Friday, June 3, 2011

Get Together

I've mentioned before that I often have unusual "to-do" lists.

So, the one that I had for this week included making jam, mowing the lawn, pressure-washing and waterproofing the deck, and finding out more about the history of the libertarian movement in the US.

I should explain.  I've often read postings and blogs and articles by various libertarian people and entities, and I've been quite puzzled about what exactly they "want," per se.

I wanted to find out what the movement has meant, done and advocated, historically, because I really do want to know what they're all about.

After all, it's probably only a matter of time before someone calls me one, so I need to be ready.  (I'm already liking it, though, because it's got almost all of the word "liberty" in it.)

I've refrained from asking any of the people or posts I've read, because there is a terrible tendency in online communications to assume that questions imply distaste or dissent.

There are apparently no innocent, unbiased or purely informative questions to be asked anymore, and no one has the slightest qualms about providing links to incredibly unreliable sources.

I really wish people would be more aware of the fact that blog postings on major news sites are not "news" or information, they're blogs: hence, opinions.  Blogs can incorporate factual information, obviously, and it's apparent when they do because there are clear references in the body of the post to the sources of the information and statistics cited. 

If there aren't any such references, you might as well be citing me as an authority on the issues.  (And no one should be doing that.)   

Anyway, I'm pretty thick-skinned, but I know enough to know that I really don't want to have to go through the day knowing that someone has at one point called me a "one-dick pony" or a "sheep" or told me to "keep drinking the Kool-Aid" and speculated about my mother's mating habits with regard to animals, all because I asked a question about what exactly "libertarians" are advocating.

I should explain: on one of the pages I was reading, one person did in fact call another one of the posters who disagreed with him a "one-dick pony."  This led to rampant speculation about how many penises a pony should have and what on earth the person had meant.  It eventually devolved into extended name-calling that equated everyone's intelligence with someone else's private parts (human and equine).

I was so traumatized just watching the exchange unfold that it took me a full 36 hours to realize that the person had meant to call the other individual a "one-TRICK pony"--that is, someone who only has one particular strength or advantage to display (from the days when there were "dog-and-pony shows" or small traveling circuses where a trained animal was the main attraction).

Clearly, no one on the page was familiar with the phrase (including--and especially--the person who used it), and although it was a really interesting mistake, all things considered, I wasn't about to log on and let everyone know that.

It was best left alone.

And in case you're wondering, it's an English professor liability: whenever I see someone say something incomprehensible, no matter how outlandish, I just have to figure out what they may have meant by it.  I simply can't let it go.

So while I'm not saying the phrase "one dick pony" was at the forefront of my thinking for the past two days, I will admit that I felt much better when, in the midst of waterproofing the deck, I finally figured it out.

In any case, on one of the websites, a person confessed extreme confusion about the difference between "libertarianism," "communism," "socialism" and "Marxism."

I'll admit, I gave a gentle smile imagining Ron Paul and the members of The Cato Institute and its adherents having two cows and a chicken at seeing the term "libertarianism" included in the same sentence with "communism," "Marxism" and "socialism."

The person was answered politely, by someone who suggested that s/he was perhaps confusing "libertarianism" with "liberalism."

But actually, the questioner wasn't wrong to be confused, and s/he wasn't confusing "libertarianism" with "liberalism" when s/he linked it with socialism and communism.

There are libertarian socialists out there: Noam Chomsky is one of the best-known.

Basically, libertarians advocate upholding principles of individual freedom (or "liberties," hence the term) and minimizing (or eliminating entirely) the reach and influence of government.

If you're thinking, "Well, but hey, that kinda sounds like me..." it's probably because it does, to some extent. "Libertarianism" is an overarching term encompassing a broad spectrum of beliefs, many of which are essential to many Americans' sense of national self-definition.  Most of these values were considered "liberal" when they originated in the 18th century.

Within that overarching spectrum, however, are included both minarchists and anarchists and a very wide range of political ideas and positions.  Some "libertarians" advocate free market capitalism and support private property, others do not.  Minarchists believe state control should be limited (think "minimal") and that it should simply protect individuals from crime and aggression (i.e., anything that would infringe upon their own individual liberties or those of another).  Anarchists believe there should be no government at all.

The reason the person was confused about the distinction between libertarianism and socialism or communism is because, in the mid-1820's, Josiah Warren, one of the best-known proponents of "sovereignty of the individual" and the "first" American anarchist, was among the initial adherents of the communist philosophy of Robert Owen.  Warren initially participated in the effort to establish a commune in New Harmony, Indiana.

When the commune failed, Warren became an advocate of individualism and insisted that any attempt to function within a society represents an unfair and unnecessary curbing of "natural" individual sovereignty.

Warren's thinking gets complicated, because on the one hand, he advocates the free market system of capitalism, but without any government.  On the other hand, he advocates limiting "cost" to the actual amount of labor used to produce an item.

So, the items you buy in a store, Warren would argue, should only cost what it cost to create them and bring them to market (plus a small surcharge for the store's overhead).   He actually ran a store on these principles: the "currency" used involved an exchange of equivalent labor for items sold "at cost," meaning, their price was what it cost, in labor and materials, to produce them.

This is the basic principle of "mutualism": labor alone determines cost and value.

Although mutualists like Warren advocate a free market and individual liberties and oppose government intervention, they also oppose earning income from rent, loans or investments, since there is no labor involved in these activities.

So you can see how the "libertarian" label, when applied to Warren, comes to cover a wide range of economic practices and political ideals, some of which would sound decidedly "socialist" to a contemporary reader.

In addition, Warren did participate in the founding of two communes in the 1840's and '50s: Utopia, Ohio, and "Modern Times" (Brentwood, NY), both of which advocated complete individual freedoms (no police, no courts), and both of which utilized a free market system based on the exchange of labor.

And although Warren did not ultimately support Robert Owen's theory and application of communism in the United States, the two remained lifelong friends.

This is what I find most interesting about the history of various movements and countercultures in the US: they are often intertwined in ways that our contemporary "understanding" of them fails to acknowledge or appreciate.

Thinkers and philosophers disagreed, sometimes strongly. They did not, however, simply resort to constantly calling each other "douchebags."

I think that anyone (and everyone) who wants to achieve a social or political purpose abandons that purpose when s/he resorts to name-calling.  When was the last time you listened to the ideas of someone who had just called you a slew of insulting names?


For me, the distinction lies between the individuals who want (or need) to be "right" and those who want (or need) to be heard.  If you have a message, you think about the best possible means of communicating with and convincing others.

If you resort to calling other people names, you abandon the message in favor of upholding the value of your own status as "messenger."


  1. Another good post professor.

    I think your observation about the "liberal" label was particularly astute.

    If you're thinking, "Well, but hey, that kinda sounds like me..." it's probably because it does, to some extent. "Libertarianism" is an overarching term encompassing a broad spectrum of beliefs, many of which are essential to many Americans' sense of national self-definition. Most of these values were considered "liberal" when they originated in the 18th century.

    I think the liberal movement was hijacked by the progressive movement, thereby taking the liberty out of liberal. "Hi, we're the government and we're here to help. Don't even think of drinking that sugar drink!".

    I think you illustrate well that libertarian views cannot be pinned down. It's like trying to heard cats. But that is rather inherent with the whole idea of individualism. If they were all able to coalesce around a single platform, like a political party, it would violate the concept of individualism.

    Far be it for me to give YOU a homework assignment, but I would love to hear your thoughts on progressive vs liberal agendas. I don't they are the same, do you?

    Good video. Too 'earthy crunchy' for me though.


    Spin Doctors was good though.

  2. Thank you! And let me just say, I'm a firm believer in good, consistent personal hygiene, so although I like the music and the bands at Woodstock, there is no doubt the experience itself would have been far too earthy crunchy for me. ;)

    I think that political parties often don't encompass the realities of an individual's own thoughts and views, but by default, we have to align ourselves with shared interests, so we choose what seems closest to our own ideals. I think that's why I always object to or question labels: it's easy to forget that what's underneath them is more complex.

    I'll have to think about (and find out more about) what the progressives are advocating these days and where the movement started and has headed. I have a general sense, and no, I don't think their agenda is the same as the liberal agenda, but I want to give it a bit more thought and look into it further before I speak.

    And never apologize for giving homework. :) It's good for us, no matter what side of the podium we're on.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."