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Focus on Freedom

Libertarians Need less Strategy -- and more Principle!

by Paul Wakfer


As the various corporate rebuffs to WikiLeaks have unfolded over the last 17 days, I have watched the libertarian response with first amazement, then chagrin and finally considerable shame that I ever called myself a libertarian.

The Amazon Situation

Wendy McElroy has termed libertarian responses a matter of "strategy" - and taken to task those who think it to be a "moral" matter. Quotes from Thoreau are even used, to support (she thinks) her case that inaction in response to the harmful actions of others is "part of the solution". Never mind that Thoreau himself took the action of going to jail rather than pay a poll tax "as a protest against slavery and what he saw as an unjust war with Mexico". McElroy, supposedly an authority on Thoreau, apparently finds it convenient to ignore the facts that Thoreau did not consider that paying the poll tax and remaining free "to go about 'the business of living' in a peaceful manner that 'minds your own business'" (inner quotes from Thoreau by McElroy) was the right action to take in this instance and, furthermore, that he "was mad as the devil" when his aunt paid his tax and he was not allowed to voluntarily remain in jail. To her credit, McElroy did remove Amazon from her own website.

Lew Rockwell has stated that Amazon (presumably, also the other corporations) "had no other choice", did the right thing to "not risk the stockholders' money" and, astonishingly, "is a victim". In his comment Rockwell even admitted that during his "days in the conservative movement" he never agreed to "boycott goods from communist countries" because (his strange reasoning) "[c]ommerce is a blessing" and that Amazon's operation, in particular is "a social as well as an economic benefit". Never mind that totalitarian production can hardly be called commerce in any reasonable Misean sense and that the disconnection of any website providing public access to State restricted information is contrary to any possible social benefit. Never mind that any corporation, by its very nature is a State legalized fictional entity depending on State protection of its limited liability to attract the kinds of investors who want to avoid full responsibility for their actions. Never mind that any principled individual with the technology and wealth of Amazon could have recorded the call from Lieberman's office, asked what lawful grounds did the government have for their request and, if there were any remarks resembling threats, have immediately called his/her (hir) lawyers to seek criminal indictment proceedings again the threatener. Note that in a similar case, WikiLeaks' French website host, OVH, did question the legal grounds for such a termination request from the French Industry Minister, and was supported by a French Judge! How times have changed - when Frenchmen (remember the Vichy Nazi collaborators) now have more backbone than USers.

At the Rockwell website, other fellow traveling bloggers have also chimed in. Skip Oliva started well by clearly stating the situation: "Amazon's cowardice in the face of Wikileaks' heroism must not be tolerated", but then had the gall to maintain that all the boycotters are "just lashing out in anger" rather than acting on principle. He went on to not only tolerate that cowardice but to again term Amazon as the victim, apparently forgetting the admonition of Edmund Burke "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" or, rephrased to describe Amazon, "all that is necessary for the triumph of State tyranny is for men to not question authority" and conveniently ignoring the definition of victim as necessarily requiring the use of coercion or its threat.

Oliva's blog entry includes a quote from Stephan Kinsella: "a number of left-libertarians are using this as an excuse to pile on Amazon because it's big, a corporation, and profitable" which shows that Kinsella is conveniently ignoring the fact that, as described above, corporations are effectively State entities and in a truly free market would be highly unlikely to be able to become as big and effectively monopolistic as in today's highly mixed economy. (Think about the implications of limited liability versus total owner responsibility and of the costs of satisfying State regulations as a proportion of the company income as two of the simplest contributors to the advantages of larger business size in the context of the current corporate State.) Kinsella, who elsewhere has correctly seen that copyright is a State created market distortion, can hardly be unaware of this, but perhaps he is simply incapable of consistent logical thinking. In either case I am left to wonder just why so many people are attracted to the writings of Kinsella and the others of his ilk mentioned here. Kinsella continued to exhibit his bias toward big business and his inconsistency of thought with the amazing statement: "Amazon's managers have an obligation to the shareholders; they have no right to risk or waste shareholder money for political grandstanding". Never mind that for many shareholders the managers' obligations would certainly include acting in an ethical manner to at least promote the rule of law, that "rights" have no bearing on the matter (nothing in the shareholder contracts forbids or even references such actions by Amazon managers) and that requiring the State to obey its own legal procedures is not equivalent to "political grandstanding".

In an earlier piece at, Oliva characterized those calling for an Amazon boycott as "childish and stupid" and even accused them of "adopting the very tactics the state used against Amazon", apparently not understanding the logically clear difference between actions of coercion and of voluntary disassociation. However once again Oliva constantly refers to actions of Amazon, totally missing the fundamental difference between a collective and an individual. Amazon is only a single entity as a result of a State created fiction. In reality, a collective cannot and does not act as can and does a human individual. Collectives cannot have "ethics" or "courage". They are incapable of "act[s] of self-preservation" - only individuals can so act. Therefore it is entirely reasonable to hold the individuals behind any corporate collective accountable for their actions and to publicly Socially Preference those individuals accordingly. Oliva states "I respectfully suggest a policy of punishing those firms that yield to state pressure does nothing to advance the cause of liberty", ignoring that such "state pressure" is totally inconsistent with the "rule of law and not of men" message which that same State constantly maintains is the hallmark of a free society. Resisting such pressure to the extent of demanding that the State produce the necessary laws (as the French WikiLeaks host did) is the least that any honorable liberty defending individual should do. Finally, Oliva makes the ridiculous equating of boycotting "mom-and-pop stores" "forced to sign 'consent orders' at gunpoint" with the actions of Amazon's management in not even requiring the State to abide by its own legal procedures.

Bob Murphy is surely not a stupid man, so how can he write such an illogical statement as: "If Amazon is 'censoring' WikiLeaks because it won't host it, then the same is true for every other company that owns servers in the world, except for the one in Sweden (Bahnhof AB) that currently hosts WikiLeaks"? Surely the action of Amazon's management cannot be equated with the non-actions of companies that have not even been asked to host WikiLeaks? This would be like equating the actions of the Amazon boycotters with the non-actions of those who currently do not buy through Amazon at all and never did. Murphy correctly states: "then surely we should also boycott those corporations which we know would never have supported WikiLeaks in the first place", but ignores the essential need for such "know[ledge]" prior to such action. With respect to "For example, we should never buy another GE appliance, because of the pro-empire spin of its media outlets", yes! I and Kitty immediately ceased to patronize WalMart the moment that we heard about their acceptance of DHS "spy on your neighbor" video messages. There are too many such illogicallities within Murphy's piece to deal with them all here, so I will only quote one more of his statements: "I haven't seen any boycotters threatening to disassociate from someone for crossing the picket line and ordering Christmas presents from Amazon". Well now you have! Certainly I and Kitty will do that, just as we disassociate ourselves from anyone who we know supports the State in any manner that they can stop - short of death, incarceration or financial ruin; mere inconvenience is not a sufficient reason to continue association with State supporters. It is not as if there are no alternatives to all these large corporate products and services. This is not like eschewing the use of the State monopoly roads. The least objectionable and most liberty promoting companies should always be chosen.

I find it truly shocking that, after such highly illogical statements as Kinsella, Oliva and Murphy have made in the referenced pieces (and elsewhere), anyone would either treat as credible anything that they write or would give them any place to publish it. I also have to wonder at the purposes of these individuals at trying to foist such uncritical thinking upon their readership, which unthinking process would appear to directly support the continued uncritical consideration of all that the State does.

Butler Shaffer, unfortunately, begins his blog entry by confounding "highly-organized boycotts" with "the threat of force" and "the use of violence" as if the latter two must necessarily follow from the first. Laudably, Shaffer strongly emphasizes the importance of "the view that one's actions should be centered around - or integrated with - principles that run deeper than just the short-term consideration of money profits" and even correctly chides some of his fellow bloggers for their pragmatic statements. Nevertheless the reader is left not knowing whether Shaffer is still making "numerous purchases of books, DVDs, and other products from the Amazon symbol on LRC, because it serves our philosophic principles to know that LRC will get a commission on the transaction" or whether he has taken a clear ethical stand to not patronize Amazon in any manner until and unless they change their approach to the WikiLeaks situation.

The PayPal Situation

The reaction of me and Kitty to PayPal's termination of WikiLeaks' account was spontaneous and clear. There was no thought by either of us of any other action but the immediate removal from our supporting page of PayPal as a method of returning value to us for the information we provide and our own termination of 4 separate accounts with PayPal (one had to wait until Kitty had removed the funds it contained). Once again I am chagrined and amazed that so many other libertarian websites did not immediately do the same (and at the time of this writing I know of none that yet have!) Their thinking should have been as follows: "Clearly our honorable readers and monetary supporters will no longer want to patronize PayPal, so we will both give them our clear agreement and assent by immediately terminating our PayPal account, making current alternatives clear to them and quickly seeking to find more convenient new alternatives. It isn't as if we will lose much because our readers and supporters will all be also terminating their PayPal accounts and so would not be able to send us any money that way in any case."

Visa and MasterCard

I and Kitty immediately stopped using them and got a debit card on our credit union checking account. We will keep one credit card for emergency use only, because there are currently certain actions (such as car rental) which cannot be taken without a credit card. We urge all principled people to do the same (and for PayPal and Amazon also) and if you don't, we will disassociate ourselves from you unless you have a life-threatening reason for your continuing to patronize these organizations.

I can only wonder where are the principled people of action today - the Paul Reveres and the Patrick Henrys ('Give me liberty or give me death!')? In fact, as of the date of this article I know of no other website, libertarian or otherwise, which has removed donation links to PayPal and/or credit cards in support of WikiLeaks. This lack of inaction to implement strong ostracism of all companies refusing to provide services to WikiLeaks makes it very clear that among those calling themselves libertarian, particularly among the free marketers and Miseans who still retain their Amazon links, the principled are damned few and far between at the present time!

A Unifying Approach to Action Decisions

In her comment on the Amazon situation, although Wendy McElroy tried valiantly to distinguish between strategic and moral actions, to her credit she did come near to the correct approach when she both clearly distinguished coercive from non-coercive actions "A libertarian strategy, by its very nature, is a practical matter that has been prescreened so as to eliminate moral concerns. Non-violent: that's the filter" and noted the inherent subjectivity of all decision making "Even if Strategy A seems to be clearly more effective than Strategy B, the adoption of A depends on a range of subjective factors that vary widely from person to person". However after the first quote above, McElroy then states "that's all a strategy needs to be in order to qualify as libertarian, and there are thousands of ways to protest an injustice. In short, applying morality to strategies is inappropriate" which clearly shows the glaring hole in libertarian foundations. Since if any non-violent action is as good as another, there is no coherent libertarian approach at all, which is why as a movement libertarianism continues to be a failure as a means to attain a society of far greater liberty and individual freedom of action. Butler Shaffer had a similar failure in his struggle to clearly distinguish actions of principle and of pragmatism and the reason very simple - any such distinction is necessarily subjective and individual.

Rather than try to differentiate actions objectively into such categories, it is fundamentally important to realize that the only objective basis by which to categorize action types is whether or not an action is Violational (the Effective Cause of Responsible Harm) or not (a concept similar to but importantly and definitionally distinct from McElroy's and other libertarian's notion of "non-violent" or "non-coercive"). Violational actions can be effectively adjudicated by means of some prior universally accepted and voluntarily executed Social Contract (see for example the Natural Social Contract wherein all the capitalized words used in this and the following paragraph are clearly defined). Non-Violational actions can be adjudicated by means of the subset of non-Violational actions related to Social Preferencing.

Within those two mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories the evaluation and reaction to any given action must necessarily be entirely subjective to the judging and acting individual. The basis for such evaluation and reaction was partially provided by Any Rand in her Objectivist philosophy, particularly in her essays on "The Virtue of Selfishness". Unfortunately Rand's ideas were neither fully consistent nor complete, but those errors and omissions have been fully repaired by the foundations detailed in my treatise "Social Meta-Needs: A New Basis for Optimal Interaction". That treatise fully defines the concept of Lifetime Happiness, describes in detail how it can be evaluated and, based on the existential nature of human reality, develops a foundation for the claim that seeking to maximize hir own Lifetime Happiness can be the only logically sound purpose of any human's existence. It is additionally and extremely importantly shown that humans can, and if acting rationally will, achieve such optimal Lifetime Happiness for each, all at the same time - ie that human society can be totally free of conflicting desires, purposes and ends.

Therefore in the end McElroy is correct that "Everyone must run their own cost-benefit analysis on any particular strategy", actually on any particular action of any kind. However that also means that McElroy is wrong to castigate others for doing their own cost-benefit analysis and criticizing her unnamed friend for inaction against Amazon. It is the sum total of this kind of "social voting" by means of individual Social Preferencing actions which can become the ultimate effector of social order and can begin to achieve a social environment in which the actions of all will ultimately contribute guide and aid the optimal Lifetime Happiness of each. But such Social Preferencing can only be effective under a framework of complete and public openness of one's person and actions, which those desiring this result must be personally courageous enough to adopt.

As Kitty, my dear wife and partner in everything, wrote over 5 years ago:

"What has been missed, however, is a third alternative besides working within the system and violent removal of "the bastards". That alternative is to not sanction, not fraternize with and to generally ignore the bastards, their supporters and the entire system they represent. Those who understand the principles of such non-sanction and of self-ordering social action, and are willing to practice them can begin their own society in the midst of the present. And they can interact to mutual benefit - increasingly so, as the state withers and dies of neglect."

Note re comments:

Discussion of this article is taking place on the MoreLife Yahoo group beginning at message #2280, but comments are also welcome at: Rational Review and Libertarian Critique.