Must-Read Books of 2010

“Do you have a soulmate?” the shrink asked Will Hunting.  A soulmate, someone who challenges you.  “Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Frost, O’Connor, Kant, Pope, Locke…” replied the precious brat.

“That’s great; they’re all dead.”

“Not to me they’re not.”

This is one of my favorite scenes from Good Will Hunting. Both characters have a point.  The written word can be inflexible, and it lacks the dialectic that is so crucial to learning in many situations.  On the other hand, even if a book is a thousand years old or more, it is still alive.  The author might well have something to say to us today.  Given our poor track record for following the good advice of scribes, it isn’t difficult to find an old book that’s useful today.  This is one of the reasons why reading is as important to me as food, clothing, and water.  If I don’t frequently sit down and soak in the wisdom of great writers, I feel like I forgot to brush my teeth.  It is good to have such enhancing activities; they help us more gracefully to wend through the mysterious space between angels and animals that Man occupies.

Every January, I like to share a list of the best books of the past year—books that I’ve read.  Listening to someone talk about the books they’ve read can be annoying, but please be assured that I realize most people couldn’t care less how much I’ve read, and that’s largely how it should be.  It’s not about me; it’s about the books and my desire to share great ideas with other people.  For other readers, this is an excellent way to maximize effort.  No one wants to read a bad book, so recommendations are key.  I have left out a lot of books that are very deserving of mention.  Perhaps others can speak on their behalf.  I will stick to these:

 

Allan Bloom:  The Closing of the American Mind

When this book was published in the 1980’s it was alternately praised and lambasted as another conservative prophecy of doom.  Any close reading of Bloom’s work, however shows that this reaction was hasty if not illiterate.  Bloom, for instance, laments the collapse of the American family but adds that he isn’t necessarily calling for a return to the 1950’s Leave It to Beaver bliss.  Bloom, in fact, defies categorization.  This is because he is a thinker and a man of the arts.  He is, in a word, human.

Bloom is most famous for his critique of the modern university, which a friend of mine quite accurately says is a monastery gone bad; but to me some of his most striking observations have to do with relationships.  He scratches his head at the cold nature of romance in the youth of the 1980’s:  after years as lovers, two students would part ways with a handshake, and Bloom would be rendered speechless.  In this context the author, who was apparently no sexual prude, sharpens his knives for the modern hookup culture, which he says ruins the aura of real love.

Of particular interest to me is Bloom’s critique of rock music, which he considers to be decadent.  Good music should be an integrating force and not a fragmenting one.  “To Plato and Nietzsche,” he writes, “the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul—to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man’s duties a fullness.  Bach’s religious intentions and Beethoven’s revolutionary and humane ones are clear enough examples.  Such cultivation of the soul uses the passions and satisfies them while sublimating them and giving them an artistic unity.  A man whose noblest activities are accompanied by a music that expresses them while providing a pleasure extending from the lowest bodily to the highest spiritual, is whole, and there is no tension in him between the pleasant and the good.  By contrast a man whose business life is prosaic and unmusical and whose leisure is made up of coarse, intense entertainments, is divided, and each side of his existence is undermined by the other.”

Bloom’s volume is a dense one, and I would only be doing violence to it to try to say too much more than I already have, since every word he writes is important.  He might well sound like a noisy gong to most modern readers because he will prove impossible to pigeonhole into some ridiculous worldview or cause.  Bloom’s argument is not that we need to be more conservative or more liberal, or more or less religious, or even necessarily more decorated with degrees.  I think what he really wanted was a fuller realization of the potential of humanity.  He was, incidentally, an advocate of the Great Books Program, and so I dedicate this post to his memory.

 

Bertrand Russell:  The Problems of Philosophy

One of the things that all the warring world views of humanity have in common is that their practitioners think their system can solve all the world’s problems.  If only everyone would listen to what So-and-So says, there would be peace on earth, a chicken in every pot, a case of beer in every fridge, and five computers in every home.  The best of the So-and-Sos, of course, are cautious of such naivete.  The problem is that usually it’s some follower of the So-and-So that implements the realization of the philosophy, and these people are usually wearing blinders.

This arrogance, it seems to me, comes from a failure to understand the limits of human reason, and that, to me, is the most important contribution of this work of Lord Bertrand Russell.  He begins his work with a discussion of appearance and reality, using a table as an example.  We can see a table, and touch it, but does the table exist outside our ability to perceive it?  In other words, does it have an existence of its own?  This eventually leads to a discussion about Idealism, which holds that reality owes its existence to human thought, a notion that Russell rejects.

Nonetheless, Russell is no Randian Objectivist and courageously faces the limits of ratiocination, the process of human reasoning.  Some questions, for instance, can only be solved through inductive reasoning, as indeed many scientific experiments are conducted.  The more an experiment is repeated successfully, the more likely it is that the conclusions are true.  This kind of reasoning is imperfect but is often as close as we can get.

Somewhat different from inductive reasoning is a priori reasoning and general principles.  2+2=4 is an example of a priori reasoning; even if one doesn’t know the answer to this equation when he starts, he usually has the tools and the knowledge of general principles to come to the right conclusion.  This is a sturdy form of reasoning, as long as one’s premises are correct, but in many areas of human thinking it is impossible to know this for sure.  Because of this, Russell rejects the use of philosophical techniques for fields such as theology.

After so much talk of the limits of philosophy, one might wonder, “What’s the use?”  We modern men in particular like to have definite answers to everything; we are fundamentalists even in matters of whether or not the tree makes a noise in the forest if there is no one there to hear it fall.  Russell, however, sees much of the value of philosophy coming precisely from its uncertainty.  He says, “The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.”

Philosophy, in other words, makes us more thoughtful.

 

Jeffrey Tucker:  Bourbon for Breakfast

I have already reviewed this book here.

 

Jean Renoir:  My Father

The well-known filmmaker Jean Renoir has written a riveting account of the life of his father, the famous painter Pierre-August Renoir.  As a musician, I’m fascinated with visual artists precisely because they use entirely different faculties than I use.  Oddly enough, though, what sticks with me are Renoir’s criticisms of modern life.  He was old enough to remember simpler, pre-industrial times, and he despised the centrally planned Paris that was poured with concrete.  Renoir in general hated modern life—the ugliness, the pace, the utilitarianism.

A conscientious capitalist who loves beauty is compelled to pause when reading a book like this to re-examine his ethical beliefs.  We would be fools to pretend there hasn’t been a downside to industrialism.  One could argue, for instance, that the Southern black slaves were being freed just as the Northern white servants were about to be imprisoned:  Many people feel stuck as a cog in the technological wheel, cubicle dwellers who are paid to leave their creativity and ingenuity at home.  And without an agrarian culture, one’s options are limited.  A landed man is a free man; a man in an apartment with rent and utilities to pay is on rather a tight leash.

Why support capitalism, then?  Leaving aside the usual caveat that the modern west is not a free market but rather a partially-free mercantilist one, there are some things to be considered.  Firstly, much of the leisure that gives us the free time to criticize modern life is a direct result of the industrial revolution, as are such things as extended life spans—hardly things to be lamented.  But beyond this, I still choose capitalism, because in its essentialness, capitalism is freedom.  I’m not talking about the capitalism of  the corporatist racket;  I’m talking about the capitalism of free exchange, the mutuality between merchant and customer.  It’s a system that allows everyone to say yes or no.

And it allows those committed to the arts to say yes or no—donors, consumers, and practitioners.  In, for instance, a socialist economy, man is not free to decide how much he will work and how much he will play.  The decision is made for him; he owes his time to the State.  In freedom, he can choose the best possible road, taking into consideration all the variables in front of him; not only those that can be measured, but those that cannot be.  For those who have not heeded the advice of Bertrand Russell, constructive leisure time is not important; they would rather work 60 hours a week to pay for the extra car in the garage.  For others, they want just enough money to survive; to them, living well is broader, deeper, and higher than one’s income level.

No one can deny that the arts have suffered in our times.  But fundamentally this is not a crisis of being helpless in the face ineluctable historical or economic forces; rather, it is a crisis of choice.  Most of us have chosen money, forgetting that man cannot live on bread alone.  Shame on us.

One final thought on Renoir:  There seems to be no genius where there is no suffering.  Renoir was surprisingly sane for a creative person.  (I’m allowed to say this, since I’m a crazy person who does his best, at least, to be creative.)  His pain in life was physical, taking the form of arthritis.  There are pictures of him in which the malformation of his hands is obvious.  It’s a great mystery how he was ever able to hold a brush with an organ that had basically devolved into a glorified claw.  It’s beautiful.  It’s inspiring.  It takes away all my excuses.

 

Seneca:  The Shortness of Life

Seneca (whose full name has something like umpteen words in it) was perhaps the most famous of the Stoic philosophers, who were essentially ancient precursors to the prudent American Puritan.  That’s not all bad; in small doses admonition to responsibility can be a good thing.

Seneca adjures his readers to keep their death always in mind.  Dark, I know, which is why I liked it.  Seneca’s point, though, is to a constructive end; it is not his desire to induce a John Donne-like bout of depression.  All resources are limited, including the space in which our lives exist.  Each of us has an unknown amount of time.  For this reason, we often hear that life is short.  Seneca, on the other hand, says that life is long if you know how to use it.  Seneca would ask each of us, “What are you doing right now, and why?”  We often waste time in our lives on things that we don’t really want to do, on tasks that are not only distasteful, but utter distractions from our real goals.

Putting his advice to use, of course, means learning how to say no.  Leonard Bernstein’s mother once quipped that it was a good thing he wasn’t a woman, because he never learned how to say no.  Bernstein, however, was a genius, and geniuses tend to be able to master superhuman schedules.  Most of us, on the other hand, need to make very careful decisions.  As the world gets more and more antisocial, people seem to become more and more demanding all the same.  We have forsaken affection for expectations, and this is not a good thing.  It can be difficult to cut out the underbrush of one’s schedule, but take courage, and remember your death.  As Boobus Americanus Primus said, “One today is worth two tomorrows.”

 

G.K. Chesterton:  The Everlasting Man

I read a lot of literature about religion, works that I agree with and that I disagree with.  It is a fascinating subject, and an important one.  For much of this work I have turned to an early 20th century Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, whose book The Everlasting Man is as fresh and as relevant as anything that could be written by Joseph Ratzinger (whose excellent Introduction to Christianity I also read this year), Karen Armstrong, or Richard Dawkins.  (Dawkins tries too hard; it gets old after awhile.)

It is common in Western Christian discourse to tackle The God Question with various kinds of philosophical proofs and theological parsing.  Mystics reject this approach, but so do other more “down-to-earth” thinkers, such as G.K. Chesterton.  Chesterton, as an author of a number of novels, sees The God Question in terms of a history, that is, a story, an adventure.  He says, for instance, that while the idea of a man being damned may be an unattractive one, the idea that man is damnable is quite obviously true, and accounts for mankind’s constant struggles against failure.  Hell is simply a reflection of our own ability to sabotage ourselves.

Against the historical materialism of many of the thinkers of his day, Chesterton applies the notion of immutable human nature to the question of the existence of God.  Why, for instance, did supposedly pre-human animals feel the need to create art in the caves?  What was the purpose of this art?  I’m having a hard time remembering the full argument, and I don’t have the book with me, but if you are interested in philosophy and religion, this is a good book for you.

 

Peter Ackroyd:  The House of Doctor Dee

I should call this book, “The Token.”  I’m not much of a fiction reader, but I try to do a little every year.  I have a couple of friends that I’ve put in charge of getting me the right fiction books.  One in particular is good at picking out contemporary English authors who show us that not everything written today needs to be a sleazy Danielle Steele novel.

In this book, a young chap inherits an old house owned by his deceased father.  It’s a cute little dwelling, consisting of mismatched parts built at different times.  The house turns out to be haunted by a ghost of a former owner, one Doctor Dee, a sixteenth century practitioner of black magic.  There are many fascinating erudite references in the book to stroke the egos of intellectually vain jackasses like me, but what I remember the most is the shiver that went up my spine in sections of this story.  If ghosts exist, I’m afraid of them.  And even if they don’t, I’m still afraid of them.  Ask me what happened once on Big Round Top in Gettysburg.

 

Hans-Hermann Hoppe:  Democracy:  The God That Failed

It’s common for a modern American history course to go like this:  Once upon a time, there were these evil men called kings, who used and abused their subjects to their hearts’ content, and the world was dark and dreary with no sense whatsoever of the idea of human dignity.  Then along came America, and they set the whole world free with equal rights and democracy.  The peasants rejoiced, and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our government.

This narrative, of course, is largely unquestioned; it is scripture to most people.  Hans-Hermann Hoppe, certainly one of the foremost anarcho-capitalist thinkers of our time, pops this balloon of naivete unapologetically in his book, Democracy:  The God That Failed.

He begins with a careful examination of monarchical government and the several advantages that it held.   A king could not forcibly tax, and he could not forcibly conscript soldiers.  Those mercenaries that modern political scientists like to insult came at a high price; military commanders were therefore rather hesitant to risk their troops’ lives unnecessarily.  Many battles were conceded as soon as one side or the other took the high ground.  Wars were not, for the most part, fought in population centers but out in the fields, away from the citizenry, who considered war to be the irrelevant sandbox fighting of the oligarchy.   In a monarchical system, class divisions were in the forefront of awareness, making the population healthily wary and skeptical of the brainchildren of the royalty.  Kings also had a harder time being looters.  Since they planned to pass their kingdoms on to their posterity, they did everything they could to increase the value of the area through approaches comparatively friendly to businessmen.  And finally, for all the talk about the absolute rule of kings, they were beholden to the natural law.  New measures were expected to be elucidations on natural law.  There was no place for positivism, and where a king stepped out of line, there were powers in place to remove him if necessary.

Hoppe contrasts life under Kings and Queens with life under Congresses and Presidents.  The modern democratic nation-state forcibly taxes—Isn’t it ironic that after rebelling against a tax, the Americans put taxation provisions into their new founding document?—and it has forcibly conscripted soldiers.  Total warfare has resulted from the enemy’s desire to cripple the whole economy, since forcible taxation renders everyone a contributor to the military effort.  Class divisions in the modern nation-state are blurred, though one could argue that during this depression they have begun to make a comeback.  But by and large the fact that any of us can apply for a job with the government makes us forget that there are the rulers and the ruled.  While kings ruled for life and passed their property on to their children, thereby creating an incentive to nurture the land, elected officials only rule for a short time, which creates an incentive to loot.  And while kings were bound by natural law, the modern nation-state maintains that justice is decided by a majority vote, natural law be damned.

Hoppe is not a monarchist and admits that there were problems with monarchies.  Like modern constitutional governments, the royal system decayed at least partly because of its own arrogance:  “Divine right” ceased to be the idea that the king owed his power to God and became the idea that the king could call upon God to justify any of his decisions.  This was the beginning of positivism.  But clearly democracy leaves a lot to be desired, and this is where Hoppe begins his appeal on behalf of what he calls the natural order, which is what many of us call anarcho-capitalism, the system of a common law ethic built on private property rights and the free market–without the existence of a monopoly on violence, otherwise known as government.

Usually I like to list ten books, but this year I just didn’t have ten that I could recommend unreservedly, owing to one factor or another, few of which reflect on the actual quality of the books.  I would like to thank the friends who pointed me in the direction of some of these works.  They know who they are.  Cicero said that if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.  In my case it might be appropriate to replace the garden with a microwave, but in any event I’m quite glad to say that my cup runneth over.

Why Freedom?

Sometime during the late 80’s or early 90’s, George H.W. Bush delivered a speech in which he waxed eloquent about what is generally called the fall of communism, the wave of revolution that swept Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War.  In this allocution he said that tyranny fell “not to the force of arms, but to the force of an idea:  Freedom works.”

Freedom works.  This is the line of thinking that has been used by many in the political discourse.  Does freedom work?  Currently we’re in a time when many claim that it has not worked, and thanks both to the verbal jujitsu of the Republican Party and the stupidity of Boobus, this is widely accepted wisdom.  Never mind the fact that what the GOP calls a free economy is riddled with aspects of Fascism.  Our current situation, despite the popular perception, is not proof of the failure of freedom, and we should not feel obligated to give in to the Keynesian orgy presently taking place.  Wherever freedom has been tried, it has worked.  

But we need not belabor the point, for this utilitarian angle is not only useless, it is dangerous.  More on the danger in a bit.

If the “freedom works” argument is irrelevant, what is?  I would argue that the argument for freedom is found in the concept of natural rights—the right of self-determination, the right not to be robbed or shot by anyone, including the State.  From this perspective, it really doesn’t matter if freedom “works.”  The salient point is that freedom—a system of voluntary mutual exchange, one that respects individual rights and private property rights—preserves each man’s natural rights.  Period.  End of story.

Now let us return to this “Freedom works” utilitarian claptrap.  The contemporary Right, and even figures like Ludwig von Mises, have enthroned so many of their arguments on this premise.  Its danger lies not in its untruth; indeed the truth of the matter is not what I intend to dispute.  The problem is that this line of thought presents a beautifully engraved invitation to those who are unfriendly to laissez-faire capitalism:  The minute something goes wrong, they can blame freedom (they usually say “capitalism” to try to make it sound evil, a la Karl Marx) and say that we can no longer tolerate this irresponsible freedom.  

And so it’s time for the real friends of laissez-faire capitalism to stand up and say that this is truly the system that best preserves the rights that belong to us and cannot be taken away.

This is an age-old battle, really, one that started during the Exodus, when the wandering Israelites begged for a return to slavery because it was so much easier than their new-found freedom.  But nothing in life that’s worth a damn is easy, and some things are worth any price.  Freedom—from violence, theft, coercion, and other hobbies of the State—is one of them.

From one kind of murder to another

Barack Obama may be predisposed to commit fewer war crimes than his predecessor, though we must express such hopes with due caution if not downright skepticism, but one area on which he has turned the tables in the Murder-by-State department is abortion.

Obama has promised to push for the passage of FOCA, the Freedom of Choice Act, which among other things would force many healthcare providers to face the choice between performing procedures they find morally reprehensible, or shutting their doors.  So much for freedom.  This sounds to me like coercion, and, as usual, it is brought to you by the State.

But it doesn’t stop here.  Obama has already reversed the Mexico City policy, which under the W. Administration prohibited U.S. funds from going overseas to assist in the procurement of abortions.  Bush’s policy would seem to be the sensible one, for why should my tax dollars provide for a procedure which I find to be abhorent, either in a foreign country, or here at home?  Why should tax dollars support any ill-advised jaunt (such as the invasion of Iraq) that is morally controversial?  (Moreover, why should there be taxes, or the State, period….but I digress…)

Many would perhaps not want to admit it, but the key issue here is one of forcing American citizens to violate their consciences.  Perhaps this is a good sword to fall on, just the place to begin in the long battle against tyranny, for Ron Paul warned a year ago already that many of us would soon be facing tough choices and would have to decide if we were willing to commit civil disobedience.

The issue of abortion is a difficult one.  By saying that I do not mean to imply that I think the morality of it is hard to sort out.  It is difficult because it is hot, and sound reason is getting lost in the heat.   When I was a Statist (God forgive me!), I used to advocate a Constitutionalist approach:  Simply have Congress revoke this issue from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court under Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution.  In all the years of Republican control of Congress, this option was never taken seriously, in spite of the fact that such bills were introduced.  This is one of the reasons that I don’t take the GOP seriously on this issue.

Many more, however, advocate a change in the make-up of the Supreme Court.  Good luck with that.  This is impossible to predict, and even with a pro-life president, even the best nominee is no better than a roll of the dice.  Besides, Article III, Section 2, and all that.

The real problem with trying to solve this through Constitutional means is that the Constitution really doesn’t matter anyway.  If it is true that the Lone Ranger President actually called it “just a G*ddamn piece of paper,” then, well, he’s right, and history proves him right.  The government has massaged, and even rended, the Constitution to get whatever it wants.  Why should it be any different with this issue?

The problem with the issue of abortion is that it would seem that civil law would be ineffective at truly preventing it from happening—as is the case with civil law so much of the time.  Yet, if there were to be no secular protection for the life of the unborn, who would be the defenders of the victims of abortion?  The best solution in the Statist milieu, it would seem, would be local laws that were enforceable.  Repeat:  this is within the Statist milieu.  (I’m dealing with present realities, for a change, but only for one paragraph.  You needn’t worry.)

Would it be better, however, for various religious institutions to institute their own penalties for this crime?  That has its own problems, not the least of which is that someone without religious affiliation would be unaccountable to anyone. Maybe the private common law courts that would be used in the anarcho-capitalist system envisioned by Murray Rothbard could be used to avenge the killing of the unborn.

Incidendentally, I do not accept Rothbard’s idea that the unborn child, being a parasite of its mother, does not have any rights.  It is the foetus’ parasitical nature which leads Rothbard to this conclusion that the unborn is really just property of the mother.  The implications of this, however, are ghastly.  What, then, about the nursing infant?  What about the mentally handicapped or deranged young adult?  What about the elderly, and those considered to be in “vegetative states”?  If being “parasitical” voids one’s rights, then most of our lives would be in danger at one point or another.

What is more, Rothbard really didn’t need to view the unborn as a parasite in order to keep his ethic of liberty consistent.  All one need do is define the unborn life as one belonging to itself, with all the rights that the rest of us have, and there is no problem of consistency.

Of course, that’s ultimately the rub, isn’t it?  In the final analysis, one’s views on abortion are not so much influenced by what one thinks the Constitution does or does not say, or by whether or not one is a Democan, Republikrat, libertarian, or anarchist.  It comes down to what one thinks a foetus is.  After all, if one believes that it is a life, then consistency requires that we stand up for its rights, and if one believes that it is not its own life, then that opens the door to toleration of, or even downright acceptance of, abortion.

We won’t all agree on this subject, and we might even disagree vehemently.  And that is the number one reason why the State should keep its grubby mitts out of the abortion industry.

Help to put an end to abortion by putting an end to the State.

Secretary of the Arts!?

Got this from a Facebook friend who will remain nameless — a Secretary of the Arts Petition:

To:  President-Elect Barack Obama

Congratulations and thank you for all you do.

Your good friend Quincy Jones said: “…next conversation I have with President Obama is to beg for a Secretary of Arts.” [November 14th 2008 WNYC interview by John Schaefer on "Soundcheck."]

We the undersigned support Quincy Jones’ plea.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

The Undersigned

Couple of questions from this antistatist freelance choir director. First, how good a friend of Obama’s is Quincy Jones — should that even matter? Second, if the National Endowment for the Arts hasn’t been destructive enough to the arts already, why add another paid bureaucrat to the Unitary Executive? Just throw more funny money at the NEA instead — it’ll subvert its stated mission sooner rather than later.

I don’t have the energy or desire to pick this apart rigorously; but suffice it to say that while I understand at some level the sentiment behind this petition, not only will I refuse to sign it, but I will forever refuse to fall in lockstep with artists who would use the coercion and thievery of the state to advance their cause “for the betterment of all.”

Is there a counterpetition? If so, I’ll sign it immediately. In any case, I hope that the president-elect ignores his “good friend.”

The dynamic tension between Albert Jay Nock and Murray Rothbard

In his book Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature, Murray Rothbard confronts the cynicism of Albert Jay Nock and asserts that such outlooks on life lead inevitably to conservatism. To the Nock enthusiast this can be a jolting statement to contend with. At first one might not want to believe what Rothbard is saying, but weeks of studying this question from time to time will yield that, on the whole, he is right.

One of Nock’s more impressive statements is that a great portion of wisdom concerns the development of a sense of the inevitable. There is much to be learned from this, but consider the damage that can be done when one decides that the State, or taxes, are inevitable. How would one then deal with the presence of these evils? Since they are “inevitable,” lobbying for their dismantling is out of the question, so one resorts to the idea of “limited government,” that infamous conservative bromide.

One of the advantages which Rothbard had over Nock is that he developed a positive system of anarcho-capitalism. Nock called himself a “philosophical anarchist,” but essentially got no further than spelling out the evils of the State. We should not be ungrateful for this; often the house built upon the rock cannot be built until the one that sits on sand is removed. It might be true, nonetheless, that Nock’s negative outlook did little to encourage him to work out a positive theory of anarchy. Rothbard’s passion for justice, on the other hand, clearly compelled him to do just that very thing.

So far it looks like Rothbard is the hands-down winner in this “battle” of free market anarchists, but I would caution the student of these writers not to deliver a verdict too quickly. On closer inspection, it would appear more likely that there is actually a dynamic tension between these men; that one need not shun one in order to embrace the other. How is this so?

One of the happier byproducts of Nock’s skepticism is a sense of duty to mind one’s own business. Nock considers it to be a waste of time, and even in bad taste, really, to try to change other people. This leaves each man with only one approach: live well. Mind your own business. Cultivate your own garden. Clean up your own act.

We modern men love the opposite approach, taking the speck out of our neighbor’s eye before taking the log out of our own. We love to save people, to rescue them, to proselytize them until they agree with us, who could make the world just perfect if only everyone would see things our way. Nock’s healthy skepticism is an antidote to this sanctimonious arrogance.

In the end, a workable anarcho-capitalist theory depends upon our willingness to mind our own business. It is what makes sense out of Rothbard’s theory of private property rights. It’s what allows us to say “I don’t agree with x, but I don’t think it should be illegal, either.” In a word, it’s what makes us passionate lovers of freedom and justice.

Where does an anarchist find order?

We have spent only a little time on this blog discussing the virtues of anarchy and the ways that it would play out in real life. In a previous post, I mentioned that anarchists, far from advocating chaos, promote a system of order that does not make use of the State or of the government.

It would seem prudent, before this conversation goes too far, to distinguish between order and planning. It is truly fitting that “plan” is a four-letter word. Central Planning has become second nature to most people. Barack Obama and John McCain talk about their plans to make America better–as if it is they rather than the hard working citizens who make America what it is. Indeed, to many, “order” cannot exist without a central plan, without someone to boss around and steal from the various entities in a given society.

Order, however, need not–and in many ways cannot–come from above, but rather comes from within. As an analogy, I recall Charles Rosen’s insight that the symmetrical form of Classical era music (Mozart and Haydn in particular) was not imposed from without, like a mold, but rather grew organically from within, as each little detail, each contingency, built upon the work. So it is with, for instance, the free market: the mutual exchange of goods and ideas contributes greatly to a harmonious order in society. What might seem chaotic on the microscopic level turns out to be well-crafted on the macroscopic level. The disorganization is only apparent.

There is more, however. Surely one must grant that a society without a grand discourse will fall into shambles. Grand discourses are not exactly in vogue in these the days of rampant horizontalism. Many, perceiving the ensuing chaos from this, call for more government, or even a theocratic monarchy (Those who don’t know the mistakes of history are destined to repeat them), and few of them ever give serious thought to the idea that maybe the best form of government is none at all. Why, that would be chaos!

I find all this to be strange, not to mention self-contradictory. If government were able to prevent societal collapse, then the cities and towns of the 21st century would be in much better shape than they are. What is missing is the metaphysical. Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not in any way calling for some kind of Christianist State, such as Mike Huckabee might. I’m only saying that a society that is stuck in the sensible world is doomed. Really, the metaphysical is what is needed to maintain society, not governments. An appreciation for the metaphysical, however, comes from private initiative, not from legislative fiat.

F.A. Hayek in his book The Road to Serfdom remarked that the more intrusive a government becomes, the less virtuous the citizenry becomes. Similarly, Richard Weaver warned in Ideas Have Consequences of the encroachments of the State on men who have failed to exhibit virtue. If these two insights are synthesized, the remedy becomes apparent: men must become more virtuous, so that the futility (not to mention the evil) of the State becomes more obvious.

All of this, of course, is up to us. It has nothing to do with electing the right congressman or president, or with gaining a tenuous 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. Rather, it has everything to do with how we view life (Do we even start from the ancient philosophical idea that life is to be loved and cherished?), how we live, and how we interact with each other.

The Scary “A” Word

A few months back, I was having a conversation with an atheist who made the point that atheists don’t necessarily believe in no god, just that they don’t believe in God–the monotheistic God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is a worthy distinction to make, one which gets lost in most conversations about religion.

Perhaps this is analogous in certain respects to anarchism. This word strikes contempt and perhaps even fear into the hearts of many, and perhaps it comes from a misconception of what anarchism really is. The popular mind seems to equate anarchism with chaos, perhaps because of the more notorious anarchistic violent protesters who tend to make the news and represent the rest of us poorly. Chaos, however, is far from what serious anarchists have in mind. Anarchism would have society “organized” (not in the socialist sense of this word) by forces other than a State or even a government.

This idea is hardly unprecedented. The ancient Jews had a system which was nearly anarchistic in which disputes were taken to prophets to be resolved. After a certain time they asked God for permission to crown a king, which permission was granted, and after which all hell broke loose. In the American colonies, after the abysmal failure of collectivist systems, the scheme that proved most successful was a largely self-governed free market. More than that, sheriffs in the early days of the American republic were hired by the populace in their jurisdictions–a far cry from our current justice system.

Many will protest that this is all just a big pipe dream, that surely society must have some sort of central organization in order to function properly. This objection ignores one crucial fact: the market always provides the commodities that are needed, and this could even apply to law and order. What is more, a free market (contrary to what most were taught in civics religion class) will not tolerate any monopolies, including the present day problem of the State’s monopoly on coercion and violence, which has proven to be disastrous and unjust. The free market would do much more to ensure that the rights of all would be guarded effectively.

All of this is to say that when you hear someone say they are an anarchist, try not to assume that they’ve got pink hair and ten thousand body piercings.

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