Average Right-Libertarians Support Direct Democracy?

I was debating a Ron Paul libertarian. It made me realize something I hadn’t realized before.

Many right-libertarians will criticize democracy. They claim it’s mobocracy: two wolves and a sheep deciding on what is for dinner. I’ve often pointed out that conservatives and right-wingers have little understanding of democracy. They just present strawman caricatures and repeat talking points.

This particular libertarian seemed to be a typical example. Then he brought up Switzerland as an example of libertarianism. Switzerland does have a more decentralized government. However, Switzerland also has high corporate tax revenues compared to US, strong regulation, an effective welfare system, higher union membership, compulsory military service, state-owned utilities, etc.

It just seems like a standard democracy as it’s practiced in a smaller country, but actually it isn’t entirely standard. I realized that what this libertarian was calling libertarianism was in practice what liberals would call direct democracy. A direct democracy can only function in a decentralized government. What differentiates a libertarian minarchism from a direct democracy minarchism is social democracy. All of those things I listed about Switzerland are social democracy.

So, that was my realization. Many people who think they are libertarians are actually supporters of direct democracy.

The libertarian ideal of localizing power can only happen through a more direct democracy where decisions are voted on by local populations. Maybe most libertarians don’t have a problem with direct democracy. Despite all of their criticisms of direct democracy, maybe most libertarians are criticizing the failure of representative democracy. I agree. Our present government that supposedly represents doesn’t actually represent us, but that is so far from direct democracy as to not even be funny.

It’s not just a failure of education or the media to inform the public. It’s a failure of narrative. They have a narrative that tells them that direct democracy is mobocracy. They are in reality fine with direct democracy just as long as you don’t call it that.

Cato Institute: Corporatist Libertarianism

What is the Cato Institute? Who funds it? Who has been on its board? What are the connections? What is their agenda?


“My contact with [Cato] was strange. They’re ideologues, like Trotskyites. All questions must be seen and solved within the true faith of libertarianism, the idea of minimal government. And like Trotskyites, the guys from Cato can talk you to death.”
~ Nat Hentoff, columnist

The Cato Institute was founded with Koch money just as the John Birch Society was during an earlier generation. As Koch money turned the Tea Party into astroturf, Koch money has turned the libertarian movement into astroturf. David H. Koch, Executive Vice President of Koch Industries, currently sits on the Board of Directors at The Cato Institute. Rupert Murdoch, the worst corporatist and media propagandist in US history, was on the board of the Cato Institute. The ties are numerous between the Cato Institute, the Koch family, and Rupert Murdoch. The Koch’s and Murdoch have been major players controlling the direction of the Libertarian Party, and both participated in creating the Tea Party astroturf. Murdoch took it a step further by using Fox News to align the libertarian ‘movement’ and the Tea Party with the neocon Republican Party.


You might think it’s all about what brings in the advertising dollars for Rupert Murdoch, CEO of Fox’s parent company, News Corporation. But it runs much deeper than that, involving key players at the Wall Street Journal, News Corp.’s crown jewel. The informal partnership between billionaire David Koch, whose campaign dollars and astroturf group, Americans for Prosperity, have fomented the Wisconsin crisis, and billionaire Rupert Murdoch, is profoundly ideological — the ideology being the exponential enrichment of the two men’s heirs, all dressed up in the language of libertarianism and free enterprise. Together with his brother, Charles — also a big donor to right-wing causes –David Koch runs Koch Industries, the conglomerate that sprang from the oil and gas company founded by his father.


Notice how the Cato Institute has been hiding it’s funding sources for years. Hiding this information implies a dishonest agenda. If they weren’t afraid of the truth, why would they hide it? Why trust a think tank that refuses to disclose basic facts behind its agenda?


Some of the key financial information on the Cato Institute‘s finances, based on returns submitted to the Internal Revenue Service, is:(based on IRS 990 returns)

Year Total revenue Program services Total Expenses Net assets
1993 6,085,321 [1] Not Available Not Available Not Available
1994 6,421,265[1] Not Available Not Available Not Available
1995 9,338,834[1] Not Available Not Available Not Available
1996 9,473,622[1] Not Available Not Available Not Available
1997 11,160,734 6,321,351 9,814,776 11,055,652
1998 15,874,852 6,788,006 10,576,951 16,353,553
1999 13,349,590 7,559,568 11,794,075 17,909,068
2000 12,401,337 7,702,965 12,219,864 18,035,650
2001 17,631,255 8,593,972 14,045,306 21,602,805
2002 16,975,806 10,933,980 17,582,455 20,996,283
2003 12,975,701 12,583,901 15,630,490 18,341,494
2004 14,530,419 11,887,101 17,002,063 15,869,850
2005 22,656,851 11,228,618 17,065,056 21,461,645

Let me clear up one point. As with everything, this issue is complex. It’s not as if the Cato Institute is a front for all big biz. Some of their public positions are actually contrary to the interests of some corporations in some industries (SourceWatch):

“Cato’s corporate fund raising may be hampered by its scholars’ tendency to take positions that are at odds with some of the interests of some large corporations. Cato has published numerous studies criticizing what it calls “corporate welfare,” the practice of funneling taxpayer money to politically well-connected corporate interests.[76][77][78][79][80][81][82] For example, in 2002, Cato president Ed Crane and Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope teamed up to write an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for the abandonment of the Republican energy bill, arguing that it had become little more than a gravy train for Washington lobbyists.[83] And in 2005, Cato staff Jerry Taylor teamed up with Daniel Becker of the Sierra Club to attack the Republican Energy Bill as a give-away to corporate interests.[84]

The Cato Institute only represents certain corporations and only defends certain corporate interests. However, there is an undercurrent of corporatism in that Cato is supportive of global warming denialism, near-monopolies, deregulation, nondisclosure, corporate personhood, and the destruction of grassroots democracy. Basically, they are for anything that makes corporations more powerful and makes government (by and for the people) less powerful. Anyway, they certainly don’t lack corporate funding (e.g., energy companies that donate as part of their lobbying effort to stop environmental regulation) and most of the individual donations probably come from the richest of rich (i.e., the plutocratic class).

It’s confusing in the way all politics is confusing. Many corporations will fund a libertarian think tank like Cato Institute while funding a neocon politician. It’s the same reason they’ll fund a neocon Republican while funding a ‘liberal’ Democrat. Corporations like to cover all bases. So, the ‘principled’ rhetoric of a think tank or a politician is meaningless, just nice-sounding fluff, just political spin to obfuscate the issues, just faux ideology to manipulate the public. Political rhetoric is simply what corporations call marketing. Like the corporations it represents, the Cato Institute is selling a product and any means are justified in that agenda. Are there deeper agendas? Of course. But those deeper agendas wouldn’t be publicly disclosed just as their funding isn’t publicly disclosed.

Corporate libertarianism (AKA establishment libertarianism, libertarianism for the privileged) is a lot closer to neocon politics than it is to grassroots libertarianism. There are some very basic shared interests. For example, take the close connection between the libertarian Cato Institute and the neocon Heartland Institute:


Lindzen and Singer are both associated to the Heartland institute and Cato Institute, extreme-rightist think-tanks and eager defenders of the big coal, oil, tobacco, arms, chemicals and asbestos industry – and funded by these. Heartland institute promotes the extreme neo-conservative approach to economy and regards any efforts by the government to restrict free market forces and big (American) multinational corporations as a nuisance, and perceives e.g. President Obama as a kind of a muslim communist. Government is regarded as an evil force that intrudes on private citizens and puts restrictions on private initiatives (read American multinational corporations). Governments should therefore be kept as small as possible to ensure “freedom”.

Some of the scientists associated to Heartland institute and other similar think tanks were witnesses for the American tobacco industry, claiming that it was not possible to prove a clear connection between lung cancer and smoking. The parallell between the tobacco industry and the big coal and oil industry is striking. It is now evident that smoking cigarettes is addicting and deadly. When the tobacco corporations understood in the 1980’s that they were facing a court trial with compensation claims to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, they invented the term ‘Junk science” about mainstream medical science, and mobilised “the merchants of doubt”. They had previously bought medical doctors to recommend cigarette smoking, and to claim that the purported hazards of smoking were hysterical. They bought spin doctors and connected these to PR-firms and think tanks. They gave the impression that the government is scaring the public to accept taxes on tobacco by making the warning texts on tobacco products mandatory. The message is that the government just pretends to protect us while in reality they manipulate us and extort our money.

– Again we see that the American coal and oil industry repeat history. – Even according to president George Bush, we all “are addicted to oil”. Lindzen and Singer defended the tobacco industry 20 years ago and still do, e.g. by claiming that passive smoking is harmless. They claim that the government is again trying to scare us through their “hysterical doomsday prophecies” – in reality just to increase taxes. Again scientists are bought and spin-doctors allied with PR-firms and lobbyists are deceiving the public: “there is no danger! Everything is natural! The big government and the UN are just after more taxes”.
-These persons act more like lawyers than scientists, defending their clients by any means.
It seems that if you are a very big polluter making very big money, spin-doctors from the Heartland-, Cato-, and George Marshal institutes will be there to defend you.
George Marshall Institute, Cato Institute, Heartland Institute, “Americans for prosperity” are all financed by oil-multibillionaires such as the Koch brothers, media moguls like Robert Murdoch with Fox news and other media forming his empire. In addition these think tanks have financial support from Exxon Mobile, Chevron, Philippe Morris and other tobacco giants and the big American coal industries:

The typical climate skeptic prefers to present himself as the underdog; the small, ordinary but concerned person, taking a stand against impersonal and corrupt bureaucracies, the “mighty UN” and oppressing, big governments that will do anything to increase taxes. (That there is a tremendous, ongoing transfer of power and capital from democratically elected representatives to closed boardrooms in multinational corporations is of no concern). He prefers being perceived as David fighting the Goliaths. However, when checking his sources of information – and money – you usually end up with ideas and support from wealthy American ultra-right think tanks, PR groups financed by big multinational corporations in coal, oil, tobacco, arms, GMOs, chemicals etc and lobbyist groups financed by the Arab-American-Canadian oil and coal cartels. For some reason the typical skeptic has never read the IPCC reports he claims to be so skeptical to, and he is never skeptical to the “information” disseminated by the Heartland institute.


Funder of Like-Minded Think Tanks

Aside from its own advocacy efforts, the Cato Institute has become a substantial funder of other “like-minded” think tanks around the U.S. In its 2006 annual report Cato lists 26 organizations and one individual it provided grants totaling $1,243,00 to. Groups the benefited from Cato’s generosity wereAgencia Americana ($30,000 “to help fund study on S.A. corruption”); the Philanthropy Roundtable ($5,000); the Manhattan Institute ($5,000); the American Enterprise Institute ($5,000); the Fund for American Studies ($10,000); the Bluegrass Institute ($50,000); the Cascade Policy Institute($25,000); the Ethan Allen Institute ($50,000); the Evergreen Freedom Foundation ($100,000); the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii ($40,000); the Illinois Policy Institute ($50,000); the James Madison Institute ($100,000); the John Locke Foundation ($20,000); the Maine Heritage Policy Center ($50,000); the Maryland Public Policy Institute ($40,000); the Nevada Policy Research Institute ($50,000); the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs ($50,000); the Rio Grande Foundation ($50,000); the Show-Me Institute ($50,000); the South Carolina Policy Council ($90,000); the Sutherland Institute ($40,000); the Tennessee Center for Policy Research ($50,000); the Texas Public Policy Foundation ($100,000); the Virginia Institute for Public Policy ($25,000); the Yankee Institute ($68,000); and the Independent Institute ($60,000). In addition Jim Powell received $25,000 as a Hoiles Fellowship.[12] (note, the Cato annual report refers to the “South Carolina Policy Institute” when the correct name of the think tank is the “South Carolina Policy Council”. Similarly, the Maryland Public Policy Institute was misidentified as the Maryland Public Policy Center.)

[ . . . ]

Call for elimination of ballot referendum disclosure requirements

In March 2007, Cato, along with the Institute for Justice, called for eliminating disclosure requirements for those who contribute funds in support or opposition of ballot measures. One of the primary reasons the two groups cited was the high costs associated with disclosure requirements. At the time, these requirements were already weaker than those required for contributions to a candidate’s political campaign.[56][57]

Howie Rich, a real estate investor and Cato Board Member, had helped to sponsor sixteen different ballot initiatives in 2006. His major effort was the so-called “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” or TABOR, which Rich attempted to place on the ballot in eight states. Courts in five of the states ultimately stripped TABOR from the ballot for numerous reasons, including what one Montana judge called a “pervasive and general pattern of fraud” by Rich and others in their campaign to pass the referendum.[56][58]

The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, an advocacy group in support of ballot initiatives to reach progressive political and policy goals, believe that donor disclosure protects both the voters and the process of direct democracy from secret money and hidden goals. In response to Cato’s position, Kristina Wilfore, the group’s executive director, stated “The problem with being a front group for corporate fat cats like Exxon, Enron, and Howie Rich, is that you are always a little out-of-touch with the public…CATO aligning itself with more corruption in political giving is taking the side of the powerful against the people – and they call themselves libertarian?” [56][59]

[ . . . ]

Cato and Climate Change

Patrick Michaels, a former Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and an outspoken global warming skeptic. On its website, Michaels is listed as Cato’s only speaker on global warming. (Three others are also listed in the “Energy and Environment” category — Jerry Taylor on “gas and oil prices, energy policy, energy conservation and regulation”, Peter Van Doren and on “energy regulation, gas and oil prices” and Randal O’Toole on broader environmental policies.)[62] Pat Michaels represented the Cato Institute as a reviewer on Working Group III of the fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC[63]

Michaels is Editor of the World Climate Report, a blog published by New Hope Environmental Services, “an advocacy science consulting firm”[64] he founded and runs. (Michaels biographical note on the Cato Institute website does not mention his role with New Hope Environmental Services).[65]

In an affidavit in a Vermont court case, Michaels described the “mission” of the firm as being to “publicize findings on climate change and scientific and social perspectives that may not otherwise appear in the popular literature or media. This entails both response research and public commentary.”[66] In effect, New Hope Environmental Services is a PR firm. Michaels’ firm does not disclose who its clients are[67], but in 2006 a leaked memo revealed that Michaels firm had been paid $100,000 by an electric utility, Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA), to counter concern about global warming.[68] An affadavit by Michaels also stated that “public disclosure of a company’s funding of New Hope and its employees has already caused considerable financial loss to New Hope. For example, in 2006 Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association, Inc., an electric utility, had requested that its support of $50,000 to New Hope be held confidential. After this support was inadvertently made public by another New Hope client, Tri-State informed me that it would no longer support New Hope because of adverse publicity.”[66]

On a 2007 academic CV, Michaels disclosed that prior to creating his firm he had received funding from the Edison Electric Institute and the Western Fuels Association. He has also been a frequent speaker at events organized by leading coal and energy companies as well as coal and other industry lobby groups.[69]

In 2009, Bob Burton noted that “in its returns, Cato reports that since April 2006 they have paid $242,900 for the ‘environmental policy’ services of Michaels’ firm. (In preceding years, New Hope Environmental Services was not listed amongst the five highest paid independent contractors supplying professional services to Cato.) In response to an email inquiry, Michaels stated that the Cato funding “largely supported the extensive background research for my 2009 book, ‘Climate of Extremes,’ background research on climate change, mainly in the areas of ice melt and temperature histories, and background research required for invited lectures around the world.” (Climate of Extremes was published by the Cato Institute in January of this year [2009].) Asked whether the funding came from a specific company, donor or foundation, Michaels wrote via email that there wasn’t “for this or for any of my activities.” (In case the Cato Institute knew of dedicated funding sources for Michaels work that he was unaware of, I also emailed an inquiry to the think tank’s media office. They did not respond.)”[70]


[ . . . ] In their 1996 book No Mercy, University of Colorado Law School scholars Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado describe a shift in Cato’s patron base over the years. “Early on,” they wrote, “Cato’s bills were largely paid by the Koch family of Wichita, Kansas. Today, most of its financial support from entrepreneurs, securities and commodities traders, and corporations such as oil and gas companies, Federal Express, and Philip Morris that abhor government regulation.”[74] Though diversified, Koch Industries amassed most of its fortune in oil trading and refining. [75]

See the interactive map at the following link:


Cato Institute

Muckety news stories featuring Cato Institute
Koch money is finding its way to Madison.
February 23, 2011

People related to Cato Institute:

K. Tucker Andersen – director
Frank Bond – director
Edward H. Crane – president
Richard J. Dennis – director
William A. Dunn – director
Kevin L. Gentry – director
Ethelmae C. Humphreys – director
David H. Koch – director
Robert A. Levy – director
John C. Malone – director
William A. Niskanen – director
David H. Padden – director
Lewis E. Randall – director
Howard S. Rich – director
Donald G. Smith – director
Jeffrey S. Yass – director
Fred Young – director

Other current Cato Institute relationships:

State Policy Network – associate member

Cato Institute past relationships:

Whitney L. Ball – director of development

Charles G. Koch – founder
David B. Kopel – associate policy analyst
William A. Niskanen – chairman
Frederick W. Smith – director
Walter E. Williams – advisory board member


Examples of Mainly Corporate Funded Think Tanks: Cato Institute

Founded in 1977 the Cato Institutes 1998 budget made up US$ 11 million. Its funding consists of corporate and private donations (especially from corporations and executives in the highly regulated industries of financial services, telecommunications and pharmaceuticals industries) and sales of publications.

Catos corporate donors include tobacco firms: Philip Morris (Rupert Murdoch sits on Philip Morris board of directors) and R.J. Reynolds. Financial firms: American ExpressChase Manhattan BankChemical BankCiticorp/Citibank, Commonwealth Fund, Prudential Securities and Salomon Brothers. Energy conglomerates: Chevron CompaniesExxon Company, Shell Oil Company and Tenneco Gas, as well as the American Petroleum InstituteAmocoFoundation and Atlantic Richfield Foundation. Furthermore the Cato Institute is funded by pharmaceutical firms: Eli Lilly & CompanyMerck & Company and Pfizer, Inc.,foundations, like Koch, Lambe and Sarah Scaife and companies from the telecommunications sector: Bell Atlantic Network Services, BellSouth Corporation, Microsoft, NYNEX Corporation, Sun Microsystems and Viacom.


There have been several articles written lately about the involvement of Koch industries with state Governor’s, particularly most recently with Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker.
Here are some good articles:
Below is a pdf document put out by the Cato Institute that clearly shows their objective of decreasing the power of Unions because of their ability to lobby and spend money for Liberal and Progressive issues and candidates.

“Labor unions play a diminishing role in the private
sector, but they still claim a large share of the public-sector
workforce. Public-sector unions are important to examine
because they have a major influence on government
policies through their vigorous lobbying efforts. They are
particularly influential in states that allow monopoly
unionization through collective bargaining.
Collective bargaining is a misguided labor policy
because it violates civil liberties and gives unions
excessive power to block needed reforms. To provide
policymakers with greater flexibility and to improve
government efficiency, states should follow the lead of
Virginia and ban collective bargaining in the public sector.”

Click Picture to See Full Size

I would expect that there will be other conservative governors, from states other than Wisconsin, that will be trying to do away with collective bargaining too. There have been protests in Ohio and Indiana has a bill very similar to Wisconsin’s, See Indiana Senate Bill 0273.

From the article: Wisconsin Leads Way as Workers Fight State Cuts by Michael Cooper

“In Tennessee, a law that would abolish collective bargaining rights for teachers passed a State Senate committee this week despite teachers’ objections. Indiana is weighing proposals to weaken unions. Union members in Pennsylvania, who are not necessarily facing an attack on their bargaining rights, said Friday that they planned to wear red next week to show solidarity with the workers in Wisconsin.”

“In many states, Republicans who came to power in the November elections, often by defeating union-backed Democrats, are taking aim not only at union wages, but at union power as they face budget gaps in the years ahead.”

“FreedomWorks, a Washington group that helped cultivate the Tea Party movement, said it was trying to use its lists of activists to turn out supporters for a variety of bills aimed at cutting the power of unions — not just in Wisconsin, but in Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio as well.”


Criticisms of the Cato Institute.

Part of the “Critiques of Libertarianism” site.

Last updated 08/27/10.

A “libertarian” quasi-academic think-tank which acts as a mouthpiece for the globalism, corporatism, and neoliberalism of its corporate and conservative funders. Cato is an astroturf organization: there is no significant participation by the tiny libertarian minority. They do not fund it or affect its goals. It is a creature of corporations and foundations.

The major purpose of the Cato Institute is to provide propaganda and soundbites for conservative and libertarian politicians and journalists that is conveniently free of reference to funders such as tobacco, fossil fuel, investment, media, medical, and other regulated industries.

Cato is one of the most blatant examples of “simulated rationality”, as described in Phil Agre’s The Crisis of Public Reason. Arguments need only be plausibly rational to an uninformed listener. Only a tiny percentage will notice that they are being mislead. That’s all that’s needed to manage public opinion.


A Critical Assessment of “Lies, Damned Lies, & 400,000 Smoking-Related Deaths”.
The Cato Institute, heavily funded by tobacco companies, hired Levy and Marimont to denounce statistics about smoking related deaths. This article refutes their key arguments, finding them unscientific and inflammatory.
Media Moguls on Board: Murdoch, Malone and the Cato Institute
An Extra! (the magazine of FAIR, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting ) article that describes how media giants use Cato to lobby Congress for corporate welfare and legal monopolization.
Why Privatizing Social Security Would Hurt Women
An Institute For Women’s Policy Research rebuttal to Cato Institute proposals and claims about Social Security privatization.
An Analysis Of The Cato Institute’s “The Case Against a Tennessee Income Tax” 
Senate finance panel examines Cato report, recognizes propaganda
Citizens For Tax Justice lay open the shoddy errors behind this typical example of the claims Cato makes. The Tennessee Senate finance panel also identified a large number of other errors.
Who knew? The Swedish model is working.
Paul Krugman points out that CATO and other conservatives were dead wrong in their predictions for Sweden, and that big welfare states do sometimes work well. From The Unofficial Paul Krugman Archive.
Libertarian Think Tanks
Tom Tomorrow’s “This Modern World” gives credit where it is due.
Do Windmills Eat Birds?
David Case, executive editor of TomPaine.com, exposes a quotation out of context by CATO in a case of pretend environmental concern.
Millionaires One and All
(PDF) Details the fallacies underlying the CATO Social Security Calculator. Under realistic assumptions, you’d accumulate 1/10th to 1/30th of what CATO estimates. Part of The Social Security Network.
Rethinking the Think Tanks
Sierra Magazine’s article detailing the corporate financing of anti-environmental propaganda from thinktanks like Cato.
Internet Bunk: The Junk Science Page
The CATO Institute is a corporate front that employs Steven Milloy to tarbrush opponents scientific arguments as “Junk Science”. Robert Todd Carroll’s excellent The Skeptic’s Dictionary details Milloy’s unscientific part in this PR campaign.
Zogby Polling For Cato Institute, Other Clients, Manipulates Findings To Misrepresent Public Opinion About Social Security
A poll based on spin, rather than real alternatives, yields more spin. From Campaign For America’s Future.
Cato Institute: “Libertarian” in a Corporate Way
Norman Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy details how the CATO Institute represents its anti-regulation corporate funders, not libertarian individuals. The goal is to give corporate propaganda an air of objectivity by concealing its source.
The ‘freest economies in the world’.
John Berthelsen of the Asia Times points out that the Cato Institute’s ‘economic freedom’ index seems to have no idea of the reality of government intervention and market oligopoly in Hong Kong and Singapore.
NEW 5/06: Dogmatic Libertarians
John Fonte (in National Review) writes a conservative response to the dogmatic Cato position on open borders. He points out the obvious that somehow libertarians seem to miss: borders are important to self-governance for basic reasons of security.
NEW 5/06: The Cato Hypocrisy
David Brin describes “truly grotesque hypocrisies, putting shame to any pretense that these Cato guys are “libertarians,” let along honest intellects.”
NEW 1/07: Comments on “Has U.S. Income Inequality Really Increased”
Gary Burtless of The Brookings Institution severely criticizes the analysis of Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute in the Reynold’s paper Has U.S. Income Inequality Really Increased? The answer is yes, contrary to Cato propaganda.
NEW 3/07: The Denialists’ Deck of Cards: An Illustrated Taxonomy of Rhetoric Used to Frustrate Consumer Protection Efforts
Chris Jay Hoofnagle details the public relations methodology of CATO and other anti-consumer, business-funded organizations. Count how many of these you’ve heard on your favorite topic: global warming, for example.
NEW 2/08: CFP’s Laffer Curve Video
Law Professor Linda Beale debunks the latest Laffer Curve propaganda video from the “Center for Freedom and Prosperity” and CATO’s Dan Mitchell.
NEW 11/08: Politics Compromises the Libertarian Project
Matthew Yglesias takes the Cato Institute to task for corporate shilling in it’s own “jornal”, Cato Unbound .
NEW 8/10: Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.
Jane Mayer’s The New Yorker article on Charles and David Koch. They have financed libertarian propaganda with more than 100 million dollars over more than 30 years. They founded and control the major libertarian think tanks Cato, Reason, Mercatus, and others. See: Koch think tanks at SourceWatch.

Print References

The links here are to Amazon.com, through their associates program, primarily because of the review information. Books without links are generally out of print, and can often be easily found at AddAll Used and Out Of Print Search. Good sites for bargain shopping for sometimes expensive new books are Online Bookstore Price Comparison and AddAll Book Search and Price Comparison. Both of those list applicable coupons. Another is BookFinder.com.

Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber “Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future”
Details of the public relations and brownlash manipulations of CATO, Steven Milloy, and others.
Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado “No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda”
(Temple Univ. Press 1996). The influence of Cato and Heritage Foundations.

Copyright 2007 by Mike Huben ( mhuben@world.std.com ).
This document may be freely distributed for non-commercial purposes if it is reproduced in its textual entirety, with this notice intact.

The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism – review of a review

I was checking out a new book I came across: The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism by John Nichols. I noticed a book review of it by Michael Lind in the Guardian. Mr. Linds is very misinformed or else is intentionally spreading disinformation. Either way, I thought I should respond:

– – –

“Yet Nichols distorts history by dragooning reformist liberals into his socialist tradition. For example, Tom Paine is posthumously drafted as a socialist hero because he favoured a version of a welfare state and progressive taxation, even though these are compatible with an economy based primarily on private property. Nichols does not mention Paine’s belief in minimal government or his support of an armed citizenry, which are cited today by American libertarians and opponents of gun control.”

There is no inherent conflict between libertarianism and socialism, between valuing both liberty and fairness, both negative and positive freedom, between valuing both individual and collective good, both private and public good. I can’t stand this ideological mindset of either/or absolutism and win/lose scenarios.

Socialism can’t co-exist with capitalism, but it can co-exist with a free market (a criticism even made by some libertarians such as John C. Medaille). And why is this reviewer so simpleminded as to think someone can’t simultaneously support socialism, minimal government and gun rights. The reviewer asks why Nichols doesn’t mention Paine’s belief in minimal government. If the reviewer is demanding fairness, then why didn’t he mention Paine’s belief in a government that is strong enough and central enough to enforce regulation of ownership rights and to constrain the problems caused by private ownership?

This book review is so far beyond misinformation as to not even be amusing. There are all kinds of socialists, including minarchists and even anarchists. As for libertarianism, it’s history is intertwined with that of socialism:


The United States is sort of out of the world on this topic. Britain is to a limited extent, but the United States is like on Mars. So here, the term “libertarian” means the opposite of what it always meant in history. Libertarian throughout modern European history meant socialist anarchist. It meant the anti-state element of the Workers Movement and the Socialist Movement. It sort of broke into two branches, roughly, one statist, one anti-statist. The statist branch led to Bolshevism and Lenin and Trotsky, and so on. The anti-statist branch, which included Marxists, Left Marxists — Rosa Luxemburg and others — kind of merged, more or less, into an amalgam with a big strain of anarchism into what was called “libertarian socialism.” So libertarian in Europe always meant socialist. Here it means ultra-conservative — Ayn Rand or Cato Institute or something like that. But that’s a special U.S. usage. There are a lot of things quite special about the way the United States developed, and this is part of it. There [in Europe] it meant, and always meant to me, socialist and anti-state, an anti-state branch of socialism, which meant a highly organized society, completely organized and nothing to do with chaos, but based on democracy all the way through. That means democratic control of communities, of workplaces, of federal structures, built on systems of voluntary association, spreading internationally. That’s traditional anarchism. You know, anybody can have the word if they like, but that’s the mainstream of traditional anarchism.

And, as for liberal reformers, social democrats and socialists are kissing cousins. Socialists seem far more supportive of social democracy than the average person. A government doesn’t have to be socialist in order to implement socialist policies and socialist solutions don’t require a state to implement them. Many if not most socialists I’ve come across aren’t for statist socialism, especially not in terms of Maoism or Stalinism.

“In discussing the perennial failed candidates of the Socialist party, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, Nichols edits aspects of their thought which are incompatible with modern leftism.”

So? What does that have to do with anything? If you look at early proponents of capitalism, you’ll find people who held views which are incompatible with modern fiscal conservatism or modern lots of things. People are complex and hold complex views of the world. Also, people’s views are dependent on the times. Even radical thinkers aren’t always able to see entirely beyond the status quo worldview of the society they live in.

As a last point, it’s a complete fabrication to say that:

“Nichols ignores the principled anti-communism of much of the democratic socialist left.”

Nichols writes about this (pp. 181-182):

There were certainly American Communists who romanticized the Soviet Union, made absurd apologies for its totalitarian excesses and aligned their positions in domestic debates to parallel “the Moscow line.” But there were many other Communists and non-Communist lefties, like Longshore union head and west-coast CIO director Harry Bridges, who were less interested in what was happening in Leningrad than in the intensity of the commitment of CP activists to organize workers in Seattle and Pittsburgh and Birmingham. They tended to share the view expressed by the Australian-born Bridges when the government attempted to deport him on charges that he was a “secret Communist.” Bridges denied the affiliation, expressed robust small-“d” democratic views and derided the notion that working with groups that supported strong unions and public ownership of utilities and major industries made him un-American. Radical trade unionists weren’t taking orders from abroad, Bridges explained, they were responding to reality on the ground in a United States that had been ravaged by the Great Depression.

Was this supposed to be a book review or just a hit job?

Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?

Was Classical Liberalism and Social Democracy Opposed?

utubehayter wrote:

Hold on, you think classical liberals were for social democracy? Oh boy, what Thomas Paine are you reading? The same anarchist that almost got himself killed by the Jacobins for his anti-democracy stance? And Henry David Thoreau, the “almost an anarchist” classical liberal?

Where the hell do these people preach social democracy?


“Not monarchy” does not mean “a republic”. And you are calling others ignorant?

My Response

The broadest definition of classical liberalism is all liberalism prior to the 20th century. I realize modern right-wingers have come to define classical liberalism narrowly to only refer to themselves and assert that it represents the ‘true’ conservative tradition. But some modern liberals also claim their lineage comes from classical liberalism. And it must be noted that the liberal values and vision of social democracy existed long before the Progressivism of the 20th century. Alan Wolfe writes (from A False Distinction):

[E]verywhere I go, the moment I tell people that I have written a book about liberalism, I am invariably asked which of the two I mean. Classical liberalism, my interlocutors patiently explain to me, is that wonderful notion of the free market elucidated by Adam Smith that worships the idea of freedom. The modern version, by contrast, is committed to expansion of the state and, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to slavery. One must choose one or the other. There really is no such thing, therefore, as modern liberalism. If you opt for the market, you are a libertarian. If you choose government, you are a socialist or, in more recent times, a fascist.

I try to explain to people that in my book I reject any such distinction and argue instead for the existence of a continuous liberal understanding that includes both Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. But so foreign is this idea to them that they stare at me in utter disbelief. How could I have possibly written a book on liberalism, I can almost hear them thinking, when this guy doesn’t know a thing about it?

[ . . . ] I think of the whole question of governmental intervention as a matter of technique. Sometimes the market does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do.

When instead we do discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish. Both were on the side of enlightenment. Both were optimists who believed in progress but were dubious about grand schemes that claimed to know all the answers. For Smith, mercantilism was the enemy of human liberty. For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.

Liberalism and conservatism aren’t specific ideologies so much as they are general attitudes. By definition, a conservative wishes to conserve and a liberal does not. This brings us to one of the problem of American politics. As Gunnar Myrdal explained, “America is conservative in fundamental principles… but the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.” So, conservatism will criticize the living breathing liberalism of the moment often in defense of the fossilized liberalism of the past. This is why conservatives will claim classical liberalism as their own. Liberalism of the past is safe because it’s been cleansed of all unknown, and hence uncontrollable, elements. Even though neither is a specific ideology, conservatism is forever seeking to conserve the ideologies of the past whether they are considered liberal or conservative. Conservatives in the past would have criticized classical liberalism, but conservatives today can safely admire it because it’s been made into a set doctrine. This might also explain why many Americans identify as conservative even as they hold traditionally ‘liberal’ positions. Progressive policies were liberal when they were first proposed, but now that they’ve been established for almost a century they’ve become a part of the American tradition and so many conservatives will seek to conserve something like Social Security.

Liberalism, by nature, is constantly changing, constantly pushing the boundaries, constantly trying new things (or putting old things in new contexts). As such, liberalism isn’t a single set of beliefs and policies. When conservatives are getting used to classical liberalism, liberals are already onto another original concept or system. Liberals adapt to present circumstances seeking to go in new directions. Nonetheless, there is a fundamental core to the liberal attitude. As Wolfe points out, “For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.” A liberal is less concerned for the method than for the desired results (which the conservative, burdened by traditions of the past, might consider overly idealistic and pragmatically unrealistic; this reminds me of research that showed optimists are less realistic about the present but, for that reason, less likely to get stuck in present problems; therefore, it’s more difficult for the pessimistic conservative to envision a new future or to trust what a liberal envisions). As such, a liberal is willing to try any method or system to achieve the desired result, always with their ideal as the pole star to guide them. Liberalism is broad and wide-ranging because liberalism wants to expand, to liberate. Here is a general definition of liberalism:

Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, “of freedom”)[1] is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights.[2] Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but most liberals support such fundamental ideas as constitutionsliberal democracyfree and fair electionshuman rightscapitalismfree trade, and thefreedom of religion.[3][4][5][6][7] These ideas are widely accepted, even by political groups that do not openly profess a liberal ideological orientation. Liberalism encompasses several intellectual trends and traditions, but the dominant variants are classical liberalism, which became popular in the eighteenth century, and social liberalism, which became popular in the twentieth century.

Such a definition includes classical liberalism but obviously isn’t limited to it. Liberals, starting with the classical liberals, focus on the individual. They put greater importance on the human being than on the system. The system is merely there to serve people, not the person to conform to the system. When faced with an oppressive or unfair government, liberals will seek to free themselves by limiting government (i.e., classical liberalism). When faced with an oppressive or unfair capitalism, liberals will seek to free themselves by regulating capitalism (i.e., social democracy). It’s the same impulse just responding to different problems at different times. Both responses are seeking the public good by decreasing that which impinges upon individual freedom. It’s not mere idealization of the individual. It’s an understanding that what is good for one is good for all and what is bad for one is bad for all. But at any given time the balance between public good and individual freedom is never perfect, constantly shifting in order to adapt to present realities. This is why classical liberals, faced with an oppressive social system, emphasized individual freedom. And this is why social democrats, faced with an oppressive corporatist plutocracy, emphasized public good.

The conservative, on the other hand, wants a set of principles that will stand for all time. For this reason, the conservative prefers to find a system that has proven itself over time, a tradition (whether religious, political, or economic). The commonality between the fiscal conservative and social conservative is that both want to conserve, but American tradition is such a mixed bag that there are many choices about what a conservative may choose to conserve. American conservatives are put in an odd position. America was founded on radical change. How does one conserve radical change?

American Politics & Thomas Paine

What differentiates American politics is that Classical liberals “established political parties that were called “liberal”, although in the United States classical liberalism came to dominate both existing major political parties.” The struggle of early American politics wasn’t whether to be liberal or not, but how liberal to be. Thomas Paine, for example, was a radical liberal. Compared to Paine, many of the founding fathers were conservative in that they still wanted to conserve a ruling class of landowners and of educated elite. However, compared to the British political system, the founding fathers were liberal in that they wanted to eliminate the monarchy. This was the meaning the founding fathers had in mind when they used the word ‘republic’ to describe America. The original and most basic meaning of republic was a government that wasn’t a monarchy. Power didn’t come from a monarch but from the people (‘republic’ originates from res publica: the public thing/affair, commonwealth).

The debate between Paine and some of the founding fathers is rather telling about the internal conflict of American politics (that continues to this day). It was Paine’s radical vision that inspired the American Revolution, but that radical vision was tamed when the constitution was written. Many of the founding fathers were conservatives in that they feared change. They didn’t merely want to create something radically new as Paine proposed. The founding fathers saw themselves as part of a small ‘r’ republican tradition that had it’s roots in British culture. They revolted against the monarchy not to be radicals but to conserve this republican tradition. They didn’t trust the general public any more than they trusted the British monarchy. They weren’t against an aristocracy per se. They just wanted a political elite based on a meritocracy rather than on mere inheritance. They assumed the upper class of landowners were superior to the common rabble. That is why they explicitly denied the majority of the population the right to vote or to hold public office.

Paine, however, was against all aristocracy, against all ruling elites. Paine wanted all men and women to be free, to have the right to vote and hold public office. He realized that for practical reasons representation was necessary for democracy, but he wanted democracy to be as direct, as grassroots, as localized as possible. He wanted democracy to literally be in the hands of the people, no matter how poor, no matter whether man or woman, no matter what race or religion. Paine wasn’t shy in his defense of equal rights nor shy in his criticisms of those who would disenfranchise others of their rights (Dissertation on the First Principles of Government):

But the offensive part of the case is that this exclusion from the right of voting implies a stigma on the moral character of the persons excluded; and this is what no part of the community has a right to pronounce upon another part. No external circumstance can justify it: wealth is no proof of moral character; nor poverty of the want of it.

On the contrary, wealth is often the presumptive evidence of dishonesty; and poverty the negative evidence of innocence. If therefore property, whether little or much, be made a criterion, the means by which that property has been acquired ought to be made a criterion also.

The only ground upon which exclusion from the right of voting is consistent with justice would be to inflict it as a punishment for a certain time upon those who should propose to take away that right from others. The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected.

To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case. The proposal therefore to disfranchise any class of men is as criminal as the proposal to take away property.

When we speak of right we ought always to unite with it the idea of duties; rights become duties by reciprocity. The right which I enjoy becomes my duty to guarantee it to another, and he to me; and those who violate the duty justly incur a forfeiture of the right.

Let me now respond to the first part of utubehayter’s comment:

Hold on, you think classical liberals were for social democracy? Oh boy, what Thomas Paine are you reading? The same anarchist that almost got himself killed by the Jacobins for his anti-democracy stance?

I must admit that I’m still learning about Thomas Paine. I’ve learned about Paine mostly by my reading Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye and therefore my understanding of Paine is biased by this author, although I have read a bit of Paine’s writing on its own. Here is a quote where Kaye describes why so many different types of people have tried to claim Paine as one of their own (Kindle location 767):

In words that would forever delight libertarians and anarchists, he distinguished between society and government and maintained that “society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” Yet Paine was neither a libertarian nor an anarchist or for that matter a Lockean liberal. He was a revolutionary democrat, and contrary to the commonly accepted view, his tale was rendered not so much as a diatribe against government, at least not all forms of government, as a narrative of democratic beginnings and commitments.

So, that is the premise of Kaye’s book. I’ll now share some sections that make the case that Paine was a social democrat who believed government played an important role. There is a concept that conservatives don’t seem to understand. A person can be both a small ‘r’ republican and a small ‘d’ democrat’. In fact, one of the first American parties was the Democratic-Republican Party (the name is used by political scientists, but the members of the party often would call it either Republican or Democratic, “the two terms often used interchangeably.[22]). Kaye explains Paine’s own understanding of republicanism and democracy (Kindle location 841):

Republicanism to Paine, as he would later explain, meant not a “particular form of government” but a government constituted for “respublica … or the public good,” as opposed to one that served “despotic” ends. And he understood the particular form of government he advanced as representative democracy: “By ingrafting representation upon democracy, we arrive at a system of government capable of embracing and confederating all the various interests and every extent of territory and population.”24

The America Paine portrayed was not thirteen separate entities but a single nation-state. Deeply concerned that the tenuous colonial alliance might fall apart, he was the first to propose the idea of convening a conference to frame a “Continental Charter.” And—making it all the more original—his democratic commitments and sensibilities led him to insist that the conference be “impowered by the people.”

When Paine spoke of democracy, he meant it in the most radical and inclusive sense as an uncompromising egalitarianism (Kindle location 1129):

“in all countries where the freedom of the poor has been taken away, in whole or in part, that the freedom of the rich lost its defence,” he insisted that “freedom must have all or none, and she must have them equally.”61 Paine was not naïve. He knew freedom could be dangerous, but he pointed out that “if dangerous in the hands of the poor from ignorance, it is at least equally dangerous in the hands of the rich from influence.” Dismissing neither possibility, he suggested ways of addressing them. To prevent ignorance he recommended education. And to prevent political corruption he again demanded democracy: “numerous electors, composed as they naturally will be, of men of all conditions, from rich to poor.”

It’s true many of the founding fathers feared democracy, but Paine did not. One of the reasons the founding fathers feared democracy is because they feared what they saw happening in France. Paine’s response to France was to be optimistic. He hoped revolution would spread all across Europe and Paine’s writings inspired revolutionary fervor in many countries. The founding fathers feared that Paine would inspire in America what helped to inspire in France. But Paine believed in, rather than feared, the common man (Kindle location 1300):

Conceding the danger of “mobs,” Paine attributed their actions to the brutality of aristocratic societies, especially their cruel forms of punishment. Rejecting Burke’s thesis that generations were obliged to defer to their ancestors, he upheld the “rights of the living” and insisted that generations cannot “bind” future generations: “Every age and generation must be free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it.” And countering Burke’s propositions about the “ancient” origins of rights, he retorted that Burke did “not go far enough into antiquity,” for the “natural rights of man” went all the way back to “creation” and remained in every generation “equal” and “universal” among men. Divinely ordained, natural rights might be suppressed, but they could not be forfeited or alienated.16

Paine expressed tremendous confidence in the “genius and talents” of common people, if only governments would engage them: “There is existing in man, a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him … to the grave. As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its faculties should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions.”

In Paine’s vision of America, he saw the possibility of a government that would help the common person. He believed a government could empower the public by putting the power of the government in the hands of the public. He wanted a government that was literally for and by the people. For this reason, he wasn’t seeking to lessen the power of the government but to increase the power of the people through self-governance. A government was only worthy in his eyes to the degree that it helped all people equally and helped all people to achieve some semblance of equality. Paine was a social democrat in that he saw the necessity of a welfare state to lessen the problems of modern civilization, not a paternalistic state but an empowering government (Kindle location 1365):

Paine did more than censure Britain’s political order. Reviving the plan he had begun to formulate years earlier but had set aside in his encounter with America, he extended his radical-democratic thinking by outlining a series of welfare programs that a revolutionary change in government would afford. Along with suggesting a progressive estate tax to limit accumulation of property, he recommended raising the incomes of the poor by remitting their taxes and augmenting the sums, distributing special relief for families with children, creating a system of social security for the elderly, instituting public funding of education through a voucher system, providing financial support for newly married couples and new mothers, and establishing employment centers for the jobless. He also rendered a most appealing image of the good society:

When it shall be said in any country in the world, “My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of happiness”: when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.27

Even as Paine pushed radicalism in a social-democratic direction, he proclaimed, “I have been an advocate for commerce, because I am a friend to its effects.” It may seem odd to many of us today, but like many eighteenth-century radicals confronting the legacies of absolutism, Paine comprehended “political liberty and economic liberty” as mutually interdependent and imagined that economic freedom served to assure equality of opportunity and results. Witnessing monarchical regimes taxing the productive classes, transferring wealth to parasitic royals and aristocrats, and punishing working people and the poor, he personally had come to view nondemocratic governments, not markets, as the fundamental cause of social inequality and oppression. Consequently, he proposed the liberation of the market and expansion of commercial activity.28

Commerce was, for Paine, “a pacific system, operating to unite mankind by rendering nations, as well as individuals, useful to each other … If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable of, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivilized state of governments.” As much as he appreciated the manifold potential of free markets, however, he did not hold that equality and democracy must necessarily defer to the imperatives of commerce and trade. And as his revolutionary proposal for welfare-state policies attests, he increasingly realized that the democratic governments for which he fought would have to politically address inequality and poverty.

If you had any doubts about Paine being a radical social democrat (which isn’t the same as socialist or communist), the following should eliminate all doubts entirely (Kindle location 1562):

In July 1795 Paine published Dissertation on First Principles of Government, fervently reaffirming his commitment to republican democracy. While he granted that “property will ever be unequal,” he argued against the right of any regime to divide the citizenry into civil or political ranks by wealth and rejected the notion that owning property afforded any entitlements. Furthermore, he demanded the establishment of universal manhood suffrage. And laying down that “the only ground upon which exclusion from the right of voting is consistent with justice would be to inflict it as a punishment for a certain time upon those who should propose to take away that right from others,” he proclaimed. “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which others are protected.”49

When, regardless of his complaints, the government proceeded with its constitutional plans, Paine withdrew from the Convention and went to work on finishing the second part of The Age of Reason. That autumn he again fell seriously ill, and rumors flew around the Atlantic that he had passed away. But Mrs. Monroe nursed him back to health.

Back on his feet, Paine immediately set himself to writing a series of new pieces, including the highly original Agrarian Justice. He had come to see all the more clearly that inequality and poverty were the consequences not simply of exploitative systems of taxation and government expenditure but also of economic power and the payment of inadequate wages. “Civilization,” he wrote, “has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state … [T]he accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.”50

Paine refused to blame the poor for the economic circumstances to which they were reduced, for “poverty is a thing created by … civilized life,” which, he believed, did not exist “in the natural state.” In the face of increasing disparities, he grew increasingly impatient: “The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and … a revolution should be made in it.” And even more strenuously than he had in Rights of Man, Paine propounded that society had an obligation to address material inequality and poverty through a system of public welfare. This “ought to be considered as one of the first objects of reformed legislation,” he insisted, and its aim should be to “preserve the benefits of what is called civilized life, and to remedy at the same time the evil which it has produced.”51

Paine had been led to write Agrarian Justice by Bishop Richard Watson’s sermon “The Wisdom and Goodness of God, in having made both rich and poor,” which Watson had included in his reply to The Age of Reason. “It is wrong to say God made both rich and poor,” Paine responded. “He made only male and female; and He gave them the earth for their inheritance.” Paine then held that since God had provided the land as a collective endowment for humanity, those who had come to possess the land as private property owed those who had been dispossessed of it—“on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization”—an annual ground rent. Specifically, he delineated a limited redistribution of income by way of a tax on landed wealth and property:

To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property: And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.

And notably, Paine did not limit the initial stake or later payments to men.52

Paine also made it clear that he was not proposing a charity but rather was advocating the “right” of the dispossessed to “compensation.” And he then enunciated an important democratic principle and practice, namely that “the payments [are to] be made to every person, rich or poor. It is best to make it so, to prevent invidious distinctions.” Those who “do not choose to receive it,” he added, “can throw it into the common fund.”53

While Paine called for a “revolution in the state of civilization,” he was not a socialist. He did not suggest redistributing or recollectivizing the land. He did not contest the right of the propertied to hold their property. Nor did he long to restore some lost “golden age.” The progress of “civilization” had created inequality and poverty, yet it had also materially improved life. Not only was the natural state clearly “without those advantages which flow from agriculture, art, science and manufactures,” but “it is never possible to go from the civilized to the natural state.” There was no turning back the historical clock.

Paine’s vision of America is radical even by today’s standard of a welfare state. I don’t think it’s fair to even call Paine’s vision welfare because he merely saw it the egalitarian protection of God-given rights. God gave us all rights, but God didn’t give the ruling elite their wealth and land. Even today, most wealth in America is inherited rather than earned wealth. We always hear the promise of America that any person can grow up to be anything, even president. But we all know that is a lie, just pretty words to uplift the peasants from the drudgery of their existence. Paine, however, actually believed in those words.

Henry David Thoreau: Liberal?

Finally, let me deal with the last part of the comment by utubehayter:

And Henry David Thoreau, the “almost an anarchist” classical liberal?

I actually don’t know what Thoreau identified as, but I’d imagine he wasn’t much interested in confining himself to labels. Thoreau probably was inspired by classical liberalism. In fact, he was inspired by many things considering he read widely including books from Eastern countries. Whether or not we label him a classical liberal, it’s for certain he was a liberal even by modern standards of liberalism. It’s funny that utubehayter thinks there is a conflict between liberalism and anarchism considering that the latter is an just extreme version of the former. You can’t get any more liberal than anarchism. Anyway, I don’t think Thoreau was an anarchist. He was just a humanist who was cared about people and was suspicious of corrupt power, both in government and in capitalism.

I’ve written about this before:

Henry David Thoreau: Founding Father of American Libertarian Thought | by Jeff Riggenbach

Thoreau was a liberal libertarian who argued for egalitarianism and later inspired civil rights leaders such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King jr. Also, I’ve never seen any example of Thoreau defending property rights as do conservative libertarians. When he moved to Walden, he lived on someone elses property (Emerson’s property as I remember which Emerson had inherited from his wife). He did his own work as he was very industrious and knowledgeable, but he was perfectly fine with receiving gifts of goods he needed and borrowing tools.

“Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.”

Thoreau had some anti-statist tendencies for sure, but this wasn’t based on his feeling territorial about the home he built or protective of his private property. He apparently wasn’t even bothered by minor acts of theft.

“I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers. The tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire, the literary amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had of a supper. Yet, though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources, and I never missed anything but one small book, a volume of Homer, which perhaps was improperly gilded, and this I trust a soldier of our camp has found by this time.”

Watching this video helped me to articulate the difference between the two wings of libertarianism. A conservative libertarian tends to argue for rights in terms of capitalist terminology (e.g., property rights and contractual rights). And a liberal libertarian tends to define capitalism in terms of civil rights. This shows a difference of priority. Conservative libertarians are more accepting of hierarchical power and liberal libertarians prefer egalitarianism (liberalism being the common thread between libertarianism and anarchism).

“I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”

Political Labels – Meaningless? Divisive?

I keep coming across the problem with political labels. I’m actually a fan of labels when they are used to accurately represent fundamental differences, but too often that isn’t how they are used. I probably don’t have much hope to disentangle that which has been intentionally tangled. Still, I can at least explain my own understanding of the entanglement.

First, there is a difference between European and American political histories. In Europe, conservatism has traditionally been supportive of government. In America, conservatism opposed the government because the government was founded on a liberal vision. So, American conservatism is radicalized and contradicts traditional conservatism. To speak of the conservative tradition in America is to speak of an idiosyncratic tradition. The American conservative tradition isn’t traditionally conservative. It’s more complex than that, but there is a basic truth to this explanation.

Second, there is a difference between mainstream politics and majority public opinion. America was inspired by a vision of populist liberalism, but the founding fathers were mistrusting of this vision and so they created a new entrenched ruling elite (rich white males, landed aristocracy, plutocratic owner class). So, American politics has an inherent conflict. The original vision that inspired the American Revolution has yet to be fulfilled. This puts conservatives in a weird position when they try to defend the American tradition. Are they defending the radically liberal vision or are they defending the ruling elite? In some sense, the two are so mixed that they can’t easily be separated. The founding fathers were liberal for their day and yet socially conservative compared to present society, especially in their favoring a hierarchical society built on slavery where most citizens are disenfranchised from voting and holding political office.

Third, about a century ago through lies and deception corporations gained the legal rights of personhood. At that time, there was a populist revolt against the capitalist oligarchy. But it didn’t last as the ruling elite quickly destroyed it and co-opted the rhetoric. With corporate personhood, the founding father’s plutocracy was turned into a corporatocracy. Yet it’s a corporatocracy that retains the external elements of America’s social democracy. Corporatocracy is what Ike was warning about when he spoke of the Military-Industrial Complex. The 20th century has been the history of that warning not being heeded. The result is that the entire mainstream political spectrum has been pushed toward the right (toward a fiscal conservatism defined by the plutocratic ruling class of business owners, CEOs, bankers, investors, lobbyists, and corporatist politicians).

Fourth, there used to be a left-wing and a right-wing in both parties. This changed when the entire country had a political switch over the past half century or so. The Democratic Party used to be strong in the South, but is now strong in the North. However, the Democratic Party still is strong with poor, minorities, and other disenfranchised demographics even in the South. And the Democratic Party has maintained both a left-wing and a right-wing (Democrats are almost equally divided between those who identify as liberals, conservatives, and moderates). The Republicans were the party of Lincoln, the leader of the Northern Aggression who forced the South to end slavery. Republicans were the party that defended government instead of attacking it. Republicans were called that because they believed in the ‘republic’ which is the government. Earlier in the 20th century, there were still many progressive Republicans like Eisenhower. But there was a purging of the left-wing of the GOP which has caused the conservative movement to become radicalized toward the far right, specifically the far right of social conservatives. This radicalization has, as research has shown, led the conservative movement to become strongly aligned with right-wing authoritarians (a specific label with a specific definition as used in research).

All of this together has led Americans to have a very confused sense of politics.

When polled: If Americans are given a choice between identifying as liberal, conservative or moderate, the majority chooses moderate. If Americans are only given a choice between liberal or conservative, the majority chooses conservative. However, when asked about specific political positions and policies, liberals and moderates are largely in agreement. What usually is defined as ‘liberal’ positions are supported by a majority of Americans.

So, there is an apparent contradiction between what Americans label themselves as and what Americans actually support. This is because for decades the word ‘liberal’ has been portrayed in very negative terms which the American public has internalized. Mainstream politicians and media pundits have increasingly portrayed liberalism as the far left which is obviously not the case since moderates and the majority agree with liberals. The political spectrum has been pushed so far to the right that the far left is almost entirely excluded from public debate. The vacuum left from the banishment of left-wingers has forced moderate liberals to fill that position on the left end of the spectrum.

The political center in Washington isn’t the political center of the American public. Most Americans are moderates, but most politicians are polarized in their rhetoric. Also, most activists are polarized as well. This leaves a moderate silent majority which is in fact the liberal silent majority. Most liberals are probably so silent because they don’t even know they are liberals.

On top of that, the majority of Americans don’t vote because America has a history of disenfranchising the masses (which was intentionally created by the founding fathers). Conservatives, like the founding fathers, don’t trust the masses and are suspicious of democracy because it gives power to the masses. The silent majority isn’t just silent but silenced. Our political system is technically a democracy (however imperfect and corrupt), but even admitting this fact is a concession conservatives are unwilling to make. Conservatives will say that we live in a republic, not a democracy. I find that funny since there is no inherent conflict between the two. Yes, we are a republic AND we are democracy. Anyway, there is nothing inherently good about a republic. China is a republic.

A further confusion is that many Americans, especially among conservatives, don’t understand the difference between a liberal, a socialist, a communist, and a fascist. It’s all one and the same to them. As I’ve already pointed out, the contemporary American liberal is actually a moderate and, I would add, a small ‘r’ republican (in that they support our republican government). Beyond that, a socialist isn’t a communist isn’t a fascist. Socialism is a broad category which gives power to individuals and to communities of individuals. To varying degrees, socialism can be found in many churches, local organizations, unions, etc. Communism and fascism, on the other hand, are specifically about governments. A communist government owns the means of production. And a fascist government is controlled by those who own the means of production. But the distinction is often blurred. For example, the Nazis were fascists who used socialism to label themselves while killing and imprisoning socialists as well as communists. If you were a socialist being killed or imprisoned by Nazis, you wouldn’t be comforted by the fact that Nazis labeled themselves as ‘socialists’.

Yet another confusion, especially among conservatives, is that libertarianism and classical liberalism is true conservatism. Now, that is a confusion of labels worthy of a propagandist. The original libertarians and classical liberals were radically liberal and not conservative in any sense. Some of them thought free markets were potentially beneficial, but they were also very wary of capitalism not constrained by the morality of public good. The first libertarians were labor movement socialists (which makes it all the more ironic that most self-identified libertarians today are mostly from the privileged upper class). The godfather of American libertarianism, Henry David Thoreau, criticized the capitalism of his day which is the very same 19th century capitalism that right-libertarians today like to romanticize. The original vision of America was described by Thomas Paine who was a classical liberal of the bleeding heart liberal variety. Even so, left-libertarians like Thoreau and radical liberals like Paine are today so far to the left that they are no longer even included on the political spectrum. Even militant secessionists get more media attention and mainstream respectability. Washington politicians are simply being good conservatives when they speak about overthrowing the government, but when a moderate liberal defends the moral justification of the government they get labeled as a far left socialist.

The confusions abound. Many people think of America as a Christian nation, but only a minority of Americans regularly attend church and atheists know more about the Bible than most who claim to be Christian. Republicans use fiscal conservatism as rhetoric, but when asked it’s self-identified liberals who state the most interest in balancing the budget. Tea Party supporters and many right-libertarians idolize the constitution, but some of these people have proposed repealing the 14th amendment just because they don’t like immigrants and they’ve sought to take away the rights from the working class by busting unions. It’s hard to know what to make of all this.

Even though I think of myself as a liberal, I don’t mean to just blame conservatives. When I read about traditional conservatism, I find elements of it quite appealing. I’ve always been mistrusting of radicalism and not just because the radicalism of American conservatives. I’m like Paine in that I want to believe in our democratic government. Paine would be disappointed to see our country becoming ever more fascist, but he would be quite uplifted by the fact that the government finally ended slavery which he wanted the government to do right from the beginning. I want to believe in America, including the government. In this sense, I’m ‘conservative’. But being this kind of a ‘conservative’ in America means that you’ll likely feel more at home with those who identify as ‘liberals’. As such, I praise conservatism even as I criticize conservatives.

I had no grand purpose in analyzing all these labels. I just wanted to explain my own understanding. I keep hearing the same muddled labels being argued about… which is annoying. I also find it annoying when someone claims the labels are meaningless, that the left/right dichotomy was created to divide and conquer. My problem is most people who think labels are meaningless seem to do so because of ignorance about the history of those labels. Yes, those in power do use tactics of divide and conquer, but they also use tactics of keeping the public so ignorant that they can’t make intelligent distinctions.

I feel harshly judgmental (which isn’t unusual for me), but that isn’t the point. Maybe those who think the labels have become meaningless are right. I don’t know if it matters. The labels themselves, of course, are just words. What matters is that which words are intended to represent. From my perspective, the loss of meaningful labels is the loss of meaningful discussion. What these labels represent is history. There is something sad about the collective forgetting of our collective past.

– – –

After writing the above, I had some further thoughts (surprise, surprise). I want to expand on a few points I made and maybe offer some corrections or clarifications.

I think the confusion of politics has always existed in America. It goes beyond the radicalization and polarization of the 20th century.

I was particularly thinking about political groups such as right-libertarians, objectivists, and anarcho-capitalists. I often consider these groups to be ‘conservative’ in the broad sense. Certainly, they are right-wingers. It makes me wonder what is the relation between conservatives and right-wingers. As I already pointed out, liberals and left-wingers often have very little in common. Many left-wingers choose not to identify as ‘liberals’ and many self-identified liberals disavow left-wingers. I’ve noticed similar dynamic can be found between right-wingers and conservatives (which, to an outsider like me, often appears as a conflict between those who emphasize fiscal conservatism and those who emphasize social conservatism).

The confusion in this area has two main aspects.

  1. Those on the right tend to conflate liberals and left-wingers and those on the left tend to conflate conservatives and right-wingers.
  2. If you go far enough to the right or left, you often end up around the same place: left-libertarians and right-libertarians, anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-capitalists, etc.

Both the left-wing and right-wing in America have some origins in classical liberalism (because America has its origins in classical liberalism). My complaint is that the right-wingers often want to claim classical liberalism for themselves. I’ve argued that classical liberalism has more in common with the left than the right. Ignoring the two wings, it’s obvious that liberalism in general has its origins in classical liberalism, although much has changed since the time of classical liberalism. On the other hand, one would have to make a major stretch to argue that contemporary conservatism overall has much to do with classical liberalism. Right-wingers make a simple mistake in assuming that classical liberalism automatically means minarchism or anti-statism. The early classical liberals, prior to the American and French revolutions, were against the governments of the time because those governments were monarchies with state-sanctioned religions. But they weren’t against all government in principle. For damned sure, classical liberalism isn’t just another name for anarchism.

That said, I must admit that I’m not an expert on classical liberalism. I think some right-wing ideologies have a case for their origins in classical liberalism, but they don’t have a case for sole possession of classical liberalism nor as the rightful inheritors, the official standard-bearers of all classical liberalism. When they attempt to make this argument, they discredit themselves with their own arrogant self-righteousness. I’m willing to share classical liberalism with them, but I won’t allow them to eliminate the liberalism from classical liberalism.

Here is what I see as the source of the confusion about classical liberalism. I’ve noticed two diverging tendencies within the founding generation of America. Both were liberal relative to the monarchy they were collectively opposing, but one was more liberal than the other. Some of the founders wanted a ruling elite based class, education and property. These founders were successful in implementing this vision to varying degrees in federal and state laws. Opposing them, were those who agreed with Paine which largely included those not a part of the ruling elite (Paine himself was born into the working class). Paine’s vision inspired the American Revolution, but was shoved to the side once the American ruling elite was freed from the British ruling elite. Paine was a radical liberal in the tradition of social democracy and so that meant that Paine was a classical liberal who didn’t hate government. He realized that a democratic government was the only protection from a new ruling elite. And many of the other founders feared democracy because they realized it limited their own power as the ruling elite while empowering the average person (i.e., the ‘mob’).

So, the right-winger today who self-identifies as a classical liberal tends to be in the American tradition of a capitalist ruling elite (plutocracy) that opposes other ruling elites (such as monarchies and often government in general) while simultaneously opposing the vast majority of citizens who potentially could oppose their own position of ruling elite. They see themselves as part of a meritocracy and so believe that they, unlike others, have earned their position as the ruling elite. However, it’s a bit misguided to call this classical liberalism. Classical just generally refers to the liberalism prior to the 20th century. Paine absolutely was a classical liberal. He was definitely liberal for politics of his day and his vision is still radically liberal by today’s standards. The right-wing founders were liberal in wanting to replace a monarchy with a republic, but they were conservative in wanting to maintain a ruling elite. I find it almost disingenous to call people classical liberals who feared giving people basic freedom and human rights. Paine wanted everyone to be absolutely and equally free, but many of the founders didn’t want to end slavery or give voting rights to all citizens because they believed maintaining their own freedom necessitated limiting the freedom of others. That is a very distorted and uninspiring notion of classical liberalism.

Many right-wing libertarians to this day find themselves in this conundrum of simultaneously praising and fearing freedom. Many right-wing libertarians and minarchists are fine with any constraints on freedom that help maintain their position of power and the social order that upholds it (e.g., strong border control and military). They like capitalism (or rather their version of big business corporatism) even if it means (or because it means) undermining democracy and disempowering those of the lower classes (e.g., union busting, Citizens United). This attitude may have elements of classical liberalism in terms of rhetoric, but it is also a response of wanting to deny the unadulterated and unrestrained vision of classical liberalism as proposed by Paine. Even though it seemed relatively liberal a couple centuries ago, this right-wing ‘classical liberalism’ is extremely conservative compared to the present leftwing ideologies that seek to free and empower all people of all classes and races. I prefer my classical liberalism taken straight and not watered down.

Unlike most of the founders, Paine was a genuine progressive. It is interesting to note that progressivism isn’t always or entirely aligned with big government and with liberalism. Some of the founders who wanted to maintain the status quo of a ruling elite (meaning they were afraid of Paine’s populist progressivism) were for that reason also for having a strong central government. Paine didn’t disagree with having a strong central government, but he wanted it to be balanced by localized grassroots democracy. The ideal of progressivism existed at the beginning of America’s political tradition. Progressivism and populism have tended to gone hand in hand. In the Populist Era a century later, Paine’s vision was reawakened but it served both socially conservative agendas (e.g., religious revivalism, Prohibition) and socially liberal agendas (e.g., feminism)… and, oddly, it often was the seemingly social liberal feminists who were promoting the socially conservative agendas such as Prohibition. Still, at the heart of it, there was the same basic impulse that motivated Paine. The Populists were progressive in that they believed by making changes in the social order the average person would be empowered to change themselves. It’s the ideal of grassroots democracy, of direct political action.

Once upon a time, the Republican Party was the progressive party. Republicans ended slavery and maintained the union, created the national park service, built the interstate highway system, created the EPA. Et Cetera. These aren’t inherently liberal or conservative issues. Maintaining the union was maintaining the status quo and protecting the social order, both conservative impulses in a fundamental sense (although they’ve come to be identified with contemporary liberals). Conservative used to mean ‘conserving’ such as conserving land and resources by creating national parks and by creating the EPA which protects (i.e., conserves) the environment. Even unions aren’t inherently liberal. Maintaining living wages for workers maintains social order and ensures a healthy community and stable families (all of which are issues central to conservatives) which is why Catholic communities have also tended to be union communities.

In conclusion:
The liberalism of America’s past gets claimed by many American conservatives today.
And the conservatism of America’s past becomes identified with Americans labeled as liberals today.
But the radical left of America’s past and present usually gets forgotten and ignored.

– – –

I just finished writing another post that is in some ways a continuation of what I wrote above:

Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?

By the way, this is a topic I’ve grappled with often. This post is a summarization of analysis I’ve made and data I’ve gathered in previous posts:

The End of Libertarianism – Jacob Weisberg

The End of Libertarianism
By Jacob Weisberg

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.“A source of mild entertainment amid the financial carnage has been watching libertarians scurrying to explain how the global financial crisis is the result of too much government intervention rather than too little. One line of argument casts as villain the Community Reinvestment Act, which prevents banks from “redlining” minority neighborhoods as not creditworthy.Another theory blames Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for causing the trouble by subsidizing and securitizing mortgages with an implicit government guarantee. An alternative thesis is that past bailouts encouraged investors to behave recklessly in anticipation of a taxpayer rescue.

“There are rebuttals to these claims and rejoinders to the rebuttals. But to summarize, the libertarian apologetics fall wildly short of providing any convincing explanation for what went wrong. The argument as a whole is reminiscent of wearying dorm-room debates that took place circa 1989 about whether the fall of the Soviet bloc demonstrated the failure of communism. Academic Marxists were never going to be convinced that anything that happened in the real world could invalidate their belief system. Utopians of the right, libertarians are just as convinced that their ideas have yet to be tried, and that they would work beautifully if we could only just have a do-over of human history. Like all true ideologues, they find a way to interpret mounting evidence of error as proof that they were right all along.

“To which the rest of us can only respond, Haven’t you people done enough harm already?We have narrowly avoided a global depression and are mercifully pointed toward merely the worst recession in a long while. This is thanks to a global economic meltdown made possible by libertarian ideas. I don’t have much patience with the notion that trying to figure out how we got into this mess is somehow unacceptably vicious and pointless—Sarah Palin’s view of global warming. As with any failure, inquest is central to improvement. And any competent forensic work has to put the libertarian theory of self-regulating financial markets at the scene of the crime.”

Ron Paul’s 19th Century Fantasy

I was just listening to a speech Ron Paul gave at a Tea Party convention. Some commenters noted it was the first full Ron Paul speech they’d seen from a major news source. Guess what the source is? RT America which is a Russian network that is partly financed by the Russian government.

It’s rather ironic because Americans like to think of themselves as being independent-minded, but you have to turn to a Russian network to get a diversity of alternative American voices. RT America has as guests such people as Thom Hartmann (originally from Air America radio), Cenk Uygur (started the most successful internet news show), and Alex Jones (of conspiracy theorist fame).

I like Ron Paul if only for his sincerity which is a rare attribute for a professional politician. Also, he is far from being stupid… but… His overall repetitive message of big government being the problem comes off as simplistically naive. No one could make such an argument if they knew history and were able to see outside of their own ideological reality tunnel.

I don’t blame Ron Paul per se. He is a businessman and so sees everything through the model of business. His idol is the free market. He honestly believes in it.

People like Ron Paul seem to argue that a free market would solve any problem. The simplest criticism is that a free market has never existed. There are always various people and groups controlling markets. The fundamental concept behind the free market argument is that businessmen have practical knowledge and so are economically smarter than politicians and regulators, smarter than academic professors and researchers. It is claimed that anyone other than businessmen will just mess up everything.

The context of this argument is the idiosyncratic history of America. The US early on was fairly isolated from other powerful countries and many of the communities on the continent were isolated by vast land, but it’s obvious the country wouldn’t remain that way. They didn’t need much of a military or navy. The powerful countries were busy fighting each other. The only reason America won its independence was because Britain was busy elsewhere. The reason the US didn’t need a strong navy was because the French navy defended the waters used by American trade ships. The American sense of exceptionalism arose from this isolation because there was no powerful countries nearby who either were able or willing to threaten us. All the wars we fought early on were minor and easily won.

So, unlike other countries, US markets developed with little regulation. The Boston Tea Party was partly motivated by fighting the collusion between big government and big business. The Founding Fathers intentionally wanted a disconnection between businesses and state just as they wanted between church and state. As far as I know, this was the first large-scale experiment ever to try to develop a free market. This was possible because America as a country grew as industrialization was beginning. The hope was that free markets would regulate themselves through competition and the innovativeness of early industrialization made people optimistic, but this experiment was largely a failure during the Gilded Age… or at least a failure in terms of a democratic society, especially as understood today.

Before the Progressive Era regulation, big business was powerful which led it to be oppressive and sometimes outright violent. They didn’t call them Robber Barons for nothing. Companies back then didn’t have to deal with government interference. There was no regulation and no safety inspections. Some companies even owned entire towns which they ran like anarcho-capitalist fiefdoms. They owned the stores, the hospitals, the schools, the housing. They owned everything. And, of course, workers had very little control. These company towns was nearly indentured servitude because workers could never make enough money to ever save and cost of everything was high.


Ok, but what about vertical oligopolies and monopolies, as MettaliarYanto says in his response? Also, what prevents a “monopoly of force in a given area” your definition of the state?

“[I]f one starts a private town, on land whose acquisition did not and does not violate the Lockean proviso [of non-aggression], persons who chose to move there or later remain there would have no right to a say in how the town was run, unless it was granted to them by the decision procedures for the town which the owner had established.” [Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, p. 270] Is that not such a monopoly, i.e. state, if private?
Is that not such a monopoly, i.e. state, if private? Contracts that employees signed could have provisions forbidding strikes, organizing, etc., agreeing to pay for police, courts, doctors, stores and militaries hired by the employer.
Company towns had every feature which anarcho-capitalists propose, private police, courts, military, etc. Company rules were law. Buying at the company store was required by their contracts. If they sturck or formed a union, they were fired and evicted instantly. The contracts were entered voluntarily, in your sense. Since rights can be waived, exactly what stops this? The British East India Co. was its own state, ruling for centuries. Same with King Leopold’s Congo, run by his corporation.
“Each mining camp was a feudal dominion, with the company acting as lord and master. Every camp had a marshal, a law enforcement officer paid by the company. The ‘laws’ were the company’s rules. Curfews were imposed, ‘suspicious’ strangers were not allowed to visit the homes, the company store had a monopoly on goods sold in the camp.
The doctor was a company doctor, the schoolteachers hired by the company . . . Political power in Colorado rested in the hands of those who held economic power. This meant that the authority of Colorado Fuel & Iron and other mine operators was virtually supreme . . . Company officials were appointed as election judges. Company-dominated coroners and judges prevented injured employees from collecting damages.” [The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-14, pp. 9-11]

Working conditions were unhealthy and dangerous. It was common for workers to be become sick, to be maimed or killed. If their health became bad enough or they were maimed badly enough, the person lost their job and probably wouldn’t be able to find another. There was no unemployment or disability pay. If the person died, their family lost it’s main source of income and kids would grow up without a parent. Also, many kids went to work early on and so didn’t get education. Because kids were small, they were used in mines. Because kids were cheap labor, they were used in factories. Many kids also were maimed and killed.

Work was hard and brutal. People were forced to work long hours without breaks, without overtime pay, and without any days off. People were forced to take any work no matter how dangerous because there was no welfare. If you lost your job, you became homeless and possibly starved to death. There were more people looking for work than there were jobs. Life was cheap. Basically, businesses had the upperhand. If you were fired for no reason or were cheated out of pay, you had no recourse. There was practically no regulation and no worker protection. There wasn’t yet any established and powerful unions to represent workers. When workers organized, they were fired and blacklisted. When workers attempted to form unions, union leaders were threatened and killed. When workers protested, private police or goons were used to terrorize and brutalize workers.

Despite all of this, so many people were poor and desperate that they confronted this private power even when it meant mass slaughter. Most of these working class people didn’t have guns or any kind of weapons. These people were so poor they owned very little. All they had was their own life to put on the line.

There was no legal guarantee of workers rights. The government mostly left companies to sort out their own problems. When the government did become involved, it was mostly local government and not the Federal government. In these cases, the government usually sided with the companies. But, in some cases, the Federal government intervened and enforced peace. Workers had more to fear from local governments because local politicians were more closely connected with local business owners.

For example:

This is similar to the civil rights movement. It was local (i.e., small) government that was acting oppressively and unconsitutionally. And it was the federal government that stepped in to help the average citizen. If businesses and local governments acted morally, the federal government would never have had to take drastic measures. The Federal government was responding to a real problem. People like Ron Paul idolize both free markets and small government, but it was the failure of both that caused people big government to defend their rights and lives.

The other thing these capitalist worshippers fail to understand is that, during the Wild West free market of early industrialization, many businessmen weren’t opposed to government just as long as it served their purposes. Bribery and corruption was common. The so-called free market was rife with cronyism. In the early 20th century, many businessmen supported and did business with fascist states around the world. There was even a planned fascist coup of the US which was linked to some businessmen.

If you want to look for the earliest defenders of consitutional rights and civil rights, you wouldn’t look to big businesses. There were, however, some collectivist communities like the Shakers that operated their own businesses and did so successfully. And there were the Wobblies which was one of the early workers movements. Neither of these was anti-capitalist by any means, but they were against the so-called free market that served corrupt power and oppressed the citizenry. Both accepted women and men, blacks and whites as equals in their organizations. The Shakers and Wobblies were some of the only places at the time where women and blacks could have their voices heard and could hold positions of power.

This was a time when blacks and women didn’t have the right to vote and couldn’t hold political office. Even poor white men had very little power. Industrialization was built on an ownership class with the entire working class treated like secondhand citizens. This was also the era of the genocide and ethnic cleansing targeted at the Native Americans. This is the era of the free market that so many worship as being as being an era of freedom, but the supposed freedom in reality only applied to rich white men. Yes, the rich white men were free from government imposition and free to force their will on everyone else.


The Pinkerton National Detective Agency, usually shortened to the Pinkertons, was a private U.S. security guard and detective agency established by Allan Pinkerton in 1850. Pinkerton became famous when he claimed to have foiled aplot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln, who later hired Pinkerton agents for his personal security during the Civil War.[citation needed] Pinkerton’s agents performed services ranging from security guarding to private military contracting work. At its height, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency employed more agents than there were members of the standing army of the United States of America, causing the state of Ohio to outlaw the agency due to fears it could be hired as a private army or militia.[citation needed] Pinkerton was the largest private law enforcement organization in the world at the height of its power.[1]

During the labor unrest of the late 19th century, businessmen hired Pinkerton agents to infiltrate unions, and as guards to keep strikers and suspected unionists out of factories. The best known such confrontation was the Homestead Strikeof 1892, in which Pinkerton agents were called in to enforce the strikebreaking measures of Henry Clay Frick, acting on behalf of Andrew Carnegie, who was abroad; the ensuing conflicts between Pinkerton agents and striking workers led to several deaths on both sides. The Pinkertons were also used as guards in coal, iron, and lumber disputes in IllinoisMichiganNew York, and Pennsylvania, as well as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

The Pinkertons were essentially a privatized force that combined detective agency, mercenaries, and the types of activities now associated with the FBI. Big business at it’s height was potentially more powerful than the Federal government.

During the Civil War, many blacks and poor whites knew a kind of power they never had before. Their was this whole new class of people who were well-trained and often well-armed. The Pinkertons couldn’t just pick on the poor and weak anymore. There is a reason that it was the outlaws and not the Pinkerton agents who were the cultural heroes back then. There was so much corruption and oppression that people were inspired by outlaws who stood up to power and fought back.

I’ve written about this topic a number of times:



In the most recent post, I expressed my frustration:


I feel frustrated when someone offers up something like the free market. The striving for freedom won’t save us. The problem is that we aren’t free. We are embedded and enmeshed in, intertwined with and integral to the entire world. We aren’t free of anything. The very idea of freedom is one of those many abstractions that keeps us trapped in the Iron Cage of rationality, the bureaucratization of humanity… costs and benefits, ideologies and systems, improvement and progress. It’s not that any given idea is wrong. Free markets, for example, sound wonderful. What frustrates me is the mindset that constantly creates more ideas to be forced on humanity, on reality, on all the world around us. We think that if we just find the right idea or principle, the right method or framework then the the problems will be solved… but the fundamental problems of civilization are never solved… or at least not so far.

Why I feel frustrated is because of people like Ron Paul. He isn’t a radical conspiracy theorist ranting about the government nor is an uneducated ideologue. Someone like him should know about the history of the US. So, why does he act like he is ignorant of this history or considers it so irrelevant that it’s not worth mentioning? I’m not arguing that there is no problems with the unions and regulations created during the Progressive Era, but it would be morally irresponsible to pretend that vast problems didn’t exist prior to the 20th century big government. Americans gave free markets a chance and free markets failed. Why would any rational person (besides rich white males) want to return to the social and economic conditions of the 19th century?

– – –

* As a note, I should point out that there never actually was a free market during the Gilded Age. For example, the railroads were built with government subsidies and land grants. Collusion between politicians and businessmen has always existed since the beginning of civilization. It happens on the local level as much as it happens on the national level.

Also, I’m not arguing that all 19th century businessmen were corrupt. But I am arguing that most if not all of the wealthiest tycoons became successful at least partly through less than moral tactics. There were other businessmen who fought against these Robber Barons, but they aren’t the names remembered because they aren’t the businessmen who formed the groundwork for today’s big business. Some would argue that the Robber Barons only became corrupt because they colluded with big government, but this certainly wasn’t progressive big government. The point is that corrupt businessmen will try to corrupt government, big or small.

Reagan: From Liberal to Neocon

Here is an early speech given when Ronald Reagan was still a liberal Democrat.

What he says in this speech still applies today. The odd part is that the gist of his criticisms apply equally to the results of his own trickle-down economics and union-busting. How did Reagan go from being a union leader who fought for average Americans to becoming a cynical neocon who undermined the ability of the working class to have a voice in politics? Working class people are worse off in that their manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas and their wages have decreased. Did Reagan ever care about helping people or was he always in it just for the power?

This isn’t a partisan criticism. I’m genuinely bewildered by Reagan’s motives. He is the only union leader to be elected as president, but he wasn’t even your average union leader. He was elected 7 times as a union leader. He originally defended the New Deal reforms. How does someone like that become a corporate spokesperson?

Chomsky has commented about this quite often.


There was an article in Business Week last week describing some of the consequences of the American state’s vicious anti-labor activities. Illegal firings for union organizing have gone up sixfold, it reckoned, in the past 25 years. In particular, thousands of union organizers have been illegally fired since the start of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1981.

According to the US Labor Department, the destruction of the unions as been the main factor in the decline of real wages that has continued since the Reagan era. Health and safety standards in the workplace have also deteriorated: there are laws, but they’re simply not enforced, so the number of industrial accidents has risen sharply in the past ten years. Then there is the effect of the decline of unions on democracy: the unions are one of the few means by which ordinary people can enter the political arena. Finally, there’s a psychological effect. The destruction of the unions is part of a much more general effort to privatize aspirations, to eliminate solidarity, the sense that we’re all in it together, that we care for one another.

But why did Reagan turn against working class people and become a corporate spokesperson? Why did he, as a union leader, turn against his own union members? Why did he become involve in the commie withchunt which was one of the darkest periods of American history?


The young Reagan was a staunch admirer of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (even after he evolved into a Republican) and was a Democrat in the 1940s, a self-described ‘hemophilliac’ liberal. He was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1947 and served five years during the most tumultuous times to ever hit Hollywood. A committed anti-communist, Reagan not only fought more-militantly activist movie industry unions that he and others felt had been infiltrated by communists, but had to deal with the investigation into Hollywood’s politics launched by the House Un-Amercan Activities Committee in 1947, an inquisition that lasted through the 1950s. The House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of Hollywood (which led to the jailing of the “Hollywood Ten” in the late ’40s) sowed the seeds of the McCarthyism that racked Hollywood and America in the 1950s.

In 1950, U.S. Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas (D-CA), the wife of “Dutch” Reagan’s friend Melvyn Douglas, ran as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate and was opposed by the Republican nominee, the Red-bating Congresman from Whittier, Richard Nixon. While Nixon did not go so far as to accuse Gahagan Douglas of being a communist herself, he did charge her with being soft on communism due to her opposition to the House Un-Amercan Activities Committee. Nixon tarred her as a “fellow traveler” of communists, a “pinko” who was “pink right down to her underwear.” Gahagan Douglas was defeated by the man she was the first to call “Tricky Dicky” because of his unethical behavior and dirty campaign tactics. Reagan was on the Douglases’ side during that campaign.

The Douglases, like Reagan and such other prominent actors as Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, were liberal Democrats, supporters of the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal, a legacy that increasingly was under attack by the right after World War II. They were NOT fellow-travelers; Melyvn Douglas had actually been an active anti-communist and was someone the communists despised. Melvyn Douglas, Robinson and Henry Fonda – a regist

The world we live in today is the vision of Reagan. The administration of George W. Bush and the downfall of the economy was the final culmination of the policies of Reagan. We now have a country with 1 in 200 citizens in prison and a wealth disparity comparable to developing nations. The permanent deficit we now have was created by Reagan. Fiscal conservative? Small government?

What exactly is this vision that Reagan helped to create and promote?


The United States, said Ronald Reagan, “is engaged in a war on terrorism, a war for freedom”

How familiar it all sounds.

Merely replace Soviet Union and communism with al-Qaeda, and you are up to date.

And it was all a fantasy.

The Soviet Union had no bases in or designs on Central America; on the contrary, the Soviets were adamant in turning down appeals for their aid.

The comic strips of “missile storage depots” that American officials presented to the United Nations were precursors to the lies told by Colin Powell in his infamous promotion of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction at the Security Council in 2003.

Whereas Powell’s lies paved the way for the invasion of Iraq and the violent death of at least 100,000 people, Reagan’s lies disguised his onslaught on Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

By the end of his two terms, 300,000 people were dead.

In Guatemala, his proxies – armed and tutored in torture by the CIA – were described by the UN as perpetrators of genocide.

There is one major difference today.

That is the level of awareness among people everywhere of the true purpose of Bush and Blair’s “war on terror” and the scale and diversity of the popular resistance to it.

In Reagan’s day, the notion that presidents and prime ministers lied as deliberate, calculated acts was considered exotic.


Reagan displays none of his storied optimism here. There’s no “Morning in America,” no soaring talk about making “a new beginning.” Instead, he warns that America is on the verge of an apocalyptic doom. It is a bleak speech, verging on despair, that unabashedly employs the most extravagant historical and philosophical comparisons—“Should Christ have refused the cross?”—to denounce our moral weakness and warn of our imminent demise. It is one of the great role player’s darkest roles.

The Speech is disturbing because it shows the paranoid, millenarian side of American conservatism, unleavened by Reagan’s Main Street sunniness. But it is also disturbing because it presents that right-wing vision in its pure form, unsullied by history. The Speech predates Reagan’s entry into the world of politics, with its compromises and accommodations. As president, Reagan ended up backing away from some of his most cherished ideals. He raised taxes, reached agreement with the Communists, folded his cards in the face of terrorism, increased the federal deficit, and expanded the federal government. Reagan never abandoned his rhetoric of good versus evil, but it turned out not to apply to the real world. The Speech allows us to imagine an alternative Reaganist future, in which he lives up to his words—a world where he really does bomb the Soviet Union, get rid of Social Security, and end the progressive income tax. The Speech is a kind of distillation of Reagan’s Platonic right-wing essence. Like Keats’s Grecian Urn, it freezes him, an immortal figure from a strange, lost part of the American id, eternally raging against communism, big government, and liberal traitors.

That future never happened, but Americans think it did. That’s one reason that New Right conservatism continues to wield a disproportionate influence in American life. But the other reason has to do with the inchoate anxieties, wishes, and fears to which The Speech appealed then, and to which the dream it spoke for appeals today.

The Speech tapped into the primordial American myth: untrammeled individuality. There must be a territory for Huck Finn to light out to, a promised land where authority—or government—does not reach. In this always-beckoning frontier, all the hindrances that drag Americans down are left behind. Businessmen can run their businesses as they like, free from the plague of do-gooder bureaucrats. White people need not carry the spurious cross of racial guilt. Unruly and ungrateful minorities—pinkos and softies and degenerates and pointy-heads and uppity women— are shown their place. Above all, the profoundly destabilizing specter of relativism, of compromise, of moral ambiguity, is banished. No longer need Americans accommodate themselves to evil. A divine certainty stretches from sea to shining sea.

This is as much a metaphysical wish as it is a political platform. It is a sermon as much as a speech. And it is in the gap between those two things—the space between the dream of absolute freedom and the reality of a fallen world—that America forever stumbles

What happened around the middle of last century that caused such insanity? How did the entire political system get flipped on it’s head?

Reagan was the first great neocon. The necons were the progressive liberals who became disenchanted with the New Deal and so became cynical-minded progressive conservatives. Looking back, it all seems very strange. The working class was smashed under the heel of corporate power and corporations gained a stranglehold on Washington politics. The American idealism was turned into a dark dream of power for the ruling elite. A movie actor and corporate spokesperson was elected president and he spun inspiring propaganda.

Sadly, there was disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Reagan preached values ideology and free market rhetoric. Government was part of the problem, Reagan told Americans. What Reagan gave Americans was a permanent deficit, an even stronger military-industrial complex, decreasing wages, shrinking middle class, outsourcing of good manufacturing jobs, and a growing wealth disparity.

Eventually, Americans elect George W. Bush who campaigned on the same Reagan neocon vision and gave America the same failures. After Bush is out of office, the Tea Party is taken over by people once again selling the same message of values ideology and fiscal responsibility. More of the same. Endlessly, more of the same. Libertarian Goldwater led to neocon Reagan. Ron Paul libertarians led to the Tea Party. It’s the same pattern repeating. Why? What does it all mean? And why don’t the American people see through the charade?

Libertarians: Privilege & Partisanship

Here are two blog posts that connect. They’re about some of the problems and limitations of the present conservative-leaning libertarian world view. I entirely agree.


At the above link, the blogger is responding to these articles:



And he responds with this commentary:

. . . libertarianism – as a political movement – is overwhelmingly white and male.  We tend to think of the racial composition of a political movement as just having electoral consequences, but it also has a profound effect on the core ideology of said movement.  At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, marginalized voices – racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays, etc. – are overrepresented among liberals and as such, the left that has been forced to grapple with the issues and concerns of marginalized communities in such a way as to make liberalism better equipped to deal with these issues.

It seems that insofar that libertarians experience oppression or constraints on their liberty, it is through the actions of the state rather than through culture, which makes sense. Libertarians are overwhelmingly white and male, and in a culture which highly values whiteness and maleness, they will face relatively fewer overt cultural constraints on their behavior than their more marginalized fellow-travelers.  Or in other words, a fair number of libertarians are operating with a good deal of unexamined privilege, and it’s this, along with the extremely small number of women and minorities who operate within the libertarian framework, which makes grappling with cultural sources of oppression really hard for libertarians.  After all – socially speaking – being a white guy in the United States isn’t exactly hard and that’s doubly true if you are well off.

Here is the comment I left:

You hit the nail on the head. What goes for libertarian these days tend to be rich white males. I pointed this out in a recent post of mine:


They’re concerned about freedom from rather than freedom for because of the reasons you stated. As they grew up with privilege, they’ve never known prejudice, poverty, and oppression. They don’t understand that there are still people in this country fighting for the basic rights and privilege that they accept as being their normal reality.

The thing is libertarianism wasn’t always this way. According to Chomsky, libertarianism began as a socialist workers movement in Europe. The founding father of American libertarianism was Henry David Thoreau who was very liberal and not pro-capitalist. I wrote about Thoreau’s libertarianism in another recent post:


The second blog post I mentioned is this:


. . . new libertarians are really disappointed conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists, who seek an intellectual basis for their values and find it in the rock-solid certainty of an ideology characterized by an ethic of individualistic, leave-me-alone, I-can-do-it-myself sufficiency. These disaffected Republicans know the surface of libertarianism; the details, which are hinted at by Stossel’s review and expressed in greater detail by virtually unknown contemporary writers like Virginia Postrel (”The Future and Its Enemies”) and others tend to make our neo-libertarian very uncomfortable.

You see, it’s one thing if “they” lose their house because they violated the laws of the market; it’s quite another if “I” lose my job because my employer can import a Filipino who will work for a quarter of what I was making. Well, to the real libertarian the second example is just as much the laws of the market as the first, so too bad.

These two posts bring up important issues about right-wing libertarians. Too many libertarians are oblivious to the classical liberal roots of libertarianism and too few understand that libertarianism isn’t inherently conservative. There is nothing about the libertarian world view that requires a person to be for conservative ideology such as pro-capitalism, and yet libertarianism is entirely against most of the central positions of mainstream conservatism (nationalism, drug prohibition, and using the federal government to regulate marriage and abortions).

Libertarianism could be a powerful movement if libertarians didn’t make it into a partisan movement and didn’t make into class war. Libertarianism shouldn’t be just for rich white conservatives. If libertarianism doesn’t fight for the rights of all and doesn’t fight for that which oppresses freedom, then can it even genuinely be considered libertarian?

Liberal and even socialist libertarians exist, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to the libertarians from right-wing think tanks and Fox News. Libertarianism began as a socialist workers movement in Europe, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to the rich white conservatives who control the libertarian message. I’d love to see a big tent libertarianism. Until that happens, it’s unlikely there will be a third party that can challenge the two party system.

Henry David Thoreau: Founding Father of American Libertarian Thought | by Jeff Riggenbach

I never thought about Henry David Thoreau in terms of libertarianism, but obviously some of his views pointed in the direction of libertarianism or even some form of anarchism.

I noticed a glaring ommission in the portrayal. Thoreau was a liberal libertarian who argued for egalitarianism and later inspired civil rights leaders such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King jr. Also, I’ve never seen any example of Thoreau defending property rights as do conservative libertarians. When he moved to Walden, he lived on someone elses property (Emerson’s property as I remember which Emerson had inherited from his wife). He did his own work as he was very industrious and knowledgeable, but he was perfectly fine with receiving gifts of goods he needed and borrowing tools.

“Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.”

Thoreau had some anti-statist tendencies for sure, but this wasn’t based on his feeling territorial about the home he built or protective of his private property. He apparently wasn’t even bothered by minor acts of theft.

“I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers. The tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire, the literary amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had of a supper. Yet, though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources, and I never missed anything but one small book, a volume of Homer, which perhaps was improperly gilded, and this I trust a soldier of our camp has found by this time.”

Watching this video helped me to articulate the difference between the two wings of libertarianism. A conservative libertarian tends to argue for rights in terms of capitalist terminology (e.g., property rights and contractual rights). And a liberal libertarian tends to define capitalism in terms of civil rights. This shows a difference of priority. Conservative libertarians are more accepting of hierarchical power and liberal libertarians prefer egalitarianism (liberalism being the common thread between libertarianism and anarchism).

“I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”