Mises Daily Articles
Literary Intoxication: Tucker's Bourbon for Breakfast
[Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo • By Jeffrey A. Tucker • Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010 • 362 pages]
In times like ours, when fair is foul and foul is fair, the proponents of good causes can often lead a dour existence and indulge in a crankiness that, if less than charming, is certainly understandable given the long odds they face. Unfortunately, this doesn't do much for their causes, because people — even smart people, or, rather, especially smart people — don't want to hear how dumb their ideas and tastes are. What every good cause needs, then, is a force of positive energy, a source of joy to show the followers that cause x is not only worthwhile but necessary for human growth and happiness.
Meet Jeffrey Tucker, the happy anarchocapitalist. Libertarians, like philosophers and artists of all stripes, are not exactly known for our joie de vivre. We are seen as party poopers, twits who are too attached to our intellectual ideas and not willing enough to "get with it" — "it" being some fad that has gotten swept up into the zeitgeist. The insufferably officious, late William F. Buckley once chided us for worrying about stop signs when there were evil Russian peasants to murder. I wonder, though, what Bill Buckley would do with the writings of Tucker, who, rather than get into complicated syllogisms like Murray Rothbard, and rather than writing ridiculous Objectivist creeds like Ayn Rand (who is only thought to be libertarian anyhow), simply finds the absurdities of the state and laughs at them, even when the autobiographical details show that he has suffered under its iron fist (though perhaps in these inflationary times the state's fist is now comprised of zinc). Tucker has every right to be bitter, but instead he makes merry, and this is to his credit. I would even say that this book presents a model of how to live a fulfilling, rounded life as an anarchocapitalist.
It is impossible to read Jeff Tucker's work and not come away loving life more. Here is a man with a wide range of interests and an intense curiosity. I know this because I've known the author for a number of years now, so don't expect this to be an unbiased review. No writer is unbiased anyway; the sooner we take the masks off, the more we'll benefit.
Lou Holtz, in his account of Notre Dame's last national championship in football, said that the difference between where you are now and where you are five years from now is the people you meet and the books you read. In Jeff Tucker, I have someone who is now in both categories. Jeff got me into running, Chartreuse, and shaving without cream. (The latter subject is covered in the book.) Now, after reading Bourbon for Breakfast, I have a few more things to do, such as figure out how to take that environmentalist-wacko washer out of my showerhead.
To cover every subject in this review that Tucker covers in the book would be onerous, so I'd like to select my favorite subjects and start with one of the most pressing issues of our time: toilets. About ten years ago, I took a new job, and shortly after my arrival noticed a sign above the toilet in the office: "Please do not throw any paper towels into the toilet. We have already had problems with this toilet. Thank you." The sign seemed to suggest that said toilet was relatively new and not performing up to its expected capabilities. More and more, I've noticed these signs over the past decade. They are commonplace now. Someone could make a lot of money by mass-producing a sign that says "Caution: Toilets don't work as well as they used to." Etc.
I never realized the culprit until I read Tucker's articles on it. The US government, during the environmentally crazed days of the early '90s, passed legislation requiring toilets to use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. This, as I'm sure you've noticed, is not enough to get the job done, unless it is one of those jetpack toilets that sprays dirty water all over the bathroom. Tucker relates some of his own experiences with this state-imposed health crisis and rightly points out that if there is any effort on which resources should be liberally spent, it is on safely getting rid of human waste, which is one of the deadliest substances known to history.
Advocating the safe removal of crap from our toilets doesn't exactly require a wellspring of political courage, but another topic that Tucker addresses does: child-labor laws. When modern man thinks of child labor, he thinks of practical slavery, but the laws in this country didn't come about until the early 20th century, and then, as Tucker recounts, they had a number of curious exceptions built into them, child actors most notable among them. Commoner children could only work if they were making Christmas wreaths or something. Moreover, these laws were conceived while the necessity for child labor was receding into American history; in other words, it was the prosperity created by capitalism, and not the benevolence of the state, that freed children from the necessity of sitting at a sewing machine for 12 hours a day, since adults were making more money and no longer required the extra household income.
Less honorable forces were at work, too: women's labor groups, for instance, disliked the cheap competition offered by the children. Many, including a number of church organizations, opposed the new child-labor laws because they regarded them as the nationalization of children (what has happened since with respect to public education proves that they were right), and at least one congressman prophesied that the lack of work would make future generations lazy. Well, now! Tucker carries this ball the whole way to the goal line in "Generation Sloth," which is a discussion on the dearth of working skills in the younger generations. Of course, we don't want to get too Protestant and think that work is the be-all and end-all of existence — and how curious it is that in such a Protestant country laziness has taken over — but there is more than enough food for thought in these chapters. One practical consequence of it all is that you cannot pay a neighborhood kid to fix your computer.
Anarchocapitalists are not well understood by the general public and are often lumped in with all the apologists for the corporatist pigs. This misconception is even easier to pull off these days, owing to the vague, illiterate socialism that seems to control the mainstream public discourse. Tucker reveals the lie in all this when he discusses one of his foremost passions: intellectual property. He is one of the first libertarians, perhaps second only to Stephan Kinsella, who has come out against these supposed "rights." He shows exactly how the whole IP concept is inimical to a libertarian worldview, which respects private-property rights and free exchange. Tucker admits that past libertarians had not thought much about this issue and that the default position was in favor of IP, but the new trend is reshaping libertarian opinion in this area.
Offering, online and free, items that would normally be controlled by IP, such as books, Tucker insists, is actually better for everyone in the long run, including the author. I have personally witnessed Jeff transform the viability of causes with this approach, and every time a book is offered for free online, its sales at the warehouse skyrocket at the same time. The trouble these days is that the publishers have everyone, including the writers themselves, under their thumbs, and so books and ideas — perhaps ones deemed too dangerous? — are left to squander, while the giant book corporations refuse to put items back in print but demand to hold onto the "rights" to the material. There is a long history here, which Tucker recounts succinctly.
A hinge in Tucker's thought occurred when he read Michelle Boldrin and David Levine's book, Against Intellectual Monopoly. In this work they lay out the case for a freer dissemination of ideas. It looks like something that ought to be added to my reading list, though I must offer a minor caveat based on what I've seen so far, and it concerns music, which happens to be my field of choice. The authors posit that IP law is behind the stagnation in classical music over the past several decades. This is entirely possible. Musicians tend to be very territorial in their work in ways that are self-defeating.
A good example of this is the recent policy change by the American Guild of Organists, which now hides its job openings behind password protection, making it impossible for nonmembers to see one of the benefits of membership. Twelfth-century models like this are bound to fail. All the same, I'd only add that the musical community itself often does everything it can to discourage normal people from liking classical music. The fact that the term "classical music" makes us think primarily of stuff that is older than most countries rather than some of the truly great music of the past decade, which has come from the pens of men like James MacMillan and Bo Holten, is the foremost problem. Add to that a pompously pious, stern demeanor and you have the perfect recipe for total system failure. The classical musical world is a caricature of itself.
On a more detailed note, Boldrin and Levine blame IP laws for the dearth of great music in England since 1750. I am in no position to judge the laws in England of this time period, but I will say that much great English music has been written since 1750. Could more have been written? Quite possibly, but this is one quibble I must make. Every time someone tries to assert that there have been no great English composers since Henry Purcell, I just want to scream, "Ralph Vaughan Williams!" And that's only for starters. The 20th century in particular saw a musical blossoming in those rainy lands; several of the composers, such as Charles Villiers Stanford, took after Brahms. "No great music after 1750" is the kind of thing a musicologist would say so that he doesn't have to study a school of composition that he doesn't like. It's almost as laughable as the idea that anyone would actually want to listen to Purcell.
Speaking of Vaughan Williams, however, I will add a story here that strengthens Boldrin and Levine's case. John Weaver, organist, composer, and professor for many years at both Juilliard in New York and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, has written a wonderful little jazz arrangement of Vaughan Williams' famous melody, which is sung to the text "For All the Saints." He can't get it published because — so I've been told by a reliable source — the heirs of the original composer find the piece to be objectionable and refuse to grant the necessary permission. I can't think of a reason why these heirs wouldn't benefit from such a publication, and yet they use the IP laws to commit censorship.
Of course, laws of all sorts are used to harass people, and in the section on crime, Tucker gives us some pretty unpleasant glimpses of this ugliness. There was a fateful stop sign in Jeffrey's subdivision, mysteriously removed after causing much heartache and wallet damage, which serves as the main antagonist. God only knows how many times he's run this stop sign. I'm tempted to take a pilgrimage to this fateful intersection. Maybe we could raise money to erect a marker in memory of this red octagon, a marker that extols the virtues of liberty and the advantages of a rolling stop when no one else is around. (I might add that South Philadelphians, including the cops, have perfected this art.)
Tucker begins this portion of the book by describing the harrowing experience of being arrested for failing to pay a ticket for running the aforementioned stop sign. He forgot to pay it, no further notices were sent, and the next thing he ever heard about it was a dreadful knock at the door. A probe into corruption on the part of local officials, which included FBI involvement, adds an interesting, if unsurprising, twist to the story, and the experiences of jail which he reports explode any myth of the accused being innocent until proven guilty. In jail, you are an animal, as far as the persons in charge are concerned, and most people in the public go along with this attitude because they think they themselves will never be arrested for anything.
After discussing the pokey, Tucker moves on to a date in court to fight what is presumably a different ticket. As he awaits his hearing, Tucker witnesses one poor person after the next being ushered in front of the judge to plead their case, only to lose big. A particularly appalling example comes to us in the person of a woman who stole a pack of lunchmeat from Walmart. For this petty theft she was fined $800 and had her license suspended. In addition, she was banned from Walmart for life. Interestingly, this was one of the few real crimes on the docket that day — some other poor chap lost his license for a while for "public drunkenness," even though he wasn't anywhere near a steering wheel — but it was handled in a perfectly unreasonable fashion.
The sad part is that the state has virtually stripped private business owners of the ability to handle these kinds of things in a more discrete and reasonable fashion. Public-access laws, for instance, prevent Walmart from banning this lady for a more reasonable time period, like a year or two; instead, they are forced to take the case to the state, which goes about blowing the crime out of proportion. One wonders if this is an intended or unintended consequence of public-access laws. Anyone who thinks these laws are necessary needs to talk to a bar owner, who is one of the few businessmen left with much discretion over who patronizes his establishment. "We don't really get all the government that we pay for," says Tucker, "and thank goodness. Lord protect us on the day that we do."
One of the things that everyone should know about Jeffrey Tucker is that he's always pushing the people around him to become better than they are. In fact, there is a Facebook group called "Everything I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Jeff Tucker." One area in which I need to improve is dress. Tucker's remarks on this subject make me feel like a veritable slob; he contrasts the sharply dressed hobo on a park bench during the Great Depression with the polo-clad, cubicle-bound nincompoop of the past two decades. I want to be better at this, but the effort is just overwhelming sometimes, and I feel like I'm trying to climb the proverbial greased pole that H.L. Mencken talks about.
Just the other day I ruined a shirt while ironing it. It wasn't the classic mistake of leaving the iron in one place for too long; it was far more complicated than that. But it made me feel like a failure, much like the inability to drink copious amounts of alcohol in the evening makes Tucker feel like a failure. (This subject is also covered in the book. The time to try this, he says, is when you are young and your body can handle it.) It turns out that Jeff was in clothing retail and knows quite a bit about how to dress and how the clothes should fit, and he even knows how to find good deals on sharp outfits. Read his advice carefully. I just might have to follow through on this. In the meantime, I plan to sound him out on why nine out of ten articles of clothing these days would do better as washrags. I've noticed, for one thing, that even smaller-sized clothing assumes that the wearer will have a potbelly and a wide posterior, making me look like a floating cloud of whichever color it is that I'm wearing.
Tucker closes this compendium with a number of reviews of books and movies. The depth of his comprehension is sometimes astounding; he can remember more from watching a movie once than many can from watching it ten times, and his book summaries are so excellent that he might want to watch out for the IP police. Tucker's discussion on Garet Garrett's novel The Driver got my undivided attention. The story features Henry Galt, a Wall Street financier who tries to wrest control of a failing railroad company. This might not seem like much, but it's certainly more exciting than late 20th-century novels about public-housing projects. A motif in the book is, "Who is Henry Galt?" Tucker notes that many have speculated that Garrett's novel inspired Ayn Rand's character John Galt. I think that's putting it mildly, or perhaps putting it in a way that will keep all concerned parties out of court.
By now many are probably wondering what the title, Bourbon for Breakfast, has to do with any of these subjects. On a basic level, and perhaps most importantly, it seems to indicate a worldview, an approach that would be sanctioned by diverse characters such as Richard Weaver, Joseph Pieper, and Murray Rothbard: the idea that leisure is an important part of a life well lived. Tucker sat down at breakfast one morning with a Bible scholar friend who offered him some coffee — and then offered him some bourbon to go with it. Mornings, to this man of Hebrew and Greek letters, were for contemplation, and not to be rushed. Contemplation, or leisure, is necessary for freedom. It keeps one's mind from falling into a trance on the treadmill of the corporatist state.
More than that, though, a morning drink says, "I will celebrate; I will enjoy life and not let the taskmasters run me down." The state gives us to-do lists, but the morning drinker asks the real questions about life and reminds us of how good we really could be. The morning drinker, unlike a messianic bureaucrat, doesn't take life or himself too seriously. He knows that if there is tragedy, there is also comedy, and sometimes the best way to ward off a demon is to laugh. Nor does he feel the need to preach endlessly about the big, abstract issues. He realizes that to know what the government is really like we only need to observe how its agents act around toilets, stop signs, and stolen lunchmeat.
Of course, the idea of contemplation can become a double-edged sword, especially in the hands of the hopeless, who can turn isolation into pure antisocial misery. Under the supervision of Jeffrey Tucker, though, it is a fountain of energy. I don't know how he accomplishes everything that he does. I'll grant that I'm a bit envious of the way he tackles seemingly lost causes with all the enthusiasm of a champion fighter; I myself, when it comes to expending energy, am like a finicky, health-conscious old woman in a buffet line. There are days when I'm tempted to give up, to sign back up with some kind of limited government program, to find a local Kiwanis Club and live my life getting along just fine with Boobus Americanus. But after reading this book I am just as convinced as ever that the struggle for a free society is not only worthwhile, it is worth engaging with a sense of joy and wonder and love of life. In fact, that is the only way we will win the battle of ideas.