Showing posts with label libertarianism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label libertarianism. Show all posts

5/08/2016

Prop 1 Failed and Everybody Lost

In an unfortunate confirmation that nothing is sacred, last night's election results brought devastating news to thousands of would-be Mother's Day celebrators in Austin, Texas: the failure of Proposition 1.  How could this be?  Elections are generally neither noteworthy nor meaningful in the sense that they impact our day-to-day lives, and they certainly shouldn't ruin an event as hallowed as Mother's Day.  Get together with family, share a meal, and leave your politics at the door.  Regardless of what day it is, consider that it is almost statistically impossible to be the deciding vote that tips the scales one way or the other, and you are left with the conclusion that it is generally best to stay out of the sticky mess of politics altogether... but this time it's different.

The sole item up for vote was Proposition 1, a confusingly-worded ballot initiative that sought to overturn a recent City Council ordinance regulating ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft in several ways, most notably requiring fingerprint background checks on all drivers.  Both companies have warned that they will be forced to leave the city of Austin if these regulations are enforced, and as of today they have proven good on their word.  Uber and Lyft have shut down their service to the detriment of the 10,000-15,000 full and part-time drivers and the hundreds of thousands of their satisfied customers.

In the grand scheme of things, the City Council’s regulation on ride-sharing companies is a small crime of the State.  Compare it to 1,000,000 dead Iraqis or dropping atomic bombs on civilian cities and it's easy to dismiss this event as a first world problem.  However, just as some of my favorite pieces by Jeffrey Tucker concern the little ways the State screws us every day, like why our toilets require plungers or why our clothes aren't clean, the sorry tale of Prop 1 is a microcosm for why every day, in a million different ways both seen and unseen, the State makes our lives worse.

So on this celebration of Motherhood, when thousands of Austinites are going to open their iPhones expecting to effortlessly catch a ride to their favorite trendy brunch-spot and realize that 56% out of the 17% of eligible Travis County voters have made one of their most important apps stop working overnight, we should use this opportunity to restate the case that can never be made enough: that the State is the common enemy of mankind.

The Losers of Prop 1

To take the representatives of Lyft and Uber at their word, the decision to pack up and leave Austin is no small decision.  Obviously, they wouldn't have launched in Austin to begin with unless it were profitable to do so, so shutting down implies a reduction of those same profits.  When a new law or tax is passed, sometimes the additional cost can be passed onto the consumer, but many times it can be the breaking point between a company staying open or moving on to greener pastures.  So in this sense, the corporate employees and owners are the direct losers of Prop 1, but these individuals are not likely to draw sympathy from the selfish voter.  Instead, let's consider how the users, the drivers, and the average Austinite who doesn't use a ride-sharing service will suffer due to this action by the State.

To relay a personal story, I recall my weekly trips to the airport being an anxious crapshoot.  Every Sunday I would pre-order my taxi for the following morning, and it seemed half the time there would be some kind of problem.  Maybe the taxi would arrive late, or maybe the order would get lost and no one would show up at all.  This unpleasant game went on for years, and I had resigned myself to accept it, thinking that I would never see a higher level of service in this lifetime.

But then the skies parted, I rubbed my tired eyes and found Uber and Lyft.  Imagine my delight at opening the app and immediately seeing how many mere minutes away the nearest driver was from my location.  I could track, in real time, the driver approaching my home.  When my driver arrived I was often welcomed with complimentary water, and this stellar level of service was achieved for nearly half the cost of my previous taxi trips.  In other words, Uber and Lyft achieved both a higher quality of service and a lower cost, the holy grail of market competition.  And now, due to the actions of the State, hundreds of thousands of ride-sharing users like me are forced back into barbarism.

Now let's consider the drivers.  Whenever I used a ride-sharing service I always asked my drivers how long they had been pursuing their occupation and how the liked it.  I met single mothers who drove 1 day a week for supplemental income.  I met an Uber driver who started out part-time, but switched to full-time after repeatedly calling in sick to a dead-end job to drive instead.  I met the newly retired, driving for Lyft because they found their social-security benefits lacking or just because they enjoyed meeting new people and finding exciting things about the city.  All of them loved their job and the freedom to make their own hours and be their own bosses.  What awaits these former ride-sharing drivers now, Wal-Mart greeters?  The taxi-medallion mafia?  Destitution?  What kind of government "protection" is this?

Both users and drivers of apps like Uber and Lyft are examples of what is seen.  Now, let us consider the consequences that are not seen.  The first example is the user of Uber whose primary draw isn't its higher quality service but its lower cost.  Perhaps this individual will only pay for a ride if it can cost $10, but will not purchase the same ride from a taxi for $20.  Now the entire economic transaction is lost.  On the flip side, consider the aforementioned single mother who can only get a part-time job if it can be on her terms and her hours.  Without this option, all the economic transactions that would have taken place with her extra income as a ride-sharing driver will no longer happen.  And it is these innumerable mutually beneficial transactions that will now never take place that make our society inexorably poorer as a result.

Finally, to end with a sobering note, remember the people that may die as a result of this decision.  Given our Sovietized road system and the high cost and unreliable service from the government-monopolized taxi industry, it is plain that the removal of the ride-sharing option will result in more drunk drivers on the roads.  Whether it is a factor of cost or convenience, inebriated individuals who would otherwise have ordered an Uber or Lyft driver with the swipe of the finger will instead get behind the wheel.  This is an ironic but expected result of a government mandate purported to increase safety.  Like the anti-Midas touch, everything the government attempts to do fails miserably and generally produces the exact opposite of what they were hoping to achieve.

Ride-Sharing Apps: Benefactors of Mankind

Now that ride-sharing regulations have driven this service out of the market, let's review the actual function that companies like Uber and Lyft brought to Austin.  To do this, we first imagine a truly free market society where caveat emptor ruled the day.  In this world, anyone would be at liberty to start driving their car as a service with nothing more than slapping on a hand-drawn sign that says "Bob's Ride-Sharing".  Even ignoring the real-world regulatory perils of the taxi-monopoly, Bob would face major obstacles from earning any kind of meaningful income from his enterprise.

First, Bob would have to get his message out to his potential customers.  Without the capital of a company that can invest in market analytics and an advertising budget, Bob will have a hard time finding all the people that need a ride at a particular time and place, and letting them know that "Bob's Ride-Sharing Co." can meet their needs.

Second, even if Bob could solve this Herculean task before him, he will have a hard time convincing his potential customers to accept his business.  The average person does not know Bob, they don't know the quality of service he will provide, the cost he will charge, or the recourse they will have if they are unsatisfied with the experience.  Perhaps a determined person could spend all their time overcoming these obstacles through word of mouth, but if we consider the "part-time Bob" who is just looking to make money on the side a few hours a week, there is no feasible way for the transfer of knowledge to be facilitated between the "Bobs" of the world and their potential customers.  Those mutually beneficial transactions have no chance of taking place.

But then, mirable dictu, in comes Uber and Lyft, companies that leverage the latest technology to swiftly and simply solve all the problems for Bob and his potential customers.  First, they create the platform for people like Bob to get knowledge of his service out to everyone that seeks it.  Second, they agree on a price point that is satisfactory to both Bob and his customers.  And third, they are in the business of ensuring a safe and reliable product, bringing confidence and value to their brand.  This is the indispensable element of ride-sharing apps that gets to the heart of Prop 1.  It is the brand which allows ride-sharing customers to put faith in their drivers, men and women whom they have never met.

Ride-sharing companies have a financially-driven vested interest in making sure "Bob", "Tom", "Sally" and the thousands of other drivers are worthy of representing the Uber or Lyft brand.  While taxi companies don't need to focus on quality of service when they’re the only game in town through government-enforced monopoly, a private company sinks or swims depending on the whims of the consumer.  Given these natural incentives of the market, it should be no surprise that you actually see Uber having more stringent background checks then those enforced by the State for taxi cartels.

To drive the point home I'll end with a personal example.  One of my Uber drivers relayed a story of how he was working a Saturday night and accepted two rides for a "pool" trip, where different people accept the same driver at a reduced cost. His first passenger was a female and the second was male.  The driver became alert to the male passenger's intoxication after he made an inappropriate comment, and then immediately stopped the car when the female yelled, "DON'T TOUCH ME".  This entire scene was caught on video, and the driver demanded that the male passenger get out immediately or he would be arrested. When this was reported to Uber, the company responded by banning the male passenger for life, refunding the female passenger's money, and offering to pay the full cost of litigation to prosecute the male passenger.

Uber's response was commendable, but ultimately makes common sense in a voluntary, market-based context.  If Uber allowed this kind of behavior then passengers would stop using their service and go to a competitor like Lyft.  Compare this response to what you'd expect from the government-monopoly alternative, and not only would nothing of the sort have been done to compensate the female passenger for her trouble, but at best, she would be taxed for the prosecution!

Not Yours to Regulate


Many of the anti-Prop 1 commentators have focused on reasoning like "they should follow the same rules as taxi companies" or "the government can regulate commerce, so just like we license doctors, we can create safety rules for any company".  However, these assertions confuse the concept of something being promoted because it is right in itself, versus promoted because it is merely a precedent of how things have been done in the past - which speaks to neither the thing's rightness nor wrongness.

To absolutely prevent the charge of hypocrisy or false comparisons, let's be clear - the way to reach "fairness" is not to bring new regulation against companies that currently avoid it via loophole, but to de-regulate all industries.  In the examples above, a true sense of "fairness" makes it plain that any customer of "Bob" has the absolute right to accept or reject his service, just like any passenger can request or reject a private ride versus a pool-ride from Uber.  If an individual dares to assume the inherent risks of an uncertain world by merely getting out of bed in the morning, they should be free to engage in any transaction with anyone else that does not violate the right of another.  So when the question is posed to Austin City Council of whether or not to regulate ride-sharing services, it should not be answered by an analysis of whether the benefits for or against regulation outweigh one another, but to modify a famous speech by Congressman Davy Crockett, the sacred domain of voluntary transactions should simply be not yours to regulate.

Why do we need to continually restate this maxim that everyone follows in their personal lives and follows directly from the golden rule?  When put simply, it is absurd to argue the opposite.  I can't run into a grocery store and forcibly stop someone from buying produce that I think is too expensive or less healthy than some alternative.  I can't force my "protection" on them no matter how right I think I am, nor should I even if 98 out of 100 other people agree with me.  And yet, with the failure of Prop 1 we're not looking at the Tyranny of 98 over 2, but the Tyranny of 56% out of 17% of eligible voters.  With 49,158 voting for Prop 1 in a county with over 1.1 million people, that is the Tyranny of 4 over 96!  Remember this sham when Austin Mayor Steve Adler says "The people have spoken tonight loud and clear."  Rid yourself of the glib expressions and you're left with the shocking fact that our "representative democracy" has just ratified that 4% of the people can enforce their beliefs with the all-powerful violence of the State regarding with whom one can or cannot get a ride from down to the grocery store!

Conclusion

If the myths of "we are the government" or "the government serves the people" had any merit whatsoever, the draconian regulations regarding ride-sharing companies should put an end to such nonsense.  If I have no business inserting myself between two consenting adults regarding a voluntary transaction as innocent as getting a ride in a car, then putting on a costume and calling myself the government does not change that.  Put simply, if I do not have the power to do something, and the government serves me, then how could the government do that very thing in my name?  How can the servant have more power than the master?  How do multiple people acquire the moral authority to do something that a single person cannot?

The only logical answer is to accept the myth of government answering to the people as an outrageous lie.  The government does not serve the people in the way that a servant obeys the commands of his master, but as a chef serves chicken for dinner.  We are the dinner.  We are fed on by those that presume to rule over us like chattel.  The only good thing that has come from Proposition 1 is the hope that some politically apathetic souls will panic when they realize their Uber and Lyft apps no longer work, and they will begin to question just what happened to their "free country".

10/09/2015

In Defense of Common Sense Gun Control


In the wake of the latest mass shooting tragedy in a gun-free zone by yet another anti-depressant popping psychopath, we see two responses that have become just as linked as night following day.  First comes grand-standing by the politicians and media to push the idea of "common sense" gun laws, a.k.a. total confiscation through the Australian model, despite the inconvenient fact that gun violence has been cut in half in the last 20 years.  This action, designed to lower the number of guns in America, instead provides a delightful Newtonian equal and opposite reaction that makes September, 2015 the 5th month in a row to set all-time record-high gun sales.

Whether these new guns are purchased for stock-piling, profit-making, or preparing for the 5th "easy" step to create a Gun Free America, there is one form of gun control that even the most radical supporter of the 2nd amendment can and should get behind, and that is self-control.

This is not a push for state-mandated licensing, education, or any other type of governmental restriction on the natural right to protect oneself.  Instead, this is an example of the radical libertarian tactic of persuasion, a plea for a voluntary application of common sense.  If you're going to take on the awesome responsibility of gun ownership, it is in your own best interest that you train both mind and body to prevent a senseless tragedy, whether through a negligent discharge or by having the mental acumen and tactical skills required to respond to an active shooter.

Having not grown up with guns, taking a basic firearms safety class was the first step I took before assuming the responsibility of firearms ownership.  Since then, I have taken multiple safety and training classes for both the handgun and the rifle.  For those that have not expended the time or money in such training, this post will review the key mental and tactical concepts that I have learned, not at all meant to serve as a substitute for such training, but to pique your interest and convincingly prove it to be a worthwhile investment, one that could even save your life.

The Mindset

All the background checks, mandatory classes, and child safety locks in the world will not prevent an accidental injury or death from a firearm from a reckless and indifferent gun owner.  On the flip side, every conceivable disaster that resulted from a negligent discharge of a firearm could have been prevented if the participants had adopted a religious adherence to the principles of gun safety.

While different organizations have their own flavor of gun safety rules, by far the most adopted, simple, and comprehensive are Jeff Cooper's four rules:
  1. All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
  2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. (For those who insist that this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1.)
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target. This is the Golden Rule. Its violation is directly responsible for about 60 percent of inadvertent discharges.
  4. Identify your target, and what is behind it. Never shoot at anything that you have not positively identified.
These rules should not merely be read over once, reflected on for a moment, and then discarded in the excitement of gun ownership.  Every member of the family in a gun-owning household should know these rules backwards and forwards.  While rule #1 may be the hardest to adopt for the uninitiated, it is by far the most important.  Just like mindful repetition is practiced so that the desired behavior becomes automatic, rule #1 should be so ingrained that one would cringe upon seeing a child's brightly-painted toy gun pointed in an unsafe direction.  A dedication to rule #1 should provoke a sense of unease when looking at a mere picture of the muzzle of the gun as evidence that the cameraman practiced unsafe behavior.  With this level of determination to consistently follow the four gun safety rules, even to the point of these extreme measures for safety, you greatly reduce the likelihood of you or your family befalling an avoidable firearms accident.

You - or your family - those additional three words add another level of sobriety to the equation that need to be considered.  While most states have passed legislation to make it illegal to have firearms unlocked or otherwise accessible to children, we need to remember the determination each child has when searching for birthday or Christmas presents when the parents are out of the home.  Merely hiding and locking the guns aren't enough, all members of the family, including children, should be inducted into the seriousness and responsibility of firearms ownership.

Consider two homes that contain firearms and children.  In the first house, the child is taught the rules of firearms safety and made to memorize them before they are allowed to use a gun under adult supervision.  In turn, they are taught how to shoot as early as the parents think their maturity allows, perhaps starting with a BB or pellet gun first, but moving to the 22 LR caliber as quickly as possible.  After all, a BB or pellet gun may not even break the skin, and you risk setting an example counter to the rules of gun safety to teach a child that some guns can be shot without serious consequences.  The children will feel the pride and maturity that comes with the trust and responsibility expected by the parents, and while the guns are locked up, the parents are more than happy to take the children out shooting to reinforce their skills as often as possible.  These children don't have an interest in toy guns, they have the real thing.

In our second house, all state and local laws are followed to a T, and that's about it.  The guns are stored behind child safety locks, and all the children know about guns are what they see in movies and video games - point it and go bang!  This ostrich with his head in the sand approach may work fine, that is, until the day the child is rummaging through the closet, looking for Christmas presents.  Maybe that day passes without incident, but what about when a friend is over, and the child wants to show off what he found?  In which house is a tragedy more likely to occur?  The question should answer itself.  To reemphasize the point, if you're going to own firearms, it's not just you that needs to be educated and responsible - everyone in the house needs to take on the same mentality.  Firearms ownership is truly a family affair.

The Art of the Handgun

Between firearms introduction & safety classes, basic & advanced handgun classes, and the legally required concealed carry course, I'd probably gone through six separate 1-2 day training sessions before going to the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute's 4-day defensive handgun course.  While the four stages of competence is generically used to describe the progress that a student makes through any discipline, the trainers at Front Sight described a fifth stage applicable to firearms, which is that of the student who is "Intentionally Incompetent".  This type of firearms owner knows he is incompetent, but chooses not to do anything about it either through laziness or fear.  From there we move on to the traditional categories of the Unconsciously Incompetent, the Consciously Incompetent, The Consciously Competent, and the Unconsciously Competent student.

Going into Front Sight, I knew I didn't fall into the Intentionally Incompetent, as by definition, I was trying to do something about my skill level.  I thought I'd humbly rank in the "Consciously Incompetent" category, so I was very surprised to hear the Front Sight instructors claim that 95% of all gun owners, including those in the police and military, should be regarded as Unconsciously Incompetent.  How could that be?  After all, I competed monthly in IDPA matches and had earned the rank of "marksman" - how could I simultaneously be unconsciously incompetent with my firearm?  Needless to say, I was very skeptical of the claim, but amazingly, by the end of the training I became a believer.

The former training had been given by state-licensed professionals that included former police and military, and while I had been taught how to load the weapon, how to hold it, how to align the sights, and how to fire - I came to find that just about every technique I had learned was either incomplete or inadequate for a truly tactical situation.  It's one thing to shoot paper targets with all the time in the world, but not only will a "bad guy" not bless you with that luxury, but your own skills seriously degrade when your heart beat is accelerating, your palms are sweaty, and your mind is racing with adrenaline and fear.

HARD focus on the front sight… Pressssssss

So while I learned many new techniques, such as changing my stance to use isometric pressure to "push" my firearm with my trigger hand while "pulling" the firearm with my secondary hand, how to apply a consistent squeeze for a surprise break and slowly releasing the trigger until it resets, a 7 step draw from concealment, and to always aim for a fist sized pattern from any distance (if your pattern is larger, slow down, but if you're too accurate, speed up!); the most valuable lesson I gained from Front Sight is the realization of how much I didn't know.

While it was rewarding to learn how to consistently put two shots to the thoracic cavity from concealment in 2 seconds, the most impactful lesson is to find out what it's like to be in a life or death scenario, both from the perspective of staying alive, and the consequences of having to take a life in defense of your own.  Through discussions you play through several scenarios: if you hear a window crashing in your house at 2:00 A.M., what do you do?  Perhaps some would say to lock n' load and search the house, but after going through a live-fire drill in a Front Sight house, you come to a different perspective after you see how your hands shake, your heart beats through your chest and your accuracy degrades.  Now the option of barricading yourself in your room and call 9-1-1 seems a little more appealing.  That is, unless you hear the cry of a loved one somewhere in the house and you have no other choice - at that point the police are minutes away and seconds count.  In this case the house scenario provides the jolt of reality of how little prepared you really are to deal with such a scenario, and just how critical it is to regularly partake in serious tactical training.

The Rifleman: an American tradition

While I have not yet had the opportunity to attend Front Sight's practical or precision rifle course, and therefore recognizing that I am likely an "Unconscious Incompetent" in the rifle in the same way that I was for the handgun, nevertheless I highly recommend the training I received from the Appleseed Project.  Volunteer run, only charging $30 a day or less for ladies and minors, the Appleseed Project seeks to pass on the heritage of the American rifleman by teaching 1-3 day classes on the fundamentals of precision rifle shooting while mixing in stories of the revolutionary war and Paul Revere's ride.  By teaching the techniques necessary to match the Revolutionary War rifleman's precision of head shots at 250 yards, the Appleseed Project scales back the size of the targets in order to shoot at 25 yards, making it an accessible class that can be offered everywhere in the country.

Going into that class my groups were the size of a basketball, and by the time I left I was overjoyed to hit the 1 inch square / 250 yard "head shot" in a timed shooting drill.  In order to achieve this feat in just 3 days of training, we focused on proper shoulder and cheek placement, trigger control, the rifleman's cadence, and the natural point of aim, all the while learning how to properly use the sling to stabilize the prone, sitting, and standing positions.

The Sling: Who knew it wasn't just for carrying your rifle?

However, it wasn't until taking a Barrett long range rifle class that I saw how these techniques that can accomplish a great deal at 25 yards require some refining at long distances.  While short distances can be forgiving of the occasional slip-up, those little things add up in a big way when going out to distances of 600, 800, and 1,000 yards.  If every component of every shot isn't perfect, then it's immediately obvious at those distances.

For instance, rifles with a pistol grip stock are generally held with the trigger finger wrapping the thumb around the stock.  The Barrett instructors suggested that we defy common sense and instead keep our thumb aligned with the rest of our hand, such that the rest of our hand is pushing the stock into our shoulder, and avoiding the slightest pressure from the thumb to squeeze the opposite side of the stock as the trigger finger executes it's slow squeeze.  Sure enough, we saw one shooter was able to adjust his grouping by a few inches from right to left merely by making this adjustment.

In another case, we saw how the prone position traditionally taught needed some adjustment as well.  Instead of adopting an off-center relationship between the body and the rifle, they recommended that we ensure our body is center of mass is perfectly perpendicular to the plane of the rifle.  In other words, as you watch the reticle of your scope rhythmically move to your breathing when timing your rifleman's cadence, you must ensure that the path of the reticle is exactly up and down.  If there is any left-to-right movement, then your body needs to be adjusted to correct this, as otherwise it is going to show up down range.

Speaking of the scope reticle, a proper understanding of the scope was the biggest lesson learned from long range rifle training.  While we were taught the calculations for target size, distance, and adjustments for both the MIL and MOA style reticle and adjustments knobs, the lesson begged the question, why on earth do nearly all scopes have MIL style reticles but MOA adjustment knobs!  Ok, it's good to know that 1 MIL is roughly 0.3 MOA, but why force these rough calculations, especially if you actually had to make that determination when it counts.  Instead, wouldn't it make sense to be consistent and get a MIL-MIL or a MOA-MOA scope, where the dots on the reticle perfectly align with the adjustment knobs, removing the need for rough math and rounding errors?

However, even this solution isn't complete for variable power scopes.  Again, most traditional scopes are "Second focal plane", meaning that the reticle stays the same size as the sight picture shrinks and grows according to the power setting.  The problem then, is that the MOA or MIL reticles are only accurate at one particular setting, usually the highest magnification.  If you are at a lower setting to acquire your target, you'd have to again resort to quick math to make a shooting opportunity.  Instead, one could look into "First Focal Plane" scopes, where the reticle grows and shrinks in relation to the target, such that the markings of the reticle are always constant.  With 1 MIL always equaling 1 MIL, the shooter can make distance adjustments or hold-over at any magnification on the fly.  While these scopes are generally more expensive, the price might just be worth it.

The final lesson was the importance of data sheets.  The combination of a unique gun, a precise brand of ammunition, as well as the elevation, pressure, and temperature all come into play for long distance shooting.  On the one hand, trial and error could slowly but surely achieve precise data sheets that can be collected and used in the future.  On the other hand, spending $15 on the "Ballistics AE" smart phone app paid for itself many times over within an hour of shooting match grade ammunition.  After entering the temperature, elevation, pressure, information on my rifle, and selecting my ammunition, it presented a data sheet that made me feel like I was cheating.  All the way out to 900 yards I could rely on the elevation adjustments to be perfectly spot on, allowing me to focus only on wind adjustments.  Never having shot farther than 200 yards prior to this experience, it was incredibly rewarding to learn the techniques required to hit a 12" target at 700 yards and a 24" target at 1,000 yards.  It may not be a skill likely to come into play in a life or death situation, but it's definitely rewarding in it's own right!

Who cares if it's practical?  Long range shooting is just plain cool.

Conclusion

For the principled libertarian, the right to firearms is absolute.  There are no misguided arguments of practicality, history, or statistics that can override my right to life and property, with the logical implication that I can protect them from deadly force, with deadly force.  Anything less denies my self-ownership and makes me a slave to those who would disarm me - but all that aside - these principles, admirable as they are, will not prevent a negligent discharge or win a single gun fight.

Yet, as important as it is to have a quality weapon and be properly trained in its use, we must conclude by going back to the great Jeff Cooper, who argued that the most important tool for surviving a lethal confrontation is not the weapon or the martial skills, but the combat mindset.

Especially with the introduction of smart phones and the walking-zombie effect it brings, nearly the entire nation spends its time in condition "White", completely unaware and unprepared.  By taking on the responsibility of firearms ownership, and especially for those that decide to conceal carry, you must be willing to make the conscious effort to live in condition "Yellow".  To be "Yellow" is to be relaxed but alert, aware of the world around you.  From condition "Yellow" you are capable of identifying a specific threat and moving into condition "Orange", and if need be, to condition "Red".  Hopefully, if you are ever faced with a harrowing situation that requires a fight to save your own life or the life of another, you will be able to rely on a solid investment of mental and tactical training.  It may not be the "law" to take such training, but ultimately, it's just common sense gun control.

6/29/2015

Should Libertarians Celebrate the SCOTUS Ruling on Same-Sex Marriage?

The Supreme Court of the United States has made several headline-generating decisions in the last week.  In a 5-4 ruling, this august body of the country's premiere jurists issued an irrevocable command to 13 states that banned same-sex marriage.  Going forward, all states will be required to license same-sex marriages and recognize those marriages entered into from other states.

The Libertarian Party has used this opportunity to showcase how forward-thinking and ahead of the times they are, publishing the headline "Libertarian Party's 40-yr marriage equality advocacy pays off with US Supreme Court decision".  Nicholas Sarwark, Chair of the Libertarian National Committee, said "we applaud and celebrate this victory" and that he's "glad to see the Supreme Court has upheld the equal rights of all Americans."

Certainly, libertarians can be happy at the outcome of the SCOTUS decision.  Unjust laws that forcibly prevented consenting adults from engaging in voluntary contracts have been reversed.  What's not to like?  Perhaps the optimum libertarian solution would have been to remove the violence of government from the marriage business completely, leaving it to churches and individuals to create their own contracts as they see fit.  Nevertheless, individuals are freer than they were before.  How could this not be a clear-cut win for liberty?

Libertarian Means and Ends

This question brings us to examine the means and ends of this event.  We might be happy with the outcome, but should we be wary of how it came about?  For the constitutionalist, this is likely to be no time for celebration.  Under an intellectually honest view of the constitution, there is no language that gives the federal government the power to infringe on state legislation in this way.  As one dissenting judge wrote,
“If you are among the many Americans — of whatever sexual orientation — who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision…  Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal.  Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner.  Celebrate the availability of new benefits.  But do not celebrate the Constitution.  It had nothing to do with it.”
But of course, being a libertarian does not make one a constitutionalist.  We have a much brighter lantern to guide our way than our weak and powerless constitution.  Using the dual lens of self-ownership and the non-aggression principle, it is clear that consenting individuals have the right to enter into whatever sort of contract among themselves that they'd like.  On the flip side, individuals do not have the right to force their contract onto others, which is why getting government out of the marriage businesses would be the ideal solution.

In a free market of marriage that respected the property rights of everyone, perhaps some religions would offer same-sex marriage contracts while others would not.  Maybe new institutions would offer this service completely outside the religious temple.  From there, various voluntary solutions and market-based incentives would meet everyone's preference accordingly.  If some don't like it, there are plenty of non-violent options available that don't infringe on the rights of others.  Certainly this would be the outcome most aligned with each individual's rights being respected.  "Live and let live", it's a beautiful mantra.

In lieu of this optimum scenario, the question is again asked, should libertarians celebrate a ruling from the Supreme Court of the federal government that forces the states to license and recognize same sex marriage?  Without any regard to the merits of the constitution, the answer would be a qualified no.  The SCOTUS ruling brings about a libertarian end, but the means involved is quite counter to our long term goals.  Ultimately, this deference to 9 black-robed individuals governing 318 million people from D.C. is just one more precedent that is sure to be harmful to the long-run prospects of a free society.

Beware the Hand that Feeds You

Despite the LP's celebratory announcement, we should be hesitant to shout hosannas when a Supreme Court ruling dictates law to the states.  Every decision from that unelected and virtually unaccountable group that gives the federal government greater power is a net loss for liberty - even when libertarians are happy at the particular outcome.

Today, the SCOTUS issues a decree that happens to be consistent with libertarian principles, but literally the day before it issued a ruling that the federal government can pass laws requiring citizens of the 50 states to purchase a product from a private company.  How can we celebrate any decision passed down from such a bold and audacious body?  Why give any respectability to their decisions?  We are just shooting ourselves in the foot.  What happens to our credibility if we say that a supreme court decision "paid off" when they will not doubt issue 99 rulings that violate libertarian principles to every 1 decision that goes in our favor?

We can't just celebrate the outcome of this decision in a vacuum; all the factors must be examined before popping the champagne.  In a world where virtually every square inch is claimed to be the domain of one evil government or the other, in most territorial battles between rival gangs of costumed officials we are safe to say "a pox on both their houses".  But when one of those gangs is infinitely more powerful, more ruthless, and more arrogant than the other, we should seriously consider rooting for the underdog.  In other words, if we are stuck in a world of governments, the greater good is federalism.  I would rather have 50 separate rulers that each have a kingdom of 500 thousand to 38 million people than one supreme ruler that dictates the lives of 318 million people.

As much as I'd like to just ignore the evil doings of the criminals who presume to rule over me, I do so at my own peril.  If we want to fight back in the political arena, let's choose our battles wisely.  Individual libertarians can actually do something at the local level, whereas we have virtually zero control over what happens in the district of criminals.  So if we want to fight for marriage equality, or more precisely, the right of individuals to enter into voluntary contracts, then let's fight those laws where they exist.  If we find them at the city level, fight them there.  If they are at the county or state level, then bravely go forward into battle.  But if the struggle seems insurmountable, don't be so foolish as to celebrate when an even greater threat to liberty takes on your foe.  That hand may feed you today, but it will certainly strike you tomorrow.

A Dream for Soundbites

Do things have to always be so damn complicated?  It seems the prudent and principled libertarian is doomed to never accept simple, one word answers.  We can never say just "yes" or "no", it's always followed by a "but".  This isn't the result of a complex philosophy - what could be simpler than the self-evident proposition that individuals should control their own lives as long as they respect the rights of others?  Unfortunately, it's a result of the statist climate we live in, where every question seems to presuppose a government answer.  We're constantly asked the no-win question, "have you stopped beating your wife?"  While we carefully explain our position with logic and attention to detail, our opponents keep things simple by playing on the ignorance and desire for immediate gratification of the American boobousie.

As the nation collectively knee-jerks into total insanity by banning the confederate flag, even at relevant historic sites, we find ourselves in the same nuanced situation.  Libertarianism is the foremost philosophy against the evils of slavery and we obviously condemn the Confederacy for their crimes.  But the Civil War wasn't a fight over slavery, it was about secession.  The North invaded the South to prevent their independence, and we can only speculate into the realms of alternative history as to how things would have turned out if the slaves were freed at a different time and under different circumstances with the noble right of secession left unscathed.  Instead of an easy question such as, "are you against slavery", we ask the more complex question, "did the happy outcome of freeing the slaves outweigh losing the right to secession?"

There was a day when the phrase "I may disagree with what you say, but I will fight for your right to say it" was pure Americana.  Now things aren't so clear.  Rather than wanting to be free to exercise one's rights while respecting the rights of others, now serious talk is made of putting limitations on our rights to prevent hurt feelings of self-worth or entitlement.  In the era of victimhood, the desire for privileges to remedy some real or imagined inequity trumps all.

How ironic that during these side-show events with the SCOTUS ruling for same-sex marriage and the extreme PC battle against the confederate flag, the main event is getting the faintest attention.  Of course the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be passed by the Senate while the legacy media covers such critical news as the defacement of statues and changing the names of lakes.  After all, it's just a secret treaty that that will create an international governing body that, once created, will be a living thing - dictating laws to contracting nations just as the European Union forces policy on the nations of Europe.

Just as there was once a day long past when state sovereignty was respected and the constitution was a real barrier to the inclination to power in Washington, we may quickly be coming to a time when we will fondly remember the days when the Supreme Court made the laws for our nation - at least they claim to be American!  If our cries of righteous indignation barely register a whisper to our elected representatives at the federal level, what hope do we have as we transition to a regional government, let alone a world government?

Conclusion

As much as I'd be delighted to celebrate a victory without reservation, we need to keep our eyes on the bigger picture.  It's not enough to simply support every event that claims to be a win for liberty, we must ensure that the means by which it is achieved is also aligned with our best interest.  If given a devil's choice between a world government with a "libertarian" dictator and what we have today, I'd begrudgingly but wisely side with the latter.  Hayek showed us why "the worst get on top", and once a governmental mechanism is created it is nearly impossible to dismantle.  Like some suicidal robot programmed for destruction, the benevolent dictatorship will attract every form of sociopath who will attempt to seize those reigns of power.  If history is to be our guide, whenever this happens hundreds of millions die as a result.

Let's be smarter than that.  We cannot accept the easy victory on a minor battle when it ensures that we will lose the war.  In a world full of competing states, the crafty libertarian learns to pit his enemies against each other.  While we unambiguously denounce all forms of force and violence against the innocent, we learn to make unlikely alliances to fight the greatest evil: the nation over the world government, the state over the nation, the city over the state, and most importantly, the individual over them all.

5/28/2015

In Defense of the Worst Libertarians


Search for the "worst types" of conservatives or liberals and you'll find just what you expect, the blue team attacking the red team, and vice versa.  It makes logical sense, likely born out of an instinct to distrust and fight the neighboring tribe.  Rather than look for complex answers to the question of why a world with such technological wonders can be so screwed up, it's easier to blame the other team for not voting the right way.

Alas, libertarians don't have it so easy.  We lack a consistent 49% to 51% voting bloc, creating a constant tug-of-war with friends and family split evenly down the middle.  Libertarians see the rulers, the ones who weld a monopoly of violence, against everyone else.  It's not the left vs. the right; it's all of us vs. the State.

But the State is so abstract, so far way.  Few of us have the opportunity to be in contact with a real "enemy" - a Bush or a Clinton or a Rockefeller.  We need closer, more tangible enemies to explain our own shortcomings.  So maybe that explains articles like this, The Top 10 Worst Kinds of Libertarians, written by a libertarian who purports to examine our faults as a movement so that we can be more successful.  If our enemies are ignoring us, we might as well attack each other.

Full disclosure: I identify with more than half of these categories, so I must be the worst of the worst.  I was hoping for a perfect 10, but I don't consider myself to be a creeper, a jerk, or a bigot - so that knocks me down to 7.  When it comes to smoking pot, I abstain not because "libertarians must point out the negatives of drugs", but because drugs are a trap set by the government to make you a slave, so that puts me at a solid 6.

There are two ways to respond to this article.  The first is by dismissal by pointing out what libertarianism is: a philosophy concerned with the permissible use of violence.  While some believe that social contracts or special costumes grant the ability to initiate violent acts against the innocent, libertarians believe that all such aggressions are illegitimate.  As Lysander Spooner wrote, the government is worse than a highwayman. Rothbard identified the State as a gang of thieves writ large.  So what is the point of calling out those of us that are jerks, pot-smokers, or "anti-science"?  These attributes have nothing to do with our core philosophy.  A libertarian can be a church-going social conservative or a drug addicted atheist philanderer; abide by the Non-Aggression Principle and both are equally libertarian.

However, I find myself in the unique position to relish scoring a 6 out of 10, so rather than dismiss the article, I'll defend the "worst libertarians".  While these are characteristics that have nothing to do with being a libertarian, I wear them like a badge of honor.  Not only that, but it's not often that I find so many of my favorite fallacies contained in a single article, so for that alone I am grateful to the author.

In Defense of Conspiracy Theorists


Starting at the very top, the #1 worst kind of libertarian is the "conspiracy theorist".  We can answer this charge merely by defining our terms.  A conspiracy theory is a hypothesis that two or more people secretly did something illegal.  Unbelievable!  Yes, libertarians may believe that aggressive violence is impermissible, thereby relegating all coercive acts of government as illegitimate, but accuse them of secretly doing something illegal?  What kind of monster are you?

In all seriousness, it's one thing to use the term "conspiracy theory" in a derogatory way when the CIA first "weaponized" the term in the 1960's.  There is no excuse when it is 50 years later and there are dozens of declassified, main line "conspiracy theories", from the Gulf of Tonkin attack that never happened to the NSA's illegal spying which continues to this day.  A person who is awake to libertarianism but brushes off conspiracy theories as preposterous must be pitied; the mental gymnastics required to hold such contradictory views must cause the most painful cognitive dissonance.

With all due sympathy to the author, let's review the patently lame arguments he presents against conspiracies:
"It is truly amazing that the same types of people who believe that the government is far too inept to plan a central economic structure think highly enough of that same bureaucracy to surmise that state actors could orchestrate a full-scale ruse upon the public.  There is a simple line of thought that destroys nearly every conspiracy theory ever to exist: if this were ever to happen, it would necessitate the involvement of hundreds, if not thousands of individuals; for the conspiracy to go unnoticed, not one of those parties involved could ever reveal the slightest hint.  Furthermore, there would be millions, if not billions of dollars in media waiting for someone who would break such a story."
There are three false arguments here, and unfortunately, they are the same ones I've seen countless times before.  The first, however, is unique in that you only hear it from fellow libertarians and fiscal conservatives.  It comes down to this: how can the government be incompetent in one area (central planning), but clever in another area (conspiracies).

However, this question just highlights a subtle but important point in the case against central economic planning.  The problem is not that the individuals attempting to orchestrate the central plan aren't clever - the problem is they are trying to make decisions without the benefit of the pricing system.  No individual, group of individuals, or even a super computer could direct scarce goods and resources to their optimum place in space and time as well as the pricing system, which coordinates all mankind's true preferences as expressed by their choice to buy or not buy in a global marketplace.

This is really the same fallacy that Hayek describes in Chapter 10 of The Road to Serfdom, "Why the Worst Get on Top".  Hayek's point is that whatever the character of the dictator, angelic or demonic, incompetent or clever, the mission of central planning is doomed from the start.  Hayek's great insight is that when the carefully laid plans of the czars inevitably result in shortages and surpluses, shoes without laces and cars without wheels, the economic dictator will come to a decision point: "assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans", such that "the totalitarian dictator would soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure".

The reason the government cannot plan a central economic structure also explains why we can expect increasingly immoral and corrupt individuals to be the ones governing.  While those in the market economy are busy specializing in their profession, be it art, athletics, or business, those in government are specializing in how to govern: how to achieve power and stay in power through whatever means necessary.  They specialize in the art of blackmail, bribes, back-room deals, insider trading, and all forms of violence and corruption.  Do not confuse the State's inability to centrally plan the economy with inexperience in orchestrating a "full-scale ruse", several wars founded on lies that have killed millions of innocents and continue to this day should be evidence enough of this fact.

The second fallacy comes straight from talking point number 4 part C of the declassified CIA Dispatch 1035-960: a conspiracy would require too many people, and someone would talk.  But even since the 1960s the answer to this misbelief hasn't changed: it's called compartmentalization and the most obvious example is the Manhattan Project.  It was October 9th of 1941 when President Roosevelt approved the atomic program, and it wasn't until the bombings of 1945 that the 100,000 people involved in the program even knew what they were a part of.  As written in a 1945 Life article, "[p]robably no more than a few dozen men in the entire country knew the full meaning of the Manhattan Project, and perhaps only a thousand others even were aware that work on atoms was involved."

However, compartmentalization only answers the question of how hundreds or thousands of people could work on something "like moles in the dark" and not be aware of the end result, there would still be some people that would know the truth.  The answer to this belief that "someone would talk" is to point out… people have talked!  One doesn't have to look any farther than Sibel Edmonds, the "most gagged person in American history".  But she's just one notable example in the 9/11 Truth Movement.  There are hundreds of professionals in the military, intelligence service, and the government, as well as architects, engineers, and pilots who question the "conspiracy theory" put out by the government in favor of a different conspiracy - and that includes the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission Report!

Ah, but what about the millions and billions of dollars in media just waiting for the right gumshoe reporter to break the story?  Again, maybe this type of argument would work for mainline republicans or democrats who religiously watch MSNBC or Fox News, but is this really supposed to speak to libertarians?  In a world where all major media outlets are owned by 6 corporations with intimate ties to the military industrial complex, does this argument even deserve a response?  Perhaps the author just recently became a libertarian and is unfamiliar with the media's coordinated treatment of a certain libertarian congressman from Texas during his presidential runs of 2008 and 2012.  Ultimately, the best person to respond to this would be Gary Webb, who was a true believer in the media until his exposé of CIA drug running caused his entire profession to turn against him.  He realized his prior success was an illusion, because in all his previous works he "hadn't written anything important enough to suppress".

In Defense of Purists


More horrifying than creepers, jerks and even bigots is the dreaded "purist", coming in as the #2 worst kind of libertarian.  According to the author, the libertarian purist drops a turd in the punch bowl just to ruin the party.  This contrarian by nature compares libertarian credentials as an "artificial contest" simply for the perverse goal of sabotaging the movement.  There is no "perfect libertarian", so the author says we should welcome a broad group of individuals as long as they are "willing to lessen the size and scope of government", "willing to defeat government overreach", "reduce taxes and keep government accountable", or have the correct positions on spending and surveillance.

Interesting that when offering various criteria that could be used to judge one's libertarian credentials the author never speaks the words of the twin pillars supporting our entire philosophy: Self-Ownership and the Non-Aggression Principle.  Reducing taxes and the scope of government may be positions compatible with libertarianism, but they certainly do not define it.  Our philosophy is not a random hodgepodge of political issues that change with the wind.  We have something much stronger, much more beautiful than that.

So what would a "perfect libertarian" be in theory?  Here's an answer: someone who believes in these two foundational principles and uses perfect logic to apply them to every issue pertaining to the use of violence in society.  This person may have unimpeachable libertarian credentials and yet could be a far stretch from being a perfect human being.  This duality of being a perfect libertarian but a flawed person is entirely consistent when libertarianism is defined within its proper scope.  It has nothing to say about whether people should be charitable or stingy, accepting or intolerant, egalitarian or elitist.  This is the heart of why libertarianism can reach such a diversity of people: refrain from initiating violence against the innocent and you can live your life as you see fit.

So there you have it, three cheers for the purists!  It is a title to which we should all aspire.  It is especially important when all kinds of bizarre distinctions are being thrown around which try to expand libertarianism beyond its function.  "Thick vs Thin", "sophists vs brutalists", there are even those who purport to combine libertarianism with goals of social justice and somehow arrive at supporting a government mandated minimum wage!  For those that have such goals, fine, let's form alliances and work together on issues with which we find common agreement, but the purists must ensure those individuals do not abuse the term libertarian and distort our message.  Someone must be the vanguard against those that are hopelessly confused or actively trying to subvert our cause.

In reality, there are very few issues that cause serious disagreement among libertarians.  Every Libertarian Party national convention highlights the two biggest ones: minarchism vs. anarchism and abortion.  The LP's model for handling this difference of opinion is one that should be followed.  Whether one wishes for a night-watchman state limited to purely defensive services or goes bravely forward to a full-blown anarcho-capitalist utopia free from any organization with a monopoly of violence, both sides can agree that we are so radically far from both of those end-states that we might as well work together and settle our differences once we're there.  Hence, the Dallas Accord is a tacit agreement from the LP's founding that all statements in our platform will be sufficiently vague to satisfy both anarchists and minarchists.  For instance, we may say there is a maximum role for government in offering defensive services, which logically allows for a minimum role of government that does not exist.  The LP platform makes the same principled compromise on abortion, simply stating that since libertarians of good faith will forever disagree on this issue, we can at least agree that government should be kept out of the matter and move forward from there.

Stick to the Non-Aggression Principle and keep an open mind to those rare cases where libertarians can make passionate arguments on both sides.  For those that hold positions totally inimical to the N.A.P, then let's enlist them in our "liberty friendly" alliance and make progress towards common goals.  That is a recipe for big-tent libertarianism and success.

In Defense of the Hard Core


Using terminology straight from the lexicon of what Tom Woods would call the gate-keepers of allowable opinion, "Neo-Confederates" are listed as the fourth worst type of libertarian, and "civil disobedience warriors" take the #7 slot.  The author states that there is no libertarian reason to defend the confederacy because the CSA was not itself libertarian.  When it comes to those that "endanger one’s own life and liberty to protest" minor laws that appear to be just, those that are sent to jail are " being in fact not principled, but selfish in their pursuits of liberty and justice".

How could a libertarian defend the wicked "neo-confederates"?  Simple, first unask the leading question and examine what libertarians are really supporting: the right of secession.  After we abandon the convenient myth that the Civil War was fought over slavery and accept that the southerners and northerners were both guilty of many crimes, first of those being slavery, we have a simple decision to make.  Can you defend the right of secession even if you don't agree with the culture of the seceding group, or do you throw your lot in with the invading army?  Put another way, do you have the courage to defend the freedom of speech from a group who has terribly nasty things to say, even if they are racist or sexist? Do you have the conviction to defend the rights of religious fundamentalists not to bake a cake, even if their refusal is based on homophobia?

These are serious questions.  It's easy to talk about standing up for people's rights when everyone agrees with how they are exercised; it's much harder to defend unpopular speech and politically incorrect decisions.  This is the difficult but logical consequence of the Non-Aggression Principle.  We libertarians have plenty of potential responses to vices, but violence isn't one of them.  If the author of the "worst libertarians" list can't even muster the imagination to foresee this argument, then no wonder he takes such a bizarre stance as to call the "civil disobedience warriors" selfish for sacrificing their liberty in defiance of unjust laws, or as he would smugly call it, "rabble-rousing".

Just think of how far we've come, from a nation of rugged individualists who were willing to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor for their cause, to these nervous nellies that are terrified to plainly state their beliefs in the fear of hurting someone's feelings. Lysander Spooner showed the way: he wrote and spoke and used every medium he could to spread a bold and unflinching libertarian message, he engaged in civil disobedience to the point of conspiring in support of slave rebellions, and he was one of the strongest supporters for the south's right to secede.

The fact of the matter is that we need libertarians of all kinds, armchair intellectuals and hard-core activists.  Some people just don't find the same pleasure in debating the exotic cases of libertarian thought as others do, they want to see action, to feel like they are doing something to make a difference.  Someone who is ready to "walk the walk" will do far more to get people out of their comfort zones and motivate the kind of action we need than those that just talk.  After all, our great conclusion is that the State is nothing more than a gang of thieves, so what better way to teach this lesson than to show that all of its dictates, even the most minor infractions, are ultimately backed up by the real threat of kidnapping, imprisonment, and death.  This is the bizarre "social contract" we've signed, and we owe a debt to the "civil disobedience warriors" for reminding us of this unfortunate fact.

Conclusion

Should libertarians be conspiracy theorists, purists, or civil disobedience warriors?  There is a time and place for everything.  When running as a candidate for the Libertarian Party, one is there to represent libertarianism, not to promote 9/11 truth, the benefits of a Paleo Diet, or a love of juggling because libertarianism, as rightly defined, is neither here nor there on these issues.  So while libertarianism has nothing to say as to whether or not you should subscribe to conspiracy theories, question government funded science, or long for a world where the noble right of secession was not cursed with the connection of slavery, I for one think libertarians would benefit from being open to these ideas.

Just as conspiracy theorists that don't have an understanding of libertarianism and Austrian economics could be led down the false path of the Zeitgeist movement, those that are confined within a "range of allowable opinion" that stops thought like a shock collar whenever terms like "conspiracy theory", "anti-science", "neo-confederates", or other derogative terms are used will not appreciate the full scope of the challenge we face.  If you can be scared out of these opinions, you can be scared out of any principled libertarian stance, and we desperately need those brave enough to defend the undefendable.

It comes down to this; people are not the same and will respond to different messages.  For many, an unapologetic and fiery defense of freedom will inspire hearts and minds where a half-measured wet-noodle libertarianism will fail.  Some may first start down the rabbit hole via research into a particular conspiracy theory, and when confronted with a problem without a solution, will then stumble upon the glories of libertarianism.  Thus, we need libertarians well versed in conspiracy research just as we need purists and "civil disobedience warriors" that will energize our movement with the boldness of their words and deeds.  We probably even need those like the author who sit safely in the camp of government-approved libertarians, as people like him may spark a small flame in the minds of those who would otherwise be quickly scared off from a libertarian message revealed too boldly in all its consistency and implications.  But if that flame is to grow, than we must be open to the full expression of the libertarian message, not spending time writing half of us off on "the worst" lists.

3/31/2015

A Private Murder and a Public Genocide


A multi-millionaire, New York City real estate mogul's wife goes missing.  Friends and family suspect foul play, but the case gathers dust as a missing person mystery never to be solved.  Twenty years later, a stool pigeon reignites the authorities' interest in the disappearance, this time setting their eyes on the husband who just might have gotten away with murder.  The couple's former house is swept for clues, divers search the lake for a body, and just days before the primary person of interest can be interviewed for the first time - unbelievably - she is executed at point blank range in her home at the opposite end of the country.

Less than a year later, the man that was suspected but never charged with committing two murders is arrested for dismembering his elderly neighbor in Galveston, Texas.  He's caught red-handed, with knives and saws in the back seat of his car.  Without realizing the true identity of their suspect, the police grant him a $250,000 bail, which is promptly paid the next day.  He goes on the run, a nationwide man-hunt is issued, and he's busted for stealing a chicken salad sandwich with $500 cash in his pocket.

This is story of Robert Durst - so sensational, so bizarre, that it proves the idiom "truth is stranger than fiction".  Of course it became the subject of a major motion picture, and that's when things took another unexpected turn.  Apparently Durst was so moved by the film that he contacted the director, Andrew Jarecki, and asked him if he'd be interested in interviewing him and working together on another project.  That was the beginning of The Jinx, which was a word Durst used to describe himself when asked why he was adamant about not having children, and in retrospect of his perfectly timed arrest on the eve of the season finale, it's a fitting title for many of his inexplicable actions.

For countless viewers, The Jinx has set a new standard in the young genre of confronting suspected killers in the documentary form.  For many, there's nothing like it: a chronicle of 3 murders over 4 decades with the assistance of the suspect himself.  Key information is revealed throughout each episode, culminating in a shocking pseudo-admission when Durst forgets about his microphone while in the bathroom.  "What the hell did I do?  Killed them all, of course."  Jaws drop, ratings soar!  It's received coverage on every major publication, and undoubtedly, the trial will consume media attention for months to come.

While there are plenty of haters, kudos to director Andrew Jarecki and producer Marc Smerling.  They smelled their rat and followed it through, potentially bringing a murderer to justice while creating a truly engaging and unforgettable television experience in the process.  They couldn't have invented a more perfect villain: a guy that was born into millions of dollars and got away with admittedly chopping up his neighbor into little pieces.  In the era of the 99% and an unhealthy focus on income inequality, it's hard to say which is the bigger crime - but with Durst we get the perfect combination of both.

However, for all the press this event is receiving, and giving fair credit to The Jinx for a job well done, this reminds me of another documentary that exposed crimes far greater by orders of magnitude, and yet, got a fraction of the coverage.  Not only that, but while Mr. Durst was accidentally recorded while talking to himself in the privacy of a bathroom, which is hardly equivalent to a true confession, this other documentary is overflowing with footage of individuals bragging about killing hundreds of people.  In one case, a triple homicide suspect is swiftly brought to trial, but in the other, the criminals continue to not just roam, but rule the streets with impunity.  Why the double standard?  What's the lesson to be learned?  Perhaps Mr. Durst's real crime was murdering without a government uniform.

The Act of Killing

"In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military.
Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese.

In less than a year, and with the direct aid of western governments, over one million "communists" were murdered.
The army used paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings.
These men have been in power - and have persecuted their opponents - ever since.

When we met the killers, they proudly told us stories about what they did.
To understand why, we asked them to create scenes about the killings in whatever ways they wished.
This film follows that process, and documents its consequences."
These are the opening words to The Act of Killing, the only historical background we are given to a genocide that claimed 500,000 to 3 million lives in a single year.  With the most widely accepted estimate at half a million deaths, it didn't pass the threshold to be included in Rummel's catalog of democides, Death By Government.  With the United States merely supporting the Indonesian government with money and weapons as part of its overall anti-communist policy, but not actively orchestrating the overthrow of their government, the military counter-coup did not make Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow.  Not only has this event gone down the memory hole in the western world, but the events of 1965-1966 are a forgotten page in the Indonesian history books as well.  This is the reason Joshua Oppenheimer went to Indonesia - to meet with the survivors and document the genocide so that it can be rightly included with the other great sins of the 21st century.  However, there was one problem with this approach: the people that committed the genocide are still in power, ruling their victims by fear and terrorizing them from speaking out.  When it seemed that the government would be successful in preventing their story from being told, the survivors gave Oppenheimer one last request: go interview the killers and the executioners, see if they will talk to you.  He did so, and it resulted in arguably the most unique, powerful, and universally important documentary… ever.


Ever?  A case could be made, not because of the importance of the genocide itself, but because Oppenheimer has done something totally unprecedented and amazing in the history of film.  He was able to capture government murderers bragging about their horrendous crimes while still in power.  It's like a real-life House of Cards; like footage from a Man in the High Castle parallel-world with Nazi's bragging about carrying out the holocaust with the smug assurance that nothing will ever be done about it because they won the war.

These people are free, heroes in their country, totally sanctioned by their government, media, and history books - and yet they brutally killed hundreds of people by their own hands.  It can't be overstated enough - they were complicit in the murders of thousands, tens of thousands, likely over 2 million collectively, and they brag about it!  With the innocence and naiveté of a child, the leading subject of the film, executioner Anwar Congo, will demonstrate how he was inspired by American gangster movies to pioneer a cleaner and more efficient way of killing people by strangling them with wire, and in the next moment he'll show off his dancing ability with the cha-cha-cha.  It's absolutely surreal, and Anwar's Jekyll / Hyde persona is perfectly contrasted with fellow executioner Adi Zulkadry, who, rather than being a strange and inexplicable figure, is someone we know all too well.


Anwar and Adi: Reflections of the Statist Mind

As Oppenheimer has explained in several interviews, The Act of Killing is made possible by Anwar Congo's willingness to explore the crimes of his past to satisfy his conscience.  Anwar suffers from nightmares; he sees the open eyes of the people he killed, their ghosts haunting his dreams.  If Anwar can create a "beautiful family film", then maybe he can finally justify his actions and bring closure to his guilt and suffering.  It's a logical goal, as there are dozens of films that try to paint the ugly truths of war and violence as beautiful and heroic every year, some of them winning prestigious awards.

Anwar ultimately expresses guilt and takes some responsibility for his actions while simultaneously maintaining that "he did what he had to do", but fellow executioner Adi Zulkadry holds no such incompatible delusions.  If Anwar represents the American vet suffering from PTSD, ashamed and conflicted with the crimes he committed while "serving his country", then Adi is the stalwart officer of the law, 100% committed to his justifications and convinced that he was "only doing his job".  Combined, they represent the range of the statist mindset.  Neither of them can ever truly face the reality of their crimes: the fact that a government uniform did not alter the morality of their acts by one iota.  But on one extreme, Anwar is at least conflicted and suffers guilt, even although he does not understand it.  On the other end, Adi is a Javert like character that has accepted every statist lie and has nowhere else to go in this life.

The interplay between Anwar and Adi makes for some of the most memorable moments in the film.  When Anwar discusses his nightmares, suggesting that they are caused by the people he strangled, Adi will hear none of it.  "You feel haunted because your mind is weak", he tells Anwar.  According to Adi, they have nothing to feel sorry about, so all he needs to do is meet with a neurologist, get a prescription for "nerve vitamins", and he'll be a true believer once again.  Adi explains his ability to accept his acts without remorse or regret in a chillingly straightforward way:
"Killing is the worst crime you can do.  So the key is to find a way not to feel guilty.  It's all about finding the right excuse.

For example, if I'm asked to kill someone, if the compensation is right, then of course I'll do it, and from one perspective it's not wrong.  That's the perspective we must make ourselves believe.  After all, morality is relative."
Throughout the film, Anwar demonstrates that he does not agree with Adi's belief in relative morality.  When visiting the site where he tortured and killed hundreds of people, he is overcome with emotion, saying, "I know it was wrong - but I had to do it." He has a physical reaction, throwing up a little, and continues, "Why did I have to kill them?  I had to kill… My conscience told me they had to be killed."  In this instance he confuses his conscience with his friends in government and the Pancasila Youth - they were the ones that painted the "communists" as savages and sub-humans that deserved torture and death.  However, it is his recognition of the inherent immorality of his acts that allow him to identify the defining characteristic of government on par with the great Lysander Spooner:
"...Parliament should be the most noble place in society, but if we see what they do there, they're really just robbers with ties."
Yet again, Adi has a different perspective that reflects an attitude that is all too common in the west.  In one of Oppenheimer's most confrontational moments in the film, he asks Adi what he'd do if he was sent to the Hague and charged with war crimes.  The executioner responds indignantly:
"I don't necessarily agree with those international laws.  When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right.  Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.  That was right according to Bush, but now it's wrong.

The Geneva Convention may be today's morality, but tomorrow - we'll have the Jakarta Conventions and dump the Geneva Conventions.

'War Crimes' are defined by the winners.  I'm a winner.  So I can make my own definitions.  I needn't follow the international definitions."
When John Oliver interviewed Oppenheimer on the Daily Show, he specifically referred to this scene, saying, "You can't argue with him".  Well of course you can!  But if you did, you'd be forced to confront Adi's ugly truth.  A more honest statement from Oliver would be that you can't logically denounce the mass killings in Indonesia while justifying the crimes of other nations like the United States, such as dropping atomic bombs on civilian cities, killing 500,000 children through sanctions, or torturing sheepherders in Guantanmo Bay.  In both instances, actions that would be deemed as wrong by an objective moral code are dressed in the cloak of "authority" and magically change their moral status.  The only difference is that we can't accept the authority of the Indonesian government when viewed through Oppenheimer's lens.  Lucky for the libertarian viewer, there are several other learning opportunities in The Act of Killing that demonstrate the true nature of government.

A Look Behind the Curtain: The Nature of Government

One of the most eccentric characters in The Act of Killing is Herman Koto, a gangster who spent his entire life in the ranks of the Pancasila Youth paramilitary organization.  A large man with a simple mind and a penchant for cross-dressing, Herman is as brutal of a killer as any and takes his directorial duties very seriously, second only to Anwar.  So it seemed too good to be true when Herman Koto decided to run for parliament because he's "well known".  Three cheers to Oppenheimer, the few minutes of the film covering Herman's campaign didn't move the story of the 1965 genocide, but it does offer the clearest and most honest insight into the mind of a politician outside of the fictional series House of Cards.


Once Herman dresses up for campaign photos and plasters his image all over his campaign car, he's ready to shake hands and kiss babies.  After practicing his best Obama impression, he rides down the street, yelling "Long live the Businessmen and Workers Party!  I am Herman - ready to fight for worker's rights!"  But in the next scene he reveals his real ambitions for elected office.  Herman explains:
"If I get elected and get on the Building Commission - I can get money from everyone.  For example, if a building is 10 cm too small, I can demand "Tear down the building!"

They'll say, "Please don't report us, Here's your money"

Even if nothing's wrong with the building, if I threaten them they'll give me money anyway.

Not just a little money, in a block of 10 buildings if each pays $10,000, just do the math - that's already $100,000.  That's only one neighborhood!"
The Act of Killing doesn't just show the true motivation behind code enforcement, it also tackles eminent domain.  Haji Anif, a paramilitary leaders and businessmen, looks across his vast acreage of land and explains that he gave it to the birds because it makes him happy.  To show what a clever and powerful man he is, he explains how he got the land:
"Everybody's terrified of the paramilitaries… When a businessman wants land where people are living , if he just pays for it, it's expensive.  But we can solve his problem.  Because people are terrified of us, when we show up - they say, 'just take the land.  Pay what you like.'"
What refreshing honesty!  Who needs libertarian class analysis with such candid political elites?  For all the horror and the trauma that the Indonesian people have been through, at least they can clearly identify their enemies.  In these moments, The Act of Killing highlights many of Hoppe's arguments in Democracy: The God that Failed, as a government this openly corrupt doesn't suffer from the army of useful idiots parroting "we are the government".  That said, there is at least one moment in the film when a government official thinks he may have gone too far and considers his public image.  Before filming the attack on Kampung Kolam, Deputy Minister of Youth and Sport Sakhyan Asmara makes a special appearance to give the actors a pep talk, and before long he's in the middle of a foaming-at-the-mouth blood rage.  "Crush the comments!  Wipe them out!  Slaughter them!  Kill them all!  Don't let any escape!  Take no prisoners!  Destroy them all!  Burn down their houses!  Kill the communists!  Chop them up!  Burn them!  Kill them all!"  It's pretty intense, so Sakhyan Asmara decides to give a disclaimer:
"Now I'm speaking as a leader of Pancasila Youth.  What we've just shown is not characteristic of our organization.  We shouldn't look brutal, like we want to drink people's blood.  That's dangerous for our organization's image.  But we must exterminate the communists.  We must totally wipe them out - but in a more humane way."
So there we have it.  When it comes to official government policy, it's important to be humane when you kill a million or so people.  This is the primary reason why the Indonesian government requires paramilitaries like Pancasila Youth.  By all objective accounts they certainly meet the criteria of the state; they are an integral part of the "monopoly of violence".  They kill, rob, shake-down, and commit all sorts of other crimes with total impunity.  Not only do they receive privileges usually reserved for government enforcers, but top members of the government are also members of Pancasila Youth!  But just in case any "uncharacteristic" event spins out of control they always have plausible deniability.  Vice President of Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla, explains the importance of Pancasila Youth this way:
"The spirit of Pancasila Youth, which people accuse of being gangsters...  Gangsters are people who work outside the system - not for the government.

The word 'gangster' comes from 'free men'.  This nation needs 'free men'!

If everyone worked for the government - we'd be a nation of bureaucrats, we'd get nothing done.  We need gangsters to get things done."
If there was ever a reason to take a step back and consider the pros and cons of Obama's call for a civilian security force, this would probably be it.


Conclusion

The Act of Killing brings about such a sense of unease in the viewer because it goes to the heart of a commonly promoted superstition: that the human species is going ever onward and upwards - righting wrongs, learning from mistakes, and making progress.  Footage of Nazi's bragging about their crimes wouldn't elicit the same reaction, the take away would be that they lost the war because they were evil and got what they deserved in Nuremburg.  But here you have to contend with an unjust world, one where a group of mass-murdering gangsters won control over their government, put down their opposition, controls the masses through fear and propaganda, and are still in charge today.  It is a film that shows that crime pays - only if the crime is big enough.

Inevitably, having to contend with this reality begs the question - if the Indonesians still live in a country ruled by mass-murderers and brainwashed with a corrupt media that portrays villains as heroes - what can I say for sure about my own government?  Is it possible my "duly elected leaders" have the same contempt for me?  In this way Oppenheimer is able to open a window into the true nature of government for anyone watching it - regardless of what country they come from.  A Stockholm Syndrome defense mechanism would kick in if you showed someone a film attacking his own government; all the years of childhood indoctrination ensures that one can always double-think out of any unpatriotic thought.  But the Act of Killing lowers those defenses, it captures the imagination by showing a world far removed from our day to day life, and the anxiety we feel when watching it is a long-dormant moral compass awakening and challenging the inherent illogic of living in a modern state.

The Jinx may be a ratings success for HBO, and undoubtedly the trial of Robert Durst will receive significant airplay for months to come, but in the end, Durst is a sloppy piker compared to the likes of Anwar Congo.  Sure he's got millions of dollars, but what is that compared to the power of government?  What are 3 murders compared to a genocide of 3 million?  If the answer is "a million times worse", then shouldn't Oppenheimer's masterpiece still be receiving the attention it deserves?  Unfortunately, The Act of Killing's temporary rise and fall just goes to show that when it comes to judging the importance of a murder, the most important criteria is whether or not it was done with the authority of the state.

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