Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Best of (I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not) the Blogosphere, Part 2π: Zompist on Libertarians

(2πth in an occasional and entirely whimsical series. Other entries here.)

This post is not an entry in my by-now six-part series on the Best of the Blogosphere (which you can find here). -- Or, alternatively, it is the (2π)th part -- an irrational part that hovers somewhere between part six and the future part seven (now published here).

Because, you see, what I'm about to link to isn't a blog post.

Really, it isn't. But it's an I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-a Blog Post, because it's part of this awesome web site where the proprietor puts up all sorts of great essays on all sorts of topics.

So, in the spirit of the Hugo Awards giving Watchmen a "special" Hugo (which then vanished off the lists of past Hugo awards for years) since they didn't want to call it a novel but were hesitant about a work of, well, fiction winning the non-fiction award*, I hereby present the (2π)th (un)official Attempts Best of (I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not) the Blogosphere™ award to "What's Wrong with Libertarianism?" on Mark Rosenfelder's Metaverse.

It's a terrific essay. But first maybe I should tell you a bit about Metaverse. Because it's a really cool site all around.

First, it's not a blog. Even the part that is a blog (sorta) isn't a blog -- it says so right up there at the top: "something that looks like a blog and sounds like a blog, but it's actually a rant page". And it's not a bad blog, er, rant page, either. But the real meat of the site can be accessed from Metaverse's front page.

Basically -- not to put too fine a point on it -- Mark Rosenfelder is a geek. But that's okay; as Willow Rosenberg said some time ago, "It's the computer age. Nerds are in. They're still in, right?". And as geeks go, he's smart, funny, well-read, and almost always interesting -- always if you're interested in what he's talking about which (since he's a geek) you won't be. But you'll be interested in a lot of it -- depending on how much your inner geek and his overlap.

And Metaverse is just a collection of his writings: essays, humor pieces, dictionaries, how-to guides... it's quite a mix. In addition to the post under discussion, Metaverse has all sorts of charming stuff on it, clustered in areas like linguistics, comics, politics, SF and humor. (Anyone who knows me can see why I like the site.) Here are a few more favorite, roughly one in each of the above categories (although they overlap). For linguistics, Rosenfelder gives a tourist's guide to Quechua (the Native American language with the largest number of speakers (at present)) especially the grammar, that's a lot of fun. Even more quirky is his Language Construction Kit, a guide for those who want to invent a language (aimed at those with fictive rather than linguistic ends). For comics, just browse his reviews (which are a bit out of date, but otherwise are generally very good). For SF, his analysis of the original Foundation trilogy is great. For humor, it's hard to beat They Thought You'd Say This: Unlikely phrases from real phrasebooks, though I also like his Crib Notes for the Turing Test. In politics, in addition to the winner of the present august award, check out his essay on Why the Rich Should Pay More Taxes.

Rosenfelder wrote an "ostensive definition of 'American culture'" in reply to someone who said there is no such thing, which spawned a whole series of lists in the same format, so there are now Culture Tests for England, Germany, France, Mexico, China, India, Turkey and all sorts of other places. In some ways its a good example of what his site is: a quintessential web thing, not quite an essay (although it more or less has one at its core), with lots of participation, quirky and individual and fascinating. At least if you're a geek. Like me.

He has essays on Jane Jacobs, Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment, Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, how progressives resemble fundamentalists, writing English with Chinese characters, what the bible says about the poor, the Turing Test, English words derived from Arabic, French comics, and a wild and wide-ranging essay called "The Last Century -- What the Heck Was That?" In the less-essay-ish and more-widget/list-ish category, he's got an automated excuse generator, fun facts from his bookshelf, flashcards for learning hiragana (one of the Japanese syllabaries) and the numbers 1-10 in more than 5000 languages. He draws his own comics, although not very well. And this isn't even to mention his own meticulously documented fantasy universe, Verduria, complete with languages and history and all sorts of things... which, frankly, is one of the areas where he bores me stiff. But while those will differ from person to person, if you're interested in enough things to be reading this blog, you'll find something on his site that you'll like... or, more realistically, either you're already over there surfing around and enjoying, or you will be shortly, or you're too stuck in your ways.

In short, Zompist's Metaverse is a geek's garden of instruction and delight, and I commend it to one and all. It is precisely what a blog should be... or it would be, if you lined up all its entries in reverse chronological order. As it is, it's sort of an essay-and-widget collection, a bouquet of miscellanea. With more cool stuff than you can shake a stick at.

But the winner of this award is his essay What's Wrong with Libertarianism? -- currently in version 3.0, and linked to from the home page under the title What's Still Wrong with Libertarianism?, although the actual essay itself retains the original handle.

What's great about this essay, at least for me, is that it articulates very well a lot of things that I know and believe but hadn't yet assembled for myself. It's not that I needed convincing about why Libertarianism is wrong -- and I don't know if his essay would convince anyone, because I don't think that short essays in general are the sorts of things that can change someone's fundamental political world view. But if they could, this one would: and for those of us who feel strongly that Libertarianism, despite a lot of surface attraction, good talking points and some issues where they are bang on the money, is not only wrong but often a very destructive force in American politics, Rosenfelder sums it all up quite well. And he does it in an entertaining, chatty, smart, informed-but-not-scholarly style which is, for me, one of the hallmarks of much of what I love about the blogosphere.

Which is why this essay gets this award, with minor points off for not being an actual, y'know, blog post... but hey, it's good enough.

I'm not saying that the essay is the definitive philosophical take-down of Libertarianism. It's not meant to be. (The series of essays which Part Zero of this series highlighted -- a series which seems, alas, to have stalled out midway through -- might be that if Elizabeth Anderson ever finishes it.) It's an articulation of the basic liberal critique of it. And I admit that when, in an online discussion, I cited it as an articulation of my basic problems with Libertarianism, the response was basically 'Yeah, I've heard all that before'. -- But then, that would be the response: political philosophies don't tend to retreat from criticism, but rather come up with standard responses. Whether you feel those responses are definitive or laughably inadequate depends on the point of view you're coming from. (It's a far rarer essay than this one that actually changes an entire political movement -- and those tend to be, I think, small changes from within: changes in political movements, I think, tend to arise from events, or from large schools of thought -- a great many arguments each in many different versions and variations -- of which, hopefully, Rosenfelder's essay will eventually turn out to have been one of if Libertarianism is, as he predicts, eventually discarded as a political philosophy among all but a very few cranks, just as Monarchism has been.)

For those of us who are (broadly speaking) liberals, Rosenfelder nails the basic response to Libertarianism (with, of course, quirks and details which are original to him, and are the spice of the piece). Whether you're a liberal, or a libertarian, or something else entirely, it's worth surfing over and reading it: agree or not, it's well worth your while.

So swing by Metaverse and read Mark Rosenfelder on What's Wrong with Libertarianism? -- or reread it, since it's worth rereading (the fundamental criteria for inclusion in this series.) Then check out his other offerings. It's been said that if you're tired of New York (or in some versions London) you're tired of life; and I almost feel that way about Metaverse.


* The graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns" had been nominated in that category the year before, on the rather poor grounds that "non-fiction" really meant "miscellaneous".

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