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.*


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Cognitive dissonance is a hell of a drug

Is there anyone out there who's completely, 100% satisfied with the job the government is doing?  Has there ever been?  If so, I'm not aware of them.

Ask anyone, and you'll find some area in which he or she believes the government is making a godawful mess of things.  Everybody's dissatisfied, if not downright angry, about government's dim-witted, ham-handed, overbearing mishandling of something.

And yet...virtually every one of these very same people will passionately and adamantly proclaim that this very same government that's making a horse's ass out of something they care very deeply about, is absolutely beyond reproach in some other area. 

Mr. Conservative rails about the incompetence and ulterior motives of government trying to manage the economy...but don't you even think about questioning the absolute authority and competence of the government when it comes to war or law enforcement, you unpatriotic sonofabitch!

Ms. Liberal decries the abuses of the police state and belligerent foreign policy...but pleads for the very same organization that unapologetically perpetrates those abuses to take absolute control of the economy, and if you don't agree, you're a heartless one-percenter!

The contradictions boggle the mind.  People trust the same outfit that's been promising peace in the Middle East for half a century without positive results to regulate the climate of an entire planet!  They want the folks who gave us the Federal Reserve banking cartel, which has presided over the depreciation of the dollar to less than 5% of its 1913 purchasing power, to resuscitate the economy.  They demand that the buffoons who have spent hundreds of billions of dollars and abused countless individuals in the perpetually-failing War on Drugs manage our medical care.  They think an institution famous for racking up trillions upon trillions of dollars of debt is uniquely qualified to manage their retirement savings.

And it gets worse.  Corporations control "our" government, they'll scream, and in the next breath call for government to be given more powers to regulate the economy.  Yep, nothing makes a bad guy behave like giving him a bigger club to beat you with!

Schools are failing?  Bigger budget!  TSA is the punchline of a bad joke?  Why, it must need more money!  More agents!  More scanners!  Police departments run amok?  Make those bastards investigate themselves!  Corruption in government?  More power!

And then, when you think it can't possibly get any more ridiculous, it really floors you, because whether these things are horrible crimes against humanity, or fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way changes from one presidential administration to the next.  Obama doubles down on the War on Drugs?  You might get an awkward mutter from a progressive, where he was screaming bloody murder when W was in office.  Growing the welfare state with a massive Medicare expansion?  Why, that's just George doing what's right for seniors, say the Rs.  AND...whatever side normally champions any given government program will NEVER be happy when the other side does it.

Government has an uncanny ability to make otherwise intelligent people think and act like imbeciles.  It's all completely ass-backward from how a sane, rational person would behave in any other circumstance.  If your mechanic goes joyriding in your car, you probably wouldn't want him house-sitting for you while you're on vacation.  If your dog walker loses your pet, you wouldn't trust her to babysit your toddler.  If an employee steals merchandise from your shelves, your first thought wouldn't be to have him auditing your books. If you absolutely have no choice but to rely on someone who has proven himself untrustworthy, you'd watch him like a hawk and suspect everything he does, not grant him broad discretion to do whatever he sees fit.

But when it comes to government, humanity has the utterly astounding capacity to watch the fox rob the henhouse in broad daylight and then without a hint of irony nominate him to count the eggs.

Only a very few of us have the level of awareness to facepalm.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Reform we can believe in!

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. 

Just look at all the great things about democracy!  Every election cycle, we have the privilege of choosing between candidates running the full spectrum of political opinion, from the authoriarian socialism/fascism of the left, to the authoritarian fascism/socialism of the right!  At the local level, we get to vote for a vast array of inspiring folks running for offices such as County Commissioner, Superintendent of Schools, Superior Court Judge Position 3, Insurance Commissioner, County Assessor, and a whole slew of others who inspire us to shout out loud in a rapturous fit of democratic ecstasy: "Who the hell are all these assholes, and what in god's name does the Assistant Deputy Director of Institutional Masturbation do, anyway?"   

Despite all these wonderful aspects, I think we all agree that democracy could work a lot better.  For instance, no matter how entertaining all the zany campaign hijinks are, or how inspiring the guy running unopposed for Auditor General of Public Lands and Non-tomato-based Condiments is, in the end, we are faced with the horrifying fact that for every office, one of those wastes of DNA in an expensive suit inevitably wins, and has the power to actually do actual stuff to us, and it's all downhill from there.

So here's my proposal to make democracy really work.

  • For each office, in addition to the formal candidates, a space shall be allocated on the ballot for None of the Above.
  • All eligible voters who fail to cast a vote for one of the formal candidates for any office shall be considered to have voted None of the Above for that office.
  • For any election in which None of the Above shall receive more votes than any formal candidate for a particular office, the will of the voters shall be respected, and the office shall remain vacant for the prescribed term.  Office space designated for such an office may be rented out for the duration, for the purposes of storage, arts and crafts, petting zoos, and/or sandwich vendors.
  • Any office which remains so vacated for three successive terms shall be abolished, all record of its existence shall be destroyed, and the occasion shall be celebrated with hot dogs, carbonated drinks, and Star Trek marathons on TV.

I have absolute confidence that in only a few election cycles, our democratic system will be running so smoothly, you'll hardly notice it at all.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The measurement problem

How do you measure how well some enterprise or project is performing? Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, in his classic lecture The Pretense of Knowledge, shows us that what is measurable is not always what is important, and what is important is not always measurable.  This has some very profound implications for government-run institutions such as schools and police departments, and helps explain some of the most intractable problems we see play out before us.

Before I get too far, I should make clear an important distinction.  By "measurement," I mean a mathematically quantifiable observation which can be expressed in objective units - inches, kilograms, degrees Celsius, nanoseconds, volts, or what-have-you.  It is possible to observe and draw conclusions about something without measuring it in this fashion, and in fact we do so routinely.  I can measure my weight after consuming a bowl of ice cream.  I can also assess, and describe verbally, the experience of eating it, but I cannot measure it nor express it mathematically in any meaningful and objective sense.

Now...onward and upward.

There are all sorts of factors that figure into an assessment of quality and performance, and it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to objectively quantify them.  This problem is entirely avoided at the individual level - a phenomenon analagous to knowing whether or not you like a piece of art vs. attempting to create a universal formula or algorithm of artistic merit.  This is so because value is subjective; it exists in the mind of the individual valuer rather than in any inherent property of the thing valued.

In order to understand how this throws a wrench in government programs, let's first look at how it serves in the free market, in the example of a restaurant.  Assessing how much you like a particular restaurant is deceptively easy: It pleases or displeases you to some degree, which you feel on an intuitive level.  A variety of factors figure into your assessment, including food quality, atmosphere, service, and price - and every one of them is highly subjective.  You can probably describe in words why you enjoyed or didn't enjoy your dining experience - say, to write a review, and that information can be interpreted and utilized by others, again on an intuitive level.  It is impossible, however, to objectively quantify it with mathematical precision, much less in a way that is intersubjectively comparable to another person's experience.  Any rating system is necessarily subjective and imprecise, whether it be written reviews or a scale of one to four stars.  There is not, and cannot be, a universal equation of restaurant quality.

This is where Hayek's wisdom comes in.  We can, of course, objectively measure all sorts of things about the restaurant: number of seats and tables, number of cooks and wait staff, waiting time to be seated, time between ordering and being served, weight and volume of portions, number of dishes on the menu, calories and fat per serving, average time the wait staff spends with each customer.  None of them easily correlates directly to quality, though.  How long is too long to wait for one's food, for instance, is a subjective matter.  The person habitually in a hurry may find a wait more than five minutes intolerable, while one interested in leisurely conversation with dining companions might shrug it off, or even feel rushed by too-quick service.  A long wait time, moreover, could be due to inefficient service, or to the practice of cooking each dish from scratch as it's ordered.  Similarly, wait staff might spend a lot of time per customer because they're very attentive to the customer's needs, or because they hover annoyingly, or because they get so many complaints they must deal with.

Each measurement you might take measures exactly that thing, and not necessarily whatever you hope to measure by proxy.  Most factors that make a restaurant pleasing to you, while they may be observed and stated, are not susceptible of objective measurement.  What is important is often not measurable at all, and what's measurable is seldom unambiguously important.

Fortunately, an objective quantitative analysis is not necessary, because the free market provides a built-in meter of customer satisfaction: Profit and loss.  Because the customer controls both the means to pay and the decision of whether or not to buy, his money reflects his satisfaction with the product.  His intuitive level of satisfaction is translated directly into profit or loss without the need to synthesize a dozen, a hundred, or a thousand different highly subjective criteria into a universal scale of restaurant quality.  Funding is automatically allocated to those restaurants that do a good job pleasing their customers, and the most successful models inspire imitators and emulators, so there's no need to impose a standard.

Now, compare the public school system.  Unlike in a restaurant, the customer is disconnected from the decision to buy or to abstain from buying.  Instead, money is extracted from him via taxation and the product is purchased on his behalf.  This removes the job of assessing the quality of the service from the customer and payer; someone else must decide how well the institution is performing, and thus which models of service should be supported and funded and which not.

So, how do you determine which models should be abandoned and which supported, and to what degree?  There must be some decision-making body appointed, and this body will not have access to particular knowledge of the preferences and situations of all of the individuals to be served, which would otherwise inform their own individual assessments.  Therefore, the tastes and judgments of the individual, relating specifically to his or her own unique circumstances, must be supplanted by some universal rule.  This could be done simply by having the decision-making body openly impose its own subjective preferences in dictatorial fashion.  Usually such a naked exercise of arbitrary power is not well-tolerated, though.  The common alternative is to attempt the devising of some universal and objective means of measuring the institution's performance, which will then inform the direction that things ought to take in scientific fashion.  Unfortunately, as Hayek taught, what is important is not necessarily directly measurable, and what is measurable quite often misleads us.

The traditional letter grade system is one means of assessing the outcome of education, and it is a useful one at a certain level, but ultimately still a subjective one.  A grade is, at its root, simply a teacher's opinion (hopefully, but not always, well-informed) of how well a student is learning a subject.  It cannot really be considered objective, nor can a grade from one teacher or school be compared apples-to-apples with one from another.  It is inseparable from the teacher's intuitive subjective judgments: what points of a subject to focus on, what sort of tests or other methods to use to ascertain mastery, and how the raw results of those methods are to be intrepreted.  Even the best testing does not necessarily measure what it purports to measure.  A grade might reflect a student's mastery of a subject, but it also may reflect unquestioning compliance with orders, extroversion or introversion (via a "class participation" portion of the grade), teacher bias, and student interest in the subject or the teacher's methods, just to list a few.  My Ds and Fs in high school English and literature classes, for instance, were far more representative of my extreme shyness and quiet rebellion than of a faulty command of language, and I would suspect that many similar cases exist. 

Arguably, a grade is more meaningful when it is tempered with intuitive judgment.  An "objective" grade may tell us that Sally is routinely scoring below the class average on daily assignments, and that Johnny is able to answer 85% of pop quiz questions correctly.  It does not take into account that Sally is just going through the motions because she knows the material forward and backward and feels bored and under-challenged, or that Johnny is just regurgitating answers without any deeper understanding - important details that an attentive teacher, parent, or the student might recognize.  Thus, in the quest to be more "objective" and "scientific" we end up stripping out some of the most valuable and important insights.  Without non-quantifiable individual judgment, we hamstring our capacity to interpret what those numbers or letters actually mean.

Standardized testing takes all the potential pitfalls of traditional grading and distills them to near purity.  It seeks to eradicate individual interpretation entirely, and so steps up to full Pretense of Knowledge-level error.  It does not, and cannot, directly measure a student's understanding of a subject, much less his or her capacity for critical thinking and practical application of knowledge.  What it actually measures is no more and no less than how often students provide the answers deemed correct by the test's authors.  In fact, how those answers are arrived at - whether by real mastery of the subject, rote regurgitation, being coached on test-taking skills at the expense of understanding of the subject, or even outright cheating by teachers or school administrators terrified of justly or unjustly being labeled incompetent - cannot be ascertained.  It is simply taken as given that this is a reliable proxy for, and accurately reflects, mastery and understanding of academic subjects. 

Yet that false objectivity is exactly what is demanded, and what must be demanded, by the system as it exists.  There must be at least a strong pretense that funds and resources are allocated rationally, and not merely by a politician or administrator's subjective preference or whim, and a truly objective standard is impossible. 

The accountability of the market to its customers is short-circuited.  Rather than directing progress toward a desirable outcome, the incentives become perverse ones.  Instead of focusing on pleasing their ostensible customers (parents and students) as a restaurant must, schools and teachers must please the proximate source of their funding: government.  Government, which is necessarily removed from the individual preferences of students and parents, must utilize some alternative way of assessing performance, and that way must be cloaked in a veneer of scientific objectivity.  Thus, instead of a focus on developing the skills, knowledge, and qualities that students and parents value, schools and teachers must focus on churning out classes of proficient test-takers...or at least creating the illusion of such.

This in turn creates a systemic bias in favor of the bland conformity of order-following automatons and against attentive, creative innovators and problem-solvers, and a dilemma for the latter sort of teacher:  Teach to the test and be rewarded, or teach to the individual and risk punishment.  Teachers who aspire to be mentors to their students are suppressed and frustrated.  The system encourages treating the job as an assembly line.  I know a few dedicated and intelligent teachers who have persevered and done what they could in spite of the institutional shackles imposed on them; I can only imagine how many brilliant minds have been driven from the profession over the years.

Of course, the farther removed from the individual level the decision-making power resides, the more pronounced are the perverse incentives and perverse results.  Federal government control of education is vastly inferior to local government control, but even local government control is no substitute for the individual sovereignty of the free market.

The very same analysis can be applied to such subjects as law enforcement, too, and I had intended to do so, but this post is already running long, so that sub-topic will have to wait for another day.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Democracy vs. liberty

Democracy is not the same thing as freedom.  No matter how often they're mentioned in the same sentence, no matter how many times you hear "democracy" touted as the ultimate in human liberty, they're not even remotely the same.  (And please don't start on the we're-a-republic-not-a-democracy schtick.  It's not direct democracy, true, but it's still a democratic process -  the citizens vote for rulers, the ruling class votes on legislation.)

A simple thought experiment will serve to show the difference.  Imagine a group of ten people deciding on a restaurant for dinner.  Three want pizza, two each prefer Mexican, Chinese, and French cuisine, and one wants Indian. 

In a democracy, they vote, and all are bound by the outcome, whether it suits their tastes or not.  In a straight whichever-gets-the-most-votes-wins style of democracy, assuming everyone votes for their first choice, they're having pizza.  Only three people get what they really wanted, with everyone else having to settle for a less-prefered option, maybe even one they hate.

Of course, that opens the door to compromises.  Suppose four of the seven who don't want pizza agree that they like hamburgers better than pizza, and decide to vote that way to override the pizza bloc.  Now nobody gets their first choice.  The hamburger coalition gets its way, but hamburgers might be a distant second, or even lower, in their scale of preferences.  They simply dislike them less than they dislike pizza.

It could get even messier, if the pizza bloc dislikes burgers enough that they try to shear off some of the hamburger coalition with another option.  And this is just deciding one fairly simple issue.  Imagine if some other issues were bundled with it - say, what to do for pre-dinner entertainment.  Movie, concert, theater, museum...?  Each of those contains its own subset of options, too.  The latest Oscar hopeful?  A lowbrow comedy?  Shakespeare?  Art or natural history? 

With all these choices only adding complications to their evening plans, there's the potential for a lot of conflict between our hypothetical group members.  And this is before they vote on who pays and how much!  It could easily come to blows.  Because some people's preferences must prevail over others, it is inherently a win-lose (or lose-lose less badly) proposition.  It is a scheme for enforcing conformity, and so it creates conflict over whose preferences everyone must conform to.  Opting out is not an option; you either fight, and you win or lose, or you surrender and lose.  The end result is generally a sludge of unhappy compromise that displeases the majority a bit less than it displeases the losing minority - hardly the stuff of a blissfully happy society.

Or...they could scrap democracy in favor of individual liberty, which opens up a vast array of possibilities even within this little scenario.  Every person can go his or her own way, or they can split up in groups.  They can decide their own priorities; for example, whether to have their first choice of food or entertainment, or compromise for the sake of someone's company.  The groups might shuffle between activities - dividing up along certain lines for entertainment, and forming new sub-groups for dining.  Each one is free to choose whatever arrangements suit him or her best.  Any one person will only choose to go along with someone else's plan if he deems it better than his next-best alternative.  If he doesn't, he can walk away from it.  It's win-win or no deal, and thus conflict is avoided.  Bob's decision to go have Indian food by himself doesn't compel anyone else to do anything he or she doesn't want to.  If you don't like someone else's idea of a fun evening, you're free to go your own way.  And the next time the situation arises, you can do it all completely differently if you like.  You can escape the status quo without having to convince anyone else to do so.

 The question, then, must ultimately be: Why do we worship democracy so?  Are we such control freaks that we prefer to deny others the freedom to pursue their divergent values at the expense of fully pursuing  our own?  Are we that afraid that diversity of interests will tear society apart at the seams if we don't impose artificial conformity?  (And if so, is such a society - one that must suppress individuality to survive - really worth preserving?)

Thursday, June 4, 2015


Most people seem to believe implicitly that freedom is a zero-sum game.  In order to expand the freedom of some, you must deny it to others.  So we mistakenly try to free the workers by shackling the employers; free the consumers by controlling the sellers; free the oppressed by oppressing the erstwhile oppressor in return.

All the while, most people don't realize that they've got it all backward, and all their efforts at controlling and restraining and herding their fellow human beings are counterproductive to their own stated desires of making things better for the worst-off.  Freedom is not zero-sum; it multiplies when you extend it to everyone, and it contracts when you deny it to some.  When we feel our own freedoms are constrained, rather than looking to do the same to someone else, we might more profitably look at the bigger picture, and see who else wants unshackling and deregulating.

Case in point: The best way to help workers and consumers is not with ever-heavier taxation on businesses, or mandating that employers pay ever-higher minimum wages, or imposing ever-tighter regulations on the productive.  Those things all make it more difficult for a business to succeed.  Fewer businesses means less competition for labor services, which exerts a downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on unemployment.  Fewer businesses means less overall production and less competition between producers, which exerts an upward pressure on prices and downward pressure on the diversity and quality of products.  It's like a Chinese finger puzzle: the harder you pull, the tighter it squeezes.

If you want real wages to rise, unemployment to fall, and social mobility to increase, take the shackles off employers and entrepreneurs.  Instead of futilely squabbling over the division of an ever-shrinking pie, allow the pie to expand.  The less of a burden we lay on entrepreneurs, the more people will be able to start and run their own businesses.  No, not every worker is a potential entrepreneur, but every one who does leave the labor force to go into business for him- or herself is one who no longer competes with the labor force, but instead becomes a purchaser of labor services.  The supply of, and demand for, labor are allowed to reach a more natural equilibrium.

Every dollar you don't tax away from business, or force it to spend complying with regulatory burdens, is a dollar it can spend on increasing production - more and better capital, more and better labor.  That's a real increase in societal wealth that disproportionately benefits the poorest: the more goods there are to be bought, the greater the purchasing power of even the lowest wages.  The rich benefit a lot less from a greater supply of consumer goods than the poor do.  For the most part they already are able to buy everything they want, with plenty left over for saving and investment.  It's the ones at the bottom who find themselves able to live better when the price of food or shelter or energy falls.  I don't know about you, but I'd rather be making $2 an hour and be able to buy a week's worth of groceries from a day's work, than to make ten times that and have it buy half or three-quarters as much.

I really wonder sometimes how much of the currently prevailing "wisdom" is born of good but misguided intentions, and how much is informed instead by unacknowledged evil intentions, an implicit desire to do harm to those perceived to be better off out of envy and spite.  One thing that's clear to me, though, is that the freedom and prosperity of the less advantaged will always be less than it could until we're ready to stop trying to force our way out of this finger puzzle and realize that every individual's freedom is ultimately a mirror of that which he extends to others.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A finer clay?

Lately, I've been pondering on three closely interrelated quotations from three different thinkers.

First, Frederic Bastiat:
“If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?”
 Ludwig von Mises:
“If one rejects laissez-faire on account of man's fallibility and moral weakness, one must for the same reason also reject every kind of government action.”
and finally, Robert LeFevre:
"If men are good, you don't need government; if men are evil or ambivalent, you don't dare have one."
 Implicit in most arguments in favor of government, and explicit in some, is the idea that we need government because human beings are corrupt (or corruptible) and fallible.  Most of us accept this premise without argument or even any serious thought; indeed, thinking seriously about it must inevitably uncover a potentially fatal flaw: This government, by necessity, must be populated not with perfectly benevolent and omniscient divine overseers, but from the very same stock which is deemed in need of guidance: ordinary, flawed human beings.

The idea of creating positions of much greater power than any private individual or organization, no matter how big, should give us pause.

However cynical and grasping any given private business may be, its power is sharply limited by the self-interest of its customers.  If it wants your money, it has to provide a good you want at a price you're willing to pay, and convince you to deal with it instead of a competitor.  Wal-mart can't seize your bank account if you don't feed your dog Ol' Roy.  Monsanto can't throw you in a cell to rot if you prefer to buy non-Roundup-ready vegetables.  McDonald's doesn't have armed agents ready to storm your house in the middle of the night if you say Big Macs suck.  Even if they did, the exercise of those powers would rightly be seen as illegitimate, and people would feel no duty to comply, nor a duty to condemn and betray neighbors who resisted their edicts.  There is no illusion of legitimacy; those acts would be acknowledged as criminal and immoral, and without the consent or the complacency of the masses, their tyranny crumbles.

Only government is considered to have the right to seize your property, lock you in a cage, or kill you if you disobey its orders.  The vast majority of people at least tolerate the exercise of this power, and most see it as perfectly right and proper.  Clearly, governmental power - coercive, monopolistic, and with a facade of popular legitimacy - has at least the potential for far greater abuse than mere economic power.

Perhaps, though, there is something inherent in the nature of government or political processes which tends to filter the best, brightest, most humane, and most trustworthy elements of the human race from the common clay, people who can be trusted with such awesome power and responsibility.

Unfortunately, both logic and experience strongly suggest that the truth is directly opposite: Positions of governmental power tend to attract some of the worst elements of humanity, and to encourage bad traits in even the best.

What sort of people are attracted to positions of power over their fellow man?  The arrogant, the zealous, the sociopathic, the venal and corrupt are all going to see in government opportunities for personal gain or advancing their personal agendas at the expense of others.  Maybe it also attracts people of genuine good intentions, and even some of reasonable competence, but the slate of candidates is bound to skew farther toward the viler end of the spectrum than the human average.  Strike one.

Well, maybe the democratic process will weed out the rotten ones?  Again, not likely.  Remember, we're operating on the premise that the average human is too faulty, either morally or intellectually or both, to govern himself.  Who is he going to vote for?  Probably the candidate who most effectively panders to his own narrow self-interest or his shallow intellect.  This second supposed safeguard against bad rulers also tends to select for undesirable traits.  Strike two.

Experience and observation bear this out.  The candidate who wins is more often than not the one most skilled at begging for campaign donations, speaking in shiny but vacuous platitudes, appealing to the most irrational desires and prejudices of the voting public, promising the impossible with a straight face, and looking good on camera.

Even those of generally good intentions and reasonable competence who slip past the reverse safety net of a public vote tend to fall prey to the seduction of power.  It is all too easy to be seduced by the promise of shady means to accomplish some vaunted goal, especially when those shady means come equipped with a veneer of respectability.  It's also human nature to project, to delude ourselves that our own personal interest is for the good of humanity at large, and thus it is all too easy to oppress our fellow man with the very best of intentions if the power to do so falls into our hands.  We can't even trust that ordinarily good people will remain so when tempted by power.  Strike three.

As Lord Acton said, power corrupts, and as Frank Herbert noted, power is magnetic to the corruptible.  What's left over after this process of societal fermentation and distillation?

Ask any person you know who pays even a little attention to such things, and he or she can probably name at least a handful of politicians who, in his or her estimation, are vicious, stupid, arrogant, or out-of-touch with reality.  Sure, they can probably name a few they like, too (and, when necessary, perform all sorts of impressive mental gymnastics to excuse their faults,) but the profession of politician, generically, is held in a similar level of disrepute as prostitutes and used car salesmen*.  Comedy frequently tells truths through jokes and humor that we otherwise would find too unpleasant to face, and the comedic stereotype of a politician is a vain, vapid, self-serving buffoon.  That's no accident.  And no matter how hard we vote, things never seem to get much better.  Go back ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, or a thousand years, and you invariably find that public office is rife with corruption, abuse, and outright idiocy, liberally seasoned with totalitarian and genocidal tendencies.

And yet...we persist in the mass delusion that government can somehow tame or restrain the human capacity for evil.  In fact, however evil society in general is or is not, the odds of a governing body drawn from that society being equally or less evil than that seem so small that only a fleeting quirk of chance could arrange it so.  All the problems alleged to make full freedom and a laissez-faire economy impossible or undesirable are magnified rather than diminished by the existence of the state.

*Pretty unfair to streetwalkers and car dealers, actually.  Whatever their ethical or intellectual shortcomings, at least they won't pretend you've committed some heinous crime if you decline to do business with them.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A different way

Freedom doesn't seem as though it should be a controversial topic.  Almost everybody claims to support it.  Politicians blather on and on about it.  Troops claim to be defending it at risk of life, limb, and mental health.  There's even a famous statue dedicated to Liberty.  It seems on the surface of things that it's a pretty popular ideal.

So long as you do no more than pay lip service to the words "freedom" and "liberty," nobody bats an eye.  When you dare to dig into the actual ideas behind the words, though...people get indignant.  Defensive.  Angry.  Sometimes even threatening.

 A lot of people will tell you, with great sincerity, that government is a necessary evil.  It has its problems, they say, its inefficiencies and even corruption, but we can't do without it.  Now, you might think that someone who believes something is evil might be intrigued, even excited, at the possibility that evil might not be necessary after all.  You wouldn't expect that many would be keen to rush to the defense of evil.  Shouldn't we desire that there be as little evil as possible in the world?  And yet, invariably, when you suggest that maybe government shouldn't be doing some of the things it has taken upon itself to do, or even that we might do without it entirely, you get not even the most cautious interest, but sneering, harrumphing, outright anger, and a reflexive flurry of defenses of government.

Many people fail to see government as evil at all.  They believe that it feeds and houses the poor, protects the environment, provides so-called "public goods" like roads and electrical grids and law enforcement and so on.  But government always accomplishes its ends through force against unwilling subjects: it confiscates their property to fund its operations and issues edicts regarding what they may, may not, or must do with their bodies and their property.  If they disobey, they are subjected to further confiscation, to forcible imprisonment, and if those measures be resisted, to death at the hands of agents of the state.

If those methods were used by private individuals or organizations, we would have no trouble in declaring them to be evil: theft, extortion, kidnapping, assault, and murder.  Whether or not the property confiscated by "taxation" or the commands of the state are intended to accomplish good, the means are decidedly vicious.  These supporters of government literally believe that good ends can, and more importantly should be accomplished by evil means.  In fact, I would venture to say that they do not believe that these good ends they favor can be effectively accomplished by non-evil, non-violent means. 

There is, I think, a tendency among human beings faced by unpleasant realities to resort to their most primitive instincts, and there are few instincts more primitive than that to meet challenges with force and violence.  In modern times, we dress up those instincts as something we call "politics" and pretend it is the very foundation of civilization.

We flatter ourselves that we are not mere unthinking brutes, but we apply our intellects not to the accomplishment of our ends by peaceful and voluntary cooperation, but instead to the construction of elaborate rationalizations for using force against those who don't share our particular set of values and priorities.  That is not true rationality, but primitive barbarism wrapped up in the trappings of rationality.  Instead of sticking a spear in our neighbor to make him do as we wish, we vote and then send an armed agent of the state to force compliance.  We become more and more willing to use force to impose our will upon our fellow man, because most of us never directly wield it - we keep our hands clean and convince ourselves that we're peaceful.  By and large, we do not squabble like animals, tooth and claw, over scraps of food; no, we are intelligent, and we have used our intelligence to systematize our primitive struggle to dominate and expropriate one another.  We then convince ourselves that the resulting efficiency is the same thing as peace and civility.  Behold, the power of the human mind for self-deception!

Virtually the entirety of political discourse, from the most cordial to the most rancorous, is focused exclusively on the question of who ought to be forced to do what on whose behalf.  Liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats - none question the justness or rightness of some forcing their will on others.  None question that some ought to dominate others.  All sides in the debate accept those propositions implicitly and without examination.  The issues to be decided are only those of who, how much, and for what purposes.

It doesn't have to be that way.  The challenge we face is to reject force and violence, and our primitive instincts, and bring our unique capacity for reason fully to bear on important matters.  Despite what we've been conditioned from birth to believe about government and politics, human society can function without masters.  All necessary things may be accomplished by individuals cooperating voluntarily.  In fact, voluntary cooperation is superior in virtually every way in attaining the goal of human flourishing.  Dissenters may be left free to pursue their own ends, and society won't crumble or grind to a halt.  In fact, they must be left free to do so.  All human progress has come not from consensus and conformity, but from those who dared to break away from the masses and do things a different way.

This blog is dedicated to extolling the virtues of a voluntary society, pondering on how free people can and would accomplish the things now believed possible only through government coercion, and exposing the destructive fallacies of authoritarian statism. 

"We can walk our road together
If our goals are all the same
We can run alone and free
If we pursue a different aim." -- Rush, Hemispheres