Introduction: Wendy McElroy is a prolific book author, columnist, speaker and contributor to prestigious journals and magazines, often with an "alternative" slant. She made her reputation as a young writer commenting from a libertarian standpoint on feminism, and taking a pro-pornography position that was anathema to the feminist "old guard" that saw pornography as a tool of chauvinist oppression. McElroy has continued to speak out, nonetheless, on issues of the most importance to her: libertarianism, anarchism and, of course, feminism. She has served as a weekly columnist for FoxNews.com and is the editor of the feminist website ifeminists.com. McElroy is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, and contributing editor to The Dollar Vigilante, Ideas on Liberty (formerly The Freeman), The New Libertarian, Free Inquiry and Liberty magazines. Her writing has appeared in such diverse periodicals as National Review, Marie Claire and Penthouse. For over a decade, McElroy was a series editor for Knowledge Products. She has written and edited many documentary scripts for audio cassette, some of which were narrated by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott and Harry Reasoner. Ms. McElroy contributes a weekly column to The Daily Bell. Her most recent book is The Art of Being Free: Politics versus the Everyman and Woman.
Anthony Wile: Thanks for sitting down with us again. It's been over a year since we last interviewed you. What's new? Where are your articles being published these days, other than your regular Thursday column at The Daily Bell? How's your most recent book doing, The Art of Being Free?
Wendy McElroy: Thank you for asking. The Art of Being Free is the most popular book I've written. And I'm pleased that The Daily Bell will be publishing it soon and offering it for free to subscribers. I do not believe in intellectual property – copyright and patent – and I know that is a controversial issue. Nevertheless, I am pleased that those who value this site as much as I do will have extra access to my work.
I write about six hours a day, every single day, and it would be tedious of me to list the scattered places where I publish. But my writing has taken an exciting turn – at least for me – in that I have returned to writing fiction. Few people know that I've even written fiction … much less successfully so. For example, I wrote and produced episodes of a syndicated TV show. But, for various reasons, I became so disillusioned that I walked away without looking back for many years. Now that I'm older and I'm thinking of what I would like in order to complete my life, I realize how much I want a novel to be part of that completion.
I decided to become a writer when I was five years old. I looked up from the book I was reading – Black Beauty – and I realized I wanted to create worlds in which I could determine outcomes so that innocent people and animals did not suffer. I didn't envision becoming a political commentator, historian or a theorist. I wanted to write stories. And I am returning to the vision of that five-year-old. Even if I fail, I think it is the right path. And it is what I think about while falling to sleep. Plot lines run through my head.
Anthony Wile: Last October you began contributing weekly articles that are quite well-received by Daily Bell readers in part because you make time to respond to feedback in spite of the fact you're a very busy woman. Anything you've noticed or observations you'd like to share about people's responses?
Wendy McElroy: I have a deep commitment to civility and that often brushes up against Internet behavior. As much as I believe in the non-aggression principle, I think that common decency is an equally strong factor in holding together a society in which I want to live. I approach every human being with an assumption of good will that is unshakeable … except, of course, by the person with whom I am dealing. He or she can shake off that assumption by being uncivil, unreasonable, vicious.
The relevance of the foregoing is this: I respond to every single person who posts because I consider it a compliment whenever anyone takes time from their life to read my work and respond to it. Sometimes the response is negative. I vividly remember one negative response that I took to heart and changed my approach accordingly because the fellow was correct. But most of the time, negative responses are just people being irritated or mean, and the meanness is facilitated by being anonymous. I have a firm policy of responding with civility to everyone on their first post because I've found that civility brings out the best in most people. If the "negative" person replies at all to my response – and about half the time they do – then they usually back far away from the hostility first expressed and a conversation occurs. I've actually formed cordial and longstanding bonds with some initially negative readers because we've come to the point of respecting each other.
I don't need or even want people to agree with me. I need and want honesty. And Daily Bell readers seem to have that in unusual abundance. So I hope they tell me where and when I'm wrong … and they should expect me to direct the exact same thing back at them.
Anthony Wile: There seems to be a growing, general dissatisfaction with the business of life as usual, which we've attributed in large part to what we call the Internet Reformation. Is it indeed growing or are we simply becoming more aware of it because of this same wider access to information?
Wendy McElroy: I think both are true … but I may have a different take on each one than you. I would rephrase the first part of your question from identifying "a growing, general dissatisfaction with the business of life as usual" to "a growing, general realization that there is now a new 'life as usual' "; there is now a new normal and it is far worse than it used to be. Life itself has changed. Daily life is far more difficult and grim than it used to be, 20 years ago.
There are so many ways in which life or the new daily norm has become more difficult. Consider what should be the simple act of opening a bank account now as opposed to 20 years ago. Now you almost need to submit a DNA sample as opposed to the past requirement of just signing a card to have on file so they can verify your signature. My last column at The Daily Bell, "First They Came for the Porn Stars," addressed the current trend toward excluding "morally objectionable" businesses such as the porn industry and marijuana sellers.
Or consider the act of flying off for a weekend getaway. It used to be something you did on a lark without pre-screening by the authorities or arriving an hour early to the airport in order to be sexually molested by TSA agents in the name of security. Yet people accept this as the new normal of travel. What a triumph it is for totalitarianism that we all accept the zip-lock bags in which we place our little shampoos.
Life is more difficult because the state and complicit businesses are gathering more information, invading more rights, demanding obedience. People are being treated like criminal suspects rather than customers.
The second part of your question is whether we are hearing more about a general dissatisfaction because of the same wider access to information due to the Internet. Yes … and no. The increase in dissatisfaction is real and it would exist without the Internet. It is being actualized, shared and widely expressed because we now have the means by which to do so. Humanity itself hinges on communication and we've never had more of it than right now. This is a good thing.
Anthony Wile: How do you see that playing out? What societal changes do you see in store, globally?
Wendy McElroy: It is all speculation, of course. But I do not see recovery or any turn for the better in the near economic or political future. Instead, there could be a long, slow slide into a prolonged depression as occurred in the 1930s or there could be utter stagnation as with the zombie economy of Japan. With no sarcasm, I say that those are the scenarios I prefer because they allow people the room and time to use their ingenuity to protect themselves.
The scenario I don't prefer is a collapse that results in violent civil unrest and/or an openly totalitarian state. The first situation often leads to the second. And I am familiar enough with history to know how devastating to human life totalitarianism can be. I know that Stalin's planned famine murdered an estimated 7 million people who starved to death by political design in a farming area that was known as the breadbasket of Europe. Politics can be literally lethal. I dread a collapse into totalitarianism.
What I think is more likely is a collapse into regionalism. That is, regions of North America will function as virtually independent areas and come to their own equilibrium. Of course, trade will still function on a national and global level because it will still be profitable and what's profitable will still bring people together. Thank God for self-interest. Thank God for the profit motive.
Anthony Wile: I remember reading an article in which you compared people's allegiance to the state with your own experience of domestic violence. What parallels do you see?
Wendy McElroy: I remember that article, "Do Not Tolerate Domestic Violence," well. Many of the parallels I drew were psychological ones through which I tried to capture why some people are so loyal to the idea of a state – the idea of "America," for example – that they tolerate incredible abuse without ever thinking of leaving.
Domestic violence is a topic to which I've given considerable thought because of my own background. I am legally blind in one eye due to hemorrhage in the center of my vision which resulted from being beaten by someone with whom I lived years ago, a man who said he loved me. And, so, I drew that parallel in writing things like "America swears it is protecting you while violating you at every turn; and you've become so brainwashed that you now mistake a fist in your face for safety." People mistake agencies like the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for protectors, even when the agents stand in front of them, groping their children.
After I dredged up enough self-respect to leave the abusive relationship, one question haunted me for years: Why did I stay? I had a long list of reasons. The fellow expressed regret and swore to "make it up" to me; I wanted to believe him. He vowed to change; I hoped things could go back to the way they were before. I was frightened because I doubted my own worth and believed his inflated self-opinion. Besides, leaving meant losing close friends whom he would force to take sides.
In the article, I explained: "America is doing much the same to you. Officials mouth regret at violations like ruinous taxes, and then offer entitlements with your own money. America promises to change and you remember what 'the land of the free' used to be like. The state makes you feel powerless and it is a relentless Goliath. Besides which, leaving would mean moving away from family and friends."
But walking away was one of the best things I've ever done. It was also one of the most difficult. But, then, I met someone else – my husband – who taught me that love wasn't pain. For many people, walking away from America could be a similar experience.
Anthony Wile: So what happens next?
Wendy McElroy: I don't know, and no one else does, either. But here's what I think is likely. And I know I sound North-America obsessed in my analysis but what happens in the United States directly impacts me on a farm in Canada … and I think that's true of everyone everywhere, though maybe not as directly. I think the current administration will do everything possible to ensure that nothing precipitous happens to the economy before the November election.
I think the election will bring a significant change in the balance of Congress. Specifically, the House of Representatives will remain dominated by Republicans and the Senate will lose its Democrat dominance. There will be a period of "Now we can count on change!" response from the public who thinks that electing Mr. Same or repealing XYZ law will alter the course of events, which is inevitable. But the expectation will prop up society long enough that the real economic and social collapse will be pushed forward to the summer of 2015.
Now it is time to backpedal. My friend and mentor Murray Rothbard had a theory about history, which he called "the lone crazy." It went something like this… History is proceeding in a somewhat predictable manner. Russia is acting like Russia, America is pursuing interests defined by past behavior, etc., etc. And then a lone crazy walks on stage. He kills Abraham Lincoln. He kills Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and World War I erupts. A group of lone crazies take out the Twin Towers and … I don't need to elaborate. The point of the theory is that life happens while you are making other plans. History happens as much from unexpected, crazy events as it does from the trends you pinpoint and draw on charts. The more erratic life becomes, and it is becoming more erratic every day, the more likely craziness will happen.
Anthony Wile: What about leaving the crumbling empire entirely? Should people emigrate from the US, Canada, etc.? What about the oft-heard argument that those who recognize what's happening have a "duty" to "stay and fight"?
Wendy McElroy: Leaving is the choice I've made but everyone has to decide for themselves whether to stay or go because everyone's circumstances are different, especially in terms of family commitments. I respect people who refuse to leave elderly parents or children whose daily lives they want to share. No one should have to decide between family and freedom. That's a terrible choice and I understand why people do not leave political oppression behind even though the door is still open. The understanding gives me a greater appreciation of the courage my forefathers, my foremothers showed in crossing an ocean from Ireland just for the chance to own land and walk with their heads held high.
But when you asked about staying, you didn't mean a duty to family but a duty to stay behind in order to fight for freedom. My answer is "no." I don't recognize geographical boundaries for freedom and I don't believe what I write is more important or influential if I write it in Seattle or Toronto or Santiago. I am not abandoning the fight for freedom; I am removing myself from an oppression that could be the most likely cause of killing (literally) my ability to continue the fight.
I am not wed to any one piece of land or to an artificial boundary called a nation. But I know people who agree with what I've just written who feel a deep allegiance to America, nevertheless, because they believe in the values and principles upon which America was founded. I don't want to argue about whether their interpretation of history is correct; I don't want to debate whether that vision of America has become a trap. Just as I respect people who stay for family, I respect those who stay for idealistic reasons.
But … I would ask them to consider another perspective. Freedom does not grow in any one soil. It is not an American product but a striving and an instinct that exists within every human being. Freedom in America is no more important than freedom in Germany or Africa. And walking onto another patch of land is not walking away from freedom; it is leaving a patch of land.
Anthony Wile: As you know, at The Daily Bell we've been extensively covering the global shift in marijuana laws. Many of those pushing for decriminalization or legalization suggest governmental regulation, similar to state regulation of alcohol, is the answer to a safe transition. In your view, will state regulation – albeit a foregone conclusion, at this point – be beneficial? If not, how is it a negative?
Wendy McElroy: You are correct. In our society, the state regulation of marijuana is a foregone conclusion. This may be preferable to outlawing marijuana but the position I favor is decriminalization. Traditionally, society has approached the so-called problem of marijuana in one of three ways: suppression or abolition; regulation or legalization; and decriminalization. The meaning of abolition is clear. Legalization refers to some level of state control and usually a high level simply because the state is able to get away with it; the state can play on public fears in order to justify draconian measures. Decriminalization is the opposite of legalization. All laws and regulations are removed. Given that marijuana use is a victimless crime – it affects only the individual consumer – the state properly has no say whatsoever about what the consumer chooses to inhale or swallow.
Of course, the state's default position is that everything is its business. This will have some unfortunate consequences. It will drive up the price of marijuana for several reasons, including: the high cost of complying with regulation and entering the business, a much smaller pool of competing producers and a high level of taxation at many stages of production. Those who use marijuana are less likely to do so anonymously; they may have to leave a paper trail of permission, etc. Private growers are more likely to be discouraged or penalized because they compete with a rich source of tax revenue. And then, of course, there is the strengthening of the state through more regulation and 'income' … and that's never a good thing.
Anthony Wile: How would you answer those who are concerned that legalizing marijuana will increase access by minors and therefore the dangers of harm from smoking it at a young age?
Wendy McElroy: That's the tried and true scare tactic – "What about the children?!" But even when it is illegal, children get their hands on marijuana with great ease. The prospect of having the drug widely sold in regulated stores that card customers for age is likely to reduce the access of children because it will reduce sales on the street. Moreover, the state will more strenuously crack down on "illegal" sources because it does not want to lose the tax revenue. (Again, I do not favor regulation.)
I have a problem with the question, actually. I said regulated stores are likely to reduce access because no one can predict the exact outcome of legalization. I think the real question is not whether it increases access at a younger age but whether it increases harm. By raising the standard of readily accessible marijuana – by taking it off the street – children are safer from bad product, arrest and violence. Moreover, more accessible marijuana could substitute for far more harmful substances like alcohol. By the way, I am not convinced marijuana is harmful at all.
I also have a problem with the assumption that a child's behavior should be regulated by the state and law, not by parents. If parents are worried about the possible drug use of a child, then they should become parents rather than transfer the responsibility to lawmakers who impose restrictions on the peaceful behavior of everyone. In response to the scare tactic, "What about the children?!" I ask, "Who will protect me from those who protect children?"
Anthony Wile: Let's talk about prohibition. From alcohol to marijuana to pornography, which you've written about extensively, it seems to be the go-to strategy for the powers that be. Why? Has it ever worked? What's the underlying goal of prohibition efforts?
Wendy McElroy: It is the go-to strategy because "the powers that be" want control – economic, political and social control. Their default position is control. I don't like to speculate about the individual motives of individual bureaucrats because I have no window into their souls and it doesn't matter anyway. The end result is the same whatever their motives might be. That's what separates the state from freedom. The state is planned and centralized control; freedom is unpredictable choice that resides in decentralized individuals.
Of course, centralization has "worked" for those who wish to homogenize society. The Soviet Union or East Germany are examples.
If you are talking about prohibiting a specific good rather than repression applied across the board, then the effect is different … although the desire for control is the same. Prohibition of a particular substance occurs only because there is a significant demand for it – otherwise, controlling access would not be an issue. People want it. The "good" is demonized in order to justify criminalizing it and/or making it available only with state permission.
Given that people continue to want the "good," a black market springs up to provide the substance. Supplying it is a high-risk proposition, which means the "good" becomes far more expensive than it would be on the free market and by definition, those who sell or buy the "good" are criminals; thus, the state has even further control through arrest and incarceration.
Anthony Wile: What should happen, in your opinion, to those currently incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes? What about those who have criminal records from previous arrests?
Wendy McElroy: Anyone currently incarcerated for marijuana-related or any other drug-related "crimes" should be immediately released and all records of their arrest expunged … unless, of course, they wish the records to be maintained. Such people have been punished for peaceful behavior that should have been no one else's business. If violence was an aspect of the crime, then the violence should be abstracted from the other circumstances and it alone should be the basis of any restitution owed by the perpetrator to his victims.
I would like anyone imprisoned for the "crime" of peaceful behavior to be compensated in a tangible manner but I don't see how that is viable, at least, not without further violating people's rights. In other situations, the compensation correctly comes from those who inflicted the harm; in this case, it would come from agents of the state such as police officers, judges and prison guards. But these categories of people have inflicted such vast harm on so many others that their ability to provide compensation to any but a few victims would immediately dry up. That's the non-viable part. The violation of rights would come if taxpayers, who did not commit the harm, were targeted as the source of compensation. Unfortunately, the best course may be to restore freedom to those from whom it never should have been taken.
You ask about those who have prior arrests. If the previous arrest was for drugs or another victimless crime (like sex work), then those arrests should go away because they should have never occurred. If the prior arrest was for a violent crime, then it should be considered to see if it has any bearing on the current one. For example, if one person beats up another on several separate occasions, it seems reasonable to me that the compensation due to the victim or other penalty due to the perpetrator should be higher than for an isolated incident. For one thing, the repeat-victim may now be living in fear.
Anthony Wile: You mention sex work as a victimless crime. How do you deal with the standard arguments against prostitution – that it spreads sexual diseases, promotes poor morals and demeans women?
Wendy McElroy: First of all, let me define "prostitution." I define it as sex for money between consenting adults so the issue of force does not apply. Prostitution is a choice – whether or not it is a demeaning choice depends on how the individual woman or man views sex and the exchange of money. If anyone in society thinks it is demeaning and wants to minimize the presence of prostitution, then they should make other choices more attractive to women. They should get rid of minimum wage laws that make women uncompetitive in the marketplace and so it is more difficult to enter. Get rid of laws that prevent people from operating home businesses. Some women are in sex work because they enjoy it. Many, and perhaps most, are there because it is a source of good income, especially compared to other work that does not require degrees and such. If you don't like the choices prostitutes are making, then get rid of all the laws and regulations that close off ones you find more palatable.
As to the specific concerns you raise … One way to ensure that prostitution "spreads sexual disease" is to criminalize it and drive it underground so that the women are reluctant to go to health centers for regular checkups and other medical care. The women have a huge vested interest in staying healthy and they will act according to their self-interest as long as there are no countervailing disincentives. The prospect of being tossed in jail is a strong disincentive. Get rid of it.
I don't have much to say about the promotion of poor morals. As long as all activity is consensual and adult, sexual morality is highly subjective. I've never chosen sex work but one of my close friends is a prostitute … and that's not an issue between us. If the moral content bothers you, then you should use persuasion or education to convince the people involved and, again, you should work toward a society with more options. As often as not, poor morals are a response to the availability of poor and limited choices. Let better ones exist.
Anthony Wile: A regular theme of your work has been women and sexuality. You've often made the point that sex work may be a woman's choice, and that pornography itself is not necessarily degrading to women, depending on its approach and presentation. Are you noticing, however, in the modern era, that state-sponsored prudery is making a comeback?
Wendy McElroy: State-sponsored prudery is the ancient default position whether the censorship comes from conservatives or from liberals. The new face of the revolving prudery is political correctness: Blatant or commercial sex is not wrong because it is immoral … it is wrong because it demeans women. Why it demeans the woman involved and not the man, I don't know. But the ultimate result is the same: The sexual behavior is criminalized. Personal choice is criminalized.
Anthony Wile: Recently, the EU crowned Conchita Wurst the winner of its Eurovision song contest. Wurst won the song contest with a beautiful ballad, "Rise Like a Phoenix," that he sang dressed in a tight-fitting skirt while sporting a full, if neatly trimmed, beard. Was this sort of display overly provocative, in your view? Was it intended to make a political point – and if so, what kind of point is it making?
Wendy McElroy: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I didn't get the impression that Conchita Wurst was trying to make a political point. I think he/she was trying to achieve a personal goal. One of the things I hope to see happen in society is for the personal to become personal once more rather than "the personal is political" everywhere and incessantly. That's one of the most destructive trends in society – to view every personal choice as a political matter in which all of society has a vested interest. It means my sexuality is your business. Trust me; it is not.
Anthony Wile: There are those who disapprove of the state getting involved in marriage, especially gay marriage, believing – certainly as libertarians – that the state has no business sanctioning unions of any sort. The culture itself and the local community are far better actors in this regard. What's your position?
Wendy McElroy: Gays should enjoy every right I do as a monogamous, heterosexual human being. But I have no right to be married by the state, only the legal ability. To the extent anyone has a natural right to marry, it is as an extension of the right to contract. State marriage denies the freedom of contract by imposing its own terms for marriage and divorce, as well as through laws dictating how families may function. The state then rewards those who accept its jurisdiction by offering them tax-funded and legally mandated benefits; an estimated 1,100 federal benefits are currently available to heterosexual spouses in America. State jurisdiction over marriage should be denied not expanded.
Marriage loses the status of a personal choice and becomes a political one whenever the cost of that decision is imposed on third parties. Any gay marriage that does not involve an entitlement grab deserves a congratulatory handful of rice. But the expansion of entitlements is the expansion of injustice and a step in the wrong direction. Marriage should be a personal contract. If it were so, then the entire gay marriage flap would be irrelevant.
Anthony Wile: Thank you.
Wendy McElroy: My pleasure.
As usual, we thank Ms. McElroy for an insightful interview. We admire her stance on many issues, and her eloquence as well.
One of Wendy's regular themes has had to do with women and sexuality. She has disavowed a blanket prohibition regarding sexual imagery and issues and has never shared the one-time fashionable idea (an obscenity in itself) that sexual congress was inevitably violent, or even rape.
The idea that sex could not be anything other than male violence sounds crazy; but when it comes to the memes of the elite, nothing is too "far out." Women's liberation is a special elite dominant social theme, designed to put men and women at each other's throats. Unfortunately, women's "rights" are a big issue – suddenly – in countries that the US attacks directly or by proxy.
The invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq are justified in part based on the idea that women in those countries can nowenter the modern era – seek schooling, jobs, etc. What is never discussed (in addition to the fact that Iraqis – including girls – enjoyed one of the very best educational systems in the region with nearly complete gender parity and almost 100% literacy, prior to US invasions) is the irony of a kind of "depleted uranium" holocaust that has apparently seeded these countries with terrible human destruction. Women may now have the opportunity to be educated but doctors reportedly caution that they ought not to have babies because the risk of birth defects is too high.
Cancer, broken families, crippled children – all this and more has emerged from the serial wars now being prosecuted in Africa and the Middle East. Western Intel, NATO, the US State Department and other familiar actors are unfortunately behind much of the violence. The supposed opportunities that this violence is providing to women seems to pale in comparison to the misery, violence and destruction the region is being subjected to.
Closer to home, the sexual meme is busy at work as well. As Wendy wrote last week, Chase has cancelled the accounts of individuals who are affiliated with sex trade, especially those acting in pornographic films. And, in Britain, David Cameron has used pornography as a way of reducing Internet access. The idea is that people have to affirmatively choose to receive "alternative" websites involving sexual imagery. However, it turns out that "forbidden" sites are focused considerably on political and economic issues.
At the same time as sexual expression has once again come under attack, the war on drugs seems to be relaxing and actually providing considerable entrepreneurial opportunities. Is one prohibition being substituted for another? If so, look for a UN-specific global rollout of special task forces designed to further strengthen this dominant social theme. Such a campaign will show the caring side of the UN, but the reality will be more control, misinformation and even social turmoil.
It is ever thus, as Ms. McElroy herself has often pointed out …