Losing the Way
“Either you’re going to go along with your mind and the truth, or you’re going to yield to fear and custom and conditioned reflexes.” - Buckminister Fuller
Culture is the collective beliefs, behaviors and technologies that enable a group of people to survive in a particular environment. Each culture is the distillation of thousands, if not millions, of life experiences. When functioning properly culture can, among other things, provide a useful road map through life, offering guidance and direction. The accumulated knowledge of generations can be vital in suggesting appropriate behaviors, or customs, to guide people through the stages and situations they are most likely to encounter.
In addition to customs, a healthy culture also provides a diverse set of roles and associated responsibilities for people of various skills, talents and temperaments. As well as the typical roles of farmer, builder and healer, culture can provide important parts for the more mercurial or off-beat characters in society. In cultures under stress, for example, roles such as court jester, satirist or comedian can serve as critical pressure valves for social tensions and fulfil a role as important as that of any ruler.
Additionally, as cultures evolve to create and embrace any number of artistic, musical, literary or theatrical traditions, they are able to incorporate an even greater spectrum of personalities. When done well, the artful expressions of the Muses are capable of moving society’s members above mere survival mode to emotional and perhaps even spiritual heights.
Liberty Under Attack
Cultures that embrace liberty are particularly flexible in integrating a diverse array of personalities and perspectives. Sometimes, though, these cultures come under attack with calls to restrict liberty in the name of questionable or even nefarious goals. Sometimes these attacks come from within, as misguided moralists attempt to harness the power of government to criminalize peaceful behaviors that they personally oppose. Other times the attacks come from outside, as thousands or even millions of emigres push into a society, often times to escape despotic government regimes and\or the repercussions of military interventions by foreign powers.
When we use the term “despotic government regime”, it should be clear that this is simply an attempt to place certain types of government at the extreme ends of a spectrum. In the opinion of anarcho-libertarians, all forms of government are despotic to varying degrees. This includes the mistakenly lauded case of democracy which is merely the situation of 51% of the population tyrannizing the remaining 49%.
Attacks from Within
Under the protection of the first amendment of the US Constitution, there was an incredible explosion of religious activity in the United States throughout the 1800’s, particularly among Protestants. This led to the creation and spread of multiple new denominations, branches and offshoots. Not content with merely focusing on their own salvation, however, some members of these groups took it upon themselves to “save” everyone else as well. Finding they were unable to bend some to their beliefs, these self-selected moralists made a Faustian bargain with the State. Attempting to use the power of the State to enforce their brand of morality by criminalizing certain behaviors, they ultimately caused greater harm to the society and a fed the growth of government power.
One outcome of this Protestant zeal to use the state to enforce morality was the institution, after a very long campaign, of the prohibition of alcohol. Starting in 1920, the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages was prohibited in the United States. Contrary to expectations, Prohibition did not end the consumption of alcohol in the US but merely drove it underground. Among the unintended consequences was the growth of organized crime, the greater focus on less healthy distilled spirits which were easier to smuggle and conceal, and an increase in alcohol poisoning as the relative transparency of the free market was clouded by the consequential concealment of production oversight the occurs in a black market. The U.S. government itself had a hand in thousands of deaths as it ordered the introduction of poisonous methyl alcohol into industrial alcohol do deter human consumption. Unfortunately that alcohol often made its way into black market liquor.
The Prohibition advocates of the late 19th century US were not above using nativist fears of the new immigrants coming into the country to press their cause. The new immigrants were primarily people from southern and eastern Europe that spoke different languages. There were also predominantly Roman Catholics and were less inclined to oppose the consumption of alcohol. The moralists attempted to tie crime, immigration and alcohol consumption into a package to push for prohibition. They also pushed for a Constitutional amendment to legalize the income tax in a deal with the State so that it would continue to have substantial revenues should alcohol, and the associated taxes, be abolished.
The ultimate outcome of Prohibition was not a decrease in crime but an upsurge as organized crime grew in power and corruption of government officials increased at all levels. Being a representative democracy, there had been a significant minority in the U.S. who opposed prohibition as an affront to their traditions and personal liberty but we compelled to live under the “will of the majority”. Since the actual consumption of alcohol was not prohibited, wealthier families, including at least two U.S. presidents, had been able to stockpile large caches of alcohol ahead of Prohibition and thus were able to continue to imbibe throughout the 1920’s. This disproportional impact on the different classes and the obvious corruption of government only served to decrease respect for the law.
The prohibition of alcohol has a modern day parallel with the current war on drugs, particularly the criminalization of marijuana. Since at least the 1930s, marijuana, like alcohol before it, was insinuated to be a significant contributor to crime, even homicide. In 1937 Congress passed the “Marihuana [sic] Tax Act” which effectively criminalized its distribution. The law’s passage was over the objection of the American Medical Association whose doctors frequently prescribed marijuana to their patients. The passage of the bill was undoubtedly helped along by the association of marijuana use with Mexican immigrants in the southwestern US, immigrants that were seen as competitors to jobs in the depression era United States.
While the passage of the act served to effectively halt the medicinal use of marijuana in the US, the popularity of marijuana for recreational use increased through the 1950’s and 1960’s, becoming associated with counterculture groups such as the Beats in the 1950’s and “hippies” and anti-war protesters in the 1960’s. By 1971 the use of marijuana in the US had become so widespread that the US Congress commissioned the Shafer Commission to scientifically investigate the “the nature and scope of use, the effects of the drug, the relationship of marihuana [sic] use to other behavior and the efficacy of existing law.” President Richard Nixon was allowed to choose most of the commission’s members and packed it with strong anti-drug advocates.
White House recording have revealed that the ever paranoid Nixon saw marijuana as a Communist plot to encourage radical protesters, homosexuality and “immorality in general” and hoped to use the commission’s report to go hard against those he saw as his enemies. To Nixon’s surprise, after a year of investigation, the Schafer Commission found no significant harmful effects to the use of marijuana and essentially recommended decriminalization. Furious, Nixon had the report buried and made sure that marijuana became permanently classified as a Schedule 1 drug meaning that it was dangerous, highly addictive and of no medical use, further damaging the future of medical research on the plant. As with his illegal bombing of Laos and Cambodia, Nixon wielded the power of the State to wage an “all out war” on drug users with 420,700 arrests for marijuana in the U.S. in 1973 alone.
Unintended Consequences Redux
Once again, unintended consequences prevailed with black marketers and organized crime creating more potent and concentrated varieties of marijuana with higher THC or shifting to more easily smuggled but more addictive and potentially dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin. As with the government’s push for the introduction of methyl into industrial alcohol in the 1920’s, the US government’s financing of the spraying of the now banned pesticide Paraquat on Mexican and domestic marijuana fields in the 1970’s and 1980’s had the effect of once again potentially poisoning the citizens it was supposedly trying to protect.
Additionally, as the US government’s push for the war on drugs intensified throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the prison population steady increased. At its peak, in 2008, the United States, with 4.5% of the world’s population, had 24.7% of the world’s prisoners, with a slight decline to 22% as of 2013.
Vices Are Not Crimes
“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” H.L Mencken
In the United States and other countries, moralists have attempted to use the aggressive power of the State to criminally punish behaviors that they disagree with. They have supported the loss of liberty and\or property for actions that in no way violate the
Laws forbidding homosexuality, the use of birth control, the free association of individuals of different ethnic backgrounds (racial segregation\Apartheid, anti-mixed marriage laws) or the consumption of intoxicating substances (Prohibition\the war on drugs) have ultimately had disastrous effects, both to personal liberty and ultimately to the health of the society as a whole.
One of the basic principles of libertarianism is that vices are not crimes. Actions that do not violate the
Liberty Does Not Mean "Anything Goes"
One final note on the topic of vice: the word “libertarian” is not a synonym for “libertine”. Most libertarians and promoters of liberty understand that actions have consequences and accept responsibility for their own decisions. They also understand that culture, history and personal experience can offer guidance for individuals seeking to live both free and peaceful lives but that progress often requires pushing on boundaries and exploring new territory, a topic for discussion in the next section, Going Off Road.
As different people have different personal goals, it is wrong for anyone, whether it be the State or any other institution, to dictate through the use of aggression and the threat of violence how someone should live. To not allow personal choice, within the parameters of the
The Deceptive Call of the Ring of Power
Those who believe they can control the power of the State are sadly deceived. The State is a cruel mistress. Those who wish to wield the Ring of Power will ultimately be corrupted or crushed by it when they lose control.
It seems to be the ultimate irony the governments often end up supporting vices that they previously criminalized when they realize they can make a financial profit. Gambling, prostitution and the sale of alcohol and marijuana have all become legalized by one or more government entities at some place in the world, and religious groups that once tried to use State power to do their bidding often find their own values under attack.
Attacks from Without
Drawn by the promise of liberty and the wealth and comfort that even a moderately free market can provide, individuals the world over have been drawn to the United States for centuries. The people within the United States, in turn, have benefited artistically, musically and materially through the interaction and integration of an incredible array of cultures.
The introduction of new cultures does not always go smoothly, however. It is a strange paradox that, within nominally free countries such as the United States and a number of other western nations, newly arrived or even long existing but culturally isolated groups sometimes demand changes that diminish the very freedoms that allowed them to enter and co-exist in the first place.
There is debate among some libertarians regarding the concept of open borders. Being advocates of liberty, support for the free movement and settlement of peoples would seem to be obvious. The problem, however, is that you can’t have both open borders and a welfare state. As long as the State compels some citizens, through taxation and the threat of violence, to support the welfare of others, the allowance of uncontrolled immigration only increases the burden on the productive class.
Under the best of circumstance, the introduction of members of one culture into that of another can cause discomfort and misunderstandings, at least temporarily. Differences in values and traditions regarding appropriate social distance, dating rules, appropriate greetings and social niceties, food restrictions and attitudes regarding dress and nudity all have the potential of provoking conflict. Even such seemingly reasonable customs as standing in line are foreign in some cultures where scarcity and the acceptance of individual aggression are more common.
Democracy: Amplifying Social Conflicts
"Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.” H. L. Mencken
Under rule by the State, there is always a certain amount of conflict as governments inevitably favor certain groups at the expense of others. In representative democracies, the potential for conflict is greatly magnified.
With regard to immigration policy, it is to the benefit of certain politicians to allow for and even promote the rapid inflow and approval of citizenship for new arrivals. By promising new constituents a package of benefits, they seek to sway the outcomes of elections. In democracies, where the desires of 51% can trump those of the other 49%, even small changes in the voter pools can shift election results.
Unlike the free market, elections are zero sum games that pit individuals and groups against each other. Politics is a system of power where one group is able to exercise control over that of another. In a free market, buyers and sellers engage in voluntary and mutually beneficial transactions that lead to the gain of both parties. This is known as a positive sum arrangement. The State, on the other hand, producing nothing of its own, can only hand out benefits to one group at the expense of the other. At best this is a zero sum game in that benefits given to one group (the winning party) are balanced by the payments extracted from the other group (the losing party). In reality, elections and the operations of the State are actually negative sum games in that the State and its bureaucrats consume a large percentage of the extracted benefits with their patrons receiving only a portion.
It is thus inevitable that elections and the operation of the State will lead to resentment and an increase in conflict. When the economy is working well with a large amount of wealth being generated, the producers are less focused on the parasitic workings of the State and can tolerate the loss of a certain percentage of their resources. When economies malfunction and the pile of wealth is significantly diminished, the producers take notice. Unfortunately, the State is often able to channel this disgruntlement towards the “others”, cleverly hiding its own parasitic role in the destroying the culture.
Walls and Bridges
It is during tumultuous times like these that people build walls, both physical and psychological. Walls are constructed when people perceive that conditions have become so threatening that the high cost of their construction is justified. Walls are often a rational and defensive response to violence, or the threat of violence, during times of turmoil or State created chaos. When wars and conflicts are raging, walls, whether physical or philosophical, can be a means of survival.
Walls, of course, can also be constructed as acts of aggression to keep people inprisoned, as in 1961 when the communist regime built the Berlin wall to prevent East Germans from fleeing to West Berlin to escape economic and political repression. To live behind a wall is obviously not the ideal. Walls isolate people living behind them from the benefits of interaction with the wider world. Of course, "..a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war", as Kennedy famously said of the Berlin wall, resisting pressure to take military action against a nuclear armed Soviet Union.
Even when things look their worst, though, there is always the possibility of progress. While the majority of people hunker down behind the walls of the castle, town or nation, there are always a few looking outward. Very often it is the restless traders and the curious travelers who are the first to venture out, to test the landscape and to seek out new connections. These are the people who create new paths and bridges to other communities, establishing the exchange of goods, services and ideas that benefit us all.
Protecting the Things You Love
It is the ultimate irony: Moves to limit liberty, whether by longtime residents or new arrivals, have the effect of undermining the very thing (liberty) that allows them to express their discontent in the first place. New members of any culture should not expect their newly adopted culture to accept or embrace their beliefs without thought, discussion and debate. All of this can require considerable time. They should also be cautious not to transform their new society into the very thing they are fleeing from.
As for long term residents, enlightened people within any society understand that there is always the possibility for error in the traditions and standards of their own culture and that there is sometimes the need for adaptation within. Knowing when to change and adapt to new conditions can be challenging, but sometimes the necessity becomes quite obvious. Identifying cultural dead ends and the need to alter course is the topic of the next section.
- Culture can provide valuable guidance for living but can become corrupted by both internal and external forces.
- Actions have consequences.
- Using the power of the State to enforce personal preferences can lead to destructive results.
- Vices are not crimes.
- Democracy often increases the intensity of social conflicts.
- Traders and curious travelers can help create connections and build bridges of understanding and cooperation between people of different cultures.
4. ^ Once secret Nixon tapes show why the U.S. outlawed pot - Alternet.org.
Photograph of the Great Wall by Georgio, with slight modification: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jinshangling2.jpg-Commons.Wikipedia.org