Thursday, December 15, 2011

George Orwell, Dishonest Rhetoric, and the Libertarian Movement

 The key-word here is ‘objectively’.
     We are told that it is only people’s objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are ‘objectively’ aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once. The same argument is applied to Trotskyism. Trotskyists are often credited, at any rate by Communists, with being active and conscious agents of Hitler; but when you point out the many and obvious reasons why this is unlikely to be true, the ‘objectively’ line of talk is brought forward again. To criticize the Soviet Union helps Hitler: therefore ‘Trotskyism is Fascism’. And when this has been established, the accusation of conscious treachery is usually repeated.
 George Orwell, "As I please," 8 December 1944.

I was recently reminded of this passage in Orwell by posts on two different libertarian blogs. One, by Roderick Long, is a defense of left-libertarians who accuse right-libertarians of supporting government favoritism towards big business. He writes:
So when left-libertarians accuse (some) right-libertarians of supporting corporatism, this is to be understood in a de re sense, not in a de dicto sense. Thus the claim is that right-libertarians are supporting certain policies/institutions/phenomena that are in fact instances of corporatism; we are not claiming that right-libertarians are deliberately supporting them qua instances of corporatism – and so pointing out that they’re not is not relevant as a reply to the original point.
The language is different, employing the philosophical distinction between de re and de dicto instead of the political misuse of "objectively," but the logic is the same. Accuse someone of supporting something and then explain, when challenged, that you don't actually mean he supports it, you mean he supports things that you think support it.

The other post was by Walter Block, accusing Wendy McElroy of not being a libertarian. To Walter's credit, he goes into some detail in describing the immense evidence that Wendy is a libertarian, having been active in the movement for decades. But he concludes that nonetheless she is not, on the grounds that she opposes the Ron Paul campaign, which Walter believes libertarians ought to support. He writes:
I distinguish between being a libertarian, and agreeing with (virtually all) libertarian principles. The former implies that you act so as to promote liberty. The latter means that you agree with these principles, and, may, perhaps, as in her case at present, act against them. I have no doubt that Wendy is a libertarian in the second sense. Her whole adult life gives amply testimony to that fact. She believes in the libertarian message, fervently. She defends it, brilliantly. She extends it, creatively. But, as far as acting so as to promote liberty, her trashing of Dr. Ron Paul’s candidacy gives the lie to that. Belief is necessary, but not sufficient, for being a libertarian. Wendy passes the first test, but not the second.
Hence "not a libertarian" turns out to mean "disagreeing with Walter Block about what tactics libertarians should employ."


RP Long said...

Completely agreed!

Eitan said...

David, what do you think of Ron Paul and do you support his bid for Presidency? I won't accuse you of being a non-libertarian either way ;-)

David Friedman said...

Responding to Eitan:

I think Ron Paul has done an admirable job of using the political system to spread his ideas. I think he has very little chance of being either nominated or elected, and I'm not sure how good a job he would do as president, given no evidence of ability in running things. From that standpoint Gary Johnson would be a better candidate as well as being, I think, a somewhat more consistent libertarian.

Hume said...

This is a bit off topic. I was wondering why is it uncommon to find libertarians promoting proportional representation as an alternative to single-member plurality voting districts? As a pragmatic matter (leaving to one side issues of political equality and democratic legitimacy), this one issue seems to be the best institutional mechanism to having a libertarian voice in the assembly.

Richard Allan said...

Hume, I would say libertarians think that any form of voting system can be easily corrupted, and that there are so few issues that can best be decided by voting that in a libertarian society the voting system wouldn't matter. Nonetheless as a libertarian and psephologist I am a fervent defender of True PR.

As for the post itself, not much to say, but good work identifying this fallacy. The first example is particularly annoying, but the second is pretty bad also. Whether you think McElroy's motives are pure (eg. she thinks some aspect of Ron Paul's candidacy is unconscionable) or impure (eg. she's somehow afraid of getting what she wants and is self-handicapping) I don't see why either one would make her "not a libertarian".

Gordon said...

You are aware of course that Milton Friedman was a red.

Roger said...

I love Ron Paul, a genuine hero.

In the article you reference, Walter Block acknowledges he's not the best writer. Well, one reason is right here. In a rather long winded way, he explains why he's doing something as immature as name calling. Anti name calling?

David Friedman said...

Gordon asks if I'm aware that Milton Friedman was a red.

Also George Stigler.

Although it's hard to be sure, I suspect that Rand was speaking literally--that she really did suspect that an article arguing for the right conclusion on what she regarded as the wrong grounds was deliberate intellectual sabotage by someone on the other side.

John Pazniokas said...

I'm usually a rather big fan of Block's, but he didn't do himself proud in that column. I can understand why his hackles were raised by McElroy's post: frankly, a lot of things McElroy said about Ron Paul were either misunderstandings of the man or deliberate deception, and I got angry right along with Dr. Block. But neither Walter Block nor anyone else can take away her libertarian card. There's no justification.

Thank you, David, for the historical context. Made it all the more fascinating.

Mike Fleming said...

I was reading an interview with Block at the end where he basically thinks that the free society will never come about it and his reasoning is that for the vast majority of human history we have not had economic freedom and so therefore it's unlikely we ever will.

So, keeping that in mind, my reading of this is that he thinks Ron Paul is the only way any kind of freedom is going to be achieved at all and is therefore a little hysterical about it. He thinks it's the only hope. Nobody's perfect.

Carl M. said...

Having been blasted by the monks and nuns for liberty, I find it refreshing to see a purist attacked by other purists for lack of pragmatism. Wendy McElroy proudly proclaimed in a Liberty essay that were she able to cast the deciding vote against Hitler, she would not do so since voting is unprincipled.

Calling her a Nazi is thus appropriate. To be precise, she is operationally a Nazi infiltrator to the libertarian movement.

Joshua Connelly said...

@David, I've always explained to people that Gary Johnson is more of a utilitarian libertarian like David Friedman where as Ron Paul is more of a philosophical libertarian like Murray Rothbard. So I find it interesting you actually support Gary Johnson.

On another note, I read Machinery of Freedom a couple months back and really enjoyed it.

Fearsome Pirate said...

If Ron Paul gets nominated, Obama will win a second term. Therefore, Walter Block objective supports a second Obama term.

I like this; it's fun!

John said...

I think donating to Ron Paul's campaign is one of the best things you can do with your money, in general. In terms of influencing people and promoting freedom, hands down it is the best thing you can do. People watch him in the debates and can relate to him. He goes beyond politics and genuinely inspires people to take issues seriously and scholarly, especially regarding economics. Ron Paul praises Milton Friedman, though not as often as the Austrian economists, and Milton Friedman praised Ron. This quote appeared in one of Paul's campaign ads for congress: "I strongly support Ron Paul. We very badly need to have more representatives in the House who understand in a principled way the importance of property rights and religious freedom." Paul constantly says that it is about the message and not about him, but that is not true. The reason Ron Paul has so many supporters is because he is enjoyable to listen to and read. I don't think anyone will be more influential in terms of the political economy than Milton Friedman, but if I had to pick another figure from the last fifty years, I am going with Ron Paul.

RKN said...

What a pointless kerfuffle, Block versus McElroy. It's like two p-values arguing who's least significant.

McElroy appears to demand that her "real" libertarian candidate (if she voted) have a spotless character. Anyone less is evidently unworthy of her support. Block counters that this means she is not "being" a libertarian.

For chrissakes, even many of the relatively few might-be voters for Paul are deeply concerned about his so-called isolationism, and everyone else politically left of these people think he's a certified whacko.

Now here comes McElroy withholding support because he's not "whacko" enough? Followed by Block saying you ain't a real libertarian if it manifests only in your arguments, and not your actions?


We are soooo far in this country from getting anyone who even resembles a libertarian elected to executive office this is all laughable. A pointless parlour game by the fringe of the political fringe.

I am quite certain Block would not find me "being" a libertarian, and equally certain I'm unconcerned about that.

TheVidra said...

To get back to Dishonest Rhetoric, George Orwell was brilliant when it came to capturing deception through language at the political level. He captured certain linguistic phenomena of mass manipulation perfectly (Newspeak). In American society, I can only give examples of "affirmative action", "patriot act", "war on [insert social ill]", "Operation Odyssey Down", and so on. When those in power have to hide the intentions of their laws/actions behind deceptive words, one knows they are probably pushing forward something unpopular with the public (otherwise they wouldn't have to be so defensive with the language involved).

Anonymous said...

hold on a sec. are you saying that The Second World War should not have been fought? of course war is the most horrific thing but killing SS is perfectly justified!!!

Jason said...


I feel like you're misconstruing Long's distinction here. In your talks on market failure and the State, you (I think powerfully) categorize the FDA statement that finally authorizing a product that had been around for ten years would save a large number of lives as the FDA "admitting that they've killed [roughly that number x10] people."

Obviously, you weren't suggesting that the FDA went out and actively strangled to death that many people over the past ten years in premeditated cold blood. Rather, your point was that those people died due to being prevented from having that life-saving product, meaning that the FDA (without by any means having the intention of doing so) effectively killed them. It seems like you would join Long here in making the de re / de dicto distinction, and say that the FDA de re had a policy that amounted to mass-murder, but not de dicto. Furthermore, I think that you'd also say that someone who supported the FDA's policy here supported a policy that amounted to mass-murder without meaning to, also putting them into de re support for mass-murder, though by no means in de dicto support for it.

Long is then making the same point for what he sees as de re right-libertarian support for corporatism. If X policy is actually corporatist, and I support it, though I don't think it's corporatist, I'm still de re supporting a corporatist policy. What I'm not doing, though, is de dicto supporting a corporatist policy. This seems to be the same kind of analysis implied by your statement about the FDA in the talk on market failure and States.

It's also possible, of course, that I'm misunderstanding either what you said in the talk on market failure and States or what you're saying here in response to Long.

Dain said...

"Followed by Block saying you ain't a real libertarian if it manifests only in your arguments, and not your actions?"

I love it. It's even funnier considering that proving you're a libertarian through your actions is one of the easiest things to do.


1. Avoid theft and personal assault (or pro-active imposition as one writer put it) at the interpersonal level, as pretty much everyone already does.

2. Try not to agitate for more state intervention, but if state provided benefits are already in place (student loans, highways, ets.), go ahead and take advantage of them because you weren't responsible for creating them and the state as a coercive monopoly provider forced them upon you anyway.

Voila! You're a perfectly average resident of the U.S.

Anton Sherwood said...

TheVidra, what's dishonest about "affirmative action"? It originally meant to make a specific effort to recruit from the recognized victim classes (RVC), in contrast to the 'negative action' of merely refraining from excluding or penalizing them when they apply. That it has mutated to mean a selective bias in favor of the RVC doesn't make the term dishonest: it is still 'affirmative' in the same sense. The word has connotations of 'positive' and thus 'beneficial', but that's a misunderstanding -- which the social engineers are happy to exploit, of course.

David Friedman said...

To Joshua:

My main point about Gary Johnson didn't have to do with the nature of his (or Paul's) libertarianism, but with the fact that he has actually held an executive position (state governor, although of a small state) and, apparently, succeeded in pushing the state he was governor of at least a little distance in the right direction. That's some evidence of the skills that we would want in a libertarian president--evidence we don't have in the case of Ron Paul.

So far as their views are concerned, both are enough more libertarian than either the Congress or the electorate that just how libertarian they are doesn't matter very much for how they do the job, although it might be relevant for how they affect the public view of libertarianism.

David Friedman said...


I didn't say that the FDA supported killing people, I said that they had killed people and explained the sense in which I was saying it.

Similarly, someone could argue that income tax withholding, which my father helped create, had done more to increase the size of government than everything else he was responsible for did to shrink it, hence that, on net, he had increased the size of government. That's not the same as saying that he supported increasing the size of government.

iverenxx said...

what do you think of Ron Paul and do you support his bid for Presidency? I won't accuse you of being a non-libertarian either way

sconzey said...

There's one major distinction here that's got lost: If following your advice leads to outcomes you purport to oppose then you are at best wrong and at worst a hypocrite and deserve to be called out on it -- "objectively a Nazi" or not.

If you purport to oppose unemployment but advocate a minimum wage then you need to be called out on that.

Where it gets silly is in Orwell's example of the Trotskyists. Not for the reasons Orwell thinks, but because a rational objective observer would see nothing wrong with speaking out against a regime that murdered 20 million of it's own citizens, even if one's actions resulted in temporary gains to a regime that murdered 6 million of it's own citizens.

Stephan Kinsella said...

David, re Johnson v. Paul -- Paul pretty explicitly calls for all drugs to be legalized, while Johnson seems to be only for marijuana legalization. So on that score, at least, Paul is more consistently libertarian, it seems to me.