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

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.

Roofs or Ceilings: the San Francisco earthquake of 1906

SanFranHouses1906On this day in 1906, a great earthquake struck San Francisco and the coast of Northern California at 5:12 a.m.

One of the worst natural disasters in US history — and the single greatest loss of life in California’s history — the quake and the resulting fires killed at least 3,000 people and destroyed over 80 percent of San Francisco.

More than half the city’s survivors were left homeless.

Why is this natural disaster part of our tradition, the tradition of liberty?

Because 40 years later, in 1946, the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) published 500,000 copies of a pamphlet arguing against continuation of wartime rent-control laws, using the great earthquake as historical evidence for how a homeless population can quickly find shelter in a free market.

MisesLastKnightOfLiberalismThis pamphlet — called “Roofs or Ceilings,” and written by two young Chicago economists named Milton Friedman and George Stigler — was 20-year-old Murray Rothbard‘s introduction to FEE. It drew him into the movement, such as it was. He continued to read FEE’s publications and began attending their conferences, but a year and a half later Rothbard had still never heard of Austrian economics.

FEE only became Austrian later in the decade, and only because of Ludwig von Mises.

What was the pre-Misesian movement like? Friedman and Stigler’s pamphlet is a good indication.

Read more in “The Tepid Movement before Mises.”

the cider rebellion

OldEnglishCiderToday is the anniversary of Lord Bute’s 1763 ouster from office in England. In hindsight, we can see that the error that ended this stage of his career could have served as a warning to the British government of their impending loss of the American colonies.

In Conceived in Liberty, volume 3, chapter 4 (“The British Army and the Grand Design”), Murray Rothbard tells the history of tax revolts on both sides of the pond before Americans declared independence from Britain.

For four decades, the English Whigs (liberals, in the libertarian sense) had maintained a policy of “salutary neglect” of the colonies, and “America had been allowed to flourish with a good measure of independence.”

When the Tories (conservative, in the illiberal sense) returned to power, their “Grand Design” was to strengthen and expand the imperial military with increased taxation at home and abroad. Abroad it led to the American Revolution, but it didn’t go down too well at home, either.

Lord Bute not only introduced a domestic excise tax on cider to support his expanded military budget; he “extended the enforcement of the excise from retail shops to private English homes.”

As a rule, taxpayers are more resistant to taxes they have to pay directly out of pocket to the government. My understanding from my French in-laws, for example, is that most French citizens cheat on their income taxes, and the government knows it, but rather than cracking down on the popular resistance, the French state supports itself primarily with sales tax, paid invisibly through every purchase and administered by the French merchants.

Rothbard writes, “The tax on cider was able to pass in Parliament despite the opposing coalition. But its lasting significance for America was the depth of the popular and ideological opposition that it engendered in England.”

Bute was out of office, and the colonists gained a short-term lesson in resistance from our English cousins.

Unfortunately, the long-term lesson seems to be the one learned by Anglo-American governments ever since: passive and invisible taxes meet with the least active defiance.

why the vocabulary of our tradition matters

semanticsI’ve been blogging recently (An Idiot Abroad, the Economist, Sp!ked) about "Little Englander," a term that I would argue is a contranym, something that means both one thing and its opposite.

So what are we to make of these opposed connotations of nationalist bigotry on the one hand and peaceful internationalism on the other, both wrapped up in a single term?

For one thing, the contrast is no accident — no more than it is an accident that the term liberal can mean left- or right-wing, pro-or anti-market, an advocate of hard capitalism or soft socialism, depending on the context and the speaker.

At the time of the Manchester School, when the slur "Little Englander" was being coined, the term liberal unambiguously meant a reformer who wanted to dismantle the conservative status quo. Liberals were unequivocally in favor of individual freedom, open borders, free trade, and international capitalism in its anti-Mercantilist and anti-Marxist sense. They opposed big government, high taxes, tariffs, political privileges, and all but the most limited and purely defensive war.

It was this final value, a principled preference for peace over war, that led the interventionists to coin the term Little Englander. Liberalism, as a term and as an ideology, was too popular for the conservatives and socialists to attack it directly. Socialists therefore connived to appropriate the term through redefinition. Conservatives, in contrast, attacked the liberals’ patriotism with the dichotomy of Great Britain and Little England.

There is a division within libertarianism over the question of vocabulary and the importance of semantic positioning. While some debate the definition of, for example, capitalism or patriotism, others argue that it is folly to get stuck in struggles over terminology. Explain what you mean, the latter contend, and don’t worry over the words.

I understand why the semantic quibbling can seem both endless and pointless, but the lesson I take from the linguistic history of our movement, broadly defined, is that the words do matter. The slurs work, and their effects can still be felt over a century later, when the specific debates have long been forgotten. Language banditry has been a thorough success for the opponents of individual freedom.

I don’t know Stephen Merchant’s politics. He and Ricky Gervais have been deliberately quiet on the subject, other than to oppose the humor-killing strictures of political correctness. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb, however, to guess that they are not sorry to say goodbye to the British Empire and would oppose any sudden resurgence of imperialism. I don’t take Merchant’s casual slur as an attack on the proponents of peace and a humble foreign policy.

So why should we care if an entertainer uses Little Englander to signal his friend’s parochialism? What was lost in the imperialists’ semantic victory over the term? What does it mean for the future of freedom when we have reached the point where even the Economist, without any apparent irony, uses a term of derision that was originally aimed at the magazine’s founders — and uses it without historical context and completely in keeping with the worldview of the political interventionists the magazine was founded to oppose?

When we lost the semantic battles over liberalism, isolationism, and Little Englander, what was also lost was the connection in the public mind between the philosophy of freedom and a policy of peace. To be pro-capitalism and anti-poverty strikes our contemporaries as perverse. A philosophy that is pro-market and anti-war creates cognitive dissonance in today’s mainstream, and yet these values were assumed to go together at the height of our movement’s popularity and effectiveness. In letting our opponents, both on the left and the right, redefine the terms of the debate, we have allowed ourselves to descend to the position where we constantly have to explain what we don’t mean.

This is not to say that we should let ourselves be derailed by terminological disputes. But neither should we let go of our history — or the language of that history.

The principled advocates of liberty can even reclaim, I hope, some of the terms used against us — anarchism, capitalism, isolationism, among others. That these terms can cause misunderstanding is not sufficient reason to abandon them. Everything about our philosophy can cause misunderstanding among the uninitiated. I contend that the vocabulary is an important part of the package.

I look forward to the day when we can join Spiked in proclaiming ourselves proud Little Englanders (whether we have any personal connection to England or not) and be understood to stand for cosmopolitan openmindedness, individual liberty, and a policy of peace.

Hayek’s defense of tradition

20140401-071447.jpgF.A. Hayek considered himself a liberal, as do I. But in the United States, he was and is called a conservative. This irked him enough that he wrote an article called “Why I Am Not a Conservative.”Download PDF

But while it may have been wrong to associate Hayek’s thought with the political conservatism of the 20th century, there is at least one powerful argument Hayek contributed to the cause of cautious traditionalism.

Tradition isn’t quite the dirty word today that it once was for most post-Enlightenment intellectuals, but it does still have the reputation of being irrational — and it’s certainly still considered inadequate cause to stand in the way of centrally engineered social progress.

Hayek argued, however, that tradition was often an economically efficient way to transmit hard-won lessons from the past into the future. Rational arguments take time and effort, and they rarely have the effect on behavior that we rationally argumentative types wish they had. Tradition, on the other hand, is very effective and relatively cheap. The “transaction costs” — to use econ-geek language — are considerably lower for tradition than they are for propositional logic.

Does Sp!ked online know our tradition better than the Economist does?

SpikedIn contrast to the Economist‘s insulting conflation of anti-interventionism and xenophobia, Spiked — which according to Wikipedia "is a British Internet magazine focusing on politics, culture and society from a humanist and libertarian viewpoint" — ran a piece last fall by Patrick West called "A ‘Little Englander’ and proud."

Unlike Stephen Merchant or the Economist, our Spiked author does address the history: "The term ‘Little Englander’ was coined in the late-nineteenth century, an imperialist slur directed at members of the Liberal Party who were opposed to the Second Boer War (1899-1902)."

And the article’s subtitle highlights the irony of the ahistorical colloquialism: "Ignore the jibes of the pro-intervention crew: it’s the Little Englanders and ‘isolationists’ who are the true internationalists."

historical irony: the Economist magazine prefers Great Britain to Little England

TheEconomistCover20131109I blogged the other day about the double meaning of the term "Little Englander" and how its two meanings are really at odds with each other:

See Wikipedia and Wiktionary for example, where the primary definition is anti-imperialist, followed by the "colloquial" usage that means xenophobic. ("An Idiot’s Guide to Little Englanders")

One recent article from the Economist seems to use the term in both ways simultaneously ("Great Britain or Little England?").

Because the magazine does not give the author’s name, I assume the piece is meant to represent the editorial position of the Economist itself, opposing drastic budget cuts while recognizing a general need for the British state to shrink and the market to grow. Who, then, are the Little Englanders according to the Economist? Euroasceptics and anti-immigrationists.

"Britain is on the way to becoming more solvent but also more insular," the Economist frets. "The trick for Britain in the future will be to combine a smaller, more efficient state with a more open attitude to the rest of the world."

Apparently, a "more open attitude" would take the form not of voluntary exchange between free individuals across international borders but rather of precisely the sort of governmental intervention that George Washington disparaged as "foreign entanglement."

One great irony is that the Economist is itself a descendent of the original Little Englanders. The magazine traces its lineage back to the Anti–Corn Law League, the early free-trade manifestation of the Manchester School.

The classical-liberal Manchester School is remembered most for its opposition to protectionism, which was rightly perceived in the 19th century as a way to tax the poor to benefit the landed aristocracy. The Economist has not remained a liberal publication in this historically libertarian sense, but it has generally honored its free-trade roots. Has it lost track of the other side of the Manchester coin — opposition to war, imperialism, and foreign entanglements?

An Idiot’s Guide to Little Englanders

An Idiot AbroadI keep learning about movies and TV shows long after they’re past current — when the Netflix app on my iPad suddenly puts them in front of me. So I’ve just watched the first episode of An Idiot Abroad, the latest attempt by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the UK creators of the BBC’s The Office, to find humor in humiliating and ridiculing their friend Karl Pilkington — this time by sending him around the world to "experience" other cultures.

Merchant is clearly the better-educated half of the duo. "I’ve been to many exotic places," he says in the show’s opening. "I genuinely believe that travel broadens the mind."

Whether or not he’s sincere in that conviction, Gervais’s candor better represents the feeling of the series: "I want him to hate every minute of it."

Why? "Nothing is funnier than Karl in a corner, being poked by a stick," Gervais explains, adding, "I am that stick."

So why is Pilkington their victim of choice for this ongoing series of orchestrated culture shocks?

"He is a round, empty-headed, chimp-like manque moron, buffoon idiot. And he’s a friend," Gervais says.

But Stephen Merchant’s less blunt explanation is what caught me off guard and sent me to Google and Wikipedia to research current British terminology:

"He is a typical Little Englander and he doesn’t like going out of his comfort zone."

I could judge from context what he meant, but I had never heard the term Little Englander used that way. If you’re an American, the chances are you’ve never heard it used at all. I knew it from the history of classical liberalism, where the British war party of the 19th century used it as a smear against the anti-imperialists of the Manchester School. The British hawks called the anti-interventionist opponents of the British Empire "Little Englanders" to distinguish them, I assume, from the true patriots of Great Britain.

It wasn’t Britain the Little Englanders opposed, of course; it was empire.

The 20th-century equivalent smear, used both in the United Kingdom and the United States is "isolationist" — implying that the opponents of an expansive interventionist foreign policy are trying to shut out the rest of the world, bury our heads in the sand, and attempt to wish away the impositions of an ever more global culture. In other words, we are narrow-minded, myopic, and reflexively against everything foreign. By implication, it is the interventionists who are cosmopolitan and internationalist.

Here is Gregory Bresiger’s description of the Manchester School, from his JLS article "Laissez Faire and Little Englanderism":

The Manchester School [was] a radical group of parliamentary members in Victorian England. They were also known as the Little Englanders, or the Peace Men. Generally, they weren’t pacifists, but they proclaimed themselves as followers of Adam Smith, who saw peace, a reduction in government expenditures, and free trade as vital characteristics of prosperous, free societies. They fought the same battles as Taft and those consistent friends of liberty who today call for the dismantling of the American imperial state both at home and abroad.

Manchesterism, like libertarianism today, was a philosophy ridiculed by nationalists and jingoists in Victorian England, who called it hopelessly utopian and isolationist.Download PDF

Is that what Stephen Merchant is accusing Karl Pilkington of? No, of course not. Merchant means that Pilkington doesn’t like Chinese food and thinks that foreign cultures have taken normal things from the English and made them weirder.

The result is a perverse travel show that is both very funny and oddly informative. Merchant’s use of the "Little Englander" epithet is a tiny, throwaway line, not at all the emphasis of the show — although it does get repeated in every episode of the first season, since it’s part of the opening.

So why do I find it significant? Isn’t this just another example of how language changes over time with shifts in political and historical context?

(I argue against this general line of thought — using a different example — in my most recent Freeman article, "Check Your History.")

If "Little Englander" were just a case of shifts in meaning, we should expect the more political and historically minded definition to have passed out of current usage, replaced by the insulting cultural definition.

But a quick Internet search suggests that while both meanings are current, the political meaning is still primary. See Wikipedia and Wiktionary for example, where the primary definition is anti-imperialist, followed by the "colloquial" usage that means xenophobic.

So why do the British still conflate opposition to empire with opposition to foreigners?

Is it the same reason Americans insist on the same conflation when talking about "isolationism"?