celebrity sightings

One great benefit of traveling down to Texas for Voice & Exit was getting to hang out with some Texan heroes of liberty.

Before V&E with Albert Lu, host of The Power & Market Report:

(This was taken after my first taste of Texas BBQ! Yum.)

(This was taken after my first taste of Texas BBQ! Yum.)

At V&E with John Papola, creator of my favorite hip-hop video, “Fear the Boom and Bust” a Hayek vs. Keynes Rap Anthem:
bkPap

After V&E with Jeff Riggenbach, the voice of liberty, author of “The Libertarian Tradition” and Why American History Is Not What They Say:
bkRigg

Class War in the Time of Robin Hood

FreemanRobinHood600

A couple of offhand comments from historian Simon Schama in A History of Britain (one in the book and one on TV) prompted me to write about classical-liberal class-conflict theory and the legend of the western world’s most famous bandit-hero:

“Class War in the Time of Robin Hood” in today’s Freeman.

If you enjoy the article, please consider sharing it with your network.

when evil institutions do good things: the FCC’s PTAR law

StreetTVIn my Freeman article "TV’s Third Golden Age," the summary subtitle that the magazine chose was "Programming quality is inversely proportional to regulatory meddling." I couldn’t have said it better. But does that mean that everything the FCC does makes television worse?

All laws and regulations have unforeseen consequences. That usually means unintended damage, but there’s no law of history that says every unplanned outcome is pernicious.

If you’re an advocate of a free society — one in which all arrangements are voluntary and there is the least coercive interference from governments or other thugs — history will present you with an unending series of conundrums. Whom do you side with in the Protestant Reformation, for example? The Catholic Church banned books and tortured scholars, and their official structure is one of hierarchy and authority. Easy enemy, right? Clear-cut bad guy. But the Church had kept the State in check for centuries — and vice versa, permitting seeds of freedom to root and flourish in the gaps between power centers. Whereas the Protestant states tended to be more authoritarian than the Catholic ones, with Luther and Calvin (not to mention the Anglicans) advocating orthodoxy through force. There’s a reason all those Northern princes embraced the Reformation: they wanted a cozier partnership of church and state.

This is certainly not the history I was taught in my Protestant private schools.

Similarly, most of us were schooled to side with the Union in the Civil War, to see Lincoln as a savior and the Confederacy as pure evil. But as much as the war may have resulted, however accidentally, in emancipating slaves, it also obliterated civil liberties, centralized power, strengthened central banking and fiat currencies and — to borrow from Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s great book title — enslaved free men.

"Father Abraham," as the pietists called him after his assassination, was a tyrant whose primary goal was always what he actually achieved: central power over an involuntary union. Recasting this guy as an abolitionist hero is one of the many perverse legacies of America’s official history. But it’s a mistake to simply reverse the Establishment’s verdict and claim that the Confederacy was heroic. Plenty of Johnny Rebs were fighting a righteous battle against what they rightly deemed to be foreign invaders, but even if you ignore the little problem of the South’s "peculiar institution," the Confederate government was no more liberal than its Northern rival. "While the Civil War saw the triumph in the North of Republican neo-mercantilism,” writes Hummel, “it saw the emergence in the South of full-blown State socialism.”

Reading history without taking sides may fit some scholarly ideal (actually, it seems to be a journalistic ideal created by the Progressive Movement to masquerade their views as the only unbiased ones), but it is not a realistic option. We cannot do value-free history. If we try, we instead hide or repress our biases, which makes them a greater threat to intellectual integrity.

Neither can we say, "a plague on both their houses," and retreat to the realm of pure theory, libertarian or otherwise. We have to live in the real world, and even if we are not activists or revolutionaries, the same intellectual integrity that must reject "neutrality" also requires that we occasionally explore the question of second-best or least-evil options.

I remember several years ago, when my very libertarian boss surprised me by speaking in favor of increased regulation of banking. His point was that the banks were not free-market institutions; they were government-created cartels enjoying a political privilege that protected them from the consequences of the market while they surreptitiously depleted our property and spoiled the price system that drives all progress in the material world. Ideally, he’d want the government out of banking altogether, but in the meantime having them do less damage was better than letting them do more.

It may seem anticlimactic to follow the Reformation, Civil War, and fractional-reserve banking with a little-known FCC rule about TV programming from almost half a century ago, but I’ve been reading television history for a while now (1, 2, 3, 4) as illustrative of larger patterns in political history.

The Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR) was a law instituted in 1970 to limit the amount of network programming allowed during TV’s most-watched evening hours.

According to industry analyst Les Brown, the PTAR was adopted

to break the network monopoly over prime time, to open a new market for independent producers who complained of being at the mercy of three customers, to stimulate the creation of new program forms, and to give the stations the opportunity to do their most significant local programming in the choicest viewing hours. (Les Brown’s Encyclopedia of Television)

If you still accept the official myth that the airwaves are "That most public of possessions given into the trust of the networks," as Harlan Ellison describes them in The Glass Teat, and that the federal government’s job is to manage the radio spectrum in the best interests of that public, then I’m sure you don’t see any problem with PTAR. (You can read my paper "Radio Free Rothbard" [HTML, PDFDownload PDF] for a debunking of this official piety.)

But a libertarian could easily jerk his or her knee in the opposite direction. How dare the central government tell private station owners what they can and can’t air on their own stations, right?

The problem with such an ahistorical take on the issue is that broadcast television was a creature of the state from the beginning. Radio may have had a nascent free-market stage in its development, but television was a state-managed cartel from the word go.

So am I saying that PTAR was a good thing? Is it like the possibly beneficial banking regulations imposed on a cartelized banking system? Should we view CBS versus FCC as the same sort of balance-of-power game that Church and State played before the early modern period of European history?

Maybe, but that’s not why I find PTAR an interesting case for the liberty-minded historian. As is so often the case with laws and regulations, PTAR’s main legacy is in its unintended consequences.

"Despite the best of intentions," writes historian Gary Edgerton in The Columbia History of American Television, "the PTAR failed in almost every respect when it was implemented in the fall of 1971."

[P]ractically no local productions or any programming innovations whatsoever were inspired by the PTAR. In addition, any increase in independently produced programming was mainly restricted to the reworking of previously canceled network series, such as Edward Gaylord’s Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk’s The Lawrence Welk Show.… Rather than locally produced programming, these kinds of first-run syndicated shows dominated the 7 to 8 P.M. time slot.

This renaissance of recently purged rural programming was certainly not the FCC’s goal, but the creation of the first-run-syndication model is one of the great unsung events in media history.

A quick note on terminology: to the extent that I knew the word "syndication" at all when I was growing up, I took it to be a fancy way of saying "reruns." For example, Paramount, the studio that bought the rights to Star Trek after the series was cancelled, sold the right to rerun the program directly to individual TV stations. When a local TV station buys a program directly from the studio instead of through the network system, that’s called syndication. But syndication isn’t limited to reruns. Studios created first-run TV programs for direct sale to local stations as far back as the 1950s, but they were the exception. The dominant syndication model was and is reruns. But two events created a surge of first-run syndication: (1) PTAR, and (2) the rural purge I obliquely alluded to above.

I write about the rural purge here, but I’ll summarize: as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, television network executives did an about-face on their entire approach to programming. In the 1960s, each network tried to win the largest possible viewership by avoiding controversy and appealing to the lowest common denominator in public tastes. This meant ignoring the rift between races, between generations, and between urban and rural sensibilities — what we now call red-state and blue-state values — in the ongoing culture wars. This approach was dubbed LOP (Least Objectionable Program) theory.

Basically, this theory posits that viewers watch TV no matter what, usually choosing the least objectionable show available to them. Furthermore, it assumes a limited number of programming choices for audiences to pick from and implies that networks, advertising agencies, and sponsors care little about quality when producing and distributing shows. (Gary Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television)

By the end of the decade, however, NBC vice president Paul Klein (who had christened LOP theory just as its tenure was coming to an end), convinced advertisers that they should stop caring so much about total viewership and focus instead on demographics, specifically the Baby Boomers — young, politically radicalized, and increasingly urban TV viewers — who were most likely to spend the most money on the most products. CBS was winning the battle for ratings, but Klein pointed out that their audience was made up of old folks and hicks, whereas NBC was capturing the viewership of the up-and-comers.

Klein may have worked for NBC, but it was CBS who took his message to heart, quite dramatically. In 1970, the network rocked the TV world by cancelling its most reliably popular shows: Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry RFD, Hee Haw, Lassie, and The Lawrence Welk Show.

In Television’s Second Gold Age, communications professor Robert J. Thompson writes,

CBS, in an effort to appeal to a younger audience made socially conscious by the turbulent 1960s, had dumped its hit rural comedies in the first years of the 1970s while their aging audiences were still placing them in Nielsen’s top twenty-five. Critics, who for the most part had loathed the likes of Petticoat Junction and Gomer Pyle, loved some of what replaced them.

I loved what replaced them, too: Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and the like. "Several members of Congress," Wikipedia informs us, "expressed displeasure at some of the replacement shows, many of which … were not particularly family-friendly." But that was the point: the networks were no longer aiming to please the whole family: just the most reliable consumers.

But despite capitalism’s cartoonish reputation for catering only to the bloated hump of the bell curve, that’s not how the market really works. It is how a cartel works, and the broadcast networks behaved accordingly, both before and after the rural purge. In the 1950s and ’60s, they aimed for the largest possible viewership and to hell with minorities of any sort. The demographic revolution changed the target, but not the tactic: aim for the big soft mass. That’s certainly how the big players would behave in a free market, too, but the telltale sign of freedom in the economy is that the big players aren’t the only players. Fortunes are made in niche markets, too, so long as there aren’t barriers to entering those niches. As I’ve said, TV is descended from radio, and Hoover and his corporatist cronies had arranged it so that there could only be a few big players.

That’s where we come back to the FCC’s Prime Time Access Rule of 1970. PTAR created a hole at the fringe of the prime-time schedule, just as the rural purge was creating a hole in the market. All those fans of Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk didn’t just go away, and they didn’t stop spending their money on advertised products, either. Before PTAR, the multitude of fans of "rural" programming would have had to settle for mid-afternoon reruns of their favorite shows (the way Star Trek fans haunted its late-night reruns around this same time). But the rural fans didn’t have to settle for reruns, and they didn’t have to settle for mid afternoons or late nights. They could watch new episodes of Hee Haw or Lawrence Welk at 7 PM. In fact, those two shows continued to produce new episodes and the local stations, which were no longer allowed to buy from the networks for the early evening hours, bought first-run syndicated shows instead. The Lawrence Welk Show, which had started in the early 1950s, continued for another decade, until Welk retired in the early ’80s. And the repeats continue to run on PBS today. Hee Haw, believe it or not, continued to produce original shows for syndication until 1992.

I loved Mary Tyler Moore, and I didn’t care so much for Lawrence Welk, but what I really love is peaceful diversity, which cannot exist in a winner-takes-all competition. The rise of first-run syndication was a profound crack in the winner-takes-all edifice of network programming.

The strategy CBS, NBC, and ABC had gravitated toward for short-term success — namely, targeting specific demographics with their programming — also sowed the seeds of change where the TV industry as a whole would eventually move well beyond its mass market model. Over the next decade, a whole host of technological, industrial, and programming innovations would usher in an era predicated on an entirely new niche-market philosophy that essentially turned the vast majority of broadcasters into narrowcasters. (Gary Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television)

This idea of "narrowcasting" is the basis of quality in entertainment (and freedom in political economy, but that’s another story).

I’m not out to sing the praises of the FCC for increasing economic competition and cultural diversity — these consequences were entirely unintended — but we do have to recognize PTAR as a pebble in Goliath’s sandle, distracting him for a moment from David’s sling.

Does Thoreau Belong to Our Tradition?

ThoreauStampEditorial Preface to Here There Is No State


“THE HIPPIES CAN’T HAVE THOREAU,” wrote former Freeman editor John Chamberlain in July of 1967.

It had been 150 years since Thoreau’s birth (July 12, 1817), and the US Postal Service had caused some controversy by issuing a commemorative stamp.

What was the issue? Conservatives complained that Thoreau looked like a hippie.

Chamberlain called their complaints “well-meaning but stupid.… They wore [beards] in the Nineteenth Century, you know.”

The conservatives of the late 1960s were not alone in seeing the similarity. The bearded counterculturalists wanted to claim Thoreau as one of their own. “Indeed,” proclaimed one underground newspaper of the time, “Thoreau was one of America’s first hippies.”

But Chamberlain objected on behalf of conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians: “Thoreau belongs to a lot of us who are bored to death by the new psychedelic mindlessness.”

Who had the better claim? Was Thoreau a forebear of the Left or the Right? Was he a hippie or a classical liberal? For or against liberty, commerce, and private property?

As Ken Kifer writes in Analysis and Notes on Walden (2002), “Today, Thoreau’s words are quoted with feeling by liberals, socialists, anarchists, libertarians, and conservatives alike.”

This collection, Here There Is No State (the title is taken from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”), shows us that Henry David Thoreau belongs more to the advocates of liberty than he does to our illiberal opposition.

Not everyone, however, wants to claim Thoreau as a part of our tradition.

Gary North recently called Thoreau “one of the most successful literary scam artists in American history,” describing Walden as “anti-capitalist and pro-green.”

As Chamberlain pointed out, Thoreau was a working capitalist whose family owned a pencil-making business, but, says North, Thoreau’s background did not make him a friend of the free market. “He was an American version of Frederick Engels, who converted Karl Marx to socialism in 1843.”

In Here There Is No State, we collect Thoreau’s two most famous works and bring together three scholars to comment on those works and their author.

While “Americans know Thoreau primarily as the author of the book Walden,” writes Wendy McElroy, “it is ‘Civil Disobedience’ that established his reputation in the wider political world. It is one of the most influential political tracts ever written by an American.”

Here There Is No State opens with Wendy’s introduction to “Civil Disobedience,” followed by the great individualist essay itself.

In her introduction to Walden, Sarah Skwire responds to Gary North and sets the record straight on what the book is and is not, and where it fits in our tradition. “I think that we must consider the possibility,” Sarah writes, “that Walden has its reputation because many who teach it choose to ignore its politics, which are strongly libertarian and even anarchist.”

Both Gary North and Sarah Skwire invite us to read critically and decide for ourselves, so the entirety of Walden is included in these pages.

Thoreau-HereThereIsNoState-CoverFinally, Jeff Riggenbach closes this volume with an essay on why we can consider Thoreau not just a “great writer, great naturalist, and great advocate of self-reliant individualism” but also “one of the founding fathers of American libertarian thought.”

Wendy, Sarah, and Jeff are all members of Liberty.me and are available to our community for questions or comments on the writings and legacy of Henry David Thoreau.

Enjoy the book and join us online to continue the conversation.

B.K. Marcus
Senior Editor
Liberty.me

The Nightmare of a Free Market: Buying Drugs from Strangers

PillsFromStrangerThis week’s featured guide at Liberty.me is Dr. John Hunt’s “Surviving Obamacare”— which is about navigating around Obamacare in order to pursue free-market healthcare in an ever-less-free healthcare market.

John is a local comrade. I only met him in person about a year ago, but we had already worked together extensively online to put together his great libertarian action-adventure thriller Higher Cause for Laissez Faire Books. (I’m sorry to say that I had nothing to do with his wonderfully funny novel Assume the Physician — free to Liberty.me members this month.)

When the Young Americans for Liberty, University of Virginia chapter, hosted John for a talk on the same subject as his Liberty.me guide, I of course had to attend. [Read the rest at Liberty.me.]

Toastmasters joke

SyldaviaShirtAt last night’s Toastmasters meeting, I was the “Jokemaster.”

According to the agenda, the Jokemaster “Provides a light-hearted story or joke to kick off the meeting.”

Here’s the composed version of what I memorized, altered, and delivered a bit more spontaneously:

Mr. Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, esteemed guests:

I spoke last week about what a reclusive homebody I’ve become, about working from home and spending all my time on the Internet. But it didn’t used to be that way. Before Benjamin was born, Nathalie and I traveled the world.

For our honeymoon, we hiked in the Highlands of Scotland. We play bocci with the old men of Paris in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower (only in France they don’t call it bocci: they call it pétanque). We walked, hand in hand, on the raised platforms of the Palazzo San Marco over the floodwaters of Venice. We even crossed the Adriatic and traveled inland to visit the tiny autocratic puppet state of Syldavia — where, I’m sorry to say, we quickly ran afoul of the law.

I won’t go into details. I’ll just say that it’s all too easy to break the law in a totalitarian regime. We were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced all in one day. The sentence was death. The tribunal of judges asked if we had any last requests.

Well, when I was a younger man, I wasn’t as shy as I am now. So I requested, no I demanded to address my captors, my judges, my executioners, to speak about the glories of the tradition of freedom and the evil of their police state; to show them how their own interests, not to mention those of their oppressed subjects, would best be served by the light of liberty —

Nathalie cut in: "I have a last request too," she said. "Please shoot me before he gives this speech."

My Toastmasters Icebreaker speech

icebreakerMister Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, esteemed guests. The irony of the "Icebreaker" speech, at least for me, is that talking for 4 to 6 minutes about myself strikes me as neither easy nor interesting.

Last January, my wife Nathalie and I drove up to Baltimore to attend the annual cocktail party of one of our biggest clients.

We got all dressed up and mingled with hundreds of strangers.

Quick show of hands, who here has been to a party full of strangers in the past year or so?

When two strangers meet at a party, what do they say to break the ice?

Yes, right, here in America, we say, "What do you do?"

Nathalie informs me, by the way, that this typical American icebreaker is not what people say in Europe. When two French people meet, for example, the first question is "Where are you from?"

When I was growing up in New York City, watching way too much TV, the stereotypical socially awkward icebreaker — really a failure to break the ice — was "Read any good books lately?" And on TV, after this question was asked and the laugh track died down, the two strangers would grow quiet, look away, and silently admit defeat.

Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting this, but I honestly don’t know why that’s supposed to be such a bad question. I’d much rather be asked about good books than about what I do for living.

What do I do for a living, you ask?

I’m a publishing consultant. I work with independent authors and free-market institutions to get their books onto Kindles and iPads and sometimes into print.

And if you met me at a party and asked me what I do for a living, I’d probably give you that answer in the same perfunctory manner in which I just did here.

But if you were to say, "Oh, you work with books? What sort of books do you read for fun?" — You’d see me light up. You’d see me come alive. As they say in books, you’d see me warm to my subject.

I work with economic books and with writings in the classical-liberal tradition, but that’s not what I read for pleasure anymore.

Those things are what I did read for pleasure when I was a web-application programmer for a big bank, but now I read quirky historical narratives, such as The Professor and the Madman, about a certifiably insane Civil War veteran and the role he played in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary; or A History of the World in 6 Glasses, which reviews the past 4 or 5 thousand years through the lens of beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee, and Coca-Cola.

What am I reading now, you ask? Actually, I’m mostly listening to this one as an audiobook. I go back and forth between text and audio. The book is by Tom Standage, the same author who wrote 6 Glasses. It’s called Writing on the Wall: Social Media The First 2,000 Years. One of the many things he talks about is the advent of the coffeehouse in 17th-century England.

Standage claims that coffeehouses and the publishing network based out of coffeehouses were really the first Internet. I love Starbucks, and I bet their coffee is better than what I would have been served in 17th-century London, but I still wish I could go back and spend some time in one of those old coffeehouses, where everyone was reading and writing and debating ideas.

I also read less-quirky historical narrative, but my favorite books are the ones that take two seemingly disparate ideas and see what results when you combine them.

And the truth is, my passion isn’t in books, either. It’s really in new ideas.

Better than "Read any good books lately?" would be "Had any interesting thoughts lately?" or "Learned any new ideas lately?"

I have a best friend whom I followed to Charlottesville 20-something years ago, and then did not follow back to New York when he left. He’ll phone me to say, "I had a thought I think you’ll appreciate." And then we’ll talk for an hour.

When I get off the phone, Nathalie asks, "How’s David?"

"I don’t know."

"What do you mean you don’t know? You just talked to him for an hour!"

"Yeah, but that’s not what we talked about."

When David and I were kids, we were sort of famous among our peers and the local grownups for walking around the streets of Manhattan deep in conversation, just the two of us. That turns out not to be typical for a couple of preteen boys.

As I mentioned before, I watched way too much TV, and it’s part of why I read so late and so slowly, but one contemporary criticism of television that never made sense to me back then was that it was a passive medium. You just sit there and zone out. I never zoned out! I engaged the TV as a source of ideas, sometimes a mentor, often an intellectual adversary.

We don’t let our 7-year-old son Benjamin watch too many videos — in fact we don’t have a TV in our home — but I can see him doing the same things with online cartoons and movies that I did with TV around his age. He wants to talk about them afterwards, ask questions, critique the premises, figure out how everything works.

Benjamin is also a lot more sociable than I was at his age. I suspect he won’t have any trouble at cocktail parties when he grows up, even if, like his old man, he’s most passionate about the kind of ideas that are better discussed over coffee than over cocktails.

This brings me to why I’ve joined Toastmasters. I think Tom Standage is right about the 21st-century Internet being our modern version of the 17th-century coffeehouse. Much as I love Starbucks, it’s not a hotbed of radical new thinking.

It provides the wireless Internet access I can use to get to the hotbed of ideas, but I engage those ideas in my writing and reading, and mostly online — not face-to-face with other human beings.

Through Toastmasters, however, I hope to become a more adept and spontaneous tradesman of ideas, presented and discussed in the real world, offline, where I don’t always have time to compose my thoughts (the way I composed this speech).

I thank you for listening to me, and I thank you for the help you’ve already given me in bringing my life out of the house, off of the Internet, and into the world.

Mister Toastmaster.

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