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.

Yes, We Have No Bananas

YesWeHaveNoBananasIn a recent post ("Is mediocrity intelligent?"), I talked about the importance of a diversity of strategies — even apparently "wrong" ones — to the long-term survival of a species. The corollary of course is that overinvestment in any single strategy can be catastrophic.

We see this issue at play in modern agribusiness.

As Popular Science informs us,

The 1923 musical hit "Yes! We Have No Bananas" is said to have been written after songwriters Frank Silver and Irving Cohn were denied in an attempt to purchase their favorite fruit by a syntactically colorful, out-of-stock neighborhood grocer.

It seems that an early infestation of Panama disease was already causing shortages in 1923. But the out-of-stock bananas in question were not the Cavendish variety we all eat today; they were Gros Michel ("Big Mike") bananas, and they were all that American banana lovers ate until the 1950s, when the disease finally finished them off.

I would love to know what a Gros Michel banana tastes like. I’m a big fan of bananas and eat them every day. (Actually, I drink them, blended into smoothies.) But the reason I only know the taste of Cavendish — and the reason you do too, unless you’re old enough to have had some Gros Michel mixed into your pablum — is that Cavendish bananas are resistant to the strain of disease that wiped out our original bananas. We have to assume that the Plan B bananas we now enjoy are only second best as far as flavor goes. They may not even be first best at survival, because the banana industry is searching for a Plan C banana to take the place of the Cavendish once the inevitable crop disease sends it the way of the Gros Michel — something that they predict will happen in the next decade or two. (See Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.)

Why are bananas so vulnerable to these blights? Why aren’t agricultural scientists worried about our other favorite fruits — apples, for example?

Because there are many different types of apples. I’m dizzied by the variety at our local produce warehouse.

But not only is there just the one type of banana at the green grocers and in supermarkets; each banana you’ve probably every eaten is a clone of every other banana you’ve eaten. One genetic pattern manifested billions of times over, across millions of households in the past half century. And each Gros Michel was a clone of every other one, too. That’s because bananas reproduce asexually (as do potatoes, another food that’s especially vulnerable to disease — remember the Irish potato famine?).

Cavendish DNA is different enough from Gros Michel DNA that the disease that targeted the one species was no threat to the other. But any infection that can kill one Cavendish plant can wipe out the worldwide supply.

There are many reasons food activists attack Big Agribusiness — some good, some bad, and some wacky. One criticism that seems eminently reasonable to me is a concern that Big Agra puts all its billions of eggs in one giant basket.

Once upon a time, genetic diversity in farm products was built into how farming took place. Farmers farmed local land with local genetic strains of plants and animals. Chickens may have come from Asia, and Europe never saw a tomato until the Spanish brought some back from the New World, but even as trade began to go global several centuries ago, the limits of transportation and technology meant that gene pools could be local and diverse in a way that is much harder in our era of global overnight shipping and transnational corporate bureaucracies.

If an infestation wipes out the Golden Delicious, I can eat Fugi apples instead. But if the Cavendish disappears tomorrow, there isn’t yet a different banana to take its place.


Do you remember in my earlier post when my professor presented to the "artificial life" department at Bell Labs? In the context of a communications-research lab, artificial life was about using the lessons of biology, ecology, and evolution to make telephone networks more robust.

You may think that agriculture is more "natural" than phone switches and fiberoptics, but farming often short-circuits nature’s mechanisms to suit our short-term goals. One of the main such strategies of nature is diversity. And as I tried to illustrate with the concept of the genetic deme and the relativity of fitness, diversity means that what looks like an inferior strategy today could turn out to be the salvation of the species tomorrow.

As Larry Reed wrote recently in the Freeman,

Statists those who prefer force-based political action over spontaneous, peaceful, and voluntary initiatives — excel at distilling their views into slogans. ("A Slogan Worth Your Bumper?")

But what I find revealing is the contradictions at play in the juxtaposition of different bumper stickers on the same car. (And when you see a whole bunch of bumper stickers on the same car, odds are you’re driving behind a left-wing statist.)


This past weekend, at a red light, I was behind a minivan that brandished three bumper stickers:

One said, "Women for Obama."

If that wasn’t enough to declare the driver’s politics, the next bumper sticker made the claim that strong public schools create strong communities.

The last bumper sticker advised us in rainbow colors to "Celebrate Diversity!"

(Pop quiz: Are bumper stickers #2 and #3 in accord or at odds?)

Now, it’s a standard complaint against leftists that they talk diversity while pushing ideological conformity. Political correctness, and all that.

But to me the greater irony is that the Left consistently pushes centralization. Eat local, buy local, but decide everything in Washington DC.

I know that there are left-wing decentralists, and perhaps they genuinely do see the important parallels between genetic diversity and political federalism, between local communities and local authority. But I keep thinking of a story Tom Woods tells of his attending a decentralist conference back in the 1990s, where he happily discovered like-minded activists from both Left and Right. But to the apparent delight of the left-wing so-called decentralists, the highlight of the event was the keynote speaker: Vice President Al Gore.

BananaBookNo, in my experience, the vast majority of people with Buy Local bumper stickers, as with the Celebrate Diversity crowd, are also often, e.g., Women for Obama — that is to say, champions of ever-more-centralized authority. I’m confident that the driver in front of me at the intersection saw no irony in celebrating diversity while advocating strong public schools — and an even stronger central government.

But in the biosphere, where diversity rules, order is spontaneous. That spontaneous order is both the cause of and the result from overwhelming diversity. There are no central strategies in evolution, only in the human world, and only in recent human history. Evolution gave the natural world hundreds of varieties of banana. The United Fruit Company (hardly a free-market firm, by the way) gave us only one.

[Cross-posted at LibertarianStandard.com]

you will cry aloud because of the king you have chosen for yourselves

King of ClubsThe Bible is so much more interesting when you read it not as a single narrative or message, but as various dialogs and debates compiled over many centuries.

In Genesis, multiple traditions are brought together in an attempt to tell a single story, and we have to disentangle the threads. Later in the Bible, entire books will stand in juxtaposition to other books on certain questions, such as Who exactly are God’s people? Or, How does God feel about civil authority?

The Judaism that produced Christianity is a Davidic religion — one that is entirely focused on the question of God’s chosen king. But in 1 Samuel, left surprisingly intact, is as anti-monarchical (and anti-governmental) a message as the American Founders would later specialize in writing.

Here’s Thomas Cahill on the passage in question:

Despite the overall success of the settlement, the Israelites are never without enemies, especially the growing menace of the Philistines, the Sea People, who after the collapse of Mycene sailed across the Mediterranean and began to occupy coastal towns such as Gaza, then inland towns such as Gath. Their encroachments brought them uncomfortably close to the Israelites, who sometimes found themselves living in Philistine towns under the boot of these enemies, whose name will come to mean “crude and uncultivated” and will serve as the basis for the word “Palestine.” (The story of Samson, the magnificent Israelite strongman who harried the Philistines, belongs to this period.) At last, the Israelites reach the conclusion that what they need is someone to give them visible unity, someone capable of uniting them in greater emotional cohesion—a king.

But YHWH is their king. Since the days of the qahal, the desert assembly of the pilgrim people, Israel’s political understanding has been that they are the gathering of God’s people, led by his handpicked spokesmen and answerable to no earthly king, a sort of theocratic democracy. “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you,” God advises the reluctant Samuel, his prophet and priest, whom the people have asked for a king. “It is not you they have rejected but me, not wishing me to reign over them anymore. They are now doing to you exactly what they have done to me since the day I brought them out of Egypt until now, deserting me and serving other gods.”

God is prepared to accept a monarchy, provided the people understand what they are getting themselves into. Samuel gives the people YHWH’s warnings:

This is what the king who is to reign over you will do. He will take your sons and direct them to his chariotry and cavalry, and they will run in front of his chariot. He will use them as leaders of a thousand and leaders of fifty; he will make them plough his fields and gather in his harvest and make his weapons of war and the gear for his chariots. He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, your vineyards and your olive groves and give them to his officials. He will take the best of your servants, men and women, of your oxen and your donkeys, and make them work for him. He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry aloud because of the king you have chosen for yourselves, but on that day YHWH will not hear you.

Is mediocrity intelligent?

ShortNeckedGiraffeWhen I graduated from college, I took a job working for the psychology department. I had unofficially minored in psychology and a couple of the professors liked me and wanted to keep me around.

One perk of this arrangement was that I got to go to Bell Labs (though it wasn’t called that anymore) with the biopsych professor as part of his entourage for a talk he was giving on signs of collective intelligence in species — not in the organisms, in the species itself as a sort of superorganism.

He was presenting to the "artificial life" department within Bell Labs, who wanted to see if phone networks could be made more robust by modeling the patterns of biological life.

The reason I was able to go was, in a sense, that I had decided not to go to graduate school, but here I was surrounded by PhDs who loved their jobs and were fascinated and passionate about their disciplines. And they got to work with high-tech everything. Very different from the bucolic environs of our tiny college campus. It didn’t quite inspire me to reconsider graduate school, but I think it did play a role in getting the biopsych prof to leave the academy for the private sector.

Anyway, it was in this presentation at Bell Labs that I first learned the evolutionary concept of the deme — an idea that has informed my thinking ever since, including my thoughts on politics. Before I was a full-blown libertarian, I was already opposed to uniformity, opposed to central plans, and in favor of decentralization of authority and decision making. That decentralism came from my understanding of evolution and information theory — of cybernetics in its broader sense.

Here’s what a deme is:

A deme is an isolated gene pool within a species. If a gene pool is isolated for long enough, its members can no longer reproduce with organisms from the main gene pool, and the deme becomes a distinct species. But while the deme is still a deme, still compatible with the species’ genetic mainstream (though distinct from it) it plays a crucial role in that species’ survival and future evolution.

The irony, from the perspective of the ever-upward model of evolution, is that this important subspecies is generally considered less "fit" than the main population. Because of its isolation, the deme hasn’t had the full benefit of progress made through the genetic trial-and-error process enjoyed by the mainstream. Not enough "cross fertilization."

Imagine an island where the giraffes aren’t as tall as their distant cousins on the mainland.

But what we often forget about the "survival of the fittest" is that fitness is relative and entirely contextual. What makes an organism better able to pass on its pattern to another generation depends entirely on the environment in which it strives to do so.

There is no absolute "better" evolutionary strategy. Better and worse depend entirely on time and place. As the environment changes, today’s better may become tomorrow’s worse.

FitnessHillClimbingTo make his point, my professor friend showed a "fitness landscape," a 3D graph, with fitness, in the evolutionary sense, mapped onto the vertical access, higher being more fit. Each horizontal axis represented some adaptation or variation of evolutionary strategy. You can only fit two more into a 3D map, but there could be an endless number of such dimensions. The purpose of this graph was to show "hill-climbing" behavior on the part of the abstract blobs that represented different species’ collections of survival strategies.

Now, hill-climbing behavior is not by itself a sign of intelligence. We don’t consider plants to be intelligent just because vines climb up out of the dark undergrowth or because leaves turn toward the sunlight.

But we do tend to consider an entity intelligent (or at least more intelligent) if it shows the ability to seek out higher peeks than the local hilltop it has managed to climb to. You can see that behavior in the graph above. The blob isn’t cohering at the hilltop; it’s sending tendrils downhill to explore the valleys and neighboring slopes. Those tendrils are the demes, lower on the fitness axis but essential to keeping the species-blob from stagnating on a peek that may prove temporary as the environment changes.

That may be too much to take in from such a sketchy but still dense description. You can download the paper here, if you’re interested in the details.

For now, just imagine some catastrophe that makes our vertically challenged island giraffes a successful Plan B for the species. Higher leaves are suddenly detrimental, but that’s what it’s easiest for the mainland giraffes to get to. If there is any cross-fertilization at all, the runty descendants of the island giraffes will begin to take over the mainland.

How fortunate for the species that it didn’t invest everything in the taller-neck strategy.

I have much more to say on this topic, but for now I will leave the political parallels as an exercise for the astute reader.

Was FDR a socialist?

I love Anthony Gregory.

And some of his stuff is just too good to be confined to Facebook.

Here’s a meme that the political Left has been promoting:

"They called me a socialist..."

Now, I’d probably have responded to that by pointing out that

  1. while the Fed and President Hoover may have created the Great Depression, FDR made it far worse and made it last far longer than it would have without the New Deal, or
  2. the so-called name calling that labels FDR a socialist is based on an accurate assessment of his policies, which were consistent with both the left- and right-wing socialisms of Western Europe, if not the big red menace of the East…

And that would have been boring and familiar, even if technically correct.

Instead, the brilliant Anthony Gregory innocently accepts the Left’s point and explores it further:

"They also called him a fascist when he threw people in concentration camps based on race, and a warmonger when he firebombed civilians by the hundreds of thousands, and a hypocrite when he oversaw legalizing alcohol only to turn around and ban weed, and a corporatist when he suspended antitrust to force businesses to merge and created the modern military-industrial complex, and a monster when he destroyed crops as people went hungry, and a liberal when he did it all with a smile." ~ Anthony Gregory

Anthony Gregory on the case for independence

From today’s Libertarian Standard:

Americans make particularly terrible imperialists. We are a people who prefer privacy and liberty in our own lives. We are a people with independence and rebellion in our national heritage. Ours is thus an even more hypocritical empire than that of the British.…

[T]he principles of human nature declared to the world from a small Philadelphia gathering 237 years ago were true then, before the US empire was born, and will remain true long after the US empire collapses.

And, as usual, a link back to my post of July 4, 2005:

“anarchist shadow holiday”