My Performance at the 2017 Compassion Over Killing Winter Celebration

Thank you to the amazing Leona Amosah for recording it.

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Posted in Animal rights, Peace

Sadism in Afghanistan

For the past 16 years, the American war machine has been acting like a two-tiered sadist in Afghanistan. While facilitating the Kabul government’s destruction of the communities it oversees there, our military apparatus has also harmed the U.S. itself by spilling American blood for an unnecessary and futile mission.

Granted, most Americans have not literally bled for the war in Afghanistan. Our sacrifice has been merely (merely?) financial. U.S. taxpayers have paid – and will continue paying – for our government’s $1 trillion excursion there, an escapade already more expensive than the Marshall Plan to rebuild post-WWII Europe. Not all Americans have been as fortunate as civilian taxpayers, though. 2,400 U.S. soldiers have died and upwards of 17,000 have suffered physical injuries in Afghanistan. Still other troops have returned home physically intact but psychologically scarred, motivating their retreat into a lonely depression.

Suicide has been a tragically fitting end to the lives of our most traumatized Afghanistan war veterans, whose premature deaths provide a chilling reminder that the US military apparatus has pursued a program of ruinous overexertion since its war against the Taliban began in 2001. Despite the popular impression that al-Qaeda and the Taliban were comrades in arms in the lead-up to 9/11, the reality is that Taliban leaders resented Osama bin Laden for issuing fatwas against the West and had even tried alerting the U.S. of bin Laden’s diabolical plans beforehand. When the attacks happened anyway, the Taliban remained fairly pliant, offering to surrender bin Laden to the Organization of the Islamic Conference if the U.S. could prove that bin Laden was behind the attacks. After President George W. Bush rejected that overture and bombed Afghanistan in October 2001, the Afghan government quickly gave up its “proof of guilt” condition and sought a settlement that would involve surrendering bin Laden to a U.S.-selected third party. But in his apparently implacable desire to fight, Bush again rejected negotiations in favor of a mutually destructive war.

When the invasion began, General Tommy Franks instructed American troops to support the corrupt Northern Alliance in battle against the Taliban, even though al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, bore primary responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. At the very outset, then, the US was fighting somebody else’s war in Afghanistan, buttressing warlords and drug dealers against a government clearly uninterested in going to bat for our actual enemies. With the U.S. distracted and unwilling to destroy al-Qaeda in the now-infamous standoff at Tora Bora, bin Laden’s men successfully fled to Pakistan before the year ended.

With those few hundred al-Qaeda fighters no longer inhabiting their ostensible “safe haven” in Afghanistan, the U.S. should have left Afghanistan as well. After all, our military’s job there was done. With al-Qaeda then in Pakistan, the Bush administration could have enlisted special operations forces to capture bin Laden before removing U.S. personnel from the area altogether.

Unfortunately, President Bush had no interest in leaving Afghanistan after just a few short months. Within days of al-Qaeda’s departure, the U.S. began “rebuilding” the country by installing Hamid Karzai as president and helping the newly inaugurated Afghan National Army in battle against the Taliban. A full-fledged war was on the horizon, and these were the Bush administration’s chosen “allies against terror.”

But however optimistic some Americans may have been that Karzai’s men would expedite Bush’s efforts, the ANA proved to be a feckless force, what with members abusing drugs on the job, stealing weapons, and retreating prematurely in battle. That faithlessness has done a great disservice to the U.S. in places like the Kunar Province, where twenty of our soldiers died just to hand over the Marawara Valley to ANA members who surrendered it shortly after acquiring it. But the suicidal sadism of U.S. support for the ANA has probably found its most literal and poignant expression in more than 100 “green-on-blue attacks,” wherein Afghan trainees have revealed a mixture of pro-Taliban sympathies and personal grievances by directly targeting their Coalition “allies.”

Of course, our troops’ sacrifices for the ANA might be “worth it” if the Afghan government were promoting liberal values in the places where it actually has secured control. In reality, though, U.S. allies in Afghanistan may be more brutal than the Taliban. Lest we forget, Taliban members gained relative popularity in the 1990s by making some effort to crack down on sexual crimes. Though a far cry from humane, Taliban members to this day “rape less” than do ANA members, whose institutionally condoned molestation of children may itself be adequate to discredit all American claims of “humanitarianism” in Afghanistan over the past 16 years.

Alongside children, grown Afghan women have suffered tremendously under the post-Taliban government. Though nominally committed to gender equality, U.S. allies adopted a “Shi’ite personal status law” in 2009 defining women as property, thereby legalizing men’s rape of their wives and treating external assaults on women as simple violations of male property rights. To this day, the Afghan National Police uphold this barbaric system by kidnapping and returning female escapees of abusive households to their tyrannical spouses and fathers.

Like their seedy Afghan allies, many U.S. forces have themselves been brutalizing civilians since the occupation began. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, invading U.S. forces relied on demonstrably unreliable sources – i.e., random Afghan civilians with unrelated axes to grind – to find “terrorists” to imprison. U.S. servicemen have since initiated some relatively high-profile killings, like the lethal attacks on 33 people at Garloch in 2009, the Maiwand District slaughter of 3 people in 2010, the unprovoked massacre of 16 people in Kandahar in 2011, and the 2015 bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz. But some of the less reported aspects of the U.S. occupation have also been disastrous. For example, when “night raids” came to dominate U.S. strategy in Afghanistan during President Barack Obama’s troop surge, thousands of Afghan civilians ended up detained or dead because of U.S. forces’ over-reliance on suspects’ misleading phone call data for information.

Although he suggested before taking office that he would withdraw from Afghanistan, the predictably erratic President Donald Trump is now exacerbating this tragedy by deploying thousands of additional troops to confront Afghanistan’s encroaching Islamists. But the only two conceivable justifications for such a move – to protect people in the US, and to protect people in Afghanistan itself – hold as little water now as they did under Presidents Bush and Obama. Though President Trump claims that the U.S. needs an Afghan foothold in order to prevent terrorists from seizing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, the reality is that the U.S. could withdraw from Afghanistan tomorrow and no less effectively send special operations forces to strike terrorists in Pakistan if the need ever arose.

That Afghanistan could become an Islamist “sanctuary” after the U.S. leaves is also a poor excuse to stay. For even if we grant that the Taliban would exploit an American withdrawal by overrunning Afghanistan and safeguarding jihadists there, Afghanistan’s threat to the U.S. would remain tiny, seeing as Afghan Islamists lack nuclear weapons and have no other reliable means of striking us from Southwest Asia. Of course, it is still possible that a group of Afghan terrorists could try to travel here and coordinate an attack without raising any red flags, but the chances of such an attempt are small. As University of Chicago Professor Robert Pape notes, Middle Eastern terrorist groups are today focusing less on training militants to infiltrate our country than on inspiring US residents themselves to attack Americans around themThat being the case, it is probably riskier for the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely and intensify the vengeful sentiments that inspired the domestic Fort Hood, Boston Marathon, and Orlando nightclub attackers to commit crimes from within.

Humanitarian arguments for staying in Afghanistan are equally unconvincing. Even if we assume that the US can maintain the occupation without committing any more war crimes, our “humanitarian” mission will continue to fail for the simple reason that our Afghan “allies” lack the will and organizational cohesion necessary to defeat anybody but themselves. As it stands, the Afghan government is a union of adversarial factions that Secretary of State John Kerry strung together after the contested 2014 Afghan presidential election. Reigning leaders Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, political rivals who each tried stealing the election from the other, hate each other at least as much as they hate the Taliban. Various warlords are sparring viciously beneath them, evincing little desire to defeat the Taliban and virtually no desire to create anything resembling a liberal democracy. For their part, the Afghan “police” are basically indistinguishable from the criminals themselves, changing allegiances whimsically and assaulting civilians left and right. It is this loose confederation of bloodthirsty Afghans – not peaceful Afghans who want nothing to do with war – benefiting from our military aid.

Some leaders of the U.S. occupation have recognized these realities for what they are. For his part, the State Department’s Matthew Hoh resigned his post in 2009 when he determined that U.S. troops in Afghanistan were often killing the wrong people and dying for no good reason. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry also publicly expressed similar misgivings a few weeks later, doubting that US support for (what was then) Karzai’s government could effectively reform what was a fundamentally unmotivated and corrupt institution. But no matter how clear the futility of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has always been, the war machine rages on in a sadistic craze, consuming U.S. energy and dollars while immiserating whatever innocent foreigners stand in its way. At a certain point, though, we have to put our collective foot down and refuse to allow our military’s leadership to continue depleting resources and destroying lives just to play silly games in Afghanistan. U.S. troops are losing. U.S. taxpayers are losing. Afghan civilians are losing. The whole situation is a bloody mess that our military is helpless to fix and liable to worsen. It is time to withdraw.

Many of the historical details in this essay come from Scott Horton’s Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, a lucid and insightful assessment of US activity in Afghanistan. This piece originally appeared at

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DC VegFest Performance

I met some amazing folks at DC Veg Fest a few weeks ago (including Grey, who appears at the end of this video!). Sharing “Where War Begins” with so many passionate vegans and soon-to-be vegans absolutely made my day. Shout out to davidjwalls for recording everything and Compassion Over Killing for organizing this awesome event!

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Remembering Dick Gregory and Debating Animal Rights

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dick Gregory, a dazzling comedian, sharp social critic, and tireless civil rights and antiwar activist who passed away last Saturday. A life like his gives us so much to contemplate, but I keep returning to his claim that humans and other species “suffer and die alike. Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel, and vicious taking of life. We shouldn’t be a part of it.”

I think Gregory was right. Because they can grieve and ache just as much as certain humans can, sentient animals deserve justice.

I discussed these matters on Monday in a debate with Walter Block, a Loyola University economics professor about whose position on animal rights I wrote last month. Although we disagreed, it was a cordial and fruitful exchange. Whatever you feel about this issue, I hope you’ll watch this and seriously consider Gregory’s thoughtful words. Many thanks to Lucy Steigerwald for moderating the discussion.

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Animal Torture Violates Rights: A Response to Walter Block


Walter Block is one of the most highly esteemed libertarian theorists in the world today.1 The Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Chair in Economics and Professor of Economics at Loyola University, Block has written hundreds of articles and books on the intricacies of libertarian theory, even a cursory review of which reveals the tremendous depth and breadth of his thinking.2 Block’s logical consistency is impressive, and his iconoclastic scholarship on such weighty issues as militarism and drug prohibition warrants praise from anyone dismayed by abusive governmental power.

Notwithstanding his important insights on other topics, Block joins fellow libertarians Murray Rothbard,3 Tibor Machan,4 Roderick Long,5 and Jan Narveson6 in promoting unsound ideas about animal rights.7 According to Block, animals lack all rights because animals cannot: 1) petition for the right not to be tortured or 2) “promise to respect” others’ rights and “follow through” on that promise.8 Therefore, like several of his libertarian peers, Block concludes that humans should be allowed to torture their animal property with impunity.9

Block’s opposition to animal rights necessarily informs his ideas about a medley of serious issues. For example, it inclines Block to support the right of slaughterhouse operators to keep all the money they make from killing animals painfully. It also inclines him to support the right of private industrialists to pave over animal habitats.10 To understand the full implications of animal rights doctrine in a society based on Lockean property rights, we will eventually have to consider these ancillary positions at length. In this short essay, though, I provide just a basic refutation of Block’s case for legalizing animal torture.11 The first section describes Block’s argument, the second section enumerates my objections to Block’s argument, and the conclusion follows.

Block’s argument

On a personal level, Block opposes animal abuse, calling it a “highly immoral” practice.12 He also predicts, perhaps optimistically, that judges in some future libertarian society will not “land too heavily” on vigilantes fighting animal abuse.13 But because libertarianism prohibits violence against humans alone, Block maintains that the legal right to torture one’s own animals is an unavoidable corollary of libertarian doctrine.14

Though he does not mention it in his 2015 article “Animal Torture: A Critique of Thick Libertarianism,” Block has elsewhere claimed that a non-human species could theoretically gain rights if it petitioned for rights and sincerely promised to respect the rights of others.15 Block extends this principle to entities that may not be “animals” as we generally understand them, suggesting that humans’ libertarian obligations to extraterrestrial beings, for example, would also depend on those beings’ ability or inability to articulate an authentic affinity for rights.16

Problems with Block’s argument

There are three related problems with Block’s argument. First, Block assumes from the outset that the human-animal division is morally significant, even though that division’s moral significance is the very thing that Block needs to prove. Second, Block seems to make the inappropriate assumption that individuals have rights if and only if they can articulate a sincere respect and desire for rights. Third, Block pays inadequate attention to sentience when determining who has a right not to be tortured.

Let us begin with the first problem. To determine whether animals have rights, Block outlines what we may call the “articulation standard,” asking whether animals can request rights and convey an honest willingness to respect the rights of others. Because animals cannot meet this standard, Block reasons, animals have no rights. But the question itself is specious, which becomes clear when we imagine applying Block’s standard to a human group. Let us imagine, for example, using Block’s formula to determine whether human babies have rights. Unpalatably, Block’s logic would yield the conclusion that human babies lack all rights, seeing as babies can neither petition for rights nor promise to respect the rights of others.

In reality, Block has expressed support for human babies’ rights. Although he condones parents’ limited use of spanking for disciplinary reasons, Block acknowledges that grisly child abuse—grinding babies to death without anesthetic, for example—does indeed violate babies’ rights.17 It is clear, then, that Block is not prepared to hold all human groups to the standard to which he holds all animal groups. In order to justify his use of the articulation standard, though, he would need to apply it to animals and humans alike. His failure to do so suggests that he is simply intent on denying rights to animals.

Block could now respond that human babies, unlike animals, have rights because other (i.e. older) members of their species meet the articulation standard. But that response would reveal the crux of his argument’s problem. In trying to prove that all humans deserve special protection, Block’s argument unfairly assumes from the outset that traits common among other members of one’s species is what matters morally. We could just as easily, and just as unjustifiably, assume from the outset that the traits common among other members of one’s age group is what matters morally, and we could frame our question and answer accordingly: “Does the individual belong to an age group that has requested rights, pledged respect for rights, and followed through on that pledge? If not, then he deserves no rights.” Because this arbitrary formulation would deprive human newborns of rights simply because of their membership in a group—a group invoked for no particularly good reason—Block would properly deem the question unfair. However, Block’s own formulation, which promotes rights for human babies but not for their equally articulate animal counterparts, is also unfair. For that reason, we should reject Block’s question as well.

It is of course possible that Block would at this point agree to hold every individual equally to the articulation standard. But even if that would make his reasoning more consistent, the articulation standard itself would remain woefully misguided. A couple of case studies should elucidate this second problem with Block’s argument.

Suppose that an Apple computer were built in the shape of a human body, dressed up like a human, and programmed to say, “Please don’t torture me, and I will not torture you.” Let us also assume that this computer, designed to help and not to hurt humans, would “follow through” on its promise not to torture people. Because this computer’s utterance would sound like an earnest petition for and commitment to rights, Block’s reasoning would lead us to support rights for this computer. But if this computer forever lacked sentience, then recognizing its “rights” would be bizarre indeed. For although the computer could say that it dislikes torture, the computer would not actually feel an aversion to torture. Indeed, the computer—what with its inability to process emotions or physical pain—would lack all preferences on all matters pertaining to its own wellbeing. Therefore, offering rights to this computer would make no more sense than offering rights to tables, chairs, pillows, and other objects that are perpetually apathetic to the treatment they receive.18

Although the group of individuals who meet the articulation standard does not overlap perfectly with the group of individuals who actually desire a right not to be tortured, perhaps Block would respond that all individuals who want rights can express an affinity for rights (even though not every entity capable of expressing an affinity for rights actually wants rights). But as Block implicitly recognizes in his other writings, it is simply not true that everyone who wants rights is capable of articulating an affinity for rights. To return to a previous example: human babies are incapable of articulating any desire or respect for rights. Human adults with severe cognitive impairments may be similarly incapable. Schizophrenics overwhelmed by delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia might also fail to request and pledge respect for rights with any more coherence than an animal. And yet Block still recognizes that human infants, the cognitively impaired, and the mentally ill want and deserve rights.

Block is not alone. It seems axiomatic that sentient human beings who have harmed nobody, even if they are amoral and inarticulate, have a right not to be tortured under normal circumstances. To understand why, we should consider Rothbard’s assertion that humans have property rights because humans “transform their environment in order to prosper.”19 In other words, humans have property rights because humans can make use of and desire the benefits of property rights in a way that rocks, rivers, and other uncreative entities cannot. Although Rothbard opposed animal rights and therefore failed to embrace the logical implications of his own reasoning, Rothbard’s premise made sense. There is good reason to believe that an entity should receive a negative right when the entity actually wants, and perceives a benefit in, the protection afforded by that negative right.20

When we use Rothbard’s premise to assess the morality of torturing animals, we necessarily conclude that torturing innocent sentient animals does indeed violate rights. This conclusion brings us to the final problem with Block’s theory of animal rights: it neglects the importance of sentience. Because a sentient being can experience pain, it should be clear that all sentient beings have an interest in avoiding the distressing experience that torture entails. To put it in terms that Rothbardians ought to appreciate: it is “natural” for sentient beings, given their aversion to torture, to have rights against torture. That the inarticulate—the cognitively impaired, the psychologically troubled, the young, and, yes, the non-human—cannot eloquently express their affinity for these rights does not matter. What matters is that all sentient beings, unlike perpetually inanimate objects, want not to be tortured. If that desire warrants official respect when it belongs to humans, then it also, at least presumptively, warrants official respect when it belongs to non-human animals.


According to Block, the sole purpose of law is to regulate human interaction, meaning that the treatment of animals should be resolved privately.21 Of course, Block is allowed to advocate this viewpoint, but so are we allowed—perhaps even called upon—to condemn the morally arbitrary and misguided calculations that bring him to his conclusions concerning the abuse of non-human species. Because it would greatly exaggerate the importance of agents’ articulateness and vastly understate the importance of their capacity for pain, any legal system permitting unprovoked assaults on sentient animals would be unjustified.


  1. Newsmax labeled Block one of the 100 “most influential libertarians.” See “100 Most Influential Libertarians: A Newsmax/FreedomFest List.” Newsmax. June 1, Accessed July 3, 2017. 2017.
  2. For a list of Block’s publications, see “Walter Block Publications.” Accessed July 3, 2017.
  3. Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York and London: New York University Press, 1998), 155. This book was originally published in 1982.
  4. Machan, Tibor R. “Do Animals Have Rights?” Public Affairs Quarterly 5, no. 2 (April 1991): 163-73.
  5. Long, Roderick T. “Why Fur Is Not Murder.” January 26, 2003.
  6. Narveson, Jan. “Animal Rights.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7, no. 1 (March 1977): 161-78.
  7. “Animal” in this essay means “non-human animal.”
  8. “Walter Block – Q&A Session [Australian Mises Seminar].” October 6, 2013. Accessed July 4, 2017.
  9. Block reaffirms his commitment to this position in Block, Walter, and Steven Craig. “Animal Torture.” The Review of Social and Economic Issues 1, no. 4 (2017): 82. Although this recent journal article should be addressed in its totality on another occasion, what matters now is that this piece articulates Block’s apparently unchanged, if grudging and uneasy, view that animal torture is permissible under the libertarian legal code that he favors.
  10. Of course, Block could still theoretically oppose the right of slaughterhouse operators to keep their money and the right of private industrialists to pave over animal habitats. That opposition, though, would not stem from a commitment to animal rights.
  11. I am focusing on Block’s case for legalizing animal torture under normal circumstances, which means that I am ignoring some crucial ethical questions while addressing others. For example, I am not contemplating whether it should be legal to torture one animal in order to save the lives of many more sentient beings. But I am contemplating whether it should be legal to debeak, dehorn, violently penetrate, and confine animals in close quarters in order to facilitate the production of meat, dairy, and eggs for American consumers who can survive without animal products.
  12. Block, Walter, and Stephen Montgomery. “Animal Torture: A Critique of Thick Libertarianism.” The Review of Social and Economic Issues 1, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 106. Accessed July 4, 2017.
  13. Ibid., 106.
  14. Ibid., 106-107.
  15. “Walter Block – Q&A Session [Australian Mises Seminar].” October 6, 2013. Accessed July 4, 2017.
  16. “Walter Block – Q&A Session [Australian Mises Seminar].” October 6, 2013. Accessed July 4, 2017.
  17. Grinding babies to death is my example, not Block’s. I use it because the egg industry lethally lacerates millions of male chicks every year. See McKenna, Maryn. “By 2020, Male Chicks May Avoid Death By Grinder.” National Geographic. June 13, 2016. Accessed July 4, 2017.–male-chicks-could-avoid-death-by-grinder/. For Block’s treatment of children’s rights, see Block, Walter, Ed Smith, and Jordan Reel. “The natural rights of children.”Int J Health Policy Manag, 2014, 85-89. doi:10.15171/ijhpm.201.
  18. In granting rights to these objects, then, we would be placing unnecessary restraints on the way that individuals with preferences treat these objects.
  19. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, 155.
  20. Perhaps entities can have rights even if they lack a present preference for rights. For example, anesthetized humans, notwithstanding their temporary unconsciousness, probably have a right not to be touched aggressively. My present claim, then, is that sentient beings have rights—not that sentient beings alone have rights. Another essay is necessary to investigate this matter more thoroughly.
  21. Block and Montgomery, “Animal Torture,” 105.

This article originally appeared at

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Vegan Musings on Retribution


The more evil I encounter in ordinary places, the more convinced I become that many criminals withering away in prison are not alone responsible for their crimes. In this respect, they resemble my “non-criminal” friends who regularly commit unconscionable acts. They resemble many readers of this essay, some of whom are probably committing objectionable acts while reading this essay. And they resemble me, in that I have also committed horrid acts condoned by the culture and legal system surrounding me. But because I cannot bring myself to believe that we “normal” people deserve incarceration, I am starting to doubt also that widely condemned criminals deserve the harsh punishments they receive.

Let me back up. Although I have not always been, I am now vegan and will remain vegan until I die. I refuse to consume animal products, because I consider it wrong to torment sentient beings for fun. I take comfort in the fact that many people share my sentiments. Most Americans recognize, at least in theory, that it is unethical to torture sentient creatures needlessly.

When it comes to animals, though, our actions often contradict our words. We teach children to respect animals, but we pay businesses to castrate male pigs without anesthetic, to impregnate cows via “rape racks,” and to destroy chickens’ beaks, sometimes so profoundly as to prevent the victims from eating. We chow down on lobsters dismembered and boiled alive, drink milk wrested from hapless goats, and flaunt wool ripped from the backs of abused sheep. All told, we Americans kill billions of animals annually. We “peace lovers” sometimes participate in this odiousness without a hint of irony, having convinced ourselves that it is possible to respect sentient animals while harming them. Others of us simply ignore the contradiction, content to promote peace in the streets while unthinkingly ingesting corpses in the dining room.

Others of us claim that non-human species—because they are less rational and morally informed than humans—actually deserve nothing better than their inferior treatment. But this justification begins to collapse when we remember that the newborn human babies we so adore, as well as some cognitively impaired adults, are no more rational or morally informed than the animals that humans eat and wear regularly. And even if we somehow manage to circumvent this reality of “species overlap,” we fall short when we then try justifying the unsettling idea that rational and morally informed beings are the only ones who deserve torture-free lives in the first place.

Most meat-eaters are not malicious, though. Many non-vegans are actually deeply compassionate.

They assist sick relatives, donate to the needy, hold doors for strangers, and even mourn the deaths of their pets. True, non-vegans seem not to extend their sympathies to the animals they consume. But away from the dinner table, a good many non-vegans are as kind as can be. Some meat-eaters, like Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., and Noam Chomsky, even manage to achieve global renown for agitating on behalf of the oppressed.

This puzzling reality—that otherwise moral individuals voluntarily commit patently immoral acts—gets me thinking about the logic of retributive justice. Understandably, many Americans believe that murderers deserve death or life in prison for the crimes they commit. Although I have long opposed the death penalty because I fear wrongful executions, I have also never much doubted that actual killers deserve death. Nor have I ever categorically opposed life sentences without the possibility of parole. Like many Americans, I have thought that individuals who voluntarily commit unconscionable acts should have to take responsibility by suffering unpleasant legal consequences.

But my sentiments are changing. Whenever I see restaurants full of “normal,” “good” people slathering parcels of dead cow with barbecue sauce, I remember that barbaric cultural norms can motivate humans to act against their better judgment. I have thus concluded that people are not singly responsible for their misdeeds and that many retributive punishments today are too harsh.

If you struggle to understand this point, consider just how prevalent the denigration of animals really is. Every time they drive on the highway, meat-eaters are likely to encounter advertisements for sliced turkey lodged between hunks of bread. They are likely to send their children to public schools that serve decapitated chickens for lunch. They are bound to see televised models and actors proudly flaunting accessories made from alligators. In light of our world’s intractable addiction to the flesh of non-human species, it is hardly surprising that meat-eaters treat non-human animals like garbage and respond with confusion, indignation, or contemptuous laughter when a dissenting somebody suggests (accurately) that there is no meaningful moral difference between torturing a random cow and torturing a random human baby.

I am inclined to believe that many criminals—the ones who assault humans—are similarly inspired by other violent people to become violent themselves. Research on the adverse effects of child abuse vindicates my intuition. When only one child in a twin pair experiences abuse, the abused twin is markedly more likely than his similarly situated non-abused twin to embrace criminality. Causality is difficult to prove, but surely it is no far stretch to hypothesize that abuse teaches its child victims that aggression is a fine way of dignifying oneself, of showing the world that one’s wishes should not and cannot be ignored. And although the data on single-parent households do not definitively prove that growing up without a parent increases one’s chances of committing crime, the disproportionate amount of fatherless prisoners may very well suggest that fatherlessness, and perhaps the poverty with which it is associated, pushes children in a violent direction.

I say none of this to understate the severity of horrific crimes. For me, as for many people, there is hardly anything more infuriating and heartrending than unprovoked violence. Nor do I say any of this to suggest that we should permit dangerous individuals to roam freely. However, I maintain that we should restrain criminals primarily in pursuit of public safety, not retribution. And if we do remain committed to restraining criminals largely for the sake of retribution, in order to give them “what they deserve,” then we should at least urge judges to account for criminals’ unchosen circumstances when handing down sentences.

Ultimately, though, defeating cultures of violence will require more than finger-pointing and confinement. It may be tempting to treat mainstream criminals as “different” from us, but that would overlook most Americans’ serious, if banal and accepted, participation in the brutal slaughter of billions of sentient beings that have done nothing to deserve pain. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans have contributed to this monstrosity, which makes it both practically inadvisable and morally questionable to treat retribution as a panacea. Let us instead try to promote respect—for humans and animals both—through education and rehabilitation of offenders. It may be our only hope.

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Liberty and Peace with Sheldon Richman

I recently sat down with author, editor, and left-libertarian extraordinaire Sheldon Richman to discuss political philosophy. Here’s the video!

You can also find a transcription (slightly edited for clarity’s sake) below.


TR: Good evening, everybody. I’m Tommy Raskin.

I’m speaking today with Sheldon Richman. He is a polymath, a libertarian, a leftist, a rabble-rouser. He is the executive editor for the Libertarian Institute. He has worked with the Cato Institute in the past, and we’re really happy to have you here, Sheldon.

SR: Great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

TR: Great. Now, I figure that a conversation isn’t much fun if we don’t have someone playing devil’s advocate. I find much of your work very compelling and persuasive, but I’m just going to push at the bounds of propriety a little bit (if that’s OK!).

SR: Please.

TR: Now, you’re an anarchist. What does that mean? What does it mean to believe that there should be no government whatsoever?

SR: Well, the shorthand is—you can buy a button that says this—anarchism is the radical idea that other people aren’t your property. What it means is all human relationships must be peaceful and consensual, which of course leads to—as I see it, at least—respect for persons’ justly acquired possessions (in other words, property rights) as well as the personal integrity of their person, their life, and property. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So, it just means that the traditional functions that libertarians and classical liberals have been willing to concede to the state—namely, defense against invaders, courts for the peaceful resolution of disputes (like contract disputes), and also prosecution of criminals (people who violate other people’s rights)—those functions can be and over history have been handled in non-forcible ways. In other words, there’s no need to give the state a monopoly on the use of defensive force.

TR: I suppose that the concern that some people have is that if we do not have one overarching entity that is capable of resolving disputes between two parties that otherwise would not come to the table to negotiate—if we did not have one overarching entity that was capable of forcing an aggressor to pay his/her victim some sort of recompense or restitution—that those who are the richest, those with the most guns, would just bully those with fewer weapons into submission. Is that a fear that you have?

SR: Well, it’s a very common concern. I don’t have it. The logic of that, of course, would lead libertarians, or ought to lead libertarians, to call for a world government, because we do already live in an environment of international anarchism. (I was going to say anarchy. Unfortunately, people take that to mean chaos, and of course I don’t mean it that way.) We have international anarchy because there’s no world government. So who settles disputes among governments? Well, governments have lots of bilateral and multilateral agreements for resolving disputes. Most countries are not at war with each other. Most governments are not at war. There are always wars going on, although I think historically we’re at a small number of wars going on relative to earlier periods in the past if you believe Steven Pinker, for example.

TR: Sure.

SR: So if anarchy can exist at that level, aren’t we now just arguing over the level? Which reminds me of an old joke: we know what you are, we’re just haggling over the price! Old joke. Maybe not in good taste! But to transplant it to this subject: every libertarian I know is an anarchist and is just haggling over what level. Because I don’t know any anarchist who wants to turn the U.N., let’s say, into the world government.

TR: Right. Well, that was a point that I often made to folks at the Cato Institute—I was there this summer—who said that it would simply get too confusing if Sheldon had his own private defense agency and Tommy had his own. And I said, “Well, right now, Indonesia and East Timor, France and Libya, Iraq and Kuwait exist in a state of anarchy with each other. If you think that this is a problem, then you must support a world government.”

But to push back on that line of reasoning: couldn’t some libertarians say, “Well, yes, we don’t have a world government, and we have had chaos! We’ve had Iraq invade Kuwait. We’ve had the United States invade Iraq. We’ve had France invade Libya. We’ve had Indonesia invade East Timor. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if there were some global superstructure that were capable of adjudicating disputes between these two parties?” And again, I certainly recoil at the thought of something like that. But is there a certain logic there that you’re willing to flirt with?

SR: Well, we know enough about states to know what risks we take. States are dangerous. We know that. There’s the famous quotation, of course—that’s wrongly attributed to Washington, because no one’s been able to find anything Washington wrote—but the idea that government is not eloquence, it’s not reason, it’s force. To finish this up—it’s a fearful servant and a monstrous master. That’s not quite right, but that’s the point. So we know for public choice reasons and just knowledge of human nature and how incentives work if you create this monopoly, don’t assume good things are going to come about. Decentralized power has typically been favored by liberals. I’m using “liberals” in the classical liberal sense and libertarians’ thinking. It’s better to fragment power. What would a world government be? It would be the ultimate centralization of power.

I assume it would be a world federalist system of some kind. There is still an organization called the World Federalist Society. They want a world government. But what would stop the sub-governments from fighting with each other? So we know how governments work. We know what the bureaucratic dynamic is. It’s for self-preservation. It’s for mission creep. It’s for expansion. Why would we have confidence in that? If we’re worried about governments, it seems to me what we want is competition, not monopoly. And this goes back to—it happens to be on my tie—the great Gustave de Molinari, who was a friend of Bastiat’s. He hung out with that crowd of European liberals in the 19th century. And he wrote an essay, which is famous among libertarians, called “The Production of Security,” which is available online. And he pointed out that if competition is good, why isn’t it good in the production of security? Why do we accept either communism—as he put it— or democracy in security when we won’t accept it in manufacture of shoes and farming and other stuff like that? So I throw it back on the other side.

The other thing is I wrote an article recently called “Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System,” which actually is a play on an old Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie. Great movie, by the way. But there’s an early scene where a man who claims to be king is roughing up a peasant, and the peasant is saying, “Come and see the violence inherent in the system!” I want to make another point. There’s anarchy—even anarchism, in the good sense I mean it—even in the current system, by which I mean there’s a good deal of cooperation that no one will ever enforce by the use of violence. For example, we have a change in presidents coming up. We’re not going to have to force Obama to leave the White House and to let Trump in. That’s not very likely.

What keeps him from doing that? It’s not that he fears the army or the FBI is going to come at gunpoint and remove him. Why does he do that? And why do presidents enforce the laws passed by Congress? Or why do martials enforce orders from judges? It’s not because anybody’s holding a gun to their heads. It’s because they’re embedded in a system of incentives and custom. And so it’s expected that they’ll do that and the cost would be very high to them if they didn’t do it, not in the sense that somebody would point a gun at them and they’d be shot. But again, it’s the incentive system that’s already embedded in the system. So even in a state system, you have this ultimately resting on social consensus.

It’s been pointed out many times by David Hume and others that the number of rulers in any society is very small compared to the number of ruled. So governments ultimately can’t rule by force. They have to rule by people generally supporting. Now, they may support it for bad reasons—they might not even realize that they may have been indoctrinating into supporting it through the government schools and things of that nature—but ultimately the government operates. Force is in the background, of course. But most things go on without the government ever needing to use force. Now, it can.

So anarchism also rests on, I’ll say, social consensus, for lack of a better term. In other words, people expect things. Customs always arise in any society, and they can be, in a way, rigidly enforced by people shunning people that don’t observe basic customs (let’s say respect for other people). And so there are means that don’t involve physical force of enforcing customs, taboos, and—you know—etiquette. Down to the minutiae of etiquette. My point here is that the advocate of limited government can’t throw at the anarchist that “your system ultimately rests on cooperation,” because their system also ultimately rests on cooperation. Because if a significant number of people said, “We refuse to pay taxes,” the government doesn’t have enough guns or enforcers. Because we way outnumber that. So ultimately it’s relying on people cooperating. Why is it that totalitarian government puts so much money into propaganda? Because they can’t rule purely—purely—by force.


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