One of the things that I really appreciate about the liberty movement is that, despite the wide diversity of opinions and positions that its supporters take, it seems to have fostered a culture in which its advocates can usually address their differences rational, respectful, and civilized discussion. As so much of the American political conversation takes the form of people talking past each other and scoring cheap publicity points, this is often quite refreshing.
However, there is one issue that seems to be an exception to this rule: abortion. While some libertarians see it as a fundamental liberty issue that should not be regulated or prohibited at all, others see abortion as the extinguishing of a rights-bearing human life that is morally equivalent to murdering a child or adult. After having been witness to a number of these contentious, internecine arguments in which both parties fail to resolve anything and end up bearing grudges, I figured it might be useful to unpack what I perceive to be the source of the extreme tension that underlies the libertarian abortion debate.
People on both sides of the debate usually agree with the fundamental starting premise that human beings have inalienable natural rights, including the right to life. As such, the core of their disagreement stems from the fact that they view what it means to be human in a fundamentally different way.
Pro-lifers, I’ve noticed, generally subscribe to a position of mind-body dualism. They believe that human beings have a soul or essence of some kind that is fundamentally separate from the body, which is the source of one’s humanness, and thus one’s rights. This belief leads to a binary view of humanness – either a body has a discrete soul and is thus entitled to the full panoply of rights, or a body lacks a soul and has no rights. Thus, for the liberty movement’s pro-lifers, if the soul is present in the human being at the moment of conception, killing a fetus is the moral equivalent of murder, which violates the basic libertarian principle of non-aggression.
Pro-choice libertarians, on the other hand, tend to reject mind-body dualism in favor of a “spectrum of consciousness” model, in which levels of consciousness shade into one another, from the very low level embodied in a stalk of grass, to the very complex cognition of an adult human being (an interesting version of this viewpoint on consciousness and being can be found in Doug Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop). In this way of viewing the world, there is no sharp dividing line between the human who is entitled to full rights and the non-human that is entitled to no rights with in the “mind-body dualism” model. Instead, the amount of consideration a particular being should rightfully be given is dependent upon their level of consciousness. As such, as an early-stage fetus has the level of consciousness development of a plankton, it can be validly argued from this perspective that the rights of the fully developed mother includes the right to morally terminate a pregnancy up to a certain contestable point. This is not to say that people with this world-view can’t be against abortion as well; however, to be morally consistent, such people would have to be vegetarians as well, since killing a chicken is the moral equivalent to killing a fetus within this philosophical framework.
Given these fundamentally different perspectives on the nature of the universe, it is easy to see how libertarians often talk past each other on the abortion issue. To mind-body dualists, the pro-choice assertion of the mother’s rights seems ludicrous, since no-one has the right to end another human’s life. Conversely, the pro-life cries of “murderer” ring hollow to those of the “spectrum of consciousness” persuasion, since, to them, an early-stage abortion is the moral equivalent of eating a shrimp cocktail. As a result of this enormous philosophical chasm, it has been exceedingly difficult to have a meaningful discussion about the place of abortion within the liberty movement. Nonetheless, it is an important issue to wrangle with, and I hope that, by openly acknowledging the philosophical roots of our positions, we might begin to have the same sorts of productive discussions and disagreements that we are able to manage on so many other issues.
Having been intensively involved with liberty activism for the past few years, I believe that the emergence of the #OccupyWallStreet movement is a source of enormous promise. The political clout of well connected financial institutions was the reason the bailouts got muscled through Congress, and, in the years since, virtually no one has been held accountable for what amounts to one of the largest heists in human history. As such, the presence of thousands of protesters camping out a stone’s throw from the epicenter of our financial system serves to spark a much needed national conversation about true accountability for the criminality of the last decade.
Unfortunately, I’ve also noticed that, in the last 24 hours, a lot of disinformation has been spreading around the liberty-oriented blogosphere about #OccupyWallStreet. As such, I felt it would be useful to lay out and dissect some of these criticisms, which I believe are being disseminated in an attempt to prevent an anti-corporatist coalition from forming that might actually have the power to challenge the immensely corrupt status quo.
(1) The #OccupyWallStreet movement wants to re-elect Obama/enact socialism/[insert feared outcome here]
The fundamental flaw with this point is that no one individual or group is, or can be, empowered to speak for the occupation as a whole. Rather, anyone involved in the protest can make demands or claims, but to believe that they represent the movement is to profoundly miss the point of what’s going on (for more on this, see this interview with David Graeber). The fact is that the protest is made up of people with a wide diversity of ideologies and opinions on what reforms are needed, but who are bound together by a shared outrage at the corruption of the Wall Street-Washington nexus. Indeed, the way the public perceives the message is heavily influenced by who shows up, so more liberty folks attending = a more libertarian narrative.
(2) They’re a bunch of lazy, dirty hippies who should get a job!
I’ve noticed that there is a population of people for whom this is a knee-jerk reaction whenever there is a protest, period. In fact, I had a powerful face-palm moment recently when I saw such a comment posted about a rally in my town that happened on a SUNDAY. Even leaving aside the aforementioned diversity of the group, this criticism is pretty ignorant considering the current, and rising, unemployment rate in this country. It was one thing to yell this at hippies in the mid-sixties when there was full employment, but I met plenty of smart, hardworking people there who’ve been laid off and were desperately struggling to find work. The “lazy hippies” narrative is simply a false meme that echoing around the Internet because it allows people to put the protesters in a cognitive box that deems them to be ignored.
(3) I saw one of them interviewed, and he was a total idiot calling for authoritarian solutions. Thus all of #OWS reflects his views.
In addition to the points made above, I’d like to ask the liberty community to remember the ways in which the early TEA Party was delegitimized by the MSM. By picking out and focusing on the sign that said “keep the government out of my Medicare” or a racist attendee, they attempted to tar the whole movement with the brush of its lowest common denominator. Similarly things are afoot with the #OWS movement – there are plenty of people at the rally talking about the FED, complementary currencies, etc., but the folks who don’t want it to succeed are desperately trying to draw attention to the less thoughtful occupiers in order to forward their divide and conquer agenda.
(4) This is a “Tea Party of the Far Left” that is being astroturfed by MoveOn, Soros, SEIU, etc.
As much as the institutional left would like to co-opt #OWS in the same way that the institutional right bought out the TEA Party, this has not happened yet and is by no means a done deal. In fact, the best way to prevent this movement from falling into their hands is for liberty advocates to show up en-mass as a counter balance.
In closing, the #OccupyWallStreet movement has the potential to be a space in which an alliance can come together that is powerful enough to challenge the clout of the corporatists in the banks and DC. In response to that possibility, the interests that would stand to lose from the movement’s success are engaged in a desperate divide-and-conquer attempt to squelch the effort and preserve their corrupt privilege. As such, it is essential that we resist those deceptive attacks and continue stand with the #OccupyWallStreet movement if there is to be any hope of restoring our liberties and our republic.
When most people think of the “Back to the Land” movement, the image that generally comes to mind is of hippies retreating to rural communes in the early 1970s. However, in her new book entitled Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America, Dona Brown effectively shows how those back-to-the-landers were simply the latest manifestation of a very old American cultural tradition. As she powerfully demonstrates, the impulse to return to the land can be traced to the era when Americans first began to leave it for life in industrial cities.
A professor of history at the University of Vermont, Dr. Brown buttresses her narrative with numerous examples drawn from her extensive knowledge of the primary sources, beginning with the very first back to the land book. Published in response to the economic crisis of 1857, Ten Acres is Enough initiated a pattern that would continue for more than a century. In moments of crisis when unemployment became rife in the cities, many people came to see owning a farm as a powerful buffer against the vagaries of the market economy (in particular, the movement seems to have appealed to the higher echelons of blue collar workers and the lower middle class). In the time from the panic of 1893 to the First World War, the back to the land impulse became an actual movement, with powerful backers, several magazines, and an extensive number of published books.
The War and the prosperity of the 1920s moderated the movement’s goals and vision, but its radical side reemerged with a vengeance in the 1930s, when some aspects of it were incorporated into the New Deal. Partially in response to that institutionalization, a decentralist, alternative back to the land movement, which was very suspicious of the central government, also emerged during this period, centering in Vermont. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for Vermont to be one of the main stops for the subsequent generation’s own back to the landers.
Outlining in great detail the projects and personalities that characterized the back to the land movement over the course of the past century and a half, Dr. Brown’s book is not only a rich source of information about the past, but also casts many of the projects of the present in a new light. As her work demonstrates, things like food sovereignty and the local food movement exist are not wholly new developments, but descend from a long and venerable lineage. Even Vermont secession, which most contemporary advocates trace back to Frank Bryan’s work in the late 1980s, is shown to have reared its head in previous iterations (Vrest Orton, the founder of the still extant Vermont Country Store, was advocating a second Vermont republic as early as 1928). As such, this book is not only of great interest to those with an affinity for the history of social movements or of Vermont, but it is also essential reading for anyone involved in contemporary projects inspired by the back to the land spirit. Understanding the motivations and experiences of one’s intellectual ancestors is essential to fully comprehending the meaning of one’s own work, and Dr. Brown’s book is the best tool I’ve encountered for cultivating that consciousness. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Back to the Land!
(The original poem, “Song of the Vermonters – 1779” by John Greenleaf Whittier can be found here)
Ho–all to the Wall-Street! Vermonters, come down,
With your breeches of Carhartt and jackets of brown;
With your twittering smart-phones and your picket-signs come,
To the gathering summons of trumpet and drum.
Come down with your backpacks!
Leave school and leave work
Safe in the hands of some cowardly jerk;
Let the bear feed securely from pig-pen and stall;
It is time for the banksters to finally fall.
Ho–all to the rescue! For Satan shall work
No gain for his legions of D.C. and York!
They foreclose on our homes–the pitiful warts–
The tribute we pay shall be prisons and torts!
Let Obama and Bernanke with bribes in their hands,
Still seek to divide and parcel our lands;
We’ve coats for our traitors, whoever they are;
The warp is of feathers–the filling of tar:
Does the ‘old Fannie Mae’ threaten?
Does BoA complain?
Swarms Citigroup in arms on our borders again?
Scheme the derivative traders of Goldman aloud on the lake–
Let ’em come; what they can they are welcome to take.
What seek they among us?
The pride of our wealth
Is comfort, contentment, and labor, and health,
And lands which, as Freemen we only have trod,
Independent of all, save the mercies of God.
Yet we owe no allegiance, we bow to no throne,
Our ruler is law and the law is our own;
Our leaders themselves are our own fellow-men,
Who can handle the sword, or the scythe, or the pen.
Hurrah for Vermont! For the land which we till
Must have sons to defend her from valley and hill;
Leave the harvest to rot on the fields where it grows,
And the reaping of wheat for the toppling of foes
From far the Mad River’s wild valley, to where
Kingdom-folk steal down from their wood-circled lair,
From Highgate Center to Brattleboro town
Ho–all to the rescue! Vermonters come down!
Come York or come Washington, come Banksters or knaves,
If ye rule o’er our land ye shall rule o’er our graves;
Our vow is recorded–our banner unfurled,
In the name of Vermont we defy all the world!
I’ve decided that if the protest seems to be going strong on Monday, I will follow my own advice and make my way down to NYC to join them. It’s been several years since the criminality of the banks, Fed, and government ran our country’s economy into the ground, and the crooks have gotten away with it with minimal consequences (unlike in Iceland, which recently indited its former prime minister for his role in the financial crisis). Hopefully there’ll be a few Vermonters at my side as I enter the heart of darkness that is the Big Apple to demand that the criminals be held accountable…
In my time engaged in politically decentralist activism in general, and my work on Vermont independence in particular, I’ve noticed that it is very difficult to escape the long historical shadow cast by the Civil War. When considering the idea of using state sovereignty as a legitimate tool for resisting Federal abuses, the claim is often made that the issue was settled by the Civil War. The North (and thus centralized sovereignty) prevailed over the South (and distributed sovereignty) in 1865, and the question is thus closed.
Generally, this attitude is characterized by two key elements. The first is the concrete opinion that the Civil War functioned to cement America as “One Nation, Indivisible,” which is true, as far as it goes. In the years after the Civil War, the term “United States” morphed grammatically from plural to singular, and the balance of power between the Federal Government and the States has shifted continuously towards the former. However, though the aforementioned attitude is certainly descriptive of historical phenomena and trends, it is not, from a legal or moral standpoint, a valid argument against the legitimacy of the reassertion of a state’s sovereignty, up to and including its secession from the union. Rather, as has been argued persuasively and in great detail elsewhere, such principles as that of self-determination and the legitimacy of government being derived from the consent of the governed mean that subsidiary political units have the inalienable right to independence. Continue reading
By Matt Cropp
In recent weeks, the game of political chicken that the Republicans and Democrats have been playing over the national debt limit has, for many people, raised the question of what would happen if the Federal Government does, in fact, default on its obligations. With tens of millions of elderly and disabled Americans directly dependent upon the Feds for their subsistence, and millions more of their fellow citizens employed by taxpayer-funded institutions, it is clear that even the partial bankruptcy of the US Government could have potentially disastrous consequences. Between throwing the most vulnerable Americans into abject poverty and eliminating the jobs of millions of their fellow able-bodied citizens at a stroke, such a scenario would seem, to many, like a whole-sale collapse of the American way of life on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.
In many American communities, the impact of such an event would be devastating. As recipients of government aid (including everything from food stamps to social security to welfare) and those employed by the government find their incomes suddenly eliminated, unemployment would explode. When all of that money ceases to circulate through the local economy, many key businesses (such as grocery stores) would cease to be profitable and, as they are usually owned by shareholders with no connection to the community in which they do business, many would close their doors and liquidate in order to pay off their creditors and owners. As a result, unemployment would rise further and many communities would soon find themselves lacking the vital services that are essential to their very survival. Thus, it is not unimaginable to envision a mass migration by able-bodied persons in desperate search of work along the lines of the Okies who migrated out of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. For those who are too old or disabled to move to greener pastures, however, such an outcome would be utterly devastating, as they might often find themselves abandoned in communities with almost no ability to care for them.
While the above is a bleak picture, I believe that there is a community institution that’s existence would lead to a radically different outcome when faced with similar circumstances: namely, a fully developed, well-run food co-operative. Owned by its customers, the response of a food co-op to an economic catastrophe has the potential to radically differ from that of a corporate grocery store. For the latter, monetary profit is the sole measure of its value, and, if the store becomes unprofitable, the natural response is to cut investor losses by shutting it down. By contrast, a food co-operative exists for the mutual benefit of its members, and, in a pinch, it has the ability to substitute their labor for capital, insulating both the co-op and its community from the worst elements of an economic collapse in several ways.
First of all, as the co-op’s cash income declines as a result of the community’s increasing unemployment, it could mobilize unemployed members to do jobs that would have otherwise cost the co-op valuable cash. Such workers might be paid a subsistence wage in scrip that can be spent at the co-op, thus both saving unemployed members from total destitution while simultaneously strengthening the organization. Furthermore, depending on the depth of the crisis, this member-worker model could be extended to productive pursuits outside the co-op, i.e., they could be put to work bringing land under cultivation, the products of which would then be sold through the co-op. Indeed, such organization of the unemployed into productive enterprises could well form the foundation of a sustainable economic recovery (and has fascinating historical precedents in co-operative experiments among the unemployed in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s). Finally, since the principles that govern co-operatives includes “Concern for Community,” co-ops could organize ways to meet the needs of the vulnerable people who were functionally abandoned when their government benefits dried up. Such help could include relaxed work requirements for elder and partially disabled member workers, and the counting of hours worked in organizations that serve the especially vulnerable (such as senior centers, group homes for the developmentally disabled, etc.) towards member workers’ weekly quotas.
Given these potential benefits in an economic crisis situation, I believe that a food co-operative should not be seen as just another grocery store, but also as an insurance policy. While the most immediate possibility of serious dislocation seems like it might come from the looming Federal default, the truth is that, in our increasingly interconnected and globalized world, a disruptive shock could come from almost anywhere. At its best, globalization has allowed billions of people to specialize and trade with each other, generating the wealthiest society ever seen in human history. However, such profound interdependence has also made many communities increasingly vulnerable to the effects of systemic failure. As institutions that can, in good times, fully and efficiently access the fruits of the global economy (in fact, my food co-op is the cheapest place to get groceries in Burlington), while providing the organizational capacity for community resilience in times of collapse, a well-run food co-op is something that no responsible community should be without.
If you agree with this argument, there are a few things you should consider doing. First, if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with an already existing food co-op, become a member, patronize it, and see what you can do as a volunteer to help advance its interests. If it does not have an existing member-worker program, encourage the board to consider launching one. At my co-op, members get a 7% discount if they work two hours per month, and 12% if they work four; while not at the scale that such a program would need to be in a crisis, simply having the infrastructure in place to organize member-workers means that a co-op will be able to respond much more nimbly when it counts.
If you do not live in a place with a food co-op, consider trying to help organize one. In New England, the Neighboring Food Co-op Association and the Cooperative Fund of New England are great organizations that provide both mentorship and resources to groups who aspire to found a co-op – for other regions, a quick Google search will often uncover valuable resources. Additionally, if you have money that you’d like to invest in a manner that promotes resilient communities while making a modest rate of return, the Cooperative Fund of New England will put your funds to good use.
In the more than two centuries since the beginning of radical transformation of economic life that accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism, one of the most interesting trends has been the changing nature of the forms through which people have engaged in economic activities. Before the industrial revolution, an artisanal mode of production predominated, with many small work-shops producing the goods required by the largely agrarian economy. At first glance, such the existence of many small firms would suggest a highly competitive economy; however this was not the case. Rather, the high cost of transporting goods created by primitive transportation networks, the risk of brigands, etc., meant that, rather than a single integrated economy, there existed many small economies between which only low-bulk, high-value goods (such as spices) were exchanged. In this situation, workshops were almost universally owned locally, since the cost of monitoring an agent in a distant city would be prohibitively high (the exception being those in the aforementioned low-bulk, high-value businesses, but they also helped ensure the loyalty of distant agents by using family members).
However, the advent of the 19th century transportation and communication revolutions, which brought better roads, canals, steamships, railroads, and telegraphs into widespread use, changed the game. The many local markets became increasingly integrated, and the prices of commodities converged over the course of the century. These changes also led to radical shifts in how firms were both run and owned. With huge, growing markets at their disposal, firms could, as Chandler describes in his brilliant book Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism, drastically reduce the unit cost of many products by engaging in capital-intensive mass production. However, in order to fully take advantage of such available efficiencies, firms needed to mobilize amounts of capital beyond the resources of almost any individual or family. As a result of this problem, the “managerial firm” emerged as the dominant model in many industries by the end of the 19th century. Where, previously, the owner of a business was generally involved with its operations, managerial firms were characterized by a separation of ownership and management (which began to be undertaken by salaried professionals).
The practical result of this change was that it meant that the ownership of a firm could be divided between a far greater number of individuals than had been previously possible when owners were responsible for directly monitoring a firm’s performance. Such a division would not have been cost effective at the beginning of the 19th century, but the drastically reduced cost of information brought about by the aforementioned revolutions meant that, by the 1920s, a small but respectable percentage of the American population held some ownership stake in a corporation through the stock market.
I believe that this historical dynamic has a very interesting implication for our contemporary situation. If the cost of information, in fact, influences the optimal structure of firm in the economy, then the growth of the Internet over the last decade should be understood as a signal that the traditional corporate model is heading the way of the dinosaur. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that small to mid-size firms can use their flexibility to outmaneuver the existing behemoths in many ways; however, there are certain industries in which economies of scale will remain extremely important. However, certain very recent developments have to potential to radically alter the ownership structures of such firms.
Of paramount importance is the emergence of peer-to-peer online monetary systems such as Bitcoin. By drastically reducing transaction costs and allowing for true micro-payments (on the order of hundred-thousandths of a cent), such systems have the potential to drastically reduce the minimum barrier to entry to obtaining an ownership stake in a firm. As a result, I believe we might begin to witness the organic transformation of many large firms to co-operative ownership.
The logic of such a transition is as follows. In a perfectly competitive market, the margin of profit trends towards zero, with consumers obtaining products at cost. In such a situation, the motivation for shareholders who do not use the firm’s products to retain ownership is fairly low, while the only tool left for a firm to attract customers away from its competitors would be to offer them an ownership stake in the business, which would guarantee that they would continue to receive the firms products at cost in the future. As such, it would be reasonable to expect the gradual transition of the ownership of many companies in the coming years from absentee shareholder to consumers.
A possible objection to this scenario would be to inquire as to why such a transition has not already occurred? The answer, I believe, lies in the relative cost of ownership. In 1800, owning a share of a London blacksmith’s shop while living in New York would have been prohibitively expensive, due to the fact that the transaction costs necessary to receive the benefits of ownership would eat up most, if not all, of the profits. However, once the underseas telegraph cable was in place, such costs were reduced to the point that such ownership became possible. It seems there is a similar dynamic at play with co-operatives.
In the past, co-operatives have only been successful in economic sectors in which the size of the economic relationship they have with their members is sufficiently large to offset the transaction costs of ownership (i.e., groceries, insurance, feed for livestock), and they have often further defrayed such costs through the use of volunteer labor. However, with such technologies as Bitcoin sending transaction costs plummeting towards zero, the range of firms that could be economically owned by their users/consumers is drastically expanding. The logic is simple – why patronize a for-profit firm when you can be assured you’re receiving goods and services at cost from your co-op store/auto repair shop/social networking website. Just as the first communications revolution gave birth to the age of the corporation, the rapid changes that our contemporary world is experiencing could be paving the way towards the age of the co-operative.
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After having been cued in to Bitcoin a few weeks ago, the crypto-currency’s rise has been quite impressive. Its value has quintupled since I began following it, and the amount of goods and services for which people are willing to accept Bitcoin has been consistently expanding. Barring any unexpected catastrophe, then, I feel like it’s reasonable to expect that crypto-currency will be an important part of the economic landscape in the years to come.
That being the case, I think it is important to engage in a meaningful conversation as to the nature of the optimal monetary model for a crypto-currency. After ingeniously solving the double spending problem, the initiators of Bitcoin chose to implement a system in which, for the first few years, a large amount of money is created but, within a decade, the supply of currency will reach a cap of around ~21 million units. This model of a predictable and stable money supply could very well be the optimal one, but it carries certain risks, the largest of which might be some of the pernicious effects of deflation.
The primary concern is that, in a deflationary environment, people will choose to horde rather than spend their money. For instance, why buy a t-shirt today for six Bitcoins today when you’ll be able to get it next week for five? Such incentives might hobble the growth of the Bitcoin economy, meaning more transactions happen in other units of value while people with Bitcoins hang on to them in order to realize potential capital gains.
Different schools of economics hotly debate the legitimacy of such concerns, but, until now, they’ve never really had a chance to engage in a full blown competitive experiment to test the issue. However, since the Bitcoin source-code is open source, it would not be difficult for someone to create a rival currency that, rather than capping off at ~21,000,000 units, is designed to consistently increase the money supply by 1% per year indefinitely after the initial takeoff period. By doing so, it might be possible to learn an enormous amount about monetary economics by comparing the performance of the two economies. Additionally, an environment might emerge in which currencies with innovative elements are regularly introduced to the mix, allowing for the empirically-based semi-organic evolution of an increasingly optimal monetary system. Truly, this is an exciting time to be an econ nerd!
Given my recent interest in the new crypto-currency, I figured I’d try to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and initiate a casual venture with a friend selling actual, honest-to-god goods in exchange for Bitcoins. After a bit of brainstorming, we decided to produce some Bitcoin-themed t-shirts and *exclusively* accept btc for them through a website. Well, the shirts have arrived, the website is up, and I just sealed our very first package destined for a fellow in New Zealand. The next few weeks should be interesting as we get a sense of the benefits and pitfalls of running a (very) small business in the Bitcoin economy. If any experiences or insights of particular interest should crop up, I’ll make sure to post them on ASR, so stay tuned…
P.S. If you want a t-shirt, head over to http://www.iusecoins.com!