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The Illiberal’s Dilemma


In January of this year, media personality Matt Walsh tweeted “Singapore is able to have nice things in part because they execute drug dealers by hanging and arrest even petty vandals and thieves and beat them with a cane until they bleed. We don’t have nice things because we aren’t willing to do what is required to maintain them.” What is striking about this claim is the degree to which even illiberal activists like Walsh, who have made it their mission to oppose the modern world and return us to pre-modern structures of hierarchy and domination, are irretrievably infected by the logic of modernity. On an emotional level, what he thinks is “Drug dealers are sinners and should be scourged,” but he even to himself wraps this up in a materialist logic: “Drug dealers should be scourged because that will bring us prosperity.”

Everybody wants what modernity offers. And all the illiberals are tying themselves in knots trying to fit their own philosophy to it—hence the bizarre association of technological progress with caning people for smoking weed. Meanwhile, in the America that actually exists, weed is big business: the increasing legalization of marijuana has transformed it into a hundred-billion-dollar a year industry.

I want to explore this tension. My claim is that all contemporary illiberal movements face a fundamental problem: the illiberal’s dilemma. On the one hand, everybody wants what modern prosperity offers—power, comfort, security, wealth. On the other hand, illiberals reject what makes modern prosperity possible—freedom, diversity, the continual churn of change. We can taxonomize different varieties of illiberalism according to how they attempt to square this circle—from the herrenvolk democracies to the petro-dictators to the authoritarian capitalists. And perhaps we liberals can take our own lessons from their failures.

The Magic Beast

But before turning to the illiberal’s dilemma, a bit of essential stage-setting: a brief history of economic growth, 50,000 BCE to present. The facts I am about to rehearse here are commonplaces among economic historians, they are not well-known among the general public.

Prior to 1800, long run per capita economic growth was flat. In other words: for the first fifty thousand years after the invention of agriculture, the overall productivity of people didn’t change very much. Specific societies and places might see small periods of gradual enrichment—but these were, invariably, followed by contraction. And there were always more mouths to feed. Most people, for most of history, lived around the level of subsistence—above it, if they were lucky; below it, if they were not.

Around the year 1800, give or take a few decades, this changed; it changed in a specific place—England—and spread outwards from there. Long-run per capita economic growth started to average between 1 and 3 percent a year. Three percent growth might not sound like much, but compounded over a generation it means an economy that doubles in size every 25 years or so. Even over the lifetime of a single individual, this represents an astounding rate of progress. Children could expect to be twice as rich as their parents, and their children twice as rich as that. The impact of this on world history is hard to overstate: for the first time, there was enough to go around to guarantee every citizen not merely a decent life, but a luxurious one. The average individual in the modern world works less, earns more, and lives a life of security and comfort that would have been unimaginable to even the richest kings in the world in 1700.

This change was driven by a shift in the nature of technological progress. Modern wealth does not consist of the same stuff that existed in 1700, “only more of it.” We are not sitting on a giant pile of shovels, potatoes, wooden shoes and roughspun wool. Instead we made better stuff and we made it in new ways and we made it in incomprehensible quantities. This does not mean that growth depended on rare world-shaking inventions. Rather, it depended on tinkerers’ tweaks, ideas a mere two or three percent better than the previous one—but three percent, compounded over decades, turns out to be quite a lot. Modern economic growth is quite simply about the steady progress of technology and innovation

This sustained technological innovation is a product of a deeper change in culture, politics, and social form. In particular, it is a product of the transition from closed to open societies: societies in which increasingly large sections of the population have access to economic, political, and social participation. In particular, liberal democracy seems to be the social form best suited to generating, disseminating, and sustaining continual innovation. This is a less widely accepted theory among economic historians, but one for which there is strong evidence.

Here’s how that works in practice. An individual sees an opportunity to make things a little better or do things a little better. Maybe that means economically, and it gets them more money. Maybe that’s politically, and it gets them more votes. Maybe that’s socially, and it gets them more esteem. And at the same time, everyone else is constantly doing the same thing. And some of these experiments work and some of them don’t, and what works one year might not work the next. But on the whole, the continual ferment of experimentation produces some good ideas—not great, necessarily, but on the whole two or three percent better than what came before.

And of course there are winners and losers. Sometimes the churn produces mRNA vaccines, cheap solar power, rechargeable batteries that last for days and days, a universal translator in your pocket. Other days it produces leaded gasoline, acid rain, and black lung disease. That’s why liberal democracies also include mechanisms for addressing the common good in a democratic fashion: environmental protection, workers’ rights, welfare and social security. They distribute the stresses and strains of a society in continual motion without fracture. And so everyone is mostly okay with letting everyone else pursue their own perception of the good (or at least the slightly better) while they themselves pursue theirs.

This might all sound like a fairy tale except for the part where it works pretty well in practice. All that is solid melts into air, as the man said. What he didn’t add is that at the very same time new and better things are coalescing out of the air all around you.

The Illiberal’s Dilemma

The picture of modern prosperity outlined above poses a problem for illiberals. The fundamental nature of illiberalism—regardless of which palette-swap reactionary movement we’re talking about—is a pervading and indeed pre-intellectual libidinal love for hierarchy—for status, power, order, and violence. As the famous Wilhoit Proposition puts it: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: there must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” This of course gets dressed up in various ways, ethnic or religious and always, always patriarchal guises, but the fundamental idea is the same: there are some people who belong on top, and good things should accrue to them, and other people who belong on the bottom, and bad things should accrue to them, most especially domination and inferiority. Of course, being on top of the hierarchy in the modern world requires having all the stuff that modernity produces: the weapons, the medicines, the media, the food, the travel, the abundance, the everything. Everyone wants the stuff. No conservative who longs for an earlier age suggests cutting themselves off from the modern world in an intentional community, as the Amish have—because that would mean accepting an inferior place in the hierarchy of power.

The illiberal’s dilemma is therefore simple: modern economic growth and especially the continual churn of new productive technologies is inimical to the maintenance of stable status hierarchies. Consider one historically central example. The pre-modern world saw wealth and power based very consistently on a single thing: ownership of land, and the rents accruing therefrom. The industrial revolution increased the productivity of land—and, paradoxically, decreased the power of landowners, as they became an increasingly small fraction of the overall economy. Land became worth less and less as compared to industrial development—and, suddenly, our political and social worlds stopped orbiting around the big farmer up on the hill. A stable status hierarchy is a closed loop of political, economic, and social domination. The continual emergence of new and more efficient modes of production inherently threatens such loops. 

This dynamic recurs over and over. Coal baron from West Virginia? Sad news, new solar plants are cheaper than existing coal plants, and all those billions in assets you had buried beneath the ground are rapidly ticking down to zero. Don’t like Jim Crow? Move north and get a factory job. Your father wants you to be a boy? Move to the city and work as a coder. 

Modern illiberalism is driven by an attempt to square this circle: to maintain old hierarchies while participating in modern abundance. This allows us to analyze our varied cast of authoritarians in simple terms.

Varieties of Illiberalism

I want to focus on three contemporary illiberal formations: petro-dicators, herrenvolk democracies, and authoritarian capitalists. Each of these seeks to separate the churn of modernity and the stability of hierarchy in a different way. And each of them struggles to maintain that balance—in a different way.

Petro-dictators respond to the illiberal’s dilemma by displacing modernity in space. “Modernity abroad, repression at home,” with the gap bridged by the extraordinary wealth that oil brings. The fruits of modernity are purchased and imported, sustaining the wealth and power of the elite in their home countries. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the model here. The Kingdom is blessed with immense resource wealth in the form of gigantic deposits of light, sweet crude oil; this oil is one of the fundamental resources of the modern world; for decades it has been in extraordinarily high demand by the industrial economies of the world. This has allowed the House of Saud to sell oil, buy modernity, and keep their pleasing hierarchies intact.

This dynamic is sustained by the fact that oil requires an unusually small industrial footprint relative to its productivity. Pumpjacks and pipelines don’t run themselves, but the labor required is a fraction that of a coal mine and a railroad. Refining can take place abroad; advanced drilling machines can simply be purchased on the world market with oil revenues. The educated, skilled workforce that might otherwise demand social reforms can be kept at arm’s length from the petro-dictator.

Is this sustainable? Well, it worked pretty well for a long time. But the churn never stops. And these days the petro-dictators themselves are signaling pretty hard that they can read the writing on the wall: the green transition is coming, and “peak oil” no longer refers to the moment we run out, but the moment its price starts dropping and never stops, because new technology has enabled us to produce better products without oil. Hence Mohammed bin Salman’s increasingly outlandish pitches for ultramodern hubs of tech and finance built from whole cloth in the Saudi desert. Of course, if the foregoing arguments are correct, none of these are going to work without reform of the Kingdom’s political and social systems, because who wants to bank with a man who will have you cut apart with bone saws if you don’t like the interest rate.

Herrenvolk democracies respond to the illiberal’s dilemma by displacing modernity socially instead of physically. “Modernity for me, hierarchy for thee.” The model here is Orbán’s Hungary. Such states propose to offer the benefits of modern liberal democracies (democracy, rights, economic growth) to certain citizens, while simultaneously stripping it from others members of that very society—women, ethnic minorities, queers, and immigrants are generally at the top of the list here. This nominally provides the benefits of both modernity and hierarchy to those fortunate enough to be members of the true Volk.

As it happens, this does not work particularly well in practice. While Hungary might be beloved of America’s own eurofascist Claremont Institute, the Claremont bros typically neglect to mention that Hungary has the GDP of a mid-sized American city, and only achieves that much because it receives approximately ten percent of its own GDP in EU subsidies

Indeed, herrenvolkism has a quite predictable tendency to produce economic stagnation. They trend towards cronyism—towards a political economy not of growth and innovation, but favors and kickbacks. Letting the authoritarians into politics lets them pick winners and the losers—and mostly they like to pick their friends, it turns out. This feedback loop between government cronyism and support for herrenvolkism is central to its political economy—call it “rule by car dealership owner.” To the extent that herrenvolkism appears economically sustainable, it’s usually because it’s leeching off modernity in some obscure fashion.

Authoritarian capitalists respond to the illiberal’s dilemma by trying to establish a separation between the political and the economic spheres. “Modernity for the economy, hierarchy for politics.” The model here is, famously, China. From 1958 to 1976, Mao Zedong led China from the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward to the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution, killing tens of millions of Chinese citizens to no appreciable benefit, economic or otherwise. But beginning in 1978, Deng Xiaoping began a series of economic reforms intended to introduce a measured degree of capitalism into Chinese society while maintaining a stable but closed political system of rule by the Communist Party. The results, as we all know, were extraordinary, transforming China from starving backwater to industrial powerhouse.

Is this system sustainable? Maybe. But recent events suggest that things are breaking down in predictable ways. Xi Xinping has begun killing off profitable industries (like tech) and lifting up unprofitable ones (like farming). Combined banking and real estate crises signal an economy that is struggling to rebalance itself in the face of economic and demographic transitions. Decades of export-led industrialization produced a specific kind of power base. But now the churn continues, and its closed political system is struggling to manage the resulting shifts in power and prestige without fracturing. And Xi’s increasingly incompetent meddling in the economy shows no signs of slowing. Given the power wielded by personalist dictators, it is less than clear that a neat separation between an open economy and a closed political system is sustainable in the long run.

The Liberal’s Dilemma

So much for the illiberals and their dilemmas. There is a lesson here for we liberals as well. We too are confronted with the relentless churn of modern capitalism, this magic beast that throws up prosperity. And the chaos of it all offends our sensibilities. Surely there is so much waste. Fast food, fast fashion, all that cheap plastic crap filling up our landfills—surely we could direct it all in a better way.

This aspiration is given its latest expression in the contemporary “degrowth” movement, which aspires to reorient the world economy around not “profit” but “real human need.” It is therefore worth considering other historical attempts to harness the magic beast of modernity to total state control. And here we come to one project I have conspicuously failed to mention, because it was neither illiberal in conception nor liberal in execution: the Soviet Union. The great attempt at world communism began with the best of intentions: to overthrow oppression and liberate the people of the world.

Its planned economy promised to out-grow and out-produce wasteful capitalism by focusing not on profit but social need and genuine productivity. It was run according to top-down directives about how much of what kinds of material goods to produce. While the Soviets did not aim at degrowth but world preeminence, their failures are instructive. Unable to deliver steady per capita productivity growth, they compensated with natural resource extraction and Western debt. This practice of selling oil and importing advanced machinery has a certain parallel with the methods of petro-dictators: modernity abroad, hierarchy at home. 

But the facade could only be sustained so long, and in 1991 the Soviet Union would collapse entirely after Gorbachev’s failed attempts at economic and political liberalization. Like other non-liberal regimes before it, the Soviet Union failed to deliver the continual technological innovation and economic dynamism that sustains modern growth. That growth requires the freedom to experiment according to your own perception of the good—a freedom is incompatible with the goals of degrowth, as my colleague Paul Crider has argued.

From this world-historical debacle, certain liberals have drawn the lesson that the free market must be free, and the great task is to keep “politics” out of markets to the greatest extent possible. In a grimly ironic turn of events, the Soviet Union would once again be the ideological experiment-ground for ideological imports from the West. In 1991, the “best and the brightest” would bring unbridled free market capitalism to Russia—with results that are now painfully evident. Robber barons carved up the government into their own little fiefdoms, the economy (outside of oil windfalls) continued to stagnate, and now the country is being led to ruin by crooks and warlords. Capitalism without liberalism is just feudalism with a different name.

We liberals can therefore take our own caution from this history. The magic beast of modernity produces immense economic growth—so long as it is neither left completely free to run wild, nor broken completely to politicians’ saddles. That is the liberal’s dilemma.

Featured Image is Viktor Orban, by Herve Cortinat

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A Uniquely American Liberalism: Christopher William England’s Land and Liberty

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It is often remarked that the Americans and Europeans use the term ‘Liberal’ in quite different contexts—in the US, to signify a greater welfare state, while in Europe it is a signifier of free markets, with the two usages coinciding only on social issues. The distinct history of the two uses is not a mere linguistic artifact—instead, it speaks to the way in which the reinterpretation of classical liberalism, not (as in continental Europe) its abandonment in favor of Marx, created the welfare state in the US. This process involved many interpreters, but perhaps none had so great a popular influence as Henry George and his movement, a case compellingly made in Christopher England’s book Land and Liberty: Henry George and the Crafting of Modern Liberalism.

England’s book details the contributions of an incredible movement that in a real sense could be said to have birthed American Liberalism as it stands today, even as it was to a great extent left behind by it in the middle of the 20th century. There are many fascinating angles, from colonial liberation (George rallying support as an opponent of British colonialism in both Ireland and India) to energy policy (Georgists were among the strongest advocates of publicly owned power plants, particularly the burgeoning hydroelectric sector), but a few strings strike a particularly important chord: the emphasis on defining liberty relative to both regulation and monopoly, and the key role played by urban policy.

“Liberalism” as initially envisioned meant a freedom from government policy that constrained economic and political action. Hence, the early liberals encompassed a wide variety of activists seeking to tear down privileges where they saw them—everything from the Corn League attacking mercantilism in England to the National Assembly in France demolishing manorial privilege during the French Revolution. The industrial revolution, however—facilitated in many cases by the success of these movements—brought about new questions regarding the role of the state, as some liberals continued to see the state as a primary opponent of liberty while others viewed it as a potential counter to the growing power that industrial firms wielded over their employees, consumers, and competitors. This conception, however, seemed to fly in the face of what liberals had long believed about property and competition—that profit yielding investments, in a competitive market, could only improve the wealth of society and should not, in theory, constrain anyone’s freedom of action. Moreover, the classical liberalism of Smith’s Wealth of Nations or Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy was frequently taken to mean that any government interference would likely only deepen poverty, an interpretation not entirely justified by the theorists themselves but preferred by many economically powerful exponents of laissez faire governance.  

In the United Kingdom, these debates occurred within the Liberal Party, and led to the Liberal-Labour cooperation on the part of Liberals who saw the need for some of labor’s remedies. In the US, however, there has never been an official Liberal party and arguably by George’s time there still had never been one worthy of the name. George succinctly describes the way in which both parties included fundamentally illiberal principles when bemoaning the fact that “the political party that successfully challenged the aggressions of slave power also declared for a protective tariff.” George might have added that the party that abolished slavery was if anything more hostile to the organizing of the working class afterwards. This left the post-war United States without a party effectively able to claim a liberal mantle. The debate instead raged in both parties, with ‘Progressives’ eventually coming to the fore as opponents of monopolistic capitalism. However, Progressivism was either not fundamentally rooted in ‘liberal’ values, or else it had left them far behind. England notes that the Progressives of the time sought in many cases to simply replace the central planning of monopolies with the central planning of the state—giving “the nation state untrammeled authority over the individual in questions of the public good”. This manifested in what appear to be contradictions of the Progressive era, but which are to be expected if one views Progressivism of the time as a largely illiberal movement, one which accepted, and even championed, imperialism and eugenics. These fit comfortably within a movement that sought to perfect society by increasing the management of it by experts.

In England’s narrative, Georgism presented an alternative for many liberals who were active participants in the ‘progressive movement’ but were not themselves ideologically aligned with the Progressives. George’s view allowed for a general embrace of liberal freedoms while pointing out their downfall when applied specifically to certain kinds of property—particularly in land. Because its quantity could not be expanded, and because its locational value depended almost entirely on the quality of governance and prosperity of the surrounding community, land was an obvious exception to Lockean and Smithian views on property and markets. Each parcel constituted a tiny monopoly, as there was no parcel quite like it, and the huge tracts or interconnected networks of right of ways, necessary to run for example a timbering operation or railroad, were near impossible for a potential competitor to replicate. Thus, intensive taxes on land and community ownership of the natural monopolies derived from it were entirely consistent with a broader liberal view of free, unofficially coordinated community action generating prosperity. England convincingly describes how George, largely through re-interpreting points already made by Ricardo and Mill, created space within a general liberal framework for more active government action, right at the moment when the inequalities of the later industrial revolution made such action self-evidently necessary.

The difference between liberals influenced by George and their opponents—both Progressive and otherwise—showed up in a variety of cases. A great many liberals at the time followed the lead of Herbert Spencer, who had also at one point in his career advocated land nationalization. George, however, devoted much of his seminal work Progress and Poverty to castigating Spencerian ideas of Social Darwinism and racialized dreams of societal advancement. While Spencer saw society as in need of both social and biological evolution by the ‘pruning’ of its least competent members, George saw the apparent failings of both individuals and whole communities in resting on the unequal distribution of land and construction of society. England points out that for George this implication of his theories on property was so fundamental that he attacked Spencer for it even when he believed, as he did when drafting the book, the two were largely in agreement on the land question. The goal of George’s system, after all, was the elimination of poverty and the extension of freedom—national land ownership would avail the downtrodden nothing if it was not accompanied by these goals.

Georgists also clashed with Progressives in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt, especially after George’s death. England points out that many Progressives started out with a pronounced intention to ‘trust bust’ but ultimately ended up wedding government power to that of corporations. The ‘agreement’ ending the Panic of 1907, in which president Roosevelt coordinated with JP Morgan to stabilize the banking system in exchange for an implicit agreement to tolerate the latter’s consolidated control over industry, was only the most prominent example.

Liberals in the Georgist mode, on the other hand, tended to favor less regulation of business generally, but absolute ownership or otherwise across the board profit caps on industries deemed naturally monopolistic. For example, Georgists on a city level supported the creation of municipal streetcar networks, while nationally they pushed to retain government ownership of hydroelectric power generation. Many viewed the Interstate Commerce Commission, a bureau designed to reign in railroads, as a mistake—England describes prominent Georgist Louis Post as fearing it would become a “‘vice cop’ captured by bribery’”—and saw public ownership of the rails themselves as the only appropriate remedy. They had similar suspicions of the Sherman Antitrust Act, a fear that was validated when the act was used, in its initial decades, primarily to suppress labor unions. The vast majority of Georgists gravitated to the Democratic Party by the time it was headed by William Jennings Bryan, largely out of frustration with particular Progressive remedies as well as the conservative opposition to any kind of reform.

By the 1930s, when the Depression increased appetites for government intervention, Georgists split with the New Deal Democrats on issues like the National Industrial Recovery Administration, which pushed for broad regulations on wages, prices, and output, while championing efforts like the TVA that provided for government ownership of dams, waterways, and important electrical generation. The divide can still be seen within the Democratic party, though it is rarely understood in those terms: some elements of the Democratic party favor extensive regulation on housing, trade, industry, and the like, while others favor deregulation and market power. England’s description of George’s liberal movement provides ample advice to both: direct, effective government action where needed, and especially land value taxes to capture property appreciation, will serve better than either the current byzantine maze of land use and commercial regulations or laissez faire market economics most often associated with ‘neoliberals’. Georgists of the time would have approved both of transit investment and freer land use—and been appalled by the current system of government regulation that leaves urban development at the whims of a few government officials and major developers.

That these philosophical divides appear most sharply in cities should come as no surprise. England describes how George’s “experiences in the city of Philadelphia prepared him to see the urban community as a source of edification that could bolster democracy.” George’s path to prominence —self-educating at public libraries, gaining practical experience and a global perspective taking a tour as a merchant sailor, and then working his way up through the publishing industry—was a fundamentally urban story, the kind of trajectory largely unavailable to the ‘yeoman farmers’ that had previously been idealized by Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democrats. American liberalism had dealt with the land question before, but almost always in terms of agriculture and almost always coming up with the solution of simply giving out small parcels of land to individuals. Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, Polk’s conquest of Mexico, and Lincoln’s Homestead Act can all be seen as essentially efforts to reward a particular population of white independent farmers assumed to be the backbone of a democratic republic. As the frontier closed and the economy shifted to an industrial focus, another key role George played was in adapting the attitude to the city.

England shows George’s influence as the chief theorist and propagandist of the movement, but the practical protagonist in his story of urban reform is Cleveland mayor Tom Johnson. A millionaire entrepreneur, Johnson dedicated his life and fortune to public service after reading George’s work and energetically set about making Cleveland the ‘best run city in the country’ in the estimation of the famed muckraker Lincoln Steffens. England describes several major thrusts of municipal Georgists—ownership or at least control of natural monopolies, the impact on social policy, and the struggle for land taxation.

In Cleveland and elsewhere, the efforts to expand municipal power and transit were largely inspired by George’s prescriptions. Giving the democratically elected city government control over these crucial aspects of city life brought down the cost of electricity and transportation, and was justified on the liberal grounds that both industries depended on such extensive networks and benefitted from such efficiencies of scale that it was impractical to expect any kind of ‘invisible hand’ to control them. In other realms, especially criminal justice, George’s approach similarly changed policy. George had convincingly argued that wealth inequality and the poverty brought about by land monopolies was the source of most criminal behavior. Taking him to heart, mayors like Johnson in Cleveland and justice officials like George Creel and Ben Lindsey in Denver curtailed the use of the police and the punitive nature of punishments, particularly for ‘vice’ crimes. Even on a national level, this leniency and bias towards individual liberty was seen. Louis Post, whose Georgist writings form much of the core of England’s narrative, managed to find himself in charge of Wilson’s Bureau of Immigration during the infamous Palmer Raids on radicals, controversial dismissed the overwhelming majority of deportation cases brought across his desk, much to the chagrin of many caught up in the thrall of the First Red Scare. 

The question of land taxation was much more difficult—property tax law was by and large set by states (in the US—many Canadian cities, most prominently Vancouver, adopted land value taxes in the early 20th century) and most state governments were still dominated by rural interests. George’s message struggled to penetrate into these areas; England explains that the Georgist movement thrived on reading and discussion of political economy in union meetings, streetcars, and other public gatherings—even noting that one union, “the Chicago PAinters Assembly of the Knights of Labor devoted twenty minutes of every meeting to reciting passages from Progress and Poverty”. Tom Johnson was said to have been converted to Georgism after seeing a streetcar working reading George’s Social Problems. Outside of the urban environment that fostered these interactions, it failed to gain traction. Thus, the battle to control taxation in cities was fought primarily on two fronts: working for better property tax assessments when land was undervalued, and pushing for greater latitude for city governments. Progress was made on each, but England describes how the embrace of suburbanization after the first world war and its acceleration after the second largely stripped Georgist power bases of their votes and energy.

The history of the Georgist movement, so effectively laid out by England’s research and writing, is a crucial one for understanding the history of American liberalism, and its future. The rise of active and self-conscious illiberalism has occurred worldwide, both in ostensibly left and right contexts. An energetic understanding of what ‘liberty’ is and how it can be defended from multiple threats—both state and otherwise—is all the more pressing in this light. And as American cities see a revival in both popularity and astronomical land values, Georgist municipal leadership provides valuable lessons on how and when to embrace market efficiencies. The enduring challenge of liberalism is how to protect individual rights—including the most controversial ones, those to trade and property—without accepting the existence of privation and unfreedom that can come from those property rights. The Georgist movement and its role in the creation of modern American liberalism provides valuable lessons on how this can be achieved both in theory and practice. 

Featured Image is a bust of Henry George

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The Actual Ubiquity of Gender Affirming Care

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Our children are in danger and we need to protect them. There is a crisis in America, it’s bad and it’s spreading. You may have heard of it if you pay attention to the New York Times, the Atlantic magazine, or neo-fascist Matt Walsh. No, it’s not the epidemic of pastors and priests sexually abusing their flocks. No, it’s not the fact that child marriage is still legal in 43 states. No, it’s not the part where one third of pedophiles and rapists are family members of the abused. Rather, it’s trans teenagers asking their friends to call them a new name, or access puberty blockers, or get a prescription for hormone replacement therapy.

This moral panic frames gender affirming care as an issue exclusive to trans people: niche, experimental, untested, demanding. It is the thesis of this article that this is exactly backwards: gender affirming care is universal, pervasive, well-studied, and simple.

Let’s speak hypothetically. You have a daughter. She’s five years old—and puberty just hit. Her breasts are growing, her hips too, she’s started menstruating. This distresses her, it distresses you, you take her to the doctor. No worries: it’s an easy fix. You get a referral to an endocrinologist (or maybe your GP prescribes it right there), and soon enough your daughter has a prescription for a GnRH agonist, which will put these changes on pause until she’s ready for them. The drugs are quite safe—they’ve been used for this purpose since the 1980s.

Another hypothetical. You have a son. He’s hit puberty at the normal age—but there’s something wrong. A gene or two in the wrong place, and his body is pumping out estrogen and very little testosterone. He’s growing breasts. He’s growing hips. His voice is high and girlish. Everyone at school is tormenting him. But don’t worry, your GP tells you: this is another easy fix. The problem of contrasexual puberty has been known about for years, and can be resolved with medications you take at home. He’ll write you a prescription right now, because it’s important to stop these changes immediately, before they go any further. If the gynecomastia—the breasts, that is—don’t resolve themselves, he can refer you to a good plastic surgeon who can trim away that extra fat, no muss no fuss.

This hypothetical is worse. You’re in the sandbox, your APC eats an IED. When you wake up a Walter Reed, you have the singular horror of discovering that your dick got blown off. But don’t worry, the doctor says. We can make a new one for you–it’s a little tricky, of course, but we as a society recognize how important dicks are to men. The surgery is scheduled in six months–that’s how long it takes to grow a suitable skin graft. You’ll also have to take testosterone on a regular basis, which you can inject yourself without too much trouble.

One last hypothetical. Back to your imaginary daughter. She’s always been a bit of a mess, appearance-wise, and not in a cool tomboy way either: she’s just been kind of a slob and a dork. But now that she’s off to high school, she says she wants to clean herself up—get her hair done nicely, and start going by Amanda (“Mandy” is a child’s name, you see), and maybe you could teach her how to put her face on?  Or buy some nice clothes?  We don’t even need the doctor, this time: you can take her to the hairdresser yourself. And won’t it be nice to finally teach your daughter what you’ve spent a lifetime learning about makeup?

Of course, as you may have gathered, all of these hypotheticals are not at all hypothetical, but quite common. The specifics are varied. The causes of precocious or contrasexual puberty can be genetic, environmental, or just unknown. To take just one common example: polycystic ovarian syndrome, a common cause of hormonal and pubertal disorders, affects between 4 and 20 percent of all women. I spoke above of penile reconstructions; I might also have spoken about breast cancer and breast reconstruction, which is both simpler and more common—more than a hundred thousand such operations are performed in a single year in the United States. The last hypothetical, of course, is too ubiquitous to name or count. It’s just growing up as normal in America. These kinds of treatments are ubiquitous, safe, and provide hundreds of thousands of people with happier, more fulfilling lives every year.

There is, of course, one hiccup. All these hypotheticals end a bit differently if the patient is not a kid with PCOS or CAS or hypothyroidism, but instead a trans kid. To illustrate, let me speak not hypothetically, but from my own experience. When I first realized I was trans, I consulted my insurance—and discovered that gender-affirming care—for trans people specifically—was specifically excluded from coverage. This would change years later, in 2015, after an administrative ruling under the Obama administration. After that, I was required to first see a psychologist, who subjected me to a bizarre and outdated psychological battery—an endless series of questions that were all just paraphrases of “But are you really a man or a woman?”  Naturally, I answered “woman,” and was eventually referred to an endocrinologist. Pursuing further treatments required seeing another psychologist (this one skeptical and hostile) for some time, then seeing yet another psychologist, then finally submitting my “portfolio” to a further committee of yet more doctors and psychologists—before finally getting a referral to a surgeon.

Imagine if your daughter was denied medical care for years waiting for doctors and bureaucrats to get over themselves—as all the while a hormonal disorder was every day producing lifelong changes in her body. Imagine watching her classmates receive biologically identical treatments with nothing but a prescription from a GP, while the paper of record publishes handwringing articles about how she’s being rushed into irreversible decisions.

Imagine being the daughter.

This is the reality of trans care in the United States: not children being rushed to experimental treatments, but explicit segregation, discrimination, and the denial of basic care. When a trans kid wants to grow out her hair and change her name, it’s national news. When a cis kid wants to do the same thing, it’s Tuesday. When trans kids want hormone replacement therapy, we call it “gender confirming treatments” and publish article after fretting article about how strange and dangerous they are. When cis kids receive medically identical prescriptions, it’s Tuesday. We don’t even have a name for it. Because what’s normal is invisible.

The question before us isn’t whether we should allow trans kids access to special experimental treatments. The question is whether we enable trans kids to access essential medical care on the same terms we allow cis kids to.

Featured Image is a physician trying to take advantage of a young woman patient

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Heidegger’s Critique of Liberalism


Europe, it its unholy blindness always on the point of cutting its own throat, lies today in the pincers between Russia on one side and America on the other. Russia and America, seen metaphysically are both the same: the same hopeless frenzy of unchained technology and the rootless organization of the average man. When the farthest corner of the globe has been conquered technologically and can be exploited economically…when a boxer counts as a great man of a people; when the tallies of millions at mass meetings are a triumph; then, yes then, there still looms like a spector over all this uproar the question: what for?-where to?-and what then? The spiritual decline of the earth has progressed so far that peoples are in danger of losing their last spiritual strength, the strength that makes it possible even to see the decline.

Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics 

Martin Heidegger is one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century and was a member and defender of the Nazi party. The jarring divide between these two facts has made many people uncomfortable. Historically the common mode of apology was to cordon off Heidegger’s thinking from his politics, insist they have little if anything to do with one another, and remind everyone that being a bad man has never been a barrier to writing good books. Heidegger himself cannily leaned into these exonerations, describing himself to friends and admirers as politically naïve—the charming philosopher king who, like Plato, lacked common sense in his everyday dealings.

On one of the few occasions where he discussed his Nazi past, a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel published after his death, Heidegger downplayed his commitments and even claimed that anyone who attended his 1936 lectures on Nietzsche would recognize that they constituted “a confrontation with National Socialism.” Nevertheless, Heidegger refused to apologize and even doubled down on many of his anti-democratic and illiberal sentiments. He observed that “the planetary movement of modern technology is a power whose great role in determining history can hardly be overestimated. A decisive question for me today is how a political system can be assigned to today’s technological age at all, and which political system would that be? I have no answer to this question. I am not convinced that it is democracy.” Without a doubt Heidegger was confident that the long sweep of history would prove he was right about the big picture as the living testaments to his great errors faded. 

This position has become harder and harder to defend. Firstly because the publication of many of Heidegger’s posthumous works testify to both the depth and virulence of his Nazism, and especially his antisemitism. Especially notorious are Heidegger’s “Black Books,” which include gems like “even the thought of an agreement with England, in the sense of a division of imperialist ‘jurisdictions,’ does not reach the essence of the historical process that England is now playing out to its end within Americanism and Bolshevism, and this at the same time means within world Jewry. The question of the role of world Jewry is not a racial question, but the metaphysical question about the kind of humanity that, without any restraints, can take over the uprooting of all beings from Being as its world-historical ‘task.” 

Secondly, recent academic works by serious scholars like Emmanuel Faye and Ronald Beiner have done a lot to showcase the depth of Heidegger’s political commitments in practice and demonstrate how much of this flows from his more technical philosophy. And third and most importantly, Heidegger’s writings have enjoyed a surging popularity in today’s far right and neofascist circles. In particular Russia’s post-modern fascist Alexander Dugin has written hagiographic books on Heideggerian politics which have had a cultish influence. As Alexander Reid Ross put it in Against the Fascist Creep, the far right lumps him in the “panoply of ‘great thinkers’ in the fascist pantheon-Heidegger, Evola, Nietzsche, Junger, and Schmitt…”

Heidegger on an authentic politics

Part of the difficulty in understanding his politics is that, unlike Nietzsche or Schmitt, Heidegger is rarely straightforward in presenting his views. There is rarely anything as purple as Nietzschean invective against the “lie of equality of souls.”  Heidegger’s writing tends to operate in three rhetorical modes: reactionary pastoralism, technical academese, and grandiose bombast.  None have the literary charms of Nietzsche’s writing. But let there be no doubt that Heidegger shares all the conventionally anti-egalitarian convictions of the far right. In one of the rare moments of political candor in Introduction to Metaphysics Heidegger rails against liberal and socialist metaphysics—“metaphysically the same”—because they “aggressively destroys all rank and all that is world-spiritual, and portrays these as a lie.” He gloomily observes that the “darkening of the world is happening. The essential happenings in this darkening are: the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the reduction of human beings to a mass, [and] the pre-eminence of the mediocre.”

In Being and Time Heidegger takes aim at the philosophy of the subject which lies at the epicenter of liberal thinking from Descartes through Kant. He criticizes figures like Kant for assuming the basis of human experience is “reason,” and consequently putting the rational subject at the heart of social life. Instead Heidegger argues that our “structural primordiality” is in fact “care.” Before we reason about the world we are embedded within and care about it, which shapes everything from our perception to our experience of time. Heidegger criticizes Kant for assuming that human beings experience time in a linear fashion, proceeding from moment to moment. This has the moral consequence of inspiring us to think exclusively about the present, which obtains a reality denied to past and future. But in fact Heidegger insists human beings experience time “ecstatically” as a continuous fusion of past, present, and future. Think about a hockey player passing a puck. Yes she needs to apprehend the puck in front of her in the present moment. But she also draws deeply on her experiences and training past while projecting the puck into the future as she anticipates who to pass it to and how that will help the team win the game. 

This is in fact a profound contribution to the philosophy of the subject, and one doesn’t have to agree with Heidegger’s politics to profit from it. One of the great works of 20th century philosophy, Herbert Dreyfus’ classic What Computers Still Can’t Do, drew on Heidegger to critique AI theorists who assumed that consciousness was just a matter of being rational rather than embeddedness and care. The problem comes from how Heidegger interprets these phenomenological themes in terms of the inauthenticity of modern society. He argues that human beings (Dasein) experience tremendous angst or anxiety about the future, which makes us aware of our finitude by exposing us to the inevitability of death. As Macbeth once put it, the reality sinks in that death isn’t the shadow of life. Life is the shadow of death, and it will endure forever. 

For Heidegger, deeply impressed by modern liberal materialism and urbanism, most of us will choose to hide from the reality of our death in the world of the “they.” We become enamored of the “endless multiplicity of closest possibilities offering themselves—those of comfort, shirking, and taking things easy.” Paradoxically, in the pursuit of our individual comforts, we in fact become more and more indistinguishable from everyone else; caught up in the idle chatter of democratic mediocrity which imposes a levelling pressure. 

In Being and Time Heidegger holds out the possibility that, for some, confronting the reality of death might stir them to live more authentically by committing to great projects which would be elevating and distinct. Regarded in hindsight, successfully pulling off these projects can give them the impression and allure of a “destiny.” One might see in this Heideggerian emphasis on authenticity the seeds of a kind of romantic individualism or even a left wing critique of consumer society. But in fact Heidegger rejects these prospects, holding to the more volkish perspective that a “destiny” always belongs to a sufficiently worthy people. In this case the spiritually attuned Germans, whose metaphysical sensitivity elevates them far above the vulgarities of Russia and America.

 With this term [destiny], we designate the occurrence of the community of a people. Destiny is not composed of individual fates, nor can being-with-one another be conceived of as the mutual occurrence of several subjects.  These fates are already guided beforehand in being-with-one-another in the same world and in the resoluteness for definite possibilities. In communication and in the struggle the power of destiny first becomes free.

 When Hitler came to power Heidegger was enthusiastic, seeing in the Fuhrer the prospect of palingenetic ultranationalist renewal by committing the people to a destiny higher than the vulgar bohemian liberalism and socialism offered by the Weimar Republic. Upon assuming the Rectorship of the University of Freiburg and joining the Nazi Party Heidegger gave an infamous address which encouraged the students to submit to Hitler enthusiastically. He promised them they had a special role to play in the new order as the future “leaders and guardians of the destiny of the German people.” Their struggles on behalf of the new order would help bring about a new Germany whose job would be to save Western civilization from the decadent nihilism embodied in its geopolitical rivals. While Heidegger rarely succumbed to glorification of violence seen in other fascist thinkers, as Emmanuel Faye points out he nevertheless greeted the early triumph of Nazi arms as a confirmation of his theories. By contrast when the Second World War ended with Hitler foaming that his own people had failed, Heidegger’s response was to shrug and insist that it had proven nothing at a metaphysical level. As Ronald Beiner put it in Dangerous Minds:

On Heidegger’s view one needs to think in centuries. He assumed that people would be reading him for centuries (just as one continues to read Aristotle or Hegel). The twentieth century was a lost cause…But eventually people would forget Mussolini and Hitler and remember Heidegger. Three hundred years from now, people would see that philosophically, Heidegger was right, even if he made some tactical mistakes in the 30s. (Over the span of centuries, who would care what happened in the 1930s?) Gadamer once said (in the context of defending Heidegger!) that Heidegger, ‘true visionary’ that he was, was so preoccupied by modernity’s forgetfulness of Being that even the Nazi genocide ‘appeared to him as something minimal compared to the future that awaits us.’ That seems correct. For Heidegger, the extermination of European Jewry was ‘small change’ compared with what modernity is doing to the experience of Being.

The long march of history

 In his later works Heidegger adopts a more mystical and historical approach, which has led some to characterize the post-1930s as a “turn” in his thought beginning with Contributions to Philosophy. There is a lot of truth to this, but even here Heidegger retains his smug conviction that only “great and unrevealed individuals” would be the ones to both comprehend his contributions and act on them. And in fact Heidegger’s historical writings have proven  a significant a source of inspiration to both progressives and the far right. Social democrats like Richard Rorty and critical deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida will be attracted to Heidegger’s radical critique of bourgeois society and his emphasis on the communal character of identity. They will often use the resources in Heidegger’s thinking to argue for more cooperative modes of life while preserving that they take to be valuable in the liberal tradition. But it is the far right that will more sincerely carry his legacy forward, with Dugin in particular greeting Heidegger’s call for a “new beginning” by developing the neofascist “fourth political theory.”  

Heidegger’s philosophy of history echoes Nietzsche’s in radically condemning Western  civilization as a whole. Unlike more timid reactionaries, who tend to cordon off a point in Western thought and say “after this, the fall,” for Heidegger the rot was present from the very beginning. Consequently it needs to be pulled up root and stem. In some respects this is refreshing. At the very least Heidegger is brave enough to acknowledge the deep linkages within Western thinking without giving into the lazy reactionary impulse of suggesting everything was going fine until Locke or Marx put pen to paper.

 For Heidegger the start of our troubles goes all the way back to Plato. Rather than contemplating the ontological question of Being directly, Plato reduced Being to the ideas of the “forms.” In so doing we saw the withdrawal of Being and a transition to the metaphysics of the “being of beings.” What exists are just separate entities whose characteristics can be understood and minced by reason. From there it was a long but rather inexorable slide to modern thinking inaugurated with Descartes, where a rational subject “enframes” the world as nothing more than a collection of things which can be technically manipulated to gratify banal human desires. As Heidegger puts it in The Question Concerning Technology, this modernist enframing “blocks the shining-forth and holding-sway of truth. The destining that sends into ordering is consequently the extreme danger. What is dangerous is not technology. There is no demonry of technology, but rather there is the mystery of its essence. The essence of technology, as a destining of revealing, is the danger…The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatuses of technology. The actual threat has already affected man in his essence. The rule of Enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hance to experience the call of a more primal truth.”

This modernist Cartesian metaphysics lies at the basis of the great egalitarian and “humanist” doctrines of liberalism and socialism. Heidegger was profoundly unimpressed by the weight which unthinking partisans put on this dispute. From his perspective liberalism and socialism were metaphysically the same in viewing the world as a collection of things to be technically manipulated for human purposes. They only differed on the economic means to achieve this; seen philosophically their argument was about the best way to design and distribute can openers. Not coincidentally this kind of rhetoric lends itself very easily to fascist calls for a “third” or “fourth” way that rejects egalitarian humanism. 

While it is presented in very pregnant language, Heidegger’s exceptionally idealist philosophy of history compares very poorly to the vastly more sophisticated takes of Hegel, Marx, and even his major influence Nietzsche. This is because it outdoes Hegel in its idealist fixation on philosophy—and metaphysics in particular—as the Rosetta stone through which all other historical developments are to be read. The result is a cheesy and self-aggrandizing vision of Western history as essentially a series of footnotes to Plato’s Republic until we get to Heidegger’s own work.  Hediegger relegates all the geopolitical transitions, economic developments, and actual human suffering to second tier status. As Habermas puts it in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.

The history of philosophy had already become a key to philosophy of history for Hegel. The history of metaphysics holds a comparable rank for Heidegger; through it the philosopher masters the sources from which each epoch fatefully receives its own light. This idealistic perspective has consequences for Heidegger’s critique of modernity.

His idealist mania explains why Heidegger could make some truly stupid and deeply offensive conflations between the gas chambers of Auschwitz and mechanized farming, since both embodied the nihilistic metaphysics of modern technology. This only makes sense where one ascribes such paramount analytical importance to idealist metaphysics that the materiality of producing food to preserve life and murder on an industrial scale become undifferentiated; mere ontical phenomena of secondary importance compared to a new translation of Aristotle.


In his great book Heidegger and Politics Alexander Duff rightly points out that Heidegger’s thinking is not “coextensive” with Nazism and should not be treated as such. It would be going too far to say with Rorty that the challenge of our time is that our greatest philosopher was a Nazi. But unlike cheap court philosophers like Alfred Roseberg, Evola, or Dugin, Heidegger was legitimately a profound thinker whose work contains insights few serious analysts can ignore. My personal conviction is that the insightful core of Heidegger’s critique of the rational subject can readily be saved and given a liberal and materialist twist; for instance by following De Beauvoir and Merleau Ponty in foregrounding the role the body plays in shaping our experiences of the world. Doing this helps rescue Heideggerian thought from its addiction to idealist grandiosity and brings it back down to earth where real people live, work and often suffer needlessly.

But that doesn’t mean letting Heidegger off the hook for his brutality. In The Jargon of Authenticity and Negative Dialectics Adorno recognized that the failures in Heidegger’s project lay in ascribing a kind of aesthetic grandiosity to his flavor of authenticity. While for others living authentically might mean rejecting tyranny, Heidegger carefully tames any such emancipatory potential by insisting that authenticity is where an individual and indeed the community’s whole being becomes totally committed to a “destiny.” And not any destiny, let alone one they democratically set for themselves. Instead a destiny considered worthy by a philosopher like Heidegger. But a philosopher will never be able to compel the mediocre masses to their destiny on his own. He’ll need to use the political power of the state, and if that means allying with authoritarianism then so be it.  But since Heidegger had no real understanding of the brutalities of power, he failed to recognize how the exercise of authoritarian power would warp the soul and body of ordinary Germans to transform them into banal servants of the Fuhrer’s will. In this way a philosophical enterprise that initially set itself against the triteness of the everyday came to lend ideological support to the most monstrous kind of inauthenticity the world has ever seen. 

What Heidegger, with all his anti-democratic inegalitarianism, never understood is that the most important kind of democracy is the democracy of the human soul. We are each of us divided into many parts, which confront and live in one another to produce the drama that makes us human. The jargon of authenticity which wishes to smelt the democracy of the soul into a singular will commanded by the philosopher or dictator distorts us. The irony is that when power demands authenticity from those who cannot will otherwise is it destroys the very possibility of living a life of integrity.

Featured Image by Andreas Praefcke

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56 days ago
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Richard Fierro: Real American Hero

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The events that unfolded in a small LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs last fall could have been ripped from the script of any gritty action movie. A decorated war vet long since returned home to civilian life is out for a night of wholesome revelry with wife, daughter, and family friends, when unspeakable violence explodes around him and his long-dormant military training comes roaring back to life. We all know what happens next: the good guy pummels the bad guy to a satisfying pulp, and everyone lives happily ever after. But the hero riding off into this particular sunset was different. What happened in the aftermath of Richard Fierro’s bravery that night was a plot twist no Hollywood screenwriter would dare try to sell.

Instead of serving the expected masculine tropes—giving us a strong silent type, perhaps, or someone less laconic and more prone to spouting gruff macho platitudes about honor and duty—Fierro wept openly in interviews. Seemingly unashamed of his tears, he cried not only for the five people he was unable to save, but for the trauma responses he knew would lay ahead for those who had survived. Unapologetic about his anger toward the shooter, he freely admitted that his goal had been to kill the man who was threatening the lives of his family and friends. But instead of glorifying the violence he’d just committed, Fierro was candid about the psychological toll of his four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, lamenting that the civilians around him were about to experience something all too familiar through no fault of their own.

The right has long bemoaned the current state of masculinity, painting progressives in this post-#MeToo era as bent on nothing short of the complete emasculation of the American male. Fierro’s acts of bravery lay all that definitively to rest. The macho possibilities his character portrait exemplify make clear that it’s not masculinity per se that progressives take issue with, but a particular varietal of masculinity—entitled, expansive, self-aggrandizing, violent, emotionally stunted and ultimately immature and needy—that has held too many of us in its sway for long enough. 

Watching Fierro recount the details of that night serves as a crash course in a new, non-toxic American masculinity. Instead of reveling in the attention, Fierro immediately clarifies that the situation is not about him, shifting the focus to his daughter grieving the loss of her beloved boyfriend and his friends hospitalized with critical injuries. Instead of allowing an interviewer to paint him as the night’s lone savior, he credits the efforts of another young man (apologizing for not getting his name, since identified as Thomas James) in helping him pull the gunman down and knock the rifle out of reach. Instead of aggrandizing the effectiveness of his combat training, he expresses gratitude that it allowed him to protect his family but condemns “the guys running around doing GI Joe stuff” and explains that he’d left the military because he was “done doing this stuff—it was too much.” Instead of pretending that this kind of violence leaves no effect on those who commit it, he expresses regret for having to ask the people helping him to “kick another human in the head.” 

Even as he was describing how he had ordered one of the performers to stuff her stiletto into the attacker’s face, Fierro managed to effortlessly get her pronouns right. (Later reports suggested that the person with the now-iconic shoe was in fact a trans woman, not a drag queen—a distinction Fierro is not to be faulted for mistaking in the moment, but important to correct in retrospect.) “These kids want to live that way, want to have a good time, have at it,” Fierro has said of the drag performers. “I’m happy about it because that is what I fought for, so they can do whatever the hell they want.”  Characterizing queer culture as one of the distinctively American freedoms combat veterans take themselves to be protecting puts the lie to narratives that portray patriotism as the sole province of the most conservative wings of the Republican party. 

It’s almost certainly no coincidence that the attack at Club Q took place on Trans Day of Remembrance. The gunman was right about one thing, at least: trans and queer people, and the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ experiences into America’s larger cultural identity, represent a serious threat to the old regressive forms of masculinity that are represented in part by the shooter himself (not to mention the killings at the Universities of Idaho and Virginia that happened in the same tragic week). These old ways of being a man are dying, and while there’s unfortunately no reason to think these will be the last of many violent extinction bursts, Fierro’s heroic response tells us something important about the direction we are headed. Masculinity is still in crisis, but many boys are no longer being told that they can’t cry, and many men are being shown that they can protect their loved ones and still be emotionally available to them afterward. “I really hope people use this,” Fierro said, “and kind of shake someone’s hand, man—give them a hug, give them a kiss.” 

Fierro’s masculinity doesn’t pretend that all problems can be solved by talking them out; it recognizes that there are moments when the only thing that can stop violence is more violence. But this masculinity recognizes the costs of violence. Fierro knows what violence does to you—witnessing it and perpetrating it—and you can hear the heartbreak in his voice knowing what’s to come in the months and years ahead for his family, friends, and community members now affected by it. He has the experienced maturity to recognize that while violence is sometimes a necessary evil, it always exacts a psychological and moral toll, and it is never an end in itself.

“I have never encountered a person who engaged in such heroic actions and was so humble about it,” said Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers. Men like Fierro have always existed, of course—what’s new here is the ideal of masculinity he represents for the rest of us. He’s a husband who runs with his wife a successful “female-forward,” Latino-owned brewery whose motto is “Diversity, It’s What’s On Tap!”  He’s a dad unfazed by queer sexuality who goes to a drag show with his daughter.  He’s a friend unashamed to show how deeply he cares about the well-being of those he loves. He’s an ally who understands that when heteronormative privilege thrusts a megaphone into his hands he should use it to speak out for those whose queerness makes them likely to be ignored or afraid to be identified. Self-described as “just a dude, … a fat old vet,” Fierro is a new kind of progressive everyman whose bravery, humility, and compassion make him an instantly iconic ally to the LGBTQ community. 

The recognition that masculinity can evolve, and is evolving, raises the natural question of where we think we might eventually end up. Some feminists and other gender theorists argue we should think of gender as a spectrum–with pure masculinity on one end and pure femininity on the other, and all of us actual human beings living our actual lives somewhere in between. If they’re right, then what it is to be a man is probably always going to include the necessity of grappling with violence. But others vote for rejecting the gender binary altogether, arguing that we should stop affixing artificially gendered labels onto virtues and character traits that are, properly speaking, just different ways of being human. Regardless of who’s right, everyone would agree that we’re venturing into new territory in our collective understanding of what it means to be men and women. Bell hooks once bemoaned that, “[b]ombarded by news about male violence, we hear no news about male love.” Richard Fierro’s bravery offers up a tantalizing glimpse of what it’s like to hear about both.

Featured image is “Toxic Masculinity“by Sarah Mirk.

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The Case Against Dictatorship

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The problem with democracies is that they are sclerotic, indecisive, and dithering; by contrast, states ruled by strong and capable dictators are capable of rapid policy change–or so it is argued.  As one prominent critic puts it, democracies “are inherently reactionary and absolutist” compared with dictatorships, which “accept the most daring political and social experiments.”[1]  Certain events seem to bear this perspective out: in America, a pioneer of liberal democracy, our representatives regularly struggle to perform basic tasks like agreeing on a budget. In Israel—another liberal democracy, but with very different institutions—such difficulties have led to elections being held with comical frequency.

Meanwhile, it is China’s system, rather than a monarchy or the fascist state, which stands as the alternative to liberal democracy. In 2020, The Atlantic ran a defense of China’s massive Internet censorship regime, mere months after their heavy-handed and flat-footed response to the COVID-19 outbreak allowed the novel virus to escape and become the world’s problem. Yet as liberal democracies struggled with the consequences of this for the years that followed, China was largely praised for its willingness to lock down large population centers to an extent most other countries had little political appetite for.

Now, however, China has failed to vaccinate their vulnerable elderly population to any great degree, while those who have been vaccinated have received a markedly inferior product. Their lockdowns have grown more and more intense as the contagiousness of COVID has increased by leaps and bounds; for this and other reasons, US GDP will actually grow more in percentage terms this year than China for the first time in my lifetime. Russia, meanwhile, has spent the year on a failed and pointless invasion for which they have paid a substantial cost in national wealth, geopolitical strength, military hardware, and human life.

Regimes blunder; this is not unique to China or Russia, or to non-democracies in general. But contrary to Mussolini and less nefarious critics, liberal democracy does have important structural advantages over its rivals that are too often overlooked.

One reason for this oversight among even its friends is that liberal democratic ideals are so dominant today.  Today, nearly every country in the world is either a liberal democracy or to some degree pretends to be. As of 2013, 90 percent of the world’s population lived “in independent states with constitutional documents that asserted their democratic character.”[2] Moreover, most of these assert their liberal democratic character in particular; even North Korea’s constitution promises “freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, demonstration and association.”[3]  Even Mussolini himself, while rejecting that “numbers, as such, can be the determining factor in human society” or the right of “numbers to govern by means of periodical consultations” nevertheless felt compelled to portray fascism as “real democracy.”[4]

Understanding the practical strengths of liberal democracy paradoxically requires a bit of demystification. North Korea may present a stark example, but even in the best cases liberal democratic ideals soar far above the reality on the ground. Ideals are abstracted from the messy details of life; they can be used to judge just about any sort of regime or society, at any point in history. But the liberal democracies that exist today, even as varied as their institutional particulars may be, share a family of key traits. They are a particular type, which developed under particular conditions, and which may not be possible absent those conditions. Their pioneers may well have held liberal democratic ideals or older, related ones, but they needed more than ideals to navigate the political realities of their day.

Among those realities was the development of a citizenry who are “modular,” able to form links between one another “which are effective even though they are flexible, specific, instrumental.”[5] This quality emerged as part of the global transition from agrarian to commercial societies. After all, modularity is wonderfully useful for investors, business owners, and employees, and for the many who enjoy the social benefits that result from the contractual and financial links these groups form. It can be troublesome for regimes, however. After all, the average country has a population in the tens of millions; it doesn’t require a very large fraction of these modular millions to link together and cause serious trouble for the governing class.

Every society faces crises due to natural disasters or disease, or even due to social change that is on the whole positive, such as economic growth. These crises produce broad unrest among the highly capable “modular” masses, as well as among elites. Liberal democracies have the mechanisms to see the signs of unrest before it erupts, and to act decisively in response to this information. By contrast, the very means by which non-democracies insulate incumbents from competition sabotages their ability to understand and respond nimbly to changing circumstances.

Flexible, responsive, and effective

During the debates over ratification of the American Constitution, the anti-federalists made the case that republics had historically been very small, and that a geographically large one could not be sustained. James Madison famously argued for the virtues of an “extended republic,” but what was lost on both parties is that the primary reason republics had been small in the past is that it could not have been otherwise.

Our world is very different from the one that the old republics and monarchies existed in. In the agricultural societies of the pre-modern world, it would have been quite difficult to send representatives from New Hampshire or Georgia to Washington, DC, and harder still for voters to find out what those representatives were up to. Today, voters in California or Oregon can send representatives to DC and keep up with events there practically the moment that they occur. Moreover, representatives in DC can write laws which can be communicated to officials and courts across the vast continental territory of the contemporary United States. Modern transportation and communication technologies enable a degree of centralization across enormous territories that was impossible until very recently in the history of the world.

As already discussed, the “modularity” of the modern citizen, stemming in no small part from the broad-based enrichment and access to technologies of coordination, creates a great deal of risk for regimes that outright ignore even very small interest groups. Genuinely open electoral competitions for government leadership with universal enfranchisement provides an institutional valve for the many interests and factions of a nation-state to exert influence, thereby discouraging extra-institutional measures. This is especially true of legislatures, which by their nature subdivide the electorate and thereby create representatives to negotiate on behalf of particular interests.

The chief distinguishing characteristic of liberal democracy is the way that the elected offices relate to the rest of the system. The lion’s share of non-democracies today hold elections too, but they are either rigged to some degree, or the offices themselves hold no real power. By contrast, as Joseph Heath describes, “a successful, well-administered, and reasonably responsive liberal state” is:

the product of an ongoing internal tension between an essentially technocratic executive branch, an elected legislature that is highly responsive to public opinion, and a judiciary endowed with important supervisory functions. (. . .)each brings its own considerations and concerns to the table, and policy is ultimately determined through the interaction that results.[6]

In a sense, voters choose officials who go on to use the executive branch to govern well on behalf of those very voters. This of course is a considerable simplification; Heath himself emphasizes the wide berth of discretion that actors in the executive branch effectively have in their daily decision making, in any regime type.

Nevertheless, the responsiveness of the elected officials in a liberal democracy and their ability to turn this into actually executed policy should not be underrated. Ari Berman for example cites the testimony of an Edgefield County, South Carolina council chairman on the effects of voting reform there:

We paved roads for the first time in the black communities, improved garbage collection, changed road signs, got blacks in every office in the court house, changed the land fill, got a black magistrate, and started a rural fire department.[7]

Once the electoral system was modified to be more responsive, these public benefits were quite rapidly invested in. The African American constituency’s vote was given teeth, and their representatives actually put the local government to work on their behalf.

Plainly a moral victory. In a non-democracy, such pockets of ignored populations in a country would remain so. But purely from the perspective of a regime’s stability and self-preservation, this sort of result has practical merit as well. While the Edgefield County African American population may seem harmless before the enormous power of a modern government, allowing even relatively small segments of the population to become marginalized and neglected risks creating a base for the regime’s opposition to mobilize in the future. In a liberal democracy, of course, this mobilization can be channeled through elections, potentially resulting in incumbents being removed from office peacefully. In a non-democracy it could contribute to bringing down the whole regime.

No regime type is guaranteed a particular practical outcome; be it economic growth, an uncorrupt bureaucracy, or effective pandemic prevention. All regimes will stumble, all types of regimes will at times get on the right track for some area or other. But liberal democracy has the best set of institutional arrangements to give it the best shot of getting to a good outcome, though it may involve no small amount of muddling through to get there.

If that sounds like a qualified defense, it is only so if the point of comparison is utopian. Liberal democracy holds unqualified superiority over all other actually existing regime types.

The brittleness of non-democracy

The myth of the dictator is of a man who is not held back by politics and is therefore able to act decisively on behalf of the public good. But politics is nothing more than the striving “for a share of power or to influence the distribution of power”[8] and the politics that dictators must engage in to obtain power and to keep it thereafter is not only nastier from a moral perspective than the politics of liberal democracies, but also ties his hands in a number of crucial ways. All regimes are constrained, but the constraints on all modern non-democratic regimes are systematically at odds with long term stability and citizens’ wellbeing.

The methods by which incumbents in non-democracies come to power are many. Some were elected by young or fragile democracies, and insulated themselves from competition after taking office. Some were military leaders who used their superior force of arms to take power from civilian leadership. Some were well organized outsiders who opportunistically seized power when the prior regime was weakened or vulnerable in some way. Some are selected through internal party procedures in a one-party state.

Once in power, they must take measures to stay there. The termination of electoral competition does not mean the termination of constituents that must be appeased; it simply means that those constituents represent a drastically narrower set of interests. Military dictators can be decisive indeed, when they are decisively pilfering the country to pay off their key supporters within the military itself. Party chairmen can be decisive when having competent officials arrested or assassinated to prevent the rise of any potential rivals.

In Sheena Greitens’ study of dictators’ intelligence organizations, she notes that “managing popular unrest is best accomplished using a unitary and inclusive internal security apparatus,” that is, an organization that is centralized and draws on the general population for its personnel. Securing a dictator’s position against coups by other elites, however, “calls for fragmented and exclusive coercive institutions,” that is, multiple organizations pitted against one another with tightly restricted membership.[9]

Coups are almost always the more imminent threat, and so most dictators will take measures to “coup-proof” their regime in the manner Greitens suggests. This keeps each agency dependent on the dictator’s goodwill, as they can be discarded for one of their rival agencies if they show themselves to be disloyal. The exclusivity of their membership keeps them segregated from the general population, making them unlikely to collaborate with them against the regime. But this very separation makes it more difficult to gather information about the population, and the pressure to prove themselves over their rival agencies can lead intelligence services to take unnecessary actions. The combination of a bias towards action with poor information make it much harder to engage in “more targeted, pre-emptive, and non-violent repression” and the regime therefore ends up with “higher levels of and less discriminate violence.”[10]

This problem is most acute in personalist autocracies, “where one person rules(. . .) constrained only by the de facto power of other people, rather than by more or less impersonal rules, norms, or customs.”[11] Russia’s Putin is a contemporary example of this. By contrast:

[I]n China, after Deng Xiaoping’s death in 1997, formal rules and implicit understandings came to effectively limit the terms of General Secretaries of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and even during his lifetime party bodies met regularly to make policy[.][12]

Deng’s reforms enacted an institutionally constrained form of non-democracy, which are more successful and more numerous than personalist non-democracies. These may suffer from Greitens’ dilemma less acutely than their personalist counterparts. Nevertheless, these too face great challenges in gathering accurate information about their populations. While far from perfect, in a liberal democracy “polls, independent media, and the like provide a reasonably accurate” source of information about a regime’s level of political support among society’s factions. But for incumbents in non-democracies, “their very power gives many groups in the population incentive to hide their true feelings.”[13]

Almost by definition, non-democracies exercise substantial control over their national media. The line between non-democracy and liberal democracy, after all, rests to a great degree on the barriers that are set up against opposition groups. And one of the most common barriers placed is on the ability of opposition groups to publicize their criticisms widely or to get taken seriously by popular media outlets. The Peruvian government in 1990 kept itself in power through an extensive bribery ring of both officials and members of the media, but notably “bribes paid to TV stations were more than a hundred times the amount paid to politicians[.]”[14]

Both the barriers to electoral contestation in the institutional sphere and the barriers to public criticism in the information sphere come at a cost for the regime. While it may help them stay in power in the short term, it can leave them flying blind to the level of their true support among the population. Moreover, if state media makes claims that “habitually conflict with lived experience or deeply held popular values, or contradict other trusted sources of information,” then rather than shoring up the regime’s position it can reduce its credibility. As Xavier Marquez puts it:

[C]riticism can be a source of information about lower-level malfeasance, popular needs and desires, and general policy feedback(. . .)and allows [the regime] to modulate its own messages; and it also bolsters its own credibility on occasion. (. . .)A sophisticated information management strategy thus does not attempt to silence all government criticism, but instead tries to prevent criticism from escalating into potentially uncontrollable collective action.[15]

He notes that China’s public sphere “produces much criticism but little coordinated action.” The approach that 21st century authoritarians have by and large converged on, therefore, is not total control of the media, which in the era of the Internet is anyway impossible. Instead they must maintain a fine balance. Does anyone truly believe that such a goldilocks approach to information management is permanently sustainable? Indeed, China has just recently faced open protest of the regime, which they have responded to with a mixture of repression and concessions.

The bottom line is that those non-democracies that tend to be more successful and long lasting than others almost all emulate “the institutional repertoire of representative democracies, using parties and elections to their advantage, ditching obvious and ineffective propaganda, and learning to live with more open public spheres.”[16]

In other words, most of them come quite close to the line of being liberal democracies, and simply take measures to make it very unlikely that current incumbents will have to leave office. Can such a system truly live up to the hopes that critics of liberal democracy have for it? Would it not plainly import many of the problems of liberal democracy without the benefits of true electoral competition for the highest levels of authority?

Why bother?

No non-democracy is ever going to solve the problem of succession and peaceful transfer of power as thoroughly as liberal democracy does. Meanwhile, those non-democracies that try to have it both ways need to maintain several fragile balancing acts simultaneously in order to survive; is it so surprising that they frequently fail to do so? In China, not only has the information management regime failed to prevent the recent protests, but its current head of state has dismantled many of the institutional constraints set in place during the Deng era, moving the country towards a personalist dictatorship with all of the warts that regime type brings with it. China’s last such case did not work out especially well.

At the end of the day, if most non-democracies feel compelled to come as close to liberal democratic institutional arrangements as they can while still insulating incumbents from competition, and to characterize themselves as liberal democracies in their own official documents, one wonders what the case for dictatorship really is. Why settle for anything less than the real thing?

[1] Mussolini, Benito, and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” World Future Fund, September 1, 2022. THE DOCTRINE OF FASCISM.

[2] Márquez, Xavier. Non-Democratic Politics: Authoritarianism, Dictatorship, and Democratization. London: Palgrave, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2017. 22.

[3] Quoted in Ibid, 23.

[4] Mussolini, Benito, and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” World Future Fund, September 1, 2022. THE DOCTRINE OF FASCISM.

[5] Gellner, Ernest. Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals. Penguin History. London: Penguin Books, 1996. 100.

[6] Heath, Joseph. The Machinery of Government: Public Administration and the Liberal State. New York, New York, United States of America: Oxford University Press, 2020. 32-33.

[7] Berman, Ari. Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. First edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 156.

[8] Weber, Max, David S. Owen, Tracy B. Strong, Rodney Livingstone, Max Weber, and Max Weber. The Vocation Lectures. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub, 2004. 33.

[9] Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Dictators and Their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 17-18.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Márquez, Xavier. Non-Democratic Politics: Authoritarianism, Dictatorship, and Democratization. London: Palgrave, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2017. 63.

[12] Ibid. 64.

[13] Ibid. 131-132.

[14] Ibid. 141.

[15] Ibid. 138

[16] Ibid. 243.

Featured Image is Protestors Hit Spanish & Italian Fascists in DC: 1939, by Harris & Ewing

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