Friday, April 27, 2018

Not Worshipping Markets: Hating Government and Loving Liberty

There is a common misunderstanding about libertarians that we worship the market. We are supposed to believe that market solutions are perfect and if only the government would get out of the way, all our problems would be solved. Someone must have assumed that Adam Smith was not being ironic when he compared the market to an "invisible hand" and (foreshadowing Darwin) argued that it is possible to have an intelligent process without any kind of intelligent designer. The market is not providence. Libertarianism is a distinctly secular (in the classic sense of being neutral about religion) anti-utopian doctrine. We do not believe that anything resembling a perfect world is possible. Human beings are flawed, both intellectually and morally; any human creation, including markets, will inevitably inherent those same flaws to some degree. This anti-utopianism is balanced by an anti-nihilism. If a perfect world is not possible, a significantly better world can be fashioned through the use of reason.

It is because libertarians are such anti-utopians that, more than we have confidence in any Smithian hidden hand, we fear government. (Whether or not I can come up with a good alternative to government licenses, I do fear that the Trump administration will use them to round up opponents. Forgive me for taking liberal concerns over Trump seriously and not as mere political rhetoric.) It is government, particularly the kind that is willing to compromise on the checks and balances means for its own ideological ends, that possesses a utopian streak. Who but a utopian would be unable to imagine a day when the very institutions they created might be turned against them? If government means to use force, even murder, how can one justify committing such violence unless one is supremely confident that each specific government action would either lead to a significantly better world or at least to prevent a worse one from coming about? Furthermore, to agree to pay taxes means buying guns for anonymous people, who will then use them to kill people for reasons that you will never be told. The only way it can be morally justifiable to agree to such a deal is if you believe there is some moral guidance protecting government officials from ever making a mistake (something akin to nineteenth-century Catholic beliefs regarding papal ex-cathedra statements). Note that this is particularly true regarding democratic governments as monarchies and aristocracies deny that personal choice is even relevant to government decisions and claim no moral authority from them.

I would go so far as to say that those who claim that libertarians worship the market are revealing something about their own worship of government. They are so enraptured with government as the solution that they cannot imagine someone questioning the legitimacy of government as an instrument of violence and therefore considering an alternative. They, therefore, attribute their own utopian faith in government to libertarians and accuse libertarians of being market worshipers.

A useful test as to whether someone tolerates government simply on pragmatic grounds or worships it as the key to man's salvation is if someone is inclined to accuse libertarians of market worship. It should follow naturally for government pragmatists, who believe that government is an inherently flawed institution, that a better solution is hypothetically possible and that other people will wish to pursue it. Such people might be wrong in regards to their proposed alternatives, but there is no reason to assume that they are motivated by a blind faith in markets.

Alternatively, we can examine if a person is willing to accept Max Weber's (not a libertarian) definition of government as a "monopoly on violence." A person who feels the need to dance around the issue that government is an act of violence is presumably doing so because they are so wrapped up in government worship that they cannot think outside of it. If government is people coming together for the sake of civilization, peace, and love while everything else is darkness, then government cannot be violent. On the contrary, it is those who reject government who must be violent as they are opposing civilization, peace, and love.

For all of my talk about hating government and that taxation is theft, I do believe it is important to recognize the limitations of such a position. A libertarianism whose hatred of government is not matched by a love of liberty will fall to nihilism and eventually authoritarianism. The rise of the alt-right and Donald Trump should make this obvious. Part of the blame for the alt-right and Trump lies within the Rothbardian libertarian tradition as embodied by figures such as Ron Paul, Walter Block, and Tom Woods. (To any Rothbardians out there, much as part of the problem with government worshipers is that they cannot imagine how anyone in good faith could think of them as violent, your inability to imagine how someone in good faith might think that you are enabling the alt-right is a big part of the problem.) I supported Ron Paul for president and highly recommend Block's Defending the Undefendable as a gateway into accepting the more radical implications of libertarianism. The Rothbardians deserve a lot of credit for keeping the libertarian focus on the immorality of government. Without them, it would be too easy to fall into making pragmatic compromises that would endanger the soul of the movement. Rothbardians are an important part of libertarianism and need to be kept as part of the family. That being said, the Rothbardian habit of focusing on opposition to the government to the exclusion of almost anything else led to the development of a certain blind spot for angry white men, who hate the government and even the Federal Reserve, ignoring whether such views came from a genuine love of liberty.

Ideally, there should not be any laws against private discrimination. This does not mean that libertarians should not be extremely wary of those whose main objection to government is that it bans discrimination. It very well may be that Donald Trump was not worse than other Republican candidates and that the liberal media hated him the most. This does not mean that one should form a Libertarians for Trump group.

This also has implications for dealing with terrorism and authoritarianism. There are good reasons to oppose US policy in the Middle East. Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud are not libertarians. I would even go so far as to say that a large part of the Israeli-Palestinian problem has been caused by thinking in terms of states as opposed to private property owners, whether Jews or Muslims, coming to personal agreements, likely leading to some kind of multi-political entity peace plan. That being said, this does not mean that one should not actively be more against Hamas, Assad or Putin than Israel. As libertarians, we should not support intervention in Syria even if Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. To go out on a limb to argue that he did not use such weapons and is merely the victim of a neo-conservative conspiracy (possibly true) is to signal that you are motivated by something other than liberty, likely a willingness to think well of anyone the CIA hates. That is an apology for authoritarianism and defending oneself by saying that libertarianism opposes tyranny, while true, simply means that one has completely betrayed libertarian ideals to the extent that libertarianism has become a dead letter ideology whose chief value now is to serve as moral cover for what libertarians should abhor.

You can justify supporting Trump on libertarian grounds (just as it would not be a contradiction for a libertarian to "feel the Bern.") There are also arguments to be made in favor of Hamas, Assad, and Putin. That being said, if, out of all the issues in the world you could have chosen, you go for one of these, I cannot take you seriously as being a libertarian in good faith. This issue is important precisely because libertarianism really can be used to justify anything in practice. Therefore, a libertarian movement requires that certain positions, a priori, render a person unacceptable for membership. Note that such a person might still be a righteous libertarian at heart even as I exclude him but not others who are ideologically less pure.

If one takes a step back to look at the Rothbardians, there is a deeper problem than Trump and other kinds of authoritarian apologetics. One is always going to have a lot of latitude in who to attack and who to defend when analyzed on a case by case basis. Inconsistencies are only going to appear when you compare who someone attacks with whom they defend. One of the curiosities of the Rothbardians is the paradox of both demanding strict ideological purity to the extent of attacking other libertarians with a willingness to tolerate figures from the alt-right. This apparent contradiction begins to make a frightening amount of sense if you take a party approach to ideology. If you assume that the point of libertarianism is to fight the government, you are going to have a problem in deciding between all the different ways of doing so. If you wish to maintain the pretense that your system is complete then you are going to need some kind of party to make decisions as to which of the many possibilities is the one true path. This means that party loyalty becomes the ideology. Under such circumstances, it becomes necessary to demonstrate party loyalty in an antinomian fashion by doing things that would otherwise appear to go against one's ideology. Rothbardians believe more in their party's strategy of courting angry white men, who hate the government than they believe in liberty. In the end, their libertarianism devolves into promoting non-libertarian ideas like "blood and soil" and claiming to be all the more libertarian for doing so.

A libertarian hatred of government needs to be matched with a love of liberty as an ongoing dialectic. For me, loving liberty means that each person has value as a narrative that they control through personal choices. People's choices matter all the more when we think that they are making a mistake. If it is not a mistake, then the choice has no positive value as a choice. Considering the limitations of human beings with their finite knowledge and lifespans, if people only remained individuals, their lives could have little meaning. Thus, the central choice of any human narrative is which society (if any and when) should a person submit themselves to. (Note that even Ayn Rand's heroes in Atlas Shrugged join a society.) To initiate aggression is to negate a person's choice, their very meaning in life. As government is the monopoly on violence, government stands as the de facto primary threat to choice. To equate government with society is to deny humans that most critical choice of all, what society to join and under what terms.

In loving liberty and not just hating government there is a challenge. If that love is expressed just in market terms, then it is going to look awfully like market worship. What is needed is an embracement of the full range of human choices, including ones that we do not approve of. It should be noted that just as this model celebrates the rights of individuals to defy society, it takes it as a given that there can be such a thing as something society disapproves of. Hence the celebration of choice has the paradoxical requirement of opposing the action. There can be no such thing as celebrating a choice you approve of. For example, I can celebrate the liberty of gay marriage precisely to the extent that I mourn the loss of traditional values. Similarly, I can celebrate the liberty of bakers refusing to bake gay wedding cakes as manifestations of intolerance. In both cases, I have paid the necessary "blood price" to allow liberty to have meaning. Note that this is not some utopian faith in liberty as leading to an ideal world. On the contrary, such liberty is founded on its tragic implications, one that ought to be avoided, human life having meaning be damned, if it were not for the fact that the government alternative is simply too horrific to accept.

Libertarianism is not some dangerous cult the encourages people to worship the market and be paranoid about the government. On the contrary, it accepts the sobering reality that government is an act of violence. The libertarian walks out from the ruins of his utopian dreams that he has abandoned with his rejection of government and seeks to learn to love the hard road of liberty. Hating the government is easy. Loving liberty, with all of its imperfections, is a challenge worth embracing.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Moshe Eliezer: Toward an Antifragile Judaism

This past Friday was my son, Mackie's, first Hebrew birthday. So I am taking the opportunity to post the speech I gave at his bris. This speech lays a framework for some ideas that I have been hoping to explore on this blog at some future point. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a concept called "antifragility." The idea is that, if you want to evaluate if a system is stable, you do not simply go by how well it handles everyday stresses. What is important is how the system handles extreme "black swan" events. Systems that are antifragile not only can survive a crisis but even gain strength from it. Part of what is counterintuitive here is that it is possible to end up rejecting the system that is superior based on what we can observe. Often, what appears as the day to day strength of a system is precisely what will bring it down in a crisis. This concept can be applied to Jewish survival. Passing on Judaism to the next generation means not becoming seduced by things that look impressive from the outside to the neglect of things that can survive a crisis. It is one thing to talk about how it is great to raise children in Brooklyn or Jerusalem and what is the best way to do so under those circumstances. The interesting and relevant question is how to raise children when Brooklyn and Jerusalem are not options. In the end, the only kind of Judaism that is going to survive, regardless of geography, is that which can make it outside of such places.

We have decided to name our son Moshe Eliezer in honor of my great-grandfather and my teacher, the late Prof. Louis Feldman. What they both had in common was a Judaism that was antifragile and could survive even under less than ideal circumstances.

My great-grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Eliezer Shapiro, grew up in Israel but had to flee during World War I. He ended up as the rabbi of Atlantic City, NJ. Atlantic City in the 1920s was a relatively family-friendly resort town that inspired the game of Monopoly. That being said, this was never his plan for how he was going to lead his life. For example, my grandmother grew up going to public school. Things would have been much simpler if he could have stayed with his father, my namesake, in the Old City of Jerusalem, where he could have lived out a more ideal Torah lifestyle. Perhaps this is the origin of the Chinn family preference for out of the way Jewish communities. My father was raised in McKeesport, PA and I was raised in Columbus, OH. I now find myself raising my children in Pasadena, CA.

The character trait about Prof. Louis H. Feldman (Eliezer Tzvi) that most struck people who knew him was that he was so much more than the short old man in a baseball cap, crumpled chalk-stained suit, and sneakers that he appeared. At one level, his appearance disguised the fact that he was a genius and the foremost scholar of Josephus of his age. Feldman embodied humility; he honestly did not seek honor nor did he desire people to recognize his greatness. He was able to do this because it really was never about him. He wanted other people to know and love the classical world like he did. The more he could get others to see this and not himself the better.

To dig deeper, Prof. Feldman's scholarship disguised what a holy person he was. If he was not most people's idea of a great scholar, he was certainly no one's idea of a tzadik. What kind of nice Jewish boy would spend his life on Greek and Latin? Feldman was not just a classics scholar who also happened to be a religious Jew. Underlying everything he wrote, was an implicit apology for what Jerusalem had to do with Athens. The world of Philo and Josephus was a model for Feldman as to how to be a Jew in the modern world. Feldman's Judaism was never pure or ideal, but that was its strength; it was capable of surviving in an impure non-ideal world.

In his final years, I used to regularly visit Prof. Feldman. More than history, what he liked to talk about was growing up in Hartford, CT. If you are looking for the key to Feldman's unconventional Judaism, the place to start is in Hartford. As with Atlantic City, Hartford was not anyone's ideal place to raise Jewish children. Maybe that was the point. How could someone be a religious Jew in academia? The same way that one could be religious in Hartford and the same way that one could be religious in ancient Alexandria or in Rome; with unwavering values and a sense of humor.

Moshe Eliezer, welcome to the family. I can't tell you that things are going to be simple and I am sure you are going to have lots of questions but that is the Judaism that I am offering you. It is antifragile enough to survive even when things are less than ideal. There are challenges ahead here in Pasadena but you are capable of handling them. How do I know this? Because your roots run much deeper than just Pasadena. They go back to Columbus, to McKeesport, to Atlantic City, and to Hartford. If you dig deeper you will find that they go back to Alexandria and Rome. I look forward to teaching you about your classical heritage. If you stick with it, you just might find your way back to Jerusalem.   

Monday, April 2, 2018

Towards a Good Exodus Movie: Brandon Sanderson's Second Law

There have been numerous film versions of the biblical Exodus story, none satisfactory. In honor of Passover, I would like to consider what it might take to do the exodus right. We do not need Prince Moses discovering himself. As great an actor as Charlton Heston was, Moses should not be some macho superhero who is emotionally invulnerable. That being said, Moses should not whine or feel sorry for himself like in the Prince of Egypt. We do not need a cycle of repetitive big special effects plagues followed by a stereotypical stubborn Pharaoh refusing to let the Children of Israel go. We need Moshe Rabainu, the Jewish tragic hero.

The first thing to consider is the soul of the story, something that the exodus can offer like no other story. Harry Potter is about being taken to a magical place that you dearly wish actually existed. The exodus is about God exists and he cares about the downtrodden. The unjust moral order that you take for granted is about to be overturned. I do not care if you are an atheist, you desperately want this to be true. The exodus is about a good man, Moshe, living in a terrible world. He has given up trying to fix it. He is content to be a shepherd and a  family man. Then he receives the surprise of his life. Not that God exists (without God there can be no standard to judge the world as wicked) but that God cares about the scum of the earth Israelites that Moshe has tried to distance himself from. Now it is Moshe's task to get the Israelites out of Egypt and make them into a people worthy of God's love.

The critical challenge to telling the exodus is the fact the Moshe is simply too powerful. He has the power of God behind him. How can the story turn out any other way than him defeating Pharaoh, taking the Israelites out of Egypt and living happily ever after? This is predictable and boring. Furthermore, it does not challenge us. As with all stories, problems are opportunities to make something truly great. For this, we turn to Brandon Sanderson's Second Law of Magic; what a character cannot do is much more important than what he can do. It might be cool to imagine a character with all kinds of superpowers, but ultimately what gives you a plot are the limitations that even the powerful operate under. What kinds of problems can't the hero solve with their powers? Even better, what kinds of problems are created by these powers.

Moshe has a staff, his brother Aaron, God, and a whole battery of miracles to beat Egypt into submission. Here is what he does not have, the ability to force either Pharaoh or the Israelites to consent to anything. This is what makes Pharaoh an intriguing adversary. He has the power to thwart God himself. All he needs to is to harden his heart and be stubborn enough to allow the destruction of Egypt. As the plagues unfold, what is happening is not the wicked Pharaoh getting what he deserves. On the contrary, Pharaoh is winning. Egypt may be burning but for Pharaoh that is a small price to pay for him to beat God and prove that, in some sense, he is a god too. Despite all of Moshe's power, Pharaoh can lie and humiliate him with utter impunity.

In the end, Pharaoh does crack after the deaths of the first-born Egyptians, but he has one last card to play. He knows that the Israelites do not want to actually leave Egypt and become some kind of chosen people. All he needs to do is show up with his army and the Israelites will gladly hand Moshe over and return to Egypt. Pharaoh will have won and there is nothing Moshe or God can do about it. Pharaoh's plan is undone because the Israelites possess the faith to jump into the water and God is willing to differentiate between the Israelites and the Egyptians. As the Israelites sing at the shore of the Red Sea, it appears that God's miracles have not only redeemed Israel from Egypt but have led to a spiritual awakening to make them worthy of receiving the Torah.

I would suggest a corollary to Sanderson's Law; any hero who is sufficiently powerful must ultimately fail and come to a tragic end otherwise the audience would never believe that their weaknesses were ever genuine to being with. Think of characters like Oedipus or King Lear, all powerful in their domains with no plausible challenges. There is no way to tell a story about them that is not a tragedy. Oedipus and Lear need to fall not because anyone could beat them but because they self-destruct through their failure of understanding. Oedipus, the man who understands the nature of man, fails to see himself and accidentally murders his father and marries his mother. Lear lacks the theory mind to appreciate how Regan and Goneril could lie to him and fails to appreciate the value of Cordelia speaking a simple selfless truth that he does not want to hear. By this thinking, we must follow Moshe's success in Egypt and at the Red Sea with an act II in which everything falls apart.

Let us go back to Moshe at the burning bush as he tries to tell God that he does not want to be the savior of the Israelites. This is not the Hero with a Thousand Faces initially refusing the call of destiny (Luke Skywalker not wanting to abandon the family moisture farm to rescue the princess). This is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane saying "take this cup away from me."

(Jim Caviezel anchors the movie with the scene. For the passion sequences to work, Jesus needs to both suffer and transcend that suffering. Jesus and the audience knows that he is about to be tortured.  Here we are allowed to see Jesus be truly vulnerable in a way that you can't in the rest of the movie as he needs to always be moving forward without ever wanting to escape his torment.)

Moshe knows that he is being set an impossible task. It does not matter if he can twist Pharaoh's arm into letting the Israelites go. The Israelites are not worthy of redemption and any attempt to do so is doomed to failure. Moshe is being asked to undergo not twelve hours of torture, but forty years of abuse and humiliation all for nothing. He is going to be Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill.

Moshe takes on this battle that he knows he cannot win. He undergoes his tribulations with Pharaoh and a few altercations with the Israelites to hint as to what is coming. They get through the Red Sea and on to Mount Sinai. Just as we are tempted to think that this might all work out after all, we get the Golden Calf. Here we get to the crucial moment for Moshe. He has proven that he was right about the Israelites all along. Even God now agrees and is going to destroy the Israelites and let Moshe off the hook. Moshe puts himself in harm's way to save the very people he despises by threatening God that if God will not save Israel, he does not want anything to do with God. More incredibly still, Moshe succeeds at doing what Pharaoh could not, forcing God to change his mind.

Despite Moshe saving Israel, things do not really improve. The Israelites demand meat, the spies convince them not to go to Canaan and Korah rebels. Eventually, when the Israelites demand water, Moshe just snaps; he yells at them and hits the rock. God punishes Moshe and refuses to let him into the Promised Land. Moshe dies standing on Mount Nebo looking down as the people under Joshua prepare to enter the Land. We know that this is not going to turn out well. We have hundreds of years of the Israelites sinning against God, culminating in their expulsion from the Land and the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Babylonians.

As with most good tragedies, there is transcendence and hope. Long after the pharaohs have gone, those Israelites who rejected Moshe time and again still keep Moshe's Torah. Every year, they gather around a Passover seder to remember their teacher as parents tell their children the real greatest story ever told.