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In the Elevator at TAM 2012

Guest Post by Aron’s Wife

 

I am not exactly sure what the key thing is that unites people attending The Amazing Meeting. I know that I enjoy hanging out with other skeptically inclined people, and more often than not they self-identify as atheists. At the same time, I am aware that TAM also welcomes Christian skeptics and skeptics of different stripes. Although I haven’t met a Christian skeptic at the two events I have attended, it could happen! Even though not all of the differently striped skeptics could join together with mucho gusto in unison with Penn Jillette’s No God Band for a rousing rendition of “F-you you’re an atheist!” at his after party, that is okay.

 

Anyways as I was waiting for the elevator at the hotel that hosted TAM,  I got unwittingly roped into explaining what TAM is about to the good folks who were there for the Las Vegas BMX Nationals. We waited in the lobby together for an elevator with a few TAM goers, who had decided to express some Scots pride by wearing kilts. As we got in the elevator, I chose to ignore the quizzical expressions the family of BMX enthusiasts had on their faces.  (If you are an atheist BMXer bear with me). It would be impossible to explain TAM and kilted TAM goers in a short elevator ride. However, curiosity got the best of one of them, who noticed I was also wearing a TAM badge.

 

“Why are they dressed like that?” he asked.

 

“What is TAM?” a woman asked as she read my badge.

 

Flummoxed , I stammered, “It’s a skeptics meeting….” They still looked puzzled. “…for people who are skeptical about things like alternative medicine.”

 

Another of their party helpfully added, “You know… like herbs.” They exited the elevator not really impressed by the other event at the hotel.

 

The incident in the elevator reminded me of why a lot of people go to these things to be with like-minded people, because in their communities they may feel marginalized and alone. If it wasn’t impossible, if you had adequate time and a platform to explain to most Americans the importance of skeptically evaluating claims and basing beliefs on evidence could you do it? Why should they be skeptical? How does it impact their everyday lives in a way they should care about it?

 

Tim Minchin (or was it Ellen Degeneres) addressed the problem of basically explaining why most of your countrymen are wrong this way…

 

“I think the trouble with being a critical thinker or an atheist, or a humanist is that you’re right. And it’s quite hard being right in the face of people who are wrong without sounding like a fuckwit. People go “do you think the vast majority of the world is wrong”, well yes, I don’t know how to say that nicely, but yes.”

 

To make matters a bit more complicated the skeptical community is divided about what or if we should be communicating. There is the atheist vs. humanist or skeptic label debate that the atheist label is too exclusive. Not just that when we gather together under the skeptic-label big tent, disparate voices wrestle over what’s on our agenda or whether there should be one.

 

During the Penn & Teller Q&A, a man asked Penn Jillette about how we could spread skepticism. I kinda felt sorry for him as Jillette answered that you can’t do that without being a pig. The answer may have been harsher than he intended because he further explained that that is what evangelicals do winning converts and such. (paraphrasing) Also, he added that he admires the people that put together your friendly neighborhood meet ups, and he is a member of his local group. He probably enjoys hobnobbing with the little people, because as a lot of people know he is physically bigger in real life. He made Aron look small.

Back on topic, Mr. Jillette remarked a few times on how unpopular his libertarian views are in the skeptical community. For libertarians the word lawlessness may have a different context than it does for a lot of us. Libertarianism is one of a few can of worms that you don’t want to open in the community. Good, decent people draw battle lines. He skirted the issue at most of his appearances.

Even though I am deeply offended by some of the arguments of libertarianism, I wonder why are there topics in a community of freethinkers that can’t be debated rationally? I would love to see Mr. Jillette debate a skilled liberal skeptic on this topic. A simple battle of ideas against ideas. No name calling or help from the peanut gallery of supporters. Just your best arguments against his best arguments all business and nothing personal. A debate when after it is done they could shake each others’ hand, and tell each other what a good job they did defending their ideas.

We’ve seen similar derision at the Humanist convention in New Orleans.  All of the celebrated speakers described their positions as unambiguously atheist, though none of them used that label as it was not welcome.  The woman who called Cenk Uygur to the stage introduced him as having “evolved from atheist to humanist”.  This was just one of several unnecessary jabs.  Some of the conventioneers told representatives from American Atheists that atheists were “hurting the movement”.

Despite our internal differences, the freethinking community must be doing a good job convincing more people that they are wrong about their beliefs because our numbers are growing. Popular atheist writers and the internet have been a wonderful tool for reaching people and convincing them to examine their beliefs. However, are the people these methods are reaching naturally more resilient to the social pressure to conform? Are we a movement of outsiders, and proudly so (including proud kilts-men)? Or can we reach just about anybody from any walk of life (including BMX fans) without being pigs?

Comments

    • Erista (aka Eris) says

      And just the other day I was trying to explain to my mother why the skeptics community was still going on about Elevatorgate. Now I guess I have a quote to show her how, even a year later, people constantly bring it up even in situations that have nothing to do with Elevatorgate at all.

      But of course, no one is talking about how Krauss defended an admitted raper of children a year after the fact. No, it’s all about priorities, you see.

      • Konradius says

        Well that’s a self defeating argument…
        And the title of this post mentioned elevator and the event that was most linked to the (anti)feminism wars ever because of DJ’s escapades.
        So I thought this was linked as well, and got a pleasant surprise that it wasn’t.

  1. says

    Mucho gusto!

    I’m a libertarian and would appreciate debates in the community as well. But I think we need 1) To come to a detente on the feminism issue; and 2) stop using mockery and vilification as tools of marginalization against other sub-groups of skeptics.

    Your post is an excellent addition to a respectful dialog between skeptics.

  2. Forbidden Snowflake says

    I’m not sure why you think a debate on liberalism v. libertarianism would be better than, say, a vigorous interblog discussion. Or was that just an example?
    Also, would such a discussion, if it is fruitful, mean that in time, depending on the quality of arguments, at least one of the options will come off the menu of opinions that a skeptic can reasonably hold, or will the question always be considered a matter of private belief?

    • says

      Those are good questions. A well- publicized moderated debate with an audience would reach more of the community to air out a disagreement. Vigorous blog discussions have value also as an option they too can be moderated to make sure they don’t degenerate. I am of the opinion that people especially skeptical ones can make up their own minds when presented with the best arguments from both sides.

      • Reginald Selkirk says

        As someone with experience of the evolution-creationism issue, I would point out that public debates are simply not a good way of seriously exploring a topic. One participant may be wrong on the issues, but be more skilled in debate tactics and audience manipulation.
        .
        Also, when it comes to political positions such as Libertarianism, values are involved, not just facts or truth positions. The current right wing Republican/ Tea Party / Objectivist brand of libertarianism seems to hold that helping other people is immoral. I disagree with this vehemently, but it is not a question of fact in the way that fossils or DNA evidence of common descent are.

        • bubba707 says

          Something that needs to be kept in mind is that there are different flavors of libertarian from those simply supporting the primacy of individual liberty to complete social darwinists.

        • Blade says

          @ Reginald: As an Objectivist, I feel I need to clear up the misconception that Objectivism holds that helping people is immoral. It, across all of its myriad forms, only holds that helping others doesn’t automatically make you moral, and is (well…was) really careful in making that distinction.

          Granted, that doesn’t stop sociopaths from using it to justify their dickish predispositions.

        • says

          I think it depends on what one means by “helping other people”. Of course, the die-hard Randians would say that altruism itself is ultimately evil. I don’t know how that position is justified – ask a Randian.

          Now those of use who take a more moderate or “social” libertarian stance would argue that altruistic behavior is indeed a social good, but it is not the only one. Individual liberty and autonomy is also a social good, and one must be careful to simply discard the values of liberty and autonomy in the pursuit of altruism. (Nor err in the other direction, as the Randians do.) To do so is to fall into the error of paternalism.

          Now on a given issue, to what degree regulation is helpful and what is paternalistic is debatable. For example, I think the government oversteps its mandate when it criminalizes the use of marijuana, even if one could argue that this prevents psychological addiction in a certain number of people and is therefore “helpful”.

    • says

      Your other question about giving it a good try and people with I am assuming beliefs that don’t withstand critical scrutiny being allowed to hold them without disparaging them personally? Do I have your question right?

      • Forbidden Snowflake says

        Your other question about giving it a good try and people with I am assuming beliefs that don’t withstand critical scrutiny being allowed to hold them without disparaging them personally? Do I have your question right?

        Not exactly, no. I wasn’t discussing the difference between rejecting opinions and disparaging people personally. It’s more about willingness to change our minds.
        To present an analogy: it is currently widely accepted within the skeptical movement that believing in, say, homeopathy, is a failure in applying skepticism. Saying this is not considered to be “personally disparaging”. Thus, homeopathy isn’t on the list of Things We Can Reasonably Disagree On, as liberalism v. libertarianism currently is. I am saying that maybe if the LvL question is to be delved into, it will eventually be settled, and at least one of the options will move to the Debunked column next to homeopathy. Are we prepared for that to happen, or will we be starting the discussion with the predetermined conclusion “let’s agree to disagree”?

        • says

          I think most of us would be happy with a sound debunking changing a lot of rational minds. Are you going to get someone with deeply held beliefs like Penn Jillette to change his mind if his side loses? He says he is open to being wrong about everything. It’s hard to guess.

          To be more direct the best anyone can hope for is that most people can reason which ideas have the most merit when presented with a fair representation of both sides.

        • TwoPiDeltaIJ says

          First, I am an odd (read that as less common) flavor of libertarian, so perhaps this view does not apply to all the LvL discussions/debates, but I am going to throw in my two cents anyway.

          Thus, homeopathy isn’t on the list of Things We Can Reasonably Disagree On, as liberalism v. libertarianism currently is. I am saying that maybe if the LvL question is to be delved into, it will eventually be settled, and at least one of the options will move to the Debunked column next to homeopathy.

          Homeopathy is not a set of ethics and as such it is much easier to delve into its truth claim (and thus debunk it). Libertarianism (of most varieties) is a more complex thing, and many of its positions could possibly be refuted without “debunking” libertarianism. I think a better analogy would be to compare it to a major theory in science (bear with me) and say that by filling in gaps that emerge or by showing that one branching set of hypothesis turns out to be wrong, then the theory as a whole is merely merely re-shaped rather than destroyed. To “debunk” libertarianism from its “core” you would have to show that contracts made without consent of all parties are moral.

          • says

            I think you know we have a representative democracy, so it would be impossible to obtain consent of everyone involved.

            However, even in a smaller group like a marriage with just 2 people it can be impossible to get everyone to agree to everything.

          • TwoPiDeltaIJ says

            I think you know we have a representative democracy, so it would be impossible to obtain consent of everyone involved.

            So, because it is impractical (which I am granting for the sake of argument) to have everyone in a group consent to be governed, this somehow makes it moral to impose restrictions on liberty of the non-consenting anyway?

            However, even in a smaller group like a marriage with just 2 people it can be impossible to get everyone to agree to everything.

            I think you misunderstand consent. You can disagree with a position and still consent, this is usually the basis of compromise.

          • chaos-engineer says

            To “debunk” libertarianism from its “core” you would have to show that contracts made without consent of all parties are moral.

            But that’s easily proven, by noticing that contracts have externalities.

            Suppose A and B agree that A can dump toxic waste into a river that flows through B’s property, and C lives downstream from B. Every sensible political system has a mechanism to allow the contract to be forcibly invalidated, preferably before C dies of poisoning. Libertarians struggle to find a solution, and they just barely manage to squeeze by with, “Well, C (or his heirs) can sue for damages, assuming that A and B haven’t hired a shell partner with no assets to do the actual dumping.”

            But then that devolves into a situation where lawsuits make up 100% of the economy, because everybody is suing everybody else for their individual contributions to global warming. (Libertarians deal with this by denying that global warming exists.)

          • TwoPiDeltaIJ says

            As a preface to what comes next: Your response assumes a specific kind of libertarianism (which is odd). I am not sure which ‘flavor’ of libertarian you are arguing against, but you are still wrong (with regards to the ones I am familiar with at least).

            Suppose A and B agree that A can dump toxic waste into a river that flows through B’s property, and C lives downstream from B.

            First it would have to be B’s river for this to be ok in your situation, which precludes the next part of your argument (there being no one to sue for damages). Also this example is already the case when doing business now in a non-libertarian government but B is a government and B decides how much toxic waste A is allowed to dump into the river and then decides who is allowed to sue for damages. B then enforces its will (by force) on A and C, neither of whom necessarily agreed to B’s terms.

            Every sensible political system has a mechanism to allow the contract to be forcibly invalidated, preferably before C dies of poisoning.

            Happily this includes libertarianism and its various more anarchistic flavors. I know it is shocking, but people have actually thought about (and continue to think about) this. The libertarian and other anarchist societies solutions to this vary, but you are not the first (or only person from the outside) to declare this is a problem (without actually knowing the proposed solution) within the various proposed societies (I know that must be shocking to you).

            Libertarians struggle to find a solution, and they just barely manage to squeeze by with, “Well, C (or his heirs) can sue for damages, assuming that A and B haven’t hired a shell partner with no assets to do the actual dumping.”

            See above…

            But then that devolves into a situation where lawsuits make up 100% of the economy, because everybody is suing everybody else for their individual contributions to global warming. (Libertarians deal with this by denying that global warming exists.)

            You have to show damage to sue someone, and it would be very hard to prove one person’s contribution to global warming harmed you specifically. Your attempt to take ‘my’ position to its ‘absurd conclusion’ has failed due to your own poor reasoning.
            A blanket statement like “Libertarians do not believe in X” where X is some accepted scientific theory is absurd on the face of it. For example, would you be ok with the claim ‘liberals do not believe in science based medicine?’ See, there are some people who we would both agree are on the fringe who believe in ‘woo’, it does not comprise the whole group. Thanks for playing.

  3. MichaelD says

    At this point I think we can just expect friction over various topics both large and small for the foreseeable future.

  4. says

    Now that I think about it… Were some of the men wearing kilts because of the upskirt controversy rather than Scots Pride? I should have asked one of them.

  5. Samantha Vimes, Chalkboard Monitor says

    My elevator ride synopsis would be, “Skeptics look at the evidence for common beliefs in things like ghosts, flying saucers, and linking vaccines to autism, with a demand for scientific rigor. We then spread the word about the failure of such claims to provide evidence. This is important, because many frauds take people’s money to act as mediums or provide bogus health care. If there’s a particular subject of concern to you, like if an uncle is thinking of using an herbal cancer cure, I’d be happy to give you some information to help you learn more yourself.”

    • thebigJ_A says

      The “I’d be happy to” part sounds a bit to evangelical. “Take this flier, it could change you life!” and all that. I’d probably immediately tune someone out saying things like that, and I’m an out-of-the-closet atheist. Just explain what we are, and field questions if they have them.

  6. cassmorrison says

    @ Samantha Nice synopsis. I would just say the first sentence.
    @ lilandra there are many things I would like to see debated/debunked that would be interesting;libertarianism,menopause even the effects of body weight. Some info is out there but a well structured debate can help with decision making for the fuzzier stuff.

  7. god is dog backwards says

    Apropos libertarianism. Knowing all well your (american) peculiar naming conventions regarding certain political positions, I’d like to point out one way to tackle the issue of (supposedly flabbergasting) libertarian skeptics. Some rationalists I know, when asked about their libertarian position, point out that it’s their idealistic position, not a pragmatic one. They know full well that libertarianism is an utopian view and they employ their down-to-earth sensibilities while voting – mainly for various socialist-democratic options. They understand that libertarianism is at the far end of the spectrum but they prefer it to the other end – a collectivist one. While promoting libertarian values they know they have no chance of arriving at the utopian ‘goal’ but they prefer the social-democratic reality that is aspiring to said values rather than collectivist-utopian ones.

  8. LawnBoy says

    I like Tim Farley’s:

    “Skepticism is the intersection of science education and consumer protection. We help people learn from science to avoid spending their money on products and services that do not work.”

  9. Chrish says

    I wonder why are there topics in a community of freethinkers that can’t be debated rationally?

    Because people are still just people. Even in a community of supposedly enlightened “free thinkers”, you have ideas and beliefs that are so tied up in in a persons identity that they simply can’t separate themselves.

    Thus when you challenge said idea or belief, you are in essence attacking them. When attacked most people have an emotional
    response and for most people emotional responses are extremely irrational. Thus the anger and everything that comes with it.

  10. E.V. says

    I regret I never got to know you and Aron here in Garland. Finding like minded people in the LSS is tough going. I really enjoy both of your work on this blog.

  11. says

    Good post, but I’m curious about “guest post by Aron’s Wife”.

    Seems a little 1950s church lady, or did I misunderstand the intent?

  12. Erista (aka Eris) says

    I would love to see Mr. Jillette debate a skilled liberal skeptic on this topic.

    I have actually come to hate debates because almost every single time it is the better speaker/debater who “wins” the debate rather than the person who is more correct. Ah, sadness.

    • says

      Unfortunately, debates often devolve into a cult of personality instead of a discussion of ideas. Nobody is going to be convinced by what’s said because usually, nobody came to their positions by reason anyhow. The religious are going to go home still religious, convinced that their side won, and unfortunately, far too often the same thing happens on the non-theist side as well.

      Debates shouldn’t be about the debaters, it should be about the ideas.

      • says

        Cephus and Erista I have seen more charismatic Christians win people over in Creation/evolution public or private debates too. There arguments are often like other propaganda emotional appeals. The Hitchens/Dembski at Prestonwood Baptist Church is a good example. Dembski was so comfortable in his element by the end of it that he dropped the science education/ID pretense, and was openly proselytizing. These sorts of debates are a good public record, for skeptics to rip apart later.

        • says

          Most of these debates aren’t really debates in any credible sense, they’re just big dick-waving contests where one side, sometimes both, play to their audience and try to look good to their fans. They don’t actually defend their views, present evidence, etc., they just play the part. The bigger the name, the more likely this is going to be true. The more seasoned the debater, the more practiced their stage show is. Virtually nobody is ever going to change their minds because that’s not the point of the debate. It’s a popularity contest for the debater.

  13. says

    It would be nice to be able to discuss political subjects like reasonable people, but to be quite blunt about it, I don’t it’s possible with the “Pharyngula” crowd and like kinds of super-ideological atheists, based on my experience, anyway. These people have a very shallow and strawmannish understanding of what “libertarianism” actually is, and have a very hostile, tribalistic reaction toward anybody who the suspect holds such views.

    I think political beliefs are maters of values and preferences, much of that based on pre-rational and subjective ideas on what is fair, just, and moral. There’s been some excellent work done on that by George Lakoff. The mistake that I think the “Pharyngula crowd”, among others, makes is that they take their own ideological perspective to be “objective” and “rational” simply by default.

    Now, of course, one can and should try to approach social and political questions in a more evidence-based way (Greta Christina has a very good essay on this), though there are many political movements that clearly don’t make this effort, and some movements like the Religious Right that are irrationalist by their very nature. But it’s also possible to be a very kneejerk and irrational liberal/feminist/whatever, and I’ve certainly encountered more than my share of these.

    My own views, BTW, are “left libertarian”, which means I’m actually liberal to left in my views about economics and social inequality issues, but also take a *very* strong line on the civil liberties and individual rights issues, to the point where I don’t think the term “liberal” really covers it. And, BTW, there’s *nothing* inconsistent about being on the “left” and “libertarian” – the term “libertarian” actually came from the left and was co-opted by free-marketers. (The oldest lib group in the US is the very left and anarchist Libertarian Book Club in New York City, dating back to 1946. In Europe, “libertarian” is still mostly understood to mean anarchists and the affiliated left.) Basically, “libertarianism” relates to “anarchism” in much the same way that “socialism” relates to “communism”, that is, oriented in that direction, but broader and not necessarily as radical. “Libertarian” and also be seen as the simply the opposite political pole to “authoritarian”, or “individualist” as opposed to “communitarian” if you want to use somewhat less loaded terms.

    I don’t claim that my overall orientation is inherently more rational or objective than those I don’t agree with, though on particular issues (say, drug legalization, sex work, abortion, etc.), I try to make an effort to bring an evidence-based approach to the table, while acknowledging what my bias and perspective is.

    • svinter says

      Hmmm, one of many things that are so irritating about this is the strange US-american political labels as in your the use of “liberal”, “libertarian”. Why not call liberals just liberals (approximately: market econonomy (more or less or almost not at all regulated, depending on faction of liberalism), free trade, rule of law, political democracy, and all that), and then add faction name if you want a more detailed description (like, “market-liberal”, “social-liberal”, and similars)? In USA many seem more or less imply social-liberal with “liberal” which makes the discussion really confusing. Of course the exact boarder between left-wing social liberals and right-wing moderate social-democratic socialists are a bit blurred, but that and other problems doesn’t prevent that the discussion would be at least a little bit clearer if one tried to use political labels in a somewhat more consistent way.

      • says

        “Liberal” definitely has a somewhat different meaning in the US than in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Both would include “social liberals”, but in the US, it would mean anybody from social liberals leftward to just about anybody who isn’t so far to the left that they’re offended by the word “liberal”. In Europe, “liberal” includes “social liberal” and “classical liberal”, with the latter category being considered right-libertarian or even conservative in the US.

        In fact, Old World-style conservatism – which often involves a kind of organic attachment to the nation or community, isn’t always friendly to the “free market”, and is usually not religiously fundamentalist (though may be attached to the established Catholic, Luthern, or Calvinist church) – doesn’t particularly fit into American political categories particularly well. Communitarians like Amitai Etzioni are probably the closest equivalent.

  14. says

    No, worse than trying to explain kilts to BMX bikers, try being at a science fiction convention on Sunday afternoon when the convention is starting to move out, and running into a Southern Baptist convention that is coming in. I was at one, back around 1989, where just that happened. Now imagine being in an elevator with a bunch of Bible-swilling Baptists and a couple of half-naked girls dressed up like Slave Leia.

    Let the fun times roll.

    • shockna says

      I once found myself in a hotel for a gaming convention, where the hotel was hosting both our convention, and some kind of Jehovah’s Witness conference a few floors up.

      I would liken it to watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion.

      • says

        Honestly, it was a bit of a mess at this convention too. I’m thinking it was either Loscon or Westercon, it was almost 25 years ago, I don’t remember exactly, but the Baptists started trying to convert the “heathens” and, predictably, the “heathens” weren’t too happy about it. The nice thing about many sci-fi conventions is they do tend to have a sizable atheist contingent. I remember I was standing with a friend near the front doors, he was decked out in full tiger face-paint when a fundie came over and tried to convert him. He turned around and growled at him. I think the fundie wet himself and ran away.

        Immature, to be sure, but still fun.

  15. says

    I have actually come to hate debates because almost every single time it is the better speaker/debater who “wins” the debate rather than the person who is more correct.

    Being a better speaker/debater entails being able to organize facts and arguments and present them clearly. In that situation, it really helps if reality is on your side because you risk getting tripped up by contradictions in your fantasies. It’s why people like Dinesh D’Souza and William Lane Craig, who are liars and know they are liars, have to burn a lot of their limited supply of brainpower avoiding the pitfalls they’ve dug for themselves. It’s not that they’re the better debaters it’s that – in general – their opponents make the strategic blunder of thinking that correct belief is a sufficient condition to win the debate.

    Other than in completely unverifiable (religion having defended itself from reality-based challenge by moving all its playing pieces effectively off the board) topics, it’s not simply a matter of whose rhetorical skills are better. It’s always more complicated than that and poor losers are the ones who whine that they were out-debated.

  16. says

    i can’t remember where, but i’d seen or read something about early christians, they were a united front. they saw themselves as tiny subgroups, same as now, denominations, but identified themselves universally to other people(something like that). basically, when they(and other groups) felt weak, they identified under one label, as they gained strength they identified themselves, even to people outside the faith by denomination(i’m a baptist/catholic/presbyvoodootologist). now i’ve seen some of the group identification in christians, not much in muslims. trying to give ourselves a neat tidy name, that we all agree on, that we can use to show we’re a unified front, is a sign of weakness, not that we shouldn’t do it, but that fighting amongst ourselves to glom together, patch up differences, become buddies on every major issue, shows that we don’t feel strong enough to stand. if anything, i believe that ‘well, we usually call ourselves atheists, or humanists, sometimes skeptics, but the group i fit with are -longconfusingstringofsoundsword-ists, maybe you’d like to hear a little about how we view the world’.

  17. Lee says

    “Even though I am deeply offended by some of the arguments of libertarianism, I wonder why are there topics in a community of freethinkers that can’t be debated rationally?”

    Your first six words in the above text explain the problem perfectly well. One cannot reason with or against offense. It isn’t that people disagree with Libertarianism, or don’t understand it. People come to the table offended about a philosophical difference. A rational debate requires all participants to be open to the other side (which is why religion vs Atheist debates are mostly a waste of time in terms of the argument, but worth it for the audience that might not be aware of all the arguments) and being offended ultimately shuts the door on any chance of that happening.

    If you only disagreed with limited central government, we could have a conversation about how much autonomy states should have. If you only disagreed that excessive charity created a class of people that use said charity as a sole means of survival, we could rationally discuss the merits of the claim. If it was a matter of preference, that you preferred some government control of civil life, we could quantify how much was required through debate.

    As is, there is no new ground to break nor great conversation to be had. I, personally, am Libertarian-lite. I understand that the government has a very important role to play, but the size of that role is much smaller than what most would prefer. I would hope that most people do not identify 100% with a worldview. And, as I am myself, hope that most people are open to hearing other worldviews and able to adjust their own opinions and feelings based on reasoned arguments and evidence. An offended person cannot do that.

      • Lee says

        You’re splitting hairs. Some, many, all, as long as there is offense about a difference of opinion there can be no rational discussion. I am deeply offended by slavery, cannibalism, murder, and rape. I would hope you are as well, and would understand that it would be impossible to have a discussion about these things with someone who didn’t find them offensive.

        When I think of this from a different angle, perhaps you mean offended in some other way than I do when I use the word. I would hate to continue this discussion when we are not talking about the same thing. To wit, I use offended to describe a feeling I have that is close to outrage and creates a sense of almost physical sickness in their presence. I contrast this with things that merely bother me. These things include crying babies, spoiled food, long waits, and experiencing failure. In simpler terms, offence is akin to be angered to the point of sickness. It is a very strong word, and requires strong feelings behind them.

        If instead you are only bothered (as I mean it) by some Libertarian ideas and arguments, then there can in fact be discussion, although there will still be difficulty.

        If you are willing to have the discussion, may I also ask which arguments of Libertarianism give you offense, and are not just disagreeable or bothersome (of which I will agree there are many bothersome and disagreeable facets of Libertariansim)?

        • says

          There are a number of arguments put forth by Ron Paul its most prominent proponent that are deeply offensive. First I don’t agree that you can’t discuss an idea that you are deeply offended by.

          I will put just one of his ideas out there, he believes public lands should be sold to be developed privately. Is this idea offensive to you?

          • nerdC says

            This comment surprised me a bit. I think I have read enough about libertarianism to have a basic understanding. So if asked to name some prominent libertarians, Ron Paul is one name that would not occur to me. But he is well known, and, although I have not really figured out all of his political positions, some of them do seem to be quite libertarian (e.g., IIRC, he has been opposed to some of our recent wars.).

            To address the specific issue: why is selling federal land offensive? I am not enthusiastic about the idea, but the federal government owns a lot of land. Does it really need all of it? Does it manage what it has efficiently (e.g. forests, grazing land,…). I am not surprised by disagreements on the issue, but why is it “offensive”?

            On the subject of prominent libertarians, the first name that comes to mind is Friedrich Hayek. But he may have never used the term libertarian, and he died 20 years ago so maybe no one knows about him anymore. I’ll have to update my list.

          • Lee says

            It is good to see that we use the term “offended” in different ways, (admittedly, you use it in the more correct fashion, thank you for pointing that out) and we can drop the semantic argument.

            As to the public lands discussion, my understanding of your argument is that the offense of selling the land from the public sector to private enterprise is secondary to the offense of developing the land. This distinction is important because developing public land is not a core Libertarian value. If there could be short, or even long-term gain, with no long term harm (say if the land were developed to be a solar farm or given over to universities for research, or if it could be proven that oil drilling would have no long lasting impact on the desert) what would the problem be?

            If your answer to that is a repetition of your last answer: that no one owns the land in the beginning and all development hinders the ecosystem, then your beef isn’t with Libertarianism, it’s with the advancement of human technology since the Romans first created aqueducts. Nor is it the case that only Libertarians are calling for further development of public lands.

            If this is not the case, could you quantify how much developed land is permissible?

            Personally, I am confused by Paul’s comments on the subject as the constitution allows the government to hold public lands. Furthermore, I think I would be offended if someone were to tell me that we should, or have to, drill the hell out of the Grand Canyon. A person who was unwilling to say that some things just shouldn’t be destroyed in the name of private enterprise, I do not think could be reasoned with.

        • Lee says

          No, it is not offensive. I don’t agree 100%, but there is merit to the argument.

          Allow me to clearly state Paul’s position. The vast majority, if not all, federally owned land should be given to states, and then states, if in there best interest, should sell the best land to private companies to develop as they wish.

          Here we could argue what Paul means by best, but for most of his speeches on the topic, he mostly talks about the Nevada desert, which may have potential untapped oil fields. This agenda has the added benefit of creating a large amount of money for the state that could sell the land in their own state on the state government’s terms, and create jobs in the private sector, which has not been doing so well lately. The bonus of lowered unemployment and a new revenue for states that desperately need it should be considered.

          My personal feelings is that this is the right direction, but land we consider “too important to lose,” such as the Grand Canyon, wildlife preserves, and other land with such purpose and/or beauty should remain entirely off the table.

          There are also instances like Big Bear Park and Kaneohe Bay wherein the resorts are run by military personal untrained in how to run these resorts. They are pulled from different areas and go on Temporary Assigned Duty to work as essentially clerks, while they still count against their original squadron or platoon and cannot be replaced.

          If these resorts and hotels were run by private companies instead, and still conformed to government standards, I feel that the public would be better served and more jobs would be created in the private sector. As another bonus, military personnel would remain at the job they have been trained to do.

          To simplify – good direction, but there must be caveats. I do wish you could go back and clarify what you mean by “deeply offended,” so as to help the discussion.

          • says

            Dictionary.com definition of offend…
            of·fend
            verb /əˈfend/ 
            offended, past participle; offended, past tense; offending, present participle; offends, 3rd person singular present

            Cause to feel upset, annoyed, or resentful
            – viewers said they had been offended by bad language

            Be displeasing to
            – he didn’t smoke and the smell of ash offended him
            – they must redesign the offending section of road

            Commit an illegal act
            – a small hard core of young criminals who offend again and again

            Break a commonly accepted rule or principle
            – those activities which offend against public order and decency

          • says

            From the definition of offend even if you modify it with “deeply” that doesn’t limit its use to the worst offenses you can think of. So it is very possible to be deeply offended by certain political ideas. I am using the dictionary definition of the word.

          • says

            Allow me to clearly state Paul’s position. The vast majority, if not all, federally owned land should be given to states, and then states, if in there best interest, should sell the best land to private companies to develop as they wish.

            This is what offends me the most about some of the arguments of libertarian-ism. Short term private interests like fossil fuels even if they employ people and power their machines for hundreds of years are still short term compared to the hundreds of millions of years the land has been there. Who knows how many millions more years humans and other animals could have enjoyed it had it not been developed for private use as they see fit?

            The Earth doesn’t really belong to people with colored paper who want to make more colored paper. Everyone is renting the space they occupy for a breath of the Earth’s existence. Yes it deeply offends me that people like Paul and others like him who think it is theirs to use as they see fit whether or not they leave it in good condition for future generations. Though it may not offend you, it evidently bothers you because you make caveats for the Grand Canyon.

  18. Yasu says

    Wow. Aren’t those stereotypes and assumptions lovely? Media and all we learn of the world from one another. Scientific method would be be better than assumptions but people fear more than they want to know truth.
    Then ,oh, the drama train wreck that many people look at in entertainment more than preventing train wrecks. Most people rather watch reality shows than learn about science. A pity really.

  19. nerdC says

    Yes, it would be nice to have a rational discussion about libertarianism or any other political philosophy. This thread has been rather reasonable so far.

    Some of these comments illustrate a basic characteristic that libertarianism shares with every other political philosophy: there are as many varieties as there are proponents plus numerous strawman versions put forth by opponents. So we spend a lot of time explaining each variation.

    A meta-question that I have pondered is: how does one learn the characteristics of a political philosophy. Libertarianism has no bible; there is no government agency authorizing people to use the label. [Libertarianism or equivalents under other names (classical liberalism) have been around much longer than the Libertarian Party, so I do not count them as authoritative.] What I have done is read a lot by authors who promote libertarianism or who are popular with libertarians. After a while one gets a sense of the commonalities and the variations. One should also read opponents to get a better understanding, but too many just set upstrawman arguments, so it is hard to find good opposing literature.

    I agree with those who say a debate would not be useful.

  20. nerdC says

    So here is a question for lilandra or anyone with significant dislike for libertarianism. This 7 minute video describes ten major characteristics of classical liberalism (a term I kind of like better than libertarian but about equivalent). Which of these ten are offensive or even disagreeable?

    Some examples:

    Rule of law: I hope most civilized people generally agree with this.

    Individualism: There are those who dislike this. Why?

    Peace: Everybody says they want it but libertarians are really serious about it. “War is the health of the state” they say. If Congress were full of libertarians, the US would not be in Afghanistan, nor would it have been in Iraq, Viet Nam, Korea,…

    Spontaneous Order: This is a concept that many find difficult to grasp. I find it really fascinating, but have a hard time seeing when and why it should work.

    Etc…

    (And, is discussing specific issues like this a useful way to have a discussion about politics?)

    • says

      “Which of these ten are offensive or even disagreeable?

      Some examples:

      Rule of law: I hope most civilized people generally agree with this.”

      Well, I suppose that one depends on to what degree one is an anarchist, or conversely, on the opposite (authoritarian) communist or fascist pole. As different as those philosophies are, they all view law as solely a way that the rulers maintain power over the ruled, but the rulers are more or less above the law. For anarchists, this is a bad thing, for fascists, quite good. Communists are ambiguous – they open espouse tyranny in order to go after “class enemies”, but claim that this is done for the good of the vast majority.

      When I was an anarchist, I despised the idea of “rule of law” as being solely “law for the rulers” no matter how democratic the social order. I now feel that rule of law is generally a social good so long as there is real popular sovereignty in a democratic society. Lawlessness in a failed state does not bring the average person more freedom – quite the opposite. However, that does not mean I think all laws and leaders are good ones – we live in a fundamentally unequal society, and law is used as much as any other form of power to maintain the interests of the powerful and of the status quo. That abuse of law and governance is undeserving of respect, but as part of civil society, one ideally should work against such abuses rather than just be resentful of them. (Easier said than done, I know. :-))

      Individualism: There are those who dislike this. Why?

      It gets tricky depending on how you define “individualism”. One definition is that individuals are worthy of respect in and of themselves rather than as mere means to the ends of others or as less important than religious or ideological abstractions. The idea of individual rights and civil liberties flows from this. As an individualist myself, I adhere to this definition.

      However, there’s also the idea of individualism as anomie, of every wo/man for themself, and social atomization. By extension, reducing all problems to those of individual character, rather than recognizing that many social problems are systemic rather than about good or bad people.

      I think people who dump on “individualism” find the latter kind disagreeable, but sadly are quick to conflate the first definition with the second, and hence, become inclined to various kinds of authoritarianisms of the left- or right-wing variety, seeing in individual rights and individualistic attitudes a slippery slope toward anomie.

      “Peace: Everybody says they want it but libertarians are really serious about it. ‘War is the health of the state’ they say. If Congress were full of libertarians, the US would not be in Afghanistan, nor would it have been in Iraq, Viet Nam, Korea,…

      I think that this is an area where things get tricky. Of course war tends to foster authoritarianism, and we saw that in a big way over the last decade. But on the other hand, I have a hard time seeing classical libertarian isolationism as a tenable position. Would isolationism *really* have been a good policy for Western democracies in World War II and the Cold War? I, for one, am glad Western democracy came out of those battles on top, and I don’t think we would even be having this conversation right now if Fascism or Stalinism had won and been able to establish their world order. Nor do I think the US and other Western democracies could have been left alone if they’d been isolationist. The countries that democracies were up against were aggressive and bent on world conquest.

      Now, of course, the US and other powerful democracies didn’t exactly proceed from pure motives either, and definitely did their share of empire-building along the way. One need only look at the overthrow of Moseddegh and Allende to see that.

      The other question is, just how isolationist one should be about the ideas of liberty. Would it really OK to achieve perfect liberty in the USA, but have business as usual with a brutally authoritarian China as long as that turns a profit and provides our consumers with cheap goods? I don’t think so. I think the concept of liberty is an expansive one, and caring only about liberty just on ones own home turf isn’t good enough. I think it means caring about liberty in places like Iran and China, too, even if those governments consider this to be hostile outside meddling.

      • LP87 says

        “I have a hard time seeing classical libertarian isolationism as a tenable position.”

        Isolationism is a bad position. However, I can’t think of any prominent classical liberals that would argue for it. I would bet that they would all agree that it’s of the utmost importance for the United States to have relations with foreign countries.

        I’m not sure where you got the idea that we want an isolationist policy for the United States.

        Material:

        Good video with a lot of interaction with the audience.
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iISAR1H3Lds

        Anything with Friedman is going to be good.
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EwaLys3Zak

        Stossel does a good job at explaining the ideas to people unfamiliar with them.
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTw4z7fazww

        Thomas Sowell has a million books published that talk about the subject.

    • codemonkey says

      I was just showed to be very wrong on this point the other day, so it’s funny that I see it here. Quoting your video: “The government should only act to prevent harm to others”. I think this is wrong. I think this is dead wrong. It is a IMHO very bad paraphrasing and misunderstanding of JS Mill’s The Harm Principle. I used to be a really big fan of quoting The Harm Principle until it was pointed out that a “not nuanced” reading is libertarianism. Mill, for example, was a huge utilitarian, and spends large portions of his book On Liberty making utilitarian and decidedly not libertarian arguments.

      Taken at face value, which I can only assume he does, and it’s my impression that most libertarians do, the not-nuanced Harm Principle quoted above disallows any government action in the face of possible positive externalities and free rider problems, ex: incentivizing the taking of vaccines for herd immunity.

      I also think that some measure of wealth redistribution is required morally, which again runs afoul of that rule. Also, I think wealth redistribution is required because for our society to function, we must be to some approximation equal in power, and thus we must be to some approximation equal in money.

  21. says

    Here is my take on my position:

    Libertarianism fails for the reason every ISM (in the school of thought/worldview sense, NOT in the class of persons or other senses) fails – it denies the sheer complexity of human interaction and proposes that a simple answer will work for a multitude of cases (every case in the extreme).

    Don’t THINK in ISMs, just don’t – the details matter, the context matters, the history matters, the culture matters, the education matters, the knowledge matters, everything matters. Each ‘problem’ is a snowflake and the correct tool to appreciate the intricacies of the snowflake is not the snow plow but the microscope.

    Zero gun policy works in Japan and would disastrously fail in Texas. Different approaches are required. Approaches can even change over time.

    Liberals invented the laissez-faire market — it failed, shamefully and totally. But Liberals adjusted their strategy and left Libertarians behind.

    Not all markets are equal, not all markets work best with the magic boogeyman of ‘competition’. In what world does it make sense for a 5 year old boy to suffer and die because his great-great-uncle didn’t murder natives and steal their land but someone else’s did, so their child gets the life-saving operation they need. That is the reality we face, like it or not. Is the almighty $ really the way we want to measure the value of human beings, just because it’s expedient?

    Some “free” markets work spectacularly well with high levels of competition and some just don’t. Sometimes the competition drives crime and corruption in order to exploit the market. Sometimes governments are bad and sometimes corporations are bad — neither are inherently very efficient and there are examples and counterexamples on both sides. Once again, a polarized view of these things denies the reality — we need to look at what works and go with that until we find that which works better. And to do this we need to have CLEAR value statements and metrics so we know when things are working and when they are failing (this is something that is often missing from the policy debates I think).

    Take, for example, the drug war. Imagine if the prohibition had clearly stated, up front, that if usages rates were escalating (and by exactly which metrics we would be using) and corruption was evident, then the policy would be dropped.

    And the arguments against these positions are Spherical Cow arguments. IF everyone were highly educated and could spend 1000 hours researching every single purchase AND costs didn’t matter AND people weren’t greedy, ignorant, hateful, and often working against their own interests then YES — it just might work.

    It fails as all Utopian visions fail — not all people are the same nor do they want the same things nor do they want YOU to succeed even if they have to destroy themselves in the process.

    We have to look at every case and decide how much and what kind of regulation works best for that market and we have to change our approach as conditions change. That is reality, ugly, messy, far less than ideal.

  22. says

    I am very happy to read this. This is the type of manual that needs to be given and not the random misinformation that is at the other blogs.