Behind the Jeffersonian Veneer

In describing my writing as exhibiting only a "Jeffersonian veneer" ("Behind the Jeffersonian Veneer," June), Cathy Young reveals herself to be either ignorant of Jefferson's thought–a possibility I cannot reject out of hand–or a liar. Jefferson believed in local control, nullification, and secession, and would have resolutely opposed the "incorporation doctrine" associated with modern interpretations of the 14th Amendment. Perhaps Cathy Young doesn't care for these Jeffersonian positions, but a book, like my Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, that advances and defends these ideas is Jeffersonian, pure and simple.

Anyone examining my record of publication, which includes articles for many well-known libertarian publications, can see how anti-statist it is. I am also the author of The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, whose hard Misesian/Rothbardian line makes it the most libertarian book on Catholic social teaching ever written. But Young, a person who in the wake of 9/11–a time when a principled libertarian voice was needed more than ever–told us we needed to shut up and accept government surveillance, is actually going to question my ideological credentials. Physician, heal thyself.

Young thinks it's unlibertarian of me to oppose radical individualism but doesn't bother to explain why. Just because I wish to keep the state out of my affairs does not mean I cannot also have deep and abiding affection for my family, my church, or any of the other associations that Burke called the "little platoons" of society. Benjamin Constant was not alone among classical liberals in warning that "the interests and memories which spring from local customs contain a germ of resistance which is so distasteful to authority that it hastens to uproot it. Authority finds private individuals easier game; its enormous weight can flatten them out effortlessly as if they were so much sand."

As for the League of the South–a group that has been repeatedly denounced by white supremacist organizations–I simply refer fair-minded readers to Tom DiLorenzo's article "Why They Hate Tom Woods," archived at LewRockwell.com, as well as to my February 19 LewRockwell.com blog entry "In Case You Were Wondering." I am inclined to think that a reasonable person, as opposed to a P.C. automaton, will understand the non-crazy motivations that brought a 21-year-old Tom Woods to that organization's initial meeting.

In her conclusion, Young finds my positions on the War Between the States and World War II so morally obtuse as to render me unworthy of the company of libertarians. Of course, what I said about those conflicts is no different from what Murray Rothbard and countless other libertarians–probably even a majority–have said a great many times and have taken for granted as the clear and obvious libertarian position. For all I know, though, Young wants to expel Rothbard from libertarianism too–perhaps all that scholarship was just so much Jeffersonian veneer.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History has been received with overwhelming favor by libertarians, as my many speaking engagements attest, and my front cover boasts a wonderful blurb by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). These people understand that the book, a New York Times bestseller, has brought anti-statist ideas to the attention of many tens of thousands of people, and in its reading suggestions has spread the word about our scholars and publications to an unusually wide audience. Cathy Young, on the other hand, chooses to join my leftist critics in dredging up some insensitive things I said years ago.

Somehow I think I'll get over it.

Thomas E. Woods Jr.
Assistant Professor of History
Suffolk County Community College
Coram, NY

Cathy Young replies: Three brief points:

1) Tom Woods' attack on "radical individualism" in his writings from the late 1990s goes far beyond the defense of family and other "little platoons." It is a defense of social, cultural, and religious authoritarianism, full of sympathy for the supporters of the Old South's social order (most of whom loathed Jefferson).

2) Oddly, Woods tries simultaneously to portray the League of the South as an unfairly maligned group and to dismiss his association with it as a youthful indiscretion.

3) Murray Rothbard's hostility to Cold War interventionism led him to cheer for the fall of U.S.-backed governments in Vietnam and Cambodia (i.e., effectively, for these countries' takeover by Communist dictatorships). Not, in my view, a proud moment for libertarianism.

Consumer Vertigo

I am grateful for the opportunity to offer some comments on Virginia Postrel's thoughtful but critical article ("Consumer Vertigo," June) about my recent book, The Paradox of Choice.

I have encountered two major criticisms of my book from libertarians. Some say things like "If people are too stupid to take advantage of freedom of choice, then the hell with them." I hope that when those people ask their children for help figuring out Medicare prescription drug choices, their kids are more sympathetic. Others say things like "It's a pity that too much choice causes people to suffer, but freedom is so important that it is worth suffering to enhance it."

My own response was different. I took the evidence to indicate that perhaps we can't just assume that increased choice means increased freedom. Perhaps we need to find out what kinds of choices, in what areas of life, actually promote freedom, and what kinds of choices restrict it. Perhaps we need to stop assuming that adding options is Pareto-efficient, and instead try to measure the social harm that too many choices can create. Perhaps the relation between choice and freedom should be a topic for serious empirical inquiry instead of being settled by assumption. Finally, though my book does not discuss social policy, perhaps we should ask, whenever a social policy is proposed that is designed to enhance collective welfare simply by giving people choice, whether the choices involved actually will enhance collective welfare after the costs of increased choice are counted.

Now a few small and specific points:

1) I do not discount the benefits that some derive from increased choice. I simply want us to appreciate that the benefits of increased choice for some may entail costs for many.

2) Postrel asserts that people adapt pretty well to all the choice they face, in large part by relying on habits. People certainly adapt, but where is the evidence that they adapt well? Which habits can you rely on when the products and services being offered keep changing?

3) I see no evidence that the marketplace has any interest in helping people solve the choice problem. The marketplace may get interested in helping us by simplifying what it offers, but only if we demand it.

4) Postrel calls it an "obvious truth" that many options can be overwhelming. It may be obvious now, but it has been invisible rather than obvious (both to rational choice theorists and to marketers) until now.

5) Postrel asserts that I never consider whether I would like to go back to a world with fewer options. Actually, I do consider it, and I would–as would many, many people who have corresponded with me.

6) Finally, Postrel describes my book as offering a "scientific-seeming alternative to public policies that expand choice" (my italics). First, Postrel's article accepts virtually all of the "seeming" points I make in my book but quarrels with the implications–so why that dismissive "seeming"? Second, scientists are the least likely people to use the word "scientific" as an honorific; they know better than anyone how today's truths can become tomorrow's artifacts. But scientists do honor evidence. And my book tries to substitute evidence–fallible and incomplete though it is–for assumption and assertion.

Barry Schwartz
Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action
Swarthmore College
Swarthmore, PA

CORRECTION: In "The Search for Real Absinthe" (August/September), the thujone content of the Pernod Fils absinthe produced circa 1900 should have been reported as six milligrams per liter, not six milligrams per milliliter.