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Posts Tagged ‘freedom’

Dear Amit Varma,

A year ago, in a post on your blog, you vigorously opposed French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s position that the burqa should be banned. You wrote:

But not all women who wear burkhas, especially in the West, do so because they are being forced into it. Many women wear them out of choice, and we should respect that choice. We may disagree with their reasons for it—but really, once that choice is established, those reasons are none of our business. They have as much of a right to wear a burkha as to not wear a burkha, and to outlaw that option amounts to the same kind of coercion that Sarkozy is trying to position himself against.

In his speech, Sarkozy said, “The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity.” I agree—and that is why we should respect their freedom and dignity by not trying to regulate what they wear. Sarkozy condescends to women who choose to wear a burkha by implying that the government is better placed to make those choices for them. If I was a burqa-wearing women, I’d be rather pissed off.

That is my view too, and I was glad to see it seconded on one of India’s most popular blogs. If freedom means anything, it means the right to make choices both good and bad, the right to pursue actions that liberate or enslave. Anyone who truly believes in liberty will oppose government attempts to ban the burqa as strongly as they would an attempt to ban the skirt. In the absence of explicit coercion, it’s not the state’s business to protect people by regulating their “bad” choices.

Yet, last week, in a tweet, you approved of a Muslim group’s campaign in Canada to get the burqa banned.

I wonder if your position has changed or if you just weren’t thinking it through when you wrote that tweet? If it is the former, I lament your fall from the libertarian you once were.

Sincerely,
Abhishek

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A new French law criminalizes “psychological violence” against a spouse or cohabiting partner.

Pretty great I say. The French are geniuses. They have already outlawed pesky things like free speech, unsexy clothes and hard work. Now all those domestic arguments must stay within strict rules laid down by the government. Think about all the hours saved. No endless bickering, no name-calling, no emotional blackmails. Ah, what a life. Relaxed, stress-free and productive. A nice, fat, motherly government to keep deviants in line and make sure no one ever hurts another’s feelings. What’s there to worry? Big momma will always watch out for you.

“Why can’t you be caring and romantic again, like when we were seventeen? I wonder why I still stick with you!

“No one’s forcing you to stay honey. Feel free to move your fat ass and leave me for good. Just stop subjecting me to your endless blabbering.”

“Sob! Police!! I have been PSYCHOLOGICALLY abused!!”

On the French agenda for next month: rules forbidding laziness, rudeness and jealousy.

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The reaction of the TSA — the umbrella organization formed after 9/11 to regulate airline security in the US — to the recent terrorist attempt has been along expected lines. More lines, more meaningless regulations, more stifling security measures. When Richard Reid had the bright idea a few years ago to hide explosives in his shoe, the TSA reacted by asking everyone to take off their shoes henceforth for the security check. Considering that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab strapped the explosives onto his underwear, we ought to be thankful that the TSA’s imagination has so far been..um…restricted. I mean, sure, it has issued an order that all babies be put into overhead luggage bins during the last hour of the flight, but consider the much more sinister possibilities.

My thoughts on this issue can be summed up in one sentence: Umar Farouk failed, but we are doing our best to make sure his goal succeeds.

Stephen Bainbridge puts it well:

Has TSA ever considered the possibility that maybe the terrorists aren’t really interested in blowing up a plane. Maybe the terrorists figure they win everytime we in the West spend millions of man-hours being hassled, inconvenienced, and generally put upon by a myriad of stupid security measures.

Now Professor Bainbridge may be ascribing more subtlety to the terrorists’ modus operandi than they probably possess, but it is worthwhile to pause and think about what he is saying. A free society, by its very nature, offers many targets for terrorists. It is impossible to shut them all down. Nor is terrorism as transcendent a presence as some might want to believe. With smart, mostly non-intrusive measures, the threat can be further reduced. Sure, there will be attacks from time to time, just as there are crimes every day, but the real damage from these attacks are not caused by the incidents themselves, but by our terrorized reaction to them. It is when we fearfully overreach and put into place crippling regulations that cost us time, money and curtail our civil liberties, that the real harm occurs. As security expert Bruce Schneier puts it:

A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy a country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage. The more we undermine our own laws, the more we convert our buildings into fortresses, the more we reduce the freedoms and liberties at the foundation of our societies, the more we’re doing the terrorists’ job for them.

At some point, we need to do a cost benefit analysis: how much hassle, fear and security clampdown is too much? Is it worth going through so much TSA tyranny, much of it a charade,  and give up so much of our convenience, liberty and well-being in an attempt to make our existence slightly more secure against terrorist attacks?

Update: Nate Silver crunches the numbers and concludes that your chances of being on a given flight departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. So you could take 20 flights a year and still be less likely to be attacked than you are to die of a lightning strike.

Update 2: This is hilarious:

Anyway, I have a better idea. Let’s ban all clothing from all flights. Both the shoe bomber and Abdulmutallab used clothing — not Wi-Fi and not live TV — to make their failed attempts. In addition to taking away the possibility of hiding incendiary devices, a total ban on all clothes will also have the following positive results:

1. Terrorists will have a further disincentive from targeting flights, because religious extremists tend to be squeamish about naked people.

2. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions because shy people wouldn’t fly, thus reducing the number of flights overall.

3. I don’t know why, but I think people would be more courteous. Talk about friendly skies!

Of course, I’m not serious about the clothing ban. But it makes a lot more sense than the TSA’s new ban on Wi-Fi and in-flight TV.

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I love reading Paul Krugman’s NY Times columns and especially the comments that follow because they offer a fascinating glimpse of certain moral principles that are completely alien to my personal philosophy. It is like going into a country where they seem to speak the same language; yet their words mean completely different things than what you are used to.

For instance, in today’s article, PK rages against the practice of high speed trading and certain kinds of financial speculation on the ground that they are socially worthless. But at least he merely suggests higher income taxes to deal with such practices. His commenters go several levels further. They are so — oh so — outraged that some rich people are merely following Capitalism 101 rather than contributing to some “social good” that they want the guys arrested; some go further and demand a popular revolution to fundamentally steer the nation towards social democracy.

Not so long ago, Soviet Russia and countries under its influence measured not just economic activity but everything from art to films according to their social utility in furthering the principles of communism; those that did not pass the test were banned or worse. So the NY Times readers are continuing a worthy tradition.

What can I say? In my universe, freedom — freedom to invest or speculate, to be foolish or smart, to give back to society or be a rich miser — is of far, far greater importance than judging whether the exercise of freedom actually contributes to some social good. So the morality of the NY times commenters with their particular sense of justice and fairness is alien to me. Once upon a time, when faced with such morality, I would rage and scream silently inside at the grotesque sense of entitlement displayed. These days, I am merely amused; it is a bit like going to an alternate universe full of strange creatures.

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Nicolas Sarkozy wants to outlaw the wearing of the burqa in public places in France:

The problem of the burka is not a religious problem. This is an issue of a woman’s freedom and dignity. This is not a religious symbol. It is a sign of subservience; it is a sign of lowering. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France.

I suppose the logic goes something like this: The burqa is demeaning; it offends my values. So the woman who chooses to wear it, whether out of social pressure or personal choice (*), is not truly free. Thus, I must make them free by taking away this choice from them.

Come to think of it, this kind of argument is a remarkable tool. Sarkozy did not invent it — precisely the same justification is used all the time to critique everything that the vanguards of public morality consider degrading: from prostitution to pornography, taking drugs to working for low wages. But he — like other petty dictators of this world — sees the real power of this infantilizing logic, because it allows him to restrict individual freedom by invoking supposedly liberal values. That’s masterful. Of course, most people do not understand or care about the fundamental difference between the moral and the legal, the personal and the political, social disapproval and actual coercion; thus this charade continues.

*I am discounting from this discussion any women who are actually coerced (by threats of violence or similar means) to wear the burqa; obviously we need to prevent this from happening, but there are already laws to deal with such situations.

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Ryan Avent on the incompatibility of climate science and some libertarians:

That is to say, confronted by a problem demanding solutions inimical to libertarian beliefs, libertarians were faced with the choice of reneging on their beliefs or turning their back on science. Tellingly, they chose the latter. One might think that’s a rather drastic decision, given the role scientific endeavors have played in delivering the material prosperity so dear to the hearts of the libertarian world, and one would be right.

A belief system that cannot grapple with the fundamental reality of a situation is, quite simply, not a belief system worth having. 

I agree completely with Avent’s last sentence. I am also a libertarian. So what goes?

First off, Avent is wrong in his basic claim. There are very many libertarians who approach scientific questions scientifically. And most of them conclude that human induced climate change is real. Sure, some libertarians do turn their backs to science, but it is wrong to use that as an excuse to tar the whole movement.

Secondly, what Avent and others of his ilk forget is the question of how to deal with the problem of climate change is not merely a scientific one. It is perfectly consistent and reasonable to accept that AGW is happening and still reject most of the solutions being proferred. The question of what to do about any problem (or indeed, whether to do anything at all) depends not merely on an analysis of the problem (this is the scientific part) but also of how much value, that is costs and benefits you attach to each aspect of the problem and the possible solutions (and their consequences). This is where analysis and ideology interact in a complex manner.

I had a conversation with a friend a week ago. He asked me the following question: what would I do if I had to choose between truth and libertarianism? I answered that such a choice would never be necessary. Sure, the pursuits of truth and happiness do conflict, and so do freedom and happiness. But I cannot conceive of truth and freedom ever conflicting. I believe my moral axioms are good enough to ensure that.

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Oregon wants to raise the (tobacco) smoking age to 21.

Wait, that can’t be right, can it? Don’t Oregonians love their mountains and their freedom? I mean, come on, Oregon  is a pioneer in assisted suicide laws. It was one of the very few states to oppose ski-helmet mandates in an online TIME poll from last week! And they really like gays and unconventional individuals.

And oh, they love their pot. Marijuana for medicinal use is legal and simple possession for personal use has been decriminalized. If there is one state whose residents would be comfortable with legalizing most drugs, it is Oregon. So how can they get paternalistic about tobacco?

You see, tobacco is just not in. Hell, rednecks smoke it all the time. Some of the lowest taxes on tobacco are in states where gay-haters and religious conservatives rule.

For that matter, fatty foods are not in. Pleasures that are not good for your health are usually not in unless supplemented by some kind of culture. Free speech is in but hate speech is not. Trying to explain to them that hate speech is part of free speech is most certainly not in. Protesting exploitation and capitalism and going to jail for political persecution is in. Woolly sweaters and vegetarianism are in. For a detailed list of things that are in at cities like Portland or Seattle or SF or NY, head over to SWPL.

So I was thinking of all this and that’s when I realized this: Oregon’s supposed libertarianism is an accident. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the moral principle of individual liberty. It has to do with certain value judgements.

It is the same everywhere. It is cool in San Francisco to be stoned for days doing weed or cocaine or heroine but smoke a pack of  cigaretters over there and you will be treated like a demon. Hookah is somewhat in though and will draw no more than mild disapproval. Wine  and most other alcohol is awesome. Prostitution is a private matter and should not be interfered with. However trans fats are banned.

Then head over to Texas or Utah and do all of the above things San Francisco residents approve of wholeheartedly. You will be dragged to jail kicking. But don’t get too despondent! In Texas, they will give you other freedoms than are in over there. Like guns and cigars and low taxes and the right to eat trans-fat laden foods.

Jeffrey Rosen said it best. On the surface it might seem that restrictions on freedom are getting more unacceptable. Horrendous laws like those against sodomy no longer exist. But the truth is that morals legislation is alive and well. The problem with sodomy laws wasn’t that they were based on moral disapproval; the problem was that the public consensus about the immorality of sodomy had collapsed. It all depends on the value judgements of the majority and the influential; the things they consider ok become legal. Defending freedom for freedom’s sake … not just in.

And that realization would ordinarily make me sad but today it makes me smile. For it reminds me of another insight I had when I was very young. Of all the insights I’ve ever had that one is my favourite. And it’s simply this: The world we live in is a ridiculously funny place.

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” — Margaret Mead.

As we all know, governments do one thing really well — telling us how to run our lives. Thus, most places in the world (for instance every US state except New Hampshire) makes it mandatory that you wear seatbelts while driving. Surprisingly though, most US states do not require motorcycle riders to wear helmets. How did this strange situation come about?

The answer is fairly simple; motorcyclists, against all odds, fought for their freedom and won it. That stirring story is recounted with delicious pleasure by Jacob Sullum in this old Reason article.

In 2003 there were 5.4 million registered motorcycles in the U.S., compared to about 136 million registered cars. Despite their relatively small numbers, motorcyclists have been far more effective than drivers at resisting traffic safety paternalism. After some initial grumbling, most motorists got used to buckling up and are now unlikely to put up much resistance as states move toward primary enforcement, allowing police to pull people over for not wearing seat belts (as opposed to issuing citations after stopping them for other reasons). By contrast, going back to the 1971 founding of the American Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments (ABATE) by the staff of Easyriders magazine, motorcyclists have been willing to invest the time, effort, and money required to fight helmet laws.

And this happened because motorcyclists, with a fierce passion, think that people ought to be able to lead their lives the way they deem fit. They believe they should have the freedom to make their own choices, including ones that are risky or potentially lethal. And they are prepared to protect this freedom by every means at their disposal.

“Motorcyclists believe in freedom, and we attack anything that is attacking our freedom,” explains Robert Fletcher, coordinator of the Texas ABATE Confederation. “Helmet laws go against the grain of everything this country stands for,” says New York Myke, ABATE of California’s state director and owner of San Diego Harley Davidson. Just as abortion rights groups insist they do not favor abortion, motorcyclist groups are at pains to make it clear they do not oppose helmets. Jeff Hennie, vice president for government relations at the D.C.-based Motorcycle Riders Foundation, says, “What we’re advocating is freedom of choice….It should be the decision of the rider whether to put on extra safety equipment.” He describes the attitude of helmet law opponents this way: “Let me decide what is right for me, instead of the government jamming regulations down my throat.”

[…]

The view of helmets as confining and stifling meshes with the sentiment that forcing people to wear them ruins what is for many riders a visceral experience of freedom. “We’re passionate about our motorcycles,” says ABATE of California’s Myke. “This is something that’s more of a way of life than a hobby or a sport. It really goes to the core of our being….Riding a motorcycle is my celebration of freedom.” Few motorists feel the same way about driving, which for most of us is a workaday means of getting around, not an important part of our identities.

Sullum goes into details about how the motorcyclists argued, demonstrated and lobbied. There were defeats and there were victories. But they never gave up.

What makes their achievement all the more astounding is that they never had either the numbers or the support of the public.

To block or repeal helmet laws, activists must convince legislators to defy public opinion. While a 1978 Louis Harris poll found that 57 percent of Americans thought motorcyclists should be free to ride without helmets, a 2001 survey by the same organization found that 81 percent thought helmets should be required. Add to that the fact that the fatality rate per mile traveled is more than 25 times as high for motorcycles as it is for cars, and the success of helmet law opponents is even more impressive.

But my favourite part of Sullum’s article is the last paragraph, where he is at his eloquent best.

In the final analysis, not enough people took seat belt laws personally. For the most part, whatever objections they harbored were overcome by force of law and force of habit. By contrast, substantial numbers of motorcyclists have complained loudly, conspicuously, and persistently about helmet laws for more than three decades. “Apparently,” says the National Safety Council’s Ulczycki, “legislators are easily convinced that the perceived rights of motorcyclists to injure themselves are more important than the public good.” Aside from the tendentious definition of “the public good,” this gloss is misleading on two counts: Resistance to helmet laws hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t necessarily involved convincing legislators of anything but the motorcyclists’ determination. Politicians didn’t have to understand their passion to respect it. And therein lies a lesson for the world’s busybodies and petty tyrants.

Sullum is right. If a small group of people care strongly enough for liberty, there are ways to make legislators fall in line. For that you do not have to make them understand you, merely make them understand your resoluteness . How I wish car-owners shared some of this passion that motorcyclists have!

However my short review does no justice to Sullum’s long, well-researched and wonderfully narrated article. Read the whole thing.

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A new Georgia law requires anyone convicted of a sex offence in the past to hand over all their user-names and passwords to the government.

Mind you, this law isn’t aimed only at child rapists and suchlike. It will cover everyone who has ever been convicted of a sex related offence. In essence, what this law says is, if you err sexually once — however minor your crime is — you lose all  privacy rights for the rest of your life. Oh — and did I mention that past laws have already made it impossible for these people to find a home or get a job long after they have finished serving their sentences?

Actually, I think these are great laws. For they further a very important principle: offenders must never ever be allowed to reintegrate into society.

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A fortune teller in Montgomery county went to court to try and overturn a local ban on fortune telling. The fortune teller claimed his free speech rights were being hindered. The county claimed they were justified in having a law to prevent fraud.  The county won, as you might have expected (unlike in movies, the little guy usually loses in real life).

This case might seem like an intellectual riddle to some. Should we stop fraud or uphold free-speech? However, it really is quite simple. There is a fundamental difference between fortune telling and actual fraud. A guy who purports to sell milk but gives you coloured water (I believe this used to be common in India) or a pharmacist who sells you a different drug from the one you asked for is giving you something that you did not want and did not pay for. More precisely, the customer in those cases has a expectation, built upon unambigously laid out terms and well-defined history, of what he or she is supposed to receive — and this expectation is violated in an objective manner.

In fortune-telling on the other hand, the customer gets what he or she should expect to get. The product in this case exactly matches the average consumer’s reasonable understanding of it.

Suppose that in a hypothetical world where it is really possible to predict the future and lots of people do so successfully, I (in my current state of ignorance) decide to set up shop and represent myself as equivalent to those other real fortune tellers. Then I will be committing fraud, because I will be giving the customer an objectively different product than from what he asked for and had reason to expect. But in our world, the average customer knows what fortune telling entails. In fact many people who go to these tellers are there just for the fun of it. As Matt Bandyk puts it, “To say that the local government needs to `protect’  its citizens from the `fraud’ perpetrated by these businesses is giving the fortune tellers too much credit, and its customers too little credit. These customers know what they are getting into when they sit in front of the tarot cards or a crystal ball–if it makes them feel a little bit better, and a local business benefits, who is really being hurt in that exchange?”

If you still think fortune-telling should be outlawed by the government on grounds of fraud, consider that by the same expanded logic, all religious institutions are committing fraud. Do we really want to live in a world where the government has the power to decide the correctness of speech to this degree and ban your speech whenever it doesn’t meet their test?

(Hat Tip: The Agitator)

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I came across this interesting news article today about how liberal prostitution laws are encouraging young Swedes to make a short trip to Denmark.

In Sweden paying for sex is a crime punishable with a possible six-month jail sentence or a hefty income-linked fine. Perhaps the worst penalty for errant Swedish males is the official court summons addressed to the family home; an embarrassment that has ruptured many marriages. In Denmark, by contrast, prostitution has been decriminalised.

[…]Denmark, proud of its tolerant traditions, has allowed the hippy colony of Christiania to flourish in the heart of Copenhagen since the 1970s. Now Swedish teenagers are taking taxis over the bridge, stopping off at the settlement, stocking up on marijuana, and driving back home.

The true flashpoint is prostitution. Nothing better highlights how the model Scandinavian societies are now at odds over the correct road to Utopia.

Of course Denmark is no libertopia. It’s personal income tax rate is among the highest among developed nations.

However, in this un-free world, the libertarian dilemma is not where one finds freedom but where one finds the freedoms most important to him or her. In my view, paying a little more tax but getting extensive personal freedoms as well as almost complete freedom of speech is a good bargain. Thus, I tend to think of countries like Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland as more libertarian than the USA. The first three of these also have strong laws that favor the right to die and to refuse treatment.

On the other hand, I have given up all hopes about France and England, which are getting more Orwellian every day.

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A PIL has been filed in India asking to get Google Earth banned. Apparently the terrorists used Google images to plot their attacks.

Considering that the terrorists also used buses, trains, cellphones and a fishing boat, perhaps we should ban those as well.

And while we are at it, we should make sure that there are no loopholes. After all, most of the data supplied by Google is provided by other parties. Even if Google Earth is no longer accessible from India, one would be able to get the information from other sources. So let us block those sites as well, indeed ban all data obtained by satellites or cameras, and ensure that such data cannot be sent into India from outside the country. Regulating the internet would be a good start.

But here’s a prediction: after all this is done, a resourceful individual will still be able to get any information he wants. For information is a rebellious bird, it can never, ever be caged. The same however, is not true of the government.

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What’s so special about Carmen?

For one, the truly great music. Carmen is magical melody after magical melody. As for the orchestration, this is what Richard Strauss had to say:

“If you want to learn how to orchestrate, don’t study Wagner’s scores, study the score of Carmen. What wonderful economy, and how every note and every rest is in its proper place!”

Carmen also has a great story that is wonderfully presented. As the Wikipedia article points out, Carmen is extremely innovative in its drama: it alternates comic or sentimental scenes found traditionally in opera-comique with stark realism.

Yet, there is something beyond music or drama that lies at the heart of Carmen’s appeal to me. It is easy to distinguish good art; beyond that, things get very personal. The truly special works of art are those with qualities that talk to you, touch you, in ways that separate them fundamentally from others. Obviously, this aspect is highly subjective; this is why  people usually disagree on their favourite movie or piece of music even when they mostly agree on which movie or music is good.

The opera Carmen epitomizes liberty. The character Carmen is relentless in her passion for freedom. She is strong, extremely sexy and gives everything in her relationships with her lovers. However, she can never be possessed or exorcised of her passionate love for self-determination. For Carmen, all true interactions are voluntary and devoid of any notion of ownership of another person or duty to any institution.

Carmen is willing to live life only on her own terms.  As this book correctly points out, Carmen is “brash, vicious and callous”, yet the quality that defines her over and above all this is “her willingness to be Carmen, a determination to be free and follow her own bliss.” Carmen never gives up her “tireless obsession to control her own destiny.” And this extends beyond mere action, it is a fundamental part of her morality. In the final scene, even when Carmen knows that she will die she refuses to compromise on her principles, instead she courageously faces her fate. Her death is not a dessert for her sins but a consequence of her essential nobility in an ignoble world; her refusal to give up her self-ownership to another person.

(Of course, early audiences and critics did not view it the same way. Carmen was universally denounced as a vile, immoral, shockingly offensive creation.  Times have changed — modern audiences would undoubtedly be more sympathetic to my vision of Carmen as a flawed but heroic character murdered by a jealous man who is her moral and emotional inferior. That’s another aspect of all great art, like life they have many contradictory interpretations.)

It is these thematic elements of Carmen that, for me, lift it from a great opera to something far more special. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Polanski’s Bitter Moon and Hardy’s A mathematician’s apology, Carmen talks to me in that special way that is both infinitely subtle and passionately stirring. It will forever be a part of my heart.

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The latest issue of Reason magazine has a long op-ed titled “The Libertarian moment.” Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie make the case that we are at the threshold of a new age of freedom. They cite as evidence relaxing social norms, increased permissiveness and the `soft libertarianism’ that the internet age has spawned.

I would be happy to be proved wrong but I cannot help feel that this is just a puff piece designed to fit in with Reason’s 40th anniversary. Most of the examples they cite could as easily apply to liberalism. Homosexuality may be getting more acceptable but so is the idea that offending speech ought to be regulated. Marijuana may be easier to find but smoking is much harder. Anti-discrimination laws are becoming wider in scope every day; political correctness more pervasive.  The nanny-state is getting more obscene, government more bloated, the deficit is a monster.

Even the word libertarianism is under attempted hijack from some who call themselves libertarian, yet fail to see the fundamental difference between negative and positive liberty, and between social pressure and state coercion.

These are tough times to be a libertarian. Perhaps Welch and Gillespie are right and change is on the way. After all, they say that the darkest hour comes before dawn. Till I see the sun though, I see little reason to believe that things are going to really change anytime soon.

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At the age of 23, he introduced two men who wanted to do trade with each other.

He has been in prison since. He will remain in prison for the rest of his life.

Link 1. Link 2.

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