September 15, 2009

Clarification of Purpose and Libertarian Foot Stamping

Justin Katz

First a statement of something that I would have hoped has been clear: I believe I speak for all of the contributors to Anchor Rising when I say that we are not doing this to build readership for the sake of building readership. We're writing to explain our opinions and advocate for what we believe to be right. Bottom line. If readers cannot stomach, say, my opinions on social matters coexisting with my opinions about smaller government, then I'm not the writer for them. I'd argue that they are missing the point that the beliefs on social issues inherently coincide with the beliefs in small government, but perhaps they should look elsewhere for arguments that support their causes in a way that they can tolerate; we'll be fine.

The subject comes up in response to a thread started by Dan in the comments to Marc's post on prostitution, starting with this:

More of the blatant hypocrisy that is going to ultimately collapse the so-called "conservative" movement in the United States from within.

"We are for small government. Get government out of our lives! Smash the bureaucracy! Personal Responsibility! Reduce the spending! Reduce the cost of government!"

"Oh, except for the following issues: prostitution, illegal immigration, drug war, military spending, abortion, homeland security, foreign interventionism, in which we are for HUGE government."

I think even the average 10-year-old would be capable of seeing the arbitrariness and inconsistency of it all. Well, good for independents and libertarians, I suppose.

My response, in summary, is that I explicitly believe in the construction of as small and disengaged a government as possible, in conjunction with as much right to determine the regime under which one lives as possible. On the first count, cycle through Dan's list of particulars: Is more bureaucracy required to make prostitution a crime or to regulate an occupation so closely in league with drugs, violence, and disease (both physical and social)? Would it increase or decrease the "cost of government" to enforce laws that forbid unauthorized entry into the country and the hiring of those who have entered it illegally, or to manage a massive underclass of migrant workers and state-dependents?

Dan appears to be the sort of libertarian who has latched on to a single concept that he believes simplifies his task of constructing a political philosophy and applies it as the sole criterion for judgment. None of the issues he raises are simple "yes/no" questions. One must also make decisions about degree and process. One can advocate for keeping drugs illegal without making a big-government war of the endeavor. One can advocate for enough military spending and homeland security measures to keep us safe with as little intrusion and restriction as enables that end. And an issue such as abortion is a matter of plain morality; consider that it would be ludicrous to make the legalization of murder a small-government cause.

In the count of self-governance, Patrick suggests, in the same thread, that explicitly legalizing prostitution in Rhode Island would make us (if I may exaggerate his point, a hair) the whoring capital of America; he presents that as a positive. Whatever one believes about the prudence of the policy in the abstract, I simply do not want to live in that sort of society. Our daughters would be much more likely to see prostitution as a viable career. Our reputation would take on a decidedly different hue when it comes to attracting other industries and tourists coming here for other attractions. And our culture would have to be such that a theologically, socially, and biologically profound act could be conceived as salable.

The response may be that I would be free to live elsewhere, and I may yet, but at this time it is sufficient to appeal to my fellow Rhode Islanders and suggest that, if they give the matter some thought (or perhaps they don't even have to do so), they'll see that they'd prefer circumstances in which advocates for legalized prostitution were in the position of deciding whether they'd be happier in another state. That's how self-governance works, and resistance to such concepts suggests that it is not paradoxical to suggest a dictatorial streak in the libertarian cloth.

Patrick goes on toss around rhetorical questions suggesting that one cannot make distinctions between prostitution and stripping. It really ought to be unnecessary for me to take the time to enumerate the logical and cultural lines between the two practices — let alone the differentiation between being a unique state allowing prostitution and being just another state allowing stripping. The more relevant point, here, is that the libertarian disputants don't wish to address arguments as they are stated; they presume that the speaker is merely stopping short of his theocratic desire for political reasons. More than that: they wish to present the issue as a matter of logical necessity. If I advocate against legalized prostitution, they say, I apparently have no choice or desire to stop short of banging down bedroom doors to ensure that spouses are not performing stripteases for each other. That is not a coherent view of how psychology or political philosophy work.

It's foolish. Moreover, it stands as evidence that the vanity of ideological purity plays no small role in the motivation for taking "moderate" and libertarian positions in public discourse.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

Many of those arguments seem to fall in line with what Malise Ruthven describes as Abrahamic apocalyticism.

Posted by: Robert Balliot at September 15, 2009 7:51 AM

Robert, the United States has, by far, the highest incarceration rate as well as the highest recidivism rate in the world. Do you think this is merely coincidental with our country's zealous drug war and enforcement of other victimless crimes? It isn't, 21% of state prisoners and 55% of federal prisoners are sent to prison solely for non-violent drug crimes, and that doesn't account for the additional time most prisoners get for things such a prior drug convictions. Similarly, most prostitutes get arrested a number of times, and just keep going back onto the streets afterward with less money, less time, and a longer record stuck to them which takes legitimate employment off the table completely. And the special police prostitution task forces, agencies, and bureaucracies keep rounding them up and locking them back up again. For what purpose? To make a statement? I'd prefer it if you didn't do it with people's lives and our money.

Contrary to your claim, I don't need a crystal ball to see the result of making such victimless crimes illegal, we have no further to look than our prisons. It would not be possible to have more government involvement and more wasteful spending on housing and feeding non-violent people than the drug war has already caused. The numbers are jaw-dropping, and what is the point of it all? To make a "moral stand"? To reduce the externalities of drug culture? How has that been working out for you? Drugs are cheaper and more available than ever before. At some point you will have to give up these crusades, not because you will be willing to admit that you were simply wrong, but rather because not doing so is bankrupting and socially destroying this nation.

As any economist can tell you, it is the prohibition itself that has made the selling of drugs an extremely profitable criminal activity, worth killing each other over even, and the resulting militarization of the police force to respond to that gang presence. Prostitution prohibition has had much of the same effect. Would you prefer to see the business "spas" in Rhode Island replaced with pimps, gangs, and streetwalkers as has happened in other states, because that is the natural result of prohibitions, and you have to look no farther than the failed alcohol prohibition to see the violence and social ills that these bans and police wars inevitably and directly cause.

Justin would have us believe that we can make these activities illegal without increasing the size of government or putting a drain on the police. People are certainly not going to change their habits, the prison population and all available data on the public population make that abundantly clear. So we then have the option of having a dead-letter, unenforced law (which I'm sure Justin would love) or making peaceful people criminals and creating all the task forces, agencies, bureaucracies that we have today to enforce it. That is the choice we are given by the conservatives, one which would turn the law into a useless and impotent joke, and the other which leads to the utter disaster of big government interventionism that we see around us every day.

"One can advocate for keeping drugs illegal without making a big-government war of the endeavor."

How has that been working out for you, Justin?

Posted by: Dan at September 15, 2009 8:34 AM

One of the things that took me a little while to learn when I finally figured out that I more side with the conservatives and Republicans is that I don't have to agree with everything they agree with. And I certainly don't. There are things that I can be very conservative about and other things that I may move somewhat to the left of the spectrum. I think that's what Justin is saying for himself too. He isn't a right-wing nut who only believes in the conservative side of an issue. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. As far as labeling AR like Dan did, it sounds like he hasn't been around the site very long to really get a feel for all the writers' opinions. They can sometimes even disagree with each other and see the more liberal side. That's what can make these sorts of discussions interesting. If everyone who thought of themselves as a conservative simply believed the far right wing view of every issue, then that'd be pretty boring, and really nothing would ever get done.

Posted by: Patrick at September 15, 2009 9:03 AM

And to respond to Justin on his response:

"Patrick suggests, that explicitly legalizing prostitution in Rhode Island would make us (if I may exaggerate his point, a hair) the whoring capital of America;"

That's not an exaggeration in the least. If you're going to do something, why not be the best? :)

"Our daughters would be much more likely to see prostitution as a viable career."

Not if we, as responsible parents, teach them otherwise. Again, same as stripping. How many women see stripping as a viable career for themselves? I think most women find that profession to be disgusting too, and it's perfectly legal in most states. I don't see why taking it one step further into prostitution would make more women think that it's a good idea. I really don't think the criminality of the job is what keeps most women from becoming prostitutes. Heck, it's legal right now in RI, and I don't see women running to the field.

And let's not leave the men out of this either. Though it's not very often thought of, but there are male prostitutes either. And in my opinion, that is a large part of an underground reason that this remains legal. As crackpot as that sounds.

"let alone the differentiation between being a unique state allowing prostitution and being just another state allowing stripping."

I hate the argument that "other states are doing it, so we should too". I think the only thing that should matter in making policy decisions is whether it is a good idea for the state of RI. Who cares what other states do? Is something a good policy for RI? Be a leader, and do what's right. Things that are right for some states aren't right for others. Do people in Nebraska ask "Why are we the only ones with a unicameral legislature?" It made sense for them (and I think it makes sense for every state). They showed leadership on that issue, found what makes sense and works for them and went with it.

Thanks Justin (and others).

Posted by: Patrick at September 15, 2009 9:16 AM

Patrick, I am not trying to write off or label anyone. I respect many of the authors on this blog as well as their opinions on many, many issues. I am simply trying to point out what I have observed and believe to be inconsistency and an alienation of many supporters over a meaningless and arbitrary side crusade. This is simply part of the discussion, not an attempt to derail it. It is important to address these issues, sort them out, and learn from each other.

I do disagree with your "left" vs "right" view of the political spectrum. Part of my point was that such a spectrum is a false and nonsensical dichotomy to begin with. If I asked you to sum up in a couple of sentences the one coherent philosophy that makes up modern "conservativism" or "liberalism" you wouldn't be able to do it, because in reality each movement is just a semi-random hodgepodge of unrelated (and in my view inconsistent) positions. If, by contrast, you asked me to sum up the one coherent philosophy that makes up libertarianism, I could easily do it. It is the belief that generally speaking, governments are inefficient, abusive, and people should be left alone to make their own choices as long as they aren't harming anyone else.

I personally feel that consistency and coherence is important. Does that make me a purist? I don't think so. Do I think all libertarians have to agree on everything? No, of course not. Some are voluntaryists, some are minarchists, some are anarchists, some are far more "moderate." But there is that one coherent and moral philosophy behind it all. If there is such a thing for the conservative movement, I have yet to figure out what it is. Something about being for personal responsibility and self-governance except when they aren't, which seems to be roughly a third of the time. Better than RIFuture's two thirds of the time, but still a shame in my view.

Posted by: Dan at September 15, 2009 9:26 AM

This is really all about praxis. It is unattainable to have a "pure" ideology, for the simple fact that we live in an actual world. An ideology which deals in theory does not always match up with the real events/complexities of events. One cannot simply use ideology as an end in itself (it is of course almost imperative to have a clear foundation of beliefs/values/ideals to start from). Ideology is only of TRUE use when you find where it best intersects with the reality of events. Can all issues, regardless of content, all fit into the narrow window of ideology? No, and when you try errors/apparent contridictions become evident. Is Justin wrong for believing in a small government and also believing in strong social issues? No, not for the fact that those two ideas are not neccesarily mutually exclusive as argued. That being said, I think we can agree that ideologically many things are a gray area. There was talk of the right/left spectrum, but its important to realize this spectrum is not linear but cyclical. Also important is that modern conservatism and liberalism are both forms of classical liberalism, edmund burke would hardly accept many of the so called conservatives in modern American. While struggling to attain a political ideology/philosophy is a noble task, isn't that task useless unless it achieves some sort of praxis? Keep up the good thinking, its always good to question your own beliefs and see if they stand up to the examination.

Posted by: steadman at September 15, 2009 11:15 AM


"Is Justin wrong for believing in a small government and also believing in strong social issues? No, not for the fact that those two ideas are not neccesarily mutually exclusive as argued."

I'd frame it a bit differently, and much more specifically to what is being advocated. He, and anyone else on this blog, can advocate for whatever social norms and moral codes they want. They can preach Christianity, Catholicism, anti-abortionism, anti-drug messages, traditionalism, whatever they please and you won't hear a peep out of me about inconsistency because they are fully entitled to those views. But when I hear somebody speaking about free markets, small government, low taxes, low spending, and individual liberty in one post, and then supporting draconian drug and prostitution laws and violent government interventionism against peaceful private citizens in the next, yes, I do believe those are mutually exclusive goals. The insane drug war, the most intrusive and expensive debacle this country has ever known, is the natural result of these policies and to argue that the police, prosecutors, and politicians will simply exercise discretion out of their benevolence rather than grow their agencies, departments, task forces and bureaucracies to the full extent that the law allows is completely out of touch with reality and our entire recorded history as a country. Again, I ask for a single example of an area in which government has gotten involved and did not grow itself tremendously and beyond all reason within that area. There isn't a single one. Agencies and bureaucracies are constantly being added while virtually none are disappearing, state and federal governments have been expanding every year since the founding era, and yet we are to believe that these pet law enforcement projects of theirs will be the first examples of reasonably exercised and limited discretion. Sorry, that doesn't pass the laugh test, and it is inherently incompatible with the messages expressed in other posts. If he wants to advocate against drug use on a personal level, or for drug education, positive disincentives, that is fine. But when he advocates building up the lumbering government colossus to enforce his own moral message, that is simply irreconcilable.

Posted by: Dan at September 15, 2009 11:41 AM


I think theres an issue with what is meant by "small government". You can make drugs illegal yet not enhance the size of government, only its scope. The drug war enhances the size of government, and it enhances the scope of the government. You could make drugs illegal yet not spend endlessly on it, thus enhancing only the scope yet not the physical size of government.
That all being said, we still have the problem of government stepping into the private sphere. Is any government involvment in issues such as this right? Is it realistic to advocate government staying out of markets yet not in our personal lives? This is where the elephant in the room becomes even more apparent, the role of religion/morality in political life. Its a murky area

Posted by: steadman at September 15, 2009 12:26 PM


As I mentioned before, AR doesn't want some dead-letter unenforced law. They want to actually stop the activity. Reducing the activity at all (if even possible) will require ludicrous amounts of spending, hiring, and bureaucracy. You seem to be forwarding Justin's argument of selective enforcement, but that never ends up being the case. Again, I would ask for one example of an area in which government did not become involved and expand itself beyond all recognition. You cannot make 50% or more of the population criminals through drug laws and then expect police to only enforce the law against the worst 1% of the population. While obviously they cannot lock up or charge everyone, the fact remains that they will use it against whomever they want, whenever they want, and when they do you will have no recourse against them because, hey, the law is the law.

I'm not an Objectivist or a Randian, but she was right about one thing. "There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power government has is the power to crack down on criminals. When there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws." Drug laws and prostitution laws are two such examples of government making peaceful people criminals to increase its own power, rather than the people committing inherently harmful acts against others for which they could legitimately be punished.

Again, please do not confuse what I am advocating with purism. I have no problem with limited exceptions or adapting philosophy to the real world. What I do have a problem with is incoherence and obfuscation of an important issue, that being reducing the size and scope of government, with all of these clearly unnecessary and counterproductive authoritarian moral crusades which would necessarily increase the size and scope of government tremendously. It saps this blog of credibility when it fires upon progressives for doing the same with their own social causes under the theory that people cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves and require big government to stop them, and that is not what I want to see, because much of what this blog adds to the dialog is very valuable.

Posted by: Dan at September 15, 2009 12:49 PM

"You seem to be forwarding Justin's argument of selective enforcement, but that never ends up being the case."
No, I am not forwarding it just more over explaining it as I see it. My beliefs are that the government has no role in legislating behavior or making moral prescriptions. I do not believe drugs should be legal, nor do believe in the war on drugs. I was only making a point that small government has two different components, small in scope and small in actual size. My beliefs on the role of government and the neccesary size (as well as social issues and others) do not blend with most on this blog, I come here and comment mostly on similiarities and to hear differences of opinion. So I may not be the best person to defend the apparent contradiction that your pointing out in regards to conservatism, i'm hoping someone will comment on it and share what they think

Posted by: steadman at September 15, 2009 1:14 PM

*sorry, meant illegal not legal on above post in regards to the 3sentence

Posted by: steadman at September 15, 2009 1:16 PM


I'm not sure against whom you're arguing, and frankly, I don't think you are, either. I want prostitution to be illegal at the state level, in Rhode Island, not to make the cessation of prostitution a pivotal goal for the state and its police force. It's sort of like wife-beating. I'd like it to be illegal, but I don't want nightly checks of all married households to ensure that there's none of it going on.

Your perspective notwithstanding, society and the law do not lend themselves to binary analysis. We first must decide whether something is bad or good. Then how much it affects each of us. Then whether it should be made illegal. Then what level of government ought to address it. Then whom the law should target (e.g., seller or buyer). Then how stiff the objectives require the penalties to be. Then how many resources should be devoted to the cause. And so on.

Most of what I'd advocate in order to "stop the activity" would be cultural and familial, but unless those strategies are built on a "yes" it's bad and a "yes" it's illegal, they are battles against the tide, especially if the legality of prostitution is a defining attribute of the state.

I'll give you this, though, conservatives and liberals are precisely the same inasmuch as neither group consists of libertarians who suit your criteria. Q.E.D.

And as for the credibility of Anchor Rising. First, I'll note just how many distinct groups made your list of "authoritarian" causes that must be jettisoned to make room for the pro-prostitution crowd: social conservatives, immigration hawks, anti-drug advocates, military hawks, pro-lifers, national security advocates, and so on. If I were prone to calculations of readership (which I'm not), I can't say the calculation appears likely to favor you.

More importantly, though, when it comes to credibility, I have to say that I do not particularly desire people to believe my arguments just because I'm making them and I have Credibility. I hope they'll read because there's something interesting about the points made. I hope they'll trust that I'm saying what I think and that I've given the various topics some thought. And then I hope they'll either remember points that they believe to be sound, for their own future contemplation or use, and challenge me on things that they think I get wrong. That's all.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 15, 2009 5:28 PM

Thank you for the thoughtful response, Justin. While I still do not agree with some of your conclusions, I do better understand from where you are coming.

I guess I see the breakdown (in my view, anyway) of your analysis tree right here:

"Your perspective notwithstanding, society and the law do not lend themselves to binary analysis. We first must decide whether something is bad or good..."

What if something is good for some individuals and bad for others? If they aren't clearly harming anyone else, why not allow individuals to make those decisions for themselves? Surely each individual will be able to determine what is best in their particular case better than a government agency or legislature will.

"I'd like fries with that."
"Sorry citizen, your most benevolent Government leaders have determined that fries are the cause of many societal ills, not the least of which are obesity and heart disease."
"But I weigh 120 pounds, and my blood pressure is perfect."
"Sorry, ban is in effect."

An exaggeration, but you get the idea.

Posted by: Dan at September 15, 2009 5:49 PM

Oops. I initially had "legal" in my previous comment, when I meant "illegal." I think my position on that much, at least, was sufficiently clear that Dan understood it to be a typo, but just in case, I've changed it to read, "I want prostitution to be illegal at the state level."

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 15, 2009 6:41 PM

I will say that, as a libertarian-leaning independent and occasional reader of this blog, I always find your arguments to be cogent and well thought out even though I disagree with your take on many social issues. I think it is okay for people who interact in such forums to agree on some issues while agreeing to disagree on others. I am certainly not going to rail about your opinion on subjects such as prostitution, legalization of marijuana, or gay marriage because, while I may think differently, I also respect your right to your own opinion. At the end of the day, each person will likely still maintain his/her previous position on emotionally-charged issues, so getting into nasty arguments only serves to create unnecessary animosity. In the end, I think the best policy is to maintain a civil atomosphere, debate with class and respect for one another, and ultimately appreciate that each individual will have a unique take on politics and life. The world would be a boring place, after all, if everyone thought exactly the same way.

Posted by: Tabetha at September 16, 2009 12:42 AM
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