Category Archives: Philosophy

Making Arguments for Liberty


I’ve been thinking a lot lately how best to appeal to people regarding the ideas of liberty. For liberty flourish, I believe it’s best for as many people as possible to embrace its ideals. At the very least, I don’t want my conduct or arguments or behavior to turn people off to these ideas; it would probably be better for a millstone to be tied around my neck and I be thrown into the sea.

I find myself coming to the conclusion that there is no one definitive argument for liberty that will be appealing to all people. This should be expected; people are individuals with their own tastes and desires. Thus, the wonderful book that led the scales to drop from our eyes might not have the same effect for others. This is why it’s so important that we have a conversation when we communicate with others about ideas we might like them to consider. We need to empathize with them and understand what appeals to them.

The video below made me think about this, and I would like to get some feedback on the following thought. Regarding the third absurd reason to ban drugs, Professor Davies says the assumption behind it is that the government owns you and ought to have the ability to make you be productive. Almost instinctively, I reject such ideas. But I wonder how many people also might instinctively reject the idea of the government owning them and being able to tell them what to do.

Do people not usually think of these things? Or is it just the case that when they support government coercion they don’t see it as such because they obviously wouldn’t advocate the government prohibiting something they themselves would otherwise do, but only others who are morally infirm or intolerant or whatever? What keeps them from seeing the coercive nature of government? And if they do see it, do they care enough to change it?

Are Organ Shortages Artificial?


Though perhaps it shouldn’t have, my mind was partially blown a few years ago when I read the book written by Cato Institute health policy experts Michael Cannon and Michael Tanner, Healthy Competition. In it, there is a section describing the economics of organ donations and how organ shortages are entirely created by the government. How?

Well, it’s not the case that the government is keeping us all so safe that there aren’t any available organ donors. Rather, it is because there is a price ceiling for organs: $0. That is,  there is no legal way to accept something of monetary value in exchange for organs. Cannon and Tanner’s argument is that, but for such price controls, there would be no shortages.

This recent video from Reason provides support for such a contention:

If it’s the case that the most needed organ transplant is kidneys, an organ most people can give up and still survive, then it’s not the case that most organ donors have to be waiting around, reluctantly hoping that someone has a fatal accident that leaves their precious organs intact. Thus, it’s more plausible to believe that organ shortages are, indeed, artificial.

Cannon and Tanner also address the rationale behind the prohibition of monetary exchanges for organs. It is supposedly the case that allowing such wealth transfers would deny the dignity of individual life. Furthermore, it would be another way to exploit the poor if organs could be exchanged for money (and that only the rich would have access to organs).

In regards to the first contention, one ought to ask, which alternative shows more respect for the dignity of life? The one that allows life to be extended through the transfer of money or the one that forces people to die in the name of making sure money isn’t being exchanged for life-sustaining organs? The answer seems obvious to me.

Secondly, are the poor more exploited by receiving money for organs that they voluntarily give or when they are forced to receive nothing in return for such tremendous value? And I’m not sure it’s much of a consolation to know that the rich bastard behind you on the organ waiting list is going to die too. Here we have yet another case where human well being is sacrificed upon the altar of egalitarianism. But I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that under such a free market health care system that the poor would be worse off (really, how could they be?). Health insurance provided on the free market would likely be specifically for such catastrophic medical emergencies, rather than routine procedures, and would therefore be much more affordable than under the current regime. Furthermore, plans would more likely be purchased by individuals rather than by employers, making it so that one’s insurance is not dependent upon one’s job.

Lastly, I don’t think allowing markets in organ transfers would increase black market organ activity but do just the opposite. Wouldn’t it be nice to say goodbye to waking up in bathtubs full of ice?

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Go Team Venture!

Do Libertarians Necessarily Hate Tradition?


On the Center for a Stateless Society blog, Natasha Petrova attempted to explain some differences between conservatives and libertarians, arguing that libertarianism and tradition are incompatible:

As for defenses of tradition being compatible with libertarianism; I disagree with this. The essence of libertarianism is individualism and individual rights. This conflicts with obedience to inherited collectivist traditional social norms. Independent judgment and reason tend to undermine traditionalism.

The conservative’s tendency to favor the preservation of established institutions will also come into conflict with the libertarian. All institutions are subject to rational examination and change in a free society. This can’t be reconciled with a conservative defense of tradition or inherited institutions. Tradition also tends to require coercion or ostracism to maintain. Both of which are tools for controlling people. This is not to say that coercion and ostracism are always unjustified, but they are preferably used for something other than the continuation of existing social norms.

It would have been quite nice if Ms. Petrova provided some examples to illustrate her contention. Surely we can think of some “collectivist social norms” that are worth tossing by the wayside, but Ms. Petrova seems to be making a blanket statement regarding any tradition whatsoever. The fact that “all institutions are subject to rational examination and change in a free society” does not imply that ALL inherited institutions ought to abandoned. Indeed, she contradicts herself: disregarding something simply because it is an established tradition demonstrates a lack of rational examination.

She also requires us to take her word that “tradition also tends to require coercion or ostracism to maintain.” I don’t believe this is an obvious or self-evident statement, but rather just an unbacked assertion. Similarly, her preference that coercion be used for some other purpose “than the continuation of existing social norms,” seems unimaginative. One can easily think of some much more nefarious uses for coercion than preserving existing social norms. What were left with by Ms. Petrova in her blog post is not so much an argument for why tradition is bad, but simply her repeated assertions that it is bad.

Another way in which tradition and libertarianism are at odds is historical. History is replete with examples of tyranny and unfree societies. There is a dearth of relative freedom throughout history, so it’s strange to look to what has come before for inspiration.

To me, this statement is downright silly, but consistent with what she has said above. If we are to assume that what was in the past is always bad (or at least worse than what currently exists) then it would follow that all current institutions are preferable to what came before. But just because no libertarian utopia existed in the past does not mean we cannot look to the past for inspiration. We can look at the Anglo-Saxon tithes and hundreds for examples of justice systems that operated without the state. We can look at the history of turnpikes in the UK and US for proof that roads can be provided through private initiative. We can look to history to show that Americans could be relatively prosperous without a central bank, an income tax, a fascist health care system, and many other state enterprises. It’s not to say that all of these institutions (or lack thereof) were ideal, but that they present a picture of an alternative to the state. In terms of liberty, some things have gotten better, some worse. It’s ignorant to dismiss all of the past as some type of perennial Dark Age.


The Limitations of Thought Experiments


Steve McQueenThis seems to be a thought experiment that is engaged in quite often at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog: imagine markets result in less preferable outcomes; would you still support them? The answer that they typically arrive at is “No,” and therefore the justification for markets rests at least partially on consequentialist considerations.

But imaginary scenarios presented to discredit some theory of ethics have never really sat well with me, particularly when I find them to be unrealistic. A ready example of this David Friedman’s critique of Murray Rothbard’s theory of natural rights in The Machinery of Freedom. Friedman is a utilitarian and thus attacks natural rights on such grounds.

One scenario he has us imagine is a gunman opening fire on a crowd in the street. However, there is a rifle sitting in the middle of the street with a sign put there by the strangely sadistic owner of the firearm saying that in the event of an emergency to not touch his rifle. Should his property rights be respected? A second scenario is even more ridiculous, where there is an asteroid heading towards the Earth and the only way to save the world is to steal a man’s briefcase which has a button inside that will destroy the asteroid.

I feel that under such wide latitude in creating objections that are extremely unlikely to ever happen, one can discredit any ethical theory whatsoever. This is why Rothbard rightfully has a chapter in his Ethics of Liberty objecting to lifeboat scenario criticisms. The real test is how an ethical system performs under normal conditions that exist the majority of the time. Read the rest of this entry

Libertarianism and Minarchism


The above link goes to an interesting piece by David Boaz of Cato, trying to explain why libertarians are not “anti-government.” Of course, the kind of libertarian to which he refers is the minarchist libertarian (and I think sometimes minarchists get a worse rap than they should from anarchists, who I don’t think should try to alienate those with whom we can make loose coalitions. However, pretty much every minarchist that I know of couches his or her justification for minarchism in the same type of language as most individualist anarchists: that no one ought to initiate force against another, consent, etc. Thus, they are not internally consistent, and that is what anarchists rag on them for. But, I don’t think the minarchist position is necessarily inconsistent if the justification changes. If, say, one instead justified their political system based on what kind of system minimized coercion overall and could show that a minarchist system did so, then they would be consistent. Of course, a big contributing factor for why many people believe the state should be abolished is that it is too dangerous to tolerate).

Boaz first deals with the idea that what libertarians want weak government, but rejects that because libertarians want a government strong enough “to carry out its legitimate functions,” which he sees as functions to “protect us from outside threats, deter or punish criminals, and settle the disputes that will inevitably arise among neighbors…” How would the libertarian anarchist respond to this? A well known quote is “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” I think this same consideration applies to David Boaz’s “legitimate” government. A single entity powerful enough to deter or punish all criminals also has the power to become the greatest criminal. That is partially why market anarchists support a polycentric legal order: there would be multiple entities with the ability to deter and punish crime for their clients in their communities, but not so big or monopolized that they can force their customers to pay them with impunity.

Boaz then discusses the idea that what libertarians want is small government, but finds that that might confuse people:

Not “weak government,” then. How about “small government”? Lots of people, including many libertarians, like that phrase to describe libertarian views. And it has a certain plausibility. We rail against “big government,” so we must prefer small government, or “less government.” Of course, we wouldn’t want a government too small to deter military threats or apprehend criminals. And Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., offers us this comparison: “a dictatorship in which the government provides no social security, health, welfare or pension programs of any kind” and “levies relatively low taxes that go almost entirely toward the support of large military and secret police forces that regularly kill or jail people for their political or religious views” or “a democracy with open elections and full freedom of speech and religion [which] levies higher taxes than the dictatorship to support an extensive welfare state.”

“The first country might technically have a ‘smaller government,’” Dionne writes, “but it undoubtedly is not a free society. The second country would have a ‘bigger government,’ but it is indeed a free society.”

Now there are several problems with this comparison, not least Dionne’s apparent view that high taxes don’t limit the freedom of those forced to pay them. But our concern here is the term “smaller government.” Measured as a percentage of GDP or by the number of employees, the second government may well be larger than the first. Measured by its power and control over individuals and society, however, the first government is doubtless larger. Thus, as long as the term is properly understood, it’s reasonable for libertarians to endorse “smaller government.” But Dionne’s criticism should remind us that the term may not be well understood.

So, Boaz settles on the term that what libertarians generally want is limited, constitutional government formed by the consent of the governed. But what he doesn’t explain is why this has to be a single entity with monopoly powers. He says, “Peaceful coexistence and voluntary cooperation require an institution to protect us from outside threats, deter or punish criminals, and settle the disputes that will inevitably arise among neighbors— a government, in short” [emphasis added]. Why a single institution is necessary is not explained in the article, and is probably beyond its scope, but it is definitely something that needs to be addressed.

But perhaps most important, Boaz’s definition of government can be satisfied by an anarchistic, polycentric legal order (indeed, I think that it the only system that can satisfy it). If we think of government as an entity or entities that provide protection from criminals and dispute resolution, and is something based on the consent of the governed, then a polycentric legal order fits that definition. It is limited because it can only do what individuals contract it to do, and has an actual limitation with teeth if people are able to take their business elsewhere relatively easily. It is constitutional because it is actually contractual, not based on some mythical social contract. And, finally, it is consensual because the individuals forming it are the ones living under it.

So, minarchists should take a closer look at polycentric legal orders, as they might like what they find.

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Should the Government Pay Its Debts?


I don’t want it to seem like I think of Bleeding Heart Libertarians as a punching bag. I think they often make interesting points and bring challenges to mainstream libertarianism that its adherents need to be able to grapple with. They also often make for interesting discussion.

An article I would like to discuss today is that of Andrew Cohen’s, called “Shutting Down.” Cohen makes the argument that the government should uphold its contracts to pay those it owes. He puts aside the idea that “taxation is theft” and starts with the premise that if harm prevention and rectification are legitimate functions of government, then taxation is necessary.

He compares government to an individual:

Agent A makes a contract with agent B, agreeing to pay B $X. A overspends and has difficulty paying B. A decides not to pay B. In many cases, we would say this is unacceptable and that A must pay B what is owed. At least, we think, A must go through the proper channels to declare bankruptcy if A is to not pay B what A owes B. This would be unfortunate, we are told, but bankruptcy law is needed to allow for the proper running of the economy.

Today, the U.S. government is agent A.

He goes on:

People who were promised paychecks will not get them. Some will get them late. Some will get smaller paychecks (due to furlough time). Some of these people will face tremendous difficulty. I think it fair to say they will be harmed–having planned their lives given the promise of a regular paycheck, they have legitimate expectations that are being set back. Perhaps the government should not have hired those people in the first place (after all, they are “non-essential” personnel!). But the fact is they were hired and treating them this way is wrong and makes a mockery of contract.

Cohen admits that most of what the government considers “essential” and therefore won’t be affected by the shutdown has little to do with harm prevention or rectification. I feel like that fact makes it so that the government is unjustified in taxing people to pay these debts, since the government is going beyond Cohen’s role for government. Clearly, if taxation is not theft if it pays for legitimate government functions, it ought to be considered theft if it pays for something outside legitimate functions.

But, for Cohen, even criminal enterprises ought to honor their contracts:

Put the point this way: a mobster might be wrong to extract protection money from a business, but that does not make it any less wrong for the mobster to fail to protect that business in time of need. We don’t say “wait, the mobster doesn’t have to live up to its agreement because it was wrong to make the agreement in the first place.” I think most of us think 2 things: (a) the mobster should not have extracted the protection money in the first place and (b) the mobster owes the business protection. Similarly, I think the government should not have hired people to do non-essential jobs (by which I mean any jobs not needed for harm prevention and rectification) in the first place but that because it did, the government* owes those people their salaries on the regular pay days.

I find this to be a tragically poor analogy. The protection money is involuntarily coming from a business (analogous to tax revenue) and the mobster ought to protect that business in exchange (but is that really analogous to what the federal government uses its money to do?). What if that tax revenue is to pay a federal employee for something nobody would voluntarily pay for, such as an NSA employee spying on the American people or a drone operator killing children overseas? A more accurate analogy would then be the mobster paying his hitmen for the contracts he made with them. Honestly, I am more than fine with NSA agents and drone operators not being paid.

Most would agree that people should pay their debts, but they wouldn’t approve of someone stealing from others in order to be able to do so. Even if we assume the idea that taxation is not theft, so much of what the federal government does has nothing to do with Cohen’s defined role for government (indeed, if we consider the US Constitution to be the federal government’s contract with the states regarding its role, it must honor that contract before it has any obligation to pay for employees whose jobs explicitly violate it). Thus,  Cohen’s point is rendered moot: in reality, the employees having delayed, reduced, or even no paychecks do not serve Cohen’s role for legitimate government functions. Even if government ought to honor its contracts with them, that does not give it the right to tax others to pay for its debts. Otherwise, the government is not limited in its powers.

On the Death of Krazy 8


Krazy 8After having watched the finale of Breaking Bad, William, Samuel, and I ended up discussing whether Walter’s killing of Krazy 8 was justified.

These are the facts of the case:

Krazy 8 and his cousin, Emilio, were led to Walter and Jesse’s mobile meth lab to make a deal. Instead, Krazy 8 and Emilio planned to rob and kill Walter and Jesse, but not until after being taught how to cook Walter’s special meth. Walter was able to poison them and escape. Believing both were dead, Walter and Jesse transported the bodies in the RV. However, only Emilio was deceased. Krazy 8 was able to escape temporarily, but was recaptured by Walter and locked up in Jesse’s basement. After some time, Walter desired to let Krazy 8 go, but was worried that harm would befall him and his family. After a long discussion with Krazy 8, Walter decided to free him. However, when Walter cleaned up a plate that he had dropped and broken, he discovered that Krazy 8 had kept a shard of it. As Walter was feigning unlocking him, he saw Krazy 8 reach for the shard and strangled him.

Was Walter justified in his killing of Krazy 8?

William’s argument could be summarized as follows: since Walter could reasonably expect Krazy 8 would perpetrate immediate violence against him and his family, his killing of Krazy 8 was justified in self-defense.

But for Samuel, this wasn’t in immediate self-defense as Krazy 8 was still locked to a pole in the basement and therefore incapacitated. Walter’s alternative of keeping him locked up until he dies of natural causes would also be unjustified according to Samuel. What Walter should do is call the police, who are looking for Krazy 8, and see what kind of deal he can make to minimize the penalties against himself.

William does not find this acceptable. Walter has no moral obligation to subject himself to the state, which will likely punish him for committing victimless crimes. However, it is possible for Walter to deliver Krazy 8 into police custody anonymously. But this runs into difficulties: Krazy 8 still has the ability to implicate Walter in illegal activity, and more importantly, still poses a threat to Walter and his family, either by waiting until he is out of police custody and exacting revenge himself, or by having one of his lieutenants or a hired hitman ensure vengeance against the Whites. For William, this is too high of a price to take.

The competing values here seem to be between 1) the safety of Walter and his family and 2) avoiding the perils of taking the law into one’s own hands. These two values seem to be quite difficult to weigh against one another, but I feel that more must be said about the latter. Since I can’t delve into the question too deeply here, we will just assume that, all else being equal, justice is preferable when provided through transparent institutions open to public scrutiny rather than exclusively by the victims themselves. Accepting this would appear to be a mark against Walter’s case. But it is my contention that this whole case is an indictment against the state criminal justice system as it currently exists.

Walt kills Krazy 8

But for the black market conditions that prevail surrounding meth, it is unlikely that anyone would decide to attempt to kill someone for his or her recipe. Secondly, it is because of drug prohibition that calling the police is a significantly less attractive option for Walt, in addition to the fact that they will most likely be unable to protect Walter and his family. Thirdly, the state’s monopoly justice system left Walter with no institutional alternative to taking the law into his own hands. It seems unfair to say he is morally obligated to subject himself to the institution that quite arguably put him in the predicament in the first place.

The rebuttal that Walter should have known this going in is no valid defense for the state. One might as well argue that a mugger has mitigating circumstances because his victims should have known they were walking into a bad neighborhood.

In my opinion, Walter did the best he could with the situation he found himself in. Krazy 8 presented a mortal threat to his family, and the costs of seeking justice from the state, which would unduly punish him and would still leave his family at risk, were too high. One can hardly blame Walter for taking the law into his own hands when the monopoly justice system leaves him with no better alternative, and if one truly cares about the rule of law prevailing, she must question whether the state ultimately helps or hinders that ideal.

Do Property Rights Need Political Authority?


No Time 4 BullI recently published a post on No Time 4 Bull, engaging a post on Bleeding Heart Libertarians arguing that by explaining away justifications for the state, one also argues away justifications for property rights.

This seems nonsensical to me. Please take a look at both and let me know what you think.

Baby Libertarianism: Property Rights


Body Suit for Property Rights BabyBaby Libertarianism

Today, I’m beginning a series on what I call, “baby libertarianism”: problems or fallacies common to those who are new to libertarian ideas but tend to be grown out of as they study more and become more “mature” libertarians. To borrow a phrase from my friend Dr. Charles, baby libertarians will spill the libertarian mush and pull down the libertarian drapes as they grow up.

I do not mean to imply that I don’t exhibit any properties of a baby libertarian, nor that I couldn’t benefit from more self-reflection, but I hope that this discussion may profit those who consider themselves libertarians. And if I mention anyone in particular, I don’t mean to say that he or she is a baby libertarian; they are only to serve as examples of ways baby libertarians tend to think.

Property Rights

Libertarianism, at least that based in the natural rights and/or Rothbardian tradition(s), is heavily based in property rights: you own your body and you own the property that your body creates by mixing your labor with natural resources, as well as property that you trade for and are voluntarily given. Using aggression (an initiation of force) against someone else’s person or property violates their property rights and is frowned upon by libertarians. It is with this that we arrive at the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP).

One of the more common fallacies made by baby libertarians is taking the NAP further than they ought; that is, making it an all-encompassing ethic rather than a starting point. They neglect to recognize that there is a difference between law and morality; that there are things that don’t violate NAP that ought not to be done.

For example, in a recent post by Amanda Billyrock, she writes, “Do I believe that the initiation of force against a peaceful person is the worst act a human could commit? Absolutely.” I commented,

I think it’s a mistake to make the non-aggression principle the sole or highest governing principle of ethics. Rather, I like how Hazlitt describes law (or that which you and I would see as rules governing the proper use of force), that is, as a subset of ethics. There are obviously things that are wrong but should not be governed by law and acts that don’t violate the non-aggression principle that seem to be worse than some initiations of force.

For example, I think most people would say that cheating on your spouse is worse than taking a candy bar from a store without paying (not that most people saying something is the decider of right and wrong, but you get my point). Or, perhaps, neglecting to keep promises to your child about attending their sporting events (or what have you) is worse than embezzling post-its from work.

Thus, I submit, there are acts that don’t aggress that are worse than acts that do.

And I think this is an important point, especially if we desire that libertarians represent themselves to the world as courteous and kind people. As an example of what not to do, I offer Adam Kokesh’s use of a sample of a friend’s guitar track as an intro for his show. Though I cannot cite the show number that he talked about this (and it was over a year ago), as I remember, his friend wanted compensation for Adam’s use of his music. Adam doesn’t believe that intellectual property is legitimate and refused to pay him. IP being legitimate or not, the courteous thing to do would have been to compensate his friend.

Is it not the case that artists using services like Noise Trade or Band Camp partially depend on the generosity of listeners to pay for their music, or leave a tip, even though the music could be obtained for free? Is it also not the case that anti-IP advocates use things like these as examples to explain why IP is unnecessary for artists to have an incentive to create? In this case, Adam is not providing a model that should be emulated.

Another case I’d like to mention is provided by my friend Brock (who blogs at The Propensity to Assume). At a weekly social engagement that is called “The Friday Forum,” I had left my bag on a seat and went to the restroom. When I had returned, Brock was occupying that seat and said something like, “I homesteaded this seat,” or “I don’t recognize property rights,” or some other joke using libertarian vernacular. I’m sure Brock felt that he wasn’t violating my rights, and it is not as though that particular seat was of special importance to me, but let me repeat that in our conduct with others, there is much more to consider than rights alone. Ideally, we will be considerate of the desires of others. A good host will make sure his guest is comfortable, provide refreshments, and make sure the guest’s needs are met before his own. In Brock’s defense, I will say he has done this for me when I have visited his residence.

So, I urge libertarians to know that there is much more to ethics than NAP and our service to others ought to be more than simply not violating their rights. Libertarianism focuses so much on negative rights that baby libertarians might be fooled into thinking that they are all that matter. Don’t fall in this trap.

The Best Analysis of Edward Snowden and the Security State I’ve Read

Photo of Ben O'Neill

Ben O’Neill

Ben O’Neill has published a series of articles on, seriously analyzing the ethics of the Edward Snowden revelations and NSA spying. What I really like about it is that, unlike what you’ll see in the mainstream media or even many liberty-oriented blogs, it seriously analyzes the issue: did Snowden have the ethical requirement to maintain confidentiality? O’Neill points out the fact that, by definition, whistle blowers have to break non-disclosure agreements that they’ve signed, and thereby break government laws. Thus, all whistle blowers are law breakers.

But in contract law, there are certain situations that make contracts invalid, such as when they are signed under duress. Another example is confidentiality agreements that require the signer to not disclose illegal activities. Clearly, the spying that the NSA has been involved in is not legal – it does not satisfy the requirements of the 4th Amendment. Therefore, any non-disclosure agreement Edward Snowden may have signed is invalid.

But most ordinary Americans who are against what Snowden did aren’t against him because of their desire to uphold the rule of law (except Aaron’s grandma). If they did, they ought to be much more concerned about the disregard for rule of law by the NSA. Rather, their main concern is the security state, and the idea that this spying is necessary to keep Americans safe. But O’Neill destroys this idea as well. NSA documents show that they use their surveillance apparatus for political ends. It certainly seems strange to fear rag-tag bands of terrorists from third world countries more than a multi-billion dollar secret agency that claims it can legitimately spy on your electronic communications without a warrant, and also possesses the ability to kidnap and assassinate people.

People often compare what’s happening in America to the environment in 1984. What I found most interesting about 1984 wasn’t the surveillance of the totalitarian state, so much as the concept of doublethink, the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at once. It seems that many Americans who consider themselves “patriots” will defend any government action in the name of “security,” even if it contradicts their supposed fidelity to American principles and the Constitution. A member of the Oath Keepers forwarded me this article, for goodness sake! What enables the security state, more than any data center, spying program, or weapon, is the consent of the majority of the governed. By freeing minds, more than by winning elections, we will free ourselves.