Monday, February 8, 2016

Libertarian maturity

One of the charges I often see aimed at libertarians (of which voluntaryists are a subset) is that libertarianism is a childish world view, and I'm honestly not sure how to take that.  Libertarians generally are of the opinion that people should be free to make their own choices and to face the consequences of those choices, which sounds to me like a textbook definition of responsible adulthood. 

According to the critics, though, apparently that's just a phase, and libertarians are just stuck in some state of philosophical-political arrested development.  Evidently, most people grow out of that phase, and come around to the mature knowledge that they aren't fit to manage their own affairs and must submit to the judgment of their betters.  Many attain the even higher state of adult wisdom of knowing that their fellow man is inferior and base, and sorely in need of forcible guidance, even if they themselves are not.  An exalted few of those reach the ultimate pinnacle of maturity and accept their role as overlords, imposing order, responsibility, and morality upon their savage brethren.  

Call me crazy, but it seems to me that the fear of self-responsibility, an attitude of superiority and condescension toward one's fellow human beings, and the desire to control others are classic hallmarks of children who still have a lot to learn, not well-adjusted adults.  

But hey, what do I know, right?  I'm just one of those naive radical libertarians who thinks you and I and everybody else can do a better job living our own lives than any high muckety-muck with a posh office and a pompous job title can do it for us.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

But who will build the roads?

That's the question, isn't it?  Libertarians hear it so often that it's become a cliche, a catch phrase spoken in a halfwit's voice to encapsulate our frustration with the freedom-averse.  If you dare to ask it, don't be surprised if you find yourself on the receiving end of an explosion of pent-up aggravation.

But I'm not here to do that.  No, I'm here to answer that question.  Not every libertarian is willing to do that any more, so if you really, truly desire a sincere response, you might want to pay attention.

The obvious answer is that the same people who build roads now would build them if government stayed out of the whole business.  After all, it's not the government that actually builds roads; it's construction companies, who presumably wouldn't suddenly lose their road-building expertise if Big Brother suddenly bowed out.

So, the actual question is more along the lines of, "Who will decide that roads need to be built, where they should be built and in what forms, contract with construction companies to build them, and pay for them to be built?"  To which the libertarian could rightly respond, "The same sorts of people who contract with construction companies to build shopping centers, gas stations, apartment complexes, office buildings, and parking garages." In each of those cases, an entrepreneur perceives a demand for some particular type of construction, invests capital in producing it, and tries to manage it as effectively as possible to make a profit from it. 

There's nothing inherently special about roads that makes this model inapplicable.  Roads provide a service for which people are willing to pay, and so there's money to be made in building and managing them, just as there's money to be made with shopping malls and restaurants.

OK, so who's going to pay for this?  The same people who pay for it now, of course.  The major difference is that instead of the fees being hidden in gas taxes, license fees, and sales and income taxes, the costs would be transparent.  How much do you pay to drive to work each day?  You probably have a vague idea at best, because you're paying for it indirectly.  How much money do you shell out for groceries each week?  You probably have a pretty good idea, and with only a little effort you could get the exact figure, because you pay for those directly.

There would also be competition between road owners for your business, and because prices would be transparent, drivers would have a strong incentive to choose the roads that provide the best value for their money.  A road that charged too much, was riddled with potholes, or prone to ugly traffic jams or deadly accidents would likely lose drivers to alternate routes, much like a restaurant with a reputation for mediocre food, high prices, poor service, and outbreaks of food poisoning would lose diners.  Road owners would have a strong incentive to find the optimal balance of safety, speed, and price.  It would also be to their advantage to find ways to keep traffic flowing smoothly, especially during peak hours.  Traffic jams and slow commutes limit the number of cars - paying customers! - per hour.

Road owners would also find it in their interest to make their business models as painless and convenient as possible for their customers.  Different roads might collect tolls, charge a subscription fee for regular drivers, or even pay for the road through billboard advertising.  A business development such as a shopping mall might even maintain a stretch of the road at its own expense, and charge drivers nothing to use it.  There are probably even more business models that haven't occurred to me or to you, but which some enterprising businessman or woman could dream up and put into action.

But if there are many competing road owners, wouldn't there be too many different standards?  What if one uses round orange stop signs and another uses traditional red octagons?  What if one has cars driving on the right side, and another on the left?  Thankfully, those too would likely be non-issues, because road owners would desire that their roads be compatible with those of other road owners.  Standards would quickly emerge that would allow for compatibility between the roads of different companies.  A road owner who stubbornly insisted on contrary standards for no good reason would find that other owners would be reluctant to have their roads intersect with his.  For the safety of their drivers - their paying customers - they would likely prefer to build overpasses or tunnel under the non-standard road, denying the stubborn road owner a lot of business.  When his road goes bankrupt, another company could acquire it and run it more prudently, to the greater benefit of itself, drivers, and other road owners alike. 

Competition and the profit motive would push private road owners to provide the best possible service at the lowest possible price.  When they screw up, they lose customers and money.  If they want to win back those customers, they need to make real improvements, and quickly.  By contrast, when government roads have problems, more funding is extracted from taxpayers.  Often, those funds are squandered on study after inconclusive study, with little or no improvement to actual roads.  Government pays no price for dragging its feet or wasting resources, because it has a monopoly.  It's going to get your money no matter how lousy a job it does.  Horrible congestion or a spate of fatal accidents are cause for political grandstanding and endless argument, not decisive and efficient action.

Not only would private enterprise be more than equal to the task of building and managing roads, economics gives us every reason to believe they could do it better, more efficiently, and at lower cost than governments do it.  It's simply been done by government for so long that it's frightening to many people to contemplate it any other way, and that's unfortunate.  Without the freedom of the market, we never see what might be, because the people who might do it are not afforded the freedom to try.  It remains forever only a vision in the minds of those who understand the engine of creativity that is the free market.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The college scam

Last week, former host of Dirty Jobs, current host of Somebody's Gotta Do It, and all-around awesome guy Mike Rowe delivered a resounding smack-down to socialist-Democrat folk hero Bernie Sanders.  Rowe, normally the epitome of genial politeness, was left momentarily at a loss for words, and resorted instead to letters - specifically, W, T, and F.

The offending incident was a tweet from Sanders: “At the end of the day, providing a path to go to college is a helluva lot cheaper than putting people on a path to jail.”  The nonsensical implication is that lack of college education puts people at risk for trouble with The Law.  Mike Rowe, in case you didn't know, is a passionate advocate for unglamorous but honorable and vitally imporant jobs, and bristles at the notion that the path to respectability and prosperity necessarily leads through a four-year institution of "higher education."  I'm 100% with him on that.  Welders, mechanics, electricians, plumbers, oilfield workers, and others at the grittier end of the employment spectrum make pretty decent money, and are every bit as respectable as doctors, engineers, and accountants (and probably a lot more respectable than some other fields I could name.)

But that's only the tip of the iceberg of why pushing people, with words and with subsidies, toward college is a bad idea.  Unfortunately it's all too easy for our reasoning to go astray from the path of sound logic and economics.  We observe that college graduates on average earn higher incomes than those without degrees, and from there leap to the conclusion that the way to greater prosperity for more people is to expand access to college.  That leap involves a logical fallacy, known as the fallacy of composition.

It does not follow that because college graduates make more money on average, if everyone goes to college then everyone will make more money.  We might just as well observe that professional athletes make a lot of money, so wouldn't it be great if everyone were trained as a pro athlete?  I hope it's obvious how silly that notion is.  There is, after all, a limit to the demand for pro athletes in the job market.  No matter how many people put their hearts and souls into training for the NBA, only the 300-400 best players are going to find employment.

Similarly, no matter how many people get college degrees, the best doctors, lawyers, and engineers are going to be hired first, and probably at lower salaries than they otherwise might have had, because they have a lot more competition for those jobs.  We can safely assume that subsidizing degrees in, say, engineering, will indeed produce more qualified engineers, but it doesn't increase the demand for engineers.  Instead, it creates a surplus of engineers and a shortage of whatever those people would otherwise have become if left to their own devices.

In fact, that's probably a rosier scenario than what's actually happening.  If we were only getting an unmarketable surplus of doctors, engineers, and computer scientists, that's not great for people in those occupations, nor for the employers who needed people with skills that those surplus grads might have learned had they not been diverted into college.  But hey, at least doctors and engineers are useful.  What we may be getting in greater numbers are graduates with degrees in things such as literature, gender studies, and liberal arts.  Science and math aren't sexy, after all, and as we're frequently reminded, it's simply important that you go to college, not that you carefully choose a field of study with applicability to today's job market.  One can debate the relative intellectual and aesthetic merits of those fields of study, but the hard truth is that there's not a lot of economic demand for them.

To see how pressuring young people to go to college and subsidizing their "education" distorts the market and ultimately harms many more people than it helps, it's necessary to understand how things would work without those things, in a free market.

If people have to pay for college education out of their own pockets, it's a safe bet that colleges would adjust their rates to what their prospective customers could reasonably afford.  In an unregulated market, producers want to sell their product.  Of course they want to make a profit too, but pricing it beyond the reach of customers is not a very effective way to do that.  Thus, making college more "affordable" by making it artificially easier to get supplemental funding, in the form of grants and open-ended student loans, also makes it safe for colleges to jack up their tuitions.  If the average student can only afford to pay $5,000 a year, then it would make sense for most colleges to offer their services for that amount or less.  If it's easy to get $30,000 a year in grants or loans, then of course they're going to adjust their expectations and charge at least $30,000.  Instead of reducing the costs of higher education, subsidies radically increase the cost of educating each student, and then compound that by attracting more students.  It's like the old joke about making a profit by selling below cost but making it up in volume.  Making college "free" is an intellectually dishonest endeavour; the costs are only shifted - and exponentially magnified - not eliminated. 

Also, people tend to take things they pay for themselves a lot more seriously than if they believe (rightly or wrongly) that someone else is footing most or all of the bill.  If I'm paying for a college degree out of my own pocket, it's pretty likely that I'd want to make sure that degree is going to be in demand in the job market.  I'd want to be reasonably sure that it would increase my earning potential enough to compensate me for the use I could have put my money and labor to otherwise.  I'd also want to choose a field in which I believed I could excel.  I wouldn't want to waste my time and money to become a mediocre engineer if I could be a very good plumber, for instance -- any more than I'd want to spend a lot of time and money training to become a basketball player who can't make the cut in the pros.  I might still have delusions about my talents and choose poorly, but at least the incentives make that less likley.

The same applies to lenders.  Private banks and other lending institutions aren't in the business of losing money (unlike government grant and loan organizations.)  Those that offered loans to college students would have a strong incentive to lend only to students pursuing degrees that are in demand.  If engineers are making the big bucks, and English lit majors are flipping burgers, then a lender is going to prefer to lend to students of engineering, and politely decline to finance literature degrees, or at least they would probably offer much better interest rates and repayment terms to would-be engineers.  In fact, such lenders would be a fantastic resource for young people deciding what careers to pursue, who might otherwise have no clue how to figure out what occupations are the best earning potential.  A lender who wants to make profits and avoid losses has a strong incentive to study the market very carefully, and that knowledge is useful to borrowers as well.  By contrast, government programs are designed to provide funds to those deemed in need, without regard for how wisely or frivolously they might be spent. 

When college is subsidized, though, there is less incentive to choose one's fields of study carefully, and less incentive to take it seriously.  The mantra that "If you want a good job, you need a college education" doesn't help either, as it implies that any old degree will assure you of a better job than you'd get without one -- that merely having a degree is more important than any particular skill you might acquire.  The popular perception of college years as a time for partying and socializing, to whatever extent they reflect reality, probably owe a lot to these attempts to make college more accessible.  Even for students serious about learning, there's less incentive to focus on acquiring knowledge which is valued in the job market, and studying whatever tickles their fancies.  Again, I don't have any problem with people studying medieval French literature or the influence of 90s alternative rock music on society and politics, but I can't see much justification for subsidizing them at other people's expense.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that most, if not all, of the lunacy that takes places on college campuses these days - such as the militant fixation on political correctness - can be laid at the feet of government interventions designed to make it more accessible.  It seems unlikely to my mind that a young person seriously pursuing a career in chemical engineering or computer science would have much patience for a school obsessed with superfluous nonsense.  Just as you'd probably pass on a doctor who spent more time and money filling his waiting room with trendy magazines and modern art than on diagnostic equipment and current medical knowledge, so the student would far rather choose a school with a reputation for excellence in the chosen field, period, not one wasting precious resources on policing the sex lives of students or indoctrinating them with leftist politics or the fashionable social crusades of the day.

It's the discipline of the free market that makes a college education most beneficial to those who are truly suited to benefit from it.  Subverting and garbling the signals of the market in a misguided attempt to extend those benefits to everyone else only ends up doing harm, to the public at large, to the people with the personality and ability profile to really make the most of a college education, and most of all to those who end up diverted from other paths for which they were better suited and would have found more fulfilling and more financially rewarding.

Bottom line:  Do we want people to go where their talents and temperaments are most valued and productive, or do we want to funnel everyone through the factory farm of a subsidized university system because we can't get past mindless platitudes?

Friday, December 11, 2015

Trump and Bernie: Business as usual

I think one of the things that makes me most pessimistic about the future of freedom (and by extension, humanity itself) is the enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as the U.S. presidential election machine kicks into gear again.

In the first place, it worries me that people apparently have either very little understanding of, or very little regard for, actual freedom.  I'm not sure whether that worries me more or less than the fact that poeple seem to believe that either Sanders or Trump offers anything radically different from what we've been getting since at least the beginning of the twentieth century.

The appeal of both Sanders and Trump depends not on cool-headed reason, but purely on emotion, especially negative emotion.

Trump panders to fear, especially xenophobia.  His anti-immigrant rhetoric is rife with both racist undertones and economic ignorance.  (Economic theory and empirical evidence both strongly refute the idea that immigrants are a drag on economic prosperity, but siphoning away the enormous amount of resources from productive enterprise that enforcing Trump's vision of immigration control would require certainly would be.)  Likewise, his anti-Muslim rantings play to the wildly overblown fear of Islamic terrorism - a real thing, to be sure, but far less a threat than, say, being struck by lightning...or being killed by a cop.  (Both are statistically more likely than being a victim of Islamic terrorism within U.S. borders, even including the death toll of 9/11.)

Sanders, on the other hand, appeals to our sense of envy and entitlement, stoking resentment of "the 1%" and promising free stuff (paid for by looting "the rich") like there's no tomorrow.  There is no evidence at all, either from the man himself or from his supporters, of any real understanding of the science of economics.  His proposed treatment of a very real problem is neither insightful nor revolutionary, but simply doubling down on the same well-worn policies of economic central planning that have been with us at least since Wilson, Hoover, and FDR.

Trump, to be sure, has taken some heavy criticism, but that seems to owe much more to his pompous persona and abrasive rhetoric than to his policies being more obectionable than Sanders's.  Sanders, for all that he comes across as a fairly mild-mannered eccentric, is every bit as virulently authoritarian in his policies as is Trump, and every bit as ignorant of reality.  Both of them, wittingly or unwittingly, represent an acceleration of the erosion of liberty and the tightening of government control over the lives of American citizens.  It is perhaps obvious how the Trumpian vision of national "security" will necessarily grow the surveillance and police powers of government.  Less obvious, but no less disturbing, is the expansion of the police state which the Sanders economy would require.  The more revenue the state means to take, the less it can tolerate any economic activity out of its watchful eye.  The case of Eric Garner, the New York man strangled to death by police, is often cited as an example of police brutality and racism, but the fact that the incident was precipitated by his selling of untaxed cigarettes ought to be seen as a chilling reminder that control of economic activity cannot occur without the will to enforce it - lethally, if need be.

I don't believe that either Sanders or Trump will win his respective party's nomination, nor do I think that the candidates the establishment will eventually vomit onto our electoral plates will be much better.  Trump and Sanders supporters are justified in being fed up with endless retreads of fascist-lite candidates, different talking heads spouting the same old platitudes and enacting the same old policies.  It's just disheartening to see that they're falling for it again even as they think they're rebelling against it, because their "revolt" is an emotional reaction only, not an intellectual one.  More government control is what we've been getting for ages, and being led around by the emotions like dogs on a leash is far from new or novel, either.  What we need is a revolution of reason, which leads inexorably toward less fear and more freedom.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Authority and despair

We wonder why anxiety and depression are so prevalent these days.  Millions of people profess to be unfulfilled and dissatisfied with their lives.  Some are driven to suicide, some to ostentatious acts of violence against random strangers.  Most choose just to soldier on in varying degrees of apathy.  You might be one of them.  You might feel that your life really doesn't matter, and in a certain tragic sense, you're absolutely right.

We've built - on a foundation of good intentions, to be sure - a society in which you, as an individual, don't matter.  Consider the perspective of a child, and the things done to you by people with good intentions:

At five years or so of age, you're forced to leave your family for several hours a day to sit in a room full of strangers, whether or not you're emotionally or intellectually equipped for it yet.  You are segregated by age, and discouraged from interacting with children a year younger or older.  You are told when you may speak, when you may eat, when you may play, and when you may empty your bladder.  You are told what you must learn, in what order, and by what methods.  Your interests, preferences, strengths, weaknesses, and values as an individual are summarily disregarded.  If you disobey, or fail to perform to expectations, you are punished.  Obedience to authority is the highest value.

You are also judged.  You aren't permitted to learn at your own pace; your progress is constantly monitored.  If you fall behind the average, that's a bad thing, and you know it.  If you get ahead of your designated age group, they have no idea what to do with you, either.  You could be either held back or advanced a grade, and ostracized from the other children you've been made to see as your peers.   

After twelve years or so, you leave to go out in the "real world," but your individuality is still largely scorned.  You're sorted and categorized by the government according to your ethnicity and ancestry, your place of origin, your sex, your age, your lifestyle, your income level, your skin color...You are told how you may or may not earn a living, how a large portion of your income must be spent, what you may or may not do with your own property, with whom you must or must not interact.  If you disobey, your property may be confiscated, or you might be locked in a cage, even if your choices have caused no harm to anyone.  Obedience to authority is the highest value.

Conformity is necessary to keep the machine running smoothly.  It's an assembly line, a factory.  School is geared toward mass-producing "educated minds" who will be "good citizens."  That too is an assembly line, in which your function is to generate tax revenue for the state and not rock the boat. 

Assembly lines are wonderful for efficiently producing exact copies of a model.  Raw materials are refined to a uniform consistency, and pressed into molds.  Sometimes that's exactly what's needed.  An assembly line is not so great for turning out works of art, though.  An artist considers all the strengths and weaknesses of his or her medium, and uses them to produce something of unique beauty and significance, with no two pieces being exactly the same.

Should a human mind be a mass-produced product, or a work of art?  What effect might embracing the wrong method have on peoples' mental health, on their sense of self, on their feelings of fulfillment and purpose?  And how might anxious, alienated, unfulfilled people behave toward their fellow man?  With respect and kindness, or with suspicion, envy, mistrust, or even murderous rage?

We tend to accept things the way they are because we know no better, much as an abused child might accept his abuse as simply "how it is."  That's just how families work, he thinks, and where would he be without them?

We're taught to fear the possibility of true change, of true freedom, of true respect for individuality.  We may fear what we see happening around us, but we fear even more what might happen if we change course, and so we double down.  More laws, more authorities, less wiggle room for the individual to do something unforeseen and screw up the plan.  We'll accept chains on ourselves for a guarantee that the other guy will be chained, too. 

The way things are now may not be ideal, but the devil you know is better than the one you don't know.  It's often easier to pretend the one you don't know isn't even worth acknowledging as a possibility, much less seriously considering. 

Does it have to be this way?  Are we building the best possible society, with clear thought and respect for our fellow human beings?  Or is this thing we've wrought simply the product of fear and clinging to hopes of a false certainty that doesn't exist in this universe?

Guns and common sense

Another tragic mass shooting is making headlines, and with it, the expected calls to enact "common sense" gun laws.  Sometimes they come with nasty accusations from anti-gun people toward those of us who oppose gun control legislation, accusations of being uncaring or callous, or even worse things. 

Every decent person is rightly horrified by mass shootings (and by murder on any scale, by any means.)  Opposing gun control laws doesn't necessarily represent an uncaring attitude, though, but a recognition that gun control measures are not only likely to be ineffective, but counterproductive.  The impulse to "Do something!" about horrific events is a strong one, but it's often better to do nothing than to do something which hasn't been considered from certain important perspectives.

By far the most frequently proposed gun control measures is a universal background check, with the intent of keeping guns out of the hands of the bad guys.

There are several factors which make that unlikely to succeed, and likely to do more harm than good.  It's wishful thinking, for instance, that any such program could possibly be universal in its application.  A background check program must rely on gun sellers ordering the checks and then refusing to sell to people who don't pass.  Black markets are a thing, though. As long as there is a demand for any product, there are people willing to make transactions behind closed doors and off the record.  A look at the ongoing War on Drugs shows this to be true: Despite a few decades and a few trillion dollars, drugs are still pretty much readily available to anyone willing to do business on the shady side of town.

Also troubling is the implication that someone can be stripped of rights on the mere suspicion that he might possibly, at some point in the future, do something bad.

The most glaring problem, however, is that nobody seems to be able to identify who the bad guys are until they actually do something heinous.  A common theme that runs through most cases of murder and mass murder is the shock and surprise of people who knew the perpetrator.  "I never would have expected this."  "He seemed like a nice, quiet person, kept to himself a lot." "I never had any trouble with him.  He was a perfectly pleasant co-worker."

Few mass shooters have previous criminal records, so a criminal background check likely would not have stopped many.  What's more, people convicted of felonies (even non-violent ones, and even those whose convictions resulted from a plea bargain rather than a proper jury trial) are already barred from owning firearms.  How much tighter can that net reasonably be made?  Misdemeanors?  Jaywalking? 

Psychological screening, then?  There is no psychological profile that can accurately predict murderous rampages.  Certainly, many mass murderers exhibited signs of various mental disorders and imbalances, but those are far from definitive predictors of the capacity for random violence.  The vast majority of people who suffer from various mental disorders never even commit simple assault, much less bloody rampages, and many who have done such things are found to be clinically sane.  Laws denying the right to bear arms to anyone with a history of depression or anxiety would unjustly bar large numbers of peaceful people while leaving plenty of gaps in the net for human time-bombs to slip through.  We'd certainly get an expanded police state, with government snooping into our mental health and politicians making psychological judgments that they are profoundly unqualified to make, but little if any additional safety.

If any further reason is needed to doubt the effectiveness of background checks, consider the rising tide of violence and abuse by police officers against people, pets, and property.  This is a group of human beings who have supposedly been carefully screened and trained, yet incidents of cops shooting unarmed suspects for minor offenses, or none at all, are far more frequent than news of mass shootings by civilians.   In light of those facts, it's difficult to understand how anyone can take the idea that government is competent to decide who is or is not qualified to carry a firearm seriously.

In the absence of any sound scienctific principle, then, how will fitness to own a gun be determined?  Politically, of course, and that's fraught with its own special hazards.  Democracy tends to bring out the worst hysteria in the masses rather than the clearest thinking.  (Don't scoff.  Hitler was democratically elected by a German populace who, on balance, were not terrible people.)  Politicians and bureaucrats have other, and often higher, concerns than the rights of their constituents, concerns such as expanding their power and influence and marginalizing their opponents.  The danger that political minorities, disfavored groups, and people who are critical of the existing political power structure might be targeted cannot be casually dismissed.  Don't think that being a libertarian, an atheist, a critic of our government's foreign policy, or (insert some group of which you're a member) could ever be classified as a dangerous mental disorder?  I'm not so confident.

Well then, with background checks being either toothless or unfeasible, it seems we're faced with a choice between continuing horrific massacres or the total revocation of gun rights and confiscation of all extant firearms.  Besides being a false dichotomy, in many ways that proposition is even more hazardous and less likely to succeed in its stated aim.

Even if it were possible to remove all firearms from society, it wouldn't abolish murder, or even mass murder, because it does nothing to address the underlying motivations that induce people to random acts of violence.  Guns are only a means to someone's chosen end - maybe the most popular means, but by no means the only one.  If you could magically make guns disappear, you might not see news of mass shootings any more, but there are myriad ways to wreak mayhem and destruction on unsuspecting people.   Bombs aren't difficult to make.  A car driven through a crowd could do every bit as much damage as firing a gun into it.  A lot of innocent blood can be shed even by a deranged person with a knife or sword in a well-planned attack.  No, taking away one means only drives a macabre sort of innovation; it doesn't destroy the motive or the will to kill.

But of course the dream of a gun-free world or nation is only wishful thinking.  Even Australia's oft-touted gun confiscation program netted only a fraction of the guns in the country.  There are many times more guns in the U.S.  With a little know-how, it's possible to make firearms and ammunition from materials found at the local home improvement store.  And with the rise of 3D printing technology, even that bit of expertise is rendered moot.  Whatever your opinion of guns, they are here to stay.

Even the attempt to ban and confiscate guns seems likely to fail spectacularly, resulting in vastly more violence, the very opposite of what sincere gun control advocates desire.  Just as in the War on Drugs, millions of peaceful people would be made criminals not by any wrongdoing on their part, but by a mere stroke of a legislator's or a president's pen.  Just as in the War on Drugs, millions of people would be unwilling to comply.  Just as in the War on Drugs, trade in contraband items would fall into the hands of the most unscrupulous sort of people.  If you think drug cartels are bad, you probably don't want to see a gun cartel.  And just as in the War on Drugs, a War on Firearms would lead to draconian measures and rampant abuse, more intrusive surveillance of private citizens, the slaughter of innocents in standoffs and botched raids, and vast economic costs that would impoverish millions.  A total ban on guns (except in the hands of the enforcers tasked with taking them from civilians, naturally) might be the surest way to bring Police State U.S.A. to its fullest fruition.

Unfortunately, we probably will never completely eradicate the problem of murder and mass murder from human society.  I suspect that the solution, when it comes, will come through changes in attitudes from the bottom up, not decrees from on high -  attitudes toward guns, perhaps, but especially toward the culture of authoritarian political control that causes so much alienation and frustration. Somewhat counterintuitively to those who have grown up knowing nothing but the authority of the paternalistic state, perhaps the answer lies in expanding individual liberty, not ever-stricter control.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Part of the solution

There's an old saying that tells us, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." I'm not sure where it originated, but I think it's wrong.  180 degrees backward, in fact.  It strongly implies that if there's a problem, and you're not actively, aggressively, proactively taking steps to affect change in the world beyond yourself, then you're actually perpetuating the problem. 

To be sure, there is a time and a place for activisim, for argument and debate, for vociferous protest.  But sometimes active crusading against a wrong has little or no power to make it right.  Sometimes it even becomes a greater problem than that which it purports to address.  There is a very real chance that whatever action you take to oppose the problem will either make it worse or have other unintended negative consequences.  Sometimes, by trying to force a solution, you become part of the same problem or another one.

It is indeed probable that more harm and misery have been caused by men determined to use coercion to stamp out a moral evil than by men intent on doing evil.” -- Friedrich August von Hayek

On the other hand, by quietly refusing to take part in the problem, you are leading instead of just demanding.  Simply by living a principled life, you set an example for others, and the more successful you are at arranging your own life and attaining your own contentment by those principles, the more they appeal to others.  When they see you prosperous without stealing, ambitious without envy, secure in yourself without disparaging others, in control of yourself without controlling others, courageous without belligerence, proud without boasting, it often sends a message more powerful than the most ardent proselytizing or the most sweeping legislation, and without fear of foisting unintended consequences upon your fellow human beings.

These are the people who have contributed to the solution by solving themselves.  They aren't perpetuating the problem; they are the very model of what the desired end game looks like.  They aren't publicly patting themselves on the back for being enlightened, and they aren't screaming at others to be more like them; they let the way they conduct themselves speak for itself.

“The only thing a psychically-human being can do to improve society is to present society with one improved unit.” -- Albert Jay Nock
In other words, you can rail at your fellow man to improve himself until you're blue in the face, you can pass laws to compel him at gunpoint to act as you wish him to act (and let the root of the problem continue to fester underneath,) or you can improve the only person for whom you are solely responsible and over whom you can fully and rightfully exercise control: Yourself. 

A great many activists are so absorbed in trying to perfect "society" that they have entirely neglected this most essential human endeavor of improving themselves.  Whatever the merits of their arguments, hypocrisy is hardly inspirational, and deriding those who have presented society with that one improved unit as "part of the problem" is both hypocritical and idiotic.

By all means, be outspoken if you have something to say, but don't forget that first and foremost you must be the change you want to see.  If you do no more than that, you've already succeeded beyond what some of the most vocal activists will ever accomplish.  Remember, if you're not part of the problem, you're part of the solution.*