Archives for category: Dialectic vs. Rhetoric

I am a propagandist by profession. But my unpaid presence on the Web — which sometimes veers on rantwork, other times wanders into personal reflection — differs from my less public, behind-the-scenes editorial consulting in matters of persuasion. I allow myself, here as well as on Facebook, Twitter, etc., the latitude to use bigger words and more involved arguments . . . and to be more annoying in other ways as well. 

My middle name’s Wirkman. But, with some justice, I could elide the first phoneme: ’irkman.


A propagandist must have one foot in philosophy. And, off the clock, the other foot is free to step in and out of the philosophy ring at will, as if dancing the hokey-pokey. And philosophy, you may remember, may have started with a kind of metaphysical speculation about the substance of reality (Thales, Anaxagoras, Anaximander), but it was early on upgraded to gadfly status (Socrates). And there is no surer way to annoy a normal denizen among the living than to question his reality or challenge her ideals. But that is the job of the philosopher. So: irksome is the name of the game.

The propagandist has that job of inducing paradigm shift, too. But there the notion is to make the bitter pill of Error Correction as sweet as Confirmation Bias Candy. 

Marketing medicine as a luxury or decency, rather than as a necessity or strict economizing effort (no one hates “austerity” more than a modern profligate cosmopolitan*) is not an ignoble thing. 

But it is not the only thing. So I can be at once more honest and more annoying when I sign my name to these posts. Or just my initials —




* See the propagandist work of Paul Krugman in the New York Times. He is paid well to shill pleasant, candy covered pills for the Establishment. And boy, does he hate the very idea of “austerity”!

Earlier I excoriated NBC for a witless fact check. But I did not read the whole list, since I was so disgusted by the third example. Now that I have recovered a bit, why not do something that today’s journalists seem unable to do? That is, apply logic.

I am not going to fact-check the NBC/Politifact fact checkers. I am going to logic check them. That is, I am going to analyze their presentation of alleged facts to see just how ably the fact checkers can stick to facts and not engage in spin.

  1. Trump said he didn’t urge people to “check out a sex tape” about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. He did.
  2. Trump said health care costs are going up by 68 percent, 59 percent, 71 percent. The national estimate ranges are far lower.
  3. Trump said Clinton “acid washed” her private email server. She didn’t. She used an app called Bleachbit, not a corrosive chemical.
    Previously criticized.
  4. Trump said Clinton doesn’t know Russia hacked the DNC. U.S. intelligence has said they very likely did.
    Must one remind fact checkers that “knowing” and “guessing” are two different things?
  5. Trump said Clinton got a man accused of raping a 12-year-old girl “off” his charges. She didn’t.
  6. Trump said Clinton laughed at a child rape victim. She didn’t.
  7. Trump said Clinton “viciously attacked” four women. This is largely unsubstantiated.
    It is worth noting that if one takes the perspective of a feminist, and believes women who charge men with rape, then ‘largely unsubstantiated’ could be interpreted as ‘likely nevertheless.’ From what I can tell about criticisms of the Clintons, an enduring theme is how the couple weasel out of charges by lying, stonewalling, and backroom negotiations. So one gets the sneaking suspicion that the judgment, above, is of dubious merit.
  8. Trump said his 2005 recording didn’t describe sexual assault. It did.
    This is very much a matter of interpretation, which is why on the page devoted to the issue, NBC admits that “It’s unclear what Trump means.” And it is also the case that a sexual grope can be welcomed and that does in fact make the grope not a sexual assault. I have been groped without my permission. I moved the “assaulter’s” hand away from my crotch. I guess this is an example of one standard for men and another for women, since I would never have accused the man who groped me of sexual misconduct worth legal reflection, though by the letter of modern law he could have been prosecuted. Further, it is worth noting that Trump was bantering with a friend. He may very well have been engaging in something like hyperbole.
  9. Trump said Clinton’s campaign started the “birther” movement. She didn’t.
    This is a prime example of sneaky re-phrasing. “Clinton’s campaign” is not the same as “She.” And the article linked, incidentally, does not deal with the key proponent of the idea in the accusations I have heard. I rate this “Fact Check” DECEPTIVE.
  10. Trump said Clinton wants a single payer healthcare. She doesn’t.
    No one knows what a liar wants, not for sure. The link at the time that I inspected this page did not go anywhere to back this up.
  11. Trump said the San Bernardino shooters’ neighbors saw bombs in their apartment. They didn’t.
  12. Clinton wants 550 percent more Syrian refugees, Trump said. He’s right.
  13. Trump said the nation can’t screen those refugees. That’s false.
    To back up this expression of apparent certainty, NBC/Politifact notes “the extensive screening” current refugees “undergo.” This assumes that the screening that now takes place is effective, and that Trump would be forced by the facts to agree with that evaluation. I doubt if many people would concur with NBC here. The assumption that some current level of screening could scale up to Trump-acceptable screening is not logical.
  14. Trump said he was against the Iraq invasion. He wasn’t.
  15. Trump said he doesn’t know Putin. That’s not what he said before 2015.
  16. Clinton said she wasn’t Secretary of State when Obama proclaimed the use of chemical weapons by Syria was a red line. She was.

Though this list is not utterly without value, a simple look at the words chosen shows that quite a few rhetorical and logical tricks have been used to declare Trump less factual than Hillary.

I wish to add, however, that I am not defending Trump as a reliable deliverer of facts. He is not. He is, generally, sloppy regarding facts, seeming more like a bull-shitter than anything else.

But when it comes to chickenshit, NBC and Politifact remain champions.



imageIf we want politicians to communicate better, and perhaps even lie less, we should no longer accept vacuous nonsense packed into specific words and phrases. All groups use vague terms that don’t really mean anything or mean different things to different people in telling ways. Perhaps we should discourage such ambiguous jargon:

imageRepublicans & Democrats: “middle class” — it doesn’t mean what you think it means; it barely means anything. “Middle income” people do not constitute a “class.” The one percent earners do not constitute a class. Learn basic concepts! Read a book. Or two. Or a hundred. Don’t be led by deceptive statistic mongers, as if a steer by the nose.

Republicans & Democrats: “hard-working Americans.” Please, don’t make me upchuck. This is a shallow appeal to people who think they work hard, but most of whom probably do not. Today, with increasing numbers of white folks on disability (simply because they cannot find work easily any more — there are of course legit cases, of people seriously wounded and ill), and many of them conservative, Republicans are simply pandering when they say this, and shoring up illusions, too. And Democrats are more embarrassing, since their frank goal is to put more people on “welfare.” Hard-working indeed!

Repub: “family values” — if you were serious about supporting families, you’d talk less about “values” and more about “virtues” — and also seriously consider the damage to family life by secular trends of wealth and sex equality, the welfare state in most of its incarnations, and even the war on drugs. Also, the sacrificial focus on gays and not on heterosexual adultery amounts to a major hypocrisy. There are many reasons for Christianity losing its position in the West — persistent double standards in sex mores is surely one of the biggest.

Democrats: “pro choice” — the relentless focus on abortion everywhere and at all times and for any reason is one of the most despicable moves in modern politics, and conflating it with “freedom of choice” is more witless than those supporters of capitalism who always talk as if there were never externalities. “Freedom of choice” for whom? Certainly not prenates. And the fact that this slogan is applied to nothing but sexual relations indicates something far worse than a mere double standard.

Libertarians: “rights” and “big government” — it is futile to bring up rights into a discussion where people do not agree on the nature of obligation. Why? Rights entail obligations. And being against BIG government can be awfully vague, for bigness is not really the issue, is it? What matters is the scope of government. Also, if one addresses issues of size and scope, one should also incorporate ideas of hormesis and diminishing returns and “scale.”

In this, Libertarians are no different than any other group. They set themselves up for pillorying by the simple-minded slogans they are addicted to.




H. L. Mencken, America’s greatest writer of popular non-fiction c. 1910-1940 (George Santayana being the nation’s greatest producer of elitist non-fiction prose during that period), was never impressed with the broad run of journalism or politics. He scorned the usual manner of reform as “Uplift,” and denied that it did much actual lifting up.

Sketch of H. L. MenckenThis you can witness in this criticism of gun control, from the 1920’s. In “The Uplifters Try It Again” (Baltimore’s The Evening Sun, November 30, 1925), Mencken demonstrates his understanding of what law and its enforcement is, actually, rather than the fairy dust version promoted by his competition in the word biz. 

This essay is worth studying. Mencken takes something familiar to us even unto this day, and shines some light:

“Crime statistics,” it appears, “show that 90% of the murders that take place are committed by the use of the pistol, and every year there are hundreds of cases of accidental homicide because someone did not know that his revolver was loaded.” The new law — or is it to be a constitutional amendment? — will do away with all that. “It will not be easy,” of course, “to draw a law that will permit exceptions for public officers and bank guards”—to say nothing of Prohibition agents and other such legalized murderers. “But soon even these officials may get on without revolvers.”

As elsewhere, his contempt for the journalist-as-savior is obvious. Mencken considered most journalists messianic mountebanks — just as were most politicians. Actually, the passage under attack hailed from The Nation, a magazine he praises in the general. But in this essay he takes as an exception, for, as he sees it, it is a grand example of a lapse at The Nation:

Ever and anon, in the midst of its most eloquent and effective pleas for Liberty, its eye wanders weakly toward Law. At such moments the old lust to lift ’em up overcomes it, and it makes a brilliant and melodramatic ass of itself. Such a moment was upon it when it printed the paragraph that I have quoted. Into that paragraph — of not over 200 words — it packed as much maudlin and nonsensical blather, as much idiotic reasoning and banal moralizing, as Dr. Coolidge gets into a speech of two hours’ length.

It is obvious that Mencken had mastered the invective. (I quote only a few snippets, even from this one essay.) But what of his argument? He has one. “The new law,” he writes, would have but one “single and sole effect”:

to exaggerate enormously all of the evils it proposes to put down. It would not take pistols out of the hands of rogues and fools; it would simply take them out of the hands of honest men. The gunman today has great advantages everywhere. He has artillery in his pocket, and he may assume that, in the large cities, at least two-thirds of his prospective victims are unarmed. But if the Nation’s proposed law (or amendment) were passed and enforced, he could assume safely that all of them were unarmed.

Mencken was the chief critic of mere “good intentions” of his day. And he saw the problem everywhere, for there are what we now call “unintended consequences.”

The real victim of moral legislation is always the honest, law-abiding, well-meaning citizen — what the late William Graham Sumner called the Forgotten Man. Prohibition makes it impossible for him to take a harmless drink, cheaply and in a decent manner. In the same way the Harrison Act puts heavy burdens upon the physician who has need of prescribing narcotic drugs for a patient, honestly and for good ends. But the drunkard still gets all the alcohol that he can hold, and the drug addict is still full of morphine and cocaine. By precisely the same route the Nation’s new law would deprive the reputable citizen of the arms he needs for protection, and hand them over to the rogues that he needs protection against.

This is a logical position. It is still controversial, however.

Recently, on Facebook, I linked to a graph on


I framed the graphed information in this manner:

Perspective helps. Which is one reason I don’t think anyone, right or left, should be talking about chucking constitutional rights right after a still comparatively rare shooting.

A friend of mine, a journalist, responded:

Who’s talking about chucking the second amendment? That’s an invention of the NRA. All the serious suggestions I’ve seen are for things like waiting periods, background checks, linking databases, studies, gun safety equipment, and so on. It’s akin to someone in the 1970s saying, “What do you mean all cars must come with seat belts? Everyone! They’re trying to outlaw cars!”

Why is it OK to have traffic laws, food safety laws, zoning laws, rules for air traffic controllers, law enforcement officers, doctors, lawyers, and teachers, while gun ownership must be the one area where there can be no rules at all? There seems to be some kind of collective hypnosis on several areas in the U.S., but this one is the most baffling to me.

I reacted, briefly, in a number of ways, and friends and followers on Facebook leaped to respond, as well. First, about the Second Amendment:

Lots of people talk about getting rid of it. Most are a tad quiet right now, and cover their beliefs, because after Heller, it is “not serious” to go all the way.

We have plenty of gun rules right now, and most of them are not very effective. For obvious reasons.

And yet I do not think those obvious reasons are very obvious to my critic. He wanted to make the context regulation in general, of which he is an enthusiast, while I tried to steer the discussion back to the topic of crime stats and secular trends, especially now that gun crimes are going down, over the long run:

Much of quality regulation is security theater, and much of it was enacted not to improve quality but to reduce competition. There is an extensive economic literature on this subject.

I don’t believe everything the government tells me. Much of what it does, even in good intent, goes horribly wrong — see the War on Drugs, for example.

I went on, saying that “We have actual gun warfare in cities where they [guns] are illegal,” to which my friend responded with a correction:

There are no U.S. cities I know of where guns are illegal. Some do have strict restrictions, which is what I think you’re referring to. But those cities take those measures for a reason, precisely because they’re so violent. Study after study says Chicago, for example, would be even more violent without the restrictions, and that the guns used there come from other parts of the country with more laissez faire gun laws. Chicago can’t control its borders the way a country can.

My friend will not mention, apparently, that the violence in those cities is almost wholly a factor of African-American poverty and the War on Drugs. The idea that these unnamed “studies after studies” can accurately predict the counterfactual strikes me as absurd. There is a lot of evidence to the contrary, for example (again) the secular trends in America outside our hellhole inner city bastions of chaos and “welfare.” What is the trend? As guns increase in private hands, violence goes down. At the very least, all violence has gone down.

But more importantly, there is what gun controls actually do: prevent some people, who are law-abiding, from acquiring, owning, or carrying guns, while letting some others do so, because of special privilege or because they have special connections. Or because they go outside the law to obtain the weapons they want.

Recently in Britain, an MP was shot. Though there was a lot of hysterical political manipulating of the story, I saw not one example of a big deal being made of gun control. Why not? Oh, right: Britain already has gun control — a sweeping crackdown that did, in fact, take guns out of private hands — and yet the malefactor somehow had a gun.

Consider the tale of John Stossel, who tried to exercise his right of self-defense by personal armament — that is, get “permission” (which is something a person with rights does not need — in New York. He was insulted, sent through a Kafkaesque paperwork nightmare, given the runaround, made to cough up fees, and provide an essay why he needed to carry a sidearm.

The fact that he regularly got death threats from leftists was not enough. He was denied.

It is only the extremely well-connected who get such permits. In New York. Or Chicago. Which leaves only criminals and high mucky-mucks able to defend themselves. (People like Trump and Hillary.)

Why my friend does not see this — why he does not get that regulation such as he wants does not have the univocal effect that he supposes; why he does not recognize that regulations like this have been around for a long, long time, and have been ineffective; why he does not see them as inadvertently (?) racist and elitist at core, I do not know.

He is a journalist. A successful one. Respected. I expect such people to be skeptical at heart. But they are only selectively, as I challenged him:

If the government licensed journalists, regulated who could and could not blog, or require waiting time for background checks before writing about politics, I would hope you would have the sense to see how these regulations infringed on the First Amendment.

He did not respond to this challenge, other than say he was glad not to live in America any longer. Or recognize that the failures of one set of gun “controls,” when they lead to worse conditions (as they always do), only snooker the credulous into believing that more regulation is necessary. And thus laws multiply. And, as Tacitus and other ancients made clear, the more the laws, the more corrupt the state.

As John Stossel noted in his program devoted to idiotic regulation, after he failed to get a concealed carry permit, the system that “regulates” such activities was shown to be corrupt — cops even went to jail. A week after our Facebook exchange, this news story hit the wires:

Screenshot 2016-06-21 16.13.26

Yes, an outspoken and politically powerful California politician, well known for his anti-gun (I mean, “reasonable gun control”) advocacy, was caught in the underground gun-running business. Transporting the very kind of guns he said “shouldn’t exist.”

Talk about Bootleggers and Baptists! In Leland Yee, they were one and the same!

Just like in the War on Drugs, the War on Guns leads to more violence, more death of innocents, and a culture of corruption, in politics and policing.

I understand why not very bright common folk — Mencken’s “booboisie” — might think gun control would work. But why would a smart, skeptical journalist be so snookered? It stretches the credulity.

Oh, until you recall Mencken and his criticisms of his own industry, of the messiah complexes of too many journalists. Then it all makes sense, I guess.

If you have not read Mencken before, the essay discussed here is a good start. But there is a great wealth of writing by him available, and most of it is great. Try A Mencken Chrestomathy, or the Prejudices.

I wrote a foreword to an early book of his, available, I think, on iTunes, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon, as ebooks. It may not be the best place to start in the Menckenian oeuvre, but it surely provides a key to his life mission, and his character:



In light of the deconstruction of the statist sophism, “rights vs. privileges,” floated in my previous essay, it is worth thinking about one of the odder uses of the word “privilege” in our time, the use of the word amongst modern feminists and the protestors of the Social Justice Warrior crowd — all those now under the thrall of the bizarre meme complex they call “intersectionality.”

For several years now I have struggled to make sense of the common charge, “white male privilege.”

I am told that it is something I possess. But I have to say, it sure is hard to pinpoint what advantages I get from this alleged “privilege.” With my name, on the Internet, many people are not even sure what race I can be said to fall into. Virkkala? What is that? So my Internet life — which makes up a considerable part of my life and livelihood — seems hardly to benefit from some sort of unearned racial advantage.

For the longest time I looked askance at the charge because I attributed to it a misidentification of my being treated, where I live, mostly justly, contrasted with folks in other areas of America and the world in which what was obviously lacking was not privilege, but justice.

To call a person privileged because they are treated justly seems to run afoul of the basic duality of rights vs. privileges. The chief problem with those whom we used to call, regularly, the “under-privileged,” is not that they lack privilege, but that they lack justice. One of the chief reasons they do not thrive, say in Africa or elsewhere, is that their surrounding social institutions are grossly unjust.

And those who are treated justly, but still remain impoverished — is it because they lack “privilege”? Really? Is not what really separates their lives from mine to be found in the unfortunate fact that while I have (at present) sources of income based on trade, they do not?

Remember, when we dissolved the duality rights vs. privileges? Rights are instruments of justice. Privilege differs, is characterized by allowed benefit from generosity or forbearance. But when we finally move beyond the duality to trade, we are talking about neither the strictly just nor the strictly privileged. We are talking about serving others through a particular form of voluntary cooperation.

Bastiat's great treatiseAnd these trades — exchanges —occur only when you possess something that someone else wants, and that person has something that you want. Both of you are willing to give up what you have for something deemed better that the other has.

This area of trade is where earning happens. Where productivity receives reward. Where we service one another in distinct transactions.

I trade some of my labor and attention and skill for someone else’s money, which they got from trading their labor and attention and skill.

Trade and its benefits depend, of course, on you possessing some labor and skill, and a willingness to attend to others. And, it is a truism: one’s initial skill set is not determined by one’s own self. Nature, circumstance, chance, Providence, and the like, determine our basic make-ups, and these influences produce vastly different beings in vastly different circumstances. Inequality. At start and on an ontological level. Obviously. But, no matter what your initial outlay of talents and prospects, over the course of your life you have a number of decisions to make, and the most pertinent ones facing you are not: how do I get more privilege? or how do I get more basic rights?

The hardest thing in the world to change are other people, especially when what you want from them comes at their cost. Granting privileges to you obviously comes at cost to them. And granting basic rights to you does also come at even greater cost.

How so? Well, privileges one person bestows on another come from generosity or charity, mainly, and diminish the grantor’s resources. (Ask yourself, why would they do that?) And, similarly, the justice that one person can “give” to another depends on that very difficult thing, coordination with many other people. While one person can be just towards another, the actual granting of a condition as a right to one or more people requires, for accomplishment, a general consensus or preponderance of social actors engaged in community mores. And the hardest social thing to do is coordinate the actions of many, many people.

What is easiest to do, as we go about living our lives, is to engage in specific transactions with others. We can give, or we can take. And between these two actions, we can engage in give-and-take, in mutually advantaged trade. That is, giving dependent upon taking; taking dependent on reciprocal gift. (See Condillac, Destutt de Tracy, Frédéric Bastiat, and the later writers in the Third School of Political Economy for more details on this.)

This is the source of most advancement. This is what successful “white men” do to get their alleged “privilege.”

But to ascribe privilege to what they are doing falsifies their actual behavior. What successful white men do is trade. They exert themselves. They figure out what talent or property they possess (or can legally acquire) that they can give to others — dependent upon a return, for remuneration.

So, the vast cadre of intersectional feminists who talk incessantly of The Patriarchy and of “privilege,” and scream and demand their “rights” to not be “oppressed” by a system of white male dominance, uh, this crowd of folks misses the main transactions that make up successful life.

And thus they miss on the pleasures of voluntary society while condemning themselves to fruitless lives of coercive protesting and exclusionary tactics to promote “inclusion.”

By focusing on privilege, and insisting on rights to be given stuff, to demand reparations, to be equalized at the base, natural stages of their lives — to be made equal, or to compensate for some perceived inequality — they debilitate their lives and the lives of the people they aim to help. For, really, no matter where you are in life, if you cry about the injustices of inequality or the perfidy of Fate, and do not engage in strategies of advancement through voluntary cooperation, via trade, you are worse than under-privileged. You are self-condemned to frustration and failure, and will, therefore, miss out on the blessings of civilization — which has, it should be obvious to us all, lifted man out of rough natural life, and into something comparatively easier.

Civilized life is not about privilege, folks. Civility is about what you do in relationship to others. If you want to know what oppression is, do not look to our initial unequal conditions, but to the discrete transactions among people that are based on initiated coercion.

And, if you want to see people thrive? Then treat people justly, as having the basic minimal rights, and follow up with a myriad of transactions . . . yes, undertake the many, many next steps, to cooperate with others in a friendly (or at least not unfriendly) manner.

Without whining and hectoring.



There are two kinds of people in this world: those who divide people into two categories, and those who don’t. I’m in the latter category. . . .

Japing paradox aside, I do try to avoid dualistic constructions in philosophy and explanation. It doesn’t take long in political discourse, anyway, to see that many popular dualities, though conceived as exhaustive, are anything but. Human experience does not often easily fit neatly into two.

Indeed, in the work of Aristotle we encounter a vision of ethics that does not regard Right and Wrong as the foundational antagonism, but Deficiency and Excess as a basic duality, with a middle point between these  extremes serving as equilibrium, and constituting the virtue. Aristotle provides numerous examples in the Nicomachean Ethics. When I was a young man, I devised a schema of cardinal virtues, not dissimilar to Aristotle’s, but distinct. I distinguished three cardinal self-regarding virtues and three cardinal other-regarding virtues. Each virtue could  be conceived  as middle point between one or more sets of antagonisms. My schema looked like this:


The emotional realm I conceived in terms of the Will to Pleasure, and saw Temperance as a midway point between the lusts for pleasure and expressions of passions, on the one hand, and a deadly anhedonia and fearfulness, on the other. The person prone to anger was not temperate, but neither was the person incapable of strong feeling of any kind. The point of temperance was not to be evenly emoting at all times, but to be close enough to an emotionally stable point to be able to feel appropriately in any given situation.

Very Aristotelian, no? The other virtues I explained along similar lines, with wills-to contrasting with schemes of avoidance, fleeings-from. But in none of this discussion of a basic concept of ethics (and not the only important concept, either) did I give in to a simple dualism. Instead, I saw the experience of life in a three-fold division, and, within each division, each cardinal virtue understood as a mid-point between extremes (thus making another three-value logic) . . . and then divided into two, according to the center of regard, or direction  of concern or interest.

So when I began seriously to consider social life outside of a simple listing of virtues, but as issues to be argued over within the political realm, I became immediately suspicious of all the dualities I was presented with. As Chris Sciabarra explained so well in the opening of chapters of Total Freedom, what is needed to understand complex reality is more than a two-valued logic, the binary clicking of either-or. What is needed is a dialectical mindset, one that comprehends shifting perspective and a multiplication of entities. Shave with Occam’s Razor, sure; but you don’t grow hair that way.

Recently, James Gill and I have been making videos. He is in charge, and he aims to catch me in thought. Amidst my mumbles, I say some things that I regard as sensible. Here is the most popular of these videos, from a set reacting to Sarah Silverman’s defense of Socialist Bernie Sanders, which went viral on Facebook:

You see that I take on a statist sophism: that the basics of life be seen as “rights,” not “privileges.” And the listener tends to agree. Privilege is something only a few may have. Rights are universal. We want the basics to be universal, no?

Well, before we hastily cave to the statists’ rhetorical trap, look at it. Are these our only two options?

No. As I explained in the video, there is at least one missing third option, between the unearned advantage of privilege, and the coercible, obligatory focus of a right. What is it? It is the realm of contract, cooperation, and earnings.

I get most of what I want not by demanding each item as a right, or begging for each good as a privilege in someone else’s grants economy. Instead, I engage in trade. Or some other form of mutual cooperation. And, by agreement, I gain what I need. How? By offering and supplying something within my power and personal economy that at least one other person desires more than I desire it. This is the logic of exchange. It is a beautiful thing. When we come to terms, the results are beautiful and peaceful and harmonious.

We would surely want as much of life to fall under this realm of transaction, not under the realm of the coerced or the extorted or begged.

But socialists and other statists  continually elide any mention of this, when they push for some new realm of life to be sucked into the vortex of government, the maw of the State. They just put before us the simple binary, the duality Rights vs. Privileges.

And, in so doing, they lie.

It is a lie by omission of a great truth.

It is what you expect con artists to do, distracting our attention from the best option to get us to settle for a brummagem alternative.

Of course, most socialists are not deliberately lying. Like all religious zealots, what is lacking is a sense of piercing honesty, free inquiry, even curiosity. They have a simple vision of the world they are pushing — their utopia — and they will not let something complex like reality, or difficult, like truth, get in their way.

Thus it is with most dualisms. As I go through the usual lists of everyday dualities, we shall see how true this is.

You might wonder, how does a philosophical view of the world differ from an ordinary view? Well, here’s a good example:

Five "Truths"

This is a partisan, conservative post from a group I know nothing about. Just came across it on Twitter. The listicle purports to advance “five serious truths.”

But wait. Not one of these “truths” is a fact. Each one is a normative opinion, should statements at best, commands at worst.

It’s really just a series of demands.

You might wish to fard up your demands as “truths” but that doesn’t cut it. Each one of these demands, to qualify as “truths,” requires demonstration, at the very least, with theory and fact to back it up. Not mere dogmatic statement. What we see, here, is really just a form of careless, base rhetoric, claiming for your preferences a factual content that is not evident at all.

Now, I’m not saying these five truths-manqué are not good ideas. I might be convinced of one or two of them, if some argument were offered. Maybe. But what I know is that they are not facts and they are not easily defined as “truths.”

What else do I know? That the mind that put them together is not at all interested in careful analysis or reasonable promotion of his or her ideas.

Take the first claim, about having an “absolute right” to resist immigration. Such a right is not mentioned explicitly in the Constitution, and does not even seem to be there implicitly. It was not mentioned by any of the classical liberal texts upon which the Constitution was, common historical opinion has it, based — you know, the works of Locke and the Levellers and Grotius and Cicero and Montesquieu, or even Tom Paine, whose Rights of Man came later. This “absolute right” is also undermined by the obvious fact that the laws of our land came entirely from an immigrant culture. Yes, I am talking about the European invasion of the Americas. Wandering, migrating Europeans, after re-peopling the Americas with white and African stock, then (we are to belive?!?!) cooked up an absolute right to prevent doing exactly what did?

Nonsense, of course. This “absolute right” is the weakest statement of the lot. It’s not a truth, but almost certainly a falsity.

This is the kind of lowbrow, sub-intellectual nonsense that dominates our political landscape, left and right. I guess this is “right-wing” nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless.

The advantages of a Catholic education are pretty obvious: a long tradition of thinking about philosophy, religion, history, etc. The obvious disadvantage is that a few bad philosophical habits creep in: the habit of setting up a definition and dragooning it to cast its meaning over other areas, of making definition do more work for you than logic allows.

The classic case is “man is a rational animal.” From this, neo-Thomists and Catholic neo-Aristotelians wring all sorts of putative truths, many of which strike me as spurious. Often, all that they really achieve are farragoes, curious spillovers from the initial definition — certainly not a neat-and-tidy argument.

Bill O’Reilly, of Fox News, is a proud Catholic. And his habit of “reasoning” based on definitions that don’t stay put is pretty glaring. My favorite of his goofy arguments is his attack on all psychoactive drug use as “trying to escape reality,” and then arguing from there that all such drug use is morally wrong. The incrementalist idea, the notion of marginal differences, one dosage at a time, doesn’t ever really cross his mind. The fact that not all users are addicts is mostly lost on him. The more controversial notion, that not all addicts ruin their lives, is anathema to O’Reilly. He defends the War on Drugs because he thinks that all illegal drugs are wholly dangerous, their use entirely immoral, thus allowing his sympathy for those whom the war persecutes to drop to near zero.

All nonsense, of course.

Most every drug can serve a variety of purposes other than “escaping reality,” which, by the way, is not a block concept. Reality itself is quite malleable. I can adjust my attention (an old Stoic and Epicurean trick), I can adjust my actions, I can change my emotional reactions.

I can even stop watching Fox.

At what point am I “avoiding reality”?

Last night, O’Reilly restated his case for the importance of the White House’s mishandling of the Ben Ghazi attack. I agree with Bill O’Reilly on this matter. I think it is indicative of concerted prevarication and responsibility-avoidance on the part of folks at the very highest levels of American office.

Where I disagree with O’Reilly is in his insistence that the attack that killed American diplomatic personnel, and other government functionaries, amounted to “terrorism.”

O’Reilly makes much of this being “terrorism.” If Leon Panetta immediately told the president it was an act of terrorism, then this means something. Actually, it means several somethings. It means that the subsequent White House publicity that the event was a spontaneous uprising in protest of a goofy anti-Islamic video on YouTube was a concerted cover-up, just as O’Reilly says.

But it doesn’t mean that it was terrorism. Panetta can be wrong.

I believe he was wrong. Panetta saying something doesn’t make it any more so than O’Reilly repeating it, as if a mantra.

Terrorism is the use of violence against random innocents or in some similar way  in order to instill terror in a population, for political ends.

What happened in Ben Ghazi was insurrection — insurrection by people associated with terrorism, perhaps, but not engaging in terrorism as such. Attacking an imperial outpost — or the outpost of any enemy — is not terrorism. It’s old-fashioned warfare, in this case insurrection by non-state combatants against a state enterprise.

Not every bit of violence committed by a person designated as a terrorist is terroristic.

O’Reilly wants to make the “terrorism” label stick because he is, as he likes to say, a “simple man.” The complexities of reality are things he wishes to avoid. He treats definitions like addicts treat drugs. Evasions of responsibility. Escape.

My friend James Gill has been grilling me, recently, interviewing me, challenging me from a leftist/centrist-statist perspective (which he channels with alarming ease) to defend the main points of a free society, as conceived by libertarians in general and me, Your Humble LocoFoco, in particular. He has been recording these interviews for purposes I’m not at all sure of. We have a few projects in mind. Perhaps something will come of them. Perhaps nothing will.

In any case, I’m now used to the modern dispute format: challenge, defense; challenge, defense; request for clarification, explanation; challenge, defense. A relentless cycle, forcing targets to always be thinking of a defense, rarely to jump track and pursue open-ended inquiry. It’s a slightly unsettling experience, especially since I tend to pursue inquiry more readily than this sort of conclusions-based rhetoric.

I was reminded of this while reading B.K. Marcus in The Libertarian Standard and The Freeman.

The former venue introduces a piece he wrote for the latter, but it is the former that seemed so familiar, since I have been doing so much of its kind of argumentation lately. That is, apologetics. Asking his title question, “Does capitalism make us dumb?,” Marcus starts off laying the ground:

[A]nti-capitalists contend that the market fosters whatever has the broadest appeal, even when the lowest common denominator indulges our basest appetites.

Defenders of freedom and markets tend to fall back on one of two strategies: either explaining why capitalism’s apparent vice is really a virtue (would we really prefer a system in which a self-selected elite got to plan the supply independent of demand?), or championing the products impugned by capitalism’s critics.

Ludwig von Mises took the first position. In The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, he defended the popularity of detective stories not because of any inherent virtue in the genre but because murder mysteries were what the reading public wanted, whether or not the literati approved of their preferences.

Attempts at the second approach include compelling defenses of car culture, panegyrics to the Twinkie, even praise for shoddy products.

Some targets of disparagement, however, deserve a third approach.

And what is this third approach? Marcus is out to defend private-market television from elitist critics, particularly one of the more annoying of this industry’s ubiquitous practices, the laugh track, and he uses a pretty standard technique:

The third approach is to question the premise. Is the laugh track really a product of the market, or did it dominate TV comedies for decades because of government regulation of broadcast media?

In “Did Capitalism Give Us the Laugh Track?” I act as defense attorney in the case of The People versus Capitalism, pleading not guilty in the case of the laugh track.

Marcus is right. You can blame “capitalism” all you like, but you cannot blame free markets. One of the essential elements of free markets is competition, especially in the form of freedom of entry. For a long time in America, three big businesses were kept big with government-provided barriers to entry. But then technology swooped in to do an end-run around the wall of protection (licensing) that for so long surrounded ABC, CBS, and NBC: cable channels and satellite broadcast, for the last 30 years, and the Internet more recently. These have proved quite effective in opening up a vast realm of aesthetic practice, and have even forced a retreat of the laugh track on the major networks. Marcus ably and concisely explains the how and the why, in his Freeman piece.

As Marcus admits, he covers a lot of ground without going into great detail, or extensive history. He misses network attempts to abandon the laugh track earlier, in such late-’80s “dramedies”  as The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. He does not mention the highbrow/middlebrow “PBS” network, which was supported by government, no doubt because its influence on the development of actual aesthetic trends was remarkably scant.

It really did take substantial competition — the proliferation of channels and “networks” on cable and satellite — to bring diversity and new aesthetic life into a now-old medium, “television.” This is the Golden Age of TV right now, and it’s not because government had a program and a budget to make TV better. It’s because government was made largely irrelevant, and competition allowed to flourish.

This forced major players to innovate, and allowed “minor players” to meet demands that previously had been mostly ignored in the rush to serve a vast but protected market. Consumers learned, in the process, too. Some of them even grew up. (This sort of supply-and-demand learning and vibrancy is precisely what we should want in industries such as medicine, but pseudo-progressives and centrist-statists won’t let that happen, since they are addicted to unrealistic assumptions about markets and wildly idiotic idealizations of governments.) The great enemy is monopoly, particularly government-created monopoly.

The “government-created” is important, because technically we rarely see pure monopolies outside of government, but we do see oligopolies behaving in manners that we fear from monopolies, and oligopolies are common wherever governments restrict markets. And that’s all over the place. (If there is government licensing, there’s probably some inefficient, counter-productive/mal-distributive oligopoly as its chief product.)

There still exists a lot of lowbrow material on TV. Of course. Because that’s what lowbrow people want. Lowbrow material is perfect for not very bright people, and half of TV viewers are below average in IQ.

Elitist pseudo-progressive critics will no doubt echo the puritanical condemnations of yore, arguing that the hordes of not very bright people shouldn’t be allowed to gain pleasure from TV in lowbrow fashion, but that’s just not a very morally strong case. Indeed, the idea that markets should serve people, including people different from, ahem, ourselves, is still the best defense of markets.

And the offensiveness of elitist pseudo-progressive criticism is the best reason to dismiss such critics out of hand. In some cases, one would think we wouldn’t need a special apologetic strategy. The words of the critics are, themselves, self-destructive. Their arguments self-destruct as they speak them.

And for the most part they stand, in contemporary culture — outside their beloved Halls of Coercion (government) — muted. As if from a remote control. We don’t really need to hear more from them. They’re simply belligerent, ill-mannered, and wrong.

Economist Arnold Kling has a new blog, “askblog.” Being an admirer of both his thought and his persona, I will be a reader, no doubt an enthusiastic one. He was the man who started EconLog, which ties with Reason’s Hit and Run as my favorite group blog. I confess: I have read EconLog less often since Kling left in August.

The motto he has chosen for his blog is interesting: “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree.” Notice that he uses “charity” and not “justice” as his intellectual standard in dealing with criticism and opposing points of view. This is how I have tended to behave in person. But not consistently so, in print. In one blog post he clarifies his meta-argumentative aim:

I want people to constantly consider, “What would someone who disagrees with me think about this issue? What might be the unpleasant consequences of the solutions that I am proposing?” etc.

This addresses a complaint I have had with the bulk of bloggers and other arguers on the Internet, as well as most folks involved in religion and politics: Rarely do people attack the best case for an opposing view, instead attacking straw men; rarely do folks even understand the best versions of doctrines they oppose.

When I was young, I thought that looking at the best arguments was incumbent upon me. It was a matter of honesty. When I began to have doubts about the religion I was raised in, I set upon a dual course: to find (or develop) the best version of theism, while also seeking out the best arguments for secular humanism, or similar. I was set upon this course in large part because my favorite writer at the time, C.S. Lewis, had so disreputably taken up the tilting at straw men course in his books Miracles and The Abolition of Man. Similarly, when I began exploring political philosophy, I read not merely a wide range of literature, with many opposing views, but even looked carefully at views of writers I found repellent (Nixon and status quo power conservatism as well as Marx and state communism, for two examples). When I encountered libertarianism during the 1976 MacBride campaign for the U.S. presidency, and in the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin, I chose to start my consideration of this set new-to-me of ideas not with some popular account, but by reading John Locke and Robert Nozick. When Nozick didn’t convince me, I gave up for a few years, but when I returned to consider the doctrine, I didn’t let a National Review hit job on the movement, or a response in Inquiry magazine, settle the matter. I went on to study

  • Planned Chaos, by Ludwig von Mises
  • The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek
  • The Machinery of Freedom, by David D. Friedman
  • No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority, by Lysander Spooner

and many other books. I started to study economics (from a variety of perspectives and eras), as well as continued to read philosophy, historical accounts, and polemics. But I resisted the ideas for some time, no matter how fascinated I was. I had several concerns. I wanted to make sure that following libertarian policy wouldn’t be disastrous for the poor, and I wanted a decent account of how value and interest diversity could be justly settled by any political/legal order, much less the libertarian one. I was also concerned about the meaning of “natural rights,” which appeared to be ubiquitous amongst libertarians, but which made precious little sense to me — arguments for naturalism in ethics always seemed like people trying, desperately, to convince themselves of something that was riddled with problems.

I was most concerned not to leap into an unknown. I steered clear of the Ayn Rand Cult, but no matter how repellent Rand’s argumentative methods often were, how disturbing her acolytes, or how obviously shoddy her reasoning, I didn not hold it against the libertarian idea that many libertarians were over-enamored of Atlas Shrugged or The Virtue of Selfishness.

I instinctively realized that guilt by association wasn’t an honest way to go about dismissing ideas, any more than innocence by association was an acceptable way of adopting them. Of course, I had no association to fall back on, so it was easier for me to make a clean-slate inquiry. I had never been a conservative. I had thought I was a liberal, and leaned Democratic Party, but I was most moved not by self-described liberals but by moderates in politics. For the most part. I was considering radical approaches to politics mainly because status quo moderation tended to moderate, too far, in support of grand slaughter, like warfare, and blithely support intergenerational swindles, like Social Security.

Since settling on my own LocoFoco variant of libertarianism, however, I have sometimes strayed from my earlier methods of inquiry. (Perhaps it was my tutelage under the employ of the late R.W. Bradford, and our mutual love for the wit of H.L. Mencken.) Though in face-to-face argumentation I have usually toed the line, charitably assuming that my opponent has latched onto what I consider bad ideas for good reasons, this assumption, in point of fact, is often an assumption pure and simple, and far from the truth.

Indeed, many people latch onto good ideas for bad reasons. We all know this. So we should expect folks to also latch onto bad ideas for bad, even base reasons.

It is obvious that many people carry on a self-righteous defense of “the poor” and “the downtrodden” not because they are really concerned about the poor, but because the manners in which the habitually choose to “aid” these folk necessitate to force others, through government policy, to support their cause in the manner in which they would dictate. This allows for a lot of hate, tribal hate. How evil those people are for not going along with our schemes! is an undercurrent of nearly all progressive talk. I know this because I hear it. Almost constantly. I often “pass for progressive,” because I hold many of the outward markings of a progressive, such as an interest in high culture, the humanities, the social sciences, and a commitment to secular humanism. If I simply avoid stating my own policy opinions, and talk about things I’m interested in, I’m almost immediately accepted into the progressive tribe, and allowed to witness, first hand, the progressives’ tribal hatred to the out-groups, such as “the rich” and “the evangelicals.”

It’s my experience that progressives are usually quite superficial, with few advocates actually even aware of the best cases for their cause, much less marshaling them.

Further, it is almost certain that the political success of the movement is not now nor has ever been because of the best cases for progressivism. Hatred, fury, resentment, class warfare, envy, intellectual hubris and even pure sportive play have been far larger factors than careful, studied consideration of policy options and moral principle, grounded in empathy, tolerance, generosity and concern.

There’s a simple test for this: the unwillingness of most progressives to countenance criticism of government policies on the grounds that the policies, enacted and enforced, don’t meet the goals for which they were allegedly put in place. The fact progressives usually look at criticisms of governmental inefficiency and the unintended effects of progressive policy as attacks, and balk at means-testing, for example, is a good indicator of insincerity of intention.

And all that I’ve just said about progressives can be said, in equal measure, against the bulk of conservatives, who tend to whip up their ire against foreigners, criminals and “social deviants” as the best expression of their tribal impulses.

The reason to debate in a charitable way, assuming good motives and best rationales, is largely to encourage good motives and best reasoning even if they are not present.

But the horrible truth — and the limiting factor — of Arnold Kling’s admirable method is that it is not necessarily just. Those who hold base motives and shoddy reasons for a policy deserve to be called on them.

And sometimes I have done so. Or at least essayed such method.

The problem is: taking up the mantle of justice in argumentation, and wielding it as if Rhadamanthus incarnate, is a heady emprise. It doesn’t make you or keep you just. It often insulates you from your own error. It is an expression of power. And power corrupts. Too easily does the moral exemplar descend into the basest of gambits, most ignoble of practices.

So, another reason to praise Arnold Kling’s preferred modus argumenti is to encourage our own best motives and best reasoning. And indeed, by always looking for the best arguments in an opponent’s view, we see more of the world, more reality, and — at the very least — will incorporate the best of our enemies’ ideas into our own.