance companies carry out surveillance of consumers is already starting to be implemented: “Progressive, of course, is already doing this – offering lower rates in exchange for “bugging” your car so they can keep track of your driving habits.” Reader Walter Wit Man noted an ongoing transition of security functions to private entities with “less oversight and democratic control,” citing “e.g., Blackwater type military contractors has exploded the last 10 years.”
Other readers started to consider the possible upsides of living in CNC’s future world. Reader TGS liked the cool lasers, comparing “Dr. Evil’s mutated sea bass with frickin’ lasers strapped to their back.” Reader craazyman announced that “I am coming under Mr. Cain’s spell, reluctantly, like being struck suddenly by an arrow from Cupid […] I want my own GLO and my own oasis and harem and the right to engage in drunken mayhem. I have to be honest about that. But I want it to be all voluntary, with no church ladies telling me I’m sinning.” These readers naturally assumed (in the words of reader Blissex) “that they will be part of the superior/creative few not the inferior/looter many.”
Readers Try to Sum Up
Many readers tried to sum up what they saw as the fundamental inconsistencies in Code Name Cain’s approach. Reader drugstoreblonde asked, “So everything in the current system is invalid except the wealth hoarded under it?” Reader Sauron made an analogy: “A kid tags another then calls out “no tag backs” or “home free.” In short, I’m winning, so I invoke a ‘rule’ that says I stay ahead.” Reader Kukulkan commented succinctly “the violence [that libertarians consider legitimate] is always someone else’s fault.”
Readers also focused on the distinctions between governments, corporations, and individuals. Reader Sauron concluded, “Libertarians seem to rely on one or both of two premises: all government is repressive and/or all repression is governmental in origin.” In reader YankeeFrank’s opinion, “A libertarian is someone who prefers to be dominated by a faceless corporation rather than an at least somewhat accountable government.” Reader TK421 summed up a CNC-like position as “Which corporations have broken the law and should be disbanded? We can never know. It’s just too hard, so no point in trying. Which people have broken the law and should be exiled to Siberia? That one’s easy.”
For other readers, the true problem with Code Name Cain’s views lies in his understanding of human nature. Some, like rotter, saw a pitiless social Darwinian ethic: “the freemarketers imagine themselves as sleek black panthers,solitary killing machines staking the economic “jungle”.” Reader Jill wondered, “What does it mean to say a child “gets what they deserve?”… There is no room in Libertarianism for the recognition that every human life begins in vulnerability.”
But for other readers, CNC’s survival-of-the-fittest attitude was actually full of naïvété. Reader craazyman worried about the moment when “our Mr. Cain gets gunned down in a financial dispute with his heavily armed security team.” According to ScottS, “[l]ibertarians seem to constantly forget that their own selfish impulses apply evenly to everyone,” citing the fact that Alan Greenspan “never imagined that a trader for an investment bank would do anything to benefit himself at the expense of his company.”
Thought-Provoking Comments from Readers
There were so many interesting and enjoyable comments besides the
ones quoted above, and readers did a wonderful job clearing up the misunderstandings of other readers. Here is a small selection of additional comments that I thought were interesting.
Jack E. Lope: This bogus talking point [that worries about taxes and regulations cause uncertainty] is at odds with the description of the workings of a Propertopia: no regulations, but every dispute can go to court. It is a poster child for business uncertainty.
walter_map: On the whole, a Huxleyan dystopia might be preferable to an Orwellian one, although it’s a foregone conclusion you’re not actually going to get a choice.
Bill White: [There was] a ceremony which the Romans performed whenever their armies crossed a border to invade a country. They complained in a symbolic way about the bad behavior of people they were about to invade […] They also invited the invaded ones to negotiate a settlement. Often, noone was actually on the other side, but that did not matter. The lack of negatiations was a sufficient reason to continue with the invasion.
F. Beard: Gee wiz Cain, it would be better to not worship God at all than to insult Him with burning dung and thorns.
[…] Well, it’s pretty clear that one CANNOT be a believing Jew or Christian and be a libertarian of CNC’s ilk.
propertius: Oh, no Mr.Beard […] God gave man “dominion” (that is to say, “sovereign legal authority”) in a voluntary transaction, right there in Genesis 1:28-29.
In so doing, God surrendered any claims to the property – it’s the original quitclaim deed.
F. Beard: Thus says the LORD, “Heaven is my throne and the earth is My footstool. […]” It appears the Lord still thinks the Earth belongs to Him.
propertius: Nonsense – this is a clear case of “seller’s remorse,” having happened millennia after the deal was consummated.
Susan the other: Am I right in being amused by your giving a vacuous twist to Isaiah Berlin’s Negative Liberty.
rotter: … I felt 12 [installments of the series] would be better, or 6 for Von Mises, 6 more for Ayn Rand, etc.,.
Andrew: That’s an interesting idea, and thanks for your supportive remark. I’ll think about it…