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January 4, 2003

Longtime readers of Electrolite will have correctly divined that this particular left-leaner has a complicated relationship with modern libertarianism. We have more than just a libertarian bone in our body; we suspect it extends to several major organ systems. We are periodically appalled by the casual bien-pensant authoritarianism of some liberals, and we frequently say so.

But just as we’re periodically boggled by fellow liberals who seem to think the whole point is to coerce people into virtue, we also have our moments when we want to take a long shower and deny ever having been friendly with any self-described “libertarians” in our entire life.

Like, for instance, when we read this post, from one “Sarah Rimensnyder,” on Hit and Run, the collective weblog of Reason magazine:

This attempt to bring the Internet to Laotian villages via wireless networks, low-wattage computers, and hand-crank generators, is one of the Web’s hot stories right now. It’s the brainchild of Bay Area genius Lee Felsenstein, whose organization needs money to get the system in place before the monsoon season. Will people be as generous with him as they were with another Web charity hit, the New York chic chick who raised more than enough Internet donations to pay off her towering Bloomie’s bills? I’ll let you know…
Maybe I’m just not smart enough to penetrate the hipster irony here, but as far as I can tell, this nothing more than a crude attempt to yoke two utterly unrelated things—the admirable and well-thought-out Jhai project to deploy cheap and robust computer technology to help some Laotian villages, and the obviously flaky attempt of a young lady in New York to get Internet donors to bail her out of her credit-card debt—in order to somehow suggest a connection between the naivete of people taken in by the latter, and anyone who supports the former. After all, they’re both nothing more than “Web charity hits”.

In other words, generosity is for chumps, no matter what it’s for. Let’s have a good laugh.

That’s why I’m not a libertarian. Because every time I warm to this crowd, I come across something like this. Not just a principled devotion to human freedom, but a gratuitously thuggish antipathy to any kind of decent generosity.

I’m sure I’m all wrong about this. I can practically write the posts I see incoming to my comment section. But right now I just want to enlist in some other, less disgusting species.

UPDATE: Neel Krishnaswami thinks I’ve seriously misread the weblog post in question, and says so in my comment section. I lean toward thinking Neel is right. Neel Krishnaswami, and I am not even the first blogger to say this lately, should consider doing a blog of his own. [02:56 AM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Longtime readers:

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 03:44 AM:

From where I sit, lack of charity seems one of the best criticisms to levy against many libertarians. I remark from time to time that libertarianism is, unlike a lot of political philosophies, a political framework with much of a social vision attached. It's rules of conduct that can point in a lot of directions. But for this to work, there has to be some social vision, and it needs to come from some source other than the politics. Given a framework of mutual tolerance, legal protection for minority practices against attempts by the majority (or a dominant minority, I guess) to stamp them out, and all that other good stuff...what then?

Too many libertarians seem to feel that it's sufficient to have a politics without any further morality. I think this is stupid and dangerous and wicked. Not necessarily in that order; it depends on the individual I'm denouncing at the moment. If the state is not imposing a vision of the good life, then such a vision has to come from somewhere else, because we are all acting - consciously or unconsciously - on some criteria about what we want ourselves and our environment to be.

But there seems a broad unwillingness among libertarians to talk about these things. Which is part of why I spend so little time in anything resembling organized libertarian affairs, and fall with glad little cries on the folks I discover who do show signs of appreciating compassion, charity, and good will toward the innocent, and humiliation, condescension, and anger at the wicked.

chuqui ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 04:12 AM:

I lost my taste for libertarianism (and most libertarians) because I met one too many "libertarian" who proudly defined it as "the goverment should keep it's damn hands off my money, but dammit, my social security check better not be late".

and yes, I'm painting all libertarians with the broad brush of over-generality, but then, I've met one too many libertarians who revelled in doing the same to everyone who didn't cotton to their worldview immediately... So I guess we're even.

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 07:35 AM:

Hi Patrick, I think you misread that comment -- I thought it was funny and on-target.

Observe that Karyn has already gotten the money to pay off her credit card debt, and the Jhai project is still in financial trouble. This is a reminder that people have had more sympathy for people with familiar troubles than for people with intense troubles. That's unfortunate, and that's precisely what makes it funny.

It's dark humor, yes, but I think that the ability to laugh at human folly is important enough that I'm willing to be described as having a gratuitously thuggish antipathy to any kind of decent generosity. Just call me Guido. :)

Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 08:33 AM:

I know what you mean, Patrick. I've been boggled that Libertarians think they're anarchists, especially when I remember that Anarchism and Socialism were once the same movement...a linkage that survives today only as Communitarian Socialism. (To nutshell the difference: compare "what the market will bear" to "...or Ability to Pay.")

Too many Libertarians today are just "Republicans who smoke pot," as an acquaintance once described them. Others are more thoughtful, but the loudest voices are in this category. (The key doesn't have to be marijuana...they want government out of the bedroom as well as the boardroom. This does make them better than Republicans, but not IMO by enough.)

For a description of Communitarianism, among other things, read Starhawk's Truth or Dare. She's also written two novels, The Fifth Sacred Thing and Walking to Mercury; the first is about the kind of society she describes in TOD under attack by a brutal militaristic society; the second (and IMO better) is the memories and current life of an aging 60s radical.

BTW reading the text you quote I think both interpretations (yours and Neel's) are possible. It's probably true that it's easier to get a bunch of numbskulls to help you pay for ridiculously expensive luxuries than it is to get money for a real need among culturally distant strangers. It pisses me off (humans are so stupid!), but it's probably true. Whether that's what she meant I don't know; I'll have to read the whole article, which I haven't yet.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 08:45 AM:

It's not an article, it's a weblog post, and I think I quoted the majority of it.

I really didn't mean to start a "libertarians all suck" thread, and it was foolish of me to not anticipate that my remarks would probably do that. I really do have a lot of sympathy with a lot of libertarian thought and with a lot of particular libertarians. And, pace Xopher, I think his first paragraph is largely untrue. Most libertarians don't "think they're anarchists"; quite the contrary, most libertarians have a more finely-grained sense of the spectrum of possible anti-authoritarian views than most left-wingers do. And the idea that "Anarchism and Socialism were once the same movement" is just nonsense; anarchism and socialism have been squabbling ferociously since before there were words for those concepts.

I think Neel's interpretation may well be right. My bad reaction may say more about me having an intemperate response to certain kinds of (perceived) cynicism than it says about that actual weblog post.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 10:36 AM:

Well, OK, I'm remembering (vaguely) what little I learned about Bakunin and his buddy...what was his name?...from like 1979. So I'll just give here.

I have heard many Libertarians equate their beliefs with Anarchism. But mostly young, callow ones at cons. (Actually for a long time I had the impression that Libertarianism was a passion of young men, one they eventually outgrew. Since then I've read Unqualified Offerings, which cured me of that misapprehension, and NOT just because he's no Angry Young Man.)

(Now that you've named me thus in your comment, I shall post under my short name...the only short version of my name that I actively like.)

Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 10:40 AM:

A few odds and ends which I hope aren't too predictable....

Firstly, I have no idea how the process of identifying with groups works--it seems to have something to do with deciding that the clearly visible nitwits who claim to be members of the group somehow do not express the essence of the group.

Secondly, Peter Breggin has said that libertarianism will never succeed until there are libertarian charities. He didn't describe what libertarian charities would look like--I assume that they'd have "libertarian" in their names and not take government money.

Thirdly, you might like this anti-war-in-Iraq article from the Cato Institute: http://www.cato.org/research/articles/healy-030101.html

pnh@panix.com ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 10:46 AM:

That article, by Gene Healy (whose weblog is linked from Electrolite's sidebar), is in fact excellent; it's loaded into a window in my web browser right now, because I've been meaning to remark on it.

Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 11:41 AM:

Your sidebar seems to have evaporated.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 12:30 PM:

Nancy, if you're using MSIE, empty your cache and reload.

For that matter, even if you're not using MSIE, empty your cache and reload.

I've been tinkering with templates and stylesheets a fair bit over the last few days, and Microsoft Internet Exploder is particularly bad at noticing when a site's CSS stylesheet has been revised.

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 12:53 PM:

For whatever it's worth, I had more or less the same take I subsequently saw Neel had, on the Hit & Run post. I read it as being snotty/sarcastic at the idea that people will throw money at such apparently frivolous things as SaveKaryn, but Laotian villagers are sufficiently distant to the lives of so many rich Westerners as to cause doubt whether such a worthy cause will, in comparison to SaveKaryn, successfully raise enough money.

Switching to political philosophy, as you Know, Bob, I'm for a fair number of libertarian ideas and memes, but only in a larger context where they are not the only value. Seeing libertarian ideals as the sole ideals is the main area where I think extreme libertarians go wrong. Thus I agree, as I usually do, with the wise Bruce Baugh.

And, yes, Neel should do a blog, even if there are already Far Too Many Good Blogs.

Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 01:05 PM:

I've always been part liberal and part libertarian, with the proportions changing, and those are the only two political views that really appeal to me. The areas where they agree--1st amendment and sexndope freedom--are among my strongest political feelings.

I lean more and more to the liberal side because I feel we have to take a certain amount from individuals to relieve suffering, but the libertarian side kicks in at thought of enforcing equality as well.

I get the feeling that there's a lot more opposition to libertarianism from anarchists than the other way around. (A dear anarchist friend says that libertarianism is a mental illness.) Of course I was attracted to libertarianism by its hipper representatives in the 60s/70s (Jerome Tuccille, Angus Black), and they seemed to have substantial areas of agreement with the likes of Paul Goodman and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 02:16 PM:

I agree with Neel that the intention of that choice of contrasting example was probably humour (bit of an in-joke even), but also somewhat insensitive and plausible as an attempt to trivialize a good cause if you don't react as part of the in-group group mind.

My own first reaction was that it was good somebody was spreading the news about the effort in Laos, even if the text in the HTML anchors had some kind of bogus anchors. I think that the most, er, charitable way to interpret the choice of contrast is as a challenge to do as well for a socially useful cause as for a useless one.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 06:22 PM:

I don't think all Libertarians suck. I quite like you, Patrick, as well as Ulrika and Hal, for example, though I'm pretty much an unreconstructed social liberal myself. That said, however, one of the most vociferous libertarians I know, over on RASFF, thinks that if you need charity, you're a failure. I simplify of course, but not destructively I think. He has said, repeatedly, that having to have help means you have failed to plan correctly, or perform adequately in some respect. When we pointed to another member's catasrophic health bills, he changed the subject. I meet too many of them like this and too few like Patrick and Hal and Ulrika.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 06:51 PM:

!! MKK, I am not a libertarian, and I doubt that Ulrika would accept the label these days, either.

I am a left-winger who thinks that some modern libertarians are asking the right questions. I certainly know that there's more to modern libertarianism than Randism, greed-makes-right, or the sandbox politics of the LP.

But while I share a lot of values with libertarians, and we tend to agree on a bunch of issues, I no more believe in stable Libertopia than I believe in New Socialist Man.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 09:26 PM:

Mary Kay, I believe I know who you're talking about. I'd classify him as a prize jerk who happens to call himself a libertarian.

Someday misfortune will come to him, as it comes to us all. I don't hope this will happen; I merely regard it as inevitable. But on that day, it's going to be a struggle not to drop him a note saying "Hi, guy, I see you failed to make appropriate plans..."

May God forgive my trespasses as I forgive the trespasses of others; and may God please keep a straight face while He does it.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 09:42 PM:

Teresa & Mary Kay -- If the vociferous libertarian you're talking about has a first name that starts with K, then he's had his misfortune. If it starts with M, then he's given to charities, like food banks. If it's someone else, then I don't know who.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 09:49 PM:

Mary Kay & Teresa: There are two major libertarian blights on rasff. One of them is a lawyer who pretends to be a libertarian but somehow manages to pretend that John Ashcroft is not a threat to his civil liberties. The other, the one to whom I believe Mary Kay refers, is a deeply unpleasant fellow who was raised Mormon and seems to have printed on his brain's circuits the idea that if someone has less than a year's food socked away in a safe place, he's an utter moral failure.

Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 01:19 AM:

In re the disappearing and reappearing sidebar: I do use Internet Explorer, and I have no idea what in particular influences when your sidebar shows itself to me--I haven't emptied my cache, and sometimes the sidebar shows up anyway. I'm not going to worry about it.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 01:26 AM:

Well, whatever works. Generally, the performance of most browsers benefits from periodic cache purges.

There's also a bug specific to MSIE 6.0 for Windows that affects web pages based on the default Movable Type templates. Try hitting F11 a couple of times, if you're using MSIE 6.

David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 01:54 AM:

Avram: K has had a misfortune, yes, but he seems to radiate a smug certainty that if he lives right he will never have another. (And that if someone else has had one, it means they didn't live right.)

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 03:05 AM:

Patrick: Sorry sorry; I thought you more willing to lean libertarian than that. And just a couple of days ago Ulrika referred to herself as a libertarian within my hearing. I only live 20 minutes drive from her now; eat your heart out.

Avram, Kevin, & David: Yeah, I was thinking of M.

Teresa: But there seem to be so *many* prize jerks who call themselves libertarian. And why should God have to keep a straight face? He's God after all, what's he got to be afraid of?


Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 08:53 AM:

Damian, no, the guy I was thinking of was a Socialist. Bakunin, IIRC, was the Anarchist side of the friendship.

Don't look too hard though. I could be misremembering the whole thing.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 08:56 AM:

Mary Kay: If God keeps a straight face, it's out of kindness, not fear.

(My own gods laugh at me all the time. If I don't want to be laughed at, I can just bloody well stop being funny - though I don't consider that a good move.)

Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 09:01 AM:

Obviously, rasff needs a few hard-left assholes to restore the balance. All we have now is intelligent, reasonable people like Ken MacLeod.

Anna FDD ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 09:57 AM:

What? You mean I don't count as a hard-left asshole? I'm offended, I am. I am _certainly_ less reasonable than Ken - OK, so are most people, but still.

As for socialism and anarchism, people used to be astounded and confused by the concept of _right-wing_ anarchists on this side of the pond and this down the map. But then, we'd have to go into the difference between socialism, communism, and various other, uh, variations, and illustrate the entertaining (for foreigners) Italian example of right-wing socialism to complete the picture.

But it is my understanding that the strand of anarchism that became famous, or notorious depending where you stood, here between the ninteenth and twentieth century did share most of its tenets and beliefs with socialism.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 10:05 AM:

I'm shocked at the suggestion that Italian politics are complicated.

Actually, what I really want is for Anna Feruglio Dal Dan to get back to updating her very interesting blog.

Mary ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 12:54 PM:

I've found that most of the self-declared libertarians I know personally tend to be strong supporters of the 2nd amendment, whereas for myself, the 1st amendment is the one I (a lefty) put my faith to support our democratic values and protect our freedoms. As a left-leaning person, I am very libertarian in my belief that we have a strong right to privacy and that coercion (a strong authoritarian perspective) is a very poor way to influence people. I don't like to tell people how to live their lives and I don't like others telling me either.

I'm not sure if I originally found this survey on Sideshow's site, but it is a very interesting way to look at people on a left-right, authoritarian-libertarian graph.
My friend who ran on the libertarian ticket scored less libertarian on this than I did (he was definitely in the right side of the axis and I was on the left).

I think that the left is more inclined to believe that we can work together to solve problems and that we have a responsibility to each other. This is the basis of a government of the people, by the people and for the people in my opinion. And I believe that ultimately the value of our lives is what we do for others, not in what we get for ourselves. The problem with the philosophy of libertarianism today is that it is more inclined to promote the every man for himself attitude.

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 02:55 PM:

I just tried that Political Compass...what do you know—it says I'm -1.74 toward the libertarian and -0.38 toward the economic left.

Well that makes sense.....

Michael Bernstein ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 01:05 AM:

MKK, I know who you mean on RASFF. My own perspective is that he's only half right.

By that I mean that, yes, not adequately preparing for misfortune is (technically) a failure (by definition, a failure to prepare), but that failure is not necessarily their *fault*.

Society definitely has an obligation to help those who have failed through no fault of their own. Assessing fault is hard, however, so we should err on the side of greater compassion.

OTOH I see no point in continuing to subsidize deliberate (and repeated) lack of preparedness. Example: serial flood victims.


Rather than discussing the Left/Right spectrum, or the Authoritarian/Libertarian spectrum, what do folks here think of Virginia Postrel's Dynamist/Stasist spectrum?

Sara Rimensnyder ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 10:24 AM:

Darn. I emailed the admin and then noticed the comments section. Just for the record (though people probably aren't reading these comments anymore) I have total, unrestrained enthusiasm for the project in Laos (though some ignorance on the proper adjective form). No hipster irony here. At least, not at the moment.

The savekaryn mention was purely me wondering whether Net users would dig as deep for people halfway across the world as they would for some New York flake. I hope they do.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 02:39 PM:

Sara, this note is to let you know that some of us do still come back and read the old comments. And to thank you for stating your intent in the original article so that I can stop working so hard at speculating about it.

Vicki Rosenzweig ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 05:14 PM:

Anna, you don't want to be an asshole--but on some level it doesn't matter, because you and I and Ken will get called that or worse sooner or later by some of the less savory right-wingers (by which I do not mean to refer to Ulrika or Nancy or any of my other friends who are participating in this conversation).

Timothy Burke ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2003, 03:51 PM:

Getting caught up here on Electrolite. I actually had a very similar thought a bit after you, in my Jan. 13th entry, after reading the NY Times series on McWane Company and its foundries. I used to blow off libertarian sentiments in a much more perfunctory way, but I find lately that I appreciate at least the clear focus that some libertarians (not the most right-wing, Ayn Randish ones) have that the political project that matters is the securing and expansion of human freedom. Jonathan Rauch pointed out last year in The Atlantic that at least some of the US left has left that project behind to favor the pursuit of absolute egalitarianism, thus losing a sense of what the purpose of egalitarianism ought to be (e.g., the expansion of freedom). I think it's exactly right to say that some libertarians--mostly the Silicon Valley, technoculture kind--are asking some of the right questions. They're just coming up with some of the wrong answers, or bizarrely exempting a huge range of major challenges from their view.