Big Head Press


L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 700, December 9, 2012

"So here's a call to arms—or at least to
keyboards—for all of those I hear wondering
what they can do to advance the cause of liberty."w3


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Down With Power! Down With Power! Down With Power!

Review of L. Neil Smith's Down with Power
by John Walker
kelvin@fourmilab.ch

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Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

In the first chapter of this superb book, the author quotes Scott Adams, creator of "Dilbert", describing himself as being "a libertarian minus the crazy stuff", and then proceeds to ask precisely what is crazy about adopting a strict interpretation of the Zero Aggression Principle:

A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being for any reason whatever; nor will a libertarian advocate the initiation of force, or delegate it to anyone else.

Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim. (p. 20)

The subsequent chapters sort out the details of what this principle implies for contentious issues such as war powers; torture; money and legal tender laws; abortion; firearms and other weapons; "animal rights"; climate change (I do not use scare quotes on this because climate change is real and has always happened and always will—it is the hysteria over anthropogenic contributions to an eternally fluctuating process driven mostly by the Sun which is a hoax); taxation; national defence; prohibition in all of its pernicious manifestations; separation of marriage, science, and medicine from the state; immigration; intellectual property; and much more. Smith's viewpoint on these questions is largely informed by Robert LeFevre, whose wisdom he had the good fortune to imbibe at week-long seminar in 1972. (I encountered LeFevre just once, at a libertarian gathering in Marin County, California [believe it or not, such things exist, or at least existed] around 1983, and it was this experience that transformed me from a "nerf libertarian" who was prone to exclaiming "Oh, come on!" whilst reading Rothbard to the flinty variety who would go on to author the Evil Empires bumper sticker.) Sadly, Bob LeFevre is no longer with us, but if you wish to be inoculated with the burning fever of liberty which drove him and inspired those who heard him speak, this book is as close as you can come today to meeting him in person. The naïve often confuse libertarians with conservatives: to be sure, libertarians often wish to impede "progressives" whose agenda amounts to progress toward serfdom and wish, at the least, for a roll-back of the intrusions upon individual liberty which were the hallmark of the twentieth century. But genuine libertarianism, not the nerf variety, is a deeply radical doctrine which calls into question the whole leader/follower, master/slave, sovereign/subject, and state/citizen structure which has characterised human civilisation ever since hominids learned to talk and the most glib of them became politicians ("Put meat at feet of Glub and Glub give you much good stuff").

And here is where I both quibble with and enthusiastically endorse the author's agenda. The quibble is that I fear that our species, formed by thousands of generations of hunter/gatherer and agricultural experience, has adapted, like other primates, to a social structure in which most individuals delegate decision making and even entrust their lives to "leaders" chosen by criteria deeply wired into our biology and not remotely adapted to the challenges we face today and in the future. (Hey, it could be worse: peacocks select for the most overdone tail—it's probably a blessing nakes don't have tails—imagine trying to fit them all into a joint session of Congress.) The endorsement is that I don't think it's possible to separate the spirit of individualism which is at the heart of libertarianism from the frontier. There were many things which contributed to the first American war of secession and the independent republics which emerged from it, but I believe their unique nature was in substantial part due to the fact that they were marginal settlements on the edge of an unexplored and hostile continent, where many families were entirely on their own and on the front lines, confronted by the vicissitudes of nature and crafty enemies.

Thomas Jefferson worried that as the population of cities grew compared to that of the countryside, the ethos of self-sufficiency would be eroded and be supplanted by dependency, and that this corruption and reliance upon authority founded, at its deepest level, upon the initiation of force, would subvert the morality upon which self-government must ultimately rely. In my one encounter with Robert LeFevre, he disdained the idea that "maybe if we could just get back to the Constitution" everything would be fine. Nonsense, he said: to a substantial degree the Constitution is the problem—after all, look at how it's been "interpreted" to permit all of the absurd abrogations of individual liberty and natural law since its dubious adoption in 1789. And here, I think the author may put a bit too much focus on documents (which can, have been, and forever will be) twisted by lawyers into things they never were meant to say, and too little on the frontier.

What follows is both a deeply pessimistic and unboundedly optimistic view of the human and transhuman prospect. I hope I don't lose you in the loop-the-loop. Humans, as presently constituted, have wired-in baggage which renders most of us vulnerable to glib forms of persuasion by which "leaders" (who are simply those more talented than others in persuasion). The more densely humans are packed, and the greater the communication bandwidth available to them (in particular, one to many media), the more vulnerable they are to such "leadership". Individual liberty emerges in frontier societies: those where each person and each family must be self-sufficient, without any back-up other than their relations to neighbours, but with an unlimited upside in expanding the human presence into new territory. The old America was a frontier society; the new America is a constrained society, turning inward upon itself and devouring its best to appease its worst.

So, I'm not sure this or that amendment to a document which is largely ignored will restore liberty in an environment where a near-majority of the electorate receive net benefits from the minority who pay most of the taxes. The situation in the United States, and on Earth, may well be irreversible. But the human and posthuman destiny is much, much larger than that. Perhaps we don't need a revision of governance documents as much as the opening of a frontier. Then people will be able to escape the stranglehold where seven eights of all of their work is confiscated by the thugs who oppress them and instead use all of their sapient facilities to their own ends. As a sage author once said:

Freedom, immortality, and the stars!

Works for me. Free people expand at a rate which asymptotically approaches the speed of light. Coercive government and bureaucracy grow logarithmically, constrained by their own internal dissipation. We win; they lose.

In the Kindle edition the index is just a list of page numbers. Since the Kindle edition includes real page numbers, you can type in the number from the index, but that's not as convenient as when index citations are linked directly to references in the text.


Posted at October 10, 2012 23:45 at

Down With Power, is available from
Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, and other sources, in trade paperback and e-book editions.

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