Sunday, February 25, 2007

02.25.07 - Vulgar Libertarian Arguments - What they Are and What they Aren't

Many times readers address me with questions, arguments, retorts and injured feelings about things I've said, posted, or written when I've described and condemned what is dear to them a being “vulgar libertarian argumentation”, (and abbreviated hereafter as “VLA”). I usually remember to include a written explanation of what VLA is or add an embedded hyper link if published for the web so that this won't happen. But it does, so I've decided to clear the air about this matter.

So let me start by defining my terms. “Vulgar libertarian argumentation” is using the rhetoric of liberty to advocate or defend ideas or issues in order to make it appear a given argument is about economic or political liberty when it’s really not. This form is often taken by people that don't really understand the basis for the criticism or by cynics and connivers who do, but wish to shift the basis for their arguments from what they're truly about to what they'd like the reader, listener, or viewer to think that they're about. Using VLAs in argumentation or debate is similar to the way some criminal defense lawyers and civil rights advocates play “the race card,” in law courts or the court of public opinion; which is to say that if you can get people asking the wrong question, the answer to the question doesn't matter as much, or even matter at all, in many cases. But first some background.

Political philosopher Kevin Carson coined the noun phrase “vulgar libertarianism”to describe a certain kind of faux free market political or economic analysis that consists of misapplying free market or libertarian principles to situations where they are irrelevant or not applicable.

“The term, coined as far as I know by yours truly,” says Carson, “alludes both to the 'vulgar Marxism' of twentieth century Marxoids, and to what Marx called the 'vulgar political economy' of the generation after Ricardo and Mill. The defining feature of vulgar political economy, as Marx described it, was that it had ceased to be an attempt at the scientific explication of the laws of economics, and had become a hired prize-fighter on behalf of plutocratic interests. (...) But with the triumph of the industrial owning classes in 1830s Britain, the focus of political economy shifted from scientific investigation and a radical challenge to the power of the Old Regime, to an apology for the status quo.” And today's apologists, known to us now as pundits, spin doctors, and such, do much the same thing; they defend the status quo, while using the rhetoric of liberty to do so.

It is not my purpose today to defend Carson's economic analysis in the above cited paragraph, but is instead to highlight the form of argumentation that he is criticizing. To better illustrate what is meant by calling an analysis or argument VL I think it best to cite examples of VLA and then deconstruct them to show how and why they are false.

A good example of this occurred in 2004, when then-New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey was caught trying to hire his boyfriend for a position in the New Jersey state bureaucracy and for which he was wholly unqualified for; and when McGreevey faced massive disapproval and embarrassment because of this, he chose to resign and blame it all on homophobic bigotry on the part of his political enemies and completely disregarded the corruption and nepotism aspects, which was in fact the principal reason for the disapproval and criticism. This is how VLA is used for obfuscation. McGreevey's spin doctors wanted the discussion to be about individual privacy, sexual liberty, and homophobia, and not about corruption or cronyism, which were in fact the real issues.

I chose this example because I believe it clearly show the attempt to use the rhetoric of liberty to obfuscate what the issue really was. The use of this tactic abounds. It seems every time a town wants to use eminent domain to confiscate private land in order to hand it over to a developer, the “acting for the common good” style of rhetoric is employed to defend it. What the argument should be about though is, “good for who?” And why? Arguments for state funding or subsidies for the construction of privately owned business enterprises, especially sport stadia, are often couched in this form as well. Unless you read and consider carefully, oftentimes VLA can escape your notice or even seem plausible until you examine the cui bono considerations, at which time “who benefits?” becomes readily apparent, and never mind the rhetorical ruffles and flourishes used to disguise or camouflage it.

Another confusing aspect of VLA is the term itself. The “vulgar” part of the noun phrase denotes “common” as in “commonly misunderstood,” and not vulgar in the sense that the term denotes in modern English today, as meaning invective, profanity, blasphemy or rudeness in written or spoken language. This is unfortunately so do to the term's origins in 19th century political and economic discourse when the term “vulgar” had an entirely different context and connotation. Language is malleable and the definition and connotation of words and phrases can change over time; and this the source of VLA's next major misapplication.

I have had many people retort to me that they are perplexed as to why I think they are using VLA, because they tell me they never used profanity, ad hominem attack, or inventive in their writing or remarks. All I can do then is either explain the whole concept yet again, or just let it pass without comment, in the interest of avoiding yet another flame war or food fight.

If any of you armchair philologists care to suggest to me a better understood or clearer word or phrase that can take the place of VLA, I would be glad to hear your thoughts and suggestions. As that famous employer of libertarian rhetoric to defend the status quo, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh has observed, “words mean things,” and I for one think that we need to preserve the memes, language, and rhetoric of liberty for actually defending and advancing liberty. The advantage in doing so would be to take a big sword out of the hands of those that use our own language and terms to fight against everything we believe in. I hope readers of this essay will agree with me that this is worth the effort.

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vulgar_libertarianism vulgar_libertarian_argumentation Kevin_Carson VLA

1 comment:

zrated said...

i can't help but assume that this is a very civilized and respectable response to the exchange between you and delaubenfels and the subsequent article titled "the myth of 'wage slavery'". i've always been perplexed by the term vulgar libertarianism, though i think i might be on the verge of understanding it now. could you point out why his response was not about liberty and what it really was about? i think i have an idea, but my thoughts are nebulous. thank you for some great work.