Tag Archives: libertarian

Liberty and Abortion

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.



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Political Decentralism, the Civil War, and the Significance of John Brown

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


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Ron Paul takes the Gold at CPAC

For the first time since Ron Paul officially ended his Presidential bid in 2008, the mainstream media today has framed him as a kook.  With 31% of the CPAC vote, Dr. Paul won the straw poll, beating both Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin handedly, two candidates who have more or less declared their candidacy for 2012.  For the past year as Ron Paul’s message has been the engine of the Tea Parties, all the conservative mainstreamers were delighted at the opportunity to usher in a fresh pool of energized grassroots activists, whose libertarian idealism could potentially be dumbed down to neoconservatism by the next election.  They have been sly and seen some success, using Sarah Palin as an effective ambassador for the time, while keeping Romney in the holding pen for another year until the Tea Partiers were loyal members of Team Republican.  Simultaneously, Dr. Paul has made many television appearances, lectured in front of huge crowds at Universities and seen tremendous support for his controversial bill to Audit the Federal Reserve, giving believers in his ideology a glimmer of hope that he was being incorporated into the mainstream.  But alas…

On Fox this morning, all they did was emphasize that this straw poll was not scientific, that Mitt Romney had a strong showing (22%, decide for yourself) and that 48% of the total voters identified themselves as students.  The liberal media concentrated on how fractured and leaderless this shows the Republican Party to be, because while Mitt Romney is actually building the framework of a traditional campaign, Ron Paul doesn’t even plan on running for President again.  Clearly this demonstrates that these media outlets have no conception of what “politics as usual” and “grassroots activism” can actually mean and how it could be used to effectively win a big election in three years.  In late 2007 while Romney and McCain were running usual campaigns with the tremendous assistance of Fox and Friends, Ron Paul was blacked out of the media and without lifting a finger or asking for support, had millions more in donations added to his coffers than the other Republicans combined.  That is grassroots, just as this CPAC result is grassroots.  People traveled from around the country to vote for him and persuade him to run, many of whom are students who will have the leadership roles in years ahead.  These people are not fooled by Glenn Beck or Michael Steele and will only vote for the guy they know won’t actually deliver Politics as Usual, despite the rhetoric of other candidates who claim they will.  No other candidate will emerge before 2012 who could have anywhere close to the grassroots support of Paul, so if the Republican Party wants to win, they’d better get comfortable with people actually voting for him.

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Vermont Independence: What Binds Us Together

The movement for Vermont’s political independence draws support from across the political spectrum.  There are those on the left for whom Cuba and Venezuela provide their ideal models for an independent Vermont, and there are also those whose ideal post-independence scenario would put New Hampshire’s Free State Project to shame.  Between those two poles fall the vast majority of independence-minded Vermonters, but secession is not, fundamentally, a beast made purely of the left or the right.

Rather, the concept of secession is a screen upon which disenchanted Vermonters can project their political desires.  One may want a variant of state socialism while another desires a return to tight-knit communitarianism, but they share the belief that their hopes for a better future cannot be realized as citizens of the United States.  The reality is that our current political system precludes either individual from meaningful engagement within the political system.  It’s not merely that their visions might be rejected after a fair hearing; rather, in the modern American political system, they simply don’t exist.

Now, if that were the case for only Vermonters with the most extreme political views, the prospects for secession would be dim.  However, the vast majority of Americans actually have no political agency.  They’re led to believe they do through symbolic initiatives and issues that capture the public’s imagination by being given the focus of the mass media, but the serious decisions (how much should the currency be worth, should a war be pursued) are decided first in private.  If the nominal consent of the public is necessary, it is generated through a sustained public relations campaign (e.g. Colin Powell giving a slide-show before the invasion of Iraq), but for the most part people remain “blissfully” unaware that decisions that will profoundly effect their lives have been made at all.

As long as they believe their interests are being fairly represented through the American political system, most Vermonters won’t give secession a second thought.  However, we’re currently going through a crisis of enormous magnitude, and fissures in the comfortably authoritarian American national narrative are beginning to show.  The progressives who believed that the election of Barack Obama would create a just economic system and end American imperialism are beginning to see that, between the escalating war in Central Asia and the continuation of the “bailout the rich” regime, even the most “liberal” President will not create the society they desire.  Similarly, many conservatives who watched in horror as “their” President destroyed the remainders of free-market competition in the banking sector are getting the feeling that their Federal representatives aren’t, in fact, representing them at all.

It is for this concern that Vermont independence provides an answer, regardless of one’s political affiliation.  We’re citizens: we deserve a say.  The simple fact is that one individual cannot realistically represent 650,000 people (as the average Congressional Representative does).  Some smaller issues are decided by State legislatures that are far closer to the people, but the life and death decisions of war and monetary policy are made by people who generally feel more at home in Washington, DC than in the state they supposedly represent.  I grew up in DC, and went to high-school with the children of politicians and bureaucrats; their sense of home and community was among the Washington elites, not the places of origin of their parents.  This insularity of our national political elites does not bode well for the health of a representative republic.

In an independent Vermont, all important decisions would be made by people who actually represent their communities.  The size of Vermont’s legislative districts are small enough that legislators can be personally known by the people in their own communities, and can take their opinions into account when making laws.  It also means that if a fellow community member objects to the conduct of a legislator, he or she can mount an electoral challenge without having to prostitute himself for the hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars that are necessary to wage a state-wide political campaign.  In this way, all citizens, no matter their beliefs, can have a true say in the most vital national decisions.  Imagine if the Vermont legislature had to approve whether or not to send troops to Iraq in 2003; I’m sure the real consequences of that decision would have been more thoroughly debated.

This is the ultimate vision that can bind together the diverse supporters of Vermont independence.  It’s easy to fall into squabbling over what a post-independence Vermont would look like (ecotopia, libertarian republic, traditional agrarian community, socialist paradise), but we must remember that none of us can have any real influence in the current system.  Only by asserting our sovereignty and creating a human-scale republic can we begin the serious discussions and debates about the sort of world we want to live in, and by doing so finally don the mantle of Citizen.  Until then, ideological squabble amongst independence advocates amount to spitting in the wind as our futures are mapped out by nihilistic elites (from across the political spectrum) who don’t give a damn about us.  Free Vermont!

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Pro-Business or Pro-Market?

A good friend of mine forwarded me this well presented article on the dangers of conflating being pro-business with being pro market.  A few choice excerpts:

An important point is that well-established businesses do not trust markets either. The last thing that a well-established business wants to see is a free market. What it wants is a regulated market that keeps competitors at bay. The people who benefit from free markets are small entrepreneurs and, above all, consumers.

Pro-market and anti-business might seem like an odd combination. But those of us who oppose “too-regulated-to-fail” as a strategy for large financial firms and instead support making failure a viable option for any business might be put in that camp. Those of us who want to see a free-market health insurance system replace our jerry-rigged system of employer-provided plans and state-regulated individual plans (you cannot sell health insurance to individuals across state lines) also might be put in that camp.

These observations bring to mind the Great Hotdog Scandal of Manchester, Vermont, as well as the wonderfully ideology-twisting “Free-Market Anti-Capitalism” of Kevin Carson

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VT Libertarian Representative Neil Randall

In 1998 Neil Randall, a lifelong Vermonter, was elected to represent Orange County’s 3rd district in the House.  During our hour with Neil he explains why he believes in the Libertarian Party and how he was successfully elected with a third party label.

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