In Praise of Lazy Surfers, Stoners, Junkies & Freaks

Seems so sick to the hypocrite norm
Running their boring drills
But we are an elite race of our own
The stoners, junkies, and freaks

Are you happy? I am, man.
Junkhead Alice in Chains

Recently, while persusing Rational Review, I noticed this essay,Then and Now: The Thatcherite Legacy of Totalitarian Plutocracy, by Sean Gabb. I thought the piece quite interesting since it sort of echoed my last post(libertarianism vs libertarianism). We simply replace Reagan with Thatcher and there you have it. But Gabb’s piece was a little more practical and a bit more specific. Gabb defends the british working class against charges of laziness by excoriating the highly artificial political economy wrought by the Thatcherite policy regime. Gabb more or less rhetorically asks why the working class should be obligated(or demonstrate an allegiance) to the competitive terms of this highly artificial, plutocratic political economy?

We can apply Gabb’s insight to the current “Bleeding Heart Libertarian” debate regarding distributive justice. I noticed David Friedman has posted additional replies to his original rejoinder. Friedman, in part, asked what I had asked in my original post, “The Social Justice of the Police State,” in regards to Zwolinski’s rather contrived definition of “the poor” that excluded the “non-working.” Zwolinski responded with an admission that “concern for the poor” all along has been “a sloppy way of characterizing social justice.” Zwolinski admits what I had pointed out in my original post: “concern for the poor” doesn’t really mean “concern for the poor.’ Or as he puts it: “poverty as such will be neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for having a valid claim of social justice.” Zwolinski further writes:

Some people will be poor but have no such claim—lazy surfers who are poor simply because they choose not to work, for example. Others will not be poor but will have a legitimate claim of social justice—those, perhaps, whose opportunity to live according to their religious beliefs is unfairly restricted by political institutions. There’s more to social justice than ensuring that people have enough money, and this, in our opinion, is an area in which the classical liberal tradition simultaneously shines and nevertheless still has some important work to do.

Zwolinksi still doesn’t nail down his definition of what properly qualifies as a “social justice claim.” Perhaps by his fourth or fifth response, driven by a skilled socratic method, he would finally get around to properly defining(or conceding) the definition. But I will save you the drama. What he is saying is this: if you choose to compete, whether you are able to or not, you are worthy of a social justice claim. If you choose not to compete, you forfeit any claim to social justice.

But Zwolinski’s definiton(and this is what he is actually saying, notwithstanding his inability–or refusal–to clearly state it) injects Gabb’s insight into the equation. If the competitive context is highly artificial and skewed toward plutocracy, what obligation or allegiance should any rational agent give to this thing? My argument would be to point out it is a perverted methodological misuse of libertarianism to use it to normalize political obligation. The proper use of it would be a positive examination of the given context that is normatively claiming moral obligation.

Frankly, I can reduce all this hypothetical, philosophical “blah, blah, blah” back and forth to a simple question and answer. Do you think the US Government is a Police State(in other words, a highly artificial political economic structure)? If you do, then obviously the BHL paradigm of social justice reduces to allegiance to the Police State as a condition of a social justice claim. If you deny that the US is a Police State, then the argument shifts to a positive debate regarding the artificiality of the political economy. If you make certain concessions about fundamental liberal violations, then the argument shifts to one about the possibility of reform/correction.

Personally, I would argue that any defense of the current artificiality of political economy would have a difficult time against a libertarian critique. I would also reject any claims of committing a logical fallacy because I am requiring you to prove that the US is not a police state. I think any rational agent would have to concede that in today’s context this is a legitimate question. Also note I am not positing violations against some Randian or Rothbardian NAP as evidence of a police state. Quite the contrary, I am a Hayekian and a liberal. I don’t see any conflict between the “welfare state” and liberalism if we restrict “welfare redistribution” to planning for competition. My definition of “liberal violation” is the classic historical liberal definition of it: the State as an artificial construct–that is, a compliance mechanism–serving as both the ends and means of compliance. Dialectically, this is most starkly evidenced by a “Security State.”

It would also behoove me to pit Sean Gabb against Matt Zwolinski in another relevant topic. Zwolinsky is noted for emphasizing the necessary role of a professional academic class to promulgate “liberty.” Gabb is perhaps best noted for his work(at least, it’s what I know him best for), “How English Liberty was Created by Accident and Custom–And then Destroyed by Liberals.” Gabb’s argument is that what we call “liberalism” was a product of anarchic custom. The later efforts of a professional academic/philosophical class to provide a normative foundation for it served only to destroy it. In particular, Gabb assails “British Utilitarianism,” the supposed foundation of “classical liberalism,” as the downfall of liberalism.

At the very least, Gabb’s paper should serve as a cautionary tale regarding the role the professional class plays in “promoting” liberty. Our modern experience only serves to reinforce this. It can be argued that the 2nd resurrection of the “classical liberal tradition,” represented by the “Chicago School,” served to underwrite our current condition of a financial hegemony of plutocratic totalitarianism(the legacies of both Thatcher and Reagan). By some’s count that might constitute “strike two.” Strike Three might very well be the likes of Zwolinsky denying the “Police State(the crooked umpire)” and normalizing the necessity of you to swing at Strike Three.

Admittedly, I’m not much of a philosopher. Although I don’t reject philosophy, I think a pertinent critique against it is that as a discipline, it is supposed to be primarily concerned with “what is the good life.” But by the time you get to political philosophy, this decision of the good life is usually taken out of your hands. The good life for you is usually erased by some greater moral claim of obedience. Liberalism at least puts political obligation up against an agent rational calculation. Generally, liberalism, whether “high/modern” or “classical,” allows space for individual agents to decide for themselves the “good life,” even within the limits of political obligation. But reading Zwolinski refer to “lazy surfers” disqualifies him from even being a liberal. No, I’m not making an argument that “surfers” should have their lifestyles subsidized. However, I am making an argument that agents who live their lives outside the approval zone(“moral judgements”) of Matt Zwolinski should not be penalized for it.1

But then again the beauty of scholarship, the redemption of it, can be illustrated by,say, Thaddeus Russell’s “A Renegade History of the United States,” or Jeff Riggenbach’s “In Praise of Decadence.” In both works, we find ample demonstration that the source of liberty does not rest in the moral judgements of a professional class represented by the likes of Matt Zwolinski. Rather, the source of liberty resides in the actions of people who don’t officially count according to Zwolinski. In the end, your local pot dealer represents more liberty than the entire professional libertarian class put together. You study philosophy to develop a bullshit detector against the moral claims of political philosophers…

1 Particularly, in a police state, the decision to live a life outside the “approved” bounds can incur a heavy cost…

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8 thoughts on “In Praise of Lazy Surfers, Stoners, Junkies & Freaks

  1. Notwithstanding your inability – or refusal – to correctly spell my name, it is “Zwolinski,” not “Zwolinsky.” The misspelling, in itself, isn’t all that uncommon. But I’m puzzled by the fact that you get it right about 50% of the time. Perhaps you’re making a subtle, clever critique of my writing? That I argue as though I were two entirely different persons? One Polish liberal dissident, one Russian autocrat, perhaps?

    Anyways, I don’t have anything against lazy surfers. Living in San Diego, some of my best friends are lazy surfers. I sometimes think I should be one too. But I don’t think lazy surfers have any claim of justice on the rest of us if, at the end of the day, their stomach growls and they find they don’t have any food available to satisfy it. I don’t think you disagree with this, do you? My sense is that you believe that no one, lazy or otherwise, would have any such claim. So your problem with my position isn’t merely that I’m saying that the lazy surfers don’t have a claim; it’s that I’m discriminating against them? Or am I missing your real point?

    I don’t think surfers need to pledge allegiance to the police state. But I do think that claims on other people to have your basic needs met are sensitive to whether you’ve made an honest effort to try to meet them yourself.

    • Matt:

      I quoted your name a total of 10 times in this essay, misspelling it twice. In my previous essay, Social Justice of a Police State, I quoted it 8 times without error. The error rate is 2/18=11%. So my ratio is 89%/11%, not 50%/50%. The actual ratio suggests what my misspelling of your name represents: an innocent mistake and not some snarky foray into a language game.

      My critique of your distributive justice paradigm is indeed harsh but is straightforward. I can understand you might take a bit of offense to it but I would suggest, if you are going to take the time to comment, to address the substance of the critique rather than engage in silly condescending jabs.

      The substance of my criticism is essentially two-fold. Allow me to restate for clarity:

      (i) Libertarianism is not methodological device to bridge the gap between “classic” and “high” liberalism regarding the proper(normative) distribution of primary goods. In the classical sense, we would call the primary goods the “Lockean proeprty bundle.” In the “high” sense, the primary goods are the Rawlsian variety. The classic and high(or modern) versions are never going to agree on this matter. Where these two versions can largely agree, however, is over the dissolution of political obligation when the State crosses the line into the total State(the “Security State”). This is the argument that should be occuring and not this hypothetical debate over distributive justice which more or less assumes away the current problem of fundamental liberal violations. NOTE: claiming that these issues(the Security State et al) are discussed is not sufficient. These are not secondary or teritiary violations. These are fundamental violations. Otherwise, I can only conclude that you are merely playing an academic professional signaling game, the intent being merely your own career adavancement. In other words, you are merely trying to make libertarianism into something that carries more professional weight as a status symbol.

      (ii) your defintion of “social justice,” which carries an obligation on the part of the agent, can legitimize the bifurcation between the professional classes and an underclass which always develops in a police state. You will say that if an agent does not work then that agent has no valid claim of social justice. But what you are really saying is that agent is not willing to compete, then that agent has no valid claim for social hustice. But there is a world of distinction between “work/labor” and “compete.” Compete implies a willingness to comply with the political economic framework. If you do not comply with this framework, then not only do you forego a social justice claim, but you forfeit the right to work or labor(“to eat,” essentially) as well. The contra argument against your position is why should compliance with a highly artificial political economic framework be a condition not only for “social justice,” but for the fundamental right to labor(which, if you are not in ‘compliance,” you are forbidden to do. You have become “Illegal’). You may say that this is not what you mean; but if you are not willing to address the reality of the police state, then this is exactly the practical result.

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  3. dL,

    I wrote three paragphs in my comment. Two of them were addressed to the substance of your critique. The first was a bit of humor. I didn’t intend it as a condescending jab. Though yes, I’m bothered when people who critique my position can’t be bothered to spell my name correctly.

    I’m also bothered when people try to speculate into my psychological motives for writing, rather than (ahem) engaging with the substance of what I’ve written. I’m playing a signalling game trying to impress my academic collegaues? And what, pray tell, game are you playing sir? Are you writing this stuff to work out some unresolved daddy issues? Does it matter? Am I, never having met you, in any position whatsoever to speculate regarding your motives? Or you mine?

    Back to the substance, if you’d like. I share your concerns about the police state, though I do think that there are large and important differences between the United States today and true police states like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. I think individuals in America enjoy a much greater degree of freedom than individuals who lived under those regimes, and while it’s important not to minimize the way in which our government violates our freedom, it is also important not to blur real differences.

    I have not addressed any issues of political obligation in the writings you have talked about on this bog. My focus has been on issues of distributive justice. I agree with you that political obligation is dissolved “when the State crosses the line into the total State.” And I don’t think anything I’ve said has implied otherwise. Yes, I think that a theory of social or distributive justice ought to be sensitive to a person’s choices so that someone who’s poverty is a result of their own choices (e.g. to spend all day surfing) will thus forfeit a claim in a way that someone who’s poverty is a result of bad luck will not. I believe in social justice, but I also believe in individual responsibility. None of this means that I think that someone only has a legitimate claim if they comply with the regulations of the total state. If a state is sufficiently unjust, and an individual refuses to comply with it and thus does not “work” or attempt to work because there is no way of doing so that does not make him complicit in the injustice of the state, then I do not think that individual forfeits any claim of social justice.

    You seem rather hell-bent on attacking my position, but I must say that I’m open to the points you’re making, and I don’t think I disagree much with the philosophical claims you’re making here. But I think you need to do better at understanding what my position is before you critique it.

    -Matt

    • Matt:

      Firstly, your first reponse didn’t really didn’t address the substance of my critique. You were missing my real point.

      Secondly, allow me to qualify what you perceive to be an insult regarding a questioning of your motivations. “Questioning Motives” can be a form of a logical fallacy so allow me to amend that statement by clarifying that the academic game can largely be a signaling game. So its not so much a questioning of personal motives but of an observation of the institutional incentives. For example: Bryan Caplan: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/03/tylers_telling.html

      My real view, as you’d expect, is that academic journal publication is mostly a socially wasteful signaling game. Hits in top journals are a strong sign of IQ, diligence, and creativity within the narrow confines of disciplinary conformity, but at best a weak sign that you’ve discovered important new truths.

      From one of your recent blog posts at BHL: http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/04/thursday-miscellany/

      It’s a terrific book for a number of reasons, the primary of which is its dramatic and highly readable accounts of the lives of great libertarians defenders of liberty like Cicero, Lysander Spooner, and Richard Cobden. But I think it’s especially valuable for libertarian academics and aspiring, who are wont to feel put upon by an academic world that is largely (though decreasingly) hostile to their ideas. I’ve felt this way too, and the feeling is understandable. But it’s not a very productive feeling, and Powell’s book is helpful in dispelling it. It’s hard to feel oppressed for being a defender of liberty because one’s journal article was rejected when one reads about John Lilburne getting his eye poked out with a pike for printing a pamphlet deemed offensive by the authorities…

      Specifically, what I wrote was that if your theory is not addressing the problem of fundamental liberal violations, then it merely amounts to academic signaling. There is no new intellectual ground being broken. No important truths being contemplated. I will stand by that observation without an apology(sorry).

      Now, concerning my unresolved “daddy issues.” Well, to be a bit personal, I am an example of what I write(warn) about. At this stage, because of my failure to be properly obedient with the authoritities regarding maintaining “my papers,” I am now more or less “Illegal.” I can sort of get away with it because I own(partner in) my own company(technology; i work entirely through VPN, network)–but i am breaking the law by doing it. But if I were thrust out that situation, then I would be unable to get a job, unable to get a bank account, unable to eat. The amount of “friction” I have to go through to become “legal” again is aburdly ridiculous(note: I am a natural born US citizen, has nothing to do with visas. But now I essentially have to get a passport before I am can be re-issued a DL/State ID). I am in no way in a privileged position but its better position than some. To me, its an obvious observation the level of obedience/compliance one must acquiesce to in order to afforded a status that is supposed to be fundamental(ie.e, a “protected right” and not a rent-seeking exploited privilege) in a liberal state. It is this type of thing that creates the maginalized society. So, forgive me Matt if I tend to discount your observation about how much freedom we enjoy.

      Your position that the US is not actually a police state is what I pretty much anticipated in my earlier post, “The Social Justice of a Police State.” Your baseline for a police State appears to be Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia(which I don’t think is a defensible baseline). That’s not my baseline(although if we cite US prison stats against the Soviet gulag days and the number of civilians killed by US government policy and wars, we might arguably approach that baseline). I specifically outlined my baseline:

      (1) undue restrictions on the freedom of mobility, the freedom of transactions, the freedom to work
      (2) perverse rates of domestic incarceration
      (3) system-wide domestic surveillance organs engaged in domestic spying in all aspects of the social, economic and political life of its citizens. The makeup of these organs will usually entail some degree of a secret police and an unaccountable intelligence complex
      (4) the militarization of the borders
      (5) an arbitrary distinction between law and the exercise of power by the executive agency
      (6) a militarization or para-militarization of “law enforcement”
      (7) a social context where the government actively propagandizes a permanent enemy, a permanent threat, a permanent war
      (8) a social context that glorifies the organs of authority, “the men and women in uniform.”

      I can substantiate each and every one of the items in the above list with extensive documentation. So you would have to essentially deny my baseline or argue that it is all a matter of degree. Of course, then you would be illustrating my contention that your “social justice paradigm” in the end amounts to legitimizing the “Pink Police State.”

      • “I am now more or less “Illegal.””

        I apologize in advance for harping on this issue; it must be frustrating for you.

        I’m trying to make sense of what you mean, and envision a scenario how this would happen. Please let me know if I’m on the right track. I lost my DL and SS card simultaneously when I was a teenager. It was a pain to get them replaced, because each agency wanted the other card with which to identify me. I think that I got out of this vicious dependency thanks to my father vouching for me.

        So now, I imagine that I lost all of my identification papers — DL, SS, passport, Birth Certificate (BC). An online search says that I should go to the county records department to get a copy of my BC; maybe I can prove who I am with my fingerprint/footprint (that’s on most BCs, right)? But if I no longer live in my hometown, how am I supposed to travel with no ID card? If I’ve recently moved, maybe none of my associates know me well enough that they can vouch for my identity.

        But there must be a way out of this. It must happen pretty often in a country with 300 million inhabitants and a lot of geographic mobility. But how much will it cost you to take care of it? Is it just as hard as getting a passport? That’s not too hard.

        India is establishing a system of biometric identification for its residents. Would that solve the problem? Or is the problem that you consider this sort of documentation of your life (your residence, your workplace, your travels) to be overly intrusive and you don’t want to comply?

      • I’m trying to make sense of what you mean, and envision a scenario how this would happen.

        It happens if your official primary ID paper–drivers license–has expired and you have lost or long ago ceased worrying about your secondary official papers: SS card, birth certificate. And other than Canada, I have never traveled abroad. So I have no passport.

        In the old days, an expired DL along with “vouching documentation(i.e, pay stubs, bank statements, bills, school/college transcripts) would have easily sufficed. Not anymore. Today, only official documentation counts. And primary official documentation that has expired(over 6-months, a year) no longer is valid.

        How can a “responsible citizen” allow their DL to expire. Well, it could be that person is somewhat ADD and owns his own little technology company and he works out his house utilizing modern communications, has no car payments, doesn’t particularly drive that much–or like to drive that much–and has a real version to artificial biometric compliance for something that person can get away with not doing.

        Other scenarios: DWI resulting in DL suspension and that person not keeping up with an ID card that the person thinks has no practical use in most daily life. There are certainly many other scenarios I can possibly think of.

        The Remedy: Hire a lawyer and try to work around the byzantine regulations of a National Security State, starting with trying to secure the easiest form of ID, the Passport, which in this context, is a “passport” to securing other forms of ID up the chain. This is not as uncommon as you might think.

        As someone who has more or less lived around the margins, meaning more or less earning a living in an entrepreneurial capacity and never having worked for a large-scale organizational structure, i tend to scoff at the claims of “freedom” by types who more or less live their lives in full compliance with these structures. I particularly tend to dismiss “theories of justice” that supposedly are aimed at the “marginalized” when in fact they are signals aimed at their organizational colleagues.

    • re: social justice & personal responsibility: to mark a moral distinction in and of itself is mere opinion. Within the context of a state, what you’re talking about becomes enforceable distinctions, with whoever is on the wrong side of the line deliberately denied.

      The dilemma is, who gets to draw the line? You not thinking of it in terms of state compliance doesn’t mean it won’t be defined as such.

      BTW: I personally don’t think the welfare portion of the state as it exists really has much, if anything, to do with a sense of social or distributive justice. My view is it’s more like bribes to continue the distributive injustice that led to so many needing help in the first place. If it’s assumed there’s no alternative then there’s a right way to go about it, but I’d rather just stop the injustice and see what happens from there.

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