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Frank Reynolds as Diogenes the Cynic

photograph of Danny DeVito at ComicCon panel for IASIP

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (IASIP) has returned for its sixteenth season. The show, which follows the exploits of five alcoholic, narcissistic Philadelphians who run the constantly failing, but never seemingly failed, Paddy’s Pub, is the longest-running live-action sitcom in American TV history. The quintet, otherwise known as “The Gang,” consists of Dennis (a psychopathic, womanizing barman), Mac (the insecure, self-appointed bouncer), Charlie (the glue-sniffing, paint-drinking, unstable janitor), Dee (the petty failing actress and waiter), and Frank (a degenerate millionaire chasing his sense of youthfulness).

Over the seasons, The Gang has done everything from the mundane, like trying to pass a health inspection or play a board game, to the fantastically bizarre, like influencing the 2020 presidential campaign or kidnapping a critic who gives their bar a lousy review. Yet, unlike so many other long-running shows, IASIP is as funny, imaginative, and even at times, emotionally devastating as it’s always been (arguably better).

Now, the show’s potential for philosophical intrigue hasn’t gone unnoticed. One of the entries in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series is It’s Always Sunny and Philosophy: The Gang Gets Analyzed, and the hugely popular Wisecrack youtube channel has (at the time of writing) four videos dedicated to IASIP’s philosophical and cultural impact. What I want to do here, though, is not a broad exploration of the show’s themes nor examine one specific fight The Gang has (like whether we can trust science). Instead, I want to highlight how Frank’s behavior and attitudes emulate the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic (AKA Diogenes the Dog) and what we can learn from the pair of miscreants.

Diogenes was born in 404 or 412 BC on the coast of the Black Sea and died in Corinth in 323 BC. He founded the philosophical school of thought known as Cynicism, which espouses a rejection of conformity and, instead, insists that for us to live a good life, we must live according to self-generated internal laws and ideals. This need for self-government might strike some as rather mundane. After all, many of us want to live free from others telling us what to do, and the idea of bucking authority isn’t precisely original nowadays. But for Diogenes, it was not enough to be part of a counterculture; one had to reject society’s very foundations.

Diogenes lived his philosophy, unlike other philosophers who shared it via their writings. He begged for food, lived in a wine barrel, masturbated in public, urinated on those he didn’t like, and walked backwards through the streets to highlight, even debase, the norms governing people’s behaviors. He wanted his fellow citizens to see that the rules they mindlessly follow constrain them, make them unhappy, and force them into evil lives. Diogenes thought that if we could all see the rules we follow without even knowing they’re there, we would be able to live according to nature. We could reject the allure of power, money, or fame and instead live in the moment. We could embrace life’s simple pleasures and live free from the subversive control exercised by society’s requirement for conformity.

Indeed, his disdain for traditional authority was so great that, when Alexander the Great visited him at his barrel and asked if Diogenes wanted anything from the ruler, the Cynic responded by saying, “Yes, please stand aside. You are blocking my sunshine.” Let me make this clear. When offered anything that a king could provide – riches, property, titles, women – Diogenes wanted nothing more than for Alexander to get out of the way so he could continue to enjoy the feel of the sun on his skin.

Ultimately, Diogenes wanted to shirk society’s chains, live in the moment, enjoy life, and not spend his time preoccupied with what others thought, or, surprisingly for a philosopher, to waste time pondering the big questions. What mattered to him was the here and now and nothing more.

And this leads us to Frank (played to perfection by Danny DeVito). Frank is a former businessman who, upon joining The Gang at the start of season two, is going through a bitter divorce from his wife. After The Gang initially rejects him (despite him being Dennis and Dee’s father), he manages to work his way into their fold by purchasing the land on which Paddy’s Pub sits. Being incredibly wealthy, Frank is the money man for the group, funding their schemes and bailing them out of financial trouble when needed (or, more accurately, when he chooses to).

Importantly for us, though, Frank is The Gang’s most depraved member. He likes to live in the “Fringe Class,” where he can act without constraints and rules. He spends his time, almost exclusively, indulging in whatever desire comes into his head. This impulsive need is a reaction to his career and marriage repressing his urges over decades. But, after he steps back from his business and his wife indicates she’s leaving him, he decides he will let loose in his latter years. As he admits at a funeral, after confessing he wants to sleep with his former sister-in-law, Donna: “I don’t know how many years on this earth I got left. I’m gonna get real weird with it.” After Donna rejects him, however, Frank sleeps with Donna’s adult daughter, emphasizing that while he may be her uncle, they’re not blood-related.

In one of the show’s biggest mysteries, Frank gets stuck in a giant coil in a children’s play park, wearing only underwear. The Gang take advantage of his vulnerable state, mining him for business tips in exchange for helping him get free, which they immediately renege upon, despite his cries that there will be children in the park soon. The show never reveals how he ended up stuck, nor why he’s in his underwear, but given his bizarre predilections, one can imagine.

It isn’t just outside the home that Frank rejects societal norms, however. His vast resources mean he could live practically anywhere, yet, he chooses to move in with Charlie, the bar’s emotionally unstable janitor. They live in a one-room apartment, sleep on a pull-out sofa bed, urinate in cans, cut their nails with a knife, and play bizarre games like Night Crawlers, where they crawl around their apartment at night like worms. Their apartment is so unpleasant that, for them to fall asleep, the pair have to eat a can of cat food, huff glue, and drink enough beer to make them pass out. Yet, despite this, he loves living there and develops a close relationship with Charlie. He also enjoys pooping the bed occasionally because he finds it funny.

The list goes on, and picking these choice examples was a struggle. The ends to which Frank goes to enjoy his life are practically boundless. From hosting a beauty pageant so he can stare at women to buying a Lamborghini for no other reason than to annoy Dennis, Frank lives nowhere but in the here and now. After a lifetime of conforming, or at least trying to conform, to what society expects of him, Frank embodies Diogenes’s philosophy of freedom from expectations and the virtue of being in the moment.

From the outside, Frank’s choices are, for lack of a better word, disgusting. His bizarre lifestyle of roaming the sewers in the nude seems repugnant. Yet, Frank’s never been happier. Living as part of the fringe means he is free from worrying about others’ opinions and what society expects of him. He doesn’t have to engage in the pantomime of civility. Instead, he can just be who he is.

I should point out that Frank doesn’t fully conform to Diogenes’s cynicism. After all, Frank loves money, and for Diogenes, money is just another trapping into which we fall. But, I would contest that Frank reconciles a practical issue with the hard cynicism espoused by Diogenes. If one wants to live, then one needs resources. Without them, we die of hunger or thirst or exposure. One can beg as Diogenes did, but then we’re chained by our need to beg; we’re reliant on others. Diogenes liked to think he was truly free, but one can never be free of the material demands placed on us by the world. Frank’s money enables him to do whatever he wants in a way Diogenes never could. While the philosopher had to plead for food, Frank can choose to eat at high-priced restaurants, or he can choose to eat cat food or stuff he finds in the rubbish.

Finally, to emphasize the comparison, I want to reference something in one of the most recently aired episodes: Frank Shoots Every Member of the Gang. In this episode, Dennis and Dee try to relieve Frank of his gun by taking him on a day out and luring him into a false sense of security. This day consists of eating burgers in Dennis’s car, running under the bridge with his unhoused friends, and going to the beach. However, as the day goes on, Frank’s animalistic behaviors become increasingly apparent. He eats so fast that it seems like he might choke. He tries to get out of Dennis’s car by going through the window, on which he hits his head. He repeatedly urinates on fire hydrants. And when he gets to the beach, he starts yelling at it and firing his gun into the water. Indeed, his behavior is so animalistic that Dennis and Dee outright state that he’s turning into a dog.

Ultimately, to live like Frank and Diogenes would be a big ask of anyone. We like our creature comforts, from living in a house to knowing where our next meal will come from; these things bring us a sense of security. But, as both Cynics illustrate, such security may be expensive, and if one wants to be free from life’s shackles and ultimately happy, maybe the right course of action isn’t to dye your hair or buy a motorbike but instead, highjack a tour boat full of tourists so we can make sure we get to the cinema on time… or perhaps not.

Come into My Parler

photograph of relection on Chicago Bean of skyline

Efforts to curtail and limit the effect of disinformation reached a fever-pitch in the run up to the 2020 election for President of the United States. Prominent social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, after long resistance to exerting significant top-down control of user posted content, began actively combating misinformation. Depending on who you ask, this change of course either amounts to seeing reason or abandoning it. In the latter camp are those ditching Facebook and Twitter for relative newcomer, Parler.

Parler bills itself as a free speech platform, exerting top-down control only in response to criminal activity and spam. This nightwatchman approach to moderation makes clear the political orientation of Parler’s founders and those people who have dumped mainstream platforms and moved over to Parler. Libertarian political philosophy concerning the proper role of state power was famously described by American philosopher Robert Nozick as relegating the state to the role of nightwatchman: leaving citizens to do as they please and only intervening to sanction those who break the minimal rules that underpin fair and open dealing.

Those making the switch characterize Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, as becoming increasingly tyrannical. Any attempt to curate and fact-check introduces bias, claims Parler co-founder John Matze. Whereas Parler aims to be a “neutral platform,” according to Parler co-founder Rebekah Mercer. This kind of political and ideological neutrality is a hallmark aspiration of libertarianism and classical liberalism.

However, Parler’s pretension became hypocrisy, as it banned leftist parody accounts and pornography. However, this is neither surprising nor on its own bad. As some have pointed out, every social media site faces the same set of issues with content and largely responds to it the same way. However, Parler’s aspiration of libertarian neutrality when it comes to speech content makes their terms of service, which allow them to remove user content “at any time and for any reason or no reason,” and their policy of kicking users off the platform “even where the [terms of service] have been followed” particularly obnoxious.

But suppose that Parler stuck to its professed principles. What would it mean to be politically or ideologically neutral, and why would fact-checking compromise it? A simple way of thinking about the matter is embodied by Parler’s espoused position toward speech content: no speech will be treated differently by those in power simply on the basis of its message, regardless of whether that message is Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, capitalist or socialist. Stepping from the merely political to the ideological, to remain neutral would be to think that no speech content was false simply on its face. Here is where the “problem” of fact-checking arises.

We live, so we keep being told, in a “post-truth” society. Whatever this exactly means, its practical import is that distinct groups of society disagree fundamentally both over their goals and how to achieve them, politically. The idea of fact-checking as a neutral arbiter between disagreeing parties breaks down in these situations because supposed facts will appear neutral only to parties who agree about how to see the world at a basic level. That is, the appearance of a fact-value distinction will evaporate. (The distinction between facts (i.e., how the world allegedly is without regard to any agents’ perceptions) and values (i.e., how the world ought to be according to a given agent’s goals/preferences) is argued by many to be untenable.)

In this atmosphere, fact-checking takes on the hue of a litmus test, examining statements for their ideological bona fides. When a person’s claim is fact-checked, and found wanting, it will appear to them not that an uninterested judge cast a stoic gaze out onto the world to see whether it is as the person says; instead, the person will feel that the judge looked into their own heart and rejected the claim as undesirable. When people feel this way, they will not stick around and continue to engage. Instead, they’ll pack up and go where they think their claims will get “fair” treatment. None of this is to say that fact-checking is necessarily a futile or oppressive exercise. However, it is a reason to not treat it as a panacea for all disagreement.

Price Gouging: Noble Virtue or Necessary Evil?

A row of multicolored gasoline tank nozzles

Hurricane Harvey has barely receded in Texas. Irma has devastated parts of Florida. Jose is on deck. Katia has already hit Mexico. Lee never really got going, but Maria is building strength. If we survive, this season promises us a hurricane Ophelia. It’s a good year for inland weather buffs, and for people selling emergency supplies.  

Continue reading “Price Gouging: Noble Virtue or Necessary Evil?”

What Does John Stuart Mill Have to Say about the Hijab?

The European Union’s highest court has recently ruled that companies are allowed to ban hijabs in their workplaces. It is a response to two cases: Samora Achbita, a woman working for a company in Belgium, was fired over her refusal to take off her veil at work; Asma Bougnani was likewise fired by a company in France, for the same reasons.

This is yet another battle in the long hijab wars that have been fought in Europe over the last 20 years. As usual, there is a political aligning on this issue: the far right welcomes such bans, the multicultural left vehemently opposes them, and the rest of the parties are either undecided, or simply confused, about their stand.

Continue reading “What Does John Stuart Mill Have to Say about the Hijab?”

Freedom of Association and Right-to-Work Laws

This post originally appeared on October 20, 2015.

In March 2015, Wisconsin became the 25th state to adopt “right-to-work” laws. Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Montana, and West Virginia are all considering such laws. Right-to-work laws do not prohibit unions. They prohibit agreements between unions and employers that require workers to be members of unions or to pay agency fees for the benefits they receive from union representation.

Continue reading “Freedom of Association and Right-to-Work Laws”

Same-Sex Marriage: A Libertarian Perspective

The dust is just now beginning to settle on same-sex marriage in the United States, since the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges established the unconstitutionality of state-level bans on such marriages. Though the law of the land has been established, all the legal and sociocultural effects remain to be seen (for example, can elected officials receive a religious exemption from performing certain job-related duties).
Is same-sex marriage a victory for freedom? It’s hard to say, and depends on who you ask. The ability to marry a partner of the same sex at the same time both expands the life possibilities for many citizens, while also bringing them into the fold of semi-coercive social norms regarding what a proper long-term romantic relationship and family look like. The Supreme Court let “love win,” but that love is now an increasingly institutionalized one.
To those who we could call “rule of law” libertarians, the most important consideration is fairness and impartiality under the law. This perspective comes down in favor of same-sex marriage for obvious reasons having to do with fairness and equal protection. End-the-state libertarians, on the other hand, strongly disapprove of government in marriage to begin with (on the grounds that it invites and normalizes the meddling of government in private affairs), and object to its expansion (even to same-sex couples) as more of a bad thing. Some in the LGBTQ community (who may or may not be libertarians or anarchists) share this concern, believing that marriage is a kind of well-meaning but ultimately pernicious encouragement towards the conventional domesticated lives they don’t actually want.
No principled libertarian objects to gay marriage for specifically moral reasons, having to do with “marriage” being reserved for the permanent bond between a man and a woman, for instance. Whether it is un-libertarian to have reservations about progressive views regarding the malleability of sexuality and family is a trickier question (certainly progressive, libertine, and conservative libertarians have basically always co-existed in libertarianism’s big tent).
Libertarians do reasonably worry that same-sex marriage will lead to the abridgment of other liberties, namely freedom of religion and freedoms of association, especially through commerce (see, for example, the fight over whether religious bakers must bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple). However it is certainly nothing new in principle that some values in a plural society would necessarily become pitted against others. And it does not seem to be the goal of same-sex marriage proponents to use that position strategically for the purpose of dismantling other liberties, though the possibility is real and conspiracy theories abound.
Could there be other libertarianism-consistent reasons to oppose same-sex marriage? Not really. Allowing only straight marriage in order to “strengthen the nuclear family” runs afoul of the libertarian goal of making minimalist policy that is as value-neutral as possible. Even if same-sex marriage and parenting somehow did in fact weaken family life overall (it’s complicated, and family stability may matter more than gender), that would be a less important consideration for even most socially conservative libertarians than establishing state neutrality in marriage. In any case, there are relatively hands-off ways for the government to fight childhood poverty and provide opportunity to families, like properly-structured earned income tax credits and basic food support, that do not necessarily require discriminating on the basis of the biological or adoptive parents’ sexuality.
Similarly, slippery slope arguments against same-sex marriage don’t seem to be consistent with libertarianism. The threat of a slippery slope from same-sex marriage to multiple partner marriage (polygamy) is real. However, that move only seems like a pernicious slippery slope if one assumes that legally-sanctioned marriages must be between one man and one woman in the first place. Rule-of-law libertarians would likely reject that assumption.
In the end, it is not really up for debate – from a libertarian perspective – whether people of the same gender should be allowed to marry conditional on the fact that government is in the marriage business in the first place. Since marriage, in the civil-legal light, is about distributing the benefits and burdens of a particular form of citizenship, that form of citizenship should be in some strong sense available to all.
It’s a separate issue as to whether the government should require private businesses that cater to heterosexual weddings also to cater to same-sex weddings. The primary values at stake here are economic freedom versus non-discrimination, but the situation is much more narrow than the marriage question in general (which necessarily has broad and far-reaching consequences over many citizens’ whole lives). Whether a libertarian, or anyone, should trade some economic freedom in the attempted pursuit of non-discrimination is, however, a topic for another time.

Solving California’s Water Crisis: A Libertarian Perspective

If you move to California these days, as I did a few months ago, the jokes about bringing your own water along will be abundant. Of course, access to clean water is no laughing matter – water is one of the only specific things, along with oxygen, that literally every human requires for life.  Like most public policy issues, the California water situation is much more complex than you might have first heard; it’s hard even to figure out who exactly is at fault.

No, we’re not experiencing a drought just because people have munched too many water-loving almonds, or even because of climate change – California has often experienced drought cycles historically. Water rights in the west are divided up in some legacy finders-keepers manner, based on the order in which settlers of different areas claimed them. More recent attempts to clarify who got which water failed due to inaccurate measurements of a cyclical supply, and because they didn’t take ordinary natural fluctuations in supply into account. Most importantly, California is a net importer of water, a situation which only heightens as it grows more food and houses more people.

Unfortunately, water management has ultimately been more hampered by the unfree market for water in California than improved by government’s interferences so far. Although citizens of California have been bribed and strong-armed into reducing water consumption, this is more symbolic than anything because agricultural purposes account for much more of the state’s water usage. And it’s not the dietary decadence of Californians that creates the problem either (although we really do eat avocado on everything) – California largely feeds the country, and makes up for states that house people but which aren’t suitable for producing many foods.

The most reasonable way forward is to increase the extent to which water is market priced (gradually, if necessary). Market prices for water encourage responsible consumption, force inevitable trade-offs between water-requiring activities, and properly stimulate the good stewardship of existing water and production of new usable water sources by those relevantly positioned. Market prices for water also trickle down (pun intended) through other industries, resulting in more accurately priced goods, like meat, and services, like lawn care.

When water is underpriced and everyone can effectively use as much as she likes, no one is forced to exercise any restraint – until the well starts running dry. In any case, there is no returning to some pre-political state from which we can re-divide up the water in a fair manner, once and for all. Every process for doing so (from dictatorial fiat to popular vote) would introduce deep new moral questions without ready answers.

Forward-looking considerations matter deeply, too: helping citizens today at the expense of harming citizens tomorrow is no morally-neutral choice. Political processes are also bad at managing water in a forward-looking manner, because politicians need votes today, so tough choices get deferred for literally as long as possible. But perhaps the situation is now dire enough to force some real action, like significant local and regional moves towards market-priced water. Many California homes and businesses don’t even have water meters, but those will be required by 2025, allowing for the tracking and pricing of specific entities’ usage.

Some harms associated with a switch to market pricing for water can be defrayed by government action at the margins. For those truly in need, water stamps could fulfill a similar purpose as food stamps, or an annual tax credit could be offered to individuals and families based on the baseline water usage a household of their size would be expected to purchase. One California city that began market pricing its water helps residents to smooth their bills month-to-month and conducts audits to help homeowners look for inefficiencies.

Less effective government programs, like tax credits for high-efficiency appliances, could be phased out, because when water’s market priced the incentive to use less for daily chores is built right into the appliance purchase. Authorities would only need to patrol for actual market-priced water theft (like connecting your hose to your neighbor’s pipes) which is a much smaller job as compared to preventing unauthorized usage and waste of water (like people watering lawns in the middle of the night during attempted bans). When water is the right price, water-intensive industries try hard to reduce their needs so demand doesn’t plummet for their products –indeed, market-priced water could even hasten the development of lab-grown (less water-intensive) meat.

No one wants to pay for something that used to feel free, or that was artificially cheap. But charging for water is the only way to distribute the existing supplies in anything close to a rational manner, and for ensuring that innovations in water sourcing can take place before it’s too late. Strangely enough, market pricing means the desires of distasteful Californians wishing to heavily water large lawns in the middle of the drought can be channeled for good instead of for evil. When they’re not wasting water, but buying it, big water users (and water bottling operations) can subsidize the research and development that will bring more sustainable water to their communities in the future.

Education and a Free Society: Part Two

Previously, Prindle director Andrew Cullison argued that libertarians should favor public education because well-educated citizens would be more likely to endorse and support a generally free political structure. In response, I pointed out that school doesn’t do a great job of teaching the relevant subjects, and that most of the gains to becoming educated (especially attending college) are individual gains, not public goods. To top it all off, voters are generally uninformed (and have incentives to remain uninformed), and government actors are very good at benefitting themselves rather than their constituents, despite the best intentions of ordinary citizens. Are there any reasons for a libertarian to support education, specifically publicly-funded (i.e. tax-funded) education?

Libertarians are essentially individualists. They generally believe that the individual, and not the country, community, or “society,” is the foundational unit of political (and moral) analysis. For this reason, I previously expressed doubts that libertarians would be friendly to the idea that publicly-funded education is a good way to promote libertarianism. That comes close to seeing voters as a kind of clay to be molded through political processes into a citizens who do what you want them to do (i.e., be libertarian). It may result in the right end state, according to a libertarian, but I’m uneasy with the method. (Ideally, issues that are a matter of fundamental rights would not be subject to popular vote in the first place, anyways).

But this individualism can be understood as logically prior to the libertarianism itself, at least in many or most cases. That is, people hold libertarian political positions because they are sympathetic to the individualist worldview. The individualism, then, explains the libertarianism. And individualism can also generate a kind of defense of publicly-funded (even compulsory, tax-funded) education.

As individualists, we should be concerned at all times with how policies that target groups actually affect individuals, benefitting some at the cost of others. And we should be interested in designing institutions that foster individual virtues like self-reliance, responsibility, and autonomy (or allowing these institutions to emerge).

Inconveniently, though, individuals don’t enter the world ready for full autonomy (and responsibility). Instead, they enter as babies and then kids who require significant growth and development to be ready for the primetime of adult life. Families do a pretty good job of raising their young, certain tragic examples notwithstanding, and it would be of greater harm than benefit to attempt to re-organize this basic feature of human societies (even apart from the rights violations involved).

We, as a society, can’t fully compensate for the differences between people and the ways in which their parents raise them differently within the bounds of moral permissibility (and even if this were possible, it’s not clear that it’s morally required or desirable). But we can provide some kind of a basic education to all as an acknowledgment of the capacities each person has – and of the responsibilities a free society will expect her to bear as an adult.

Deciding how much and what kind of education fulfills this individualist purpose won’t be easy, and certainly depends on the context (how prosperous a society is, what the job market is like, etc). But respecting and protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals is the best reason for governments to get involved in education (if there is a compelling one in the end at all). Education markets don’t experience “market failure” in the traditional sense, and it’s unjust to educate students with an eye towards turning them into particular kinds of voters. But the kind of individualism that animates libertarian political positions can also motivate a principled desire to see each citizen receive the education she needs to operate within the kind of society maintained around her.