News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The Hard Ethics of Libertarianism
Yesterday debating libertarianism with D, what perhaps really annoyed him were the conclusions that libertarianism points to: a sort of immoral lack of sympathy for the welfare of others; this particularly so when I suggested that people should take care of themselves and not be baby-sat by government nanny-crats. To many people this sounds like a sort of idle-rich, 19th century Gilded Age carpet-bagger irresponsibility.

Watching a booktour video of PJ O'Rourke later in the day, my ears pricked up when he stated that Iraq being "smashed to bits" was a sort of best of all possible worlds. I was caught off guard by his apparent seriousness and the lack of murmers or coughing behind hands by the bookstore audience. His argument was that a unified Iraq attacked Israel twice, Iran, Kuwait, and murdered hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. Naturally, most people will blame Saddam Hussein for being the immoral baddie. But I think that PJ was suggesting that no matter who's in charge, such abominations and atrocities will take place as it is part of the Iraqi psyche that one does not entreat with, but slaughters your enemies; a sort of poly-sci edition of dead men tell no tales.

Many libertarians are dubious that governments can change people. People change governments, and not the other way around. The German volk, once given democracy after WWI, elected Hitler. If the Nazi's had not been elected, next in line at the feed trough were the Communists. Either way, totalitarianism was what the proletariat, i.e. that untainted herd of noble savages at the bottom of the food chain, wanted. The same thing is happening in Russia as we speak: the political sphere offering a pantheon of fascists, lunatics, and power brokers, with the downtrodden classes objecting that nothing can be done. In a democracy no less! The same thing happened in Revolutionary France: after trying elections and democracy, everyone went chasing after Chomsky-like conspiracy theories which were followed by various slaughters and the entrance onto the stage of the hero and climax of the tragedy: Napoleon and the glory of wasting hundreds of thousands of men in the attempted conquest of Europe. Similar phenomena broke out in Japan. And in Iraq, where Hussein got into power legally. Was India better off out from under the heel of empire? Once free of the colonial oppressor things went back to an approximation of the pre-conquistador idyll of yore: a traditional Muslim/Hindu civil war broke out with millions dying. This was followed by the country being partitioned and the ensuing Indian democracy kept the country poor from 1949 through 1990 via various hard-core socialist policies (socialism being the most efficient political system, short of despotism, for generating opportunities for bureaucratic corruption -- the desired goal of the famously finger-in-pie, pecker-in-pocket Indian polity of that unfortunate benighted era). Had the British remained, India would be prosperous, with everyone from its sweating factory workers to its Marxist hacks lounging in academe enjoying per capita incomes somewhere between contemporary Malaysia and Hong Kong.

PJ knows this, is a hard-core libertarian and views the present carnage in Iraq as inevitable. Democracy will not change the Iraqi's, the Iraqis will pervert democracy. Just as continues to happen in Afghanistan. Just as early democracy in the US saw voter rights limited to men of substantial means and outright disenfranchized women and slaves.

This sort of resigned acceptance that people cannot be taught what is good for them, and that it is better to stay out of the way and let people slaughter each other if that's really what they want, is also to be found throughout Mencken:

In certain States efforts have been made, sometimes by the medical fraternity, to make the practice of chiropractic unlawful. I'm glad to be able to report that practically all of them have failed. Why should it be prohibited? I believe that every freeborn man has a clear right, when he is ill, to seek any sort of treatment that he yearns for. If his mental processes are of such a character that the theory of chiropractic seems plausible to him, then he should be permitted to try chiropractic. And if it be granted that he has a right to do so, then it follows clearly that any stevedore privy to the technique of chiropractic has a right to treat him. To preach any contrary doctrine is to advocate despotism and slavery...

Such quackeries as Christian science, osteopathy and chiropractic work against the false humanitarianism of the hygienists and to excellent effect. They suck in the botched, and help them onto bliss eternal. When these botched fall in to the hands of competent medical men they are very likely to be patched up and turned loose upon the world, to beget their kind.

Here's Mencken on the US Civil War.

War naturally sucks in those who can be most profitably spared, and let's go most of those whose talents are really useful. One hears, now and then, of promising young men cut down too soon, but the science of statistics scarcely justifies the accompanying mourning. Let us turn for example to the Civil War. In the Union Army, during the four years of the war, there were 2,666,999 man who reached the field, and of this number 110,070 were killed in battle or died of wounds, 199,720 died of disease, and 40,154 perished otherwise -- murdered, killed by accident, or done to death in prisons. Of those who were murdered or died of accident or disease, probably 100,000 would have died anyhow. Deducting that number, the total net loss comes to about 250,000. How many men were wounded is not certain, but probably the number ran to at least one million.

We don't know, of course, what the dead men would've done if they had lived, but we may reach some approximation to it by examining the wounded who survived. How many of them, after the war, contributed anything that was genuinely interesting to civilization? Searching the record for weary days and nights I can find but three names: those of Major Ambrose Bearse, Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and Private George Westinghouse. The typical eminentissimo who survived the Civil War was not of this company; he was the shallow political plug, McKinley. All the really important men of the post-Civil War era, all the men who developed and fecundated such culture as we now have, from John D. Rockefeller to Walt Whitman, from Grover Cleveland to William James, from Mark Twain to Cyrus Field, from Andy Carnegie to Mark Hanna, from William Dean Howells to Bronson Howard, from John Fiske to James Russell Lowell, and from Willard Gibbs to Brigham Young -- all these men were slackers, and leaped not to the cannons roar. The three exceptions the research reveals I have listed. Apply the ratio to those who perished, and it appears that the Civil War cost American culture exactly three fourths of a really valuable man. Call Fitz-James O'Brien, who died of his wounds, the other fourth -- and the net loss comes to one man.

Harsh comedy? But it is accurate; is it sensible; is it informative and useful to know? And haven't we all entertained such dark ponderings from time to time?

As a youth, like most of us, Mencken started out with an unexamined acceptance of the gospel of socialism and it's lavender rhetoric. After all, we live in the modern Romantic era, which began in the early 19th century and continues to incommode us as we speak (Orwell, wrote about its debilitating effects in his essay on Peter Pan and children's fiction). Mencken grew out of soft words and affecting purple prose via working hard and debating any and all subjects with whomever was available. Over the course of his professional career, he was a reporter, newspaper editor, freelance writer of journalism & criticism & poetry & short fiction, translator, whore-hopper and womanizer, book author, literary magazine owner, etc. He acquired a broad and worldly education and, given the wealth and prosperity of America, he developed a great suspicion for reformers, socialists, and other folks with a hand constantly out for donations in a country at a time (the Roaring Twenties) where it took an effort not to emerge at the end of each fiscal year with a swelling belly and burgeoning bank account. He became jaded at the sight of world-savers who then, as now, were clad in scandal after scandal. From his experience as everything from a court-room reporter to a presidential primary reporter, he took the view that the unfortunate can't be saved from themselves and won't be saved from above. But his Olympian indifference also came part and parcel with his general libertarianism, which gave him prejudices that freed him from many of the distortions that arise when one is supposed to feel first and think later.

On developing a full range of heterodox ideas, one sees the world in a very different light; one becomes irritated by government because, among other goads, one no longer shares the mainstream ideas that inevitably inform government policy. Government begins to take on the same bizarre cast as the ignorant and credulous public that blithely votes into office double-talking wind-wizards ventilating hope and dreams into the marketplace of feelings.

A minor example of heterodoxy is my opposition to the regulation taking force next year in Taipei requiring all citizens separate trash into biodegradable, flammable, and other types. My amateur research into the recycling biz informs me that recycling has proven completely uneconomical in the US; where, in the late 1990's, most cities went quietly back to dumping all trash in landfills** It requires double, triple, quadruple, or quintuple the money (i.e. a vast amount of additional polluting energy resources) to recycle plastic and metal as opposed to extracting it from oil and ore (which results in less pollution). Recycling by government (even by fiat) is attractive to voters, perenially ignorant as most of us are of the background and partisan arguments behind political issues. It's just a political showboat. The mayor I'm sure has seen the research and is perfectly clear that recycling serves no useful prophylactic function. Yet, to grease the runway to the nation's presidential office, he's got on board this idiotic and time wasting showboat and saddled the rest of us with potential fines of NT $4000 or NT $6000.
** Worth mentioning though is that in the past year or so, recyclable trash has become profitable as companies in China are scrambling for global resources: this is good news for all of us, but I expect that this demand, like that for oil, will go back to normal in a couple of years. And, I seriously doubt that this new development is a factor in the good Taipei mayor's political calculus; it doesn't seem to have been any more than a vote-catcher in US mayoral campaigns.

Another example of government intrusion into people's lives is that of HIV and AIDS medication. Children who are HIV-positive are required by law in certain states and provinces of Canada to receive to the appropriate medication. My amateur research into AIDS convinces me that there is no effective anti-HIV medication. Indeed, the proposed medication, AZT, is highly carcinogenic and a known, some would say leading, cause of AIDS! [a quick reminder: HIV tests don't test for HIV because HIV has yet to be discovered; it's a hypothetical concept based on circumstantial evidence; plus, the alleged US discoverer of HIV, Robert Gallo, has stated publicly that an HIV+ person with a healthy lifestyle can expect to live just fine for at least 30 years without medication] Yet, if I had a child who was HIV-positive, in several US states and Canadian provinces I would be liable to jail time if I did not put him on an AZT regimen. Given my opinion of AIDS junk-science, I would be forced to choose between having my child suffer terribly and even die from the medication or else sneak overseas with my child.

You can see that my hypothetical situation is like that of people taking their children to a chiropracter in Mencken's 1920's America. The question is: do I have the right to choose my child's doctor and care regimen or should you ignore my sincere concern for my child and issue it with, what I consider to be, a death warrant? We're not talking semantics anymore. If you thought your child was going to be damaged or killed by well-meaning lunatics, what would you do?

I say the taxpaying citizen should be allowed to decide for him or herself.

And, as a libertarian functioning in a democratic polity, i.e. as a minority interest, if I wish to rally mass support for minority rights I must appeal to the interests of all minorities. I.e. I must also allow other minorities the same latitude to engage in activities that I deem opposed to their best interests. Thus for libertarians the left-wing, moral-majority babysitting, piety scheme goes out the window. Again, as a minority accepting the rights of other minorities to run their lives as they please, I have to accept the inevitability that others will engage in prodigies of achievement that inevitably doom them to remain poor (ex: the Amish), die (i.e. religious nuts like Heaven's Gate), or inadvertently harm their children (Christian Scientists, Luddites etc. who oppose modern medicine, blood-transfusions, vaccinations, etc.; Liberals who oppose school vouchers and are pro-affirmative action, pro-AIDS medication for HIV+ pregnant women, pro-estate tax, and pro-unequal taxes for the rich, etc.; and Conservatives who are pro-Creation science, opposed to sexual and gay liberation, anti-abortion, etc.).
As a libertarian you have to arrest the natural mothering tendency to busy-body: i.e. stop caring so much; give up and get over the contemporary fashion for the outreach of feelings. You have to respect the rights of others to make decisions and recognize the commendable diversity this produces, instead of joining in the universal mob-cry for a robotic utopia where everyone's an icon of perfection just like yourself. You have to stop pretending that the heterodox are mentally deficient, deranged or different 'for no good reason' and get your nose out of their welfare and otherwise resist the messianic desire to micromanage their lives.
In other words, when Christopher Hitchens criticized Henry Mencken for being immoral and unfeeling* he's appalled at his lack of soft feelings and compassion for others less fortunate: i.e. sentient human beings who, for whatever reason, have deliberately and repeatedly chosen a path inimicable to their own self-interest. However, what Mencken was doing, as I see it, was facing up to the inevitable end that the train of logic he set in motion took him: I.e., if you grant people greater latitude, sometimes they're going to act foolishly and harm, even kill, themselves. Given the inevitability of this, he then examined this sad fact and made a decision about whether it was in the national interest to allow this. He concluded that, in fact, it is. He didn't flinch from making a decision and then announcing, regardless of the outcry it might cause (which was often considerable, given that his era was more conservative than our own).

Christopher Hitchens, like most of us, first considers whether following a train of logic puts him prima facie in contact with anything smelling of moral repugnance. If so, he makes a face, stops the logic train in its tracks and declares the departure point or the train itself immoral. How facile.

A more enlightened and courageous method is to follow the logic and see where it takes you. If you decide in the end that the conclusion of the logic train is not in the nation's interest, then pronounce it unethical or undesirable, or what have you. But at the very least, the logic train should be followed to its end. For otherwise, how are you to know what the ultimate result of the logic train is? And lacking such knowledge, and given that fact that so many good things in life arise from unethical departure points, and that the reverse is very true as well, ergo the phrase "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," it strikes me as timid and insincere to wonder, first and foremost, what those around you will think of you if you follow where logic takes you. (I'm not suggesting that people who disagree with libertarians, or me, are deliberately insincere. I'm guilty of this sort of thing too, for its usually an unconscious or habit-based affair.) Anyway, frank and implaccable pursuit of the facts and conclusions is one way to wisdom and truth; most other ways lead to folly and false piety.

Biff Cappuccino
* [Mencken] was also, like Twain, a tremendous humorist and satirist and even entertainer. But there was a largeness and humanity to the laconic Samuel L. Clemens that was crucially absent in the Sage of Baltimore [i.e. Mencken], and ''The Skeptic'' reminds one of that vital discrepancy.
This is from a fabulously inaccurate essay in which, in this passage, Hitch commits the Borges error of praising someone (with Borges it was Wilde) as a comic with something to say. It was this absence of "largeness and humanity" that helped make Mencken the "tremendous humorist and satirist" that he was. It also enabled Mencken to proceed directly and forthrightly to the many conclusions that his fellows could equally have easily arrived at, had they not been hobbled by propriety.
For example, in one essay Mencken wrote that it was clearly an African-American musician, the anonymous individual he believed responsible for several American spirituals, who had been America's most talented musician. And this was in an era where blacks were not though highly of at all by mainstream America. And, he praised African-American music at length despite believing African-Americans as a class were retrograde and uncivilized. Why the contradiction? There is none. He followed the logic trail; he didn't try to systematize his conclusions or to warp them to make them fit his preconceptions. He didn't soften the blow. He expected genius to come from wherever it came from. He knew better than to demand it come from a prestigious social echelon or culturally dominant group. If the best music came from the lowest caste people, then that's where it came from. Likewise he wrote a lengthy essay demonstrating that Anglo-Saxons were the lowest most ignoble caste in America, suffering the highest rates of criminality, the highest STD rates, cherished the most primitive form of Christianity, etc. And he starts out the essay stating that he himself is probably the purest form of Anglo-Saxon in the country. There is no contradiction here. What there is a mind free from conspiracy theories whereby everything must conform to preconceptions and favorable outcomes and wish-fullfilment.
To perhaps overstretch my thesis, as a libertarian he was primed to accept the random, the inexplicable because he was magnanimous of thought: not necessarily by choice but perhaps, probably, necessity. Once you get away from the majority-think where whatever the herd thinks is ipso facto sensible and reasonable, you become more amenable and intellectually curious as to what lunatic minorities are doing and thinking. You acquire a rich grounding in how wrong-mindedness and chance often leads to truth. You become more cosmopolitan and more broad-minded. Ergo, the low caste and retrograde can incidently produce brilliance via tradition; high-caste can be in fact, on examination, pervasively decadent as it fails to keep up with the Joneses and Johanssons.
As to Wilde, he had an heterodox, irreverent worldview acquired in part from his American friend Whistler, the painter, which he learned to express in a manner that suggested parody. But Wilde was serious about most of what he said. As is PJ O'Rourke. Similarly, Mencken had an Olympean indifference to sentimentality in part due to the preceding but also because he was much brighter and better informed than his peers. His was a more logical, sharper, penetrating mind. Having a mind that works meant the impossibility of subscribing to the urban legends, received wisdoms and unexamined notions of history, gender relations, politics and so forth that the bulk of his fellow citizens cherished. Like Wilde he was a heretic who, like Twain also, learned how to express heterodox ideas in a manner which offered deniability and paid the bills: i.e. humor. This isn't the whole story, nor even much of it. But Hitchens, as I see it, has the cart in front of the horse.
Biff Cappuccino

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