All posts by Robin Koerner

Robin Koerner is a political and economic commentator for the Huffington Post, Truth In Miedia, (Ben Swann), the Independent Voter Network (IVN), and other sites. He is best known for coining the term “Blue Republican” to refer to liberals and independents who joined the GOP to support Ron Paul’s bid for the presidency in 2012. His article launched the biggest coalition for Ron Paul and a movement that outlived his candidacy, which now focuses on winning supporters for liberty (rather than just arguments), by finding common ground among Americans of various political persuasions. He is also the founder of, where 200 volunteers translate opinion about the US from all over the world.

Your Problem with Guns or Gays Is Not Political

Last month, I did something I’d done only once before: I went to a range and shot some guns. Lots of guns. All shapes, ages and sizes.

This is a very strange thing to do for a guy born British. Guns feature nowhere in British culture.


Accordingly, I was unsurprised by the reaction of my mother when I called home and told her that I’d had a great time learning about firearms and discovering I wasn’t a bad shot, even with a second-world-war Enfield. “That’s the last thing I’d ever imagine you’d enjoy doing,” she said to me. She wasn’t being judgmental: it was an expression of genuine surprise.
“That’s because you just can’t imagine why nice or normal people would enjoy guns … because you don’t know any… no Brits know any,” I replied.

Mom thoughtfully agreed.

Many decent people who have no interest in guns simply can’t imagine what it must be like to be someone who is passionate about something whose primary purpose is to kill people. Although the gun debate is waged using words, logic and fact (to different ends by both sides of course), the arguments constructed using these three tools are not what brings people to their pro or anti-gun position. Rather, most people are emotionally or intuitively committed to a position first, and deploy these tools retroactively in defense of their position. Despite what we like to think, we most, if not all, of our political views this way. Studies show, time and time again, that David Hume was right, when claimed,

And as reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.

What most anti-gun people are really feeling (rather than thinking) is that there has to be something strange about you if you like guns. I mean, why would you get turned on by something whose primary purpose is to kill people? If you do, you can’t be like me. You are sufficiently different that I am suspicious or your worldview or your motives or both. You are culturally “other”.

Productive engagement, and the pervasive acceptance of individual rights, involves bridging such cultural gaps. With the gun-rights issue, as with all others, the best way to do so is the same way all forms of cultural segregation (because that is what we are really talking about) have been permanently broken down over time: to get to know, and spend personal time with, those on the other side of the gap.

It works both ways. People who favor more gun regulation are not actually motivated by taking away your liberty. And people who favor robust 2nd amendment protections do not have a lower threshold for the acceptance of violence or aggression. You’ll know this when you have them as friends, and having such friends causes the all-or-nothing arguments that make such dramatic claims about the fundamental differences between you and the people on the other side of the issue to cease to be credible.

This mistaking of differences of cultural identity for political differences or, the erroneous idea that political differences drive different cultural identities, rather than the other way around, severely hobbles our ability to protect all of our liberties and empowers political partisans who have a vested interest in maintaining power by keeping us insolubly divided.

Just as gun-owners form a kind of (albeit highly porous) sub-culture, the LGBT community does so too. Some people who have been brought up in a socially conservative or religious sub-culture simply can’t imagine being able to do (let alone actually doing) the things that those in another (LBGT) do as a matter of course. Again, if I can’t even imagine your experience or desires, then we are deeply culturally separated. Just as gun-control advocates feel a twinge of disgust, or at least, condescension, toward the culture of gun-owners, some of our religious friends feel similarly about the LBGT sub-culture. “Disgust” is of course a very strong word, and most of us sublimate it deeply, but it captures the sense that the division among our “political” sub-cultures is more visceral than rational. Reason is applied later to justify in the conscious mind the position that the subconscious makes us emotionally comfortable with.

Now, I have a distinctly conservative streak when it comes to the raising of children, and I have an instinctive respect for any political position that is genuinely motivated by requiring adults to do the best by the children whom they create. I can understand, then, the real discomfort of those who sincerely believe that children benefit from having male and female role-models at home, and that society should be very wary of sanctioning anything that does not place the well-being of children above the proclivities of their parents.

However, two of my friends – and two of the kindest and most responsible people I know – happen to be gay partners who adopted a(n American-born) daughter. Phil and Michael are giving their adopted daughter a wonderful life. Their love for her is boundless. The security, values and richness of experience that they are providing her will set her up forever. And the gap between the life that Mia Joy has and that which she would otherwise have had makes the general question, “should gay couples should be able to adopt,” sound something between silly and faintly insulting when applied to this particular, inspiring case.

I am blessed with close gay friends with whom I identify as much as I do with many of my straight friends. So for me, the question of gay marriage and adoption, for example, is not so much a political argument that needs logically “deciding”; rather, the very intuition of the existence of some gay “other” on which the very argument depends, has disappeared. As that cultural gap is bridged through actual human relationship, the separateness of that “other group”, on which any suspicion I may have of their motivations depends, ceases to exist.

I’ve had many gay friends for many years. And now I am getting some gun-owning friends too. And because they are all good people (they’d not be my friends otherwise, would they?), I see both groups as doing essentially the same thing when they defend their rights – insisting on being allowed to be themselves, and defend the validity of the way they experience the world – as long as they harm no one else.

Of course, if you’re reading this and you don’t like guns, you’re thinking, “That’s wrong. Guns harm people.” Not in the hands of my friends, they don’t. And if you’re reading this and you don’t like gays, you’re thinking, “That’s wrong. Gay adoption is bad for the children.” Not by my friends, it isn’t.

If I were going to take a stand against gay adoption, I would have to imagine saying to Phil and Mike, “You should not be allowed to what you have done for Mia Joy, and I would use the force of law to stop you.” Even if I could make an abstract political argument against gay adoption, I cannot say that to them in good conscience. And if I were going to take a stand against my open-carrying friend, Rob, I’d have to imagine saying to him, “You should not be allowed to own that to protect your family – or to protect your country against a tyrannical state, should it ever come to that, and I would use the force of law to stop you”. Even if I could make an abstract political argument against private gun ownership, I could not say that to him in good conscience.

By becoming friends with Phil and Mike, and with Rob, their respective sub-cultures cease to be alien to me.

The truth is that, because I know Rob as a grounded, kind man, I also know that the rest of us are better off when people like him have a few of the guns – rather than their all being in the hands of our political masters. And because I know Phil and Michael as being rather like Rob in those respects, I simply know that the rest of us are better off when people like them have a few of America’s children.

And there’s not a political argument in sight.

You’ll appreciate my delight, then, when, during my day at the range with Rob, he told me that his local organization in defense of the second amendment accepted the open offer made by the organizers of his city’s annual gay pride event to support them by marching with them. The two groups have now formed an ongoing alliance, reflecting the fact, of course, that they are really doing the same thing: protecting the right of people to do anything they want for people they love as long as they harm no one else.

That’s when you know that you really care about liberty: the excitement of marching in support of someone who wants to protect and celebrate their freedom overcomes your “cultural discomfort” (should you have any) with what they want to do with it.

If we can challenge ourselves by focusing as much on nurturing our human connection with our political opponents by relating to them as people, we’d discover a wonderful paradox: we’d all feel, from our opposed initial positions, increased success in getting our opponents to see the world our way.

How is that possible?

It’s possible because collapsing the sub-cultural divides in our society through actual human relationship does something bigger and better than resolving our political differences: it dissolves them. It dissolves them because it reveals that much of what we thought were differences of political principle are really rationalizations of the suspicion we feel toward those whose experiences and pleasures we simply cannot imagine sharing.

As in history, so in psychology: culture precedes politics.

The Spirit of Independence: How Culture Drives Politics

To a first approximation, American political history before the 18th century is British political history. As most American schoolchildren know, in the 17th century, John Locke crystallized the idea that human law should reflect Natural Law, but the idea that Law must serve the well-being of the people on whom it is imposed goes back at least to the Anglo-Saxons.

Since tyranny must shape to itself both the law and the political institutions of its day, it stands to reason that when a governing elite has gone too far in abusing its power, the fight back for liberty by the people at large does not start directly in the political realm or in legislation, itself.

Throughout history, changing a country’s politics and statutes has been the final goal of forceful popular attempts to contain power, but mass-refusal to accept political abuses has always begun in the culture. “Culture” is a vague term so let us define it as the sum of actions of the citizens of a country, the attitudes that drive their responses to events, their expectations of what they may do and the memories of what they, and perhaps their ancestors, have always done.

The founding of the United States is just one example of this process. In 1776 (American Independence), as in 1689 (the original Bill of Rights), 1628 (Petition of Right), 1215 (Magna Carta), and even 1014 (Anglo-Saxon Charter), freedoms that citizens already believed they had were codified and concretized to shape political institutions. And in each case, this shaping of political entities with the purpose of increasing or protecting the rights of free individuals that were already recognized in the culture has been invariably triggered by the over-reach of the country’s governing elite (or, at least, part of it).


Seen in this light, the American Revolution was not so much an American Revolution as a British evolution – another turn in the ratchet of Anglo political liberty, driven by the kind of cultural conservatism that all liberals should celebrate.

As William Pitt the Elder, statesman and former British prime minister, said as he spoke against the Stamp Act in the year of the American founding.

“I rejoice that America has resisted. Three million people so dead to all feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest[of us].”

This reflects the interesting fact that the attitudes that drove American Independence were found not only among the colonists. They were as prevalent among their British compatriots in the “motherland”, born from and into the same Anglo culture.

Pitt’s use of the word “feelings” is telling. Feelings are not defined in law or carved over the doors of our most important state building. Rather, as Pitt was acknowledging, they are the sentiments that drive political change, reflective of the prevalent attitudes and expectations in society.

In fact, in the Anglo tradition, the political elite has explicitly recognized that the feelings and expectations of the people are the ultimate limits on its power, and has conceded as much when it has had to negotiate with the people that it governs. The Magna Carta, various coronation declarations going back even as far as a millennium, the Petition of Right etc., all refer explicitly to the “customs” of the people – those freedoms that the people have a right to expect simply because they are commonly asserted and have been enjoyed for so long. These customs exist in the minds of the people, defining, albeit fluidly, the boundaries in which (earlier) kings and (now) politicians must confine themselves if they are not to risk a popular backlash that makes governing impossible.

The modern liberty movement must take heed of this lesson of history: large-scale popular movements against power are triggered not when enough people see in that an abstract right has been taken from them – but when enough people actually experience their everyday lives as being impinged upon.

Put another way, it’s when Power offends our cultural freedoms – not our political liberty – that we rise up against it.

Why else have both the Left and the Right in our time sat relatively silent as our rights to due process, privacy, and free speech have been removed by such legislation as the Patriot Act and the NDAA, and yet become very vociferous over our right to smoke weed (on the Left) or own guns without restriction (on the Right)? The answer, at least in part, is that smoking and/or guns are part of the culture for many Americans, so government overreach into those areas actually feels like a personal infringement. In contrast, removing your right to due process doesn’t feel like anything until you need due process, and invading your privacy doesn’t feel like anything if you don’t know that it is even happening.

Independence Day make many of us feel patriotic. That term originally meant loyalty not to a cause of separation from Britain, but to the very ideas of liberty, worked up through an Anglo tradition of many hundreds of years, distilled marvelously in our Constitution. These ideas, filling coffee-shop conversations everywhere, even in the 18th century, constituted a kind of cultural norm, and were shared by Britons on both sides of the Atlantic.

True patriots today are committed to the same ideas. That subset who can fairly claim the spirit of American Independence are the few who will put their own wellbeing at risk to defend them.

One of them is Edward Snowden. His revelations have altered American political discourse by changing the everyday American experience of sending an email or a making phone call from one of privately communicating with a loved to one of sharing one’s life with the State. Mr. Snowden’s importance is less that he has told us anything new about the massively invasive power that government has assumed for itself since (at least) 2001. (There are myriad accessible articles about the Patriot Act, NDAA etc. and their implementation that anyone could have read any time in the last decade.) He has, in fact, done something much more important: he has turned our government’s violation of our political liberties, which most of us know only as words on a document, into a felt violation of our cultural ones, of which we can feel as we go about our lives.

And when enough people feel that way, drawing on their customs (attitudes and expectations) of liberty – not on their political institutions – they push back, forcing legislative and political lines to get redrawn in a manner that reclaims the liberties that have been lost. As per the list of dates above, it has happened throughout history. And it happened in 1776.

The Founders were not ideological revolutionaries. They were, every step of the way, acting in the Anglo tradition of liberty, a tradition that the British elite in that time was failing to respect, as our American elite fails to respect it now. Their “revolution” was therefore a culturally-rooted resistance to a violation of the customs of that very same culture, but its outcomes were, as intended and as always, profoundly political.

Until now, our government, or as they style themselves, our governors, have managed to take away so many of our political freedoms without too many people feeling a thing. Snowden’s revelations are important inasmuch as they have helped turn the overbearing reach of Power from a legal and political abstraction to a felt reality in our lives.

On Independence Day, it is appropriate to let ourselves be inspired by the simple fact that Snowden is American. Snowden as much comes out of a culture of American Independence as he contributes to it. Don’t think that the Chinese, Russians, Iranians and French states, for example, aren’t doing all the things that the Americans are – or that, at least they would if they had American resources and power. But Edward Snowden isn’t Chinese, Russian, Iranian, or French. Perhaps that is no accident. Perhaps it is worth celebrating the fact that there is still enough of the founding, independent, spirit of these United States left that caused one of its sons not just to hold to its founding values, but to do something about them.

The American liberty movement is understandably pre-occupied with law, policy and political institutions. All of these are of course profoundly important. But the real game is in people’s minds. If we can strengthen our culture of freedom by telling the truth about where we stand today, contrasting it with our rich tradition of liberty, and thereby stimulating that healthy sense of “how dare they?”, then the politics shall take care of themselves. Repealing a bill is hard for you or me to do. Getting people to care is not. Snowden has gotten many people to care. As Bill Clinton said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

Whatever else is true, Snowden is an Independent American whose principles are the principles of American Independence. And that is surely all that any Patriot is called to be.

On this Independence Day, God bless England, America’s crucible; God bless Snowden and every other true patriot, and God bless the United States of America.

Come As You Are

I was a boring kid, more concerned with topping out in my next exam than with any sports team or rock band.

I think that was an early manifestation of a tendency I retain in my adult life and will likely take to my grave: a slight disdain for what everyone else thinks is great and, by implication, thinks that I should think is great. In other words, my precociousness as a child was an assertion of my individuality. Maturity as soft rebellion, if you will. In any youth culture, behaving like an adult is good a way to train as a future libertarian.

Although, as a kid, I mostly avoided pop music and sports (and still do), for some years, the music that I could guarantee to hear every day from my friends’ desks at school was Nirvana and Guns ‘N’ Roses. Those bands provided the sonic backdrop of my geography revision and math homework.

Whatever grunge was, I wasn’t. The school I went to was an old English manor house (check out the final scene of “If” – that was our dining hall) and I was being educated among many who would in a few years be wearing academic gowns in the hallowed halls of Cambridge and Oxford Universities. I ended up being one of them. I certainly couldn’t even imagine “dropping out” as a psychological possibility, let alone as something that could inform a culture. I mean, I wouldn’t even know how to drop out or hate myself, to borrow from one of Nirvana’s titles.

Bizarrely, I found myself last weekend sharing a stage with Nirvana’s bassist, Krist Novoselic, which, absent context, anyone who knew me when Nirvana was changing the musical world would say is just about the least likely thing that could ever happen to me.

The occasion was the annual conference of the Libertarian Party of Washington State. Krist was there in his capacity as Chairman of, an organization devoted to making our representation fairer and ensuring that every vote has the power to cause political change. Most votes in our current system are meaningless, as districts are gerrymandered to be immune to the vagaries of the ballot box and the elites of two parties make the rules to ensure that those who don’t make the rules also don’t even get to make a case. I was there in my capacity as the first “Blue Republican” – a movement of people concerned with putting America’s founding ideas of liberty and peaceful adherence to the Constitution in a language that resonates with the cultural mainstream, with the goal of shifting the political mainstream.

I spoke of a thousand-year tradition of liberty that teaches that political change begins in the culture, among the people – and that such change happens not when people are told what to think, but when someone powerfully tells them what they already feel. ()

… Which is, of course, what Nirvana, in their unique way, did for a generation.

Novoselic had spoken before me. Between his speech and mine, we discussed his political passion of fair representation. We gave alternative voting, first-past-the-post, the two-party system and proportional representation a good going over. Not a guitar in sight.

He wouldn’t say it, I am sure, but Novoselic is important. Not because he is famous. But because he has done the thing that everyone at that conference really wants to do – to move a culture, to touch lives, to create a world where people are a little bit clearer about who they are. People say, “I want to change the world”. But that man has done it – and last weekend was the first time that I have spent a good amount of time with someone who has done that through the sheer force of art – of combining a message with a medium of delivery that tears through the rational and reaches down to the visceral.

So who the hell was I to give a speech about the criticality of moving a culture to shift its politics when the audience included one who may have shifted a culture more than anyone else I shall ever meet, and did so by reflecting back to a large segment of the population something they already felt but had never been articulated in the way Nirvana articulated it? There was I, mouthing. There was he, having done.

With all that in my head, and with a recent memory of an interesting conversation with the very unassuming Novoselic, it is unsurprising, perhaps, that this former nerd, who spent more time blocking out the smell of Teen Spirit , if you will, just to get his homework done, than he ever spent actually listening to grunge, checked out Nirvana’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and found that he really cared about it.

It touched me. I knew it would. But why?

Because, I suppose, the schoolboy has left school. He doesn’t have any homework to do and he doesn’t have studiously to avoid identifying with youth culture to assert his individuality among friends who cannot get enough of it. In other words, he can appreciate the band for the rather awesome noise they made …. and most of all, most fundamentally, and most wonderfully…. for the sheer, distilled, high-octane, damn-the-torpedoes expression of humanity…

… which is what qualifies a band for the Hall of Fame in the first place.

I am moved not by a particular song, but by the ability of people to write songs that touch others in ways that they will carry with them for their whole lives; not for a particular lyric, but for the capacity of people to express themselves in an infinity of ways that others receive and make their own; not for a particular band, but for the ability of human beings to come together in all kinds of groups and make bigger infinities (yes, that’s a real thing) of god-knows-what.

In other words, I get high on uncontainable human genius, expression, purpose, energy, passion, connectedness, angst, hope, depth, community, pain, ecstasy and the rest.

And you can’t be high on humanity without caring an awful lot about liberty. And liberty, of course, is the reason why Novoselic and Johnson were at that conference together, and why I happened to be scheduled between them.

Liberty is what allows Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl to imagine themselves out of Seattle in the ‘80s and change the world in the ‘90s through the sheer power of imagination, dedication, passion, and the freedom to share all of that with the rest of us. It’s what enables us to buy their music, to have the time to listen to it, and to celebrate whatever ways it speaks to us. It’s what protects the right of Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl to sing what the hell they want and the rest of us to respond exactly as we choose.

It is what allows Novoselic to put down his guitar and get on a stage with an entirely different purpose – to educate an audience on redistricting and voting systems and so on. Liberty is what Presidential Candidate and former Governor Gary Johnson wants to save so that there can always be another Nirvana around the corner – which of course, won’t be Nirvana at all, because, as Liberty recognizes, no two people, no two times and no two places, are the same.

That’s why watching Novoselic receive his award moved me: it didn’t matter that I wasn’t one of those teenagers his music spoke to in spades. It’s the fact that there are people who take their freedom of mind and expression and push them as far as they will damned well go – people who ensure that liberty is not an abstract political concept but the sine qua non of the sublime.

There is another artist I like … of a very different flavor altogether – Stephen Fry. He definitely can’t sing and I suspect he can’t play a guitar. He’s rather more like me: more English, more wordy, and another one of those gown-wearing Cantabrigians. But rather more like Novoselic, he is a genius of self-expression. His medium is language, and he said this.

The things that matter in life are useless. Love is useless. Wine is useless. Art is the love and wine of life. It is the extra, without which life is not worth living.

That’s it. Nirvana’s success, and the success of all like them, is in the making of a flavor of wine of life that has never been tasted before.

That is the gift of liberty.

To make life worth living, we must make way for the useless. We must have the resources that give us the time to create the useless and to indulge in it. We must celebrate individual expression when it reflects us – and when it doesn’t. We must, in short, climb Maslow’s pyramid. Spiritual growth might not be what most of us think of when we listen to Nevermind, but if it is having any effect on us at all, then that is exactly the effect it is having. (That will do for my non-expert definition of art.) And for me, that’s why Novoselic, Grohl and Cobain, and those like them, earn their awards.

That climb of liberty is why Johnson and Novoselic were in the same room. It’s how I got to be in the room with them. The Novoselics of this world need the Johnsons to keep the world safe for their art. The Johnsons need the Novoselics to remind the rest of us why we must fight for the Johnsons. And then, we all need the Novoselics so we can enjoy what the Johnsons are determined to preserve for us.

If I had to guess, I’d say that Nirvana’s most famous title is, “Come As You Are”.

If the Libertarian Party of Washington State, Nirvana’s state, was looking for a motto, it would not find a better one than that.

Why UKIP? The Answer Is In History – Not Bigotry

Many people regard Magna Carta as the first Constitutional guarantee of the basic liberties of the English-speaking world.

Fewer people know that Magna Carta wasn’t imposed on King John just because he abused his power (which after all has been true of most kings and governments throughout history), but because he had handed away the sovereignty of England to a foreign governing institution in Europe. That institution was The Holy Roman Empire.

John had unilaterally handed England to Pope Innocent because earlier arguments with Rome had left England under an interdict (a kind of nationwide ex-communication), so John was facing the possibility of an invasion from a strong, Catholic France with a papal blessing that would have made finding allies impossible and inevitably led to John’s defeat. To split his enemies, and peel away the Church from France, John gifted the pope sovereignty over his entire country and leased it back as the pope’s vassal. For a time, Britain was ruled from Europe.

For the barons at Runnymede, that was the last straw: they responded to the fundamental transfer of power out of their country and forced Magna Carta on John.

More than 500 years later, the (British) founders of the USA, in the very tradition of which Magna Carta was an early part, would make explicit the intuitive principle on which the Barons had acted then, and many have acted since: that the power to govern is delegated by the people governed, in whom it entirely resides. But that principle is so deep in the Anglo cultural psyche that even the barons who faced King John at Runnymede were not the first to state it in some way or another: the Charter of Liberties of Henry I had already formally established in the year 1100 that the rule of the king was by consent and that those who made the Law were not above it.

By this long-standing principle, power is lent by the people, in whom it resides, for a limited time to those in government for the purpose of protecting the rights of those people. A British prime minster today has not more right to give his country away to a foreign power than King John had to give the country away to a pope, and it makes no difference how the prime minister is chosen. And no king or prime minister has any more right to do either than a tenant of my house has to sell or give my house away just because he is temporarily living in it. Power to govern is no more possessed by those who are allowed temporarily to exercise it, than my house is possessed by the person temporarily allowed to live in it.


The argument today for moving power further away from the people upward to a trans-European super-state is wrong on its face: it rests on the idea that legitimacy follows from the fact that the representatives who gave away that power are democratically elected, as if democratic election gives them something they can never possess, or the right to give away something that can never be theirs.

Since that idea is false, the European Union as currently conceived is anti-democratic and anti-liberal by definition.

Moreover, as has been said many times, since democracy is the exercise of kratos (power) by the demos (people), there can be no democracy without a demos . Britain, France, Spain etc. all have their own demos . Europe does not. Setting up an election and putting lots of people from many countries in one building on fat salaries does not make it so.

A weaker claim to self-justification made EUrophiles is that the “important” decisions in the EU are made by unanimous consent … indeed, they point out, didn’t Prime Minister Cameron recently veto some proposed regulation that would hit London’s financial center?

The response from principle is two-fold. First, the British government retains a veto only in some areas of policy that affects Britons. In the rest, Britain carries a weight of about 8% in the making of decisions, so if the British want control over their waters for the purposes of fishing, for example, even if every single Briton and every single British representative voted in Europe to keep what is theirs by international law and convention, then it would make no difference if most of Europe would rather keep taking it. This is exactly why the demos is important: lack of demos is what turns a situation in which five sheep or five wolves are voting on what to eat for dinner into one in which four wolves and a sheep are taking exactly the same vote.

In this fishing example, if the British had 0% of the decision-making power in the EU, because it was out of it, it could keep 100% of the rights to its waters and its fish. The British people know this, even if many cannot articulate it in those terms: they know they don’t need to be “in Europe” to persuade the European masters with only 8% representation, to stop doing things that hurt them – when the only reason for the discussion in the first place is that their government gave away their national resources and right to properly demo(s)cratic representation.

Evidently, based on the results of elections throughout Europe last weekend, the demos of other nations feels just the same way – as they should.

The drawing of a line at the giving away of governmental power is a very basic, human and healthy self-protective instinct, which has been evident at many more points in history than just 1215. In 1258, for example, the Provisions of Oxford against Henry III, which established parliament, was also a response to the King’s giving away power to a foreign European aristocratic class. Hundreds of years later, the Glorious Revolution would follow the exiling of a king on account of his desire to bring French law and religion to England. And as the normal, healthy act of a real demos , UKIP’s victory in the UK’s European elections is a similar reaction to a similar travesty.

UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, was recently called a bigot on account of his remark about being able to understand people’s discomfort at a group of Bulgarians or Romanians to move in next door, and many have sought to insult his supporters with the same accusation.

I have traveled much of the world and I am convinced Britain is one of the most tolerant nations in it. What Nigel was getting at, albeit clumsily, was that the lack of power of the people to control even who comes into their country is a very serious thing indeed. Bulgarians and Romanians are the current placeholders because they are the latest groups who non-British politicians have determined should be allowed into the British nation, regardless of any consequences for the people who are already there. It is the latest, highly visible symbol of just how completely the kratos of the British demos has been given away.

Britain has welcomed foreigners and diversity for as long as I have been alive. It’s not that Bulgarians and Romanians aren’t welcome there. To use the metaphor of the rented house again, it’s not that the owner doesn’t welcome guests: it’s that basic fairness and common sense demands that the owner should be the one to choose whom he welcomes and on what terms – rather than the current situation in which the person who chooses who enters the house and on what terms is some foreign chap who got hold of it in a fraudulent sale by a recent tenant who never owned it.

With respect to Farage’s notion that Britons might be more concerned about an influx of Bulgarians than of Germans: as history shows, it’s human nature to feel more concerned when the uninvited people in one’s house are less familiar, appearing, rightly or wrongly, to have very different house rules and fewer means to support themselves – especially when the owner is no longer allowed to decide who may or may not take out of the family’s rainy-day fund that has been carefully built up over generations.

In summary, none of this is about ethnicity or race. It is about fairness, rights and their flipside, responsibility .

Kipling said it best.

The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite.

But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right.

When he stands like an ox in the furrow, with his sullen set eyes on your own,

And grumbles, “This isn’t fair dealing,” my son, leave the Saxon alone.

Voting UKIP doesn’t make someone a bigot. It makes him human, with a wish to protect his fellow countrymen, what is good in his culture, and what has been earned by a demos at great cost over a long time. A UKIP voter is likely drawing the line exactly where it has always been drawn throughout history: where those who are temporarily delegated power by one demos give away the kratos that is not theirs, to those who are part of another demos altogether.

It’s not bigoted to resist that. It is right. Moreover, in historical time, liberty and democracy both depend on it.

No. A bigot is someone who, as a result of their own prejudices, treats members of a group with fear, distrust or hatred. A much better example of one would be a person who treats those who vote differently from himself as inferior based not on knowledge of them as individuals, or of the reasons why they see their country as they do, but on a simplistic assumption about them made only because of the political party they support – allied, perhaps, with a poor sense of history or, for that matter, democracy.

Those who enjoy irony, or historic parallels, or both, will appreciate the following.

King John, after signing the Magna Carta, immediately appealed to the Pope to annul that pesky referendum on, and limitation of, his power. Pope Innocent gladly obliged; he would have made a good President of the European Union today, refusing to accept any of the national referendums that rejected the European Constitution.

That act of bad faith by John, rejecting the will of his people in favor of the will of his European overlord, caused the barons to revolt, and open war to break out in England …

By that standard, and the standard of most of history, UKIP’s electoral victory seems like a very minor protest indeed.

What UKIP Must Learn from the American Liberty Movement

Of all of their political parties that most Brits have heard of, only UKIP – the United Kingdom Independence Party – calls itself “libertarian”.

Being only two decades old, UKIP – now polling 38% for the European elections this year and about 15% for the general election next year – has achieved a success on paper that the American Libertarian Party can only dream of.

Indeed, in my work of helping the US liberty movement achieve more success in changing the minds of the people and the politicians and policies that they support, I often point out that American activists can learn much from what UKIP has been doing right.

Both UKIP and the US libertarians form insurgent, anti-establishment movements in an early stage of development: they are both influencing and drawing strength from public dissatisfaction with the current political settlement, but have not yet made significant changes to national electoral outcomes. For example, UKIP has not a single seat in the British parliament, and only a handful of representatives in the American House or Senate self-identify as aligned with the liberty movement’s goals.

So it was with some curiosity that I attended my first UKIP meeting on a visit back to England last month.

It was a public “town-hall-style” meeting in the picture-postcard county of Devon. An audience of around 60 heard three candidates and party executives speak for about 90 minutes.

At similar meetings in the US, I am never the youngest in the room. In UKIP’s meeting in Devon, I was. So when questions were invited from the floor, I pointed out as much, and asked if UKIP, therefore, had a problem. (It does.)

Fortunately, one of the speakers was the Chairman of the party, Stephen Crowther, who responded to my question with a fair one of his own: how did someone of my age manage to get out of work on a Friday morning? (I didn’t. I was on holiday.) Later, (during the obligatory tea and biscuits at the end of any public meeting in rural England), another member of the audience offered a different explanation: older people, he suggested, were the only ones who could remember how things were before we joined the EU.

That was sincerely meant but, to me, unconvincing. After all, the younger members of the American liberty movement do not have much experience of their country when it was much freer (before the Patriot Act, NDAA, extensive state-sponsored cronyism corporatism etc.) but they don’t need it: they discover their birthright of liberty by reading their own history, the Constitution, and the work of the brilliant thinkers who developed the classical liberal tradition that excites them so much.

In fact, most of the energy that drives the liberty movement in the US is that of young adults. These men and women are becoming sufficiently numerous and their passion is sufficiently strong that the change toward liberty that we shall see in American politics over the next two generations will likely one day be seen to have had its root in this decade in much the same way that the last two generations of progressivism and Statism were rooted in the ‘60s.

In the US, speeches made at anti-establishment, pro-liberty meetings are filled with statements of the inspiring principles of individual liberty – of free enterprise, the progressive magic of real capitalism, freedom from state interference in (and surveillance of) one’s personal life, personal responsibility and the Rule of Law etc.

In contrast, the speeches in Devon consisted entirely of factual assertions and policy solutions. If it weren’t for Crowther’s utterance of three expressions at the very end of the 90 minutes – “libertarian”, “self-government” and “small government” – it would not have been clear what political principles or vision united all of the policies that had been offered. Moreover, given the lack of any exposition of those ideas as guiding principles, the only people in the room who would have known what those three terms meant were the ones who, like me, had studied them long before they found themselves at a UKIP meeting. Since neither mainstream British politicians nor the British media ever use such terms, the people in the room who knew what they meant could definitely be counted on one hand.

Of course, a political party should focus on facts and policy. But if that is all a new party is doing – especially if the policies are, albeit out of necessity, largely negative, such as pulling out of the EU, reducing immigration, and offering a political home for those who are less than comfortable with gay marriage, then those with the political idealism and energy required to turn an insurgent movement into a mainstream movement with longevity – also called young people – will be left entirely uninspired and, potentially worse, alienated.

During the following week, I spoke to quite a few Brits about UKIP. I found many quiet supporters. Their motivations were typically down-to-earth and British: skepticism of the country’s prevailing political settlement and class, a preference for people who call things as they see them, and a pragmatic desire to try new solutions to problems when the old ones have consistently failed. And there was not a bigot or racist among them.

That’s all well and good – but not enough to prevent UKIP from winning its next battle (the European elections next week) but losing the war (to save the nation’s sovereignty, and with it, a small chance of keeping the astonishing long Anglo tradition of personal liberty and common law).

In contrast, at a meeting in the US of the liberty-curious, at least one of those expressions that the party’s Chairman used at the end of his speech – “libertarian”, “self-government” and “small government” – would be not used once in closing remarks, but repeated many, many times in the exposition of an exciting, positive, restorative vision for the nation. The approach would be to clarify and emphasize the fundamental principles of liberty, and only then discuss specific policies, taking care to show why they coherently pull toward the positive, liberal vision.

Throughout history, political movements that have captured the young – and thereby secured their longevity – have inspired and impassioned, leaving no doubt about the intention to build something bigger and better than exists today.

Positive vision inspires; policies alone do not. To win in the long-run takes both.

Young activists of the American liberty movement gain passion and energy by educating themselves on their own history and their own identity as a nation that is established on liberty and established to protect liberty. In other words, the future of American freedom is not just in the imagination of a few disaffected agitators, but a continuation of a rich, deep, tradition of liberty that has elevated mankind for centuries.

The wheel of freedom does not have to be reinvented, and excited libertarian Americans draw inspiration from the fact that they are heirs to one of its most sublime political realizations. They are not only fighting for liberty: they are fighting for the best of their identity as Americans. When you know you have something wonderful, passed down over generations at great cost, you don’t give it up lightly. Not to the US federal government, and not to the European Union.


If UKIP truly is a libertarian party concerned with British identity, then it is clearly missing its biggest marketing opportunity: the American tradition of freedom IS the British tradition of freedom. To understand it is to be excited by it – to become a patriot in the best (and proper) sense. The ideas of liberty alone change lives and nations. But when they are part of one’s national identity, as they are for English-speakers everywhere, they have the power to move one to tears.

UKIP’s job must be, then, to put young British adults in touch with their classically liberal birthright of the common law, limited government, live-and-let-live, free enterprise, and resistance against the kind of lack of political accountability and authoritarianism that the EU represents, and to teach clearly how the prosperity and freedom we enjoy depend on all of them.

And of most immediate importance for UKIP’s long-term electoral chances, a party of excited, positive, liberal visionaries (which is what true libertarians are) would attract many fewer questionable reactionaries whose views can be too easily labeled racist or sexist etc. by hungry media, than UKIP does today.

Like the USA, the UK is in a potentially radical, teachable political moment. This time of uncommon dissatisfaction with the status quo is equivalently one of heightened interest in alternatives and openness to new perspectives. But it is not yet clear which way Britain will turn, if it will turn at all.

UKIP is currently the biggest party political beneficiary of this zeitgeist in the Britain. If the party doesn’t explain what those words like “libertarian” in its platform mean, how can anyone be blamed for looking at its concentration on immigration or gay marriage and, absent context, doubting that UKIP is libertarian at all? There is a classically liberal case to be made for UKIP’s stance on immigration in the current context of EU rules and the British welfare state, but it’s not an obvious one, and it’s certainly not one that can be worked out from just listening to UKIP’s policy positions. In the absence of the careful exposition of liberal principles and that case, the media will keep painting Ukippers as having questionable motivations because it’s too easy and shifts copy.

Nigel Farage talks about creating an earthquake in British politics. I hope he does. The country’s complacent social democratic establishment needs a reminder of who works for whom, and whatever the ultimate flavor of UKIP’s politics, exit from the EU will do more for British liberty per se than any other single policy currently supported by any party. But an earthquake is a rather short-lived event. What really matters is whether that political earthquake remakes Britain’s political landscape for good – in both senses of that word. And that will depend on whether UKIP really is Britain’s first classical liberal alternative since Thatcher.

If UKIP really is a “libertarian” party (and the jury is very much still out), and wishes to benefit from the inherent popularity of liberty, then it must prove it. It shouldn’t talk about pulling out of Europe without explaining the threat of all big government to liberty; it shouldn’t focus on immigrants without explaining that excessive immigration offends the British sense of fairness chiefly because of a dehumanizing welfare state and the feeling of insecurity that comes from having one’s ability to influence the politics of one’s own society removed by politicians who are foreign to it; it shouldn’t talk about wind farms without explaining the threat to efficiency and prosperity posed by subsidizing any industry at the expense of others, and it should not talk about gay marriage without being very clear that a legal commitment between loving people is not a problem – but an EU court that will use related legislation to force institutions and individuals to act against their consciences and property rights, absolutely is.

Most of all, it shouldn’t talk about any of the above without returning, again and again, to a celebration of a unique legacy of freedom, won over 1,000 years by a people that will continue to build a prosperous and liberal future, when left free to do so by a limited, accountable government that serves at the pleasure of the people – and never, ever, the other way around.

Capitalism Is Progressive – and Must Go On the Offensive

If much of the economic commentary in the mainstream media is to be believed, the rising inequality of wealth in Anglo societies and the crashing of our economy by the big banks and financial class make the problems of capitalism not just evident but self-evident.

Such claims are made, of course, against a background of hundreds of years of capitalist growth that has, for the overwhelming bulk of our population, made affordable the books that these claimants have presumably read, the computers on which they type, the Internet on which they do their research, the air-conditioning or central heating in the room where they do it, and even the food in their bellies – food of a variety and quality unparalleled in history.

But this background of utter success is taken so much for granted that it is almost entirely invisible.

With centuries of evidence fofr the power of economic liberty, and the recent memory of an economic crisis that was nothing to do with the principles of capitalism and everything to do with the one part of the economy that is the least capitalist of all – big banking – acting, no less, within decidedly anti-capitalist parameters set by the state, why on earth is the liberty movement letting this mainstream “capitalism is the problem” narrative get any air at all?

Why are supporters of a free economy allowing their principles to be so entirely misrepresented, leaving them to engage in weak, piecemeal defenses against a debate framed by their political opponents?

When a free-market supporter hears a left-leaning commentator talk about the banking sector, he may well be quick enough to point out that the bank bailouts were not free-market actions, but the opposite. The claim is generally heard defensively in response to some criticism of capitalism. Similarly, when free-traders are accused of supporting a system that exacerbates economic inequality, the free-market supporter points out, defensively, that it’s not the free trade that is ultimately responsible for inequality but a financial system that concentrates wealth in a banking sector that enjoys special privileges. Or he might point out the anti-competitive nature of a system where large corporations can influence the writing of regulations by legislators whose campaign they fund and who exercise too much power in the first place. The effect, they point out, is to enable them to price smaller competitors out of the marketplace. Nothing capitalist about any of that at all.

However, such defenses when offered as part of a “capitalism’s not that bad” argument will not put the true principles of economic freedom into the mainstream consciousness in a way that will attract enough popular support to put the country back on the right track. Defensive positions generally inspire no one.

Rather, popular support for the free-market as the best way back to prosperity and economic justice depends on its supporters’ making a passionate, positive, and systematic case for capitalism. Rather than arguing on the finer points of the free market among ourselves, we need to focus on presenting an easily understandable, even populist version of economic liberty that is as coherent and complete as the palpably false case against it. I say “palpably false” because it depends on a definition of capitalism that is not only incorrect: it often defines capitalism as the very opposite of what it is – such as when it refers to the trading of derivatives, which do not represent any asset, in an environment in which losses are socialized by the state – as in some way the epitome of a capitalist system, when it is closer to being a mockery of it.

The type of banking that brought us to the private debt crisis that triggered the current collapse is not capitalist. If anything, it is anti-capitalist because it violates at least two fundamental principles of free economic activity. First, capitalism requires informed, voluntary transactions between two parties that benefit both parties involved (the principle of subjective value), and do no harm to a third party (protection of individual rights and property). Second, capitalism requires that, down to the lower bound of bankruptcy, those who take economic risks bear the full consequences of those risks. We might also add that having people store their wealth in an instrument that is actually someone else’s debt arguably violates both principles, especially when a cadre of market-making private corporations (treated in law as immortal people – nothing capitalist about that) have state-given privileges to do things with money that others may not do (nothing capitalist about that, either).

“Capitalists against financial corporatism” isn’t very catchy as a slogan, but if we are going to dominate the mainstream, it is the kind of counter-intuitive and bold (and therefore potentially persuasive) position we should be taking front and center. The financial system is much more of a state-sponsored, centralized and elitist concoction than it is a capitalist one, but since it sells itself as capitalism, those of us who really care about economic freedom, need to be very explicit about having the solution to much of the economic injustice of the last few years, rather than being the cause of it.

Rapidly rising economic inequality in favor of an elite is the deeper, moral issue that rightly feeds the fires of much of the Left and must be addressed. Supporters of the free-market should be embracing the issue – raising it more loudly, robustly and systemically than any of the Left who would seek to use it against us. Economic justice is our ground, and we should be on the offensive, declaring proudly that, even if we don’t have all of the answers, we are capitalists precisely because we want more economic justice, not less, and we want to promote equality in a way that adds more value across society than it destroys.

The Occupy movement talk about the 99%. They have the right point – but they have the wrong number. Most of the top 1% have much more in common with 99% than with the top 0.1%. Strip out that top 0.1% and inequality falls dramatically. The distribution of income in the USA, for example, is an L-shape – and most of its disproportionate concentration of wealth (disproportionate to real value that its holders have created for others, that is) depends on the aforementioned financial sector that operates, in many respects, in the least capitalist way of any sector of our economy.

Supporters of free markets let the Left (excuse the label) get away with way too much when we do not challenge its claim that in a capitalist system, economic progress depends on inequality. It doesn’t. Rather, it depends on the freedom of people to try to make themselves unequal – in whatever way they choose, including economically. (Is that a definition of liberty?) A “free market”, defined as nothing more than the sum-total of people’s voluntary transactions made for mutual benefit, is both “free” and a “market” with any income distribution. In a capitalist system, (rather than state-sponsored financial corporatism), economic success comprises entirely in giving people something they want. Consumers make purchases only when the thing bought is more valuable to the purchaser than is the money they spend for it (the principle of subjective value). The capitalist, on the other side of the transactions, values the money more than the goods or services he has created. This indeed concentrates wealth – but only to an extent that is counterbalanced by the distribution of value among those who transacted with the capitalist. These capitalists are not the people who crashed our economy. So it is not capitalism that is our culprit.

Schumpeter nicely summed up this truly progressive magic of capitalism.

The capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production which unavoidably also means production for the masses. . . . It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls. 

Clearly, the only parts of our political economy that do not work this way are the state (which concentrates wealth through taxation without a corrective mechanism when the transaction destroys value), much of the financial sector, and fraudulently operated business (and in a capitalist system, fraud is a crime).

Schumpeter’s quote also tells us why simple measures of the distribution of financial wealth, so often quoted in the mainstream media, can be misleading. The Gini coefficient of inequality, for example, is a useful metric for some comparative purposes, but if financial wealth concentrates upward over time but does so more slowly than innovation makes better goods available to those with less wealth, then an increasing number of people get to enjoy goods that were previously only available to the super-rich. In such a case, the distribution of real wealth or value through the society may become more equal even as the financial wealth distribution becomes less equal. In short, it’s not the money that matters as much as what you can do with the money you have.

By failing to explain clearly what the free market is (and isn’t), including how it provides a way out of the economic turmoil felt by so many families, classical liberals continue to let the big-“L” Liberals equate “the free market” with things that are nothing to do with it. In so doing, we risk not only losing the political argument, but, more importantly, adding to the very social and economic injustices that we would all like to see overcome.

For example, the principles of capitalism do not require that corporations are treated as immortal people in law.

Capitalism does not require – indeed it does not permit – that corporations go unpunished when they harm people they do not transact with. Capitalism is not even opposed to organized labor. Rather, it champions the best kind of organized labor – labor that organizes voluntarily. Voluntary membership of unions is important to ensure that union leaders do not become exploitative masters in place of unscrupulous employers. It also ensures that their organizations have to earn their membership fees by providing a service of value to their members without causing (usually financial) harm to those who would not join.

Capitalism doesn’t keep people in slums in the third world; rather, it gets them out. Why? Simply because capitalism depends on the establishment and securing of personal property rights. As Hernando de Soto – one economist that has earned the right to call himself progressive in the very best sense of the term – has explained, formerly destitute South Americans are being lifted out of the gutter into true economic opportunity by the most uniquely capitalist action of all: the formal recognition and registration of their property in the land and shacks that they have inhabited for years without any formal recognition, is making millions of the poor solvent, turning the products of their labor into actual financial wealth and collateral that can be used to raise credit.

Then there’s China, which has seen the fastest reduction of poverty in history by allowing individuals to transact with each other freely over the last generation. And what most threatens its success? Their artificially massive, highly state-corrupted banking sector, and a property asset bubble pumped up by the State’s financial controls that prevent privately saved money’s being invested freely … Once again, we see the gains that were provided by capitalism endangered by anti-capitalist practices in finance and regulation. And of course, if it all comes crashing down, they’ll call it capitalism’s fault, as so many have done in the West.

I’ve obviously not mentioned hundreds of issues that bear on economic injustice in our modern world, and I’ve not even claimed that a purely capitalist society (whatever that would be) is the best possible society. Nevertheless, the evident economic and social injustices that are being suffered today are much less caused by capitalism than they are mitigated by it. Moreover, those parts of our political economy that most need reforming for the truly progressive ends of improving the lives of the poor, working people, and the middle class, are the least capitalistic of all.

When it comes to big ideas, offense is often the best form of defense. And when it comes to political change, a big, clear, positive message beats a negative or reactionary one almost every time.

Most of the damage that has recently been done to economic and social justice in the Western world is evidence for proper capitalism – not evidence against it. We need actively to excite people about what proper capitalism is. It is not financial state-sponsored crony corporatism.

Classical liberals should stop conceding the initiative by defending capitalism in spite of its impact on social and economic justice; we should be seizing it by actively promoting capitalism because of its impact on social and economic justice.

Why bother? Because in providing a mainstream account of what capitalism really is and explicitly setting ourselves against those who have stretched its definition beyond breaking point, we who would promote liberty, can set ourselves squarely with the people.

And it is almost always “with the people” that liberty is won.

Libertarian Purists: Libertarian on Everything – Except Liberty

The American Liberty movement is no longer nascent. Its mainstreaming is under way, as evidenced by this article in the New York Times – the paper that (almost) defines the American mainstream – about the impact of liberty-focused activists on the (“mainstream”) Republican party, as reflected at CPAC last week.

Both culturally and politically, libertarianism is on the rise.

At its simplest, it is a philosophy that asserts the simple principle that we are all free to live our lives as we please inasmuch as we do not limit the freedom of others to do the same. It recognizes that we all have different backgrounds, desires and ambitions, and different metrics and systems for judging the behaviors and choices of ourselves and others.

Since it rests on the notion that one human being cannot know what is best for another – or at least cannot know it better than the other person, himself, it is an essentially humble philosophy in disposition and an essentially tolerant philosophy in prescription. Indeed, tolerance, manifest as lack of aggression, is just about its only hard-and-fast prescription.

Because libertarians put the moral burden of justification on those who would use coercion (reduce liberty) to do good, and the State is inherently coercive (it puts you in jail if you don’t comply), they emphasize civil society as critical to delivering welfare to those less fortunate among us. Civil society includes non-state organizations, formed voluntarily, that act privately to better the lives of their members and, usually, their non-members. These organizations can be more nimble and effective than the state as the good they do does not involve the forced transfer of resources from some people to others, nor does it involve the use of such co-opted resources in ways that the people from whom they are taken would not approve. Moreover, civil society can often deliver much more targeted remedies of social and economic injustice than can the one-size-fits-all programs of government. A libertarian society, then, harnesses for social good the civility of the people who comprise it.

So there we have the three dispositions of a good libertarian: humility, tolerance of diversity, and civility.

Strange, then, that arguably the biggest drag on the rise of libertarian thought is the lack of humility, tolerance and civility of some of its most fervent advocates.

Per the article linked above, for example, there are those who insist that those who would pursue liberty within the political duopoly – usually by trying to change the Republican party from within – are naïve. On the other hand, there are those who believe that those who would try to go outside the duopoly to do so are naïve. Both groups are so sure of their own rightness that they won’t even celebrate the attempt of their fellows to pursue a different path to the same end, just in case their ability to predict the future might be imperfect and/or their shared goals might benefit from multiple approaches by people with different experiences and perspectives.

Libertarian purists are the people who see any agreement to reduce an infringement of liberty as “selling out” if it does not eliminate that infringement altogether; these are the people who commit the floccinaucinihilipilification of all liberty-promoting actions of a politician just because that politician is actually willing to play politics and even make concessions to circumstance to stay in the game so that he can do any good at all; these are the people who see all compromise as proof of a lack of values – or of virtue; they see the choosing of battles as proof of a lack of commitment to the war rather than tactics for winning it; these are the people who won’t listen to an idea – or even consider a quotation – from someone they have decided isn’t a “real libertarian” even if that someone has special experience of the issue of which they speak; these are the people who will never admit a tension between libertarian means and libertarian ends. In short, these are people who insist that everyone should be free to think and do as they please – but will happily put you down should you disagree about how best to make everyone free to think and do as they please.

None of this is to say there is necessarily a problem with what these purists believe. In as much as these are better-than-normally informed lovers of liberty, there usually isn’t. The problem, rather, concerns the way they believe it: it is epistemic. One can’t identify a purist from the content of his beliefs; one can’t even identify him by looking at how he regards contrary beliefs: rather, he is identified by how he treats fellow liberty advocates who hold different beliefs.

Such political religionists, who broach no ecumenism, seem to lack the moral humility on which their purported political religion depends: they are entirely convinced, albeit subconsciously, that there can be no new idea, and no new piece of information about the world or their own perspective, or anything in the experience or thinking of those with whom they disagree, that could show their view of an issue to be incomplete, let alone wrong, in any way that really matters. To quote Bertrand Russell, “Subjective certainty is inversely proportional to objective certainty.”

This allows them to impugn the character or capacity, rather than just the positions, of those who could be allies in the pursuit of liberty with whom they disagree . It allows them to dismiss their opponent, and the possibility that he might know something that they don’t know – that he may have, in fact, read what they read, thought what they thought and even previously shared their position – before discovering something new, or unusual, that warranted a revision. In short, they disrespect the very use of the intellectual freedom that they purport to celebrate and protect. Russell again: “The degree of one’s emotion varies inversely with one’s knowledge of the facts – the less you know the hotter you get.”

The exercise of freedom, of course, depends on freedom of thought – the freedom to explore the world, physically and intellectually, and then, based on what you find, to form ideas, to change those ideas, to grow and to evolve. To insist on a politics of liberty, and therefore of tolerance, without tolerating others’ approaches to promoting just such a politics, is to falsify one’s philosophy – and to justify the skepticism of all those who want nothing to do with a libertarianism that lacks the very civility in which it puts so much store.

Why am I picking on libertarians? Aren’t political advocates of all stripes guilty of lack of humility, tolerance and civility? Aren’t such purists found among conservatives, progressives, etc?

Of course they are.

But for libertarians, things are a little different. Libertarians must hold themselves to a higher standard. They preach freedom, and its complement, tolerance, as the core of their worldview. They, then, are alone in making hypocrites of themselves when they aggress in their manners or words against those who have different ideas about how best, in practice, to make a freer society. Other political philosophies (socialism, religious conservatism etc.) make no claim that freedom of thought and action, and its compliment, tolerance, are at the core of the Good life.

My second reason for picking on libertarians is, of course, personal: they form the broad political family to which I belong. And while I am quite content to let the statists and religious right, for example, break themselves on their own arrogance or ignorance or both, I hope that we, who put liberty front and center, never to do the same.

Liberty does not stand alone. It is not the be-all-and-end-all – for it pre-supposes Truth. First, a commitment to liberty, as to all political principles, assumes that true statements can be made (such as, “the Good life depends on liberty”) and second, liberty only has value if people can seek and establish truths based on which they can make conscious choices in their own self-interest.

This commitment to truth both depends on and creates the intellectual humility to which I’ve already referred. This is most easily seen in the progress of science, which advances toward truth by recognizing that it has not yet found it. Science goes one step further – to seek actively to falsify itself and thereby to improve its current understanding of the world. That the search for truth is, in this way, always asymptotic, is perhaps the most important paradox of life: to move closer to Truth, one must be continuously aware of one’s inability to know it completely.

In contrast, the attitude of the intellectual dogmatist, libertarian or otherwise, is more like, “I have found the truth that matters, and from this position of “having arrived”, I can see that those who are not here are intellectually or morally flawed.” This is the very opposite of the humble epistemology of robust libertarianism, but plenty of libertarians behave this way.

Most of us have probably experienced this unbecoming attitude among some of religion’s least attractive adherents. For example, many of us know people who proclaim a Christian faith but use what is essentially a philosophy of Love to justify behavior toward others that is clearly unloving. What is particularly interesting – and relevant – is that they will often be able to explain with some coherence, depth, and clear sincerity, why their actions are loving, even though our human nature – our own direct experience of loving or being loved, for example, – tells us that there must be something wrong with their explanation, even if we cannot exactly articulate it.

It is as if their actions speak louder than their words. If such people were to design our political institutions and occupy our political offices, would it be their words or their behaviors that would determine what it felt like to live under them? Now replace “Christians” with “libertarians”, and “love” with “humility, tolerance and civility”, and ask the same question.

If I had to choose, I’d rather inhabit a world of civil, open-minded statists, with whom I profoundly disagree, than one of dogmatists of any stripe – even libertarian. Why? Because if the statists are open-minded, then they will be interested in the evidence of experience and, if they are civil, we will have a healthy exchange of ideas and be able to improve our shared community. Meanwhile, I will enjoy my humanity in relationships of mutual respect. Sharing space with the dogmatic libertarian, however, will be tolerable, if dull, until we disagree – which we will, because we are human. At that point, the lack of any compromise or, therefore, the prospect of being able to improve our community in a mutually satisfactory way, along with the being looked down upon for my erroneous understanding of liberty – even as I am politically “free” to act as I will – would make me quite miserable.

If a libertarian world is made happy by replacing political aggression and force with the actions of people who are civil and tolerant, then we cannot expect people to come to our side if we cannot even exhibit those qualities when we interact with allies who seek such a world, just because they seek it in ways whose effectiveness we question.

Surely, libertarians will have the best chance of turning our present “libertarian moment” into a sweeping libertarian movement if we pursue liberty with the humility, civility and tolerance of diversity with which we are seeking to replace the arrogance, corruption and authoritarianism that infect our politics today.

Please, be libertarian about your libertarianism.

The USA Has a Monarchy. Let It Have a Glorious Revolution

This year marks the 1,000th anniversary of political liberty. When the United States began, the tradition in which it was founded was already 762 years old.

As I wrote recently in celebration of this magnificent anniversary, those who would protect freedom in our country badly scupper themselves by their ignorance of history, and there is perhaps no greater obstacle to our understanding of the history that matters than our founding myth.

America was born as a liberty-protecting Republic in opposition to a tyrannical monarchy, so the story goes. While more and more Americans are (thankfully) beginning to see the myriad travesties against our liberty that are being performed by our governing elite as threatening our very identity as a nation that exists to defend natural, unalienable and individual rights, we are all doing very much less well at seeing quite how deeply the founding purpose of our country has been subverted.

Because we “know” that not only are we not a monarchy Constitutionally, but also that our very existence is owed to its denial as a morally decadent institution, we cannot possibly admit the truth about what we have let our country become: America is now a monarchy.

Monarchy has a simple meaning – the “rule of one”. As Alexander Hamilton correctly said, “‘monarch’ is an indefinite term. It marks not either the degree or duration of power”. The fact that our king is elected for four years, then, does not change his status as a monarch.

In America today, the President can sign executive orders such as E.O. 13603, on “National Defense Resources Preparedness”, in which he claims the right to revoke all contracts and nationalize all aspects of American life even outside a state of emergency. (Bill Clinton had signed a similar order, but with applicability limited to a state of emergency only, however that may be defined. Power only ever drives in one direction.) The Executive has also claimed the authority to strike militarily countries that do not threaten our own, without a supporting vote in the House, and even to kill American citizens without any independent legal process. It also works with its agents, again without the express approval of the people’s representatives or, certainly, the knowledge of the people themselves, to receive by covert means the most private details of our lives.

Even in the late 18th century, George III, America’s stereotypical and caricatured tyrant, could not and did not write or implement law by fiat. There was no such thing as an executive order written by that Head of State. He did not have the means to surveil the nation en masse. And certainly, neither the decision to impose minimal taxes on the colonies to cover some of the costs of protecting them nor the decision to fight to keep them within the British empire, was made in one monarchical mind.

In fact, the last English monarch to sign an executive order was James II, who in 1687 issued the Declaration of Indulgence, in which he used his “legal dispensing power” to negate the effect of laws that punished Catholics and Protestant dissenters, which on the face of it, seems like a rather liberal purpose, except that it came with various concentrations of executive power to his office.

And what were the outcomes of this little piece of executive over-reach by James II?

Many of the forward-looking men of the time could see that James’s executive order reflected of a much more wide-ranging, and therefore more dangerous, attitude to power. For this reason (and others), members of the polity, with popular support, overthrew him in what is known the Glorious Revolution. The British effectively ended the reign of the Stuarts (the royal House of which James was a part) by inviting William, Prince of Orange (in what is now the Netherlands), to take over the English monarchy. This “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 was called “Glorious” because hardly a shot was fired: but it was called a “Revolution” not only because the people had effectively chosen their monarch but, more importantly (and this is something American Constitutionalists should appreciate), because the representatives immediately and successfully limited that office by passing in the following year the (original) Bill of Rights.

The purpose of the Bill of Rights was to codify the ancient rights and liberties of the nation, limiting the monarch. Specifically, the Bill asserted,

1. The pretended power of … the execution of laws … without the consent of parliament is illegal.
2. The pretended power of dispensing with the laws, or the execution of law by regal authority, as it hath been assumed and exercised of late, is illegal.

In other words, the executive order and the signing statement – and most of what else of import the America President does unilaterally – were strictly illegal 100 years before America’s founding. America’s 21st century Presidency concentrates more power in one man than existed in the hands of the monarch of the very country against whom we supposedly rebelled for liberty in the 18th century.

What is even more shocking is in the old motherland, which retains its Monarch (capitalized as the position is now almost entirely ceremonial) and is run politically by a prime minister, the former has no power to act politically, and the prime minister has no power to act unilaterally. Indeed, if 1776 is our starting point, the political settlement of the “tyrannical motherland” has perhaps continued broadly in the direction of individual liberty while that of the liberty-loving rebels has slid back an entire century to some pre-1688 concentration of power.

Without doubt, at the birth of our nation, Americans fought less of a monarchy than we now tolerate. More shamefully for us, even those English against whom (as we like to tell ourselves) we fought for higher ideals of liberty, had shed more blood over the centuries to rid themselves of a less monarchical government than exists in our country today.

Surely, if we let stand what stands in America today, we give the lie to our supposed national identity, and bluster like a boorish adolescent who believes he is owed credit for the massive inheritance his father left him, despite the fact he’s blown the lot.

Seeing history rhyme with such consequence is sobering enough, but seeing the rhyme predicted by those making it happen almost stops the heart…

… Remember William III, Prince of Orange, who was the figurehead of the Glorious Revolution against the last English monarch to issue an executive order? Fifty years after his death, the Prince of Orange was another William – William V – who watched, with deep engagement, the birth of the USA thousands of miles away. In a letter to John Adams, he wrote simply,

“Sir, you have given yourselves a king under the title of president.”

How very right he was. How very wrong we should make him.

The United States has a monarchy: the time has come for a Glorious Revolution.

Political Liberty Turns 1000 Years Old: Time to Learn the History Our Founders Knew

Ernest Renan, a nineteenth-century French philosopher, noted, “Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.”

This truth has profound implications, chief among which is that the cultural and political trajectory of a nation is determined not only by its past, but also – and to a greater extent – by the stories it tells itself about its past.

The United States’ founding myth rests on the idea that suppressed Americans fought for liberty against some tyrannical and foreign “other”.

The fact that Americans still enjoy more freedoms in practice than nearly all other citizens on the planet owes much to the good fortune that the one piece of the country’s founding myth that is true happens to be the most important fact about the nation’s founding: that it arose, broadly, out of a fight for liberty. Indeed, thanks to the way the Founders Constituted the nation, America became the freest and richest nation in the world in a very short time. They understood so much that even at the rate at which our civil liberties are presently being impinged upon, we are still ahead of much of the world in our everyday experience of freedom and prosperity, and the average American’s deep sense of entitlement to liberty, by virtue of no more than humanity, means that the Establishment, despite its efforts to concentrate power, still has much hard and covert work to do before it can fully control the citizenry.

But what about the second part of the myth – that American liberty was in some way crafted in opposition to the colonial power that it had shaken off? Not only is that wrong: it is dangerous, because believing American liberty started with our nation’s founding is to remain ignorant of the very tradition of liberty on which our Founders depended when they formed these United States. The United States represent not a rejection of this liberal Anglo-tradition, but a distillation of it.

This tradition of liberty, began exactly 1000 years ago this very year, in February of the year 1014, as I am sure the Founders understood very well. This year therefore is the most important political anniversary that any living American will see in his or her lifetime.

Exactly one millennium ago, Anglo-Saxon leaders invited former King Ethelred to become king again, following the death of King Sweyn, who had defeated him a few months earlier and taken the English throne. They imposed, however, certain conditions on the returning monarch, for they had grievances against him from his earlier reign, concerning high taxation and extortion for political ends. So they forced the would-be monarch to govern within rules that had been asserted previously in the interests of the citizenry and to agree that he would govern according to the will of the people. This was “established in compact, on either side”, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where, as the historian David Starkey, said, “is the text of the agreement between the king and his people. It is the Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta, but as it’s 200 hundred years earlier, it is the true foundation of our political liberties”.


Hatton Sumners, Democratic Congressman from Texas observed at the beginning of the last century that “a straight road [that] runs from Runnymede to Philadelphia”, when he explained how “our Constitution came up from a self-governing people.”

Runnymede is, of course, the place where the Magna Carta, was signed. That a copy of the Magna Carta sits under glass in the same room as the Constitution at the National Archives is wholly proper, and no doubt, next year, there will be significant celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of its signing.

The celebrations this year should be so much the greater: the road to Philadelphia certainly ran through Runnymede, but its true beginning was two hundred years earlier.

Today, there is a movement of Americans who advocate and agitate for liberty in the face of declining representation and rising tyranny in Washington. They will struggle to succeed without the intellectual humility and curiosity to look back to those who faced, over a millennium, many of the same threats to liberty as we face today. Those historical figures who negotiated, intrigued, strategized, psychologized, disobeyed, sacrificed, politicized, or simply listened for as long as it took, not just to overcome those threats, but to do so in a way that turned the ratchet of liberty one more notch in the right direction, can teach us much of what we must learn today. As Mark Twain famously said, “history does not repeat itself – but it does rhyme”.

The year 1776 was the beginning of our nation, but it was not the beginning of the purpose of our nation, which is liberty under Law. In the history of that ideal, it was a great – perhaps the greatest – milestone, but one of many. In that year, newly declared Americans were heirs to a 762-year tradition that they made more sublime. Those who would keep that tradition alive today must learn its rich history – not so much of its ideas as of its political actors and their activities.

Every milestone along the road from the compact of Ethelred to here arose from a messy process that has involved leaders and commoners; thinkers and actors; victims and victimizers; martyrs and heroes – all of whom have more to teach about how liberty is won in practice than can be captured by some neat theory in the mind any one of us. No single step toward freedom in this 1000-year journey was as large or simple as many in the modern liberty movement seem to be holding out for. If we are serious about saving liberty in these United States, then we must learn how it was won in practice, and, therefore, what it is in fact – rather than being satisfied with an easy myth that allows us to marvel at the beauty of the edifice but stops us from understanding its true foundation.

Simply, if the purpose of America is to secure individual liberty, then America’s history is the history of liberty in the Anglo tradition.

So the Provisions of Oxford of 1258, which abolished absolutist rule and institutionalized permanent representation of the people, are American history, because they are part of the history of liberty . Similarly, the Petition of Right of 1628, which forbade taxation without consent or the quartering of soldiers, is American history. The Grand Remonstrance of 1641, against “subverting the fundamental laws of government” is American history. The Declaration of Breda of 1660, in which King Charles II agreed that the rights of a king exist to protect the rights of the citizens, is American history. And the Glorious Revolution and the original Bill of Rights, signed by King James II, are American history.

Each of these events was a huge step in the political realization of the ideas of a Constitutional liberty (or, if you prefer, a liberal Constitution). And each feeds directly into the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution or Bill of Rights. The Founders could not have done what they did without a deep historical sensibility, and it is, therefore, no surprise that when the patriots had won this second civil war of the Anglosphere, the country that they founded was Constituted by a series of documents that drew mostly – and in critical parts, directly and even verbatim – on the Constitutional documents of the motherland, and the classical liberal philosophy that had been nurtured and realized over centuries there.

Santayana may have been right when he said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. But he was only telling half of the story, for those who do not learn from history are also condemned to being less able to make it – perhaps not entirely limited to bloviating but much less able to make lasting political impact.

The Founders were no “armchair libertarians”. It was their understanding of history that enabled them to defeat a rising tyranny and then elevate our nation in liberty . In 2014, the year that Constitutional Liberty turns 1000 years old, our task – of resisting an increasingly remote and controling governmental power that has forgotten the tradition whose job it is to protect – is not very different from theirs.

Let us celebrate this magnificent anniversary by proclaiming it in every Capitol in every state, teaching it in every school, and sticking it on the bumper of every car. Most of all, let us honor it by learning the history that our Founding Fathers knew and, like them and the many before them on whose shoulders they stood, use that knowledge to increase liberty for all Americans alive today and those yet to be born – even for a thousand years.

Liberty vs. Security: a False Dichotomy

There is really only one argument in support of mass surveillance by the State: increased security can be bought with reduced privacy.

That claim begs the question: “how much liberty buys how much security?”

It is almost impossible to imagine how two completely different abstractions – security and liberty – could be compared, when idiomatically, we can’t even compare apples and oranges, so we should be very uneasy that an entire political age has been built on just that comparison.

But, since our leaders insist on making it, and it is the only one they ever make for extinguishing our civil rights, and in particular our privacy, let’s run with it …

To the defenders of the surveillance state, security means “saving American lives”. That is why Feinstein and her ilk justify governmental surveillance with statements like, “the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata might have prevented 9/11”.

That only makes sense as a justification if the privacy of all Americans is of less value than 2996 innocent American lives. Of course, it’s not just our privacy that has been sacrificed: our freedom of speech and our right to due process have been sacrificed by the same laws, and with the same justification, that paved the way to systematic and secret violation of privacy. So what the likes of Feinstein are really saying is that the American way of life has less value than 2996 innocent lives.

Moreover, most of the same people in government who advocate sacrificing the American way of life (liberty) to save American lives (security) support the sacrificing of American lives to save the American way of life.

This inconsistency goes beyond the moral: it verges on the mathematical.

To date, the American government has, in the War of on Terror, sacrificed nearly 7000 American lives and somewhere between a hundred thousand and a million non-American lives to protect (we are told) the American way of life. (

Our way of life, of which our privacy is an important part, cannot simultaneously be worth fewer than the 2996 American lives lost on 9/11 and more than the approx. 7000 American service personnel and hundreds of thousands of innocents we have killed abroad. (

Assuming Feinstein and friends are not being deliberately disingenuous, what she must really mean is that the surveillance state, and the War on Terror of which it is a part, would not just have saved 2996 Americans on 9-11, but that they are saving more American lives than –
(a) all the Americans we have lost through fighting “the War on Terror”, plus
(b) the non-American lives taken by our actions (presumably and somewhat sickeningly weighted by some factor that makes each one worth less than a “saved American”), plus
(c) whatever value we might give to the American way of life, which includes our privacy (measured, for mathematical consistency) in terms of a number of lives.

Indeed, precisely this ability to quantify is assumed when Obama tells us of the need to “balance” or “weight up” our security against our liberty.

Since no one is arguing that killing innocent foreigners makes us any safer, but our government has killed huge numbers of them, it is apparent that the more closely an innocent non-American life is valued to an innocent American one, the more American lives must be saved by the sacrifice of liberty to reach this so-called balance between liberty and security.

Our leaders keep getting away with this nonsense because, as far as I know, not one politician or journalist has yet asked two obvious questions on which this entire trade-off of security and liberty depends. 1) How many American lives is the American way of life worth, and 2) how many innocent non-American lives have the same value as an innocent American life?

There is only one pair of answers that is mathematically and morally consistent with the Bush/Obama/Feinstein case for eliminating basic civil rights, including privacy, as part of the War on Terror: the value of a non-American life must be de minimus, and the value of American liberty must be approximately zero.

Either the math is wrong. Or the morality is wrong. Or both.

So much for the variables. What about the logical inconsistency: if liberty must be sacrificed to save American lives, how can sacrificing lives for liberty possibly be justified? If there are mathemagical numbers that can resolve that paradox, let’s have them.

Denis Diderot, one of the most famous thinkers of the Enlightenment, rightly remarked, “In order to shake a hypothesis, it is sometimes not necessary to do anything more than push it as far as it will go.”

An internally inconsistent hypothesis doesn’t need to be set up against a competing one to be shown to be false. It simply collapses under the weight of its own contradiction when examined closely. So let’s push the buy-security-with-liberty hypothesis as far as it will go.

And because I believe in competition, I’ll offer up my own base-case strategy for preserving American liberty and lives.

It’s in two parts, and it’s really complicated.

Here goes.

1) Don’t give up any liberties. 2) Don’t put Americans in harm’s way.

Now, I am aware that this kind of extremist politics may not keep all Americans safe in a utopia of liberty: after all, 9-11 happened. But I do know that if you don’t give up any of your liberty, then you still have all of your liberty (I’m definitely going to beat Feinstein and Obama on logic) and that making others feel secure does more for one’s own security than doing the opposite.

Perhaps I am wrong – and if I am, the NSA will be the people to prove it.

After all, they’re the guys with all the data.

Obamacare: Beware the Invisible “Glitches”

I recently wrote an impassioned article about the philosophy that underlies the Obamacare and the way in which it was sold to the nation.

Its argument stands, but I have just learned that that article included an error – an error made because of problems with the WA Health Exchange site through which I purchased my plan.

My conscience requires me to write this follow-up – not just because I don’t want to be knowingly peddling half truths, but also, and rather more urgently, because my discovery of the error leads me to believe that thousands of families may be paying massively more than they have to for their insurance under Obamacare or may be unnecessarily going without health insurance altogether.

The sentence in my previous article that I have to revisit is this one.

A slightly worse policy [than the one I had before the ACA was implemented] (which I have purchased) costs me 20% more – presumably somewhat “subsidized” on account of my modest income.

It was wrong on two counts. First, the policy I bought under Obamacare was not slightly worse than the one I had pre-Obamcare – it was much worse. Second, that higher price I was paying for that policy included no subsidy whatsoever, despite the fact that I am, as I supposed, eligible for such a subsidy on account of my income.

Here’s why.

Some time after my former health insurance provider cancelled my policy last year – and then informed me that the price of their nearest equivalent policy under Obamacare was so much higher that I could not afford to buy it – I reluctantly ventured onto the Washington State Health Insurance Exchange website and entered my details … and selected the cheapest policy available, which was, as per my earlier article, 20% more expensive than the one that had been cancelled.

My first premium payment cleared my account last month and I was enrolled in my new healthcare plan as of 1 January.

Although I figured I was eligible for a subsidy, when I purchased my new policy, the WA site provided no information about the amount of that subsidy, instead giving me just my final policy premium.

Three weeks later, I wrote my recent article on Obamacare. I sat on it for days while I made multiple attempts to call “customer service” at the State exchange to find out the exact amount of the subsidy I had been eligible for. Every time I called (I stopped counting after the fifth attempt), I would get a recorded message that told me that they’d “been receiving a large volume of calls” and that I should call back another time. Rather than wait any longer, I published the article.

But I remained curious about the exact amount of that subsidy – and continued to try to get through. (I even sent an email but no reply as yet.) However, in one of my attempts to pull the exchange’s website, I obviously made some error in the search field, and clicked on the site of an insurance broker with a similar URL.

Assuming that I was just on a newly updated version of the WA state exchange site, I called the number on the page. When I got through, I expressed surprise to the gentleman who picked up the phone and, realizing after a few seconds that something strange was afoot, I asked if I had gotten through to a private company accidentally.

I had. And it turned out to be the best mistake I have made since, well, Obamacare.

Vernon, my accidental new health insurance agent, was able to pull up the original application I had made through the state exchange website and answer my question, at last: the total subsidy that had been applied to my health insurance premium was … zero. But he could also see that I was eligible for a subsidy based on income, and quickly worked out why it had not been applied.

The reason is shocking because of its implications.

I had made the “mistake” of correctly answering two questions in my application as they were asked – but not as they were meant.

The first question was whether anyone in my household had any other insurance policy. I answered affirmatively since at the time of applying, I had a privately purchased policy. In fact, said Vernon, the system took an affirmative answer as indicating that I had an employer-provided policy, which makes me ineligible for the subsidy.

The second question was whether I had a passport. I answered affirmatively and entered the required details. Despite the fact that I had already told the system that I am a legal permanent resident (which makes me eligible for a subsidy), another glitch in the system, Vernon informed me, caused it to make me ineligible because my passport is not American.

It turns out that what the system really needed was my greencard number – but it never asked for that.

This is frightening: if it weren’t for the fact that I was a curious political writer who wanted to know exactly what subsidy I had been eligible for; that I had not been put off by the many times I had tried to get through to the exchange to find out that information, and that I typed in a wrong URL somewhere along the line and gotten through to a private health insurance broker, I would never have known that I didn’t have to pay anything close to the amount that I had already begun paying for my healthcare. Vernon sorted it out for me – but how many other Americans, I wondered, have failed to have the subsidy to which they are “entitled” applied to the cost of their premium? These are not small amounts.

But it was just as well that I didn’t enter a state of shock – because I probably wouldn’t have been able to get treatment for it under my new plan, as Vernon went on to explain.

As far as I could understand, the plan I’d chosen on the state exchange is administered by the same organization that provides Medicaid coverage, which pays doctors 25 cents on the dollar for their work. Most doctors and hospitals don’t want to deal with this so they refuse patients with coverage from this organization. Therefore, the policy that I was paying over-the-odds for has an extremely limited range of doctors, hospitals and treatment options. I knew my new policy was worse (in terms of deductibles etc.) than the cheaper one that had been cancelled – but I had no idea that the quality of care I could receive under it was significantly poorer than that supported by any other policy I could have chosen, including some only very slightly more expensive.

None of that critical information about the policies, obviously necessary to making any informed decision, was available on the State site. I ventured to Vernon that the whole thing was outrageous. He agreed, and told me that you shouldn’t expect the State to be able to broker healthcare.


Whether someone buys a policy on the State exchange, and then takes the subsidy that may enable them to undo the increase in cost of the policy under the Affordable Care Act, is up to him or her to decide, and I have been public about my philosophical issues with the whole thing. Nothing I say here changes my earlier argument – but a system that drives the cost of a product up, and then mandates purchasing it, is surely even worse if it fails to enable some people to enjoy the financial remedy to which the same system “entitles” them.

I know now that problems with the State and Federal exchanges are much more than glitches. They are serious errors that are causing unsuspecting individuals and families to pay massively more than they are legally required to pay for something they are forced to buy. And faced with this unnecessarily high premium, some families will decide not to carry insurance at all. This puts lives at stake.

There will be yet others who made the other mistake I made – of choosing a policy that looked like all the others on the website, without having any idea that when they need it, they’ll get massively worse care than they would have if they had spent just a few bucks more. They will make that mistake because the state site on which they buy their insurance is missing critical information. This state of affairs is frightening because a non-expert could never know what pertinent information is missing.

Consider this a public service announcement.

Please, for the sake of your family’s physical and financial health, do not do what I originally did and simply visit the website of your state exchange, buy a plan, and assume everything is fine. Find your own Vernon – an experienced private health insurance agent who is authorized to help you buy a plan, on the exchange if you so choose. He knows more about the glitches in the system and the plans on offer than you do.

Somewhat ironically, that’s because he’s had to compete in a real marketplace and would already be out of business if he couldn’t.

Robin Koerner: Why I Shall Become An American

Sometime toward the end of this year, I shall become an American citizen.

A few of my European friends look confused when they realize that I go around the world expounding the importance of liberty – and yet choose to live in the USA.

They are thinking, of course, of all the obvious stuff, like the abuses against privacy by the NSA; the killing of innocents in ill-considered or even dishonest interventionist militarism; the foreign policy that produces terrorists in the name of destroying them. These Americanisms are made all the more ugly by the apparent hypocrisy: any abuses against liberty are bad, but those that are perpetrated by a State that consistently justifies them by the need to protect liberty, are a special kind of pathetic.

Some Europeans also know something about America’s almost unique taxation of its citizens on income earned outside the country – a clear disincentive that superficially, at least, makes American citizenship one of the most unappealing in the world.

As a liberty-lover, why would I tie himself to all of that – for life?

I am not interested in becoming American because America has less than anywhere else of what is bad: I’ll do it because America has more of what is good – the good of informed, passionate and principled resistance against all of those things that shouldn’t be so.

Stuck on an L.A. freeway in 2005, I was listening to NPR, when an interview came on with Greg Palast, a celebrated American journalist and author who moved to the U.K. when he realized that his investigative work was not getting the air-time it deserved in the U.S.. During the interview, Palast was asked whether he wanted to bring up his newly born children in England – the country where he had built a life and highly successful career – or in the United States – the country of his birth.

He answered unhesitatingly that he wanted to bring them up in the U.S. Asked for a reason, he ventured that in the U.K. the average person knows a lot more than the average American about what is wrong with their political system and how their leaders and money-masters abuse them and their country, but they have an apathy and cynicism that prevent them from getting very exercised about it: they don’t care because they expect to be screwed, he said; they therefore are resigned to compromised rights and the incompetent, over-reaching or self-interested wielding of governmental authority.

In the U.S., on the other hand, said Palast, people are much more ignorant of all these things, but were they to know, they’d be much more angry, and therefore more likely to exercise their popular power to change things, since Americans have ideals, and more importantly, believe not only in the possibility of those ideals’ being practically realized, but in the requirement that they be so.

That was 2005. Palast was speaking soon after the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq had started; but some time before America’s post 9/11 foreign policy arrogance had alienated most of the world; it was before the financial crisis, and before American politicians had begun bailing out many of the institutions that were responsible for it (along with the State, itself) on the back of taxpayers.

The swing to the Democrats under Obama in 2008, driven by “hope for change”, was the first sign of Americans’ saying enough’s enough.

But under Obama, the financial crisis continued, as did the bailouts and the cronyism; the unfunded government liabilities kept rising; unemployment hurt more families, many of whom lost their homes; Guantanamo remained open, imprisoning the innocent (innocent since they have not yet been found guilty) in a legal black hole; Obamacare sought to remake a huge fraction of the American economy, rammed through on a party-line vote, only to do for millions of Americans the very opposite of the claims that were made to justify it; the Patriot Act was renewed; the National Defense Authorization Act was passed. Increasingly, as the Bill of Rights has continued to be erased, more Americans have begun slowly to awake from their ignorance, by discovering that the nation’s problems aren’t the fault of one party or the other: rather: they are about power, itself, and they are systemic. These waking Americans have, for a few years now, been proving Palast more right by the day.

It is exciting to watch. It is even more exciting to participate in. The rising is not just political: it is cultural. We have seen the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, Edward Snowden, the rise of “Independent” as the fastest single political block of voters in the USA, the Ron Paul phenomenon, the battle for the soul of the Republican party, Blue Republicans and, generally, hugely energetic, increasingly numerous grassroots activists, who owe their allegiance to no party or organization, but identify simply and loosely as a “Liberty movement”.

This is my America, as it is Palast’s – America as the idea that still inspires agitants of such numbers, energy, intensity of activity, and unquestioned certainty that popular action is going to make a difference because a sufficiently irate and determined minority can’t help but succeed. I am now a part of that activist minority, continually refreshed by its inclusiveness, diversity and relentless positivity. I am willing to bet that, per capita, no other nation can boast the sheer number of manhours and dollars that have been donated to effect change from the ground up in reaction against intolerable change from the top down.

In particular, young American adults, in celebration of the classical liberal Anglo-tradition to which they are heirs – and driven to find new, better perspectives that their professors, established political parties or the mainstream media are not providing – are rediscovering the founding ideas of the nation and the thinkers, concepts and language on which they are based. Just as the idealistic youth of the ‘60s became the leaders, professors and media hacks of today, as they moved America toward the bigger state and social democracy, today’s similarly energized young adults will in the decades to come move America away from militarism, crony corporatism, fiscal irresponsibility and the unintended consequences of one-size-fits-all statism. Both generations reflect the fervent idealism and practical action that together are the spirit of the America to which I shall join myself.

Perhaps even Palast didn’t give his countrymen enough credit.

Although a huge number of Americans may indeed be ill-informed or uncaring about the shenanigans of the Big State and Big Money, in one important respect, their political life is more informed than the citizens of other nations, for, throughout the rest of the developed world, there is no significant argument about whether the State is the only credible agent of delivering social and economic improvement. That has already been conceded everywhere. So political debates elsewhere are more incrementalist and a-philosophical, reducible to the question, “does policy x slightly improve things in relation to some issue or does it make them worse?” In most nations, that is a question asked without a worry about implications for the size of government, the setting of precedent, the constraints on those who wield power, or individual freedom and personal responsibility. In the USA, in contrast, there are still enough voters who never completely lose sight of the fact that every political choice, however immediate and however small, has an effect on individual liberty, and the relationship between the individual and Power – an effect that manifests only over decades or generations, but manifest it certainly will. In other words, any policy decision, however well it might seem to address an immediate issue, must be assessed in relation to the very purpose of having a United States of America at all.

Yes. That’s the word. American politics, – however ill-informed, however sometimes corrupt, and however exasperating – are like the nation and its people, always exceedingly purposeful.

For many, the Biblical expression “shining city on the hill” has become little more than a kitsch political sound-bite, but, if yours is the city that was founded on the most sublime culmination of a thousand-year tradition of liberty, it matters very much to the rest of the world whether the lights in the city are on. When, in 1630, John Winthrop used that expression to describe a new American settlement, he wasn’t suggesting moral superiority: he was indicating awesome responsibility. For me, so many Americans take that responsibility deeply to heart.

America-the-state is off its rails. But Americans are already well into a massive popular project (actually a series of overlapping projects) to get it back on track. It is the most meaningful and exciting project I’ve ever participated in – and it is one, I believe, with the power to change the world. How could I not be inspired by that?

In his excellent book, Inventing Freedom, Daniel Hannan explains that the modern meaning of “patriot” as implying some inherent national superiority is new – and quite wrong. Rather, he writes, “before [1776], a patriot was someone, on either side of the Atlantic, who was determined to preserve the libertarian exceptionalism of the English-speaking polity against is enemies, internal or external.” In other words, American patriotism is a patriotism of ideas and ideals, not of land or power. Like the American founding, proper American patriotism is idealistic and inspires.

By that definition, I have long been an American patriot. When I take my citizenship oath, I’ll not be becoming an American at all: I’ll be simply declaring that I was one all along.

Conscripted Into Obamacare, I Conscientiously Object

I have been trying to work out why I am so upset about Obamacare.

We already live in a social democratic state that forcibly takes my money through taxes for things that I don’t think anyone’s money should be taken for. I may feel there is a better way to build the roads than have the government pay for them through massively redistributive taxation, collected essentially by force, but I don’t get angry about using them every day.

So isn’t there a prima facie case to be made that if we are stuck with a huge state, taxing and spending to the tune of about a third of the economy, then at least the attempt to save lives and maintain health through this questionable system is better than the funding of secret agencies to spy on us and otherwise eliminate our basic civil rights, the deployment of massive military capability that makes more enemies rather than eliminating any immediate threat, or the transfer of the hard earned wealth of working Americans to already privileged financiers?

How can Obamacare possibly be as bad as that litany, and why do I find myself angry about it, even as I find deeply hypocritical the objections of many Republicans whose party was actually responsible for designing the ACA that they now decry?

I am one of those whose healthcare coverage was cancelled. The nearest equivalent policy from the same insurer would have cost me 67% more than that the one I lost. A slightly worse policy (which I have purchased) costs me 20% more – presumably somewhat “subsidized” on account of my modest income. Ironically, the 67% increase would have been enough to price me out of health insurance, which has become for me much less affordable under the ironically named Affordable Care Act.

What could possibly justify cancelling my healthcare plan, and forcing me to replace it with a more expensive plan that covers drug addiction treatment that I shall never use because I do not take drugs, maternity care that I shall never use because I am male, and pediatric dental coverage that I shall never use because I don’t have children and have no plans to have any?

The answer is, I suppose, the pragmatic and superficially humane notion, which most advanced societies have arrived at, that a wealthy, civilized society does not let its own suffer from bad health, and that since no one knowingly brings physical harm upon themselves, it would be wrong not to socialize resources to save lives and prevent suffering. After all, goes one argument, we accept taxation and the socialization of resources for much less necessary ends, so why would we not socialize for this? (There is also an implied (and much more tenuous) State and societal interest in reproduction, to justify my paying for the medical expenses incurred by someone else who chooses to have a child, even while I cannot afford to have my own child.)

You may agree or disagree with the above justification of Obamacare, but when it is used to justify a legal takeover one seventh of the American economy by the State, you end up with the greatest single move toward a communistic (used advisedly) society since the New Deal. Whether that is a step that America wants to make is for America to decide, but it is a step so large that it demands honest and extensive debate that can only legitimately end in informed consent (to borrow another idea from the field of healthcare that carries far too little respect among our political class) or dissent. And if the social democrats were successful in persuading the rest of us that we really wanted to change our culture and politics so massively as to socialize all healthcare, then we would have either to change the Constitution or to agree on some interpretation of it under which the socialization of healthcare is justified as the Constitutional protection of life, liberty and/or pursuit of happiness. (While many of my readers might find that latter notion incredible, just imagine how much more honest, comprehensive and principled a debate we would be having if anyone were to try even to make that case.)

America has not had that debate because Obamacare is not what we were told it was. The continued involvement of insurance companies in the healthcare industry provides the illusion of continuity, of the operation of a market, and of free contract and choice. The ultimate decision by social democrats not to advocate for the single-payer system that most directly and visibly realizes the changes they are trying to make gives the appearance that individuals will continue to be responsible for their poor health choices – not that they will be paid for by their fellow Americans. The ACA hurts some Americans very much more than others – something else no one told us to expect. (The worst case was that we could keep our coverage, remember, so there wasn’t to be a downside. (Yes, I know it’s laughable when you see it written down.))

There is at least something “honest” about the single-payer system: government as sole provider of, and payer for, universal healthcare is the most direct implementation of the socialistic purpose that drives it. Single-payer doesn’t t pretend to individualism by having “individual mandates” (isn’t all taxation for public welfare a mandate on the individuals who pay it?) or the involvement of insurance corporations as potential scapegoats for the State and/or the public – corporations who now received legally extorted (again used advisedly) business.

But even Hillary Clinton, who a decade ago did extensive work from the Left, as it were, on Healthcare reform, could see that Americans didn’t want such a single-payer system: it was, in fact, rejected so comprehensively that even Obama, with all the political capital he won in a landslide swing against the Republicans in 2008, didn’t try to push it. Rather, Obama’s Democrats adopted a Republican plan that the GOP now hypocritically decries.

A single-payer system would be funded, presumably, out of our familiar progressive taxation system. While many conservatives and libertarians have no love for that idea or direct taxation, itself, even they would much rather be forced to pay for something that the country had honestly chosen after a proper national debate in which they had a chance to propose alternatives and lost. I know that because I polled the question among 14,000 liberty-curious and libertarian Americans, leaning from liberal to conservative, and an overwhelming majority said they’d take a single-payer system over the current Republicrat (I am not letting the Republicans off the hook for this) Affordable Care Act.

Obamacare is funded by doing disproportionate harm to a few – of which I am one. If I knew that the country had broadly and consciously consented to the deeply socialistic principles on which the system of healthcare that I was being forced to finance was based, I would swallow it and pay up, like I do with all my taxes. But clearly, it did not. The individual mandate, the involvement of the insurance industry, the use of taxation to compel me to enter contracts against my will, are all means by which the political class has hid its purpose from the people.

But there is something even worse: the ACA forces me into a new degree of supplication to the state. It essentially forces individuals like me to take hand-outs.

Although I have a modest income, I declare every penny I make and I pay my share of taxes. I have never taken a penny in welfare from this or any other country – and that is important to me. Of course, I use those things that I have to use to conduct a modern life, even if they are funded through taxation – such as roads, the air-traffic control system etc., and I accept the fact that I live in a nation where too many goods are deemed to be public goods and paid for accordingly.

But paying taxes and using public goods is rather different from what the ACA makes me do: it essentially blackmails me: it damages me financially by increasing the cost of something it tells me I must buy (but was buying anyway) and then forces me to accept a government subsidy as an individual to undo the damage. I resent that deeply. I resent it in the way I would resent a more blatant violation of my first amendment right to live by my own beliefs as long as I harm no one else.

It is all the more offensive because I am sure that if the nation had been honestly told this was to happen, the nation would not have allowed me or anyone else to be put in this position. In short, Obamacare feels like a massively personal and covert impingement.

Now some may say the ACA subsidy is ultimately no different from any other tax rebate – after all, all taxes and subsidies go into and out of the same pot – so my feeling is unwarranted. To which I ask, if that is the case, then why aren’t we funding this whole thing from the tax system we already have in place without the need for any rebates at all: why don’t we have the single-payer system? The answer, as we’ve seen, is that the nation rejected that system, so the ACA, which punts in decidedly the same direction, could only be (mis)sold to us with all this smoke and all these mirrors.

I am not a partisan. I am as sick of the Republican repetitions of the need to repeal the ACA that they mostly designed – without offering a principled alternative reform – as I am of the way the Democrats bounced us into this. As usual, a pox on both their houses.

But I have been conscripted into a rather covert attack on some simple American values and preferences. And as a conscript, I conscientiously object.

Rand Paul is Right: Civil Rights Aren’t Simple Rights

Rand Paul
Photo by: Gage Skidmore

Something recently happened in England that warrants revisiting Rachel Maddow’s (in?)famous 2010 interview with Rand Paul concerning the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In April of this year, Rachel Maddow also revisited that interview, following Rand’s visit to Howard University, during which he answers a question from a student with the sentence: “I do question some of the ramifactions and extensions, and I have never come out in opposition to the Civil Rights Act … I have never questioned the Civil Rights Act”.

Rachel shows a clip of Rand’s giving that answer and then repeats, out of context, “I have never questioned the Civil Rights Act”. The context is important because it includes his explicit qualification that he does question the ramifications of the act beyond race.

Nevertheless, Rachel accuses Rand of “flat-out lying”, and to prove her point, she runs another interview that Rand had given in 2010 with the Louisville Courier Journal News paper, which went as follows.

LCJ: “Would you have voted for the Civil Rights of 1964?”
RP: I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains. I am all in favor of that.”
LCJ: “But?”
RP: [Laughs] “You had to ask me the “but”. I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners – I abhor racism; I think it’s a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant – but at the same time I do believe in private ownership.”

Cutting back to Rachel in the studio, “That is Rand Paul, questioning the Civil Rights Act”.

She accuses Rand of having a sketchy record on racial discrimination and civil rights law, and of being condescending in thinking he can get away with his lie. She even displays this headline in the New Yorker: “Rand Paul, at Howard University, Pretends He Favored the Civil Rights Act”, to reinforce visually the idea that Rand is a) dishonest and b) disfavors the Civil Rights Act.

That was itself dishonest, and as someone who likes Maddow (and even has a signed copy of her book on my shelf), I am disappointed that Rachel didn’t think so. In her interview with Rand from 2010, Rand was clear:

“There are ten different titles to the Civil Rights Act and nine out of ten deal with public institutions and I am absolutely in favor of [them]. One deals with private institutions, and had I been around, I would have tried to modify that. But the other thing about legislation – and this is why it is a little hard to say where you are sometimes – is that when you support nine out of ten things in a good piece of legislation, do you vote for it or against it?”

They are not the words of a man who disfavors the Civil Rights Act, or is trying to be dishonest about his views of it. They are the words of a man who favors nine tenths of it and, because of his concern for civil rights, is worried about the gutting of one principle critical to everyone’s enjoyment of liberty – private property – to help extend the reach of another (anti-discrimination).

… Which brings me to the recent event in England that raises serious questions for Americans, and I think puts Rand’s interview in an altogether more positive light.

In the U.K., an elderly Christian couple, Mr and Mrs Bull, who used to run a guesthouse, refused to offer rooms to unmarried couples – whether gay or straight. Some time ago, a gay couple, who fell afoul of their “no unwed couples” policy, sued them for discrimination. Britain’s Supreme Court agreed with the offended party and fined the hoteliers thousands of pounds, which, along with the legal fees, and the elimination of their right to rent their rooms to whomever they wish, caused them to sell their business.

As a non-religionist, I completely disagree with the guesthouse-owners view of sexuality and, dare I say, love. But I am very disturbed by the use of law to punish them for following their conscience with their own property in a way that neither did, nor intended to do, active harm to anyone.

This incident raises a complicated moral and societal question about which well-meaning and intelligent people can disagree. To find answers to such questions, I often ask simply, “What would Love do?”. And I have to say that if I were denied entry to this business (as I would be if I were with a partner as I am not married), I would probably pity this couple for their views, and I might even tell them so, but Love would require me to respect where they are on their spiritual journey, and know that they were not seeking to hurt me. I wouldn’t feel that I had a right to use the force of the state against them, nor would I want to.

As I read this sad tale, Rand’s interview with Rachel Maddow came immediately to mind. For what happened to Mr and Mrs Bull is the very consequence of the concession of the principle of private property that Rand was so concerned about.

Just as Mr and Mrs. Bull had a right to discriminate (but a moral obligation not to do so), any group of aggrieved customers – such as gay people or unmarried persons who are sexually active – have all the right in the world to publicize this couple’s views in a bid to persuade others not to frequent their establishment (easier today than it has ever been). In this way, no one has to act out of force or violate the one right that exists almost exclusively to facilitate the exercise of all other fundamental (natural) rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – which is the right to earn and deploy property to your benefit as long as doing so harms no one else.

In the case of Mr and Mrs Bull, the force of a British law that is equivalent to the one tenth of the Civil Rights Act about which Rand Paul is rightfully concerned, was used to deprive someone of something as punishment for an act that was not intended to harm, was in line with sincerely held religious belief, and materially deprived no one of anything.

Logically, Mr and Mrs Bull can only have committed a crime if the couple they turned away had an actual right to be served by them. Yet, the Bulls are not compelled to offer their service to anyone. So how can it be that party A’s (the Bulls) making a free choice to transact with party B (a married couple) creates a new right for party C (unmarried couple)? What kind of right would that be? It is not a simple question.

To get to its answer, Rachel had pressed Rand on this altogether more concrete question.

“Do you believe that private business people should be able to decide whether they want to serve black people, gays or any other minority group?”

The most important thing about this question is that it is utterly different from the following one.

“Do you believe that private business people should serve black people, gays or any other minority group?”

Those two questions are very different indeed; they rest on very different moral and even metaphysical principles and both consistently can, and perhaps, should, be answered with a “yes”.

It is far from obvious, for example, that we should use law to punish a person who follows his conscience and does not harm another individual (such as Mr. Bull), but not a person who goes against his conscience and betrays another, such as by telling a lie to cover adultery. Typically, we make the leap from “an action is wrong” to “an action should be punishable by law” only in the very rare cases that an individual is in fact harmed or put at great risk of harm (murder, robbery, intention to do either, reckless driving, etc.).

In contrast, anti-discrimination laws in the private sphere almost uniquely work by the threat of harm (or in Mr and Mrs Bull’s case, doing actual harm) against individuals who have neither done, nor intended to do, active harm against anyone else. This is extremely serious because it is exactly by prohibiting the state from harming those who have not done harm to others that discrimination against any group in the public sphere is prevented. In other words, anti-discriminatory laws in the private sphere are always in danger of undermining the very principle they purport to defend. Typically, that doesn’t matter practically in the short-run, but it can do huge harm in the long-term.

What, after all, was the evil of slavery, from which modern discrimination in large part follows so darkly? It was not the evil of slavers’ refusing to let their slaves buy services, analogous to the refusal of Mr and Mrs Bull to offer a room for their unmarried but sexually active clients. Rather, it was the legally sanctioned, complete abuse of the property rights of the slaves by the slavers – the refusal to let them earn property in exchange for their labor, the refusal to let them keep property with which they could have bought themselves out of their slavery, the refusal to allow them to decide what to do with anything they did in any loose sense own, and even, (by the definition of property favored by many who understand its importance to providing all individuals the means of defending their liberty against any impingement,) the denial of the slaves’ exclusive property in their own beings and bodies.

This is extremely important. Property rights matter because property is the only secure means by which people can exercise their liberty over time and defend it when it is under attack.

Understanding why the two questions above can both be answered affirmatively is critical not only to understanding Freedom, but also to our ability as a nation to preserve it. We might even go a step further and say that it is the difference between those two questions that defines Freedom.

That Rand Paul cares about all of that is a credit to him. The story of Mr and Mrs Bull does not in itself prove that either Rand or Rachel is right on that one tenth of the Civil Rights Act that deals with private institutions, but it does (as sure as slavery is evil) prove that intelligent people can disagree about it. And it proves beyond doubt that impugning the intent of a politician who has sufficient integrity and, frankly, courage, to grapple so publicly with the fundamental principles of liberty is not only unfair to him, but also a disservice to us all.

In Times of Tyranny, Democracy is Liberty’s Friend

At many times in the history of the Anglo people, the abuses of liberty by Power (capitalized to indicate the official power of the centralized State and those close to it) have produced such resistance by enough normal men and women who felt their lives directly changed by those abuses, that real political change of historic importance was the result.

There has probably never been a year – perhaps not even a day – when Power did not, through policy or the political process, expand itself at the expense of the liberty of someone, somewhere. In normal times, the process of Power’s self-aggrandizement is mostly political: laws get made, agencies get established – but the effect on the everyday experiences of normal people is small enough that the culture generates no resistance.

In the United States, since 9-11 especially, some of the chattering classes (this writer included) and a few concerned citizens have been complaining about the brazenness of the 21st-century approach to the abuse of citizens by the State, its agents and its friends. The stripping of individual rights has been in this millennium extensive and fast (habeas corpus, due process, privacy, rule of Law (as enacted by elected and accountable officials rather than appointees of the Executive) etc.).

Until recently, however, these abuses have remained mostly political, rather than cultural. That is to say that Americans’ loss of rights have had not much of an impact in the culture because they did not affect the everyday experiences of a significant section of the population.

For example, the loss of the right to due process did not create per se a reaction against Power because most people don’t experience due process in their everyday lives; the loss of privacy does not cause a reaction against Power because the violation of privacy, if undetected, doesn’t change our everyday experiences; and the farming out of law-making power to unelected agents of the State is unperceived as long as we don’t know when our behavior is being regulated by agents of the Executive and their rules, or by Law, properly made in Congress.

However, that is now changing. And the change is historic, in the literal sense of the word. Every few generations or even centuries – Power begins to impose drastic changes that are felt immediately in the everyday lives of normal people. At such times, the People immediately feel that Power has made their tomorrows very different from their yesterdays, in ways that offend their most basic sensibilities, notions of justice and even consent to being governed. Most importantly, Power’s offenses against liberty are resisted not out of any particular political belief, but because they are felt immediately as impingements on normal life. Throughout history, liberty movements have succeeded in forcing political change when Power has given them such moral, emotional and cultural justification.

Indeed, in the Anglo tradition, the re-establishment of liberty against a wayward State is typically not typically triggered by the most egregious denials of liberty, but by those most easily felt.

We have ample examples in America today. For instance, by most measures, the loss of a healthcare plan that you liked and its replacement with a similar one of a higher price (from which this writer has suffered) is less of an abuse against your liberty than is your loss of privacy, the elimination of right to due process or even the funneling of your taxes to connected corporations – but you feel the loss of your healthcare plan much more immediately in your life than you feel any of those other things.

With respect to the issue of privacy, Edward Snowden didn’t tell Americans anything that many liberty-loving commentators have not been warning Americans about for years – but his actions turned a political abstraction (a Constitutional right to privacy is being violated) into a felt change in our everyday lives (this call I am making to my family member is being listened to by people who have essentially deceived me about doing so) and all of a sudden, the political class is responding as bills are written and votes are taken to limit the abuses.

Or perhaps your thing is gun rights. The fact that people who wish to purchase a gun must go through a few more checks than before is much less an abuse of your freedom than the fact that the government now believes it can assassinate you without a trial, but the prospect of those regulations generate much more upset, because one’s enjoyment of one’s firearms, or the sense of security they provide, is part of the cultural experience of many Americans – something that provides part of their identity, and perhaps happy memories at the range with their sons.

When Power’s abuses against Liberty remove from us not just the rights that we have, but the rights that we actively enjoy in our daily lives, we take them personally and respond to them more viscerally – more as human beings than as political beings. When the everyday expectations and experiences of enough people – rather than the ideas of a group of people with one political ideology or another – are challenged, political change that is not possible in normal times becomes possible. That change is, in the proper sense of the word, democratic.

The word “democracy” comes from δημοκρατία (dēmokratía), which combines demos (people) and kratos (power). In its full sense, it means much more than pressing a few buttons on a voting machine every couple of years.

According to our Declaration of Independence, the power of the American government is the power of the people – the kratos of the demos – delegated. In that respect, at least, our nation is a democracy, and that democracy is not only inconsistent with our Constitutional Republic, it constitutes it. And by that same Declaration, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it” – the ultimate democratic act.

Constitutionalists and libertarians are quick to point out that the USA is not a Democracy but, rather, a Constitutional Republic. Their point is that in a pure Democracy, a majority can remove the rights of the minority, including the smallest minority – the individual – and that so doing goes against America’s very raison d’etre. They are not wrong – and, in fact, much of what ails us now has happened in just that way, albeit mediated by the poor decisions of our representatives.

But if we Constitutionalists and libertarians are going to succeed in shrinking the State and undoing its most outrageous offenses against Liberty (as we must), then we must know that we are engaged in a deeply democratic process, just as were the Founders: only the kratos of the American demos can push back the kratos of the state far enough that it will result in substantial political change.

Whereas in normal times, individual liberty protects the citizen against the tyrannies of both Democracy and the State, when the State becomes sufficiently tyrannical, democracy fights on liberty’s side.

That is how it has always been. Paradoxical as it may appear at first glance, it was just such a democratic process that created this Constitutional Republic in 1776: enough people were moved by felt injustice (not some new political ideology) that they resisted their own political establishment (which is what the British state was at the time). The movement that became the American Revolution began among the people, and ended in a political change that altered their relationship with Power to the benefit of the liberty. The other Bill of Rights – the English Bill of Rights in 1689 – came up in just the same way: the kratos of the demos crystallized in resistance to abuses of Power that were perceived in the lives of common men, and the political result (the Bill of Rights, itself) was the end of the process. Before that was the Grand Remonstrance of 1641, and before that was the Petition of Right of 1628, each crystallizing in the political realm popular disquiet in response to direct experiences of the abusive exercise of power – not ideological dissatisfaction. And yes, although the farther we go back the smaller is the demos with any power to exert against the state, the same argument can be made for the Magna Carta, too.

All of these political achievements – each one a roll-back of state Power in response to offence against liberty, felt in culture rather than seen in Law – were the end of processes that began among people, whose power, aggregated, was set against the State, motivated by a sense of injustice mostly unmediated by any political ideology.

For lovers of liberty and of the Founding principles of America, this is our time, and each new abuse of our Rights by the State that is our latest, best weapon.

To respect the importance of democracy is to respect history, and to embrace the tool without which liberty has never been won back from Power that would trample on it. The liberty movement must take care before setting democracy up as a foil to liberty, because it can be Liberty’s servant too.

The USA Defaults

Washington DC

Throughout these last few weeks, everyone involved in the negotiations on funding the government and the debt ceiling should have been repeating something over and over again – to the point that the American people should be sick of hearing it.

It is Section 4 of the 14th Amendment to our Constitution of our great nation. (I choose still to use the word “great” because I don’t identify this nation with its government.)

“The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.”

Compare and contrast with the President’s comment of a week ago: “As reckless as a government shutdown is … an economic shutdown that results from default would be dramatically worse” or the opening of his address to the nation a couple of days later, in which he talks of meeting “Republicans and Democrats from both Houses of Congress in an effort to … remove the dangers of default from our economy.”

Let’s be clear.

If anyone who has sworn an oath of office to uphold the Constitution would threaten any default by the USA when the USA has a) the revenue to meet the interest obligations on its debt and b) (for shame) the ability of a sovereign issuer of its own currency to pay all its debts at any time c) seen this coming for ages, and therefore had plenty of time to prepare for it, then he is doing little other than threatening willfully to violate his oath.

The credit of the USA should never have been in question and never had to be. As all of this nonsense of the last couple of weeks has been going on, everyone involved should have been repeating that part of the 14th amendment out loud, reiterating that all debts would be paid first out of government revenue simply because that is the supreme Law of the land – and because, therefore, their integrity as takers of the oath to uphold the Constitution would not allow them to threaten impeachable behavior for political ends – or, for that matter, for any ends whatsoever. Their priority would then have been to put in place the practical mechanisms for ensuring that would be done.

As a writer and speaker who loves my country and therefore the Constitution (or should that be the other way around?), I spend plenty of hours spreading the dangers of the monarchy that the American Presidency has become, as it deploys and expands power through Executive orders. But there is just about one kind of executive order that I believe my patriotism would compel me to accept: that being an order that simply restates a part of the Constitution verbatim and the President’s intention to defend it. Had President Obama told us he would be prepared to issue an executive order that reiterates the 14th Amendment to ensure that the Constitution would be followed throughout this “crisis”, then the last two weeks would have been very different.

Not that the President has displayed any less leadership than anyone else on or around Capitol Hill.

Section 5 of the 14th Amendment states simply,

“The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article”.

And that is what it should do. In particular, only Congress has the power to undo the two laws without which there would be no debt-ceiling crisis. They are the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917 that establishes the debt ceiling, and the Federal Reserve Act that (broadly speaking) prohibits the Fed from lending directly to the Treasury.

If Members of Congress find themselves negotiating in a crisis that arises from legislation that cannot be violated without violating the Constitution, then their first order of business, should they take their oath seriously, must be to revoke, repeal or suspend the offending laws, or to pass further law that makes the “offending laws” benign. To put (or leave) the President in a position where he would have to violate law to follow the Constitution is to be no better than the President who would shrug off the same Constitution.

Rather than do the right thing by making any serious attempt to deal with the legislation that is the sine qua non of the debt-ceiling crisis – a predictable and repeating crisis that is becoming increasingly like a kabuki theater version of Ground Hog Day – House Republicans not only made no effort to attack the offending legislation but happily exploited it in an apparent attempt to extract ever-decreasing party-line concessions that concerned initially almost everything in their party platform, later just a few bits of the Affordable Care Act, and finally next to nothing at all.

Any credibility that this strategy didn’t remove from the GOP was pretty much lost when it chose cynical parliamentary maneuvering in the form of covert rule-changes to help them get as much political mileage out of the whole mess as possible. The ultimate result was nothing worth speaking of – except the concentration (yet again) of even more power in the hands of fewer people in the House. Nice job, guys.

Lest anyone think that my beef is just with the Republicans, it isn’t. The problem that precedes all of the foregoing is actual spending , without which there can be no debt, without which there can be no “debt-ceiling crisis”. The Democrats have been in recent times even more culpable than the Republicans in legislating spending above the standing debt limit. In March, the Democratically controlled Senate rejected the $3.5T Republican budget, which at least made some (albeit too little) attempt to rein in deficits, to pass $3.7T of spending, knowing full well that it was spending money that on current law (with the debt-ceiling where it was), America could not cover by borrowing, even though it was not covered by revenue. To say that spendthrift legislators were counting on the rise of the debt ceiling is, rather, to make my point for me, for if the debt limit means anything at all, it is as a constraint on the spending of money in the first place. If a Member of the House or Senator votes for spending while knowing that it will eventually trigger a(nother) debt-ceiling crisis a few months down the line, he rather loses any moral basis for accusing anyone who voted against that spending for triggering the crisis when it finally happens.

The legislature knows the cause of these repeated debt-ceiling debacles – because it created it. The predictable, repeating crisis, which does nothing to help the American people, can only be sustained if our leaders see it as serving them in an important way – which, of course, it does. The notion that there is such a thing as a debt-ceiling provides a fig leaf for a fiat monetary system that allows government to spend without constraint and without taxpayers’ feeling the immediate economic costs of that public spending, which instead, are felt over time through inflation. (In summary: politicians benefit now; people suffer later.) In such a system, the donkeys to the political benefit of appearing to help their Constituents by social and economic engineering without economic constraint, while permitting the elephants to gain the political benefit of doing exactly the same thing when it suits them, or (as now) appearing to be upset when the donkeys overdo it.

Truly, it is a pox on both their houses.

History shows that the so-called “debt ceiling” does not constrain our government at all. Only the Constitution and the integrity of those who swear to uphold it can do that. If our government spent in pursuit of only what it is authorized to do, then the debt-ceiling would take care of itself, because American government spending would be nowhere near it. (And, as a bonus, we would still have due process, privacy, and the respect of other nations who would not see us as aggressors – because violations of all of those things are expensive.)

Put simply, public spending or the size of government is the long-term issue from which the debt-crisis is – ironically and conveniently for career politicians of both parties – the short-term distraction.

Clearly, the most serious debt in Washington has rather less to do with Treasury bills and social security checks than with the accumulated deficit of commitment of our leaders to their oath. No need to panic, though: we are not close to a ceiling on that. Washington D.C. defaulted on it years ago.

Twelve Years After 9-11: Let’s End the Politics of Fear

Since 9-11, it seems that the American Left and the American Right have agreed on something of profound importance: we’re scared.

The politics of the last 12 years have been the politics of fear.

Because of fear that one of us is a terrorist, we’ve allowed our intelligence services to listen into our private conversations; because of fear of terrorists from abroad, we have killed innocent people in foreign nations (supposedly to protect ourselves here); because of fear that our planes will get blown up, we let government agents put their hands on our children’s crotches and look at our naked bodies, and because of fear that the economy will implode, we’ve given trillions of dollars to organizations that have brought us to that point.

None of it feels very brave or free. None of it feels very American.

911 WTC Lights

Nations confident of their strength don’t seek fights. The most powerful nations win without firing a shot. Nations confident of their security and the ability of their agents to maintain it don’t compromise the dignity or legal rights of its citizens. Nations confident that the innovativeness and entrepreneurialism of its people can provide prosperity don’t reward bad custodians of financial resources to “save the system.”

America has surely been a great nation. But with true greatness — true power — comes self-confidence. What has happened to the America that the world used to love, even if in some quarters, grudgingly? It was always American self-confidence, justified largely by the examples we set regarding the treatment of our people and, during our grander historical moments, other people, on which our leadership depended. We were respected and powerful to the extent that other nations wanted to be like us — to have our prosperity, our freedom and our openness.

Twelve years after 9/11, who have we become and who do we appear to be?

Minimizing risk at reasonable cost is the action of a sensible man or nation. Trying to eliminate all risk at any cost — not only financial, but also of principle — is the action of a man or nation that has become obsessive, compulsive, scared, or all three.

A few years ago, a friend of mine returned from a tour in Iraq as a proud American soldier to be required at Seattle airport to remove his shoes and equipment and be screened in the full fashion. The treatment shocked him as it was his first encounter with it and gave the lie to what he believed was his purpose a day earlier on the streets of Baghdad. Simply, how could he have been fighting over there to protect American liberties and values if they were being compromised away with so little fight at home?

The rest of us might ask how we so easily take away the fourth amendment right of that soldier, who a day earlier had put his life on the line for our fourth amendment (and other) right(s). We could ask a similar question about the first amendment right of a Vietnam vet. who is now a member of the tea party and is on a government agency list as a potential troublemaker for that reason, or, to push the point further, the inalienable right of the small businessman to pursue happiness and be treated equally with all others if his taxes are being used to bail out the bank that holds his mortgage but made poorer business decisions than he did.

The use of force — whether legal or military — always reveals a failure of some other, preferable means. If our sons and daughters in uniform are truly fighting for American freedoms, then those freedoms must all still exist at home uncompromised: inasmuch as we give them up at home, those men and women cannot be fighting to protect them, just as a matter of simple logic. Those of us who are fortunate enough to stay at home while our soldiers fight abroad, demean their service if we are too lazy not to speak out in opposition when our leaders compromise our Constitutional rights (always for our own good). And if, worse, we support those compromises out of our own fear, then we meet our soldiers’ bravery with our own cowardice.

In the last century, America led the free world by being the indispensable nation that others sought to emulate. But obsessive, scared nations, like obsessive scared people, are not models for anyone. America had led the free world by persuasion, based on a moral authority that came with the rights and prosperity that its legal and economic systems provided for its people. As our nation has ceased to trust in those rights and the system that has provided its prosperity, we have given up moral authority and persuasive power. That is why so many of our attempts to make ourselves safer will fail in their stated purpose.

Twelve years on from 9/11, we can afford to take a deep breath. If anyone attacks us, we’ll still be able to respond with the greatest military force in the history of the world. If anyone should infiltrate us, we have some of the most honorable men and women and the best technological means to find them, and a justice system, older than the country itself, to deal with them. If we have a recession, we can take our losses and come back with the ingenuity and effort of an entrepreneurial and serious population. If another nation should grow its economy in leaps and bounds, we can say “good luck” to them, because we know we can do that too.

We call our country the land of the free and the home of the brave. But who, honestly, is feeling brave and free today?

I want America to get its swagger back — for the good of the world, let alone ourselves.

Becoming America again is a choice. We can swagger without shouting. We can carry the big stick and not be the first to use it. And we can instinctively say “Hell, no” each time anyone would take it upon themselves to take even one of our liberties away to make us “safer” or for any other purpose.

I wonder how many Americans would voluntarily fly in a commercial jet in which passengers did not go through today’s imaging scanners or the full pat-down at the airport, but went only through the security procedures that were in place on 10 Sept 2001? All passengers would know, along with any potential terrorist, that our flight is marginally less secure.

The risk of attack would, I suppose, be marginally higher than it would be on those planes whose passengers had gone through today’s procedures. But since it is nine times less than the risk of dying by suffocation in my own bed, I would take the odds to make the statement that as an American, following Franklin, I will not give up my liberty for my safety; that I want America back; that I would rather have the Bill of Rights than the extra 0.0001% reduction in the probability of being blown out of the sky. I bet there would be millions like me.

There is no such thing as certainty. If you don’t want uncertainty, then you don’t want life. Americans have always embraced uncertainty and taken life by the scruff of the neck. The real question is, “if I am to take a risk, for what is the risk worth taking?”

If the government is going to protect my life, it must first leave my life full of the liberties that make it worth protecting. And in the USA, when those two things are in tension (and they rarely are, despite what we are told), it should be up to the individual to decide on the balance.

If we so choose, we have the power to make the last twelve years of fear, wars, invasions of privacy, bailouts etc. the exception to the rule of American history, rather than the new normal. It would be the choice to be changed by not what comes at us but what comes from us.

9/11 was a historically unprecedented shock and we acted accordingly. We were shaken. No shame in that. But a decade or so later, we can take stock at what we have collectively done to our great nation and determine whether it has served us and will serve our children. We may disagree on what we find but I’d wager that many will say that we have compromised away more of our own identity than any terrorist attack ever did take or ever could take.

The terrorists took over 3000 lives. The loss was severe; we should learn its lessons of sensible precaution and humility. Each one of those lost souls was — is — an infinity, and we should never forget them. It goes without saying that the relevant agencies should be fully resourced to protect us, and their work supported – right up to the point that America is in danger of no longer being American.

Yet, fewer lives were taken on 9/11 than are lost in one month on American roads. Everything else that we may have lost since then, we have consented to lose.

In fear and shock, we may have given the terrorists more of what they really wanted, by making ourselves poorer in both treasure and liberty.

Bin Laden said,

“All we have to do is send two mujaheddin … to raise a small piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.”

While some of the expenditures of treasure may have been wise, were all of those of liberty, too?

To remain the land of the free and the home of the brave, let us actively choose to be America again. Indeed, to honor the memories of our countrymen lost on 9/11, we must choose to become more truly American than we have ever been.

How will we know when we’ve done that? At the very least, we will have more civil liberties than we did on 10 Sept 2001 — not fewer; and we will be less frightened — not more.

God bless America, and all who lost kin or kith on Sept. 11, 2001.