Thursday, June 17, 2010

Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset

The federal government would have “absolute power” to shut down the Internet under the terms of a new US Senate bill being pushed by Joe Lieberman, legislation which would hand President Obama a figurative “kill switch” to seize control of the world wide web in response to a Homeland Security directive.

“The legislation says that companies such as broadband providers, search engines or software firms that the US Government selects “shall immediately comply with any emergency measure or action developed” by the Department of Homeland Security. Anyone failing to comply would be fined,” reports ZDNet’s Declan McCullagh.

I don't know if this is true as I haven't yet done my own primary research, but the idea is an illuminating example of tyranny (the negation of liberty) in the name of some collective good. A collective good consisting of private things, not things publicly owned. Actually, the Internet isn't a "thing" at all - the concept is a shorthand name for how a bunch of individual assets behave and are connected to each other. Like an "economy": there really is no such thing as The Internet, it's just a name for how a bunch of real things (or real people) interact. (Don't agree? Does The Internet include pieces in Britain or Russia or China? Does The Internet stop at national (or state) boundaries? No, no more than an economy stops at arbitrary political boundaries. The federal government cannot control The Internet; all it can do is control individual assets, most of them privately owned.)

During a declared war, of course, many liberties are curtailed for the duration. That is one of the reasons it is so important for Congress to formally debate and vote on a declaration of war, and not just leave it to Presidential discretion.

Sure, the internet is a national asset. Actually it is a collection of privately-owned assets cooperating with each other that, in aggregate, can be viewed as a single thing by a metaphysical sleight-of-hand. I'm sure there are some publicly-owned pieces as well.

Our trees are national assets - they provide shade, cover for troops in the field, and generate some of the oxygen we breathe. Should the federal government be permitted to control the trees in your yard because some President decides national security, or some threat (like, perhaps, Dutch Elm Disease) endangers this particular "national asset"?

Surely our automobile fleet is a national asset. And some of the cars are publicly owned. But is there really a "thing" called our automobile fleet? Isn't it just a bunch of individual things that somebody decided to arbitrarily lump together as a form of shorthand? Are cars in a junk yard part of this "asset"?

Or your kids: certainly future adult citizens are national assets. If a plague of dirty jokes threatens the mental and spiritual well being of our kids should the President be able to take control of your kids?

Is there anything positive or productive in America that is not a "national asset"? If identification of some thing as a "national asset" justifies surrendering any liberties or rights we have regarding that thing, then there is no liberty, no personal property, not even our sovereignty over ourselves.

Absent a formal declaration of war. Congress, our elected representatives must vote on and declare war. And the war is for a limited time, only. Then everything returns to normal rights and liberties.

Does this sound paranoid? Only to those people who went berserk when the Bush Administration began intercepting overseas phone calls where one of the parties was an identified terror threat. We were told that Bush was "shredding the Constitution" and that policy would lead to elimination of all phone privacy for all citizens. When a Bush does it, it's a slippery slope to tyranny. But when a member of the other party does it, well that's nothing to worry about.

What do you think? Would it be different if a Republican Senator had proposed giving Bush the power to seize a "national asset" to protect it (and us)? x Is it OK when an angel, on the side of goodness and light, seizes your liberty, but bad when a devil, on the side of darkness and evil, does the same thing?

That's Manichean, a particular religion. Religion should not guide public policy.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Biggest Spill in U.S. History my foot!

From the Associated Press, June 11, 2010:

Scientists now say the blown-out well could have been spewing as much as 2 million gallons of crude a day before a cut-and-cap maneuver started capturing some of the flow, meaning more than 100 million gallons may have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico since the start of the disaster in April. That is more than nine times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, previously the worst oil spill in U.S. history. (emphasis added)

Hmmm. I guess it's the worst spill in history if you don't know history.

The Lakeview Gusher started in 1910 in Kern County, California. According to Wikipedia, over 18 months it blew 9 million BARRELS - that's about 380 million gallons - all over the countryside. I'd say that's a "spill" and over 4 times the high-end estimates of the current Gulf spill.

I was in the area of the Lakeview Gusher 60 years later, and the only evidence I could find of the gusher was a bronze plaque placed by the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans). All other environmental impacts had disappeared. Imagine that.

The Gulf spill caused by British Petroleum will have to continue unabated for the rest of the year (very likely) to become the "worst" spill in U.S. history.

The BP spill is a mess now but, like the Lakeview Gusher, we can expect it to have no long-term effect on the environment.

But pointing that out doesn't help the profit-mongering news companies sell their stories.

(Not that I'm against profit-mongering; but the Associated Press and New York Times are no more noble than British Petroleum)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How we behave shows what our values really are

It is my experience that human beings and human organizations act based on their values. Not Expressed Values - what they say their Values are - but what their values actually are: Operational Values. Typically, values can be determined only by an outsider who deduces them from observations of behavior. Few of us are aware of our values, though we usually know what we would like them to be.

If you want to know Expressed Values, simply ask. Corporations delight in publishing their values on their web sites. People will tell you how they value truth even as they lie, how they value loyalty even as they betray and reward betrayal, and how they value initiative as they punish those who actually take initiative.

Determining Operational (or actual) Values requires observation and experimentation. It is a scientific process of hypothesis (I think X is one of the values of this person/organization) and test by prediction (Since X is a value, in situation A the person/organization will do M.) If the prediction is incorrect, the hypothesis is disproved and must be discarded or revised. If the prediction is correct, the hypothesis is not proved, but it does remain a possibility. Every time a hypothesis passes a test it gains strength, but it can never be proven. (see The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper for more on the nature of science vs. metaphysics.)

Postings from the author will be in an order establishing a foundation and building an argument. At least initially.

This author's fundamental principles

Principles are general statements, assertions if you will, or rules.

You may say you value a principle that you don’t actually value, that is your decisions don't align with the principle.

These are the principles which guide my philosophy and should underpin what I post on this Blog. Most of them are things I have discovered, usually from other authors.

A definition:
"By liberty, was meant protection against the tyranny of political rulers" - J.S. Mill, "On Liberty".
By liberty, I mean protection against coercion by threat of violence - from others, rulers, government, anyone.

Basic principles (that I hope correspond to my Operational Values)

When referring to “human being” or “person” I mean an adult. If the person is an adult, these principles apply. If the principles don’t apply, the person isn’t adult.

Individual living human beings are the most important things there are.

Each person owns himself, his body, his mind, and the products of his labor.

Each person is entitled to decide what is good for him or what he wants. No other person, institution, or organization is entitled to make that decision for him.

Each person is responsible for the consequences of his decisions (more specifically, for the consequences of actions he takes based on his decision).

Not holding a person responsible for the consequences of his decisions/actions amounts to not treating that person as an adult; it diminishes him and shows disrespect.

Intentions are nice. Consequences matter. (I'd rather be saved by someone trying to kill me than be killed by someone who intended to save me.)

You show disrespect when you don’t take someone at his word. If a person says he hates you and wants to kill you, believe him unless you want to dishonor him. When a toddler says “I hate my mommy” one dismisses it as childish, responding “Oh, you don’t really mean that”. When an adult, a country, or a society says “We hate you and want to destroy you”, do we show respect by responding “Oh, you don’t really mean that” as if it were a society of children?

A human being is an end in himself, never to be used as a means for the benefit of another. (from Emanuel Kant, if you want to learn more). While it is a virtue to give of oneself for another, it is immoral to require someone to give, or to take from someone, for the benefit of another. The immorality comes from denying the value and humanity of the one taken from, the one who is used

Humanity, society, the community are all abstractions; they don’t really exist. Only individual persons exist. Society doesn’t feel pain; Humanity doesn’t suffer or experience joy; the Community has no nervous system, emotions, expectations, or fears. Therefore, working for the good of society or working to improve the conditions of humanity is just cant, meaningless drivel to justify sacrificing a real person for the alleged benefit of an abstraction, a fiction.

Popular interpretation of John Donne is romantic nonsense: all men are islands. While we interact with each other and affect each other, we are born alone, we suffer alone, we experience pleasure and joy alone, and we die alone. Of course we recognize that others are like us, if we are healthy; we sympathize, we empathize, we recognize that is happening to another by projection of what we know of ourselves; if we care about another we feel Joy at when he experiences Joy, Sorrow when he suffers Pain or Sorrow, but we cannot ever share the experiences of another. We are alone, and so are those we love.

What Is Classic Liberalism? Isn't Obama a Liberal?

I’ve been arguing the philosophy of liberty and human dignity since the 9th grade – over 40 years. Mostly against people who called themselves liberals. Eventually I learned that my position was called “Liberalism” until American Progressives started calling themselves “liberals” during the 1930s. Progressives are anything but liberal, so that switch was a nice bit of obfuscation: “liberal” connotes freedom and generosity and general goodness; who could oppose those things?

Progressives call themselves "liberals" but they are not. Well, they are if you accept their redefinition of "liberal" as meaning themselves.

I don't. Not any longer.

Progressivism is a form of collectivism (socialism, if you will), a benevolent soft descendant of the Rousseauean thinking that guided the French Revolution. This Progressive thinking maintains that people shouldn't be left alone to live their lives as they see fit because they are happiest when guided by an educated elite that protects them from the machinations of an evil elite. Manichaean, essentially - the belief that humanity is gripped by the struggle between good and evil. More on Manichaean thinking in another post.

For this reason, Progressivism is Aristocratic, substituting an aristocracy of education and sensibility for an aristocracy of birth or wealth.

Anyway, Progressives act on the (perhaps unconscious) belief that people can't be left at liberty because they will be manipulated by the evil elite (capitalists, nobles, bankers, militarists, the wealthy, Darth Vader, whatever) unless guided by the Progressive elite.

To be fair, not all Progressives consider their opponents as evil; to quote Kathy from the movie Spaced Invaders: "They're not evil, they're just stupid."

Progressives know better than the rest of us. Just ask them.

At various times, Progressives have advocated government control of businesses, sterilization of the mentally (or ethnically) unfit – Planned Parenthood was founded by a Progressive who wanted to discourage Blacks and other inferior races from having children (look it up, she was proud of it) – central planning, forcing parents to send their children to government schools, and taking wealth from people and distributing it according to proper Progressive principles.

Of course, Progressives also favored the availability of contraception, wanted to prohibit child labor (ostensibly for the benefit of the children but driven more by the desire to force up wages by taking people – children – out of the labor pool), establish minimum wages (they were quite frank about doing this to keep Blacks and immigrants out of the labor market - see The State Against Blacks by Dr. Walter E. Williams for more on this) and generally changing things. Some good ideas, some that only sounded good.

Progressive President Wilson changed the U.S. military, for example, segregating Blacks from Whites.

Hey, you want change? It was a change. To a lot of Progressives it was a change they could believe in.

Under his administration, Progressive President Wilson imprisoned people for saying they didn’t want to buy war bonds. An important change to the concept of free speech, for the good of society. Cool, ain’t it?

Those opposed to change are called Conservatives. Some Conservatives oppose change for the sake of preventing any change – sort of a “no change is good” policy – while moderate Conservatives wanted to stick to certain principles (or move closer to them) and resist the “any change is good” approach of the Progressives.

After Progressives became known as “Liberals”, Liberals became know as “Libertarians”. More or less.

More recently, “Liberal” has fallen into disrepute, perhaps because of constant hammering from Rush Limbaugh and the realization that some Progressive programs, such as the 40-year war to end poverty within 5 years, haven’t worked out too well.

So, Progressives are dropping the Liberal label and calling themselves “Progressive” again. Name change can be effective for shedding a reputation or escaping indictment.

President Obama calls himself a liberal, but a Classic Liberal wouldn't agree. The President is a Progressive and I haven't figured out whether he is a Right Wing Progressive or a Left Wing Progressive. I'm not sure he knows.

This is not a Right Wing blog. Liberalism is not of the Right nor of the Left (more on Left vs. Right anon). .

This is not a Conservative blog. Liberalism is neither for change nor against change. Liberalism is for certain principles that enable individual liberty. A Liberal is for change if it moves toward core principles and against change if it moves away from them.

A Classic Liberal, that is; not a Progressive who calls himself a liberal.

Maybe it’s a Libertarian blog; I don’t know. Check out and see what you think.

So, what is Liberalism? The notion that individuals should have liberty, that is people should not be subject to the coercive power of the state (the government). More later.

Concepts, not Labels


I’m already getting sucked into labels and arguing about what they mean.

Liberal, Progressive, Libertarian, Left Wing, Right Wing, Conservative, etc, etc.

They all are mutable concepts as well as names of movements. Arguing about what “Progressive” does or doesn’t mean is futile: the meanings change over time. Sometimes a the meaning of a term flips completely in an Orwellian manipulation. Freedom is Slavery.

The trap is arguing in favor of or against, or simply about, labels rather than fundamental concepts.

The meanings behind labels change
Take “Conservative”, for instance. Generally it means cautious. Fredrick Hayek, in his essay “Why I am not a Conservative” wrote “Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change.” Fine. What is “change”? Lenin brought change. So did Hitler. FDR, Reagan, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the Wright brothers, Bill Gates, summer, winter, sunrise, sunset all bring (or brought) change.

When Boris Yeltsin restructured Soviet governance, the Conservatives included the remaining Bolsheviks. In 1917 the Bolsheviks were revolutionaries. During the 1930s, European and American liberals lionized the Bolsheviks, hoping to make their societies more like Stalin’s Russia. By 1990 the exact same political philosophy was “conservative”, at least in Moscow. Bella Abzug a conservative??? Go figure.

In 1860, the Republican party was the party of change (elimination of slavery) while the Democratic party was the party of conservatism.

Was William F. Buckley conservative in the same way as the Bolsheviks of 1990?

Progressives believe in progress (hence the name) and the benefits of continuous improvement through guided change. The “guided change” is usually based on some value-driven view of an ideal end state, not necessarily empirical pragmatism.

Change isn’t the issue: who is doing the “guiding” and where the guide is headed are what matter.

Labels can become epithets
Reactionary generally means trying to return to the past. President Obama wants to return to the New Deal. Is he a reactionary? Well, no, but only because “reactionary” has been stripped of meaning, becoming an epithet leftists (statists and communitarians) hurl at those they don’t agree with. Since President Obama is a darling of the left, he cannot be a reactionary, no matter how much he wants to turn back the clock.

Labels can become meaningless and tend to become epithets

You can apply a “New and Improved” label to the box of detergent, but if it’s the same old stuff inside the box, the label isn’t just meaningless, it’s a lie.

I want to deal with concepts, ideas, and principles, not labels. But labels can be useful shorthand. These postings will have to be careful about definitions and sticking to them.

Uncle Milton

A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it ... gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.
– Milton Friedman

What did I mean by "Manichaean"?

A couple of days ago I mentioned Manichaeism. What is that? It’s a long-dead religion. And it’s a way of looking at social conflict that has similarities with that religion.

Why get into religious doctrine in a blog dedicated to political & economic issues? Because Manichaean thinking infests political and economic debates.

The Manichaean world view is appealing, popular, and evidently comforting. It shows up frequently in discussions and accusations regarding, for example, the bubble-collapse of 2008 and the subsequent downturn.

For example, the opening sentences of a Slate article about Mark-to-Market accounting rules exposes Manichaean thinking:

"According to a small but powerful group of America's financial decision-makers — mostly supply-siders and those in their thrall — the chief cause of the creditmarket meltdown is not folly, or reckless lending, or the demise of America's financial management. It's an accounting rule." (Slate, “The Mark-to-Market Melee”, by Daniel Gross, April 1, 2008;

It also contains 60-year-old Stalinist cant, but that’s another issue.

The religion behind the term

Manichaeism is one of several religions or world-views that see history as the conflict between forces working for the good of humanity and forces working to harm humanity. Zoroastrianism is another. These dualistic religions believe in two equally powerful, but oppositional deities (or cosmological forces): a good god (whom good people worship positively) and an evil god (whom good people abhor). The events of history are the result of these dueling deities.

According to the article in Wikipedia, “A key belief in Manichaeism is that there is no omnipotent good power.” What happens on Earth is the result of the struggle between the two oppositional powers: open goodness and secretive, destructive badness.

This is in marked contrast to the central creeds of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam which believe there is only one omnipotent God, the author of all creation. If there is evil in the world it is because God allows it or because it is somehow built into the system along with free will. Why this is, God alone knows, but He has His reasons.

Christians exhibit Manichaean thinking when they see Satan as a power independent of God’s control, working against God’s plan, and somehow actually capable of winning.

Beyond the religion to a world view

A “Manichaean View” is that there is a force for creativity and good (usually “our side” ) battling with covert forces of darkness and selfishness (usually “their side”). Bad thing happen because sometimes the bad guys win a set.

This is a comforting way of looking at things. Much more satisfying than believing the world is complex and random, that the workings of society and the universe may be beyond human apprehension, that good intentions sometimes produce unfortunate results, that people I disagree with might be as full of good will as I am, and that bad things can happen because “my side” isn’t as intelligent and capable as I’d like to believe.

Listen to the political speeches: “People are poor because of the selfishness of those in power”, “The Godless are destroying America”, etc, etc, etc.

In the above quote from Slate, Daniel Gross identifies his evil entity - “[A] small but powerful group of America's financial decision-makers—mostly supply-siders and those in their thrall” - then denounces the illegitimate Manichaean argument he attributes to that evil cabal – “[according to this evil power, the ] chief cause of the credit market meltdown is [mark-to-market accounting,] not folly, or reckless lending, or the demise of America's financial management.”

A brilliant double-whammy: blame things on the bad guys and accuse them of flawed, Manichaean thinking.

Non-religious Manichaeism is arrogant

The conceit of Manichaean thinking is: “My side knows enough and understands enough to intentionally accomplish whatever we want, including an earthly Utopia." If we have trouble along the way, it's because of an evil opposition.

Dr. Thomas Sowell calls this “we know enough to create an earthly Utopia” thinking the “Unconstrained Vision”. (see A Conflict of Visions, and The Vision of the Anointed, by Dr. Sowell).

This author believes the humans and human societies are complex far beyond the limited intelligence of any elite group of people. Therefore, Utopia is beyond our capabilities.

By “Manichaean”, I mean the belief (or claim) that policies go awry, not because the policies are mistaken or the world is simply too complex for the policies to work dependably, but because some powerful and usually-hidden group of people is secretly working to thwart those policies.

The cry “we must continue to fight the powerful, selfish special interests if we are to achieve [whatever good thing we want to achieve] " is Manichaean.

Who owns your labor?

One of the basic principles I put forth is:
“Each person owns himself, his body, his mind, and the products of his labor.”

Sovereignty over the products of my labor follows from sovereignty over self, body, and mind. If a person owns his body and his mind, who but the person himself owns the effort put forth by the body and the creations of the body and mind together?

If someone else wished to exchange something for the results of my labor (dig a hole for him and he’ll give me an apple) does this not mean that I now own the “something”? I’ve exchanged part of me for something that is a part of someone else. Freely traded.

This is how wealth is created: my friend is better off with a hole in the ground and no apple and I’m better off tired but with an apple. We are both wealthier.

Hence, property or other value that derives from labor belongs to him who labored.

Property ownership is a human right
Ownership of property is the same as ownership of the self, for property can only derive from the efforts of the self.

Ownership (sovereignty) includes the right to possess, use, enjoy, and alienate. Each person can trade his property for the property (or labor) of another. Or give it away. The person receiving the property from this free transaction (free of coercion, stealth, or violence – and the threat thereof) now becomes sovereign. Ownership has transferred.

The right to own property is a fundamental human right, just as fundamental as the right to life.

The rallying cry “Put human rights before property rights” is a lie. A pernicious lie based on an ambiguity of meaning. Property has no rights, only people have rights, thus the term “property rights” refers to a category of human rights. Properly, “property rights” is shorthand for “the human right to own and have sovereignty over property”

Property merely represents a man’s work, either by direct creation of the property, by free trade of work for property, or by free trade of property for other property. (Free trade means by mutual consent, absent coercion or fraud. Trade will not happen unless both parties consider themselves better off – wealthier – as a result of the trade.) Property, like labor, can be given as a gift, of course. Hence charity and inheritance.

An anecdote:

On the evening of January 12, 1865, the U.S. Secretary of War and General W.T. Sherman met with “colored ministers and church officers” in Savannah, Georgia.
The visitors selected the Rev. Garrison Frazier, age 67, as their spokesman. Rev. Frazier was born a slave and lived as a slave until, at the age of 59, he purchased his freedom for $1,000. That’s a lot of money; for $1,000, Rev. Frazier’s previous owner could pay the wages of a free agricultural laborer for 10 to 15 years.

The Secretary asked Rev. Frazier to ”State what you understand by Slavery and the freedom that was to be given by the President's proclamation.”

Rev. Frazier responded, “Slavery is, receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent. The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation [the Emancipation Proclamation] , is taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.“

Interesting. Rev. Frazier did not speak of slavery as being owned or salable; not even being without the freedom to travel. He spoke of having his work taken by irresistible power and another man receiving it.

What is different between having ones labor, or the property (money) that labor represents, taken by irresistible power and given to a master, and having that money taken by the irresistible power of government and given to another person?

About 60% of the Federal Budget involves taking money (the product of labor) from some individuals by irresistible power and giving it to other individuals. Not for the common good or common defense, but from one person and to another person.

Seems that Rev. Frazier would consider that to be slavery.

Is taking from the Rich and giving to the Poor any less immoral than taking from the Poor and giving to the Rich? Why? Under what principles?

What can people accomplish without Gov't help?

“Economics has from its origins been concerned with how an extended order of human interaction comes into existence through a process of winnowing and sifting far surpassing our vision or capacity to design. Adam Smith was the first to perceive that we have stumbled upon methods of ordering human economic cooperation that exceed the limits of our knowledge and perception.” - “Between Instinct and Reason” by F.A. Hayek, published in the book The Fatal Conceit.

The free market is an organic, self-organizing and self-regulating system that evolves without conscious design. It becomes a system of complexity and richness that exceeds human ability to comprehend.

Conservatives see a system whose interactions are only partially understood; where the effects of changes cannot be fully anticipated so change should be cautious, incremental, and quickly reversed if adverse consequences appear.

Progressives see a complex and confusing system with features they don’t like. Progressivism holds that human ingenuity can eliminate the confusion, manage the complexity, add desirable features and eliminate the undesirable ones. If adverse consequences crop up, keep plowing ahead confident that those in charge will work it all out. If things really don’t work out, bad people are to blame (Manichaeism).

The difference is design versus evolution. Also, humility versus hubris: Progressives seem to believe “if we don’t understand it, it doesn’t make sense and we can do better.” Imagine that kind of thinking being used to design a biologic ecosystem. Yet Progressives are convinced they can design a proper economic ecosystem. Our current President being one of the chief designers.

The Conservative view is that past generations were no less intelligent than we are so their discoveries and the systems they devised (usually by trial and error) ought not be changed willy-nilly just because some intellectual is convinced he has realized something nobody else ever thought of. (Most of the Progressive social and economic programs consist of redoing forgotten experiments – forgotten because the results were bad.)

An example

What can be accomplished by people without Ivy League degrees? Consider the tusk shell or dentalia. Dentalia are the hollow shells of scaphopod mollusks. Long before Columbus was born, these tusk shells were harvested from deep waters off Vancouver Island, Queen Charlotte Islands, and north along the coast to Sitka, Alaska. According to the Wikipedia entry, tusk shells were traded into the American Southwest, the Great Plains, Alaska, and Central Canada for turquoise from the Southwest, Macaw feathers from Central America, and various dies, hides, and foodstuffs.

Imagine that: illiterate savages running a free market system covering North America west of the Mississippi, from Central America to Alaska and Canada – without a government official or Harvard lawyer anywhere in sight to tell them how to do it. Not only that, the people figured out how to harvest these shells from sands beneath more than thirty feet of frigid water – without a Department of Technology Assessment or a Small Business Administration loan.

An extended order of human interaction – an elaborate system of trade complete with a currency (the dentalia) - spontaneously developed and operated organically without any educated elite to design and guide it.

Tribes who didn’t know there WAS a Pacific Ocean were trading for Pacific Ocean shells. Peoples at war with each other still managed to trade with each other. Free markets can accomplish these things without government oversight.

It’s amazing what people accomplish when given liberty. It must confound the Progressive mind.

Liberty depends on individual ownership of property

Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that before civilization corrupted mankind, there was no private property.

Numerous philosophers and political movements have declared private property to be the bane of human welfare.

Balderdash! Every society – advanced or “primitive” that I’m aware of had private property. I suspect that the existence of private property is at least as old as our species.

Try to take something from someone who doesn't believe in Private Property

What about truly Communist societies that have abolished private property? Wellll, if they don’t have any private property, then anyone ought to be able to use any asset or piece of property, right? Head over to the Democratic People’s Republic of Whatever, where Private Property has “been abolished” and try to take one of their airliners for the weekend. If you aren’t immediately shot for attempted theft, you will be told that the 747 belongs to the People of the Democratic People’s Republic of Whatever.

In other words, the airliner is private property. Private to the Democratic People’s Republic.

The nature of property
What we call "property" is nothing but the product of labor that has not yet been consumed, destroyed, or lost. If my right to the product of my labor is as fundamental as my right to my person (see previous post "Who owns you labor?"), and property is nothing other than the product of labor which can be consumed, traded, saved, or invested, then my right to my property is no less important than my right to myself, my mind, and my body.

There has been an evolution of what kind of thing has rights. Recognition that rights adhere to individuals rather than to abstractions like "groups", "tribes", or "communities", one of my basic principles, is only a few thousand years old and revolutionary in human thinking. Absent this fundamental principle, human dignity and human equality are meaningless.

The evolution of the social unit: who can own property
Hunter-gatherer troop Alpha may share tools, food, women, and shelters freely among themselves, but if an outsider tries to participate in the communal meal or make off with one of the communal weapons, he will promptly be informed that the food or weapon belongs to troop Alpha. It is private property.

That’s different, you may say, from the what private property means in 21st century America. Really? How does troop Alpha’s joint ownership of tools differ from a married couple’s joint ownership of a house or bank account?

The variations are not in whether a society has or does not have private property – they all have it – the variations rather are in the privates: what is the fundamental unit of the society.

In Communist countries, the fundamental unit of society is the State. Individuals are merely the components that make up the State. All property (and all humans) belong to the State, whether the state has a formal structure or is simply the aggregate of all the ants in the anthill.

For hunter-gatherers the fundamental unit of society is the troop, a collection of a few families combined for mutual protection and support.

In many societies, the fundamental unit is the Family. All property and all individuals belong to one family or another. Rights are held by and responsibilities adhere to the family.

In a Liberal society, the fundamental unit is the individual person. Rights are held by and responsibilities adhere to the individual. Individuals exist before the state, not for the state. The state is created by individuals to protect individual liberties. " secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." - Jefferson et al.

Recognition that individuals have the individual, private right to control, enjoy, use, consume, or dispose of - in short, to "own" - the products of their labor - property - is a major advance in human dignity, fundamental to increasing human wealth and welfare, and central to any meaningful individual liberty.

The Causes of Darkness

Is there anyone so foolish as to walk into a darkened room and hunt for the darkness generator to turn it off so he can see?

No one looks for the cause of the darkness; rather we look for something that might create light and turn it on, or find something that is blocking light (curtains or a closed shutter) and remove it.

Darkness has no causes. Darkness is the state when there are no causes, specifically nothing that effectively causes (creates) light.

The first time I watched Charlie Rose on television he was interviewing Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Dr. Cornell West, both on the Harvard faculty at the time. During the interview, the three of them fell to discussing the causes of poverty and the importance of identifying those causes and eliminating them.

That was when it dawned on me: the discussion was utter nonsense. These three educated and intelligent people acted as if homo sapiens appeared endowed with such wealth that each family had a four-bedroom home in the suburbs with central heating, electricity, plentiful food and clean water, efficient health care, two cars, a 401K, and all the other components of first-world wealth. But, somewhere along the way, something happened to cause poverty to break out and infect the greater part of humanity.

If only we can identify that “something” and reverse it, universal affluence will be restored.

If such bright people can be such fools, will we be able to solve the problems that inhibit most of humanity from creating and sharing in the wealth that is possible?

I am chagrined it took me decades of reading “causes of poverty” articles before I realized the utter foolishness of that line of thinking. Perhaps I never paid that much attention to it. Perhaps I was handicapped by my education.

Poverty is like darkness: Abject poverty is the default, normal if you will, condition of humanity. The question isn’t “why are some people poor?” but “why are some people wealthy?” International relief agencies and organizations committed to improving the lot of the poor should be studying the causes of wealth and figuring out why they aren’t working. Studying the causes of poverty is effete.

Don’t turn off the darkness switch, turn on the light switch.

Adam Smith published his analysis of how societies create wealth 230 years ago: The Wealth of Nations. Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and others have updated and elaborated on Smith’s work, but there has been nothing to refute or replace it.

Smith explained what causes wealth, but rival world views – including those put forth by the Catholic Church, Rousseau, the followers of Marx, Fascists, and Progressives don’t like the answer. Probably because Smith’s analysis shows them as inhibiting human wealth, not contributing to it.

Am I Manichaean?

Good question.

For that matter, is any movement that faces an opposing movement "Manichaean"? Are Democrats Manichaean when they recognize that there are Republicans? Are Red Sox fans Manichaean because there are Yankees fans?

Not necessarily.

If Red Sox fans believed their team failed to win the Pennant because of a sinister, underhanded, secretive plot by the Yankees to contaminate the water in the BoSox dugout, that might be a weird conspiracy theory, but still not Manichaean.

Manichaeism usually invokes a vaguely-defined, semi-hidden, preternaturally-powerful enemy that selfishly works to defeat the good things you are trying to do because this enemy wants bad things to happen. Failures and bad outcomes are blamed on ill-defined machinations of the opponent, usually involving the opponent being smarter and more organized than is humanly possible.

I believe that Progressive movements are mistaken (badly mistaken) about how best to improve the lot of humans. They misunderstand how humans interact. But Progressives are not out to harm humanity for selfish purposes.

Progressive movements evidently value abstractions like "humanity" or "society" or "social justice" more than individual humans - during the 20th century various Progressive movements (Bolshevik, Nazi, Maoist) slaughtered about 100 million of their own people, but they all did it for the good of humanity. Chairman Mao's policies included the outright killing of 50-70 million Chinese, but he did it to create a workers' paradise in China, not for his own selfish purposes and not to make China a worse place to live. Hitler killed Jews because he believed human society would be better without them. How can you blame a guy with such good intentions?

(Yes, Hitler was a Progressive. Not some extreme Conservative. Nazism was closer to Bolshevism than to Barry Goldwater.)

So, no, I don't consider my philosophy Manichaean. I don't see the struggle as between the forces of good and the forces of evil selfishness. I see the struggle as between romantic wishful thinking (including the belief that human reason can achieve anything) and a humble acceptance of human limits, the complexity of life, and the adaptive inventiveness of ordinary people.

Thomas Sowell describes it as a conflict of visions: The Unconstrained Vision of Progressives and the Constrained Vision of classic Liberals. Both visions are held by people of good will.

Rational Intellect vs. Trial and Error.

Look at a hillside some time. The wilder the better (by “wild” I mean unaltered by human rationality for the last couple of decades).

Think about it. At one time there was no dirt, just rock and sand, covered by ice (if you live in latitudes above 45 degrees north) and ground by the ice down to bedrock. Eventually the ice receded, leaving bare rock exposed to the sky, and exposed to billions of organisms comprising millions of species. Each organism selfishly going about its business of surviving and multiplying, consuming things (other organisms, perhaps, or minerals, CO2, and sunlight) based on genetically derived instincts, leaving waste products and their own dead bodies.

(OK, soil blew in from more southerly latitudes; but where did that soil come from? Before life, the Earth was without soil – just rock, sand, and the dust thereof).

Some genetic variations (experiments) led to thriving populations, some led to extinction. Many led to population explosions that altered the environment followed by population collapse.

Complex order without conscious design
Eventually, by trial and error, all these selfish organisms created the complex ecosystem of interdependence and mutual benefit that we see as a lush landscape with soil, roots, insects, worms, trees, mammals, birds, grasses – an incredible diversity, richness, and effectiveness created by dumb plants and animals, all of them selfish (the only altruism is that of some higher animals towards their offspring and mates, and the collectivism of the anthill and beehive), yet all of them contributing to the well being of everything else.

All without anybody designing it. Well, without any evidence that anybody designed it – surely nobody from the Department of the Interior or the local university. If you believe in Intelligent Design, you will see God as the designer-in-chief behind it all. If you consider yourself sophisticated and enlightened, you probably don’t believe in Intelligent Design, so you have to accept the reality that the complex ecosystems on Earth were created by selfish organisms acting by trial and error.

Rational positivists will be chagrined to admit, if they are honest, that they really don’t understand how it all works. Environmentalists point out that human activities guided by rational planning rather than by experience and tradition tend to cause harm to natural ecological systems, sometimes disasters.

Ponder that hillside.

Natural ecology, si; human ecology, no!

Then consider why it is so hard for some people (including almost all politicians) to believe that humans, acting selfishly and by trial and error, could create a complex extended order of trade and mutual service that creates wealth and makes everyone better off?

Free organisms, freely pursuing their own ends, create, over thousands of generations, lush ecological systems that human rationality cannot improve. What makes Progressives (dominantly rational positivists) think a handful of them can guide the economic eco-system of human society, created by the successes and failures, habits and traditions, of millions of free people acting over hundreds of generations?

Are they that arrogant? Or do they simply want to ensure their own importance?

Ecology and Free Markets

Many people act as if they believe that anything produced by evolution cold have been done better by human ingenuity.

‘The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.’
– F. A. Hayek

One might say the same thing about the biological specialty of Ecology. We have learned how little we really know about biological systems and our utter inability to design a better wild hillside than what evolves naturally. Even our landscaping art involves utilizing traditions and learned rules-of-thumb (heuristics) to guide natural components and subsystems that are not understood.

Reason is Limited

We are humble enough to recognize how little we understand about the natural ecology, but the educated among us still believe human systems – that evolved by trial-and-error of competing traditions and heuristics – would be improved through the application of social engineering. People who cannot imagine, let alone comprehend, the complexities and power of the extended order of human cooperation convince themselves they can run things better, and that human society has become too complex to be left to advance without the guidance of human reason.

So, a well-functioning financial system – which depended on a certain amount of government-set boundary conditions (regulation, if you will; yes government is necessary for liberty) – was irresponsibly both deregulated and subjected to perverse incentives during the Clinton administration. The Bush administration followed by fiddling with currency values, artificially pushing up housing prices while increasing the pressure on banks to make foolish loans to unqualified home-buyers (including NINJAs: No Income, No Job, No Assets). When this social engineering (fiddling) results in unforeseen trouble – withdrawal of cash from the financial sector leading to the collapse of businesses that foolishly (or greedily) took perverse actions in response to the perverse incentives – one might think the wise thing to do is back up, return to the conditions that worked, stabilize, and stop the social engineering.

Theory trumps reality
But no. The Obama administration assures us that the solution to the trouble caused by earlier fiddling is to increase the amount of fiddling.

We saw this same kind of thinking by the medical community early in the 19th century when physicians, with all the confidence of learned men, told us that the solution to fever and lassitude was to bleed the patient. If the patient became weaker, more blood was taken from the patient – the fact that the patient became weaker after the first bleeding was held to be “proof” that not enough blood was taken the first time.

If the patient were lucky enough to be poor, the doctor would take some blood and leave, letting the patient recover from the blood loss before the doctor came back to continue treatment. If the patient were well-known or rich he might have several doctors, all of whom remained in attendance and all of whom insisted on taking their own portion of blood, for the benefit of the patient. In this way both George Washington and Lord Byron were bled to death when treated for minor fevers.

Modern therapeutic bloodletting

The fiddling is called “economic stimulus” and the administration assures us that earlier bleedings – excuse me, “economic stimulus” – didn’t have the desired effect because the efforts were not strong enough. “Bush failed because he bled only $700 billion from the citizens; we will succeed because we will bleed several $trillion from the citizens.

Helping all this is the mythology that the Bush years, with its pressures on financial institutions, its irresponsible fiddling with the value of our currency, and its bailouts were characterized by a cowboy free market.

In a pigs eye.

How Much Salt?

"All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous." - Paracelsus

That is to say, substances often considered toxic can be benign or beneficial in small doses, and conversely an ordinarily benign substance can be deadly if over-consumed. Even water can be deadly if overconsumed.
– Wikipedia secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men...
There can be no liberty without government coercion to provide consistent enforcement of appropriate abstract rules. These rules may be traditions, morality, arbitrary but necessary rules (e.g., which side of the road to drive on) and the intentional adjustments of traditions enacted as laws.

Rules are abstract in that they apply to everyone and do not exist for the benefit of anyone.

Yet government poisons liberty; weakening it and eventually destroying it. Government is like salt: a little bit is necessary for life; a bit more changes the taste of things; more than a small amount, broadly applied, kills.

Not all philosophers agree, but those people who rebelled against England and set up our nation and its government certainly believed that Government makes liberty possible, but more government does not necessarily “improve” or expand liberty. More than a little bit is too much.

Political debate ought to recognize that more than some amount is bad, yet some prefer a saltier stew than others. Our politics ought to be about how much salt to put in the stew, not whether everything ought or ought not be salted down and preserved.

Instead, Progressivism sees government as that from which all blessings flow – the only questions being what form of government and who should be in charge. Like the child who, when not getting as big a piece of cake as he wants complains that he is not getting any, Progressives mock those who recognize that government is a poison, accusing them of being closet anarchists, opposing all forms of government. To be honest, few seem to recognize both how necessary government is to liberty, and how poisonous it is to liberty.

(If Progressives disagree with the philosophy of Liberty based on limited government, they ought to be honest and put it to a vote: If 2/3 of both houses and 3/4 of the states agree, the contractual foundation of our government can be changed. Because it can be amended, The Constitution is not and cannot be dead, but it can be ignored.)

The State both enables and delimits liberty
Freedom (liberty) cannot exist in the absence of restraints on others from invading ones own sphere of legitimate autonomy – either restraints on usurpation by ones neighbors or protection from general attack on the society.

F. A. Hayek wrote (and I quote extensively because I haven’t figured how to say it better):
Freedom requires that the individual be allowed to pursue his own ends: one who is free is in peacetime no longer bound by the common concrete ends of his community. Such freedom of individual decision is made possible by delimiting distinct individual rights ( the rights of property, for example) and the designating domains within which each can dispose over means known him for his own ends. That is, a recognizable free sphere is determined for each person. This is all important. For has something of one’s own, however little, is also the foundation on which a distinctive personality candy four and it just think of environment created within which particular individual aims can be pursued.

General freedom in [Bertrand Russell’s sense of ‘ absence of all obstacles to the realization of our desires’] is nevertheless impossible, for the freedom of each would founder on the unlimited freedom, i.e., the lack of restraint, of all others.

The question then is how to secure the greatest possible freedom for all. This can be secured by uniformly restricting the freedom of all by abstract rules that preclude arbitrary or discriminatory coercion by or of other people, that prevent any from invading the free sphere of any other. In short, common concrete ends are replaced by common abstract rules. Government is needed only to enforce these abstract rules, and thereby to protect the individual against coercion or invasion of his free sphere, by others.

- "The Revolt of Instinct and Reason", The Fatal Conceit, by F.A. Hayek.

Socialism is Reactionary


Well, what does “reactionary” mean? The dictionary says “extremely conservative” or “extremely resistant to change or progress”.

Wikipedia offers a different meaning, one with which I was familiar: a movement to return to a real or imaginary past, particularly the way things were thought or done in the past.

It is in this sense that I use the term.

Reinstituting slavery is surely reactionary: slavery existed for most of human existence and was only recently abolished (well, theoretically abolished, at least in the Western world). Reinstituting slavery is a step backwards, a return to the past. Advocating a return to absolute monarchy certainly counts as reactionary. So would returning to aristocratic privilege, mercantile economic policies, feudalism, or tribalism.

How about abandoning agriculture and returning to hunter-gatherer economy with the corresponding social system? That sounds REALLY reactionary, stepping backward eight thousand years.

The prototype Progressive proposes we move backwards
Yet that is what Jean Jacques Rousseau advocated: throwing off the encrustations of civilization and returning to the Eden of the Primitive Savage. Somehow Rousseau or his followers managed to convince the philosophic community that this leap backwards was “progress”. Rousseau, Saint-Simon, and followers advocated returning to the “better”, more “moral” and kinder system of early humanity: Socialism.

Socialists, Leftists, Progressives, or modern liberals still think of themselves as leading the progress of humanity. Humph. Forward to social and economic systems we outgrew thousands of years ago.

Historical progress has advanced the individual
My view of human social progress is the increasing importance of ever-smaller human units – from the troop up to the tribe, up to the ethnic group (or race), up to the nation, then down to the class, down to the extended family, down to the nuclear family, and (most recently) down to the individual person with the recognition that women are people, too. Driving forces are many and, believe it or not, include the teachings of Christ.

Hence one of my guiding principles stated in an earlier post: “Individual human beings are the most important things there are.” An individual human is more important than a family, class, nation, race, community, or any similar abstraction. Any aggregate of humans is simply that: a convenient name for some number of individuals but not a thing that exists in itself.

The Progressive ideal
What did Rousseau (and Socialists) want to return to? The hunter-gatherer society. Collective identity. Subordination of the individual to the group – the group’s plans, needs, goals, desires. Communal ownership and sharing (but only within the local group). Xenophobia: people outside the immediate group were excluded from the communalism and may be deadly enemies. Each individual existing solely for the benefit of the community and expendable if that seemed for the good of the group.

I find it peculiar that Rousseau considered this utter surrender of self – almost the obliteration of the self – as “liberating”. This from the guy who abandoned his own infants to early deaths because they would be an inconvenience to his exalted person.

(Has there ever been an advocate of Socialism who thought he should be sacrificed for the good of the people?)

Twenty-two hundred years earlier, Plato and Aristotle objected to the immoral individualism of contemporary Athenian society, teaching that Greeks should return to earlier social forms Plato and Aristotle considered more moral: essentially that the individual should exist for the benefit of the State and should act, not for his own ends but should take his place for the good of the community.

Plato and Aristotle were frank reactionaries in the 4th century B.C. Rousseau, Saint-Simon, Condorcet, and the other Socialists wanted to return to a social system older than that advocated by Plato.

What can that make Socialists but dreamy reactionaries?

Three Meanings of "Believe"

In current English usage, the phrase “I believe in [X]” has at least three distinct meanings.

1)The Positive meaning: “I think [X] exists”
2)The Normative meaning: “I think [X] is good”
3)The (until I find a better term) Trust meaning: “I trust [X]”.

Much can be hidden behind this ambiguity.

Sometimes context makes the intent obvious. For example, “I don’t believe in pre-marital sex.”. Since only someone completely out of touch with humanity could think it doesn’t happen, the statement is clearly normative: it isn’t good.

“I don’t believe in perpetual motion machines” is probably a positive statement – the speaker (writer, whatever) doesn’t think perpetual motion machines exist (or can exist), though there is an outside chance the speaker doesn’t like them.

If a rock climber says “I don’t believe in this rope” he can’t mean it in the positive sense – the rope obviously exists; he might mean it in the normative sense – he doesn’t think the rope is “good” for the particular use, though he may think it is fine for another use; but he probably means it in the Trust sense: he doesn’t trust it.

This last sense is close to the Latin word “credo”, “I have faith”. For example, the Christian Nicean (or Nicene) Creed begins “Credo in um Deum…”, normally translated as “I believe in one God…” but a better translation might be “I have faith in one God” or “I trust in one God”.

As usual, however, writings can be complex, so the intended Latin meaning was probably a combination of Trust and positive meaning: the Latin verb credere evidently covers both.

Consider the Milton Friedman quote in an earlier post on this blog:
‘A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it ... gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself. ‘

What did Friedman mean by the last sentence, particularly “lack of belief in freedom itself”.

I think he meant “belief” in the Trust sense: “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of [trust] in freedom itself.”

But some oppose free markets, or say they don’t “believe” in free markets, either in the normative sense or in the positive sense. There is the value that free markets are simply bad and immoral, and there is the point of view that free markets can’t exist – that they are impossible – in the world in which we live.

While the idea that free markets are not possible has been plainly expressed, defenders of liberty seem to have ignored or dismissed the arguments. A mistake, IMO. Future postings will address the nature of the belief that liberty and free markets are impossible and how this derives from Manichaean religious thinking.

Normative Disbelief in Liberty

An ancient reason people think personal liberty (or freedom) is not a good thing is that, by their values, it leads to immorality, impiety, and vice. Holders of the normative disbelief – actually opponents of personal liberty - don’t trust people.

I said it is ancient: Plato and Aristotle opposed personal liberty. Thomas Aquinas, building on Aristotle, advocated an imposed ethics based on Christian principles. Christianity, Islam, (I’m not sure about Judaism), and other religions have, at one time or another, actively opposed personal liberty because, left to themselves, people do things that God (or at least the religious leaders) don’t like.

Given that absolute liberty is impossible (see a previous post), those who oppose letting people have the maximum possible liberty either a) think their own judgment is superior to that of other people or b) value something (virtue, honor, piety, God, the state, social justice, the person’s immortal soul, whatever) more than they value individual living humans.

The former look at the bulk of humanity as children or pets while the latter consider humans as tools or elements of something greater. All arguments boil down to one or the other; I can think of no third alternative.

I find both repugnant.

Positive Disbelief in Liberty

This one can be peculiar. The metaphysical position that all things are predestined – hence there is no such thing as “free will” – clearly involves a disbelief in the existence of personal liberty.

Another metaphysical objection to liberty is the irrationality thesis: people are not rational beings and all (or almost all) decisions are based on emotions, instincts, hungers, hormones, reflexes or anything else but rational consideration. Thus liberty, an essentially rational concept, is impossible or meaningless. How anyone who thinks this is true can consider himself, or any group of his fellows, capable of ruling others escapes me, unless the person subscribes to some unscientific theory of racial or class superiority. I guess they believe in the possibility of liberty for themselves and their friends, but not for the unwashed masses.

Related to the irrationality thesis is the Manichaean belief: people could be free, liberty could be possible, but sinister forces (capitalists, bankers, oil companies, Lord Voldemort- pick your favorite dark villain) have the power and ability to muddle human values, spread disinformation, create false consciousnesses, appeal to base motives, and generally undermine human rationality to their own evil ends.

So the good guys have to restrict liberty to defeat the bad guys; liberty just isn’t possible until the dark forces – the evil god – are defeated. Since the evil god makes liberty impossible, the good guys aren’t out of bounds when they force people to do good things and prevent them from doing bad things.

Distrust of Liberty

Normative disbelief in liberty is based on values, usually the valuing of something more than individual living humans. The values can be based on religious belief.

Positive disbelief in liberty is metaphysical often religious.

Distrust of liberty, and distrust of free markets, acknowledges that these things are possible and that they might even be good, but they might also be bad. Better to apply human ingenuity and rational analysis to monitor and guide.

Possibility of Scientific Test

Unlike normative and positive disbelief, distrust of liberty is subject to scientific analysis. It can be tested, just as the climber who doesn’t believe in (trust) a rope can test the rope. The result of the test cannot make someone trust, but it can indicate whether trust is reasonable or not. No amount of scientific testing can counter an irrational distrust of (disbelief in) elevators, airplanes, vaccinations, liberty, or free markets.

How to test? First come up with an hypothesis, maybe “The amount of personal liberty enjoyed by average people is inversely proportional to their standard of living.” That is, more liberty yields greater poverty (less wealth). Then test it.

Comparisons can be tricky because there are so many variables: liberty can have many dimensions (rights to property, rights to contract, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.), cultural and technological differences both over time and in different regions.

Wouldn’t be easy, but statisticians noodle out trends from worse starting points. And there are some relatively easy “experiments” that have been performed.

Possible Experiments
For example: in 1953, North and South Korea were equally devastated, equally undeveloped, and equally impoverished. The hypothesis predicts that the North, with little personal liberty and no free markets, would progress much more rapidly than the South and would have a higher standard of living today.

Or Argentina: one of the ten countries with the highest per capita income in 1900, the hypothesis predicts that Argentina, once the statist, anti-free-market Juan Peron came to power, would surge ahead of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and other countries suffering from free markets and personal liberty.

These, and other experiments, show the prediction is wrong, hence the hypothesis is refuted.

One could propose and test an opposing hypothesis: “Free markets and personal liberty reduce poverty and increase the wealth of a nation” via the mechanisms explained by Adam Smith. (The Wealth of a Nation… that might be a good title for his book. I’ll suggest it.)

A pattern of disproof and failure to disprove (scientific theories can never be proven: see The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper) will indicate whether trust in liberty is a good idea or not. Those with open minds will follow where the evidence leads them, those with closed minds will find excuses and special explanations (long after Copernicus and Galileo demonstrated otherwise, many remained convinced the Sun and stars revolved around the Earth) and both sides will accuse the other of being closed-minded and dogmatic.

And many who claim they merely distrust liberty and free markets will reveal that their disbelief is normative: they just don’t like liberty.

There oughta be a law...

Americans have a tradition of thinking “there oughtta be law” whenever we see something we want or something we don’t like. Well, maybe so. But think, what does “having a law” mean?

It means the government’s will – whatever is required or prohibited or mandated or ruled or standardized - is ultimately backed up by this:

This is a frightening picture, and it should be. But it is a picture of what we must have: government with the will to back up its laws – our laws – with the reality of deadly force.

All laws are backed by the threat of guys with guns showing up, guys whom we expect to use those guns if they are threatened or if there is no other way to gain compliance.

Agree or disagree with the rulings that led to this confrontation (yes, the picture is real, the child is Elian Gonzalez, a Cuban national and the man on the right had been, after weeks of appeals and legal filings, ordered by our legitimate legal authorities to surrender Elian to the U.S. government; he refused) this is the necessary end point of any refusal to go along with laws and government orders.

It has to be this way. We want it to be this way, whether we admit it to ourselves or not. This is what protects us and what makes the state possible – the state without which liberty would be impossible.

“But the U.S. isn’t like Nazi Germany!” you might exclaim. True, but irrelevant. The differences between the U.S. and Nazi Germany are in the kinds of laws we have, how those laws are decided, and how long it takes from the initial defiance until the guys with guns show up, not in the force that ultimately backs the authority of the state. In a totalitarian state (Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union) the confrontation shown would have occurred weeks earlier, the guy with the gun would have his finger on the trigger rather than beside it, and shots might have been fired already, even if the resisters were unarmed. In a totalitarian state, this picture wouldn't exist, let alone be available on the web.

My point is, don’t be all warm and fuzzy thinking we all pay our taxes, stop at red lights, and obey court orders because we recognize they are the right things to do. Every law passed by Congress, a state legislature, or a city council, every court ruling, every executive order is ultimately backed by the reality that guys with guns, eventually, after all appeals and arguments are ended, will show up and point a loaded weapon at you if you don’t obey.

Until all men are angels, civilization depends on it.

For every law you think is a good idea, ask yourself whether this “good idea” ought to lead to a scene like the one above if there are people who think the law is a bad idea. If you don’t think guys with guns ought to enforce your “good idea”, don’t advocate or support a law.

Self-organizing systems

Modern electronics depends on high-purity, low-defect silicon crystals – single crystals many feet long - sawn into thin wafers 8” to 12” in diameter.

However, human ingenuity has not figured out how to make the needed crystals.

Come on! Of course we do. We make them all the time. There is the CZ method and the FZ method.

Think about it. No one knows how to make a silicon crystal. We know how to make an automobile engine: cast, forge, shape, and smooth the parts; drill holes where needed, and bolt the thing together. All of it understandable, most of us can visualize how it is done, and many average people have done parts of it themselves.

But growing a 12”-diameter silicon crystal requires the exact placement of 10e24 atoms per second. That’s one trillion-trillion silicon atoms, positioned to within a fraction of an Angstrom onto the crystal face, every second. There is no way we know how to do that, how to position atoms that precisely, let alone at that rate.

What we do know is under what conditions the silicon atoms will spontaneously organize themselves – precisely placing themselves onto the surface of the growing crystal, a trillion-trillion times a second. Something human ingenuity cannot even visualize (we cannot even wrap our minds around a number that large), though we can pretend to explain it using vague abstractions and physical “laws” we think we understand.

But arbitrarily fiddle with it, no matter how good your theory sounds, and you likely will muck it up. If your fiddling is based on sound moral principles and good intentions, you are guaranteed to muck it up.

If silicon atoms can spontaneously organize themselves into a perfect crystal (given the right conditions), and millions of species of microbes, plants, and animals can spontaneously create the extended order of a mountain meadow - given the right general conditions – involving interactions among organisms that human ingenuity cannot fathom, do you think millions of people might be able to spontaneously create an extended order of human economic interaction, even though it is humanly impossible to understand, in detail, how the whole thing works?

Humans are more complex than silicon atoms. Extend human civilizations are far more complex than silicon crystals and more dynamic than any meadow. If ecologists tell us that human ingenuity cannot properly manage a meadow in detail, how can Progressives imagine that they know enough to properly manage human economic interactions?

If you want the healthiest meadow, protect it and leave it alone. If you want the healthiest (and wealthiest) human society…

From "Why I Am Not a Conservative" by F.A. Hayek

"At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom are likely to expend their energies in opposition. In this they find themselves much of the time on the same side as those who habitually resist change. In matters of current politics today they generally have little choice but to support the conservative parties. But, though the position I have tried to define is also often described as "conservative," it is very different from that to which this name has been traditionally attached. There is danger in the confused condition which brings the defenders of liberty and the true conservatives together in common opposition to developments which threaten their ideals equally. It is therefore important to distinguish clearly the position taken here from that which has long been known - perhaps more appropriately - as conservatism.

"Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called "liberalism" was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character. And some time before this, American radicals and socialists began calling themselves "liberals." I will nevertheless continue for the moment to describe as liberal the position which I hold and which I believe differs as much from true conservatism as from socialism. Let me say at once, however, that I do so with increasing misgivings, and I shall later have to consider what would be the appropriate name for the party of liberty. The reason for this is not only that the term "liberal" in the United States is the cause of constant misunderstandings today, but also that in Europe the predominant type of rationalistic liberalism has long been one of the pacemakers of socialism."

Political seduction by co-opting words

Pick a word, ideally one that refers to a concept or condition but not a thing. The word has to evoke a strong automatic emotional response. Best if its meaning is not well understood by the general population or can have varying meanings.

“Puppy” evokes the positive emotion, but it is too concrete.

“Health”, “happiness”, and “love” are good candidates for being co-opted. “Justice” is even better, as everyone is in favor of it, yet few have a clear notion of what it means. It’s one of those “know it when you see it” abstractions that few people can put to words. Heck, Plato didn’t have a clear definition and devoted several of his works to describing what he meant by “justice” and a “just society” without arriving at a simple statement of what the terms mean.

“Fascism” is one of the best of the co-opted words. “Fascism” evokes disgust, almost universally among Americans and Western Europeans, though few know much about it – how it arose, it’s doctrines, how it is fundamentally socialist, its similarities with Bolshevism, how it was admired by FDR and, perhaps, Woodrow Wilson. This ignorance adds to its value: people who don’t know what it means aren’t going to notice that the label has been applied to things that are not fascist or are even anti-fascist.

Meaning is forgotten, only emotion remains
If enough people loudly apply the term “fascist” to something they don’t like long enough, the negativism of the term will rub off on the target. If enough college students and professors and public intellectuals call a mother’s love fascist, without anyone calling them on the lie, eventually some of the public will view a mother’s love as a bad thing.

Behold! “Fascism”, a weasel-word: a word used to create the illusion of a clear and direct meaning, used with deliberate imprecision to mislead the audience into believing things contrary to evidence or fact. Allegedly, a weasel can suck out the contents of an egg while leaving the egg looking intact. A weasel word is the result of something sucking the meaning out of a word, leaving it a hollow shell but with the emotional content intact.

(It isn’t the word that is the weasel, it is the user.)

“Freedom” and “democracy” may be the two most powerful positive weasel words for Americans. As expressed in an old Star Trek episode, these are worship words. If you can stick “freedom” and “democracy” onto something involving dictatorship and slavery, a great many Americans will reflexively favor it.

So, the enemies of liberty regularly adopt the word “freedom” as if it were their very own and claim they are promoting democracy of some sort.

Sorry, Charlie; democracy is a method of making decisions about laws, it is not synonymous with liberty, though our founders recognized that a constitutional republic based on democratic principles was the best government for preserving liberty over the long term. Those who founded the United States worked very hard to prevent it from becoming a democracy, a society in which each person was entirely ruled by everybody else. The Presidents Bush regularly used the weasel-word “democracy” in referring to the Middle East, as if a majority in Iraq wouldn’t vote to exterminate some minority. Democracy without the rule of law becomes mob despotism. Democracy without limits to the power of the democratic government becomes mob tyranny.

Democracy: Good. Fascism: Bad. Few know what either of them mean. When reading or listening, try mentally substituting “good” for “democracy” and “bad” for “fascist”.

“Freedom” has a related problem I will discuss anon.

Liberal: Another weasel word

How’s that for a weird title? Given that I call myself a Classic Liberal.

Liberalism as promoting individual liberty

Near as I can figure out, Liberalism originally was opposed to the non-Liberal economic/political systems dominant in Europe (though England was more liberal). Liberals favored individual liberty, the dignity of every person, and the rights of men as delineated by Locke and Kant. If you want a primmer on Locke, read the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers – they pretty much lay out the political philosophy of Classic Liberalism.

At the time, implementing the Liberal program involved substantial changes in Europe: individual rights, security of private property, the inviolability of an individual’s protected private sphere of activity, the rule of law, the state as servant of citizens (not the other way around), equality before the law, etc.

The United States, however, was founded on Liberal principles and was, to the extent practical, given the realities of the time (the strong vested interested in continuation of slavery being the biggest failing), the leading light in implementing Liberal principles. In the U.S., being a Liberal meant seeking to preserve the liberal social/political/economic system from anti-liberal encroachments and to eliminate the existing contradictions and failings – e.g., slavery, disenfranchisement of women, racial and religious disabilities.

Liberal had nothing to do with change (just as Conservative had nothing to do with liberty). In a society that already had a very high degree of personal liberty (a condition the United States had never achieved, at least not for all citizens), a Liberal would want to prevent certain changes, not promote change for the sake of change.

A new kind of liberalism
During the 19th century, communitarians, socialists, rational constructionists, reactionary back-to-nature dreamers (a la Rousseau), and other enemies of individual liberty believed they could improve human conditions by applying their ingenuity to correct (what they perceived as) the inadequacies or injustices of the spontaneous human order based on liberty and evolving traditions. These people, enemies of individual liberty because they believed liberty led to what they perceived as injustices, believed that, by limiting individual liberty, they could somehow realize a higher form of liberty – particularly a communitarian liberty. So they appropriated the label “liberal”.

Much confusion and obfuscation followed.

This new kind of liberal essentially worshipped change: existing patterns of social interaction and human rights were so far from the Utopian ideal they envisioned that pretty much everything had to change. Progressivism pushed for change (changes they considered to be progress, not realizing the changes they proposed would lead backward to the political and economic systems that existed before civilizations; progressives unwittingly sought to undo 10 thousand years of human progress) and, as “liberal” began to be identified not with liberty but with change, Progressives also adopted the liberal label.

Advocates of the expansion of personal liberty and the freeing of individuals from state control (the new liberals depended on the increased control over individuals of an active state to achieve their visions of how humans should live), the Classic Liberals, found themselves without a label of their own.

By resisting the encroachments by the state on individual liberty advocated by Progressives and others who called themselves liberal, Classic Liberals adopted an essentially conservative posture, allying themselves (and being confused with) traditional authoritarian conservatives. Some began calling their philosophy “Libertarianism”.

Today “liberal” is pretty much a weasel word: it connotes liberty and freedom and good things while the economic and political philosophies behind the label are, denotatively, anything but liberal. Those who call themselves “liberals” generally are progressives or socialists who don’t believe in liberty and the free markets that spontaneously emerge when people have liberty. (See previous posts on “Believing” in things).

In American political discourse, "liberal" refers to modern liberals, usually Democrats or the "left wing" of Republicans. Modern liberals do promote individual liberty in just about everything but property and economic activity. To the modern liberal, individuals should have privacy and be free to decide lifestyles, sexual activity, abortion, reading materials, and the whole First Amendment gamut of individual rights. But their concept of individual liberty is limited.

Modern liberals believe individual liberty is shallow or meaningless without the wherewithal to buy things (positive liberty), but that individuals should not be at liberty to buy just anything they want: SUVs, firearms, fatty fast foods, unapproved toys, cigarettes, and a long list of neo-Puritanical no-nos. Modern liberals clearly believe one does not have the right to retain the product of his own labor, but must relinquish a part of this product so that others may buy things.

The key word in the previous sentence is "must". Christ said that we should share with the less fortunate; liberals say we must.

Government coercion (backed by the threat of violence if you don't go along) to surrender your property for use by someone else is decidedly unLiberal, in the classic sense, but today is called "liberal". Weaselly.

Further Reading:

For more and better discussion, see “Why I Am Not a Conservative” by F.A. Hayek.

Socialism is Reactionary (2)

For all their Ivy League education, the leading lights of Progressive thought seem to have no sense of history. They criticize Capitalism – that extended system of human interaction that spontaneously evolves whenever people are at liberty to freely exchange their labor, talents, and property – for creating poverty amid plenty (the more thoughtful may speak of allowing poverty amid plenty) and causing vastly unequal distribution of the world’s wealth. As if all of humanity was wealthy before capitalism.

One would think these free-market critics accepted Archbishop Ussher’s calculation that creation happened on the night of 26 October 4004BC and humanity sprang forth 6 days later, eventually emerging from Eden endowed with agriculture, domestic animals, metal technology, written language, an emerging civilization, and a comfortable standard of living for all. Then, they seem to think, some time later this simple and fair world was spoiled by Capitalism which took wealth from and impoverished the many, giving it to the few.

Imagine: these anti-free-market intellectuals mock Christian fundamentalists and Biblical literalists.

Abject poverty was universal before trade

Anthropology tells a slightly different story. Twenty thousand years ago, all humans were poor, poorer than all but maybe a few thousand people living today. Life for all was brutal, parasite-ridden, and short.

This was the time of the Noble Savage, whose lifestyle Rousseau so admired and extolled.

Between ten and twenty thousand years ago, people began to trade things they had (or made) in surplus for things that improved their lives but weren’t available locally. They traded for salt, flints and stone tools, antlers and horns, pottery, dies, maybe even pretty stones and feathers for decoration. Trade, for those who could participate in it, made lives easier and allowed more people to live – increasing populations.

Extended trade isn’t practical without some amount of private property. The whole tribe can’t lug a basket of flints somewhere to be traded for a basket of salt, then haul the salt back. The trade goods had to be consigned to somebody who would undertake the arduous and hazardous trade journeys. Since the trader might abandon the goods en route (by accident or because it was safer and more convenient to leave the goods and return), those providing the trade goods would want compensation before the trader left the camp. The goods became the private property of the trader – the guy who trudged over mountains and across rivers hoping to make contact with someone or some village to trade with. The guy who faced the perils of travelling alone or with only a few companions owned the goods and took the risks.

Free enterprise (free exchange of goods and labor for mutual benefit) was born.

There were, of course, other kinds of trade such as when nomadic tribes periodically gathered for mass exchanges. Perhaps this kind of trading could be communal, without individual property. But only a saint would trudge hundreds of miles to trade communal goods, and few people are saints.

Agriculture advanced individuality, liberty, and private ownership

Sometime around ten thousand years ago, people began to domesticate plants and animals. Agriculture and animal husbandry further increased the wealth – and ability to sustain larger populations – of farmers and, through trade, would have increased wealth of hunter-gatherer societies who traded with farmers. Seeds, food stuffs, and animals would become trade goods. Human population grew, civilization began.

Societies that experimented with individual ownership of land tended to become wealthier and grew faster than those still holding everything in common. How else would the novel tradition of private property emerge but from evolutionary trial-and-error by human societies?

Of course, everyone was unbelievably poor by the standards of 21st century America or Europe. Poor, in fact, by the standards of most of today’s third world. Yet, most people were better off than anyone had been ten thousand years earlier.

Individual liberty and free exchange enable creation of wealth

Fast forward another ten thousand years
Despite fits and starts and interruptions by rulers, philosophers, and religious prophets who figured they were smarter or more virtuous than everybody else (many of whom did steal from or enslave others), voluntary exchange of goods and services for mutual benefit – the free market – has increased wealth to the point where only 2/3 of humanity is poor, and even those poor are wealthier than anybody was before the extended order of mutual trade got started.

By the way, those 4 billion poor live in societies that have yet to try individual liberty, secure private property, and full participation in the extended economic order. The poor generally live in countries run by smart people educated in European collectivist thinking - an elite that knows better than others how people should live. People are poor because their social traditions or their rulers won't let them create wealth, not because of some “exploitation” a hundred years ago.

Don't believe it? The experiment has been run many times, always with the same result: liberal economies (capitalistic) reduce poverty faster than communal or planned economies. For one experiment, consider the two Koreas. Both were equally devastated in 1953. Both had wealthier sponsors to get them started. Even then, South Korea didn't really take off until it more fully liberalized its economy.

To eliminate poverty, encourage creation of wealth
In 20 thousand years, capitalism has reduced human poverty from 100% abject misery to 33% comfortable or wealthy and the rest better off than anyone was before trade and individual (private) property.

Progressives want to try something other than capitalism, usually reverting to the ancient communal social/economic systems (socialism) humanity began moving away from over 10 thousand years ago. Capitalism evidently has failed because things aren’t perfect yet: capitalism isn’t done and hasn’t yet worked for those who haven’t tried it. Better get rid of it.

That’s real bright. Sort of like disinheriting a 10-year-old child because she hasn’t yet received a bachelor’s degree.

Either that or Progressives really think, like Bishop Ussher, the world began in October 4004 BC, and everybody lived comfortably until they moved away from socialism.

Capitalism Happens

While there are advocates of Socialism in its many guises, nobody ever advocated capitalism or a free market economy. The advocacy was for Liberty.

Nobody examined feudalism or mercantilism and proposed something new they called “Capitalism”, a system they thought up and designed. Nobody dreamed up private property and individualism as a replacement for primitive socialism.

Adam Smith didn’t dream up Capitalism; instead he was examining how wealth was created in the absence of an imposed system.

Nobody creates Capitalism: it just happens whenever people are given liberty. It works best in an environment with a stable currency, protection of persons and their property, enforcement of contracts, and security from invasion. In fact, as long as the State isn’t too effective at whole-sale violation of these rights, people have always spontaneously created economies that increase their wealth (and make it possible for the society to support more people) based on trade, free markets, and application of capital to increase productivity.

Fredrick Hayek calls this “the extended order” and Adam Smith explained how it worked: selfish people discover that the only ways to improve their situation (increase their wealth) are either take up thievery (and risk the punishment) or do something to improve the lives of others.

I suppose, if you don't like the extended order people spontaneously create - that which is called "free market capitalism" - you just don't like the way people behave when free. Maybe you think that enlightened and educated people, even though they don't understand the spontaneous self-ordering of human interactions (nobody can, it's too complex, perhaps the most complex thing in the Universe according to Hayek), can devise a better way.

Most tyrants have thought the same thing.

What is Capitalism?

Capitalism, free enterprise, free markets: terms often used, often despised, often extolled.

Vaguely, they all mean the same thing. I tend to use them interchangeably, though there are differences.

“Free market” seems to refer to the situation where people are at liberty to trade goods and services for money or other goods and services. Or not to trade. In a free market economy, exchanges happen only when both parties anticipate being better off (wealthier) after the exchange.

“Free enterprise” seems to mean people are at liberty to enter any enterprise or start any business they wish and their operation of this enterprise or business will be free from outside coercion – by the state or otherwise.

“Capitalism” refers to an advanced state of free enterprise where capital (savings) itself becomes a commodity of exchange. When Capitalism appears, people who have saved money (capitalists) can rent their savings to others or directly employ their capital to increase the productivity of the labor of others. Under Capitalism, many people exchange their labor for money directly, using somebody else’s capital to produce things, rather than exchanging for money goods they have labored to produce using their own capital.

Strictly speaking, Capitalism can exist if the capital is owned in common or owned or controlled by the state: State Capitalism. But in common use, “Capitalism” means a free-enterprise, free-market system.

Hayek's Extended Order

Fredrich Hayek wrote about the unplanned, unguided, self-organizing system of economic exchange that spontaneously springs up among people when they discover that they can improve their lives by trading with strangers. The extensive trade among the hunter-gatherer societies of western North America, using tusk shells (dentalia) as a unit of exchange (money), is an example of such a system. (See the post “What Can People Accomplish without Gov’t Help” in this blog). Other examples include the extensive trade systems that sprang up in Allied POW camps during WWII, typically using cigarettes as both trade goods and money.

Hayek calls this self-organizing system “an extended order of human interaction” or simply the “extended order”. (Not very catchy; more commonly it is called a free market economy.) Hayek considered the world-wide extended order of the late 20th century (he died in 1992) to be the most complex system in the known universe.

The result of unplanned evolution by trial and error and guided by evolving traditions, an extended order appears whenever people have sufficient liberty (i.e., personal freedom, rights to control and dispose of property, protection from coercion, the right to enter into enforceable contracts). The operation of the extended order cannot be planned nor designed by human ingenuity; it is simply too complex even to be fully understood, let alone improved by conscious intervention. (Kind of like a wild meadow: human ingenuity can modify it, muck with it, even destroy it, but cannot improve how it functions. All human ingenuity might do for a meadow is add water, and even that can ruin it.)

States are not necessary for the extended order to appear, and their only positive role is providing the minimum protection from external or internal coercion, protection of private property, enforcement of contracts, and (possibly) a stable monetary system. Other than that, state actions – however well-intended – only hinder the efficient operation of a free market economy. While the state cannot create the extended order, it can damage or restrict it.

People are stubborn and sneaky about liberty, however. Whatever sliver of liberty they can eke out is used to set up black markets, underground economies, barter systems, and other things despised by social engineers.

The extended order consists of free markets and free enterprises: people living their lives and interacting with others as they choose.

Many people think this is a bad thing. I don’t. I celebrate the extended order as the supreme, and ever evolving, accomplishment of ordinary people.