Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Light Came On

A light came on in my head. A moment of insight that still has me reeling. No, it's nothing profound that has never been thought of or said before. It's my own little spark of connection, simplification, and...awe.

My entire adult life has been spent reading about, thinking about, and talking about libertarianism, always struggling with the issues of public policy and 'how we get there from here' kind of subjects. The reason for all of the study, thought, and discussion is that the world is full of people who discount libertarian ideas as false, impractical, or idealistic. Of course, my argument has been that the ideas are true, eminently practical...and what's wrong with idealism if the ideals are right?

With a few notable exceptions, hardly anybody changes their minds during an argument or discussion. Usually people, especially poorly informed or misinformed people, bury themselves deeper into their belief system when they are challenged. I suppose this is natural. Nobody wants to be wrong. It strikes too close to our definition of ourselves, and we fear recanting, looking foolish, losing face, and believing we are lesser persons for having been corrected by another. The longer we hold a position, the harder to admit it has been proven false.

I have been operating under the assumption that if I could just find the right comfort and convince, and...and...convert. So I played with words and arguments, forming them the way a never-satisfied wannabe sculpture artist tortures clay, to make all men into libertarians like me. Always failing. Always trying again. And again. I can be a bore at parties.

It was all so unnecessary. The light that came on was the realization that, without any argument, all men were already libertarians. All men and women, universally, around the world and across cultures and across national boundaries and regardless of religion, race, occupation, or gender, are naturally libertarians. Civil society could not exist if they were not, for libertarianism is nothing more, and nothing less, than treating other people and their property with respect. We all do this everyday and everywhere. Human interactions are overwhelmingly made up of personal contacts between equals. We live near, sell to, buy from, trade with, and leave alone others every single day. At no time do we feel it is our right to steal, maim, intrude, or kill. Those things are wrong in all cultures and all political systems. A society in which killing and stealing is every one's right is doomed to failure as it descends into war and flight. A non-libertarian society will not be a civil society, it will be a wasteland.

The struggle is not to sell libertarianism, but to illustrate the disconnect between our personal morals and our political convictions. It is no more right for me to put a gun to my neighbor's head and demand forty percent of their cash than it is for me to vote for someone to hire someone to put a gun to my neighbor's head and demand forty percent of their cash. Proxy politics removes the thought of moral culpability, but it does not remove the reality. Voting for politicians who vote for an aggressive war in which ninety percent of the casualties are civilians has the same moral dimensions as personally shooting an innocent, cowering Afghan peasant woman. We cannot be excused from the crime because our vote was filtered through politicians, generals, layers of military officers, until it arrived in the hands of a half-boy-half-man with an attitude and a gun.

Personal libertarianism must be reconnected to public libertarianism. That is our most urgent task and our moral duty.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Robert Parker

I met Robert Parker in the Spring of 1983 at a Hillsdale College graduation party. He was the father of Lisa, a classmate of mine. Mr. Parker, a slight man with white hair and an openly friendly expression on his face, approached me and struck up small talk about how I liked Hillsdale and how my year went.

He was aware that I was going to school for a semester, then taking a semester off to earn money, then going back for another semester, etc. I had already done that twice and was prepared to do that two more times in order to get my degree. Four years to finish my last two years of college. He asked if I liked doing it that way. I replied that it wasn't a matter of liking or disliking it, it was a fact of life and I had accepted that. Mr. Parker asked the same question again in a different way, then again, and each time I answered that it really wasn't up for was what it was. He pressed...would I continue that way if I had access to enough funds to complete my education in one year?

I paused, confused. What was he proposing, I asked. Well, he said, how about a $4000 loan repayable after graduation. That would be the equivalent of about $12000 in today's money. Not an insignificant sum for a seasonal roofing laborer.

I was dumbfounded. Mr. Parker barely knew me. We had only just met, yet based on stories from his daughter and from our brief discussion, he and his wife were willing to float me a loan, with no collateral, so I could finish school earlier than planned.

Cutting to the chase: I took the loan. I finished school in the Spring of 1984, got a job with May Company, and repayed the loan in about eighteen months, a year earlier than planned.

I can't say I was good at staying in touch with Mr. and Mrs. Parker over the years, but that does not mean I did not think of them regularly. They came to my wedding in Cleveland in 1988. The Parkers dropped off a guitar once, while passing through Cleveland on their way to Pittsburgh where their daughter was living. Mrs. Parker would write letters every few months to keep me updated with what was going on in their lives. I dont' really remember, but I hope I wrote back. She passed away suddenly in the 1990's, and I think of her every time I pick up the guitar, which is almost every day.

My contact with Mr. Parker continued in the form of yearly "He Said/She Said" letters that my wife and I stuff into our Christmas cards. Mr. Parker would respond with a short friendly note, or through a comment included on one of Lisa's letters. (They are wonderfully funny letters, by the way, and I have kept every one of them.) I noticed in his letter from 2009 that we, he and I, shared deep misgivings about our country's direction and our current crop of political leaders. To have Mr. Parker in my foxhole seemed...comforting.

I was always aware that time was not my friend, and that one day I would have to deal with the inevitable loss of people who have been important to me. My father died in 1999. My wife's extraordinary Aunt Dot passed away around that time. This year, when addressing the Christmas card to Mr. Parker, I had the passing thought that one year the card would come back...

Shortly after Christmas, I received a large envelope in the mail. It was from Lisa. I knew, just knew, what it was going to tell me. I opened it. Read it. Sat and cried.

Robert Parker had passed away in the Spring of 2010. His passing was painless, and his daughter was with him. She detailed how they spent the last few weeks together, preparing, remembering, laughing, being happy. His eulogy, delivered by Lisa at his memorial, was typical of her: funny, insightful, deeply touching. Of course I wish I could have been there. But reading it, by myself, and letting the emotions flow, was in some ways better.

There are people who, without meaning to, teach life lessons by example. More than anything, I was affected by Mr. Parker's gentility. He was refined but not haughty, thoughtful but not didactic, and generous but not foolhardy. I can only hope to conduct myself in a similar manner. If, one day, I come upon a young person who deserves a bit of help, and if I am in a position to make a difference, I hope to have the, the do a good thing.

p.s.--My father and Mr. Parker met at my college graduation. In discussion, it turned out both men were the same age, both had been drafted in World War II, both men served in the South Pacific, and both men were on the same island on the same day, at the same place. They determined this because they both remembered being present when a ship exploded in the harbor. After the War, Mr. Parker went to college and became a lawyer while my father went to work as a truck driver, then a commercial fisherman, and finally as a self-employed logger. One man became a man of letters, one man could barely read. It was a study in contrasts, but it was also a study in similarities. Both men were admirable for their integrity and doing the best they could. That, in my opinion, is what gives meaning to life.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Simple Statement

The core idea of the libertarian philosophy is simple:
That all persons are equally free to live their lives as they see fit.

The "equal freedom" principle has a corollary: no person is entitled to initiate force against another.

Both statements, taken together, form a philosophical yin and yang, an image of positive and negative in the same way the dark image in an Escher print is the outline of the exact same image in the white space.

As an organizing principle for a society, libertarianism supports the rule of law, limits on government power, fairness in jurisprudence, and property rights. If a society attempts to operate without this as an organizing principle it leads to unlimited government power, pressure group politics, plastic rules of fairness in court, and no security of person or property. Many of the great democratic/republican convulsions of the 1700's and 1800's had a strong libertarian core. They were revolting against the despotism of kings and dictators who respected no rules of human fairness. Today, there is only a faint shadow of libertarian principles in old words, barely understood, written on faded parchment. The recent reading of the Constitution by the House of Representatives was a concrete demonstration of pious recitation without comprehension.

On a personal level, however, libertarianism is alive and strong. I would go so far as to say that most people, regardless of where they live, understand and practice libertarianism in their personal lives. In fact, I doubt any civil society can long survive without a firm foundation in the interpersonal respect for each other's person and property.

Wherever you go, the rules of interpersonal relations are the same:

Don't hit, don't hurt, don't murder.
Don't steal.
Don't cheat.

The world continues to function because people everywhere practice these rules. A homeowner can keep a nice lawn because of the reasonable assurance no one will drive on it and do 'donuts' in the middle of the night. A shop owner can put goods in easy reach of strangers because he is reasonably sure the strangers will pay for them instead of steal them. An employee will do work for an employer for two weeks because of reasonable assurance they will be compensated at a specified time in the future. A pedestrian will walk down a sidewalk with the reasonable assurance he will not be accosted by thugs.

All of this is possible because each person carries within him a small voice saying: treat others and their belongings with circumspect respect. When enough of a society practices this principle, there is civil tranquility.

There are examples, however, of places where 'reasonable assurance' is not so reasonable. East St Louis. Detroit. Liberia. Why? It's not because people in general have rejected the idea of personal libertarianism. If that were the case, there would be a free-for-all of stealing, assault, and murder without a regret expressed. But because the majority of people living in those cursed places recognize the gross unfairness imposed on them by crooks and thugs, it can be said that their repugnance at the violence and criminality is their statement of desire for libertarian civility. Even most crooks realize what they do is harmful to others and try to hide their actions from view. Only the sociopaths have no consideration for others.

If people took their personal libertarianism and extended it to politics, the resulting government would concern itself only with protection of persons and their property from violence, theft, and fraud. The courts would focus on restitution to victims where possible, not vengeful punishment or coercive behavior modification. Incarceration would be limited to those who cannot be safely allowed to walk the streets: sociopaths. Unless a society is dominated by sociopaths, it is unlikely to need much of a government.

Why is it our politics is so unlibertarian? Because the people have been taught for over 100 years that there is something magical about governments and government officials. The Progressive Era included a faith in experts, bureaucracy (not always a pejorative word), and concentrated government power. The result was a disconnect between our personal lives and our political lives. We would never, personally, put a gun to our neighbor's head, take half of his money, and consider it our right to do so. However, we have accepted the idea that we are justified in doing the same thing as long as we have our 'representative' do it for us. We know it is not our business to force our neighbor to live only in a manner that we approve of, but we feel righteous demanding that our representative licence, tax, regulate, and punish personal lives. We would call it murder if we personally pulled the trigger to intentionally murder an illiterate farmer on the other side of the earth who has never done us harm, yet we demand our representatives put in motion a killing machine that accomplishes the same thing, and we wave flags and 'support the troops' in their misbegotten mission. Personally we respect each other and our property, politically we cancel that respect by endorsing government theft and murder.

(It should be no surprise that the people who tell us these actions are right and justified are themselves sociopaths. See the parallels between politicians and sick sociopaths below:

I will blog on this angle another time.)

Personal libertarianism, practiced consistently, leads to a political system and policies very different from the ones we currently live under. I venture to say that only personal libertarianism can save us from the continued confiscation and despotism we are enduring.