Firefly Is Not a Libertarian TV Show

FireflyI saw over at Reason Magazine that they published one of those dreadful articles, “The Five Best Libertarian Television Series.” I’m not going to look it up, because it is nonsense and frankly, I don’t feel that the racist and elitist Reason deserves a link. The list included things like House of Cards, which really isn’t a libertarian show. Ditto for The Wire. Apparently, any series that shows the government in a negative light is libertarian. It also contained South Park, which really isn’t libertarian so much as iconoclastic. But given that the creators seem to be libertarian with a much bigger ax to grind against liberals than conservatives, I figure Reason thought that was enough.

The last show I had heard of was Penn & Teller: Bullshit! That’s an interesting choice. I only saw one episode of it and it was definitely what passes for libertarianism in this country: it was a total whitewash and apologia for a huge multinational corporation. They took on the very important issue of whether Walmart was really providing minimum wage jobs. And what a surprise: Walmart pays more than minimum wage on average! Of course, unless even the CEO was paid minimum wage, the average wage would have to be higher. It was an amazing example of straw man argumentation. But the show was more than that. It also showed a whole lot of great things that Walmart was doing for their employees. That’s the great thing about libertarians: corporations don’t even have to pay them to create PR material.

But what most struck me was that many Reason readers were upset that Firefly was not on the list. The only libertarian thing about the show is Mal who talks a lot like a libertarian. But he’s not a libertarian of the kind that reads Reason. He isn’t an idealist. He just wants to be left alone. And he doesn’t live in the United States or Sweden. He lives under an authoritarian government — one far more invasive than even that in North Korea. What I’m saying is that Mal isn’t a libertarian idiot who claims that paying taxes is equivalent to slavery. And he certainly isn’t an Objectivist who who doesn’t believe in altruism, given that Mal is one of the most altruistic characters in the whole show.

The main thing that makes a libertarian a libertarian is their resistance to paying taxes. I wrote about this just yesterday, Why Do Libertarians Tend to Be Republican? I mention this because I know there are libertarians who would claim that the show is libertarian because Mal is self-sufficient. Indeed he is. But I don’t know where libertarians got the idea that they are especially self-sufficient. After all, as Ha-Joon Chang discussed in, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, people in poor countries are more entrepreneurial. Libertarianism doesn’t appeal to these people; it appeals to a bunch of privileged idiots who are just convinced that “they did build that” or at least they would have if only the government had gotten out of the way.

Mal in Firefly has actually headed out on his own. It would be equivalent to disappearing into federal land or taking to the high seas. The libertarian plan is to whine and complain that the government is oppressing them at the same time that they take advantage of every government program available. And more! They actually distort the political system to push more of that sweet, sweet tax money to themselves. Show me a libertarian and I’ll show you piles of government subsidies from student loans to government contracts.

The thing about Firefly is that it is about a group of people who all care for each other. Trust me, I know the libertarian counter to that: those people choose to be part of that group. Well, so do we. There really are places that libertarians could disappear to if they really wanted to. That probably wouldn’t be the case in their libertarian utopias, because literally every square inch of land and sea would be owned by someone — or perhaps just “one.” But of course libertarians don’t run away from it all because they like the things that our mixed economy provides. Well, I’m being unfair. Some people do this, but it usually ends in incest and other less than utopian outcomes.

So please libertarians, keep your ideology off Firefly. I see why you think it is “libertarian.” I’ve long seen it. But there is a very big difference between “This government is authoritarian!” and what you believe, “All government is authoritarian!” Remember, George Orwell was a socialist and Aldous Huxley was a liberal. Huxley was also a mystic, so sorry atheist libertarians. Of course, Joss Whedon is a humanist. Most of us aren’t that fond of government; we just think it is a hell of a lot better than living in Walmart World.


I will provide an exception for drug users. There are libertarians who just want to be allowed their drugs and are tired of paying so much for them and being thrown in jail. I understand such libertarians. But such libertarians would never even consider voting for the Republican Party given that they are responsible for the original War on Drugs and then for really ramping it up under Reagan and then Bush. I am assuming here that drug libertarians are not as clueless as the rest of them.

44 thoughts on “Firefly Is Not a Libertarian TV Show

  1. Mal is Han Solo through Joss Whedon’s entertaining filter; it’s an archetype that borrows heavily from the Bogart films.

    A fun thing I thought about reading your take here; what would be some truly libertarian, “all for one and none for all” pop culture examples? Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs from “Sierra Madre” immediately comes to mind; Robert Shaw’s Quint from “Jaws.”

    If they want to include “The Wire” in their pantheon, because it depicts a broken social structure (the creators of that show were deeply, angrily liberal), you might as well include “The Godfather.” The Corleones take advantage of corruption in high places and, of course, all association with them is utterly free from state coercion, the only kind of coercion worth worrying about. Maybe “Deadwood”‘s George Hearst belongs, as well. There’s a free-market hero.

    I’d be interested in your take on the libertarians you knew. What were they like? Most were assuredly male. Did they have a certain age tendency, socioeconomic background? I’d guess that within the Angry White Guy parameters they were fairly varied.

    • My personal experience is skewed by my lifestyle. But in general, they were people from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds who had good educations and some intelligence. They had every reason to believe that things were going to work out well for them. So I always saw their libertarianism as being self-serving. At the same time, they were blind to this and had convinced themselves it was all about “Freedom!” There were also a lot of simple conservatives who fancied themselves libertarians because they had to read Common Sense in college. They generally would abandon libertarian ideals whenever it interfered with holding conservative ideals. These people were without exception anti-choice. It would be like a socialist saying he was a libertarian because they agreed on the issues that they agreed on. For the more serious libertarians I spoke of before, having disagreements with conservatives made them feel good. They loved that they disagreed with both sides because in their simple minds that meant they must be right.

      I don’t recall one of them being anything but white — but there might have been a Latino or two. They were overwhelmingly male — 90%, maybe even 95%. I also knew some who I thought of as Cannabis Libertarians, who just wanted their drugs. They were by far the most interesting and least annoying libertarians. These people have to be dropping like flies in the movement. I hope in the end that they will see that cannabis is being legalized because of liberal work. It’s come mostly out of the harm reduction movement. And the libertarians’ great allies the conservatives have always stood in the way of it.

      There was one incredibly telling incident for me, which I’m sure I’ve written about before. After a libertarian group meeting, I was talking to one of the old-timers. I expressed my concern that so many people talked about Rush Limbaugh in a favorable way. He said, “Well, Limbaugh is very good on economic issues.” First, from my perspective, that wasn’t true. I didn’t believe in corporations (which are a government defined entities expressly created to minimize the personal responsibility of the owners). And I was just fine with unions, which were voluntary associations. So in general, Limbaugh was not good on economic issues. Second, it offended me that economic issues would trump virtually every other libertarian principle — from civil rights to foreign wars.

      Even still, I continued to go to meetings and be involved with the party. I pretty much remained a libertarian until Bush the Younger became president. That’s when I started to see that libertarianism was just a kind of conservatism. That allowed me to start looking at it in a more practical sense. I really was interested in maximizing freedom, and libertarianism just isn’t the best way to do that. In particular, I came to see that a theory I had depended upon wasn’t true. The fact that only governments could have armies didn’t much matter. And it didn’t matter at all if you had governments so weak that they couldn’t stop the corporations from having armies. My reading of William Gibson probably helped in that way too.

      The realization also allowed me to think more clearly about the philosophy of libertarianism — and everything else, for that matter. Libertarianism really is an intellectual trap that can keep you from thinking seriously political and economic issues. All libertarians should be required to read Robert Nozick. Without him, there really is no serious thought in libertarian philosophy. Everything else is just fairy tales for adults.

  2. Interesting. The “fairy tales for adults” observations rings true. I ride the bus every day, and I’m a snoop who looks at what book titles other riders are reading. (Books also stick out, because they are not dumbphones.) I’ve seen a lot of Ayn Rand and a lot of romance/fantasy/sci-fi stuff. The plot of most of those books involves people who are destined for Great Things (great loves, great society-altering importance) but don’t know it yet. Idiots have kept them down.

    I once read Dr. Chomsky mentioning how many conspiracy-theory-kooks he receives mail from and how befuddled he was by this. It’s not befuddling. It befuddles the good doctor, because he’s reasonably sane; it doesn’t befuddle me.

    When we’re kids, we have Officer Friendly come to our school and show us what drugs look like. Then Officer Friendly tells us that any drug will lead us to this brightly-colored pill that make us chew out our own intestines. As grownups, we observe or participate in drug ingestion, and nobody chews out their intestines. Nobody goes blind staring at the sun. (And nobody can street buy LSD anymore, which is a shame; once every few years or so, that’s a fun one.)

    The official story is crap. It doesn’t take a lot of digging to figure this out. Most of us experience how bogus the official story is fairly early in our adult lives. The response many have is to cling even tighter to that official story, or accept other narratives which may or may not have any basis in identifiable fact.

    We live via narrative. We want an arc to our stories, a meaning. Libertarianism has good guys and bad guys; it has a magic pill that would fix everything. I used to get so frustrated, as a youth, reading Dr. Noam and how his incessant mantra was “read further.” I wanted him to tell me the answers. He was right, you have to read the answers yourself. It helps to have a good teacher, somebody who is peer-approved like a quality union member or smart college professor, that can help steer you when you get befuddled. It’s easy, when you get befuddled, to fall into traps like fundamentalism, conspiracy theories and, I’m sorry to say it, libertarianism. It’s how smart people become Randians, or Rajneeshees, or Travis Bickle.

    • I’ve know a lot of conspiracy theorists. I also get email from them when something I write touches on what they are interested in. I wouldn’t say they are crazy. They are usually smart people who are good at picking up on inconsistencies. But they just can’t accept what thermodynamics teaches us: dig deep enough and you will find contradictions. That doesn’t mean that the story is fake. But I largely admire conspiracy theorists.

      As for Chomsky, well, I think a big problem is that he doesn’t see an answer. And that’s because there really is no answer.

    • I’m pretty sure that I’ve written both about the Whedon video and King’s stand on taxes. I went ahead and watched the video again. His performance is surprisingly good. And the writing is perfect: Whedon does Whedon. It almost made me vote for Romney; I mean, hell: zombie apocalypse! That’s a society that might actually value my many skills, even if I am a slow runner and not good in the violence department.

  3. “But he’s not a libertarian of the kind that reads Reason. He isn’t an idealist. He just wants to be left alone.”
    He just wants to be left alone?
    By whom does he wish to be left alone?
    The government. The people who want to impose regulation upon him.
    Does that mean he wants to be left alone by everyone?
    No. He wants to make money by shipping things and retrieving things for people. He also isn’t retrieving anything. He turns on the one guy who had him steal needed medicine. Clearly he has some ethical code. He’s not just violating everyone’s property rights. Yes, there are several examples of him violating property rights, but the show doesn’t really give a whole ton of explaination as to exact circumstances so its difficult to separate out what is and isn’t a violation of the NAP.

    “He lives under an authoritarian government — one far more invasive than even that in North Korea.”
    Don’t trivialize the hell that is North Korea. There are about 200,000 people being tortured in Prison Camps right now.

    ” And he certainly isn’t an Objectivist who who doesn’t believe in altruism, given that Mal is one of the most altruistic characters in the whole show.”
    I don’t think you understand what the idea of altruism not being real actually is. Its not, people don’t do things for others when there is no gain for themselves. It is that people do things because they want to do them.
    Example –
    Altruism: People with kids in the hospital need help, so I’m going to place a burden upon myself and volunteer at the Ronald McDonald house to help them, despite the fact I’d rather do something else.
    Non-Altruism(Self-serving): I want to see people who’s kids are in the Hospital have an easier time. I see personal benefit in helping these people. I see that volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House provides a personal benefit to me. So I do that, because I want to.
    Objectivists recognize the second line of logic as what actually happens when people help others, and not the first. At the end of the day its more a matter of semantics than anything.

    “The main thing that makes a libertarian a libertarian is their resistance to paying taxes.”
    No its not.

    ” The libertarian plan is to whine and complain that the government is oppressing them at the same time that they take advantage of every government program available. And more!”
    This is not an argument. Its unfounded generalization.

    “There really are places that libertarians could disappear to if they really wanted to.”
    Name one.

    • The NAP is completely useless as I discussed in, The Two One Kinds of Libertarians.

      I’m not trivializing North Korea. What the Alliance did to River they had done to countless others. But I will admit that the show isn’t exactly consistent about the portrayal of the Alliance.

      You are pushing a Nathaniel Branden take on altruism. That always struck me post hoc rationalization for what Ayn Rand had always written. And scientifically, either way you look at, Objectivism is still wrong on this subject. Do you guys still reject quantum mechanics?

      Look, I’m going to stop there. I run into this all the time. A libertarian comes here and reads one article and wants to counter the points I’ve discussed in other articles. In this case, you haven’t even looked at the one article I did link to here. What’s more, you don’t even seem to have read this article carefully. I didn’t just say that the main thing that makes a libertarian is his resistance to paying taxes — I liked to another article. You want me to name one place libertarians could disappear to? Read the article!

      I will grant you this: there are some libertarians out there who would never consider voting for Rand Paul. This is a man, after all, who thinks that you should be able to do any drug you want as long as it is a drug he doesn’t think is too bad. (His father is at least consistent on this point.) This is a man who doesn’t believe in foreign war except when he does — which is often. This is a man who thinks that a zygote deserves full citizenship rights. At least Ayn Rand was consistent enough to hate Ronald Reagan.

  4. “The main thing that makes a libertarian a libertarian is their resistance to paying taxes.”

    This is a strange assumption and quite incorrect.

    • As a practical matter it is quite true. I’m not interested in getting into a No True Libertarian argument with you. See my dozens of other articles on libertarians.

  5. This is a strange little blog post (clearly I’m late to the party but I ended up here through a rather circuitous path).

    It’s not that I’m racing to defend libertarianism which, in my credible opinion, is an immature political philosophy, defined by its ideological character, i.e., it simplifies the complexity of sociopolitical dynamics to a single bullet point, namely coercive force.

    Having said that, your characterization of Reason magazine as racist was rather baffling. Elitist? I can buy that. They’re the political equivalent of fanboys, sitting on the sidelines pontificating about how they do it all so much better.

    Still, racist? How so?

    Beyond that, you seem unaware that Orwell’s politics were vastly more complex and confused, evidenced by his break with the socialists with “The Road to Wigan Pier,” noting their cynical elitism and malevolence inherent in their supposed fidelity to socialist principles.

    Not to suggest that he was ever a liberal (in the British sense) as he wasn’t, but he concluded that government itself was evil. He simply never resolved the issues of coercion and became what can roughly be described as anarcho-socialist, which is largely just a word for “politically incoherent fantasist.”

    For goodness sakes, you throw down on quantum mechanics, as a scientist, who seemingly doesn’t respect that the perpetual transitional nature of scientific discovery. Are you really so sure in the standard model of quantum mechanics (who knows? Maybe Bohmian mechanics after that Toronto experiment will make a comeback) as to wield it as a weapon to dismiss criticism, even of ideologues groping for consistency?

    And that right there seems to be the weakness in your reasoning… you generalize in bad faith to create appropriate strawmen and then confidently and arrogantly slap them down. It’s an exercise in craven intellectual narcissism masquerading as “courageous truth-telling.”

    It ultimately begs the question as to why you’d bother to expend so much energy slapping down imagined villains. You clearly want to say something but your knowledge is too superficial to manage it, and you surely know that, hence the style that you’ve developed to compensate for it.

    I write this with the knowledge that I will likely never return to this page nor engage in any discussion with you but my motivation is in good faith: writing is hard, and you seemingly do it well enough. Why not actually learn, deeply, about any one of the subjects on which you write?

    All you’re doing now is being a rabid fan for your “side” and it strips you of any real insight or charm. There’s no reason to actually read anything you write because it’s so easy to predict what you’ll say.

    And it doesn’t have to be that way. You produce. That’s half the bloody battle. Now try having something to say.

  6. Firefly (and especially Serenity) paints a picture of a dystopia that attempts to control its citizens through medication, in the hopes of changing human nature and “making people better.” In the process, it gives a compelling argument for legalizing sex work, depicts a clash between rural and urban societies and how they benefit from government money, and comes out against the government “meddling” in people’s lives.

    You can disagree, but the argument can clearly be made that the series is libertarian. And no, I’m sorry, being libertarian is not all about not wanting to pay taxes. This is coming from a libertarian who is perfectly fine with paying his fair share.

    • I have certainly not spent the time among libertarian thought you or Frank have, so I am no expert.

      However, in my experience, libertarian idealism (and I did at one point embrace that idealism) ends up in “everyone for themselves” realism.

      To take sex work as an example. Clearly, people selling sexual services are not intending to harm others and should not be punished by the state. And there is a serious argument that by decriminalizing sex work, we could reduce the dependence of sex workers on often-abusive employers (pimps, porn producers, those who know best how to avoid The Law).

      However, were sex work entirely deregulated, what would prevent even more pimps and porn producers from springing up? Not because they are best at avoiding prosecution, but because they are best at manipulating vulnerable workers?

      It would seem to me that the best way of minimizing harm done to sex workers is through a highly regulated, non-judgmental regulatory policy, such as Holland has. Just as the best way of minimizing drug harm is legalizing and regulating drug sales, as several countries do.

      Libertarianism does seem idealistic because it rejects bogus moral claims that preventing people from taking what they wish or screwing whom they wish is beneficial to society (proven false, repeatedly).

      But there is the truly moral issue of preventing unscrupulous individuals from taking advantage of others. I do not see how libertarianism has any answer to this.

      • I was going to respond to the guy, but then he said, “This is coming from a libertarian who is perfectly fine with paying his fair share.” Yeah, “his fair share.” In other words: he gets to determine the right amount of taxes. And I have yet to run into a libertarian who doesn’t have their own unique definition of libertarianism. They can’t even agree on what libertarianism is, yet somehow everyone is going to get along just fine in their utopia. That’s why I say its all about not wanting to pay taxes: it’s the one thing that binds them together. I will bet you anything that Graham doesn’t believe in progressive taxation. So you make $100 million a year, you pay 10% (a very common amount proposed by libertarians to pay for the things that libertarians have decided that government should do). And if you make $5, you pay 10%.

        He’s also completely wrong about Firefly. It’s like he hasn’t even seen the show. And maybe he hasn’t. Maybe he’s only seen the movie. One thing’s for certain: the creator is not a libertarian — far from it.

      • I’m not here to defend my personal beliefs. As much as I’d like to get into an argument about the merits of libertarianism with you, my point in making my original comment was that the show can clearly be interpreted from a libertarian perspective. Whedon himself has said that Malcolm Reynolds is “If not a Republican, then definitely a libertarian.”

        You can make whatever claims you like about any particular ideology, but given the article’s title, this becomes a disagreement over obvious fact rather than a clash of ideological perspectives. Yes, the show can be analyzed from a libertarian perspective, and the show’s creator has backed that up repeatedly. He’s called Reynolds a “small government type of guy.” So the headline is not just misleading, it’s factually inaccurate.

        Perhaps you’re uncomfortable with enjoying a series that you don’t agree with ideologically. I’d say not to worry about that. I enjoy quite a few TV shows and films that go against my principles, purely for reasons aside from politics. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the question at hand is “Is Firefly a libertarian show?” The answer is yes.

        • > But the question at hand is “Is Firefly a libertarian show?” The answer is yes.

          No. If it were a libertarian show, it would be boring — like an Ayn Rand novel or play.

        • PS: appeal to reason doesn’t fly generally, and especially around here. Creators of art get no special vote. What a work of art means is what the “reader” finds, not what the “writer” provides. Writers can tell you about process; not meaning. What you are saying is what I hear from people all the time about songs, “I know the song means X because the writer said it did.” (BTW: listen to what a writer says about their work over decades and you will find it changes — often radically.) It’s almost as primitive a form of thinking as libertarianism itself.

            • That should have been “appeal to authority,” which is what you were doing. But I guess you didn’t realize that.

              I note that you haven’t bothered to read any of my other (almost 10,000) articles, or you would not make such a dismissive point.

              • No, I think you said exactly what you wanted to say.

                And regardless, you can take the creator’s word with a grain of salt (I certainly do so with JK Rowling), but the fact remains that the authors/writers behind these works have thought about this material more than anyone else, and they’re the ones who construct these worlds. They populate them with characters and inject the story with whatever philosophy or worldview they see fit. You don’t have to take their interpretation at face value, but it’s idiotic to discount it entirely. It’s unarguably the most important perspective you can hear on the work. Show some respect for the creator’s intent.

                As for your other thousands of articles, you’re right. I haven’t bothered to read them, because after reading this one, I doubted it was worth it. This line, for example:

                “The main thing that makes a libertarian a libertarian is their resistance to paying taxes.”

                There’s no way for me to respond to a statement like that. It’s not just wrong, it’s deliberately wrong– an intentional misrepresentation of an opposing viewpoint in order to appeal to your audience. I don’t appreciate that kind of rhetoric, regardless of whether I agree with the viewpoint that’s being attacked.

                Just for yuks though, I read your “Why do Libertarians Tend to be Republican” article, which made a few good points. However, as a libertarian and a member of the Democratic party, I think that people like the Koch brothers have made “libertarian” a dirty word, so a lot of people whose beliefs align with libertarianism won’t self-identify that way. That covers a lot of Democrats I’ve met, and it makes it difficult to gauge what libertarians really believe. For example, I’ve worked at a congressional office (for a Democratic congressman) and a lot of people there aligned with my beliefs– they wanted to see tax cuts for the middle class, a more open immigration system, legalized marijuana, more personal freedom, less bureaucracy, etc. Our only real areas of disagreement were on guns.

                On the flip side, Tea Party people might call themselves libertarians, but they actually hold some latent authoritarian beliefs– sometimes not so latent. These are people who will wave a Gadsden flag and at the same time advocate for making gay marriage illegal. It’s the epitome of cognitive dissonance– but I don’t blame libertarianism for these people any more than I blame feminism for Amy Schumer. You can’t discredit an ideology solely by pointing to its worst adherents.

                Anyway, I think there’s a reasonable discussion to be had on all of these fronts, but your article’s deliberate shallowness severely hinders the possibility for such a discussion.

                • I’m glad you are in the Democratic Party, although it is hardly a leftist party; it is fairly conservative economically and liberal socially; so it makes sense for libertarians to be in it. It says much of libertarianism that those who profess the belief are generally not. As I probably mentioned in that article, my past experiences — in the early- to mid-1990s — was that left-leaning libertarians were extremely rare and most of them were libertarians because they wanted drugs legalized. The Libertarian Party was started by Republicans disenchanted with President Nixon. So the current make-up of libertarians is no different than it ever has been: overwhelmingly conservative — caring far more about taxes than civil liberties. In fact, I think it is worse because over the last decade I’ve seen a large number of neo-Confederates rushing to call themselves “libertarian.” So as a movement, I suspect it is more conservative than ever. But please don’t tell me these aren’t true libertarians because this is what libertarians almost always say. “Libertarianism” is probably a bad word for what you are. I don’t really label myself anymore except in a general way as a “leftist.” Otherwise, what I think is a bit too idiosyncratic. I am, of course, a Democrat — but that’s just a practical matter: we don’t have a parliament and the Republicans are vicious and insane.

                  My statement about libertarians is a generalization but it is hardly wrong — much less an intentional misrepresentation. For every Robert Nozick fan, there are a hundred neo-Confederates and probably as many Republican libertarians. I’m not trying to counter Nozick — he does a good enough job himself! (That’s a compliment.) I’m trying to counter the vast majority of libertarians who are at least somewhat anti-union and in favor of the totally anti-liberty “freedom to work” laws.

                  Creators of art know their work far better than the vast majority of “readers.” This is one reason I hate what we call “film critics.” But this is quite different from what a work means. That is entirely up to the “reader.” This isn’t to say that I don’t have an opinion about such matter nor that some readings are more supportable than others.

                  Throw aside what I said if you like. But given you were not making a reasoned argument but rather an appeal to authority, I don’t think you have much cause.

                  • To your points about creators– it is inherently wrong to say that the meaning behind a work is wholly subjective. If it can’t be backed up by textual evidence, it is not a valid interpretation of the material. Now, you can say that Whedon wasn’t actively trying to turn his viewers into libertarians– which is true. But Firefly can certainly be analyzed from a libertarian perspective, and that perspective arguably has more explanatory power for Whedon’s choices than any other. In fact, he’s explicitly stated that he was intentionally weaving libertarian viewpoints into his story. So again, your article’s premise is deliberately misleading. And no, this is not an appeal to authority– it’s a simple acknowledgement of a basic fact.

                    If all interpretations are subjective, you might as well write articles called “Avatar isn’t about environmentalism,” “Requiem for a Dream isn’t about drug use,” and “Animal Farm isn’t about communism.” Get crackin’!

                    As for the Democrats hardly being a leftist party, that’s fine, because I’m hardly a leftist. But the GOP is clearly worse, and the Dems at least have a moderate wing. I’m thinking here of Joe Manchin, not Bernie Sanders. Anyway, I’d agree that most self-professed libertarians have several anti-libertarian positions– indeed, anyone who flies a Confederate flag shouldn’t bother calling themselves a libertarian, because they’re clearly not. The ideology stands for non-aggression, a removal of force from markets, an otherwise free market system, self-ownership, privacy, private property, and absolute personal freedom unless it directly impacts others. You cannot boil it down to “huhuh, they just don’t want to pay taxes.” You might as well say that Marxism amounts solely to “I want free stuff.”

                    Words have definitions.

                    Slavery, of course, is incompatible with capitalism, and therefore incompatible with libertarianism. Again, I’d stress that judging an ideology by its dumbest adherents is probably not the best tactic to use if you truly want to discredit it. If you want to criticize monarchy, attack Erasmus. If you want to criticize majoritarianism, attack Rousseau. If you want to criticize libertarianism, attack Rand, Nozick, or Ron Paul. Attack the foundation of their beliefs, not who they were as people. Don’t waste your time criticizing Billy-Bob for flying the Stars and Bars out of his trailer next to the Gadsden flag, because he’s quite obviously ideologically inconsistent and no serious thinker is defending his warped worldview.

                    • I’m not a relativist. But there is no question that meaning is something created by the reader. Is this really something that I have to lay out? You have a very authoritarian approach to interpretation. Who made you the arbiter of what meaning a child derives from “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”?! Nothing. Yes, Firefly can be analyzed from a libertarian perspective. It can also be analyzed from a culinary perspective. Again, what Whedon says is irrelevant. You are again appealing to authority.

                      But I will admit that I have no problem telling others that they are being foolish. For example: Requiem for a Dream is not about drugs. And this “argument” ought to appeal to you: Darren Aronofsky said it wasn’t!

                      Capitalism isn’t compatible with slavery?! What ever happened to personal freedom?! Don’t two people have the right to make a master-slave contract? I’ve heard libertarians make this argument many times. But I guess it is just the case that No True Libertarian would make that argument. Right?

                      Non-aggression principle?! Good grief! I really wish that libertarians would read Robert Nozick who is about the only major libertarian who was philosophically serious. But at least read Matt Bruenig’s article Non-Aggression Never Does Any Argumentative Work at Any Time. Hearing libertarians mention “non-aggression” is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. It is meaningless! And the fact that libertarians constantly bring it up shows that as a movement it is deeply unserious — on par with stoners discussing how we could all be living in a simulation.

                      I’m not judging libertarianism by the dumbest adherents. I’m judging it based on the vast majority of adherents. Literally: people who call themselves libertarian are more likely to be neo-confederates than not. If you don’t like this, I recommend you change your name. Words are not defined. They describe how the word is used. Go to some LP meetings and drill down. Find out why these people really want the government off their backs. It ain’t because their businesses are over-regulated.

                      I’m glad you are a Democrat. (Although really, what is it that you like about Joe Manchin? I’m skeptical there is anything. I think you just mention him because he held up by the press as a centrist — a meaningless term in American politics. Sanders is more libertarian than Manchin!) But you shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be reading Anarchy and State. Really! I don’t mean to be rude, but your thinking shows all the signs of an online libertarian — that is: one who hasn’t studied it carefully. And given that you are obviously smart, you owe it to yourself to be educated about it. You may find that you aren’t really a libertarian. That’s what most people who absorb Nozick conclude.

                    • I’m not the arbiter of anything. I’m saying that authors assign meaning to their works. You are the one who is attempting to alter that meaning to fit your own subjective worldview. Sad to say, not everything is subjective, as opposed to what the postmodernists would have you believe.

                      I’m familiar with the Aronofsky quote to which you refer. His point was that he was expanding the definition of the term “drug.” In context, he was comparing trying to diet with trying to quit heroin.

                      Two people absolutely have the right to make a master-slave contract, but fundamentally, because they are entering into the arrangement voluntarily, that is not “slavery” by the dictionary definition. Slavery is the state of being forced to work against one’s will; if you willingly sign yourself over to that state, thereby abdicating your freedom, that does not make your experience the same as Africans during American slavery. It’s somewhat astonishing that you don’t grasp this concept.

                      Non-aggression refers to a removal of the use of coercive force from society. No, it’s not attainable or realistic, but any sane person should agree that it’s something worth striving for. The problem is, statists simply don’t recognize “coercive force” in its many forms. The concept is hardly meaningless– in fact, it remains controversial solely because certain people don’t want to admit that their systems are built on the use of coercion.

                      Now, in that next paragraph, it seems we can’t even agree on a basic premise such as “words have definitions.” Is feminism defined as man-hating? Is socialism defined as bloody class warfare? No? Then how is libertarianism defined as “not wanting to pay taxes?” As for your assertion that a “majority” of self-described libertarians are neo-Confederates, that’s just an absolutely baseless claim that doesn’t deserve any of my attention. I might as well say that a majority of Democrats are closeted Marxists.

                      As for Manchin, I respect red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans generally, but I simply appreciate his tenacity for voting against/for things his constituents don’t agree with him on. There is great value in politicians who tell people what they don’t want to hear, rather than parroting the majority opinion and doing whatever their constituents tell them to do.

                      The remainder of your comment is a regression into childish ad-hominems that are inconsistent and beneath you.

                    • So you didn’t read the article — or at least didn’t understand it. You are still spouting the same non-aggression nonsense.

                      You also completely miss my point about readers creating meaning.

                      The fact that you agree with my slavery example and provide an apologia for it shows that your thinking about libertarianism is limited. As I said: read Anarchy and State. You do not know enough to know how much you don’t know.

                      You are right: we are not speaking the same language. You are trapped in a very limited universe.

                      Given that you show no intellectual curiosity, you should go somewhere else. Or educate yourself! Then you will be interesting enough to talk to. Until then, I’m done reading your “repetition as argument” comments.

                      Ad hominem?! Pointing out your ignorance is not an attack — especially when I point out that you haven’t read the seminal libertarian book that tellingly is almost completely ignored by online libertarians. You couldn’t even manage to read a short article that might wake you up to the vapidity of the non-aggression argument.

  7. Extremely well put. The guy isn’t a moron, and you didn’t treat him like one. But libertarianism has some obvious logical holes, and it is curious why adherents ignore them.

    In the case of “Firefly” fans, it’s a Space Western. Which means combining the silliness of both genres, in a way most viewers appreciate without taking too seriously. You get to talk all Ruff & Tuff while also traveling faster than light, talk about fun!

    So I can see how the show appeals to libertarians, whose political philosophy is essentially a fantasy. Who doesn’t want to dwell there on occasion? The “staring at reality” thing can be a stone bummer.

  8. Well, that escalated quickly, as the kids on the Interwebz say.

    Most libertarians I’ve ever met (and most of the office kinda-maybe-liberal-if-that’s what-everybody-else is-too sorts) have a vastly inflated sense of their own invulnerability. As though failure is something that only happens to losers. So a system which rewards them and punishes others cruelly is entirely just. Very few will argue that “I should be punished, I’m awful, but that’s ethically correct.” Like gun nuts who think if we all packed heat, there’d be less crime. “I’m bleeding out in the street, small price to pay for freedom!” Nope, they imagine themselves shooting the bad guy.

    As Capaldi’s Doctor Who put it, “maybe you will win! But nobody wins for long. The wheel keeps turning.”

    Honestly, I think it would be best if these people watched more baseball, where failure is the norm, not the exception. Non-Americans know this in their bones from watching soccer/football. (A sport many American yuppies are casually into because it’s the hip yuppie thing, while understanding nothing of what makes it beautiful.)

    • I don’t know anything about Vert. But what annoys me about him is his facile arguments. And then he says that I should spend my time countering Nozick?! (Putting Ayn Rand and Ron Paul on the same level was offensive.) As I’ve noted: Nozick does a good enough job countering libertarianism. But the final straw was the non-aggression principle. He obviously didn’t even look at Bruenig’s article, because his defense of it was practical, which isn’t the problem at all. The non-aggression principle just doesn’t tell us anything. It is used as a proof of libertarianism yet their arguments always assume libertarian priors. In other words, non-aggression arguments always beg the question. The fact that the vast majority of libertarians do not see this says a lot.

      But you are right: thinking that they will do well in the libertarian utopia is almost always the basis for their belief. Why else is libertarianism such a favorite of college-educated white sub-geniuses who have had privileged lives?

      I am, however, mixed on the guy. I know I have been dismissive. But he’s obviously a lot smarter than the ideas he talks about. But since he seems to have no sense of humor, I rather hope he stays away — at least until he reads Anachy and State.

      • I’m unclear on where you got the idea that I haven’t read Anarchy, the State, and Utopia. I never said I hadn’t. Nevertheless, you’ve made so many unfounded assumptions about me in this argument that I’m not going to bother refuting them all. Your only correct assumption was that I didn’t read the article you linked, simply because I think you lack judgement in terms of recognizing sound arguments (“appeals to reason don’t fly around here”).

        I will, however, note one specific assumption you make about libertarians in general– that they believe they will succeed in a libertarian society because they are some sort of “ubermensch.” I find this argument funny, because people who use it will often turn around and accuse conservatives/libertarians of “voting against their own interests” with regards to welfare and health care. Whether or not you see the contradiction here, the fact remains that you’re wrong (again). I believe guns, drugs, and prostitution should be legal, but those positions should not be seen as an endorsement of the activities themselves– and I have no interest in partaking in them. Similarly, one should try to remove one’s own potential for success (and personal proclivities) from the equation when constructing a moral system. If something benefits me, that does not make it inherently right or wrong. A purely libertarian society would probably hinder my success in several ways.

        As for your slavery example, I outlined quite clearly why the hypothetical situation you presented is self-contradictory. If you’d like to present some sort of counter-argument, I’d love to hear it. Instead, you erroneously stated that I agreed with you and attempted to excuse the (non)-exception to the rule. This tells me that you either didn’t read my argument, didn’t understand it, or simply don’t care enough to represent it correctly. In fact, that’s been the overall trend in this discussion.

        Nevertheless, you’ve successfully steered this conversation away from your poorly thought-out article, and I commend you for that impressive display of sophistry. You’ve also done so without once properly defending any of the inane statements you made regarding the core beliefs of libertarianism, or whether or not they’re compatible with Firefly. I’d personally like to bring the discussion back to that, but if you’re more interested in discussing libertarianism as an ideology, please go ahead. Just try to actually criticize its tenets rather than raving about how I’m “ignorant” and “spouting nonsense,” all the while avoiding discussing any specifics of my statements.

        • > I’m unclear on where you got the idea that I haven’t read Anarchy, the State, and Utopia.

          It’s because I was mistaken. It’s been decades since I read it. I was a libertarian at the time, and I’m afraid that affected my view of Nozick’s work. I found it very compelling at the time. Now I see that his work was not nearly as compelling as I had thought — not all that much better than Rand. So I take it back. One can fully absorb Nozick and still spout nonsense.

          > Nevertheless, you’ve successfully steered this conversation away from your poorly thought-out article…

          That wasn’t my intent. But you make it out as though you made some strong case against my article. You didn’t. You just appealed to authority. When I told you I don’t accept that authority, you simply claimed that I should. As I’ve said, that’s why this conversation is tedious: telling me yet again that I am wrong because Joss Whedon says I am doesn’t help much.

          I know of no one who makes the claim that libertarians don’t vote their interests. Although I was once fooled by the “voting your interests” line, it has been years. I only vote my interests in a broad sense. I certainly don’t vote my immediate economic interests. Although I would say that a huge number of conservatives would normally vote their economic interests but are blinded by propaganda.

          Slavery? I was certainly pushing your buttons. But you didn’t prove that capitalism is inconsistent with slavery. If I own the royalties to a book, I can sell them to you. I lose all the earning from that book for the rest of my life — and my family loses it after I die. Why can’t I do the same thing with my body? Just because I choose to do it doesn’t mean I am not a slave after that. Yes, contracts can always be broken, but it is often very painful. And regardless, a non-libertarian might take control of the government and outlaw slave contracts.

          I read everything you wrote. What you don’t understand is that I’m trolling you because you are annoying me. There’s only one interesting thing that came up in this conversation and that is the non-aggression principle. You simply assumed (wrongly) what my problem with it is, despite the fact that I provided a link. Far be it for someone who has found The Truth™ would read a short blog post!

          You are still here fighting over the idea that the meaning one finds in a work of art is constrained by what the author intended. I do not accept that and your repeating it is not going to change my opinion. This isn’t about postmodernism. It is a simple empirical fact. That doesn’t mean that, for example, a book isn’t something concrete. But even if I grant you everything, you still don’t have much of an argument. I’ve admitted that Mal talks like a libertarian. But his actions are very similar to mine. I don’t like to be told what to do. I bristle under this kind of thing. This is why I’ve been self-employed most of my life. Yet I am not a libertarian. To call all people with an anarchic personality libertarian is to make “libertarian” a useless moniker.

          Mal is also not “libertarian” all the time. In Serenity he’s downright authoritarian. But I don’t expect you to see that since you are a libertarian and they can’t seem to see oppression unless it comes from something called “government.”

          What’s more, Mal isn’t the whole show. So even if we grant that Mal is a libertarian, that doesn’t make the show libertarian. It is a space western with a colorful cast of characters.

          I just read the article again. I don’t see what you’ve been complaining about. I say that I understand why libertarians think the show is libertarian. You have not made a single argument that counters what I’ve written. I suspect your complaint is all the nasty things I say about libertarians. But going around in circles with you has hardly made me think more highly of libertarians. I don’t even see why you’ve wasted so much of both our time. What do you have to offer other than “Joss Whedon said”? Really! I want to know. You haven’t taken issue with the argument that I’ve made. I should have read the article a long time ago because I would have realized how pointless this discussion is.

          Your original points were: (1) Firefly can be seen as a libertarian show, and (2) libertarians don’t just want lower taxes. On point (1), I admitted that in the article. Why were you even bring it up? On point (2), you are right: there are actually more libertarians who want to live in a whites-only society than that want their taxes lowered. Regardless, if you couldn’t see that I said that as an exaggeration — a rhetorical flourish — then you’re a really bad reader. If you want to believe the article is poorly thought-out, feel free. I don’t care. You’re wrong. Your ideology blinds you. But I don’t care.

      • When I was at the local (and excellent) community college, one professor assigned John Rawls on the equivalency principle. It’s a profound thought exercise, but not (you would think!) hard to grasp.

        About 25% of the class couldn’t wrap their minds around it! Not dummies, either! “Well, I wouldn’t be poor.” You’ve entirely missed the point! I’d try to explain it, but it was like trying to explain squirrel sex to a bat. Just absolutely speaking in different languages.

        What absolutely stunned me about this was, it’s a community college. It’s not Harvard, your degree is going to be essentially worthless. And even so, some people were convinced they could never, ever fail.

        But that’s America, it’s in our DNA. It’s been there since the first Founding Fathers married much wealthier wives (I entirely approve of this) and proceeded to make sure rich white men would have all the power (their wives and slaves were unimpressed).

        We’ve been taught since birth that this kind of reckless individualistic optimism is what makes America great, what gives rise to an Edison or Steve Jobs. We’re never taught — we have to learn, painfully — that if companies have one inch of leeway to screw you over, they will do so. And nothing short of solidarity with other workers will save you. Not your cleverness nor college credits nor resume. Time and chance happeneth to us all, as the Bible said and Orwell correctly noted to be true.

        • I think you are talking about the veil of ignorance? I too am kind of amazed at how many people have a problem with it. Of course, it may not be that surprising. I know that a certain percentage of people never develop formal thought. That’s the ability to think in terms of hypotheticals. And some people just can’t imagine what it would be like if they didn’t know who their parents would be and so on.

          I don’t like to say that Americans are libertarian simply because libertarianism has become a very distinct and pernicious political ideology. This difference may be the basis of my discussion with Mr Vert. But it certainly is the case that Americans tend to be rebellious and iconoclastic and positive. These are all traits I share. And I have mixed opinions about them all. Each one has gotten me in trouble! But the difference between these tendencies and libertarian ideology is complete: there is no relationship between them. Indeed, most libertarians latch onto the status quo. I recently read an article by Noah Smith where he noted how strange it was that most libertarians have a problem with solar power, even though it is decentralized and liberty maximizing. But then, a big problem I have with libertarians is their focus on theoretical liberty rather than actual liberty.

          Mostly, I just want to create a more perfect union. I would like to get this country moving in the direction that things were improving for everyone, even when conservatives were in power. I’m not asking for much. I just think that the standard of living should be improving for all Americans. I don’t expect the rich to not be rich. The fact that asking for so little is characterized as “socialism” or “collectivism” is really troubling. And then there are people like Vert who I really don’t understand anymore. As if the lives of the poor isn’t already bad enough in this country. I have a hard time seeing libertarianism as anything but intellectual masturbation in the service of the power elite. As many people have noted, while the Cato Institute had left-wing opinions (about drugs and war), it was only their right-wing opinions that they were willing to create viable policy papers on. For example, they made arguments for school vouchers, even though that isn’t a libertarian solution. Yet they never called for legalizing cannabis. When it came to drugs, it was all or nothing. So as a practical matter, it was nothing. This is a big problem with libertarianism: it may have left-wing opinions but they are never as important as their right-wing opinions. And why is that? Because it is the right-wing positions that people like the Koch brothers are willing to pay for. In this way, libertarianism shows that as a practical matter it would be a disaster.

          • Yup, “veil of ignorance.” The class was many years ago.

            Ultimately, there’s a line to be crossed, which separates “people who have curious beliefs” and “people who don’t think very hard” from “people who would deliberately cause harm to me or my friends or family if it meant an extra buck.” It’s not always easy to define where that line is.

            Libertarians jump over that line eagerly, and I wonder if most of them are as cruel as they think it’s awesome to be. Like the Clooney character in “Up In The Air,” they might discover that being a jerk is generally an unpleasant experience.

        • The Veil of Ignorance always struck me as a bit of a silly hypothetical, because it presupposes that wealth distributions are accidental. I haven’t read Rawls in some time, but I appreciate his positions on race/gender inequality, and I’m pleased that his “ideal society” advocates for freedom of speech and equal treatment under the law.

          But the Veil of Ignorance can’t be applied to income inequality. Unlike racial/gender inequality, inequality of income is not predetermined at birth unless you live in a society with absolutely no social mobility. It is something you have control over– unlike your race or sex. That alone makes me think it should be removed from this equation. Obviously we shouldn’t let the accidental circumstances of our births dictate how we’re treated in society, but income inequality is not a random circumstance. If I’m missing anything here, feel free to enlighten me.

          • You clearly don’t understand the concept. It isn’t just or even primarily about wealth. Will you be born smart? Will you be born healthy? And so on. As James noted: it’s not hard to understand. But if you are determined to not understand it, oh well. Or maybe you are a supporter of eugenics. It wouldn’t surprise me.

  9. Frank ranted about this a bit to me this evening so I came over to read and this stuck out at me:

    Slavery, of course, is incompatible with capitalism, and therefore incompatible with libertarianism.


    Two people absolutely have the right to make a master-slave contract, but fundamentally, because they are entering into the arrangement voluntarily, that is not “slavery” by the dictionary definition. Slavery is the state of being forced to work against one’s will; if you willingly sign yourself over to that state, thereby abdicating your freedom, that does not make your experience the same as Africans during American slavery. It’s somewhat astonishing that you don’t grasp this concept.

    Slavery has never been incompatible with capitalism. Don’t know why anyone would think that you couldn’t have slavery both involuntarily imposed and voluntarily agreed to in a capitalist society. We have that now with sex trafficking and the slavery that occurs with illegal immigration which does start out in a ‘voluntary’ contract. Or is the US not a capitalist country?

    • Excellent point. I thought about mentioning slavery that actually exists in this country, but I didn’t want to get sidetracked. (Also, libertarians will just claim, contrary to all evidence, that such things wouldn’t happen if the government were minimalist.) You bring up the ultimate problem with libertarianism: it only “works” (in as much as it does) in theory. In practice, it would degenerate to authoritarianism. At least Rand understood that libertarianism needed some kind of philosophical system to support it otherwise it didn’t work. Of course, Objectivism is not only morally bankrupt but as unworkable as free-floating libertarianism.

      Somewhere on this website, I discuss the problem that step-by-step libertarian reform only made society worse. Libertarians always claim (eg, Pinochet’s Chile) that their philosophy can’t be judged on half-measures. But I don’t know any real-world example of a system that gets further and further away from its goal as it is implemented and suddenly becomes glorious as all the pieces are put together. This leads me to think that a “perfect” libertarian country would just be like a partial libertarian country — only far worse.

      Of course, in my mid-50s I do not have time for such things. There will never be a “perfect” libertarian country. Even though I don’t think Obamacare is a great system, I support it because it makes the lives of millions of Americans better. I don’t have patience with theoretical systems. If I want that, I’ll go back to studying Galois. Libertarianism is the ultimate hobby of the privileged: something that people who are struggling to get by just don’t have the time for.

    • I know that you postmodernists like to pretend that words don’t have real meanings, but let’s get back to basics here.

      “Characteristics central to capitalism include private property, capital accumulation, wage labor, voluntary exchange, a price system, and competitive markets.”

      If an economic system lacks any of these key traits, I would argue that it ceases to be a capitalist system. These are the most fundamental, basic tenets of capitalism– I’d be happy to debate you if you’d like to say any of them are morally wrong. However, don’t go randomly pointing to things like American slavery and calling it a capitalist system. At that point you might as well call Trump Hitler. Oh, wait…

      And obviously, unscrupulous people will work their way around these rules in the black market. “W-wait! Under capitalism we have private property, but someone stole my bike last week! What do you say to that?!?” I say that someone broke the law. We consider them a criminal, because the institutions of this country are designed to protect private property rights. Similarly, anyone involved in forcing someone to work against their will (in sex trafficking or otherwise) is breaking the law and operating outside of the free market. It’s astonishing to me that you apparently don’t see the difference between state-sanctioned slavery (which cannot be called a free-market system) and Albanian sex traffickers drugging Liam Neeson’s daughter and selling her to a Saudi prince against her will.

      • I’m not a postmodernist. But you are obviously a troll: never engaging in what I say. You are taking advantage of the fact that I try to respond to all comments. Since you aren’t interested in actual discussion, you should go back to a libertarian website where everyone already “knows” you are right. I’m not letting any more of your comments through. You’re done.

          • Only occasionally. But you are using my attentive nature against me. I’m really not interested in hearing any more of your endlessly repeated nonsense. You do not, in fact, engage with me. You have ignored the vast majority of what I said. And as I noted, you didn’t engage with the original article. You question whether I’ve read your comments?! You don’t seem to have read my original post! Go away. In a couple of months, come back and I’ll give you another chance. But now you’re just spending your time wasting mine. I realize you think you are making great points. But you are, in fact, making pedestrian points and then repeating them ad nauseam. And I’ve lost patience with you long ago. Go somewhere that you can make great arguments as to Joe Manchin’s libertarian beliefs. Your support of Manchin does sum up the vapidity of your thinking. And I’m not interested in talking to you because your thinking has ossified. Nothing will happen because you have the ultimate libertarian truth and all your intelligence goes to the great effort to hang on to this indefensible ideology. At this point, I think of you as a stray dog that simply won’t go away. But you are hardly alone in this. Libertarians commonly come here and want to engage in debates over very long periods of time about trivial and usually stupid issues. See: you are even a cliche in the context of Frankly Curious! I used to be nicer but now I work far too much to have the energy to engage in what I consider pathetically simplistic libertarian arguments. If you even bothered to comment on one of my other libertarian articles I would be more understanding. But this is beyond tiresome. I get it: you are a libertarian but you vote Democratic but not for the Democrats that actually have libertarian policy ideas but instead “centrist” Democrats who are really just non-crazy conservatives who don’t believe in economic or social libertarian ideas. I totally understand! You have a very clear view of the world. The fact that it is a cliche should not stop you from spreading your un-unique ideas to the masses. With your grand narrative that Firefly is a libertarian show, you should have no problem converting this nation to the Libertarian Truth. Go, young man! Your path is clear! I can’t compete with your clear thinking on these matters! And why should you limit your brilliance to me when the world is hungering for it?! Don’t walk away! Run! Run to the masses! They need you! I am only cutting you off because I am a humanist and can’t deal with keeping the secret of your genius to myself! Bring the Truth to the masses, Graham! Do it now!

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