Tomfoolery in the Overhead Compartment

The Agoric Cafe is serving once again!

In my latest video, I chat with globetrotting, gunslinging, contraband-smuggling libertarian scholar Tom G. Palmer on the legitimacy of self-defense; the militarisation of police; prison abolitionism; the wars on drugs, guns, and gays; the economics and ethics of bounty hunting; the French liberal demystification of the state; lawlessness vs. anarchy; the perversities of the FDA and CDC; Afghan libertarianism; hatred as a treacherous muse; how to sneak a photocopy machine into the Soviet bloc; and the height of the sky.

26 thoughts on “Tomfoolery in the Overhead Compartment

  1. Pingback: Tomfoolery in the Overhead Compartment | Austro-Athenian Empire

  2. Up to 14:35: Am comparing notes on Tom’s experiences with Soviet bloc border police, and my experiences with Israeli border police. I cannot imagine getting away with any of Tom’s capers in any dealings with the Israeli border police. A photocopier would be interpreted as a bomb, and you would spend the rest of the day in a cell while they took it apart, then threw it away. Arguing with them is also pointless.

    There is an interesting parallel between Tom’s smuggling experiences and those recounted by Sari Nusseibeh in his book Once Upon a Country, describing his experiences smuggling documents during the first Palestinian intifada.


  3. I’m only about forty minutes in, so you may address this later, but I’m always curious about libertarians who were influenced by both Rand and Hayek, because that’s always seemed to me an unstable combination. Both in theory and in practice, it seems to me that if you’re influenced into libertarianism by both Rand and Hayek, one of the two will either drop out entirely, or at least substantially take a back seat to the other (whereas this need not happen with Rand/Bastiat or Bastiat/Hayek combinations). In other words, Hayekian influence drives out Randian, and vice versa. What’s left of the driven-out view is at most a kind of superficial residue.

    Tom’s description of Atlas Shrugged as a novel one reads in adolescence and then (more or less) leaves behind sounds like agreement with my Rand-Hayek Incompatibility Thesis. I wonder if he sees things the same way. It’s clear enough what he admires in Bastiat and Hayek, but what, if anything, does he still get out of Rand?

    For some reason, I cannot get my toolbar to work at all (italics, etc.) I’m really loving this new WordPress format.


    • Well, I can’t speak for Tom, but as for myself I obviously reject the Rand-Hayek Incompatibility Thesis, since I’m still deeply influenced by both of them. I reckon Chris S. would say likewise. But then Chris and I are both into reconciling the irreconcilable. I mean, in addition to Rand and Hayek I’ve got Plato and Aristotle and Locke and Nietzsche and Eddy and Frege and Mises and Wittgenstein and Austin and Rothbard and McDowell and the individualist anarchists and who knows what else. At least I draw the line at Marx, unlike someone in Brooklyn I could name.


  4. I’m not saying that there can’t be any influence at all; I’m saying that where both are influences, one does the driving, and the other sits in the backseat (or in some cases, is stuffed into the trunk, or ejected from the vehicle altogether). What I don’t find plausible (to switch metaphors) is a Rand-Hayek blend where both thinkers make a roughly co-equal contribution to the mix. Rand is adamant about the overriding force of reason where Hayek is not; Rand is stringently egoistic where Hayek is not; Hayek is accommodating of the welfare state where Rand is not. And the specific doctrines for which they’re most famous have nothing to do with each other. There’s no obvious relationship between “measurement omission” as the key to the problem of universals in Rand and Hayek’s critique of constructivism. Etc.

    Though I have some disagreements with what he says, I think David Kelley gets the issues basically right:

    Click to access rp_33_1.pdf


    • “What I don’t find plausible (to switch metaphors) is a Rand-Hayek blend where both thinkers make a roughly co-equal contribution to the mix.”

      I think they do make a roughly co-equal contribution in my own case, and obviously I have a certain fondness for not regarding my own case as implausible. Obviously I started with Rand, but my subsequent engagement with Hayek I don’t regard either as sidelining Rand on the one hand or as constituting a mere footnote to Rand on the other — more of a (here it comes) dialectical synthesis.

      You list various important differences between the two, but as I see it, those differences mostly have to do with different topics (even if Rand and Hayek didn’t necessarily see it that way) which makes their approaches in many ways complementary rather than conflicting. You treat the fact that “the specific doctrines for which they’re most famous have nothing to do with each other” as an *obstacle* to synthesis whereas I see it as precisely what makes synthesis possible.

      “Rand is adamant about the overriding force of reason where Hayek is not”

      Right, but Hayek’s critique of reason has to do primarily with claims about the role of reason in constructing society-wide institutions and outcomes, not about running one’s own individual life and projects. Rand’s emphasis on reason, by contrast, is about running one’s own individual life and projects; her rational agents are not trying to plan the whole economy — she as much as Hayek sees beneficial social outcomes as a side effect of individuals pursuing their own plans.

      To be sure, Hayek thinks the best laws are those that emerge from a spontaneous bottom-up evolutionary process, whereas Rand sees the best laws as ones that an expert philosopher of law would figure out (though she also said several times that she did not regard herself as such an expert). But Hayek is quite open (sometimes too open) to top-down constructive tinkering in order to correct spontaneous processes when they drift in the wrong direction.

      In any case my own view draws from both. Individual reason can figure out general legal principles, and when customary law departs from those principles it is unjust and should be combated. But given those general principles, the specific form they take in application to specific circumstances is much more successfully arrived at via spontaneous bottom-up evolutionary processes than by individual ratiocination.

      Moreover, I think the contrast between spontaneous order and rationally aiming at society-wide results is more complicated than Hayek suggests, and that Hayek actually slides among several different conceptions of spontaneous order, some of which are compatible with aiming at society-wide results and some aren’t. Charles gives a good analysis of this in Parts III and IV of his “Invisible Fist” article:

      Click to access women-and-the-invisible-fist-2013-0503-max.pdf

      “Rand is stringently egoistic where Hayek is not”

      Right, but Rand’s focus is on personal ethics, how individuals should live their own lives, which is not Hayek’s focus; his focus is on social institutions. And Rand’s egoism is a complex neo-Aristotelean form of egoism that is easier to reconcile with Hayekian insights than either a Hobbesian or a Stirnerite form of egoism would be (although there are some interesting projects that have tackled the latter project with surprisingly effective results).

      “Hayek is accommodating of the welfare state where Rand is not.”

      Well, they’re both too accommodating of the *state*, welfare or otherwise, for my taste. But I think (and I am hardly alone in thinking) that anarchism is a natural development of the ideas of both thinkers. (And Hayek did say that if he were a younger man he’d be an anarchist.). Anyway, the issue of the welfare state is fairly far downstream from what is for me the most philosophically interesting stuff.

      “There’s no obvious relationship between ‘measurement omission’ as the key to the problem of universals in Rand and Hayek’s critique of constructivism.”

      Certainly their theories of abstraction are quite different. But I think each of them grasped aspects of the issue that the other missed.

      Much that I say in this piece about Rand and Mises is also applicable to Rand and Hayek:

      Click to access praxwho-x.pdf

      Incidentally, the Rothbardians have contributed to confusion on the Mises-Hayek contrast by (inter alia) taking passages where Hayek is expressing skepticism about the extent to which society-wide outcomes are the product of rational design and interpreting these as skepticism about rationality as such, in order to make the Mises/Hayek gap look wider than it is.

      Liked by 1 person

      • To be sure, one can’t simultaneously be an orthodox, doctrinaire Randian and an orthodox, doctrinaire Hayekian. But I have no interest in being either of those things.


      • I guess I’m not convinced by your Rand-Hayek synthesis. I think your synthesis turns on ratcheting back what I see as the ambitions or scope of the Randian view on each of the issues where they seem to disagree, and reconstructing Hayek’s in ways that go well beyond what he actually said. That’s a synthesis of two items, one Randian and one Hayekian, but not a synthesis of Rand with Hayek.

        I have more to say on the Rand side of the equation. You think of Rand’s conception of reason and of egoism as primarily an individual matter rather than of planning a whole social system, or the application of moral norms to social institutions.

        But I think her view is far more ambitious than that. She’s explicitly committed to the claim that the ideal society promotes human interests in a harmonious way, and that capitalist social institutions promote rationality and justice over time. She also thinks that a capitalist legal framework is highly complex, requiring “volumes” of elaboration, definition, etc., and (significantly) requiring top-down enforcement through government. Think for instance about what she says about intellectual property law or broadcast rights in Capitalism: Despite her anti-government-sounding polemics, I think it’s clear that she’s committed to just the kind of government planning that Hayek opposed. On her view, FCC bureaucrats have to be tasked with working out the legal details of a property rights regime, planning out how this regime will promote a harmony of interests, rationality, justice, etc. The state then enforces that regime, presumably tweaking the details as need be so as to promote the right ratio of philosophically objectively valuable to merely socially objective value items over time.

        And though Peikoff has done the actual writing on this subject (Ominous Parallels, DIM Hypothesis), Rand is committed to the idea that human action is fundamentally predictable in a way that Hayek, I think, is not: on Rand’s view, if you know the philosophical premises of a society, you can predict its general direction. That, after all, is the assumption that underlies the whole plot of Atlas Shrugged: Rand as philosopher was able to plot the novel because Rand as philosopher was able to make the relevant predictions about what human beings would do in such-and-such circumstances, given their philosophical premises.

        All of this just seems miles away from anything Hayek would say or agree with–indeed seems to be an instance of what he opposes. To synthesize Rand and Hayek, I think one has to drop this highly ambitious (though, like everything in Rand, completely under-developed) aspect of her thought, ditch it, and focus on the more personal. I don’t dispute that anyone can pick and choose from among the things that Rand says; my point is that Rand’s view is wider than the part of it you’re focusing on, and the incompatibilities arise if one retains the wider view..

        You don’t have to be a doctrinaire Randian to to acknowledge that that wider view is there. My decades-long objection to orthodox Randianism is that Rand is committed to a politics that is much less libertarian than the average free market Objectivist seems to think. (In that limited respect, Peter Schwartz was right to deny that Objectivism entails libertarianism in politics.) Ultimately, Rand’s basic normative commitment is to a form of perfectionism. She happens (like, I guess, Raz) to be a perfectionist with more of a commitment to limited government than most perfectionists have had, and accordingly, spends a lot of time denouncing governments that go beyond proper limits, but whether she admitted it or not, she was committed to quite a lot of “intervention” in the economy on rights-based grounds (where rights are themselves grounded in a form of perfectionism). The irony is that doctrinaire Objectivists have acknowledged and endorsed Rand’s statist side when it’s come to foreign policy, but not when it’s come to domestic policy. Alas, both things are there.

        An added complexity here is that you’re saying that Hayek misunderstood the crucial issue: “Moreover, I think the contrast between spontaneous order and rationally aiming at society-wide results is more complicated than Hayek suggests, and that Hayek actually slides among several different conceptions of spontaneous order, some of which are compatible with aiming at society-wide results and some aren’t.” That entails that Hayek’s view is internally incoherent. Setting aside its truth or falsity, I think Rand’s view is internally coherent. That’s why I think Rand-Hayek syntheses are unstable, and why the Randian element tends to drive out the Hayekian.

        I guess what I’m saying is that given the degree of subtraction and re-construction of both thinkers that your view requires, you open yourself to the objection that if one just goes by what they actually said (without subtraction or reconstruction), their views seem incompatible. The only way to make them compatible is to ratchet back Rand’s philosophical ambitions, and ratchet up Hayek’s. I agree that that synthesis is probably coherent, but would insist that it’s not really a synthesis of Rand with Hayek. It’s a synthesis of Truncated Rand with Reconstructed Hayek. Which is not a bad thing per se–just not the same as a synthesis of Rand with Hayek.


  5. “if one just goes by what they actually said (without subtraction or reconstruction), their views seem incompatible …. it’s not really a synthesis of Rand with Hayek. It’s a synthesis of Truncated Rand with Reconstructed Hayek”

    Well, that’s essentially what I meant when I said that “one can’t simultaneously be an orthodox, doctrinaire Randian and an orthodox, doctrinaire Hayekian.” But I think you and I have different ideas about what a synthesis of two thinkers has to look like. You seem to be saying that a synthesis has to preserve everything both thinkers thought, or at least has to preserve everything they thought was important (as opposed to what the synthesiser thinks is important). But I don’t think this is what is generally meant by a synthesis; it seems like, dare I say, an insufficiently dialectical conception of synthesis. When I say that Rand’s thought represents a synthesis of a) Aristotle, b) the classical liberalism she learned from Isabel Paterson, and c) the romantic individualism she found in different ways in Hugo and Nietzsche, I certainly don’t mean that she agreed with everything that Aristotle, Paterson, Hugo, and Nietzsche thought, or even with everything that Aristotle, Paterson, Hugo, and Nietzsche thought was important. That would be manifestly impossible. When I wrote my piece on a “Rand-Kripke synthesis” on issues of meaning and reference, I likewise wasn’t discussing a position that simply included all of Rand’s theory of meaning and reference, unaltered, along with all of Kripke’s theory of meaning and reference, likewise unaltered. The whole point of a synthesis is to alter the things being synthesised. A synthesis isn’t like gluing two things together that leaves both unchanged apart from the glue. It’s more like cooking things together. Or like genetic breeding: it’s not like I’m an exact genetic clone of my father and also an exact genetic clone of my mother, whatever that would mean. When Kant or Fichte or Hegel or Proudhon propose a synthesis of antinomies, they’re not just embracing each side of the antinomy without alteration.

    As John Clark writes:

    “Whereas nondialectical thought merely opposes one reality to another in an abstract manner, or else places them inertly beside one another, a dialectical analysis examines the ways in which various realities presuppose one another, constitute one another, challenge the identity of one another, and push one another to the limits of their development. Accordingly, one important quality of such an analysis is that it helps those with divergent viewpoints see the ways in which their positions are not mutually exclusive but can instead be mutually realized in a further development of each.”

    (Admittedly he says “analysis” rather than “synthesis,” but he’s still describing what I take dialectical synthesis to be about.)


    • Note that “can instead be mutually realized in a further development of each” means that the views may not necessarily be reconcilable just as they stand, but that further development may be needed — where the further development, as I would put it, is that each view can help the other view develop into the best, most defensible version of itself.


    • You’re right; I was saying this, at least via the second disjunct, as contrasted with the thought in parentheses:

      You seem to be saying that a synthesis has to preserve everything both thinkers thought, or at least has to preserve everything they thought was important (as opposed to what the synthesiser thinks is important).

      You’re right that if dialectical synthesis is guided by what the synthesizer regards as important, then the problem I described won’t arise. I don’t have an objection to doing that, per se, but I do think we need to be clear about the distinction between the synthesizer’s conception of importance, and that of the thinkers whose thought is being synthesized. Once the divergence between those two things becomes sufficiently extreme, it strikes me as implausible to say that one is synthesizing X with Y. At a certain point, one is simply theorizing in a way loosely inspired by X and Y, combining ideas from both in a coherent way, but not in a way driven by any of the concerns that actually animated either X’s or Y’s theorizing.


      • Well, by “what the synthesizer thinks is important” I don’t just mean “what the synthesizer thinks is *independently* important.” I mean what the synthesizer takes to be the most defensible way of developing the central organising insights inherent in the works or figures being synthesised — the “objective tendency of the problematic” (to borrow a Heideggerian phrase that’s popular here on the Plains) inherent within each work.

        “Once the divergence between those two things becomes sufficiently extreme, it strikes me as implausible to say that one is synthesizing X with Y. At a certain point, one is simply theorizing in a way loosely inspired by X and Y, combining ideas from both in a coherent way, but not in a way driven by any of the concerns that actually animated either X’s or Y’s theorizing.”

        Sure. But I don’t think the kind of Rand/Hayek synthesis I envision comes even remotely close to running afoul of that stricture.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I have a complex set of reactions to your discussion with Tom on gun control. On the one hand, I agree that we have a right to self-defense, and that in the United States as it currently is, that right often requires access to firearms. Certainly, Tom’s story of having to defend himself is a compelling one. And I agree with much of what you and Tom say about the militarization of policing in the US, and the question-begging or obscurantist nature of crime statistics.

    But there’s an other hand–or set of them.

    One question I’d ask is what Tom thinks about time/place/manner regulations of firearms. Scalia’s opinion in DC vs. Heller explicitly says that regulations are justified, and as a litigant, Tom wasn’t able to contradict this view. But now that the case has been decided, what is his all-things-considered view of regulation? If government can legitimately regulate noise (as he seems to suggest that it can), can it regulate the ownership and use of firearms (beyond merely prohibiting assault and murder with them)? Is he opposed to a system of registration, for instance, or compulsory liability insurance? Whether we analogize firearms to noise or vehicles, there’s plenty of room for regulation.

    Second, though Tom insists that the murder rate has not gone up as a result of the liberalization of gun laws, the suicide rate is positively correlated with the availability of firearms. Tom is right to say that pro-gun-control advocates play odd games with mortality statistics (e.g., treating all shootings of police officers as homicide per se), but so do advocates of gun rights when it comes to suicide.

    Here is Michael Huemer’s discussion of suicide from “Is There a Right to Own a Gun?“: .

    A second problem is that 37 of Kellerman and Reay’s 43 deaths were suicides. Available evidence is unclear on whether reduced availability of guns would reduce the suicide rate or whether it would only result in substitution into different methods. In addition, philosophically, it is doubtful that the restriction of gun ownership for the purpose of preventing suicides would fall within the prerogatives of a liberal state, even if such a policy would be effective. One cause for doubt is that such policies infringe upon the rights of gun-owners (both the suicidal ones and the non-suicidal majority) without protecting anyone else’s rights. Another cause for doubt, from a utilitarian perspective, is that one cannot assume that individuals who decide to kill themselves have overall happy or pleasant lives; therefore, one should not assume that the prevention of suicide, through means other than improving would-be victims’ level of happiness, increases utility, rather than decreasing it. For these reasons, the suicides should be omitted from the figures.

    Contrary to Huemer, it’s a disputed issue whether liberal states ought or ought not to prevent suicides; certainly as the law currently stands, you can call the police to prevent a suicide, and if they show up before the suicide has been effected, they will use force to stop it.

    It’s not clear to me that that’s wrong. Successful suicide is irreversible, and it doesn’t seem illiberal to require that a person about to engage in an act of that description be in a minimally rational mental state before being permitted to do it. That’s widely accepted when it comes to decisions like house sales and marriage; though somewhat paternalistic, neither regulation is thought to mark a wholesale departure from liberalism. Instead, people infer that liberalism is compatible with a certain delimited sort of paternalism.

    Huemer assumes that we have an unlimited right to commit suicide regardless of our mental state. It’s not obvious that we do. If we don’t, then suicide is relevant to assessing the legitimacy of gun control–which can hardly be done if we ignore statistics on suicide, as Huemer recommends. Huemer’s statistical tactic is on par with the ones that Tom deplores when it comes to police shootings (or shootings of the police).

    I’ve quoted Huemer here, but suicide is directly relevant to something Tom says. In his debate with the advocate of gun control, Tom raises a scenario in which someone breaks into your house at 2 am, and asks whether you’d rather have a gun or a phone. My late wife Alison once asked me exactly the same question. I told her that I’d rather have a phone, on the grounds that having a gun in the house would make it more likely that one of us (I really meant her) would use it to commit suicide. I was semi-prescient on that score: she did commit suicide. She happened not to use a firearm, and it’s not clear to me that had one been available, she would definitely have used it. But I think it’s obvious that the danger of suicide-by-firearm is very real in a country where “deaths of despair” are themselves a major issue. Tom speaks (and Huemer writes) as though the danger of violent crime somehow exceeded the dangers of suicide, but that’s hardly clear. In any case, I think the issue deserves more consideration than it gets from libertarians (or rather both issues: the paternalistic prevention of imminent suicide, and the way that gun ownership probabilizes suicide-by-firearm).

    For whatever it’s worth, I would dispute Tom’s assumption that one courts certain death by having a phone rather than a gun in one’s hand in the circumstance he describes. I’ve had occasion to call 911 several times in life or death emergencies, and though my experiences have been mixed, on the whole, they contradict Tom’s assumption. Admittedly, in one (horrific) case, a fatal traffic accident, the first responders arrived too late to save the life of the person in danger. But in every other case I can remember–a car theft in progress, a knife attack in progress, a gunman prowling a park, a medical emergency, a couple of fires–they arrived quickly enough to save the day. And one needn’t hold the extreme view Tom attributes to advocates of gun control to think that police officers are, on the whole, better trained to handle violent criminals than the average gun owner.

    I have actually been in the situation that Tom describes from the reverse end, as well. My father, who owned a .38, once mistook me for a burglar and almost shot me. I was sneaking around downstairs trying to listen to Led Zeppelin through headphones on the family stereo. (This was in the days before personal sound systems.) Luckily, he didn’t shoot me, but I found myself re-thinking that idea that he needed a firearm for “our safety.”


    • One last comment. Tom objects to the idea that the police ought always to be armed. But they aren’t. Law enforcement officers engaged in parking enforcement are typically not armed. Though they have police-like powers of enforcement, neither are officials from, say, the health department. But the rationale for arming officers on traffic duty is exactly the same as the one Tom uses to justify concealed-carry on the street: the officer has a gun to handle unlikely but high-stakes contingencies. It would be inconsistent of Tom to insist that the homeowner have a gun to handle the usually-unlikely contingency of a burglar breaking in at 2 am, but that police officers not have guns to handle the also-usually-unlikely contingency of confronting a violent criminal at a traffic stop. He can’t be saying that it’s inadequate for the homeowner to have nothing better than a phone for purposes of self-defense, but fine for the officer to be in that situation.


    • I don’t know where Tom stands; you’d have to ask him. As for myself, I’m pretty absolutist-libertarian on this issue. I understand the downside of unrestricted access to guns; but the downside of restriction strikes me as even worse. But Tom is certainly less absolutist-libertarian than I am on many points.


      • And Tom is not my only friend who owes his life to having access to a gun. A woman I dated in the 90s was certain she would have been strangled to death by her estranged husband if she hadn’t been able to grab a gun.


        • Incidentally, it’s weird that when I comment from facebook (I don’t want to bother with the hassle of signing in to WordPress from my laptop; hence facebook), each time I make an additional comment I have to first sign out of the blog and then sign in again. EVERY TIME.


  7. I found your discussion of dysfunctional anarchies and dysfunctional states interesting (around 57 minutes in). I think we need a special terminology to describe some of these situations.

    Imagine a case in which a State (or two) artificially creates an “anarchy,” i.e., a lawless region within the State’s borders, or perhaps between States. Such a region is neither quite a State nor quite an anarchy, but a dysfunctional mixture of the two. It’s not a State because the State either de facto or de jure renounces its force-monopoly there, so that no one has one. But it’s not an anarchy because the State, which has a force-monopoly nearby, threatens attempts at self-help in the targeted region without establishing a force-monopoly in the targeted region itself.

    The situation I have in mind are the parts of Jerusalem that extend into the West Bank, east of (meaning, nominally on the Palestinian side of) Israel’s security wall. A description:

    Because areas on the West Bank side of the barrier are still within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority is forbidden to enter them. Although the Israeli police, in common with the providers of other municipal services, largely refuse to go to these places, residents are still obliged to pay municipal taxes to qualify for health care and benefits. These neighborhoods have become a no-man’s-land where criminals can escape both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (Nathan Thrall, “Rage in Jerusalem,” in The Only Language They Understand
    , p. 151).

    An added complexity is that the PA is itself not quite a State, and yet not an anarchy, either. It maintains a series of “city-states” within the larger context of a foreign military occupation.

    An example is Shuafat Refugee Camp (not to be confused with the Shuafat neighborhood of Jerusalem):

    It’s not clear how to describe a case in which a State de facto renounces its force-monopoly, creating a security vacuum, but possesses enough force to prevent anyone else from filling it. I wonder whether many of the places pejoratively described as “anarchies” in the contemporary world fit this description. They’re State-generated pockets of lawlessness.


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