The Rhyme of the Libertarian Binaries

Nothing like a little doggerel to fill the space between Christmas and New Year’s. Thanks to Lynne Kiesling for the inspiration and Sarah Skwire for her poet’s expert eye.

Author’s disclaimer: I do not exempt myself from what follows.


The Rhyme of the Libertarian Binaries

Come gather at the fire we burn
To build a light so we can learn
About the troubles of a tribe
And the false binaries they inscribed

Although they struggled mightily
Beyond binaries they could not see.
Trapped by the limits of each pair
They sank into great despair

Help them find their liberty
By repeating each vexed pair with me:

Statist versus anarchist
Radical v. minarchist

F. A Hayek v. von Mises
One step versus many pieces

Rothbardians versus Kochers
Traditionalists versus tokers

Full reserve v. central banking
Purity v. weak think tanking

Flyover versus DC
True hard core versus PC

Politics v. ivory tower
Markets v. big statist power

Maybe as the years do turn
Our binary-bound friends will learn
There’s something better they can do
Than fight and re-fight Red v. Blue

The world they all would like to free
Has nuance far as all can see.
Thinking just in black and white
Produces noise but little light.

If economists can write refrains
You can break your binary chains




Published on:
Author: Steve Horwitz
  • John Kindley

    I appreciate your disclaimer not exempting yourself from the import of the poem, because I can’t help but point out the irony in your recent post’s criticism of Ron Paul for supposed harm he’s done to the libertarian  brand because of associations and newsletters from 20 years ago compared to the harm done just today to the libertarian or at least the BHL brand, with which you are all associated, by Andrew Cohen in his post advocating licensure for parents. The defining feature of BHL as near as I can tell is “progressive values.” But just what does that mean? I’m betting it includes a strong emphasis on a woman’s reproductive rights, including abortion rights. Behold another irony, or at least tension, albeit not one that is new or surprising or that I’m the first one to point out: Benjamin Tucker claiming a mother has the right to throw her baby in the fire, and that anyone who tries to stop her is a criminal, which I cited in a comment on Cohen’s post. Although distinctions and lines can certainly be drawn, there’s an obvious connection between Tucker’s argument and the abortion rights argument. And from there, and existing within the very same BHL or “progressive value” mindset, is apparently at least a tendency or propensity to use the State more invasively than even most confirmed Statists would countenance to preemptively protect children, by establishing a licensing regime for parents. A mother goes from having absolute rights over the life and death of her child, to having no rights at all from the moment the child is born (parenting one’s own children being described by Cohen as a “privilege”).

    I may simply just be in the wrong place, because “progressive values” as it seems to be defined here simply has no attraction to me, and I certainly don’t think such values have any more claim to be essential to the “true libertarian heritage” than more conservative and traditional values. I, for example, while I’m deeply skeptical of organized religion, believe that belief in God and a corresponding understanding of the vanity of all things is essential to true freedom. Now if on the other hand “progressive values” means recognition of the role the State has played in creating economic inequality and poverty, with all of the evils resulting therefrom, and prioritizing the libertarian agenda of scaling back the State accordingly, I’m on board. I do think progressivism in that sense is essential to libertarianism.     

  • True v. False?
    Right v. wrong?
    Valid arguments v. invalid?

    Are you ready to do without such binaries?  Binary reasoning is the most powerful tool we have. Granted you have to do it correctly, but eschewing binary distinctions is not a viable course of action.

    • Damien S.

      I dunno, I might say probabilistic reasoning is the most powerful tool we have.

  • When I was going through Navy boot camp many years ago, they had a rule that has always stuck in my head.  (Granted they had lots of rules; it WAS the military after all…)  If, for some reason, a recruit was  on a solitary mission — had to walk to some office or whatever — he or she was either, depending on the situation, REQUIRED to double-time (run) or was FORBIDDEN from double-timing. It was NEVER a choice.

    Oftentimes libertarian theorizing looks like that to me. You set out these hard, bright, lines that can never be crossed. So there’s never any room for looking at specific situations and cases and making intelligent judgements.  The result is insanity like proposing to do away with licensing for someone that could be cutting you open or prescribing potentially lethal drugs while simultaneously proposing that raising children — something even dumb animals have managed to do for billions of years — should require prior permission.

    • Anonymous

      I see it differently, Rod. A libertarian legal system which eliminates regulation relies on judging each situation on its own merits, not on pre-judging based on predicted outcomes. The only hard and fast rule in a libertarian society is that aggression is not allowed.

      • But what constitutes aggression? Different judges and juries can and will come to very different conclusions, eh?

        Now what would actually happen is you would develop a body of common law that would generally follow the principle of  judicial precedent. People would want this so you could have some sense a priori whether some contemplated action was allowed or not.

        But in the end is that really that different from positive law by legislative deliberation?

        It seems to me that you are arguing for a kind of legitimacy from process, the same sort of legitimacy argument Rawls put forward, no?

        • Anonymous

          John Hasnas has written some very good articles regarding the development of customary law. You can find them on his web site. Start with “What’s Wrong With A Little Tort Reform?”. Also, Timothy Sandefur wrote a very good article within the last year or so on his Freespace web site comparing what he called the tort solution to the regulation solution. Those ideas are what I had in mind.

          • You know, it’s interesting. The first time I became aware of  libertarianism was maybe 20+ years ago on a C-Span program. It was a press-conference of some kind where a young lady was making the libertarian argument against regulatory agencies like the EPA in favor of handling it through the tort process. I found it to be an intriguing idea but as a general rule for handling everything it just isn’t workable.

            Specifically, tort law is applicable to those situations where a specific entity can be proven to have caused a specific harm to a specific person. That excludes great swaths of actions that harm people. Environmental issues are a great example of such.

            For example, we know that air pollution can cause various diseases — asthma, cancers, etc. We also know that even in the absence of an identifiable cause there will be a certain background level of these ailments. So we know that if the air is clean, there will be a small number, X, of cases of lung cancer each year. If the air is polluted with some carcinogen we know that there will be a number, Y greater than X, of cases of lung cancer. So now you are diagnosed with lung cancer. Do you have a tort? Who do you sue? Was it caused by the pollutant or is it a background case?

            The best science can do is assign probabilities to these questions. It’s only going to be the most obvious and egregious cases that will rise to the level of  a legal standard of proof.

            Looking at it from the other direction, I have to ask: How old are you? I’m old enough to remember what it was like BEFORE the EPA. I remember pictures of folks walking around LA wearing gas masks. I remember blackened skies over Pittsburg, reports of rivers so polluted they would catch on fire, forests and lakes dying from acid rain, and roadsides that were garbage dumps. I’ll gladly stipulate that environmental regulations can sometimes be overly cumbersome and bureaucratic. Undoubtedly they’ve gotten it wrong at times, over-reached or taken the wrong approach. There are smarter and dumber ways to accomplish things. But it takes a particular kind of willful blindness to conclude that the EPA, and efforts to protect the environment, is a failure that should be abolished in the name of “liberty”. How about my liberty to not be sickened or killed just so somebody can make an extra percent of profit?

            Finally, if you’re correct that these sorts of problems can be adequately handled by tort law, then why wasn’t it? It’s not like we just invented civil courts yesterday. The mechanisms you propose have always been available. Why weren’t they effective? Is it possible that they’re just not adequate to the task?

  • Binaries, Continued: In Honor of Our Heroes Who Fight in the Flame Wars*

    You should be more radical,
    Also, be more marginal!
    Sellouts Left v. Sellouts RightSpreading Dark v. Spreading LightMiller Lite v. fancy riesling!TSA against Lynne Kiesling!From my handle, “Huff-N-Puff”Read my cry: “Not Good Enough!”Suits and ties v. tinfoil hats!Footie boots v. baseball bats!Sober lads v. all-night ravesAtheists v. “Jesus Saves!”Vegans v. the caveman diet”This is right” v. “I don’t buy it”“I don’t smoke” v. big bong hits“JUST SAY NO” v. “PASS THAT…STUFF.”Worse than Jedi versus Sith-I seek Truth, but you love myth!Up v. down! Cold v. hot!“I am right” v. “you are not!”Add all names–not one name missed–To a growing Naughty List!Liberty’s betrayed, you see–It’s Everybody else v. … me.

    *Thanks to Steve Horwitz for feedback on an earlier draft.

    • How do you come up with this stuff?  We need to meet over a beer sometime.

  • *Very* nice!