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« Free Reads -- Alexandra Ceely | Main | Photography and Painting »

December 13, 2002

Free Reads -- Fred Reed

Friedrich --

However inclined I may be to libertarianism, I still can't help wincing at a lot of what tends to happen when business and money values trump all others. Economic efficiency is a good thing in many cases -- but in all cases? Where family life is concerned? Where friends are concerned? Where art is concerned? And I do know that libertarianism isn't just about economic efficiency, and yes, I'm all for freedom and choice. But isn't it remarkable how often arguments made in the name of libertarianism turn out to really concern economic efficiency? Hmmmm.

Given my suspicion that I'm not alone in wondering about this kind of thing, I also wonder: Why are so many libertarians such eager-beaver, everything's-always-for-the-better-when-the-market-takes-over, Pangloss types?

Optimism is good; idiotic optimism is idiotic.

It might be a sensible and necessary thing to argue that some things that are ugly (strip malls, etc) can be a sign of economic vitality. But it's absurd to argue that blatantly ugly things aren't ugly. (Although, come to think of it, much of the official -- ie., avant-garde -- art world has been getting away with this for years.) But there are some ugly things that everyone knows are ugly. Ask random people if they'd ever, given a choice, choose to live or work in a strip mall. Despite this, some libertarians continue to insist on arguing that pigs are gazelles. After all, they have good scientific proof, or at least a wonderful theory, that predicts that even if the pig's looking a trifle piggy today, by tomorrow it'll be a thing of wealth, elegance, etc.

Meanwhile, anyone who happens to be listening takes a good look, thinks, "That's a pig if I ever saw one," and leaves.

So a few questions arise: do the hyper libertarians know they look like, and are behaving like, aliens? Perhaps they are aliens -- or possibly Arizona used-car salesmen. If this is indeed what they are (aliens/used-car salesman), why do they think anyone else would ever trust them, or their arguments? I mean, don't they have any audience sense? Of course, there's always the chance that the hard-core libertarians don't actually want to win people over -- that what they really enjoy is hanging with fellow-aliens and griping about what irrational idiots the rest of us are.

I say all this as someone whose temperament tends to anti-statism, or at least strongly-suspicious-of-statism. It also tends, however, to adore friendship, love, art, and beauty.

A long prologue to a link -- Fred Reed, having some fun with freedom and how it so often seems to play out, here.

Sample passage:

[Wal-Mart} puts most of the stores in the country seat out of business. With them go the restaurants, which no longer have the walk-by traffic previously generated by the stores. With the restaurants goes the sense of community that flourishes in a town with eateries and stores and a town square. But this is granola philosophy, appealing only to meddlesome lefties.

K-Mart arrives, along with, beside the highway, McDonald's, Arby's, Roy Rogers, and the other way stations on route to coronary occlusion. Strip development is A Good Thing because it represents the exercise of economic freedom. The county's commerce is now controlled by distant behemoths to whom the place is the equivalent of a pin on a map.

This is A Good Thing. The jobs in these outlets are secure and comfortable. The independent, character-filled frontiersmen are now low-level chain employees, no longer independent because they can be fired.

Link thanks to Steve Sailer (here).



posted by Michael at December 13, 2002


I agree, Michael. Libertarians often lose sight of values other than liberty - hence the name of their credo. I also find that while Mill urged that we "remonstrate" with people who make bad choices with their liberty, libertarians are not wont to do this. Just yesterday a libertarian friend of mine said that polygamy was just as good a choice as monogamy and should not be frowned upon. There are exceptions, but libertarians in my experience have tended not to recommend any particular way of life over any other, at least not with any passion or disposition to remonstrate. They're so keen on liberty and resistance to state authority that they overlook the authority of tradition and prudence.

Posted by: Jim on December 13, 2002 4:03 PM

"The jobs in these outlets are secure and comfortable."


I would argue that local merchants are probably usually better bosses because they know and have relationships with their employees - relationships that are not complicated by their duties to a corporation.

I always thought libertarians were a bit loopy, even though ones I've voted for, but never saw the pie-in-the-sky goofiness. Thanks to you, I see that they too, following the "just do this one thing and then EVERYTHING will fall into place" logic that cripples the other parties.

And, too, anyone who want to argue "Strip development is A Good Thing" simply enjoys being contrarian. I wish people would leave that attitude behind about the same time they stop picking bands and friends based on which will piss off their parents...

Posted by: G on December 13, 2002 8:24 PM

This is an old, old fight within the movement. The "Libertines," as we caled them back in '64, just don't see that civilizations have frameworks of culture that cannot be dispensed with. These children imagine that they can junk the cultural framework of the West and still come away with material prosperity. Atheists and sodomites would feel better if our core values dissapated, but a few short years of cultural anarchy would leave us starving and in chains.

Posted by: Lou Gots on December 13, 2002 10:03 PM

Hmm... may I add: I live/lived in a small town before Wal-mart moved in. We had no quaint restaurants. The town square died 75 years previous. The sense of community centered around churches, a college and various small industries- which is where it still is. Before Wal-mart there were three options: "doing without," a 40 minute drive to the city, or a poorly run store called TG & Y... no one shed a tear when it went out of business.

Yes-- who really likes Wal-mart? But who really likes the toilet? Some things just need to be tolerated or even praised till a better solution comes along. Am I missing something here? Three cheers for Wal-mart.

Posted by: laurel on December 14, 2002 7:51 AM

Wal mart, whatever it's flaws, provide cheap goods. What's more important--- some sort of sense of community that comes from some corner store, or saving lot's of money? People have voted with their wallets. I guess knowing the clerks name isn't as important as having more money to spend on what you really want. I never really bought the sense of community arguement; if people want that they join clubs, churches, or something along those lines. Downtown's and town sqaures were killed by the car, not Wal-Mart. There is plenty of community out there; it's just not longer forced on people by a lack of mobility. Price-gouging for community doesn't work anymore.

Posted by: Toxic on December 14, 2002 2:48 PM

Well, can we maybe settle on two (and not three) cheers for Wal-Mart's?

The point I'm hoping to make isn't to root for one side or another -- plenty of people will do that. It's instead to suggest that it's pointless to pretend that there are never any trade-offs that have to be endured when the market comes roarin' through.

It's probably politically self-defeating, too. Pretend that nothing's lost, that it's all for the good, and you alienate everyone who feels a little hurt, lost, nostalgic, offended, wistful, overpowered, or left behind by economic progress -- even some people who might otherwise be willing to endure some trauma for the sake of progress. Not a good idea to turn yourself into the guy who seems to be saying, traffic jams are good, strip malls are good, pollution is good, crowding is good, big shiney impersonal office complexes where you once took quiet leafy walks are good ...

How can libertarians expect to make any headway in politics if they fail to take the public's feelings into account? Emotions may be dangerous and irrational, but they're every bit as real as money in the bank. If I see some politician as the guy whose lust for economic progress turned my lovely small town into a paved-over condo hell, believe me, I'm going to vote against him next time around.

I'm sure that in some circumstances and communities, Wal-Mart's has been an unqualified boon. But isn't it silly to pretend that nothing is ever lost, anywhere, at any time by the inroads the free market makes?

Admitting this doesn't mean that you renounce your membership on the freer-markets-are-better team. It just means that you're human enough to allow for the existence of shading, gradations, and gray zones in life.

And, even if we agree to fall entirely back on an economics approach -- something I'm not eager to do -- isn't it fundamental to acknowledge that every deal involves something in the way of trade-offs?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 14, 2002 3:19 PM

Hmm... jiiist for the heck of it I'll ask: are there any trade-offs to a cure for say, polio? I don't think so. I think the outcome of such a cure is all good news!!! Oh yes, except for the people who made money off of shortened lives.

In some some cases... the trade-offs just don't matter. But maybe I've jumped too far from the topic to make my point.

For sure, I'll easily drink to TWO cheers for Wal-mart.

Posted by: laurel on December 14, 2002 7:45 PM

I remember when as a young man having just read Atlas Shrugged, imagining myself living in a log cabin in Galt's Gulch, surrounded by neighbors who were just as amazingly talented, competent and industrious as I. Our gulch would be clean and orderly. Everyone would behave themselves. Everyone would seek wisdom and success, and those who were slow to find it would be happy anyway.

Then I grew up. I found that at least forty percent of the world's human population is permanently damaged. People are dumb, distracted, hormonal, needy, incompetent, fearful, envious, mean and worse. And they aren't going to change. The culture of the gulch would suck. The cabin next door would probably be occupied by noisy dopers with an army of unwanted kids, several mean dogs, and a hatred of that old fart next door who acts like he's better than everybody else, and just sits around reading books and stuff, and isn't any fun and complains about the crap on his lawn like the dogs are supposed to hold it in or something, and I should go over there an just kick his fat ass!

Sorry. Got carried away. What I'm talking about is an inevitable "prole drift", a tendancy for culture to seek the lowest common denominator. We see it already because our culture has become remarkably laissez-faire since we've been conditioned lately to keep our cultural opinions to ourselves.

How do you protect culture in a laissez-faire society? What's the mechanism? And why has pop music become so appalingly bad?

Posted by: Dave on December 15, 2002 11:27 AM

I, for one, am striking a blow for culture by refusing to comment on the substance of any posting with the god-awful headline of "Free Reads--Fred Reed". If we permit this type of irresponsible wordplay to pass without explicit condemnation, civil discourse as we know it will become impossible.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 16, 2002 9:02 AM

Yes of course stip malls are ugly. Yes of course Wal-Mart is full of people trying to save a few bucks. Yes of course KFC tastes like deep-fried cardboard especially compared to my own beloved grandmother's fried chicken.

All that said, mostly what I got from this was contempt for the smelly uncultured uncivilized proles. The great unwashed masses are too stooopid to recognize that paying more money to be ignored by the independent bookseller is better than having a clean well-lighted Barnes&Noble full of every damn book published this year plus clerks who are willing to help you look for "that book that was on Oprah last week". It's all about the quest for authenticity, and the sheeple are just too ... something ... to grasp how important it is. If only we, the obviously superior intellectuals, were in charge, then by golly you'd see some real changes with a glorious Golden Age of Real Aesthetics arriving Real Soon Now.

Bah. I hate Wal-Mart personally and won't shop there, but it's rather less aristocratic than having the "right choice" foisted on us by people that refer to the rest of the country as "flyover territory". If you're not me, then don't presume to tell me what I want or what's best for me.

overpaid-and-full-of-hate-ly y'rs,

Posted by: Mitchell Morris on December 16, 2002 10:57 AM

Unfortunately, Fred blew it in his third paragraph, and the rest fell apart from there:

"A highway comes through because the truckers lobby in Washington wants it. Building a highway is A Good Thing, because it represents Progress, and provides jobs for a year."

Not because the people who lived there wanted it, but because third parties with vested interests convinced the bureaucrats in Washington that they could really use it, and by the way, our union membership is up around a few hundred thousand, and isn't there an election coming up? So already, we aren't dealing with anything like a free market; we're dealing with a market subject to distortions because of the actions of other parties.

Then, those Washington folks in the Department of Transportation utilize a right that only the government has: Eminenet domain. They swoop in and take the land that they "need" for this freeway; and the property owners, rather than getting to decide whether they want to or not, are forced to take what that same government determines is "fair market value" for their property. Again, not the free market in action. In fact, it's plain and simple coercion, something which libertarians tend to oppose.

Similar exegesis could be conducted on the whole piece, but suffice to say that Mitchell Morris nailed it.

Posted by: Phil on December 16, 2002 3:01 PM

Hi Mitchell --

Glad to see we're on the same page where taste is concerned. Like you, I have my own preferences. I'd never, for instance, willingly put KFC chicken in my mouth, but it doesn't really bug me that many people do willingly eat KFC chicken. It seems that many of my tastes aren't mass-market tastes but are instead niche-market tastes. So be it. And, like you, I suspect, I'm a more-open-markets rather than less-open-markets guy.

Fred Reed will defend his own piece, of course. My small contribution to the conversation is to suggest to libertarians that it might be worth acknowledging that in many cases where the market is introduced (or where a market is opened) there can be pain involved, even if the ultimate upshot is generally for the better. This doesn't strike me as controversial. I note that The Economist, for instance, often refers to "pain" when it talks about markets being opened.

I notice that asserting this does seem to irk many blog-surfers, though. I wonder why. Any ideas? My guess is that a lot of blog-surfers are very dogmatic libertarians who can't tolerate any shading or nuance. But I may be wrong here.

For my own sake, let me give an example: Many people in a small city might benefit from the arrival of a big Barnes and Noble, for instance. But it's also likely that some people will be hurt: the owners and workers of the small bookstore that's driven out of business, for instance -- but also people who liked the old store, people who like small stores, and perhaps people who who dislike big parking lots (for whatever reason) as well. Traffic patterns (vehicles, shopping, whatever) will likely be disrupted -- that'll also have its pluses and minuses. Perhaps your street was once a quiet one. Now, with the B&N around the corner, your intersection is a mess.

Perhaps that's ok, and perhaps the presence of the B&N is generally a good thing. But I marvel that some of the more extreme libertarians carry on as though none of this ever happens. Saying that economic progress is generally a good thing doesn't mean that some people a) don't get hurt and b) might not object anyway. Not everyone likes change, after all. Why should they, and who are we to say that they should? The presence of a lot of pluses doesn't mean that some minuses don't also exist.

Better people than I can have a "Wal-Mart is good"/"Wal-Mart is bad" fistfight. I'm trying to discuss what a certain experience is often like, and I'm urging pro-market people to stop pretending that market victories don't involve pain, and don't come at a cost. If I have a treatable tumor, it's of course a desirable thing for me to have the appropriate operation. But it would be one sicko doctor who pretended I wasn't going to have to endure some pain, and even a lot, on my way to getting better.

Hi Phil --

I may be misunderstanding your argument, and if so please correct me. What I take you to be saying is that, since events such as "powerbrokers ramming through legislation in their own favor" won't occur in a perfect libertarian world, it's invalid to blame, say, strip-malls or condo hells on the incursion of the market.

If that is your argument, I have to say that I'm as skeptical of the libertarian tendency to argue from freemarket utopia as I am of the socialist tendency to argue from communal utopia. Utopia doesn't exist, it never has existed, and it never will exist. There will always be politics, and influential groups, and self-interested parties trying to sway policy in their own directioin. The alternative seems to be a kind of wild-west anarchy that self-organizes along tribal lines, few people's idea of heaven.

Isn't it more realistic to simply acknowledge this as a fact? And isn't it also more realistic to acknowledge that wherever things are opened to the market, interest groups will rush in? How could this not be the case -- or rather, given the world as it is, how could this not be the case?

As I say, I'm a more-open rather than less-open market guy myself. But I do have to admit that certain old-perennial questions still bug me. Who exactly, for instance, ensures that the market is really free? And I'm not eager to accept an answer that needs to be preceded by "Well, in an ideal world, there won't be any need for ..." I'm more interested in how to manage in this world. In the real world, when a field is deregulated (and the chore is done well), many people benefit, and society generally is better off. But it strikes me as a simple denial of reality to pretend these things don't happen too: 1) somebody gets rich, 2) a bunch of people get wiped out, and 3) there's a lot of disruption that has to be endured all around.

As I said above, I'm happy to entertain the idea that this may generally be a good thing. I would be more comfortable with the people who advocate freer markets, though, if they'd just admit that some pain and disruption might be involved.

But if I'm misunderstanding, please let me know. Very interested in your reasoning here.

Many thanks to both of you for stopping by,


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 16, 2002 4:56 PM

Friedrich von Blowhard is absolutely right. Apologies to all for the simply awful "Free Reads -- Fred Reed" headline on this posting. See what can happen when the attention wanders, and when taste fails?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 16, 2002 4:59 PM

I dunno, Michael. I kinda liked your lede for this piece. Slick and snappy.

Go figure.


Posted by: acdouglas on December 16, 2002 5:21 PM


In metro Atlanta, there was a simply fabulous little pair of bookstores, which I rated in my Top Five in the whole United States. (I get around, and when I have time off in a city where I'm working, I am a bookstore kook.) "Oxford Books" kept two stores in Buckhead, and they were unsurpassed for selection. The atmosphere was nearly as good, particularly on Pharr Road. That shop was uniqely charming in its layout.

Barnes & Noble put in a large store just down the road a piece. Between that store and others in the metro area, Oxford just couldn't hang, and they went out of business.

Now, I'll always miss them, but I know damned well that there is nothing to be done for it. And, no matter what: I would rather miss one of the best bookstores that I ever saw, than face any other alternative outside a market.

I don't know who you're accustomed to reading, but a serious "libertarian" is going to face reality. "Utopia" has no place in that. That isn't what it's about, and if you have that impression, then I say that you need to get with someone who knows what they're talking about.

Posted by: Billy Beck on December 16, 2002 9:15 PM

I've lived in small towns where before Walmart there were only local stores. They were awful! You were at the mercy of them, it wasn't pleasant. I think Walmart is great. I've lived in lots of areas of this country and others (courtesy of the U.S. Army) where a new Walmart would be a great benefit to the local population. Please, let's get real.

Posted by: Moira Rogow on December 18, 2002 1:45 AM

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