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Friday, December 18, 2015

Why Libertarianism Will Crush Conservatism

[Published at on Aug. 18, 2013. This was one of my biggest viral hits, garnering almost 7,000 shares on social media when it came out.]

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus recently wrote a piece on PolicyMic attempting to draw millennials to the GOP. Priebus and the rest of the Republican leadership know the future of their party is in serious jeopardy; what they don't realize is that only libertarians can save them.

At the core of the party's problems is conservatism itself. Having never been a coherent philosophy of government, conservatism exists as an amalgam of reactionary concepts loosely tied together by historical accident. The only apparent unifying theme among ideas as unrelated as opposition to gay marriage and aggressive foreign interventionism is a fear of the unfamiliar. This reactionary nature is leading conservatives down a path to irrelevance in an age of improved communication, access to information, and cultural understanding.

Murray Rothbard pointed out that conservatism, lacking a coherent ideology, offers only a practical defense of the existing status quo, reacting to progressivism in defense of "tradition." But when progressive reforms endure and become part of that tradition, conservatives lose their intellectual ammunition and end up accepting the change, for better or worse.

Through the decades, conservatives have been overwhelmingly impotent at preserving their ever-shifting vision of tradition. They have over the last century lost their battles against Wilsonian progressivism, the New Deal, the Great Society, racial integration, abortion, drug abuse, and secularization, and they are now losing their fights against gay rights and so-called illegal immigration. The fact that they have lost so reliably, despite their persistent numerical superiority, is a testament to the holes in their philosophy. Along the way, they've adopted virtually every bureaucratic idea pioneered by progressives, increasing government spending while wasting energy and billions of dollars fighting losing cultural battles.

The diminishing appeal of conservatism for younger, more cosmopolitan millennials as well as exploding immigrant populations who view it as bigoted or old-fashioned translates to serious demographic problems for Republicans. If current trends continue, winning the White House will become a distant memory for the GOP. Absent a commitment to change (something they don't generally excel at), the party may cease to be competitive at the national level.

Libertarianism can perhaps be thought of as a natural response to this contradiction. Libertarians are skeptical of power in an age of skepticism, embrace science in an era of rapid scientific improvement, reject banal expressions of nationalism in an increasingly-globalized world, and remain dedicated to individualism, not for tradition's sake, but to advance mankind's virtually limitless potential.

The growth of libertarianism in the GOP is very much the result of the millennial generation's coming of age. Millennials seem to have a different view of what conservatism is than their parents and grandparents. It's well known that they are much more socially liberal than previous generations. They are, however, still split on the role of government, with millennials today slightly more conservative than Generation X was at the same age.

Libertarianism is the true yin to progressivism's yang: a platform consistently emphasizing individual rights and self-determination can more effectively combat the global march toward collectivism and consolidation without conservatism's archaic cultural baggage.

The differences between libertarianism and progressivism are scientific, rather than sentimental, so the battle can be fought on scientific grounds consistent with the values of today's youth. Having a firm philosophical foundation, libertarian congressmen such as Justin Amash and Tom Massie have demonstrated an immunity to the customary weaknesses that have drawn the GOP away from its small-government ideals.

Conservatives don't have much to lose by embracing libertarianism. Whether they like it or not, their reactionary philosophy has led them to defeat in both the culture wars and the quest for limited government. Sometimes, change is good.

The Natural Right of Cryptographic Governance

[Published at the Center for a Stateless Society, Dec. 10, 2015]

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and around the U.S., sentiment among the governing class is turning powerfully against encryption.

Reuters reports an impending “crackdown” on Bitcoin in the EU. Other reports suggest France could inhibit Tor and free wi-fi at will. U.S. officials have taken the opportunity to go on the offensive against any form of encryption, with Senator Dianne Feinstein arguing encryption “ought to be able to be pierced.”

At the heart of the state’s fears is the loss of control it faces. In encryption, human beings have a tool to ensure security and privacy that is resistant to the escalation of force. Even after governments have taken out a warrant against someone, that person still has the ability to keep his information secret, subject to negotiation between himself and the state.

But officials correctly point out that child pornographers, drug dealers and terrorists can use encryption as a tool to keep vital information away from law enforcement. Its reliability and agnosticism, they claim, makes encryption a threat to public safety.

That creates a moral and philosophical dilemma for users and advocates of cryptographic technologies. We have an incredible tool at our disposal, but with the equal potential for legitimate use and abuse. Do we have the right to encrypt information regardless of government interests?

To answer this question, common law and statutory law are insufficient. With the improvements that blockchain technology could bring to the human condition, this is a deeper question with significant implications. The proper use of a disruptive technology that transcends borders should be considered outside of the normal philosophical channels when its existence is an affront to long-established political authority. Natural law and the fundamentals of the “social contract” provide better answers and a clearer direction.

The Surveillance State is Absolute

Rapid changes in information technology over the last two decades have created a banquet of easily acquired information about virtually everyone in the world. The world’s reliance on the internet has made normally private information incredibly easy to acquire. It has also made the existing social contract argument for government authority obsolete.

By the old nation-state system, a nation makes laws and protects rights within a certain geographical boundary. Those outside the boundary are neither subject to its jurisdiction, nor its protections.
But most international threats are now coming from non-state actors. The world has long since stabilized at the state level, but terrorist networks are waging peer-to-peer warfare, circumventing states in most cases by taking their political grievances directly to their citizens.

To combat this “denationalized” threat, states have exploited loopholes between these various “social contracts” that exist between states and their citizens. States may make some effort to respect the legal rights of their own citizens within their own borders; but rights do not tend to carry over to citizens of other countries. The Five Eyes Alliance is one glaring example, where states are widely believed to spy on each other’s citizens and share information so that each may circumvent their own domestic spying restrictions.

This trend is compounded by a lack of accountability. Control is difficult to enforce legislatively with widespread public apathy, and finding standing in court can be likewise impossible without information from behind the veil. The global surveillance state is expanding its reach beyond any practical restraint by legislatures, evolving into a highly fluid, rapidly adaptable information siphon. In that sense, it is becoming as “denationalized” as the threat it is trying to fight. As one NSA official succinctly put it: “It’s becoming a cliché that a permanent state of change is the new standard. It is the world we live in — navigating through continuous whitewater … lucky for us.”

Meanwhile the security state has used its powers to commit financial espionage, intimidate journalists and whistleblowers, and circumvent restrictions on information gathering for crimes unrelated to terrorism. According to cybersecurity expert Chris Soghoian, they continue to “prioritize their own foreign intelligence goals over the security of the Internet”, deliberately inserting exploits into vital security systems.

In light of this conflict of interests between the surveillance state and the citizen, the onus falls on the latter to protect his own privacy.

To break this down into a simple epistemology:

Political violence (war) is being denationalized.

The means of fighting political violence are being denationalized.

Since individual rights are at risk in war, the defense of rights should also be denationalized wherever possible.

States will not protect the privacy of foreign nationals because it would defeat the purpose of their job. They will continue to spy domestically because it’s easy to get away with. There aren’t enough Edward Snowdens out there to stop them. Their global reach leaves virtually no person’s privacy untouched. But this new paradigm isn’t just a reason to protect one’s own privacy. It invalidates the social contract and renders the prohibition of networked cryptographic alternatives morally impermissible.

The “Social Contract” Reconsidered

Since the decline of the “divine right of kings” doctrine, social contract theory has dominated the reasoning behind the coercion of the state. Its logic (like that of the “divine right” theory) has always been circular, but amenable to most people as a post-hoc rationale for their general approval of the role of the state in human affairs. For that reason, a careful reevaluation of the theory is necessary.

John Locke claimed in his Second Treatise on Government (1689) that the contract was the price of civilization: prehistoric humans, possessing natural rights of life, liberty and property sacrificed those rights to the state in order to create early civilization, reaping in turn the stability, security and prosperity that large societies make possible. Natural rights can then only be taken away legitimately by the state upon conviction of a crime through a rigorous process of law. As long as the state abides by the rules set by the contract and receives the continued support of the governed, so the argument goes, individuals have no right to subvert it to pursue their own interests.

But the growth of global information systems has created some new problems for the social contract.
The first problem is the collapse of reciprocity: According to Locke, the social contract necessitates the state and the citizen exercise mutual obligation toward each other, the state to protect rights, and the citizen to maintain the legitimacy of the state through voting, paying taxes and abiding by its rules. But with a networked surveillance apparatus not controlled by any single nation state acting in secret, the ballot box is unlikely to be of much help. This “deep state” exists outside of the contract: it is its own entity and routinely violates privacy rights as a matter of course.

The second, and more important issue is one of consent. If individuals don’t want any part of this, do they have any recourse or are they bound to the terms of the contract? Locke acknowledged that individuals cannot be perpetually bound to any government, “every man being… naturally free, and nothing being able to put him into subjection to any earthly power but only his own consent.” Consent, he argued, could be tacit, but it was nonetheless vital. Non-consent could be expressed by abandoning the system and creating a new one. “Since the government has a direct jurisdiction only over the land”, Locke claimed, individuals are free to “begin a new one, in vacuis locis, in any part of the world, they can find free and unpossessed.”

There were also little “loopholes” in the contract created by the difficulty in determining consent. Locke noted that “EVERY MAN HATH A RIGHT TO… BE EXECUTIONER OF THE LAW OF NATURE” (caps all his) because “if by the law of nature every man hath not a power to punish offences against it … I see not how the magistrates of any community can punish an alien of another country; since, in reference to him, they can have no more power than what every man naturally may have over another.”

This is a key point. The Father of Classical Liberalism claimed that because social contracts did not reciprocate across national boundaries, any individual could morally punish a transgression against his own rights by a foreigner. This could of course easily translate to the peaceful defense of one’s privacy against some foreign government’s spying capabilities. Locke’s acknowledgement shows the weakness of the social contract argument when applied across national borders. It also shows the intellectual bind Locke found himself in in order to affirm that the contract requires consent to be valid.

Privacy and the Open Source Revolution

As I have argued previously, privacy should be considered a natural right if it can be considered a right at all. Individuals retain the right to use air-tight encryption as a defensive tool to protect their privacy against the failure of their legal and political systems. But if individuals are retaining their “state of nature” right to defend themselves against state dysfunction, they must create a new kind of “state” with multiple functions in order to defend those capabilities.

For example, the right to exchange value must necessarily accompany the right to procure a resource, or opponents could render that right functionally irrelevant. Open source encryption software is free and easy to come by for now. That could change if states make it illegal, requiring a risk premium for developers and high costs for consumers.

To counter this possibility and deter prohibition, a robust cryptocurrency trade would be necessary to keep people free in the event the state shut down people’s bank accounts or credit cards, as was the case when the U.S. government pressured credit companies to shut down Wikileaks’ finances. This means that denationalized cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Dash are an integral tool to preserve individual rights.

As former CIA officer and open-source advocate Robert David Steele noted, to function properly, open source systems must develop in tandem. “The open source ecology is made up of a wide range of opens — open farm technology, open source software, open hardware, open networks, open money, open small business technology, open patents – to name just a few. The key point is that they must all develop together, otherwise the existing system will isolate them into ineffectiveness.”

Cryptocurrency transactions, run through a trustless mixing system are virtually untraceable. We’re not just talking about private emails anymore, but the right to create a new, transparent, resilient framework of alternative institutions as the old ones succumb to their own opacity.

But cryptography may not just tear down the social contract in the negative sense — it could also rebuild it in a way that better defends individual rights.

The Social Contract and Land Rights

The natural rights were enumerated by Locke as life (the right to defend one’s person against physical threats), liberty (the right to act freely without interference from arbitrary authority) and estate (the right to retain property mixed with one’s labor). Property in particular is one space that is being redefined by technology, leaving open the possibility that the nation-state could be disintermediated from its traditional role of definer and defender of property rights.

Locke argued that in prehistory, the very first “social contracts” were formed when individuals ceded their land to governments in exchange for protection. All subsequent owners of that property, he claimed, enjoyed the protection of the state, and were thus bound to perpetuate its authority. The logic is circular, to put it mildly, but worth noting: he makes it clear that the Social Contract is justified because there was no practical alternative to define and protect land rights.

Governments were defined by the land they protected. Within their borders was a single “final arbiter” with a monopoly on violence to keep order. Many would argue this model provided stability and security for populations around the world and enabled the growth of economies of scale for centuries.

But if property rights can be established and defended without the state, dependence on government institutions could be broken. A major pillar of the old social contract could be replaced.

Securing property rights is a pillar of the new cryptographic governance. Projects like Factom are attempting to show the blockchain can be a substitute for government agencies in the developing world, functioning as the final word on property ownership without risk of corruption or alteration.
Similarly, other projects are being developed for reputation verification, and still more are revolutionizing how we think of notary and legal systems. Connectivity experiments like Bitnation are seeking to show these ideas can be converged and exercised together, functioning as a sort of alternative governance system enforced through cryptographic protocols and consensus.

With non-state record keeping a reality, enforcement mechanisms can be created. But their quality won’t be determined by their geographic origin. They could be competitive, transparent, overlapping systems available globally.

These technologies are still in their infancy. But theoretically, the capabilities are there. As the use of the blockchain and other cryptographic systems grows, they become more secure and reliable. Due to the malleability of the technology, they could also evolve greater and more useful capabilities over time.

What Does This All Mean?

As the NSA likes to point out, we live in a rapidly changing world. The legacy social contract is inadequate to protect individuals in an increasingly fluid global information system. The rapid development of technological capabilities that few in any legislature in the world understand are leaving the sluggish legislative process in the dust. Individuals cannot morally be compelled to sacrifice their own right of secure communication of ideas or private exchange of value without submission to a global security state they cannot control. The globalization of information necessitates individuals learn to employ open source, cryptographic systems to define their own social contracts in peaceful terms.

Since private, secure monetary transactions cannot be taxed except with the consent of the participants, this denationalization could expand the shadow economy over time. Advocates of cryptography can probably expect a backlash, including bans and even jail time in some parts of the world.

Ultimately, this experiment will likely prove that consent in democratic societies has always been manufactured. Locke twisted himself into knots trying to shoehorn the notion of consent into his Social Contract, an exercise largely abandoned by John Rawls and other modern theorists. But the new cryptographic governance introduces the possibility of real consent in governance for the first time. This could ultimately exonerate John Locke’s contributions to political thought.

There is a palpable inevitability to all this. Even major publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic have hypothesized the obsolescence of the nation state. The United States National Intelligence Council envisioned that in just 15 years a “nonstate world” could exist in which “governments had given up on real reforms and had subcontracted many responsibilities to outside parties, which then set up enclaves operating under their own laws.” Nonstate systems will likely develop increasing leverage to compete with legacy nation states. The New York Times acknowledged the scenario describes “much of how global society already operates.”

The real question is how difficult this transition will be. Most states around the world abhor any loss of authority and are likely to prohibit any capability they consider a threat. Bitcoin and other cryptographic technologies have been in their sights. In doing so, they drop any pretense of moral authority and act merely as animals in Locke’s “state of nature,” fighting more for self-preservation that the protection of natural rights. For the first time in history, a real social contract is a possibility within reach. We’d do well not to squander it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Charles Holloway's Open Source Government white paper

The internet says Holloway coined the term "Open Source Governance" and he certainly has a command of the topic. He presents a nice stroll through history explaining the rise of governments and financial systems in terms even a third grader can understand, although he doesn't really mention the blockchain tech until around page 120.

He does introduce several shaky assumptions that appear to be predicated on his own original formulations, and interestingly (but questionably) claims freedom is quantifiable. In the second half of the paper he gets into the peer-to-peer and open source technologies and does a good job of explaining in layman's terms why this is important. 

Noteworthy: He claims "money and insurance are the two most fundamental technologies in society because society is a gathering of individuals to exchange property [he defines property as every sort of action or idea, not just physical things]." Cryptographic governance can replace hierarchical government because all a government really does is insure and protect property (life and liberty being forms of property, since you own yourself and your actions according to his formulation).  

I think this would be more widely read if he distilled it down to a much shorter piece, or even a series of op-eds. He also seems over-reliant on himself as an authority and there are few citations or quotations throughout, which will likely mean this isn't taken seriously. Nonetheless, it's a large and noble effort for a worthy cause that should be at least skimmed by anyone who wants a primer on the topic of open-source governance.

You can download it from his site or read it here:

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Writing Plan for 2016

So since I have some regular daily traffic coming through here, I thought I'd give readers some overview about why I write, what I've published and what's coming in the next year.

In a nutshell, I'm writing about the nexus between individual rights and technological advancement from a libertarian anarchist perspective. I think the course of human progress is synonymous with the devolution of power from the centralized to the decentralized. Peer to peer arrangements and open source protocols are the next step in this process as governments around the world find consensus and control increasingly elusive.

The blockchain is one of the most fascinating ideas in this space and the potential to use it to replace government services and create alternative institutions will likely be the most important work of the 21st century. So I like to explore this idea in philosophical and strategic terms.

I'm close to wrapping up my 2015 series on natural law and tech, which is as follows:

1. The Natural Right of Cyber Dissent (how libertarian ideas are inspiring civil disobedience and a technological resistance to opaque authority)

2. The Natural Right of Encryption (natural law and the right to secure communication)

3. The Natural Right of Cryptographic Governance (natural law, social contract theory and the blockchain)

4. The Natural Right of Cryptographic Exchange (forthcoming)

Any one of these topics is HUGE and could merit an entire book. I mostly wanted to get these ideas out there for now in the barest possible form.

I haven't found too many decent treatments of these topics and I think they are extremely important. Novel technologies cause disruption, which existing institutions aren't fond of and will try to stop. This disruption will require novel arguments and an integration into existing mainstream philosophies (i.e. the social contact), rather than just the imposition of strictly libertarian ideas (i.e. the NAP) as they become more influential.

In 2016, I'll probably focus more on shorter 600-800 word pieces using arguments from these longer ones. I do have a piece about the Sinn Fein that will go up on the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in April. I also plan on doing some more detailed work on electronic civil disobedience. But more op-ed type works are planned, since those get read a lot more.

Thanks for reading. Feedback always welcome.

Gandhi the Anarchist

[Published at the Center for a Stateless Society, Oct. 29, 2015]

A complex man with a controversial legacy, Mohandas Gandhi remains one of the pioneers of civil disobedience as a political weapon and a giant in 20th century anti-colonialism. An individualist anarchist who motivated millions to fight to liberate themselves from British rule, his success showed a potentially powerful application of libertarian ideas during a major political crisis and the ability of those values to inspire positive, peaceful outcomes.

Gandhi’s principles of radical liberation existed within a moral framework that abhorred violence but empowered ordinary people, intellectually and spiritually, to prevail against oppressors and shatter a miserable status quo. According to the research of Erica Chenoweth, Gandhi’s template of non-violent resistance has been immensely successful for later generations around the world in creating lasting improvements in civil rights.

Modern activists and political thinkers shouldn’t discount the essential libertarian qualities of Gandhi’s philosophy, as they were among its most powerful and effective attributes. A commitment to natural law, self-determination, individualism and an abhorrence of government were core to his thinking and largely responsible for his success as an activist.

Gandhi’s Philosophy

Satyagraha, Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, which translates to “truth force” or “love force” carries with it some distinctly libertarian ideas. It incorporates elements of both the “knowledge problem” (applied in a moral sense) and the non-aggression axiom, although taken a step further into moral obligation to others — which is more than libertarianism demands. According to Gandhi:

In the application of Satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.

Gandhi noted the purpose of Satyagraha was to “convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer.” Success is thus defined as cooperation towards a just end, rather than a political “win.” He also spoke of means and ends as inseparable, rejecting the use of violence or the “victory, by any means necessary,” mentality of some who have practiced passive resistance in the West. Gandhi knew using violent means would embed injustice in whatever ends are attained, exacerbating the cycle of violence that plagues so many societies. In this way, the practitioner’s authority is rooted in moral force instead of violence, and has the potential to reduce antagonisms within a society without harming the antagonists.

Gandhi developed a set of very particular rules and mores for Satyagrahis to follow, including mandatory spinning, chastity and abstinence from alcohol. With these we are unconcerned, since different disobedience movements employed different particulars in their belief systems. What is interesting and relevant is the commonality among them, and the parallels to libertarian beliefs: The notion of the moral abhorrence of coercion, and the acknowledgement of coercion’s role in perpetuating injustice; the belief in natural rights that oblige disobedience to unjust laws; finally, and most pertinently, the almost mystical ability of this approach to inspire entire populations to mass action is an historical fact.

Foundations of Indian Liberty: Satyagraha in Action

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 13, 1919 (also known as the Amritsar massacre) has been characterized as the turning point in the history of British India, the event that lost Britain her ‘jewel in the crown’ and eventually her empire. The event, condemned by Winston Churchill, nevertheless produced an escalation of tension and insults against Indian subjects and shattered the notion that Indians were British subjects with the same rights as the British themselves, much in the way the Easter Rising created that same clarity for the Irish.

The Tribune of India described the massacre as a

[M]ilestone in the struggle for freedom which brought Mahatma Gandhi on the scene in his capacity as a leader of the masses whose presence inspired millions of people for three decades.
In the annals of our freedom struggle the Jallianwala Bagh massacre occupies an unforgettable place. Overnight, men and women resolved to defy the British might. For Gandhiji, the incident was a turning point. He became a ‘rebel’ and realised the futility of achieving freedom through British cooperation. The seeds of his ‘do or die’ movement were thus sown then and there.

Noted the Tribune:

History bears ample testimony to the fact that the ill-conceived and unwarranted 1919 military operation proved to be a catalyst for bringing the doom of the British Raj as it created an unbridgeable gulf between the British Government and the Indian people, leaving the British with no other option but to transfer power to the Indians.

Gandhi capitalized on the anger against British rule with the first concerted civil disobedience campaigns, the non-cooperation movement that began in the 1920’s. The Salt March of 1930 was among his most famous successes. The march began with a mere 78 people, swelling to throngs of 30,000-50,000 as they marched through four provinces to protest the salt tax. Gandhi went to sea to make illegal salt, a highly symbolic and dangerous act that challenged British authority. The result was widespread support and media attention, and the building of a broad-based movement. That movement contributed to Indian independence from the British in 1947.

Gandhi’s Libertarian Ideology

Though Gandhi the monolithic figure is widely revered, his actual political philosophy is seldom discussed, perhaps because he was an anarchist who believed in a cooperative agrarian economic model that prevented stratification of classes and political power.

It is well known that Gandhi was motivated by a desire to see India gain independence from the British Empire. Beyond that, his experience with governments seemed to have led him to a deep abhorrence of the institution, and an embracing of individualism, self-reliance and spontaneous order, part of a moral system he called the Swaraj, which translates literally to “self-rule.”

According to

The call for Swaraj represents a genuine attempt to regain control of the ‘self’ — our self-respect, self-responsibility, and capacities for self-realization — from institutions of dehumanization. As Gandhi states, “It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.” The real goal of the freedom struggle was not only to secure political azadi (independence) from Britain, but rather to gain true Swaraj (liberation and self-rule).

Gandhi scorned the representative democracy due to its conflict with his deeply held reverence for the rights of the individual, noting “Swaraj will be an absurdity if individuals have to surrender their judgment to a majority.”

Gandhi recognized inequalities would persist. He was, however, deeply skeptical of government as a tool of social improvement:

I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress. We know of so many cases where men have adopted trusteeship, but none where the State has really lived for the poor.
It is my firm conviction that if the State suppressed capitalism by violence, it will be caught in the coils of violence itself, and will fail to develop non-violence at any time. The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.

Gandhi was a believer in spontaneous order as well: “We find the general work of mankind is being carried on from day to day be the mass of people acting as if by instinct.”

Influenced by Western traditions in part due to the time he spent in Britain in his youth, Gandhi was also a believer in individualism, and the use of reason to underwrite a person’s morality. According to Professor T.N. Madan, Honorary Professor of Sociology at New Delhi University:

One of Gandhi’s outstanding contributions to social and political thought, I suggest, was the conception of altruistic individualism within a cultural setting that was generally considered group-centred … In regarding reason and moral sense as the primary sources of good conduct, Gandhi asserted the right of the individual to arrive at judgments and, if necessary, to defend them against collective opinion, whether traditional or contemporary. His excoriation of the practice of untouchability was not merely an assertion of his own individual right to make moral judgments — indeed he considered this an obligation  but more importantly the assertion of the moral worth of every single human being, irrespective of his or her ascribed social status. Such moral worth is the basic premise of good society; whether it is enhanced or eroded depends on the dialectic of social pressures and individual agency.

Gandhi not only believed in asserting individual rights against the coercion of the state, he evidently believed market processes and private property would best meet man’s needs and scorned the use of parliamentary systems in attempting to achieve social ends. He was hostile to centralized authority of any kind and believed strongly in individualism and self-rule. “If we become free,” he said, “India becomes free and in this thought you have a definition of Swaraj. It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.”

It is worthwhile to note the relevance of natural law in radical liberation. Like with most governments, the British claim that their colonies enjoyed rights as British subjects was farcical. Whenever conflict arose, those rights seemed to dissolve quickly into coercion and bloodshed as the British fought to maintain unquestioned supremacy. Gandhi, like the Sinn Fein and the American founders before him, used the notion of a higher “natural” law and an emphasis on self-rule to motivate the oppressed to seize their own freedom.

Gandhi angered some by extending his notion of power and Swaraj to the history of colonization. While acknowledging the British Empire’s cynical intentions in India, he places the responsibility for the disaster of colonization on the Indian people. “It is truer to say that we gave India to the English than that India was lost … to blame them for this is to perpetuate their power.” Because power resides in the people and they can only lose it by relinquishing it (often through coercion by others), petitions to the government get a new meaning with Gandhi. “A petition of an equal is a sign of courtesy; a petition from a slave is a symbol of his slavery.”

Here again is a similarity with Sinn Fein’s embrace of natural rights — rights don’t come from government, but from within. Therefore, rights continue to exist when they cannot be openly expressed due to coercion. This is a crucial intersection for libertarians. Radical ideologies succeed in part by inculcating oppressed and apathetic populations with a sense of self-worth. The concept of natural rights was important during the colonial period, when colonized people believed rights were rare morsels tossed to them on the whim of their superiors. Gandhi’s philosophy sought to rob Britain of their power to determine the law as a sort of demystification of white rule.

Anarchic India of course, was not to be. Gandhi, not being able to realize his “oceanic villages” system with Indian liberation in 1947, settled on minarchism:

Gandhi recognized that there would be a national government, and his anarchic, oceanic circle would not yet be possible. Nevertheless, he used the terms of nationalism to move towards the ideal of Anarchy. He advocated for a minimal level of State organization to fund some education programs and to promote his economic concept of trusteeship. Hence, Gandhi was a compromising Anarchist.

Gandhi had to compromise his principles in some cases. But of greater import is the fact that his individualist principles caught fire and exploded in popularity in the face of severe oppression. Indian independence was a complicated endeavor, but in the end, Gandhi proved to be on the right side of history. The radical anarchist who had been repeatedly imprisoned, classified as a terrorist by the British parliament and derided as a threat to law and order, was described by former U.S. Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall as “a spokesman for the conscience of all mankind.” With the positive impact non-violent resistance movements have had in the last seven decades, he might also be considered a true political visionary.

Why Libertarians are Failing at Politics

[Published at the Center for a Stateless Society Oct. 6, 2015]

Jerry Taylor of the Niskanen Center dropped a truth bomb on the beltway in his recent piece for Fox News about the decline of Rand Paul. Taylor notes that the alleged growth of the libertarian movement in the wake of the Ron Paul campaign was largely illusory. The alienated populists and conspiracy theorists that filled out Paul’s numbers in 2012 easily made the transition to the very un-libertarian Donald Trump in 2015, leaving Rand out in the cold.

The lack of a broad-based movement, despite a number of high profile campaigns and events, is a bitter pill for libertarians who believe in electoral politics. Having libertarians in office may help raise the profile of issues like overcriminalization, tech freedom, and the insanity of the drug war. But those who await a libertarian takeover of the GOP misunderstand the fundamentally radical nature of libertarian ideas and how deeply that radicalism conflicts with the perceptions most Americans have about the role of government.

Trump supporters are a grim reminder that millions of voters view the government as a hammer that can be wielded to smash opposing values or groups and force their beliefs on others. Educating the electorate about libertarian ideas misses the fact that they have no real incentive to learn; most don’t care about the relationship between man and state and likely never will, as long as the state continues to provide the stability they have come to expect. Ron Paul’s success in 2008 and 2012 can largely be credited to the mortgage crisis; once the sting faded, so did support for his radical ideas.

There’s a good reason libertarians remain at the ideological fringe: “Libertarian politics” is a contradiction in terms. Libertarianism is not a third party, like the Know-Nothings or the Whigs or a prescription of policy tweaks to make the government more efficient. It is a distinct value system that abhors political power itself, even if some of its adherents consider power a necessary evil.

Libertarians may disagree whether the state should be abolished or minimized, but the difference matters little to the average American: Both seem frighteningly outside his own experience. Even the most moderate libertarians will wax poetic about ending intellectual property or privatizing the welfare system. Moreover, virtually all voters are deeply invested in government services they have come to depend on, and libertarians have been unable to present hypothesized private-sector alternatives while the state forces dependence upon itself. Conceptually, libertarians are on a page that most people find bizarre.

Libertarianism is best understood as the latest in a long line of radical liberation ideologies, rooted in the principles of natural law and individualism, that have provided the intellectual basis for rebellion since the American Revolution. It is a reaction to the perpetual expansion of government power in the U.S. and its frequent abuses. But radicalism, by definition, is immoderate and cannot compromise its way to reforms. Rather than moving toward the “Overton window” of public opinion by moderating controversial views (as Rand Paul attempted), radicals must pull public opinion towards their own viewpoints. Rand’s straying from libertarian principles means that he likely has little unique appeal even for the tiny libertarian electorate his father created. David Boaz’s research shows that 70% of libertarian-leaning voters went with Mitt Romney over Gary Johnson in 2012, so we know even libertarians who believe in politics are willing to blunt their own sword.

If libertarianism is denied its radical characteristics, it degrades into a flimsy millennial conservatism: Fiscally conservative, socially liberal and completely powerless, a mashup of existing ideas better espoused by other parties and ideologies. Without unyielding commitment to truly radical ideas, libertarians are drowned out by louder voices catering to the will of angry, pitchfork-bearing constituents. They add little of value, and are likely to end up little more than a footnote in the history of conservatism.

To fail to understand this is to remain resigned to swim against the tide of American politics. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out: “Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this has rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide.”

Instead, libertarians might be more useful as single-issue activists and innovators. While U.S. politicians fail to shrink government, individualists like Erik Voorhees, Cody Wilson, Peter Thiel and the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto are using technology to forge a new path. Time will tell exactly where that leads. But Rand’s decline underlines the fact that libertarian ethics predicate disruption and revolution, not moderation and compromise. As such, it is unlikely to ever get big votes in American politics.

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