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Thursday, December 10, 2009

What is libertarianism - blog edition

sparky by gadgetgirl from flickr (CC-NC-ND)
Usually when people talk about politics, they use language of good and evil. So if you ask an American "liberal", "conservatives" are stupid, bigoted shills for the super-rich willing to destroy the planet and kill people home and abroad in name of some short term profits.

And if you ask an American "conservative", "liberals" are baby-murderers who destroy economy by excessive taxation, overregulation, useless spending, and huge budget deficits.

Some of these accusations are valid, some are nonsense, in many cases politicians from both sides are equally guilty. And it's not a uniquely American phenomenon - in most countries people's levels of rationality reach their lows when discussion turn to politics. This isn't really intellectually satisfying.

Another way to talk politics is what Tyler Cowen's has done in his series of posts about progressivism, conservatism, transhumanism, and then some others like Leigh Caldwell's about libertarianism etc. The idea is to describe a political view as a list of beliefs, about which all sides can agree that Xers believe in them and non-Xers don't, without taking sides on their truth-value.

One problem with this approach is that it has no way of distinguishing core values of an ideology from insignificant baggage that grew around it due to historical processes. Is opposition to gay marriage central to conservatism or fairly irrelevant? How important is public option to liberals? These are interesting questions.

Blog edition

So I wanted to try something else - figuring out what some political ideology is based on what its adherents blog about. It is in a way a fairly objective standard - assuming we can figure out a list of top blogs from some perspective, and that we can categorize posts' subjects in a unbiased way, every analysis should reach similar conclusions regardless of analyst's views.

I took the following list of "Top 20 Libertarian blogs", with top 5 posts ignoring extremely short ones which just link somewhere else, and other funny/unrelated posts. List is very UK-centric, but it doesn't matter.
  1. Guido Fawkes
  2. Devil's Kitchen
  3. Old Holborn
  4. Obnoxio the Clown
  5. Underdogs Bite Upwards
  6. Tim Worstall
  7. Samizdata
  8. Boatang & Demetriou
  9. Dick Puddlecote
  10. LPUK Blog
  11. Last Ditch
  12. Constantly Furious
  13. Anna Raccoon
  14. Freedom to Choose
  15. Rantin' Rab
  16. Plato Says
  17. Charles Crawford
  18. An Englishman's Castle
  19. Frank Davis
  20. Oxford Libertarian Society

And the winner is...

I'm actually surprised by the most popular subject - climate change denial. 20% of posts (++++++++++++++++++++) deal either deny climate change or are skeptical about it, which in most cases just denial without balls. Further 12% (++++++++++++) are about Copenhagen summit or environment without being obviously denialist. It's really surprising, as global cap-and-trade system would be the best test case of how well libertarian / free market solutions can deal with problems of externalities, so naively libertarians should be extremely enthusiastic about it - and in any case there's no obvious reason why political ideology should have so much influence over question which is essentially apolitical - temperature changes.

Shilling for the superrich

The second most popular subject doesn't surprise - it's good old shilling for the rich. 10% of posts (++++++++++) were against taxing the rich, or regulating salaries and bonuses in taxpayer-bailed-out banks. Because owners' right to regulate management salaries ends the moment the owner is government. Related 4% of posts (++++) are generic anti-tax posts - but it's quite clear which taxes anger libertarians the most.

A surprise third most popular subject...

I sort of expected climate change to be popular, as Climategate and Copenhagen summit are in the news right now, but this one baffled me. It turns out the third most popular subject with 9% of posts (+++++++++) is smoking - with posts either opposing public places smoking bans (what about "rights" of non-smokers not to have smoke blown in their faces?), or even expressing skepticism about links between smoking and cancer.

The long tail

Further categories don't suprise. 5% (+++++) are offensive posts without much content - something you can expect in political blogs. 4% (++++) are anti-EU rants, 3% are (+++) culture wars / political correctness rants, further 3% (+++) are about budget deficits; copyright (++), religion (++), new media (++), and UK politics (++) get 2% each. There was a single post about each of: discrimination in Iraq (+), gold standard (+), Twitter (+), modern art (+), quality of mainstream media (+), regulation of banking (+), NHS (+), science (+), UK voting by mail (+), forced labour (+), Gordon Brown's typos (+), privacy (+), family law (+) natural rights (+), anarchy (+) Kosovo (+), and public funding of festivals (+) - all expressing the positions you'd expect. There was one pro-Iraq war post (+), one against ideology in politics (+) - notice the irony, and one posts each about Tiger Woods (+), Sarah Palin (+), and Ludwig von Mises (+). The libertarians' favourity shitty book writer Ayn Rand is strangely missing from the list.


I read a lot of blogs with which I disagree, but they tend to be high quality and quite insightful. So my contempt for libertarianism doesn't automatically mean I wouldn't find at least some good libertarian posts - Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson are fairly libertarian, and they're both in my RSS. But the posts I've seen were just so bad that of 100 I've checked I cannot point a single one that had any new insights or was interesting in any way. Few even pass basic sanity tests - not just by being contrarian - contrarian posts are much more interesting to read than ones that repeat the conventional wisdom - but by simply not having any idea what they write about.


Keith Sader said...

The really really great thing about modern libertarianism is that it works neither in theory or practice.

Devil's Kitchen said...

This is one of the most hilariously bad posts I have ever read! Well done.

I'll expand at The Kitchen as to why it's so bad, but here are a couple of pointers:

1) The fact that you use the phrase "climate change denial" shows that you believe the AGW hypothesis. Fair enough. However, if you do not believe the hypothesis (or think that it is pretty darn suspect) then cap-and-trade—for all its internalising of externalities—is a total nonsense because CO2 does not do damage to the environment (in fact, it's actively beneficial because it helps trees and plants grow). Do you see?

2) The post of mine that you quoted as "shilling for the super-rich" does no such thing: I simply point out that, if you allow the government to set apart one section of society, then other sections will follow. (One could argue that the government has every right to cap bonuses in, for instance, RBS since they are the majority shareholder—but what right do they have to slap a 50% tax on Barclays employees?).

I could go on, but I won't bother right now.


Pat said...

Mr. Sadler sadly has one point- libertarianism doesn't work in practice because people are taught throughout their school/college time that accepting what teacher says is clever- so it wouldn't occur to question whatever those in power say.
Consequently too many people take politicians, and other authority figures at face value. That's why there is a public education program- it serves the politicians who promote it.
It is therefor inevitable that a very large number of people are fooled when some power hungry individual days he is saving the planet/helping the poor/whatever. Just because Mr Gore and various other politicians say we must live in poverty to save the planet doesn't make it so. And when Hanson/Jones/Mann etc. assert that they've found a reason for this-without ever volunteering any actual evidence of calculations- well only a school kid would take it on trust.
The rights of non- smokers? Not a problem- most pubs had smoke free rooms for them, and plain old customer choice would have made them larger if the actual people wanted that- but they didn't.We had a perfectly good libertarian solution which had worked for centuries.
People are either employed by the government- in which case they are paid to serve politicians interests (Yes I know, politicians always say they are doing it for the people- most of them lie), or they work for rich people. Unless you look forward to a population entirely geared to serving politicians (which might have the benefit of stopping them from lying-no need any more)I would suggest that you be a bit more considerate of alternative means of making a living- and unless you are prepared to see your income taxed away in order to support the impoverished people that inhabit most of the globe (with of course a large rake off for all the politicians and bureaucrats involved)I suggest a little more self awareness.
Interesting thought whether opposition to gay marriage is central to conservatism- well certainly not in UK where it is practiced by prominent party members. I think the key here is a conservative always and everywhere wants to check out a new idea thoroughly before adopting it. Once it's been tried for a decade or two and works it becomes part of conservative thought. In the UK it has been tried whereas in the US not so much.

Clay Barham said...

Over two thousand years ago, two religious sects declared the lot of us are not just molecules in the pool ruled by the pool maintenance guys. They said we talked directly to our Creator and he recognized each of us as one of His children. Each was able to come to or go away from him at will, and that the welcome mat would always be waiting if choosing to return. He gave individuals the option of forgiveness for making mistakes. He did not look upon us as a component of the human stew, but individuals. That was revolutionary! No wonder long-established governing traditions fought so hard to crush them, feeding their followers to the lions. The world had always been ordered on the notion that a few elite stood outside the pool and ruled us, the many molecules in the pool. It is no wonder that the idea of Christ and Christmas is so sickening to the ruling elite. They are using their power to stop the Christmas Revolution by prohibiting public displays, particularly in America, where individual freedom produced a prosperous nation and the many ruled themselves. They oppose the idea that each individual should be free to chase dreams and use talents and interests for their own benefit. The question, for over two thousand years, is who will win? The anti-Christmas Democrats are the ruling elite in America and they have the power. They say community interests that they define, are more important than are individual interests.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Lots of research there and linkage coding. Ta for the few +s to mine, hopefully someone might find one soon. ;-)

I find this bit difficult to square with something you wrote previous to it, though.

" simply not having any idea what they write about."

I can only assume that a certain amount of skimming was involved in garnering your links as it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that smoking would feature high. Freedom2Choose is a grass roots pro-choice organisation, set up with the express purpose of opposing bans on lifestyle choices (and before you follow the usual line - no, no funding except from working class members who are angry about the increasing restrictions and bans). The subject would therefore be naturally prominent. The Frank Davis blog was set up expressly in anger at the smoking ban (the clue is the fact that his sub-title is "Banging on about the smoking ban"), and seeing as libertarians oppose authoritarianism, and that the UK ban is as authoritarian a policy as we have seen recently, of course it's going to figure.

So, considering that you are talking about libertarians not kowing their subject matter, it's surprising that you claim to yourself when you hadn't appeared to have spotted that salient fact in writing this.

I'll take issue with this too, if I may.

"posts either opposing public places smoking bans (what about "rights" of non-smokers not to have smoke blown in their faces?), or even expressing skepticism about links between smoking and cancer."

Not one post I have read on any of the aforementioned blogs talks of non-smokers being denied the right 'not to have smoke blown in their faces' (and you know full well that your terminology there is alarmist - rather like the Daily Wail classing immigration as a 'flood' or 'deluge'). What they do say is that smokers should have a right to a place, indoors, protected, and safe from the elements, where non-smokers can easily avoid. Shouldn't be difficult to arrange within a population of 61m, should it? I'm sure the collective wit of the British can't be so dull that a compromise can't be imagined, can it?

You will also not find one of those posts disputing the link between smoking and cancer. Passive smoking and cancer, yes, simply for the reason that there are hugely more studies showing it to be a construct of the hysterical anti-smoking lobby shilling for the superrich pharmaceutical companies (thought you were against such things?). That debate is nowhere near over as many would have you believe.

The problem with accusing others of not knowing the subject matter about which they write, is that you really should have a good grasp of your own understanding first.

As I said, I suspect your admirable research must have involved an understandable degree of skimming for you to make such basic errors (you also included one of mine which was an 'extremely short one[s] which just link somewhere else', so should have been discarded by your method).

Anyway, do you do Blogger templates? I could do with a new one, and I'm sure you'll give me a nice deal (free?) now we have bonded and all that. ;-)

Leg-iron said...

Fascinating study. However...

1) Libertariansism isn't a creed in the sense of labour or tory or lib dem, it's a bunch of people who want to be left alone. I'm not even a member of the party and neither are a few others in that list. We're individuals who think everyone should be equal and unless someone is causing harm to others, the State should keep out of the way.

2) You express surprise that climate heresy is the most popular topic. I'd have been surprised if it wasn't given the recent UEA leak and Copenhagen, and given the nature of the blogs you chose to examine.

3) As Dick Puddlecote pointed out, your 'smoking' section includes (ahem) smokers. Those of us you regard as even less human than the climate heretics. Since it's currently well below zero outside, are you really surprised we're feeling a tad miffed?

4) You complain that of the posts you've read, none are of any interest at all. I could read an entire issue of any software development journal and find nothing of interest at all. It's not written for me, and I'm not interested in the subject. Likewise, if you set out from a starting point of 'I don't like Libertarians' then it's a pretty certain result that you won't like what we write.

Your experimental procedure is therefore -

1. I don't like this.
2. I'll read it to confirm I don't like it.
3. I don't like it. QED.

Even the climate changers can do better than that.

You conclude that you have peered into the heart of insanity. Well, I smoke, I drink, I eat butteries at 300 calories a time and I put salt on everything. I'm a climate atheist and I deny the Green Gospel. Some nights I sleep twelve hours, some nights four. I refuse all government guidelines and therefore I should have died 25 years ago.

I'm not obese. I'm not on any form of benefits. I haven't seen a doctor in over a decade. The police have no record of me because I don't commit crimes.

You'd lock me up anyway, wouldn't you? For smoking, drinking and eating the wrong things, or for being a heretic, because in your view, that makes me insane.

That's what Libertarianism opposes.

Tarquin said...

This is an awful 'experiment'

Firstly the definition of 'libertarian' is not particularly exclusive to certain beliefs, except a high degree of liberty - unlike say, socialism, or social conservatism - you can be right or left, or even a true anarchist, case in point where you think the extreme right views of Ayn Rand would be popular (showing your lack of knowledge of this area, and the differing views across the Atlantic)

Secondly your method is flawed, badly - you picked the five most recent posts - obviously from a scientific viewpoint you should have randomised the selections to get a view of a blog, all you did was pick the current hot topic for libertarians - obviously Copenhagen is on right now, so you have no evidence to suggest how much of an issue global warming is to these bloggers...apart from during a major climate meeting

Libertarianism is not an ideology - there are no strict rules or political parties to follow so the label applied to the blogs is pretty rough and all you've done is pick 20 blogs who could be described as 'in some way libertarian', they are not representative of a particular libertarian viewpoint as they are independent individuals - simply because the most popular ones are sceptical of global warming doesn't mean they all are, global warming scepticism appeals to other people too and is obviously popular online - but that doesn't mean it is in any way associated with being a 'libertarian' viewpoint any more than belief in global warming makes you a socialist - the only way you could prove that is if all the readers were from a strict libertarian movement and shared the same view

Anonymous said...

Libertarians are Christian Socialists.
Jesus said 'break free from compulsions (devils) by facing your resentments and returning to yourself.' Fruit: Egoless. killed no one.
St Paul said 'Be separate from the pain of conscience (hell) by believing This Child Saviour has done it all for you" Fruit: Elevated Status. Persecution of non-believers.
Libertarians 'Be free from the prick of conviction by never judging anyone else' Fruit: Fruit. Where the proud to be stupid lie down with the ass.

Paul B said...

Another one for the composting warehouse.

Old Holborn said...

Like I give a fuck

Unknown said...

Like I give a LPUK, surely OH?

For the record once more it's:


Constantly Furious said...

Fucking hell, what a complete utter waste of time.

And that's just reading this utter toss.

Putting it together must have taken hours - and for what? To 'scientifically' prove that you don't agree with libertarian principles?

You need to get out more..

Anonymous said...

So of all the blogs (posts) you read TAW, most don't even pass a basic sanity test.

What exactly is the point of this then? What great insight does it 'prove'? Does it actually serve some kind of purpose other than the satisfaction of scratching your own itchy foot?

I've read your blog post several times now and my conclusion is: It's crap!


Anon - because I'm neither a blogger nor have a url, but I am an avid reader of blogs in general. Fortunately, this one is now in file 13.

Anonymous said...

Know them by their fruit, fruit.

Dan said...

Tim Worstall is noticeably a classic liberal, not a libertarian.

Similar but not the same.

Costello said...

What a pointless post. I came here via Boatang and Demetriou and was quite looking forward to some furiously bombastic libertarian bashing. Instead all find is links to the most popular Lib blogs with an extremely cursory glance at what seem to be the most (recently) popular topics and a brief summary of Libertarianism completely lacking in any insight. As CF says, a complete utter waste of time.

Anonymous said...

Well done for a back of a fag packet political study of an entire philosophy.

Anonymous said...

When you pretend to be someone else then you are tied to the 'logic' it produces, for without it, it would feel as if the end of the charade was death itself.
The Japanese had 'honor' that myth of honor they did not personally have and therefore collectively had, to police one another, to live until they were outed by shame, and would rather die by the point self-disembowelment.
Muslims have a lack of masculinity, and their honor killings of weaker people are legendary to the point of getting someone else to blow themselves up in a crowd of children.
Libertarians have no conscience and seek only the collective conscience for normative behavior, they strangle the emerging soul so they cannot be judged because there is no shame, ever, so to be alive and dead is better than dead and alive.

Anonymous said...

If this post has taught me anything, it's don't make a post criticizing libertarianism or I'll be overrun by socially stunted, greasy, anti-social, robot-like creatures stuttering out words on my blog.

And the climate change denialism isn't shocking at all. For all the bluster libertarians make about holy ~*reason and rationality*~, the only thing they have allegiance to is the unhindered machinations of capitalism, facts be damned.

Goddamn, libertarians are infuriating.

Also, lol at Devil's Kitchen's comment about CO2. Come on guys, it don't hurt nothin'! Nice to see my country isn't the only ones with these kinds of idiots.

taw said...

Anonymous: Overrun by angry libertarians? You're saying this as if it was a bad thing.

I'm mostly disappointed that none of them attempted to write a similar post about other political ideologies in reply - as I'm not particularly attached to any, I'd have fun regardless of the subject.

And there's plenty of idiots in every country.