Monday, January 18, 2016

Aaron Rodgers is Already the Greatest Quarterback of All Time

I made this. It's a pretty exhaustive argument. Hope you enjoy.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

I will not go to war for Donald Trump

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog entry, and all my blog entries, are mine and mine alone. Nothing in this entry represents the official position of the US government, U.S. military, nor any of its subsidiaries, and it shall not be construed to do so. These thoughts do not constitute an endorsement of any political candidate or campaign, nor do they attempt to leverage my position as a service-member towards the furtherance of any candidate or campaign. My status as a service-member should not be interpreted to lend any additional weight to the legal arguments expressed herein. Finally, nothing in this blog entry indicates, nor shall be interpreted to indicate, any intention to violate the law, the UCMJ, nor any other legal responsibilities.

Donald Trump is not going to become the next president of the United States.

I am supremely confident of this, for several reasons. First, his un-favorability ratings – essentially a measure of how many people hate his guts – are off the charts. This suggests that he only leads the Republican primary polling because there are so many other candidates still in the mix. In other words, Trump has a plurality of the support because the anti-Trump vote within the Republican Party is presently split between many other candidates, but as those candidates eventually drop out, their supporters will likely consolidate around Trumps’ remaining opponents, making it difficult for him to ever get the majority of Republican voters he needs to win the primary.

Secondly, there are too many powerful people in the Republican Party who recognize what a disaster he would be to allow him anywhere near the RNC stage. They may not tell you this in high school civics class, but the presidential primaries are not exactly pure democracy at work. There are power brokers and back room deals and a complex web of procedural rules that must be applied and enforced and interpreted in each locality, and being connected with the people who wield that power at the state level is really important. Mitt Romney had those connections. Jeb Bush has those connections. Donald Trump does not. He has made too many powerful enemies.

Third and most importantly, even if Trump were to ever stumble his way to the Republican nomination, he stands NO chance – zero, zilch, nada – of winning a national election. It would not even be close. He cannot win independent voters, much less woo disillusioned Democrats, because again, most Americans detest this man. Also, I still have some naïve faith that even his current supporters will eventually come to their senses when faced with the sobering prospect of being stuck with him for the next four years.

Then again, I could be this guy.

Improbability of it mattering aside, Trump’s dalliance with leading the polls and being centrally featured in televised debates with actual candidates has dragged on long enough, and near enough to the Iowa caucus, that it’s time to at least consider the hypothetical of a Trump presidency. Trump’s ego is so other-worldly that I can’t see him gracefully bowing out, so we’re stuck with the reality show theatrics for a while longer. For so long as he’s crammed down our throats as the primary topic of conversation in American politics, I want to have something to say when people bring him up. So this, in a nutshell, is what I say:

If Donald Trump becomes the next president of the United States, it would so rattle my faith in our country’s system of government that I could no longer go to war for that government in good conscience. Consequently, I would be forced to leave the military if asked to fight under President Trump’s command.*

When I joined the military, I took an oath swearing to support and defend the constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Taking that oath required a degree of confidence in the safeguards that constitution included against tyranny and oppression. One particular safeguard I was sort of banking on was the belief that our Republican system of indirect representation checked the power of ignorant voters well enough to prevent the election of a complete madman as Commander in Chief. This feature of American government, I reasoned, limited the possibility that my military service would render me an agent of oppression.

At the same time, I understood that the final power in our democracy still lie with the American people. It is one thing to insulate the Commander from the temporary passions of a fickle majority, but of ultimately, the selection of the president requires popular input for the government to remain legitimate. By swearing to support and defend a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” I essentially placed my life in the hands of my countrymen. So in addition to my faith in the system, my decision also required a degree of trust in the decision making abilities of my fellow citizens (or, at least in 51% of them when it came to decisions regarding war). I still have that trust, which is why I remain confident that a Trump presidency will not happen.

If Trump were elected, it would serve as a dismaying wake-up call that my faith in the American people was misplaced.

I have always known that most people are ignorant of politics, but that is unavoidable in any sizeable country. Political ignorance is often a completely rational decision, and it’s not necessarily a problem so long as the government is kept small and local. In fact, our political system is designed with the people’s ignorance in mind. Rather than voting on policies directly, the people vote for the best qualified among them, who in turn vote for the best qualified among them, who in turn make decisions on policy. The average person’s political knowledge need not be robust so long as the middle-men they appoint – the representatives actually running for higher political office – meet the minimum knowledge and intelligence threshold needed to govern. If a candidate does not, the competitive nature of our elections should motivate his or her opponents to make that apparent to the voters before they make their decision.

Donald Trump is such a uniquely dangerous candidate because not only does he lack this minimum threshold of political knowledge (or decency, or caring, or even intelligence), but his supporters are already aware of this, and simply don’t care. He is the candidate of idiocracy, and he’s convinced the nation’s idiots that this is a selling point rather than a liability. Accordingly, his popularity is the biggest argument against democracy you can possibly make.

This isn’t just a suspicion of mine: it is statistically demonstrated that his supporters are less informed than the average bear. As Ilya Somin pointed out here, polls repeatedly show Trump’s support comes from the least educated (politically or otherwise) segments of the US population. That’s ok, to a point – we’re all ignorant, only on different subjects, and I don’t look down on these people for choosing different subjects than me to be informed about. But I do look down on their political opinions, and so should you. To paraphrase Rothbard on economics, it is one thing to be ignorant of politics, but totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on political matters while remaining in that state of ignorance. 41% of Trump’s supporters, when polled, said they were in favor of bombing the country of Agrabah – the fictional kingdom from Aladdin. In other words, they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

Trump resonates with these people because he is “not politically correct” and “isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind” which is to say he speaks unintelligently and without a filter. To be fair, it is quite common for politicians to run campaigns that are full of cliché’s, generalities and catch-phrases. But Trump takes this to another level: his campaign is almost completely devoid of substance. For the majority of the summer, Trump’s platform consisted of three ideas (besides “women suck” and “everyone’s a loser except me”):

1. Secure the border! Especially from Muslims!
2. Be tough on China! Oh, and Russia too!
3. Stop “our” jobs from going overseas!

None of these are new ideas, much less specific policies unique to Donald Trump. Every national politician of the past 30 years has been saying we need to “secure the border”– not because it’s possible, or cost effective, or hasn’t been tried before a dozen different ways, but because it polls well, so it’s safe to say. “The border” with Mexico is 1,933 miles long. The border with Canada is 3,987 miles long, excluding the Alaska-Canada border, which is an additional 1,538 miles long. That’s 7,458 miles of border we need to “secure” from all those dang Muslims and brown people. How, exactly, are we to do that? A wall? A fence? Please. Even if 7,500 miles of barrier were economically feasible, walls can be dug under, jumped over, or blown through. Fences can’t stop the neighbors’ kids from retrieving their baseball, they can’t stop drugs from getting into prisons, and they sure as hell won’t stop drugs or people from crossing our border – especially not desperately poor people yearning for a better life by any means necessary. Trust me when I say that if securing the border were possible, it would have been done by now.

It’s also not even that important, because first generation immigrants have lower crime rates than native American citizens, despite all Trump’s phantom fear mongering to the contrary.

As for the “tough” foreign policy thing, don’t get me started. Maybe the voters have been watching too much House of Cards, because multiple Republican candidates seem to have convinced them that the sum of foreign relations is who flinches first in some Hollywood stare-down with Putin. Trump in particular seems to believe that he will be able to succeed in foreign policy where others have failed not because his policies are different, not because he has any particular strategy, but simply because he simply has the SPINE and the BALLS to “get things done.” It’s fucking sophomoric.

To Trump, international relations are inherently adversarial: one side wins (namely, his), and the other loses. But other nations are not rival corporations competing for market share. They are just patches of land, on which good people live, and with whom cooperation provides far greater economic benefit to both sides than competition.

Which leads me to the labor protectionism. This is the closest Trump comes to identifying an actual policy position, which would be encouraging if it weren’t the single most economically illiterate position he could possibly hold.

The following is a list of truths on which there is overwhelming consensus among the experts:
1. Evolution occurred.
2. Climate change is real and man-made.
3. Vaccines do not cause autism, and are both safe and essential towards protecting us from dangerous diseases.
4. There is no evidence GMO’s are dangerous to human beings or the environment, and in fact they have tremendous potential to help both.
5. Free trade between nations is beneficial to all involved because it enables economies of scale to arise. Inversely, tariffs and protectionism are strong net negatives for all countries, and especially bad for the global poor.
I’ve written extensively on this blog about why the protectionism Trump champions is ass-backwards, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say he knows nothing whatsoever about economics.

The only policy position Trump has gotten specific about is his tax plan. He frequently lies about this plan by calling it revenue neutral, which it will not be even under the rosiest of growth projections, and saying it will cost him a fortune when really it will save him tens of millions of dollars. Trump’s supporters are right about one thing: he is not politically correct. But the qualifier is unnecessary in that oft-boasted claim, for Trump is not correct at all – about anything, politically or otherwise.

Not only is Trump uniquely ignorant among candidates still in the race, he is also uniquely vain and uniquely offensive. Trump is perhaps tied with Kanye West as the most conceited person I have ever known to exist. Everything he says and does is geared exclusively towards his own self-promotion. His speeches can be summed up in a few short sentences: “I am a winner, they are all losers. I am brilliant, they are all stupid. I make great deals, they only fail.” In the absence of any distinguishable governing ideology or any specific policy proposals, this is all his campaign rests upon. His only belief is that he is awesome and can do whatever he wants. His only tone of voice is condescension.  He has nurtured a cult of personality, and that personality is “pompous, egocentric asshole.”

Next, there’s the offensiveness. Politicians are made to speak a lot, and they speak on inherently controversial topics, so it’s understandable that sometimes they ruffle some feathers. This happens to some politicians more than others, but at one point or another, most of them will say something that’s too offensive to too many people, only to backtrack and apologize as public criticism mounts. Donald Trump is not like this. Donald Trump says outrageous things intentionally and incessantly, and never backtracks or apologizes or even hints at understanding why he messed up. If this is what he says over the course of six months of scripted campaigning, can you even imagine what he’d say over the course of four unscripted years as president? The man is a buffoon, a stooge, a dancing rodeo clown out to make American politics into more of a reality TV show than it already was.

Jeb Bush should be disqualified for the presidency for 100 reasons, starting with the fact that his older brother was a horribly failed president whose views are almost indistinguishable from Jeb’s, and continuing with the fact that his father was also president. Jeb Bush’s very candidacy (particularly in a race against another Clinton!) exposes how corrupt and rigged and un-democratic our system has become. Another Bush or Clinton inheriting the White House from their family members would be a disaster for our country, making us rather like Russia in the eyes of the world: democratic in name only.

But the painful truth is that none of this is what’s costing Jeb the election. What has crippled his campaign is his intelligence! The fact that he is soft spoken, and wears glasses, and speaks in compound sentences that occasionally employ SAT vocab words has completely emasculated him when he is made to share a stage with Donald Trump. We have the stereotypical college graduate on one side, and the stereotypical high school bully on the other, with the most powerful office on earth in the balance, and most Republicans would seemingly rather elect the bully.

This should be horrifying to any thinking person.

There’s a word for those who select most violent and aggressive male in the group as their leader: animals. Cave-men, to be generous. Evolved human beings are supposed to have developed a level of intellect and sensitivity and foresight which lets them choose leaders with more noble qualities than brutishness – or better yet, a level of humility to admit when they are not informed enough on the topic at hand to agitate for one candidate or another.

Just and effective governance is not about being brazen and brash and kicking ass and taking names. Sound foreign policy is not about aimless aggression. Diplomacy is not about how much testosterone is coursing through your veins. And if most Republicans think it is, than most Republicans do not deserve a place at the decision making table. I’m rambling now, with a directionless anger that rather resembles Trumps, and I don’t care. Trump is the candidate for stupid, cowardly or bigoted people who prefer the faked certainty of aggressive sound-bytes to the cognitive dissonance of reasoned exchange. Most of us deserve better.

Four years ago, I voted for libertarian Gary Johnson, in part to protest the two-party stranglehold on power. Barring a Rand Paul nomination, I had planned to do the same this cycle. But if Donald Trump gets the Republican nomination, fuck all that – I am going into disaster-avoidance mode and voting Democrat. I am an ardent libertarian who thinks socialism is an economically illiterate disaster waiting to happen, and I would vote for Bernie Sanders over Trump in a heartbeat.


In the wake of his Trump's widening lead in the polls, Evan Osnos of the New Yorker asks the question on most people’s minds: “How did a real campaign emerge from a proposition so ludicrous that an episode of “The Simpsons” once used a Trump Presidency as the conceit for a dystopian future?

There are many interesting theories floating around the web about why Trump has become so popular, but I don’t care which of them is correct. The question on my mind is this:

How could I devote my life to obeying such a man?

Already, the thought of suiting up for yet another Bush or Clinton makes me cringe. If one of them is elected, every day I put on this uniform I will have to pretend not to notice the fucking OBVIOUS truth that they are only president because they came from a rich and powerful family with political connections. This would diminish the democratic legitimacy behind my own actions as an officer, and make it harder for me to do my job. 

But even that, I could bear. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are intelligent, talented individuals with good intentions and reasonable ideas. They make coherent legal proposals. Their ideas are supported by respected members of American intelligentsia. They can be taken seriously.

Donald Trump cannot be taken seriously. Nor could any foreign policy decision he made as president be taken seriously, which means neither could I as the executioner of those decisions. The uniform I wear so proudly now would come to symbolize something completely different were Trump the man in charge of the Armed Forces: gullibility. To fair-minded people of the world, Trump’s soldiers would symbolize blind, unthinking obedience to orders, no matter how preposterous the man giving them happened to be.

Before every meal I ate at Ranger school, I pledged that “under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.” I meant it. And I mean this: Donald Trump makes a mockery of the country I love. As President, he would be the American Silvio Berlusconi, or maybe Rob Ford had Canada saw fit to reward his cocaine binges with an election to Prime Minister. Should Trump win, America would be the laughingstock of the world, and serving him would only further that embarrassment.

How could I travel, and meet people from other countries, and not be ashamed? How could I swear solemn, stony-faced vows to obey the every order of such a cartoonish character? How could I watch serious world leaders converge in the UN to discuss the important issues of the day, and not be struck by how absurd it is that the most powerful among them is the douchebag from The Apprentice? How could I pretend that the fire-hose of thoughtless misogyny and narcissism and stupidity that spurts out of his mouth gave me legitimate moral authority to kill people?

I hold myself in higher regard than that. My obedience to authority is not unconditional.

Should a Commander in Chief be elected with whom I disagree on matters of foreign policy strategy, I will bite my tongue and give his orders in my own name. I recognize that I do not know everything, sometimes I am wrong, and even my least favorite politicians have far more experience and education than I do on matters of foreign policy. If they are elected, and their decisions are faithful to the will of the people who elected them, and that will meets even the thinnest of rational basis tests, I will serve them proudly. I am willing to die in service to my country even for wars I consider unwise.

But wars I consider to be evil? That’s another story entirely.

Ultimately, my stance boils down to this: if Donald Trump starts a war, I am deeply worried that we would be the bad guys. At the least, I am not confident enough that we would be the good guys for me to continue training his Army to win that war for 4-8 years. I would not afford to him the same benefit of the doubt I would ordinarily afford a president, because unlike every other president in our nation’s history, I sincerely believe myself to be a better qualified decision maker than that oaf of a man. He is one hair’s breadth more qualified to be president than Kim Kardashian, and that may be unfair to her.

Perhaps there are those who would call me a coward for refusing to go to war, especially as someone who willingly volunteered to join the armed forces. But the worst cowardice is to know what is right, and not do it. I made a promise and God long ago that I will follow my conscience in all things, and my conscience tells me that taking orders from Donald Trump would put me in the wrong.

I will not kill on the orders of someone whose moral compass I do not trust. 

I signed up to defend my country, not to be a henchman for some self-obsessed circus clown.

And so I won't, consequences be damned. I pray it never comes to that. Hopefully, by election time, Trump will be starved of the attention and adoration he craves, and banished to the fringe of American society where he belongs. But just in case, that's where I stand.

Where is the boundary between libertarian and liberal?

My last post defended a libertarian icon’s most famous quote from an assailant who works for a libertarian think tank. This got me curious about the identity of the man criticizing Goldwater, and his own political leanings. His name is Will Wilkinson, and a quick Google search discovered that he shares many of my libertarian sensibilities. He used to be a research fellow at the Cato Institute, where he was the founding editor of Cato Unbound. He has been a program director at the Mercatus Center (the libertarian-leaning economics think-tank at George Mason University) and the Institute for Humane Studies (which runs the popular Learn Liberty program as well as the seminars for young libertarians I attended last June). He also writes for The Economist and “frequently appears in public forums and debates with leading intellectuals.” This makes two things clear. First, Wilkinson is way smarter than me. Second, we agree on a whole lot. Reading these accomplishments left me certain that Wilkinson was a libertarian after all - if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck.

Perplexingly, I also discovered that this same man authored an entry in one of my favorite left-libertarian blogs back in 2012, in which he explained why he does not describe himself as libertarian. He implored the sites viewers not to do so either, and to instead “hasten their passage through the liminal ‘bleeding heart’ stage and just come out as liberals.” I would implore them to do no such thing, and this entry will refute that stance. But before I begin, I’d like to thank him for the awesome work he has done to advance liberty and happiness thus far in his career, regardless of the banner he champions. On the very remote chance he ever reads this, I hope he won’t take it as a personal attack.

The bulk of his argument came from this passage:

“I’m not interested in identifying myself a libertarian. Ideological labels are mutable, but at any given time they publicly connote a certain syndrome of convictions. What “libertarian” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe. So I guess I’m just a liberal”.

But Wilkinson applies this logic rather selectively, because only a few paragraphs later he confesses that “[s]tandard academic liberals badly understate the importance of economic freedom to freedom more generally.” It would appear, then, that what “liberal” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as liberal, is also flatly at odds with some of what Wilkinson believes. And not just some, but much; Wilkinson would surely agree that the errant policy positions which result from the liberal indifference to economic liberty are numerous, and their implications far-reaching.

He acknowledges that this leaves him in “a position that is neither standard liberalism nor a standard libertarian alternative,” and in fact not standardly anything. This is only to be expected, though. The number of philosophical questions in the world is immense, and the number of ideological labels with which one might affiliate is relatively puny. Few informed and independently minded people will find that their political beliefs align exactly with any of these preset configurations of opinion. Affiliation with a political ideology is not presumed to express an exact agreement with everything that ideology would “standardly” be thought to believe.

That Wilkinson still identifies as liberal, but not at all as libertarian, suggests to me that one of two things is true. First, he may believe that liberals and libertarians are mutually exclusive categories – that even their outer boundaries do not intersect. If so, it would seem he defines the parameters of liberalism more broadly and more generously than he defines the parameters of libertarianism.

These definitions strike me as completely arbitrary, which would make his argument for one title over the other unconvincing. Why should liberals get to have a bigger tent than libertarians? Who decides that, say, free market environmentalists who want looser immigration policy and work for the Niskanen Center fall under one tent, but not the other? That Wilkinson is Vice-President of Policy for an organization that unabashedly does describe itself as libertarian suggests there must be significant overlap. It is one thing to self-affiliate with a preferred title, but to essentially scold viewers of a left-libertarian blog for not recognizing what they really are seems mighty presumptuous. Why should he get to police the gate?

Wilkinson asserts that “The argument over which rights and liberties ought to be treated as constitutional fixed points, and thus ought to be off the table of democratic negotiation, is not a debate between liberals and the people who think taxation is theft or that the state is an inherently criminal enterprise. It’s a debate within liberalism between liberals.” But he offers no support for this besides his own contestable definitions. As a former intern at The Federalist Society who blogs on constitutional law, I very much aspire to take part in the debate Wilkinson describes – yet I am not a liberal, by my reckoning, and I do think taxation is more or less theft.

He writes that he is “more interested in arguing with standard liberals about the nature and scope of specially-protected rights and liberties within the settled context of the liberal-democratic nation-state than in arguing with standard libertarians about the justification of taxation, publicly-financed education, or welfare transfers.” As it happens, so am I. But since when do you need to be a liberal to argue with liberals? And in the long run, might fewer parts of this euphemistically-described “liberal-democratic nation-state” be settled than would be possible without those fringe libertarian debates taking place? When abolitionists and suffragettes debated whether black women should have the right to own property in the early 1800’s, they were probably greeted with eye-rolling from those focused on short term progress. But in the grander picture of our country’s history, those debates were at least as important to our national progress as were the Henry Clays and Daniel Websters who worked within the system. I am all for the Niskanen Center’s approach, but that doesn’t mean extremism is altogether unproductive.

The second possibility is that Wilkinson recognizes libertarianism and liberalism do intersect, but feels that that where they intersect, the term liberalism should trump by default.

If this is the case, the obvious question is why? Wilkinson never says, but he hints at one possible answer when he writes that ideological labels “publicly connote a certain syndrome of convictions.” This is true, but not really relevant unless we are more concerned by what others think of our label than we are by its underlying accuracy. I cannot help but wonder if a desire to be accepted and validated by those “standard academic liberals” (who make up the bulk his policymaker peers in Washington) might play a subliminal but influential role in Wilkinson’s self-description.

Might Wilkinson be embarrassed, in such an environment, by association with the “syndrome of convictions” publicly connoted by the word libertarian? After all, stereotypes about liberals are much more charitable, particularly in Washington. Libertarians are said to be selfish, heartless, paranoid, privileged, and divorced from reality, while liberals, however misguided their opponents may think they are, are usually at least presumed to have good intentions towards the selfless betterment of humankind. If he admits his beliefs fall somewhere in between standardly liberal and standardly libertarian, a continued preference for one title over the other might indicate that he is more fearful of people misjudging his beliefs in one direction than he is of people misjudging them in the other.

Perhaps this is simply a strategic move for public relations, in much the same way many anarchists now prefer the term “voluntaryist” for fear anarchy has too much baggage. Preferring the more socially acceptable of two labels is fine, I suppose, but it doesn’t mesh with Wilkinson’s self-portrayal as “inscrutably idiosyncratic.” On the contrary, preoccupation with the public connotation of his ideas seem to render his idiosyncrasies quite scrutable. I wouldn’t begrudge him for this were the close of his post not so condescending; “I’ve heard some good things about individualism. Maybe some of us should try it” is not a thing I would write if my personal brand of individualism were all about cow-towing to public sensibilities in order to win approval from mainstream liberal academics.

As any self-described liberal should understand, stereotypes about large classes of people are often wrong. There is huge difference between how libertarians are often caricaturized and the reality of their underlying ideology. Will Wilkinson’s general leanings, in his words are as follows: “I am interested in what it means to be free, and the role of freedom in flourishing or meaningful or valuable lives.”

To me, that means he’s libertarian, whether he calls himself that or not. Freedom is a rough synonym or liberty, and liberty is the root word of libertarian. The word liberal has a more complex etymology, but it seems to originally have had pre-political meanings similar to generous. Generosity is well and good, but it ought not be the fundamental objective of the polity. And in the modern day, standard liberalism strikes me as being far more interested in equality than it is in freedom.

That does not mean Wilkinson cannot also be interested in a whole host of issues that are more standardly liberal than they are libertarian, just as I am myself. More of my blog entries these days deal with feminism than they do property rights. But support for those causes in no way negates our overriding concern for liberty and how to maximize it, which places us wholly within the libertarian label as well. That is what left libertarianism is all about: pursuing freedom and social justice as separate but parallel pursuits, and recognizing that their essential goals complement one another more often than they contradict one another.

I suspect Wilkinson already gets this, so I implore him to hasten his progress through the liminal “closeted libertarian” phase and come out as a thinker who, whatever else he may also be, is both influenced by libertarianism and pushing it to new heights.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Extremism in the Defense of Moderation is No Virtue

In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Baines Johnson for president of the United States. The Goldwater campaign was ill-fated, but it featured several memorable speeches which modern libertarians hold dear to their hearts. One of them was from a young actor named Ronald Reagan, who endorsed Goldwater with a masterpiece of small government rhetoric that’s as applicable today as it was back then. And another, from Goldwater himself at the Republican National Convention, featured one of the most famous paraphrased quips of libertarian philosophy:

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Will Wilkinson, Vice-President of the libertarian-leaning Niskanen Center, recently wrote an essay refuting that claim. I would like to rebut his rebuttal. In this post, I’ll go through his article line by line to thoroughly defend the quote. He begins:

“Goldwater’s apothegm is completely wrongheaded. It’s one mistake after another. Understanding why it’s wrong is useful and important. It’s a good first step toward an understanding of why, more than a half-century after Goldwater’s failed campaign, an attraction to extremes and a disdain for moderation has left libertarianism languishing at the margins of American political life.”

Before I start, I don’t think libertarianism is “languishing at the margins of American political life.” I think it’s one of the fastest growing ideological affiliations in the country, both explicitly (with more people identifying as libertarian) and implicitly (with more people identifying as both fiscally conservative and socially tolerant, which is the essence of libertarianism, even if they don’t recognize it as such). But that’s neither here nor there, so I’ll ignore the slight for now. Wilkinson continues:

“The chief difficulty with “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” is that it pretty straightforwardly violates history’s most popular and plausible theory of virtues and vices. According to Aristotle, virtue is a mean between excess and deficiency. I happen to think Aristotle is basically right. It follows, almost by definition, that extremism is going to err on the side of excess, except in extraordinary circumstances that legitimately call for extreme measures. That’s the simple philosophical objection: virtue is a form of well-calibrated moderation in temperament. The porridge of virtue is always just right. Vice is too hot or too cold, a disposition to extremes.”

This is bad argumentation for two reasons. First, it’s “pretty straightforwardly” just an assertion, not an argument at all. Saying “Goldwater’s theory violates Aristotle’s theory, and I think Aristotle’s theory is right” is no different than saying “I think Goldwater’s theory is wrong,” which is itself the very thesis he’s trying to prove. I happen to think Aristotle is basically wrong – so there!

Second, equating extremism with vice “by definition” is not only an assertion, but a categorical assertion, which is ironically pretty extreme! Whereas Goldwater makes a claim about only one sort of extremism – extremism in defense of liberty – Wilkinson makes a claim about any sort of extremism, which hardly seems a moderate position on the issue. Put differently, Goldwater is saying “extremism is sometimes justified,” while Wilkinson is saying “extremism is damn near never justified.” At this point in the essay, those positions aren’t even contradictory; couldn’t the defense of liberty be considered one of those “extraordinary circumstances” Wilkinson refers to? But the moment Wilkinson attempts to make them contradictory by making his own statement universal (later in the piece, he repeats the claim that “extremes are vices by definition” without caveat), his statement becomes self-contradictory by transforming itself into an extreme stance. As Oscar Wilde put it, “everything in moderation – especially moderation.”

But my primary objection comes from this passage:

“There is a whiff of violence, or at least danger, about extremism. Extremists reject mainstream opinion, including mainstream opinion about acceptable political tactics. To embrace extremism in defense of something is to at least flirt with the idea that violence isn’t out of the question.”

This is dead wrong, and it’s the heart of Wilkinson’s error throughout the remainder of the piece. Extremism need not flirt with violence at all. In order to qualify as an extremist, you must reject mainstream opinion on at least one issue – but you needn’t reject it on all issues. Accordingly, extremists need not reject mainstream opinion about “acceptable political tactics” whatsoever, and that includes mainstream opinion on the tactic of violence. This is particularly true when the most central tenet of the “extreme” ideology you endorse is the non-aggression principle, aka the rejection of violence or the threat thereof.

Another of Goldwater’s famous quotes was that “politics and governing demand compromise,” (in the context of warning that “preachers”, who he feared would not compromise, might take over the Republican Party). Compromise is about the most moderate political tactic I can think of. What Goldwater likely meant by “extremism in defense of liberty,” and what modern libertarians certainly mean by it, is not a set of extreme tactics to bring about liberty, but a set of extreme ideas regarding liberty – that is, the ideal of liberty taken to its logical extremes. Libertarian extremism means supporting a set of policies that lie very far outside mainstream American political thought, especially in Goldwater’s day, without saying one thing or another about how those policies are to be advocated or enacted.

It is very possible to pursue extreme ideas through moderate and conventional means. It has been done before. The idea that women should be able to vote, or even to own property, was once thought to be a very radical idea indeed. But eventually it came to pass, and it did so through essentially nonviolent, democratic means: a constitutional amendment, passed in much the same way as dozens of other amendments before it. In like fashion, I advance a whole host of extreme positions, from legalizing prostitution and cocaine to drastic reductions in government spending. I think nude undocumented immigrants from Syria should be able to sell their vital organs at a Westboro Baptist Church protest without breaking any laws – that’s pretty extreme! But I would never dream of using violence to make it so. Wilkinson cofounds these things.

He continues:
“the embrace of extremism is the embrace of extreme measures, and violence—the “means” that is normally off the table—is the extreme measure par excellence…[I]t’s a very short step from extremism in defense of liberty to violence in defense of liberty.”

Again, extremism is NOT necessarily the embrace of extreme measures. But even if it were, he Wilkinson is wrong again, because not all extreme measures entail violence.

Mahatma Gandhi was a pretty extreme guy, in both his tactics and his beliefs. One of those beliefs was that India ought to break free from Great Britain and become its own country. Another was pacifism. This unwillingness to use violence did not prevent Gandhi from utilizing very extreme measures (like refusing to eat until his supporters stopped being violent, and marching enormous distances to the sea to reclaim a bit of stolen salt) to great effect. If Wilkinson is to be believed, the absence of violence makes Gandhi a run-of-the-mill moderate.

But pacifism is not a moderate position, and neither is libertarianism. These ideologies are extreme precisely because they are so much more likely to reject violence than mainstream political thinkers. In such cases, equating extremism with violence is particularly disingenuous.

Next up is the argument that libertarian extremism amounts only to coded racism:

“Goldwater, you’ll recall, opposed the Civil Rights Act on “constitutional” grounds, and his nomination speech came just two weeks after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. It requires a special sort of obtuseness to insist that Goldwater was only making some sort of abstract, historically acontextual point about the politics of liberty. Indeed, it’s Malcolm X who takes “extremism in defense of liberty” literally, as a strategy for the liberation of oppressed people, exposing and inverting its racially-coded meaning.”

I now pause my defense of Goldwater’s quote to stick up for Goldwater the man. I see no reason to put “constitutional” in quotation marks, as if it were some novel and unlikely objection to for a principled libertarian to make. On the contrary, it’s precisely how you would expect a libertarian to react to the seizure of new and un-enumerated federal powers. The legal challenges to the Civil Rights Act made it all the way to the Supreme Court, even in the peak of the liberally-dominated Warren area. These were no frivolous objections. I happen to share them. When constitutional questions were not at stake, Goldwater steadfastly supported efforts to combat discrimination. He voted against his party in FAVOR of both Civil Rights Acts which Congress passed prior to the 1964 rendition. Even the 1964 edition left Goldwater deeply conflicted. In explaining his vote, he took care to clarify his position:

I am unalterably opposed to discrimination or segregation on the basis of race, color, or creed, or on any other basis; not only my words, but more importantly my actions through the years have repeatedly demonstrated the sincerity of my feeling in this regard…

throughout my 12 years as a member of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, I have repeatedly offered amendments to bills pertaining to labor that would end discrimination in unions, and repeatedly those amendments have been turned down by the very members of both parties who now so vociferously support the present approach to the solution of our problem…

I maintained high hopes for this current legislation…It is with great sadness that I realize the non-fulfillment of these high hopes….

I realize fully that the Federal Government has a responsibility in the field of civil rights. I supported the civil rights bills which were enacted in 1957 and 1960, and my public utterances during the debates on those measures and since reveal clearly the areas in which I feel Federal responsibility lies and Federal legislation on this subject can be both effective and appropriate. Many of those areas are encompassed in this bill and to that extent, I favor it.

I wish to make myself perfectly clear. The two portions of this bill to which I have constantly and consistently voiced objections, and which are of such overriding significance that they are determinative of my vote on the entire measure, are those which would embark the Federal Government on a regulatory course of action in the area of so-called "public accommodations" and in the area of employment--to be precise, Titles II and VII of the bill. I find no constitutional basis for the exercise of Federal regulatory authority in either of these areas; and I believe the attempted usurpation of such power to be a grave threat to the very essence of our basic system of government, namely, that of a constitutional government in which 50 sovereign states have reserved to themselves and to the people those powers not specifically granted to the central or Federal Government.

If it is the wish of the American people that the Federal Government should be granted the power to regulate in this two areas and in the manner contemplated by the bill, then I say the Constitution should be so amended as to authorize such action in accordance with the procedures for amending the Constitution which that great document itself prescribes. I say further that for this great legislative body to ignore the Constitution and the fundamental concepts of our governmental system is to act in a manner which could ultimately destroy the freedom of all American citizens, including the freedoms of the very persons whose feelings and whose liberties are the major subject of this legislation…

This vote will be reluctantly cast, because I had hoped to be able to vote "Yea" on this measure as I have on the civil right bills which have preceded it; but I cannot in good conscience to the oath that I took when assuming office, cast my vote in the affirmative. With the exception of Titles II and VII, I could wholeheartedly support this bill; but with their inclusion, not measurably improved by the compromise version we have been working on, my vote must be "No".

If my vote is misconstrued, let it be, and let me suffer its consequences. Just let me be judged in this by the real concern I have voiced here and not by words that others may speak or by what others may say about what I think.

This explanation is compelling to me. Even if it is not to you, it should be more than enough to excuse Goldwater from charges of racism on account of that vote alone. History is written by the victors, and too many people would have you believe that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a straight up contest between good and evil with no grey areas in between. In truth, it was the byproduct of a very messy political process that had to overcome legitimate, principled objections as much as it had to overcome racism. Did it do more good than bad? Absolutely. Would I have voted for it? Yes. Are there parts I would like to overturn even today? Also yes. If you think this makes me a racist, you do not understand the nuances political philosophy as thoroughly as you should.

But even if you are convinced that Goldwater was a big fat stinking racist and content to dismiss everything he ever said as a result, it’s still irrelevant to whether or not extremism in defense of liberty is vice. It shows only that you define liberty differently than Goldwater. If so, merely reimagine that the quip was uttered by one of your favorite political heroes, and evaluate its merits then. If the conception of liberty you personally seek to advance were considered “extreme” by most people, would defending that conception be vice, solely on account of its incongruence with popular opinion? If not, you agree with Goldwater. Is it more virtuous to pursue your conception of justice evenly and completely across the board, or to moderate that pursuit by limiting it to certain cases? If you think the former is better, you agree with Goldwater.

Next Wilkinson brings up the example of Timothy McVeigh, arguing that he claimed to pursue “extremism in the defense of liberty,” but surely behaved evilly. He concludes that argument with these lines:
Malcolm X and Timothy McVeigh knew perfectly well what “extremism in defense of liberty” really means, and we ought to stop pretending that we don’t know it, too. Almost everyone who repeats Goldwater’s slogan is guilty of hyperbole and doesn’t really mean what he or she is saying.”

If Wilkinson listened to five minutes of what libertarians are saying, instead of one out of context snippet, he would find it is he who is guilty of hyperbole. This too is its own kind of straw man. Liberty and its defense mean different things to different people, but not all of those conceptions are correct. McVeigh’s conception was not correct, because in reality, his murders did nothing to defend liberty for anyone. Al Qaeda doubtlessly considers its murders “extremism in defense of liberty” too, but that doesn’t mean they actually are. The ability of some people to misconstrue a political statement and its implications does not render that statement false.

By analogy, some people in Baltimore construed the idea that “black lives matter” to justify committing arson against random hospitals and pizzerias. In truth, the fact that black lives matter did not justify such violence – particularly for those patients and pizzeria employees/patrons who happened to be black. But the errant application of the black lives matter mantra does not discredit the mantra itself, nor make it counterproductive to continue utilizing the slogan in future political activism.

Towards the end of his essay he traces the disputed historical origins of the saying, but from my view that’s irrelevant to its modern application. He concludes that etymology merely by repeating his earlier claim that “extremism…means a willingness to use extreme tactics—to water the tree of liberty with blood, if need be.” It is only by equivocating extremism with violence that he can credibly support his underlying principle: “that extremism is a vice, whatever it is in defense of.” That equivocation is essentially the whole of his rebuttal, and its nonsense.

Update: Ilya Somin, another libertarian who is both much smarter and much more accomplished than myself, agrees with me.