Black Friday absurdities and economism

Early Friday morning, a Wal-Mart employee was knocked over and killed in a stampede of crazy shoppers. Every year this obscenity seems to get even worse. As a proponent of the free market, I find the the yearly Christmas shopping orgy to be an embarrassment, not only because it takes a wonderful system and boils it down to a base, lowest common denominator kind of thing, but also because this rampant consumerism, what Albert Jay Nock would call “economism,” is perhaps the most powerful argument in existence against the free market system.

So why support the free market? In short, the free market allows the intelligent to make smart decisions which are not only economically sound but also beneficial to growth in wisdom, virtue, and all those other largely mummified ideals. But the people who know this were sleeping in the small hours of Friday morning when the nuts were out stuffing shopping carts full of junk.

Ten Must Read Books for Your Christmas List

Here is a short list of selected books which I’ve read in the past year which I think are indispensable to anyone’s bookshelf. I have listed them in order of what would seem like a good progression from one to the next for the reader.

1. Richard Weaver: Ideas Have Consequences

With every turn of the page, Weaver clears out the angst of modern existence by fearlessly going after the “sicknesses” of modern society. Readers of this blog will be familiar with Weaver’s qualms over modern education, as well as what he calls fragmentation and obsession. He also discusses egotism in work and art, as well as the dissolution of hierarchy. Weaver devotes the last three chapters of the book to his proposed remedies for the elucidated societal ailments: restoration of property rights, language, and respect for tradition.

2. Frederic Bastiat: The Law

In this short work, Bastiat, who called out the Broken Window Fallacy, discusses some of the absurdities of democratic societies. His principal insight in this work is perhaps that the law is constantly being used by one sector of society in order to try to loot another sector. That might be one of the more accurate and pithy descriptions of politics ever formulated.

3. Albert Jay Nock: Our Enemy, the State

If you think limited government is the way to go, read Nock. He will quite quickly disabuse you of that notion. In this short work, Nock describes the parasitical nature of the State, mixing in surprising observations. One that sticks out in my mind is that term limits are an instrument, rather than a circumscription, of power, since a given term grants a sitting politician nearly free reign in what he does. This was the book that converted me from “limited government” libertarianism to anarcho-capitalism.

4. Buchanan: Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War

This particular book deserves a full length review. Suffice it to say that many in the press have not been friendly to it, but that Buchanan, while sparing the reader no piece of information, is eminently fair in his descriptions of the various power players who were behind the commencement of hostilities in Europe before both World War I and World War II. Buchanan does not look back longingly at what might have been, but rather lays out the mistakes made by the world’s leaders, and the prudent will no doubt take heed of the author’s warnings. Suffice it to say for now that, while Hitler was evil, the West was pulling all manner of diplomatic bloopers which only made the situation far worse than it needed to be. This book is the antidote to the kind of Americanism which always cites World War II as the fundamental moment in State Salvation History which justifies all manner of ill-advised 21st century military excursions.

5. Schall: The Regensburg Lecture

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J. takes an in-depth look at Pope Joseph Ratzinger’s well-known lecture at Regensburg which sparked protests in the Muslim world. Schall elaborates Ratzinger’s central question of whether or not Islam can be a “reasonable” or “logos-based” faith. The theological opinion known as voluntarism–the belief that God is not bound by reason–is explored thoroughly by the author with respect to Islam. I only wish, perhaps, that certain fundamentalist Christian outlooks which are adding tensions to the world stage would have been discussed as well. In any case, Schall’s great contribution here seems to me to be a fearless exploration of the theological roots of the problems we presently face. The question might then dawn on the reader: Why are we dropping bombs instead of having an honest exchange? (I should add that I don’t know that this last point was Schall’s goal.)

6. Murray Rothbard: The Ethics of Liberty

You all knew I had to get Murray in here somewhere. This book is a tour-de-force, a thorough working out of a positive theory of anarcho-capitalism. The reader will not likely agree with everything Rothbard says, but the achievement here is a broad-based approach to dealing with the various issues that would come up in a stateless society. Rothbard has no fear: He relishes the opportunity to take on those very subjects which many would consider to be begging for the existence of the State, e.g. crime, courts and police.

7. Albert Jay Nock: Memoirs of a Superfluous Man

Nock did not think of himself as an interesting person, but whoever twisted his arm to write this autobiography certainly did, and to that nameless friend we all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude. This book is an account of the various impressions Nock put together in his mind over the course of his life. His “mind your own business” attitude is refreshing, and his mix of Toryism and anarchism is yields some fascinating results. This book will not offer eye-popping moments of astonishment at every page; it will feel more like sitting in an old man’s living room, listening to him yammer on about what he’s learned in life. But when you finish and put the book down, you will realize that your paradigm has shifted.

8. Mencken: Notes on Democracy

I will pick up and devour anything by Mencken from cover to cover in a matter of days. In this book Mencken fearlessly tackles the problems, triumphs, and absurdities of our sainted political system. Along the way he calls out Americanism, fundamentalism, and even the Rotary Club, and brings up the most unpopular point that a democracy, too, can wield a tyrannical kind of power. While ever skeptical, Mencken softens the blows of his more difficult material with his unique wit. Yet, there are moments in this book that are deeply serious which might indicate just how troubled Mencken was by any number of problems that needed to be faced. The book winds up to a grand conclusion, which explodes on a rhetorical question that will flabbergast the reader.

9. Richard Weaver: Language is Sermonic

This is a collection of a number of essays and other works by Richard Weaver. The first chapter, in fact, is the chapter on language from Ideas Have Consequences. Writers and speakers will find this volume to be indispensable, but this is no ordinary book about writing. Weaver tackles hard questions about the essence of language, and, in the process, seems to stumble, almost unintentionally, upon some of the more important subjects for our time. This is a great book to read on the front porch of a Southern manor. One can almost hear the masterful deliberateness of Weaver’s locution in these pages.

10. Dom Joseph Gajard: The Rhythm of Plainsong

What the hell is this book doing on here? Well, the truth is that Gajard’s book is about more than just Gregorian rhythm. He in fact discusses the most fundamental aspects of rhythm in such ways that all musicians could benefit from his insight. Much of rhythm boils down to arsis and thesis, i.e. the rising and falling motion, which mimics natural movements such as the rising and falling of the foot during walking. How many performances I have heard in which the musicians do not understand the principles discussed by Gajard! Often we over-emphasize rhythm until it is oppressive, or we add a facade of vitality to a piece of music by assaulting every single down beat. Gajard’s book is the remedy for this and many other musical problems. If you can so much as read music, get this book.

For your edification: Bach’s un-Advent Cantata

Everyone thinks this is for Advent.  It’s actually for one of the last Sundays of the church year which precede Advent.  “Wachet auf” means, “wake up.”  It’s great music to jump start the morning.

Modern liberalism and private property rights

I get along with modern liberals as people; I really do. Many of them are far more willing to entertain new ideas than other types of thinkers, and in general they have a passion for justice which is commendable. Ultimately, however, I find that their political philosophy is, at best, confused.

There is perhaps no area of liberal [1] confusion which is more important than that of private property rights, for while the Left steadfastly guards natural rights, most of them hold that there is no such thing as a right of private property. Left libertarians claim the same thing. I have heard some of these latter folks posit that only the government can enforce private property rights, and that therefore they are an instrument of tyranny. (For a rebuttal of this view, see, yet again, Murray Rothbard’s _Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature_.[2]) Other leftists hold property rights in malodorous contempt because they smack of capitalism, wealth and all that other nasty stuff. Finally, there is the anarcho-communist view of common ownership, which clearly would not have room for an ethic of private property ownership.

Some conservative readers might presently be feeling pretty good about themselves. “I voted for Ronald Reagan, and he was in favor of the free economy, including property rights!” Well, the problem with modern conservatism is that it is, in general, so utilitarian that it makes John Stuart Mill look pedantically consistent. I was lamenting to a Republican friend the fact that some libertarians do not accept the notion of private property rights. “What??? Private property rights are what create wealth,” he retorted.

I don’t have a problem with what he said; I do, however, have a problem with what he didn’t say. It is true, and quite a good thing, that private property rights create wealth, encourage responsibility, etc. But to defend property rights from this angle only is to be utilitarian, and to be utilitarian is to set oneself up for defeat at a later time on as-yet unforeseen utilitarian grounds.

Richard Weaver, who, like Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, is worshiped by many but heeded by few, called private property the “last metaphysical right.” The adjective is what’s operative here: metaphysical. Man’s right to private property is natural, moral, and even perhaps divinely instituted.


John Locke wrote that man takes ownership of objects when he mixes his labor with those objects and transforms them in some way. This is where the libertarian principle of “homesteading” comes in: On a previously unclaimed piece of land, a man takes ownership by transforming that land in some way. He might till a field, build a house, or plant trees. In all of these, and in many other, ways, he has mixed his labor with the piece of land, and so the previously unclaimed (this is key!) land now belongs to him.

The acquisition of money is similar. A man goes to work, exerts himself using his body or his mind, and accepts payment in return for his services. (This payment is usually in the form of money rather than in a share of what he produces; this is a point of controversy in some quarters but too much of a can of worms to open here.) You, therefore, have a metaphysical right to your income. So, for instance, when someone robs you at gunpoint, or the government taxes you (but I repeat myself), your rights are being violated.

Even if one were not to grant that private property rights are natural rights, it would nonetheless be philosophically difficult to draw anything more than a nominal distinction between them. Since private property rights are a function of mixing labor with objects, and since labor is done by the human body, then private property rights are bound up with the human person. I make money by producing widgets, and I produce widgets by using my body, which, given the concept of self-ownership, is mine. If, therefore, by some perverse occurrence, I would be deprived of my private property rights, what would stand in the way of my losing my natural rights?

This is, ultimately, the problem with the modern liberals’ rejection of property rights: it flies in the face of their very commendable passion for natural rights. When one shoe drops, the other will follow shortly thereafter. In the early 20th century, property rights were dealt a serious blow by the amendment to the U.S. Constitution which made allowance for the income tax.[3] And how many rights have we lost since then? Bar owners in the city of Philadelphia, for the most part, can’t even decide if they want to allow smoking in their establishments. It is now banned in all but the smallest watering holes by city fiat. And what about warrantless wiretapping? Is this not a logical outcome of the dissolution of property rights? I should think so.

Finally, we ought to consider one of the aspects of ownership, which is the owner’s entitlement to make decisions with his belongings. For the sake of simplicity, let us imagine a society in which there are no property rights whatsoever. How will decisions be made about anything? Who will have the right to determine who is to wear this red shirt, or who is to drive that blue car? This problem exists in direct relation to the refusal to recognize private property rights. A better way to put it is that freedom thrives in direct proportion to respect for private property.[4]

When it comes to land, we can often say to a potential aggressor, “Hey, buddy, my property line is here, and you dare not cross it.” In a certain sense, this is the function of all types of private property rights. It’s the resource we have to say to each other, and, more importantly, to the government, “Hey, pal, this is my domain. Scram.” If this last metaphysical right is not restored, our hopes for all the other rights become much more bleak.


[1] I am using “liberal” throughout to denote modern liberalism, and not to reference what is sometimes called classical liberalism.

[2] Rothbard discusses the utilitarian implications of this. As to the claim that only the government can defend private property, the short answer is, of course, that the owner can take care of this.

[3] This amendment was passed through a democratic process. Nevertheless, those who voted at that time did not have the right to forfeit the rights of future generations. One is reminded of Thomas Paine’s retort to the insufferable Edmund Burke on similar points in the 18th century.

[4] It should be noted that an ethic of freedom based on private property rights does not constitute a libertine Weltanshauung. This is because, while person A has the right to use his property as he wishes, he has no right to aggress against the property of person B in the process, and person B has the right to defend himself against any aggression on his property.

Obama and prospects for change

Thanks to the Young Fogey, I found this piece from Justin Raimondo on the bellicose foreign policy team which Barack Obama is presently trying to assemble.

A few months before the election, I was sitting in one of my favorite Belgian bars here in Philadelphia, batting the breeze with a friend. In a casual sort of way, the election came up, and it seemed like we’d be moving along from the subject rather quickly when some chic in the corner invited herself into our conversation. She wanted to quiz us on who we’d be voting for. You all know what my answer was. I was then subjected to a five-minute long tract of pious, somniferous, Statist claptrap which claimed that it was my duty to vote, and to choose between the lesser of two evils, if necessary. Our uninvited interlocutor went on to lament that she, having emigrated from Ireland and not having become a citizen, does not have the right to vote. Well, if it’s that important, I suppose she’d become a citizen.

But she hasn’t.

Friends, this girl badgered me; I do not exaggerate. She would not let the subject go. My friend and I wanted to get on to the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies. We were finally rescued by one of her cigarette breaks.

Now Obama has been elected, and change is supposed to be on the way. Amen, iterum dico vobis: Don’t hold your breath, or you’ll suffocate. If we get any change, it will be in pennies.

J.S. Bach, School, Work, and Life

A short while ago I read James R. Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason, a pop history book about the meeting in 1747 between Frederick the “Great” and J.S. Bach, probably the greatest musician who ever lived.  Bach had a difficult life even by the standards of the 18th century.  He returned home from one long trip to find his first wife, Maria Barbara, dead and buried.  Of all his children, only a small portion made it to adulthood.  It all seems more Medieval than Baroque to me.

As Gaines points out, Bach’s difficulties were not restricted only to the realm of health, life, and death:  He was once imprisoned in Weimar for trying a bit too persistently to get out of an employment contract; he was harassed by the rector of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, who clashed with Bach’s traditional approaches to both theology and music; and he was even disregarded in favor of other “more qualified” candidates during the vetting processes to fill some of the most coveted musical positions in the German realm.

That last bit is really important to understand.  Bach, though extremely well-educated (he knew enough Latin to teach it and was highly conversant in theology), never got a university degree.  He was therefore judged by many to be unqualified for any number of positions.  And yet today he is considered to be the greatest musician who ever lived.

When I finished college few years ago (less than a decade is as specific as I’ll get!), I was utterly drained and didn’t want to hear any more about more schooling.  As time passed, I began to consider graduate schools, and, one by one, options dwindled away.  Sometimes my lack of success in this regard made me feel guilty, other times it threw me into a panic.  But lately, I have come to accept it and to stop worrying about it.  If it should happen, fine.  If not, I have a library card and plenty of spare change on my desk to take care of any late charges.

What Bach teaches us is that one can excel without the fetters of formalized schooling; indeed, sometimes formalized schooling keeps us from truly learning (my gratitude to several of my most excellent professors, some of whom I still keep in touch with, not withstanding).  We are so obsessed in America with a one size fits all definition of success:  Go to public school, join eight thousand extra curricular activities, graduate with honors, go to college, go to grad school, get a good job, buy a house, a TV and a lazy boy and never read another book again.

At this point it should be said that matters have changed a bit since Bach’s day.  According to at least a few historians, the trend of specialization had begun by the 18th century, but it was not nearly as far advanced as it is now.  Bach, therefore, would have gotten more of a truly classical education and less glorified training, which is the raison d’etre of the modern day university, where people can major in such things as trumpet performance.  (Who would ever do that???)  Our parallel, then, has this one slight limitation.  In any case, even in the classical disciplines such as philosophy, one can educate himself, as Bach surely did.

After we Americans are finished obsessing about school, we fascinate ourselves with our careers.  We love to impress each other with the jobs we have, the money we make, and the amount of overtime we put in.  We love to specialize.

“I study the effects of cold air on squirrel’s tails.”

“Ah, that’s very interesting.  I work for the State government as a traffic engineer.  The benefits are great, and I have all bank holidays off.”

We like to go to conventions where we meet other people in our field and talk about meaningless minutiae that no one else gives a damn about.  All of this would fit under Richard Weaver’s designation of “fragmentation and obsession.”

Here, I think, Bach is instructive, too.  Yes, he was a musician, but he was not one of these artsy people like me who insisted on doing nothing but this.  (Again, he taught Latin.)  Moreover, he didn’t even specialize in a particular area of music, something which today is commonplace.  He was a composer, a conductor, a teacher, and he played several instruments.  Most importantly, he didn’t give a hoot about music theory.  Bach excelled at what he did, but he did not fuss over what he did.  If he fussed over anything, it was his salary.  Finally, he subsumed his  entire life under his grand discourse, which for him was Lutheranism.  He was ultimately concerned about righteousness.  (Not self-righteousness.)

Bach would seem an unlikely figure to teach this lesson to us, but I dare say that his example encourages us not to be too bound up in what we do for a living, or in where we went to school, or in how much money we make, on in whether or not we ever made the dean’s list.  Bach’s life seems to say to us:  do not worry so much about what you do; rather, attend to living well.

Live well.  Cultivate your own garden.  Educate yourself.  Improve daily as a man.

Everything else is on the periphery.

Albert Jay Nock on bees, etc.

It’s a pleasant surprise to see my fellow blogger’s current e-mail signature on display at the blog.

Yes, that’s his entire signature.