My take: Kokesh v. Cantwell

[This post responds to the debate between Adam Kokesh and Christopher Cantwell on January 17, 2017. I watched the event in its entirety and took down light notes & quotes. This post is not comprehensive — I don’t have time — well thought out — I don’t have time — or logically organized — I don’t have time. Consider it good grace and read accordingly.]

Richard Rorty once remarked that “truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.”

Tonight is a great example of that principle in action. Christopher Cantwell and Adam Kokesh debated for roughly two hours (after starting an hour late) at an event hosted by Liberty Hangout and livestreamed on Facebook. Roughly 150 people were tuned into the debate, along with a crowd of about 30 in person.

Imagine a hailstorm — inside a hotel banquet room — but the hail is actually terrible arguments and the storm is the eternal rage of Christopher Cantwell.

Before this gets analytic, I should say that before this event I had never heard of Cantwell, that I have loosely followed the activist career of Kokesh for around five years now, and that Kokesh’s brand of libertarianism is far closer to my own and to the online circles in which I run. With that said…

The Debate

The entire first hour of this debate focused on immigration. How does that make any sense? When did this become the biggest issue within libertarianism? In my opinion, immigration is almost a complete non-issue, and certainly not worth diving over to the extent that Cantwell sees it. I completely disagree with Cantwell on the actual facts of immigration, and these facts are relevant enough to overturn all of his points. It is not really worth continuing without stating my objections here. First, most immigrants to the US are coming from Asian countries that outperform whites on all the indicators that he would probably suggest as valid measures of white superiority over blacks and hispanics and etc. Second, nearly all illegal immigration to the US is due to overstaying work visas, not to sneaking over the boarder in the night. Third, that the immigration balance has been at zero or negative the past several years. Fourth, I don’t think that immigrants have the ideological homogeneity that Cantwell assumes they have. More on that later. Fifth, most people unaffected by the bombastic rhetoric of Cantwell’s type are perfectly fine with living near immigrants and working with them, especially if they speak English.

Cantwell argues that libertarians have to get people to hate leftist social values. Bingo! People, whether logic allows it or not, tend to clump issues together into ideologies even when those clumped issues don’t follow in logical consequence. The same people that don’t like gay marriage do like lower corporate taxes, even though these share the most tenuous of connections if any. People who believe in climate change tend to also believe in tight regulations on businesses. So then, if the economy is what really matters, we should use the flip social issues (that political lemmings gobble right up) to convert people onto “our side,” and then they will get the libertarian economic message later. This is the purpose of the alt-libertarian group on Facebook, although I only gather this from their mission statement (“The alt libertarian movement is a movement to un-cuck the libertarian message. Politics are a combination of an information war and a culture war. The well known faces of the liberty movement are all fighting the information war. We are here to fight the culture war.”) since I will never work up the nerve to actually join the page.

This is blatantly manipulative. I cannot possibly claim to value rationality or mental self-defense if my activist methodology is just to mislead people by playing into their tribal tendencies. Something about this speaks of evil, and everything about it screams of epistemic vice. So no, this isn’t an ethical strategy. We are just as bad as the statists if this is our approach.

Cantwell made two distinct but closely related points near the middle of the debate: “everything has to be discriminatory” and “if we have to convince everyone of libertarianism to get rid of the state, then get used to the State, because it will never happen.” He used an example of a bouncer keeping 12 year old from entering a club, because 12 year olds tend to pull down the average quality of the club experience. This is a metaphor for immigrants with a non-Western ideology that enter the U.S. due to lax migration laws. The immigrants themselves don’t ruin the country, but their ideology does because they tend to vote for the Democratic Party, and that is the problem. This original statement, everything has to be discriminatory, sounds like a vaguely philosophical premise that Cantwell has swapped for a conclusion. Or it just doesn’t follow. Or it requires a whole breadth of additional evidence to substantiate, and that evidence got left behind.

His second point may have more merit. Although he does underestimate the potential that outsider campaigns can have (notably Ross Perot in 1992), his point remains that libertarianism itself is not a very popular ideology. Most people who believe in fiscal responsibility are bound up in inane 1990’s Moral Majority social politics, and similarly most who care about ending U.S. imperialism abroad tend to also live in an economic Candy Land removed from positive economic theory. Many people hold to fiscal conservatism, and many hold to reducing our war footprint, and yet more hold to eliminating irrelevant social restrictions and prohibitions by the government. The dilemma of libertarianism is that few hold more than one of these.

Later on, Kokesh says that war is the worst expression of state power. (Cantwell disagrees, and says that he will explain later, but doesn’t). This is part of his argument against Trump: James Mattis is a war criminal, which Kokesh can say with first hand experience because he served under Mattis in the Iraq war and Kokesh himself committed war crimes. This can be considered an argument for Clinton, Kokesh says, only in a subjective way. Another subjective argument against Trump was that the state can collapse faster under Clinton, thus accelerating the emergence of a free society. These are all “silly subjective arguments”. I am really curious to know his definition of subjective, since these seem to both be objective claims (because my belief in their truth or falsehood has no impact on their truth or falsehood). At any rate, he argues that libertarianism isn’t about a short term political victory like getting any one individual into an office; rather, we are winning hearts and minds (wham) in the long term, and the trajectory of the past several years shows libertarianism headed up, not down.

Cantwell says that the NAP doesn’t prohibit violence; it describes the proper use of violence. This is completely true. “Violence” is usually used as an approximation of “breaking the NAP without someone else breaking it first.” Maybe the problem is just semantic — does the NAP include in itself a provision for self-defense? If it doesn’t, then most people will immediately tack it on afterwords. So then the difference is only packaging. I have no issue with this.

But Cantwell wants to extend the NAP way beyond imminent threats. He derides the idea that “if you don’t have a knife in your chest, you can’t use violence” because ultimately it requires the same solution (self-defense) and we can just eliminate the wait time. He says that since “the violence of the world is coming to your door,” libertarians and all of society should “have government policy exclude people who threaten your way of life.” Now in one sense I wonder exactly how much Molyneux he has consumed in the past two years.

But seriously, why does he think that immigrants threaten our way of life? Because of their lower average IQ? Because they import different ideologies? Over the course of the debate he mentions both of these possibilities. I could psychoanalyze him by saying he just feels insecure and insulates himself in self-affirming ideology, which is by definition exclusionary, or that he doesn’t have the emotional maturity to tolerate anyone who disagrees with him without devolving into a high-pitched yelling match. But I won’t do that. To take his argument at face value, his point that we shouldn’t wait until near death to stop a threat is valid. But then emerge the tricky ethical waters: how early can we act? The usual answer is “reasonably early,” but how early is reasonable? I would argue that the most reasonable time is once you know beyond reasonable doubt that the given individual is a threat and also all diplomatic or civil means have been used to deter or restrain them before force. This fits nicely within the stateless society model.

Kokesh makes the point that “if you have given into the darkside, you have already lost.” Well, this bit of rhetoric sounds fine, but which darkside? Does he mean ideologically or strategically? In my ideal liberty movement, there would be leaders totally pure in ideology who achieve practical ends — like Ron Paul, whose blamelessness on the debate stage and throughout the 2008 and 2012 campaigns kept his credibility intact. But Cantwell seems to not think this is real. You either hold to ideological purity or you do something in the world.

In one sense it is Cantwell’s own defection from the purist mentality that causes the problem he describes. If the liberty movement together had no defectors and was strongly organized along ideological lines, then it would be larger and have more impact than in its current fragmented state. Kokesh is therefore thinking long term, while Cantwell is thinking of tomorrow. There is some type of game theory issue here, where actors defect on the second derivative because they expect a positive third derivative if any others jump ship before them. But I’m not sure, and this could be looking for a signal amidst noise when there isn’t one.

Cantwell: Identifying groups is not hostile to liberty. I agree with this. I think Ron Paul’s argument against Collectivism is reductionist. People do tend to amalgamate into groups, and those groups tend to act in collective ways. That they “tend” to do this is a matter of statistics, not ethics. However, I would caution against self-fulfilling prophecies. When you see that “most libertarian conferences are rooms of white guys,” and then decide to use rhetoric that excludes non-whites and women, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that libertarian conferences will stay how they are. This is true in a whole number and variety of other examples as well.

Kokesh: You [Cantwell] are turning to the abuser to end specifically one type of abuse. Kokesh is right, and its the biggest problem with Cantwell’s argument. If Cantwell really is against the state, why does he so clearly and passionately advocate using it to exercise power over other people? This is obviously related to the point about imminent and long-term threats to liberty. Kokesh restates the point more forcibly: “The criminals coming across the boarder? We have a much bigger criminal in the state.”

Cantwell’s strongest point in the debate was his metaphor about the LNC last year. He asks the audience if any were at the Libertarian Party convention; now imagine if the entire convention attendees were Democrats. Would the party have still picked Johnson as their candidate for president? The obvious answer to this rhetorical question is no, they would have chosen a candidate that matches their views. Cantwell uses this as a metaphor for immigration: immigrants are entering the US and they vote Democrat, so, in his wording, “the people of the United States are being replaced by other people.” This metaphor expresses his point in vivid terms and is difficult to rebut. Kokesh did not, to my knowledge, address this point.

But I’ll take a swing at it. The important disconnect in his metaphor is between the near-certain result of importing Democrats to the convention and the, in my opinion, much less certain result of allowing immigration. Why is this a disconnect? For one, most immigrants to the US are from China and India, two countries that surpass the US in all the objective markers used to distinguish races in the typical “race realism” sense (that I’ve seen). This actually flips the metaphor on its head: instead of importing Democrats to the convention, you are importing Rothbards and Miseses, intellectual elites who actually fit better into the convention than the average convention goer.

Also I might point out this about Hispanics:


In a campaign where Trump unashamedly proposed the deportation of millions of Hispanics, 28% of Hispanics still voted for Trump. Shouldn’t this number have been zero? Or much closer to zero than in 2012, when Romney earned 27% of the Hispanic vote? What happened?

Here is what happened, has always happened, and will continue to happen: political groups are conditioned historically more than they are ideologically. Blacks voted for Obama at incredibly high rates, but, surprise, not much higher than they did for Kerry, Gore, or Clinton, who earned more than 70 point margins themselves. Moreover, the reason that whites tilted Republican in this election and in others was a combination of being told that “white people vote Republican” their entire life and that all their friends happen to be white people — and guess who their friends tilted towards. Sociologists spend their careers bending over backwards trying to analyze these circular trends without realizing the fact that people are banal, tribal globs of the past and the present — not just the present.

Near the end of the debate a Hispanic man asked a question about inclusion in the political process, and it illustrated Kokesh’s point quite clearly. The man asserted that Hispanics can be libertarians too, and that messages of fierce racial exclusion will block Hispanics from ever considering libertarianism to begin with. Cantwell answered that he wasn’t proposing blocking Hispanics from being libertarian thinkers, just from being libertarian thinkers in his country. Nonsense. If Hispanics are libertarian thinkers, then his argument about importation of hostile-to-liberty ideologies that vote Democrat has fallen apart, to no repair.

At the ultimate end of the debate, Cantwell makes the incredible, mind numbingly stupendous claim that you can’t universalize principles (!) because [justification needed]… I now forget the exact context, but I do remember that one of Cantwell’s policy proposals on immigration was based on a hidden premise involving something, and a questioner asked another question that would involve a negative of this premise, and Cantwell fumbled hard. He says you can’t universalize. You can’t universalize? How does that make any sense? In Western philosophy we hold to analytic reasoning rather than synthetic reasoning — meaning that there is a Law of Non-Contradiction preventing us from claiming A and Not A at the same time. So then, all facts, principles, systems of thought, etc. can be systematized into more and more abstract claims until full intellectual consistency from first principles has been achieved. Cantwell didn’t want to even move beyond level 3 of this abstraction-systematization process, let alone to level 20 or 30 like is actually required to reach the bedrock of thought. It is intellectual dishonesty to be questioned on an inconsistent principle and then reject the entire process of attaining consistent knowledge rather than admitting your own mistake, and I call penalty.

The final questioner has a fantastic point that I’m sure got underneath some people’s skin: Communism was created by white Europeans, but not all or even most whites or Europeans are Communists. I’d also add that every bad thing in Western history was created by white Europeans.


They each made some good points in time, but this was a very circular debate between two thinkers that weren’t listening to each other beyond criticizing minutia and small fumbles of terminology. At one point Kokesh used the word equal, and Cantwell gave a stirring rebuttal against equality as a principle — I want to live in a meritocracy! Equality is impossible as a goal and can only be enforced through Communism, and so on. But Kokesh used the term in the context of equality before the law. So once the stirring speech concluded, it took just a simple “yeah I meant that word in exactly the same way you just did” to clear the air. Kokesh was guilty of this a few times as well, though I don’t recall any examples worth writing.

It seemed throughout the debate that Kokesh had the majority of audience support, both online and in person. I’m not sure how reliably the floating reaction symbols measure real reactions, or if I can trust the live audience clapping. But this doesn’t matter much.

I return now to my opening quote: truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with. Adam Kokesh let Christopher Cantwell get away with a ton in this debate. From the premises that each had, this should have been a homerun derby, Kokesh smacking each point out of the park with little possible rebuttal from Cantwell. Instead, Cantwell’s flaming demeanor gave the impression that he won the argument — even though Kokesh’s won the debate.

One thought on “My take: Kokesh v. Cantwell

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