The Best Book I Have Read Recently

I make some notes about almost all the books I read. I am thinking my notes may be useful to others. Here is an instance; it’s about a good book I read recently:

Jared Diamond’s 2012 The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

A confession first: When I die, I want to come back as Jared Diamond. He had the exemplary academic career; he wasted no time; he took advantage of academia’s largess and low standards to change himself several times into a different kind of scholar. He addresses ordinary literate people with much success. He is a great teacher.

What Diamond means by “traditional societies”  (in the title) is an imaginary aggregate of what social scientists call “hunters-gatherers” and “horticulturalists.” The latter are largely hoe cultivators, people who don’t use the plow but who grow food. Horticulturalists live entirely in tropical and equatorial climates.

Diamond’s book makes very good reading and, in addition, he tries to make it practical, useful at every step. His guiding theme is that by observing traditional people more closely, we may be able to improve many of our civilized practices. He visits in turn how his traditional societies define strangers and how they deal with war, child rearing, the treatment of the aged, attitudes toward danger, religion, language and health.

Traditionals, in general (also called “primitives”) live in fairly small units because their technologies (plural) cannot support large concentrations of people. They have no cities; they are not “civilized.” Diamond makes the implicit assumption (implicit, I think) that small scale and the preservation of “traditional beliefs” go hand in hand. He makes the further assumption – a fairly common one – that today’s traditional societies are similar to the societies in our own past. Thus, the part of the title that says, “Until Yesterday.” According to this assumption, the observation of such societies has much to teach us about how we – civilized people – grew up, so to speak, and about what we lost while growing up.

I am skeptical about both assumptions, not rejecting, skeptical. First, I don’t really believe that tradition does not change. I think that traditional people live in environments that change to some extent, sometimes rapidly. They change, in particular, because the powerful civilized societies in which they are embedded tend to grow, thus threatening or reducing the traditionals’ physical space and their resources. The tragedy of the Plains Indians reduction to near nothing must have happened many times before. Thus the thing that defines traditional people, “tradition” itself must change to some extent to accommodate change in their environments. The mere fact that traditional societies are around to be observed at all tells us that they must have adjusted to some extent. Thus, when considering them we don’t know if we are looking at our own past, or at pathetic survivors next to extinction, or on the contrary, at extraordinarily skillful ones. That’ s a problem for the generalizing Diamond invites us to engage in. That’s my second main objection to Diamond’s overall approach.

In point of fact, the traditional societies to which Diamond alludes include none situated in the temperate zone. It’s not his fault, of course, Lapps in Northern Scandinavia and Finland may be the only ones left more or less intact. But this fact aggravates my skepticism about the exemplarity of the primitive groups Diamond describes. I cannot eliminate from my mind the fact that civilization arose only in temperate zones, in the Middle East, in Europe, and in China. And independently, in the temperate elevations of meso-America and of South America. Perhaps, possibly, probably this is not a coincidence. Diamond’s tropical, desert, and far north groups may be in no way similar to our ancestors.

Beyond these general remarks, I have two specific quarrels with Diamond. The first is about health and the second about language acquisition. Diamond contends that the maladies of old age that affect civilized people today, including arthritis, cardiac illness, and diabetes, are practically non-existent among primitive people. He also says that primitive people have low life expectancy, I think he means at all ages. So, I am wondering if the first statement is not simply the result of a major sampling error, of a major optical illusion: If people seldom live beyond age fifty-five there will be few of the illnesses associated with old age in their society. It would seem like a gross error for a man of Diamond’s intellectual distinction to make. He may have in fact taken care of this objection and I missed it. Or, he did not do it loudly enough and then, why?

My second specific objection concerns one of the many statement he makes on language acquisition. At one point, he declares himself in favor of “crib bilingualism.” That’s the practice of speaking to babies in more than one language from birth. Personally, I think it’s a dangerous gamble. I don’t have any systematic data. My judgment relies on anecdotal evidence spread over fifty years. So does his. I believe he has not done enough due diligence of tracking possible downsides of the practice. (I don’t need to track its upsides because they are obvious: Get two languages for the same price, same as heads of cabbage at the flea market.)

I may write Prof. Diamond soon at UCLA where he teaches to ask him to discuss these points. Don’t wait on me to act to read this wonderful book though. Do it, do it critically if you can.

Also, read my book : I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography

Riding Coach Through Atlas Shrugged: Part 4 – Governor’s Ball

Pages 48 – 53

Chapter Summary – A group of industrialists sit around a shadowy table plotting the downfall of our favorite rugged individualist.

[Part 3]

I love how cliché this chapter is. Four figures sitting around a table, their faces shrouded in darkness as they scheme over the fate of the world, the sycophant politician sniveling his consent to their plans. This is one of those times where I am not quite sure if the fiction created the trope or the fiction is following the trope but it is okay either way, it is delightful to read.

We have at our table:

James Taggert: Who is far less whiny when not in the presence of his sister.

Orren Boyle: Our socialist-industrialist representative in the story.

Wesley Mouch: Our aforementioned politician, in the pay of Hank Rearden but in the pocket of Orren Boyle.

And finally –

Paul Larkin: The man at Rearden’s dinner party last chapter.

Essentially they spend the chapter plotting against Hank Rearden and promoting a philosophy of non-competition among businesses. From a historical standpoint this is essentially what happened with Hoover and the industrialists leading up to the great depression. A series of price and wage controls were set up that distorted normal market activity leading to the boom-and-bust cycle as described by Ludwig von Mises. As a side-note it is an interesting historical misconception that Hoover “did nothing” during the great depression. Hoover was arguably the most meddling president up to that point in regards to the economy except perhaps for Abraham Lincoln, but total economic warfare is hard to beat.

But to get back on track here, for what it lacks in literary creativity this chapter makes up for with pure economic and political insight that is delightful to read. The most illuminating part is a speech, or perhaps rant, by Orren Boyle that goes as follows, some of Taggert’s responses are edited out for brevity:

“Listen Jim…” He began heavily.

“Jim, you will agree, I’m sure, that there’s nothing more destructive than a monopoly.”

“Yes.” Said Taggart, “on the one hand. On the other, theres the blight of unbridled competition.”

“That’s true. That’s very true. The proper course is always, in my opinion, in the middle. So it is, I think, the duty of society to snip the extremes, now isn’t it.”

“Yes,” said Taggart, “it isn’t fair.”

“Most of us don’t own iron mines: How can we compete with a man who’s got a corner on God’s natural resources? Is it any wonder that he can always deliver steel, while we have to struggle and wait and lose our customers and go out of business? Is it in the public interest to let one man destroy an entire industry?”

“No,” said Taggart, “it isn’t.”

“It seems to me that the national policy ought to be aimed at the objective of giving everybody a chance at his fair share of iron ore, with a view towards the preservation of the industry as a whole. Don’t you think so?”

“I think so.”

This exchange is a fantastic summary of the process involved when the government gives special privileges to favored industries under the guise of regulation. Essentially Rearden is out-competing his fellow steel producers and since they cannot compete under market conditions they intend to compete politically by ham-stringing his business through the legal process.

This process has happened time and time again throughout history and the ironic part is that these actions have almost universally been heralded as “anti-business” when in fact it is the businesses itself that propose this regulation. The first anti-monopoly laws in America were lobbied for by the competitors of the successful oil, rail, and steel businesses which resulted in the *rise* in prices of those goods. It seemed the “natural” monopolies were pro-consumer while the regulation was pro-business.

There are also historical comparisons to be made to the great depression. The whole concept of “protecting an industry” at the expense of a single, productive, individual was the cornerstone of “Hoover-nomics” especially in the farm industry. The industrial revolution brought about a massive increase in farming productivity which naturally led to a decline in prices and a surplus of labor in that industry that came to a head during the “dirty thirties”.

The natural course of the market would be for inefficient firms in that industry to liquidate; with the entrepreneurs and workforce moving to other industries. This would cause a short period of transitional unemployment as workers moved into similar or growing industries while the more efficient firms and prospective entrepreneurs would buy the liquidated capital goods of the inefficient businesses at a discount.

Consumer goods prices would fall to equilibrium where only firms able to produce goods below that price would be able to maintain production. This would have the net effect of expanding the labor pool and be a net gain for society as new areas of production would be made available by the increases in productivity. Instead, Hoover organized industrial cartels that maintained price and wage controls over the entire economy propping up inefficient businesses that continued to waste and malinvest resources resulting in what we know today as the great depression.

To summarize, this chapter is a fantastic must read five page tour de force of economic insight.

Next chapter: More Dagny, more snark, and more family drama.

Riding Coach Through Atlas Shrugged Part 3: Hit The Switch

50th Anniversary Edition pages- 33-48

[Part 2]

Chapter Summary: We meet our industrialist protagonist, he makes some metal, is weirdly sentimental, and doesn’t understand basic human interaction.

This chapter is very important for a number of reasons. Several (presumably) important characters are introduced, the MacGuffin is introduced, and several elements of Rand’s writing style and her personality are revealed. Because of this final revelation I, for the first time, am going to start one of these reviews off with the negative.

Ayn Rand’s descriptions of characters and those characters’ reactions to others in the story are both highly questionable. The protagonists, so far, all have crippling social issues that are not only glossed over but indeed are celebrated; while the antagonists are universally whiny, sycophantic, card-carrying bad guys who talk with each other like Bond villains; but more about them in the next chapter.

Let me provide some examples of our pseudo-autistic heroes from previous chapters.

Eddie:

“But he still thought it self-evident that one had to do what was right; he had never learned how

people could want to do otherwise; he had learned only that they did. It still seemed simple and incomprehensible to him: simple that things should be right, and incomprehensible that they weren’t.”

While I can relate to his feeling, I think it is imperative that libertarians understand completely why people want to do the things we consider “wrong” and to do that we need to have a solid foundation of what is right or wrong. The latter belief is why I hold so strongly to natural-rights libertarianism rather than any subjective based ethical system such as rule-utilitarianism.

Once we have a strong ethical foundation to build our beliefs on we begin to understand why most people operate outside those beliefs in practice despite the fact that most people would agree to them in theory. How many people would openly advocate violence against person or property when stated in such clear terms? Very few would, which is why society functions. It is only when we hide violence in plain sight through the control of language and education that most people begin to agree with their necessity. Extortion becomes taxation. Kidnapping becomes imprisonment. Murder becomes war and fraud becomes inflation.

Dagny:

“[b]ecause she thought that such a feeling was not within the humanly possible”

“She had always avoided personal reactions, but she was forced to break her rule when she saw the expression on Taggart’s face.”

Another clear lack of empathy in regards to dissimilar belief systems as well as some more personal social awkwardness. I wish I knew why Dagny “avoided personal reactions”. Did Rand think that emotion was a weakness? I cannot wait to spend more time with Dagny because she seems like such an unnecessary enigma.

And finally we have our new character, Hank Rearden whose complete lack of empathy boggles my mind. Hank begins the chapter at his foundry as the first batch of Rearden metal is poured. He waxes sentimentally over his past, especially his status as a self-made man; however the real story begins to be told when he leaves his work and returns to his home where his family is having a dinner party; or rather, the end of a dinner party. This scene provides us with two important sets of information.

First, Rearden’s family resents him for his aloofness and his lack of understanding of their problems and second he resent his family for not empathizing with him.

Let’s start with the relationship with his brother.

Phillip Rearden is a man who “had not been able to decide on any specific ambition.” A fact that Hank is generally disgusted by, he believes that “[T]here was something wrong…with a man who did not seek gainful employment.” When we meet Phillip he is a representative of a charitable foundation called “The Friends of Global Progress”. This organization is in dire need of ten-thousand dollars in its quest for “free lectures on psychology, folk music, and co-operative farming”.

Phillip is distraught that he cannot convince enough people to donate to the cause and Hank, in an attempt to improve his brother’s morale, simply donates the needed sum of ten-thousand dollars. Hank is then surprised when Phillip rebuffs his generosity. Hank misses the entire point though; Phillip isn’t upset that that he doesn’t have the money. Phillip is upset that more people don’t believe in his cause, something libertarians should have some measure of empathy for. We have to ignore the fact that Rand chose a completely ridiculous organization for Phillip, the scope of that organization is irrelevant. It is the relationship between the brothers that is vital.

Hank’s reaction, on the other hand, is far more vitriolic. He resents the fact that Phillip is acting selflessly to the point of wanting to hit him. “He wanted to slap Phillip’s face. But an almost unendurable contempt made him close his eyes instead.” Who seems more reasonable in this situation? Our “hero” or the villain?

Here is where Rand either rejects or misunderstands praxeological reasoning. Phillip, though acting selflessly, is also acting selfishly. Mises said that every action is taken in order to remove a “certain uneasiness”; this uneasiness is what drives human action. Even the most selfless act is done for the benefit of the person acting. How often has someone who risks their life for another uttered the phrase “I just couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t done such-and-such.” It all comes down to a question of subjective valuations. No two people’s values are identical and there is no way to compare or rate those values against one another. Despite Hank’s objection that he “would not impose his standards on Phillip…” that is exactly what he does at every turn.

Next we have Hank’s wife Lillian. Our first reference to Lillian is as follows:

“He touched the bracelet in his pocket. He had had it made from that first poured metal. It was for his wife. As he touched it he realized suddenly that he had thought of an abstraction called ‘his wife’ – not of the woman to whom he was married.”

I think it is very telling that the first we hear of Hank’s wife he isn’t even considering her as a person, barely even as an object. “An abstraction” that throughout the rest of the chapter is the only one who even remotely stands up for Hank, even though she seems to do it only out of duty and not love. Another case where I can relate more to the character portrayed as the villain than the hero.

Lillian ends the chapter by holding up the aforementioned bracelet Hank had given her and calls it “the chain he uses to hold us all in bondage.” This rings true on several levels. Hank supports his family out of duty to them and then gets upset when they cannot stand on their own. Hank is proud of having earned everything he has on his own but then doesn’t expect the same from his family. He wants them to support him in his endeavors but only pays lip service to theirs. They pursue senseless causes but he supports them financially at every turn.

At this point in the story Hank is a contradiction. He is attempting to live in two worlds and because of that is failing at both. His family is biting at his heels and he cannot see the political danger right in front of him which will be revealed in the next chapter.

P.S. I forgot about his mother. She is essentially a high-class snob. I don’t really have any sort of insight on her other than she is insufferable.

 

P.P.S.  I have been scarce as of late due to a recent promotion and an increased workload as well as a series of outrageous summer adventures.  Thanks to Brandon for not kicking me out yet.

Review of Claire Conner’s Wrapped in the Flag

I recently posted a review at Amazon of Claire Conner’s Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right. (The paperback edition changed the subtitle to What I Learned Growing Up in America’s Radical Right, How I Escaped, and Why My Story Matters Today.) The review begins below. It unfortunately is buried within a stack of over a hundred favorable reviews at Amazon. But anyone who wants to read the review there can go here. Then if you find it worthy, you can click the button that says the review is helpful and move it up in the queue:

I thoroughly enjoyed this book despite myself. The author, Claire Conner, entertainingly interweaves a personal story of her growing up with parents who were avid and prominent members of the John Birch Society with a history of the Birch Society itself. I am only four years younger than Conner, and my own story has many intriguing parallels to hers. My parents never joined “the Society,” as its members referred to it, but they (particularly my mother) became what could be called Birch Society “fellow travelers,” involved in right-wing politics after the election of 1960. Many of their friends were Society members. I therefore imbibed much of the same literature as Conner, listened to similar public lectures, and was taken to and participated in similar events. She and I both, for example, were peripherally involved in the 1964 Goldwater campaign.

Our similar backgrounds even influenced both Conner’s and my choices of college. In her case, she was required by her parents to attend the Catholic University of Dallas, at a time when Willmoore Kendall (who had previously been one of Bill Buckley’s mentors at Yale) was teaching there. I chose to attend the Presbyterian Grove City College, studying economics under Hans Sennholz (who wrote for the Society’s magazine, American Opinion, for a span of years) and history under Clarence Carson (a frequent contributor to the Foundation for Economic Education’s Freeman). Finally, she and I eventually grew up to reject the Society’s conspiratorial worldview.

But there the similarities end. I drifted from conservatism to libertarianism, whereas Conner became a leftwing, progressive activist. Her narrative is filled with many fascinating tidbits and anecdotes about Birch Society activities and luminaries. But unlike me, she had parents who were domineering and dogmatic to the point of being abusive. Thus, she is unable to separate fully her wrenching childhood from the ideas and opinions of those she generally identifies as right wing. While there is always a note of tenderness in her writing about her parents, their fanatical harshness becomes the template for her damning of not only all Birchers but also most conservatives and even libertarians.

This makes her utterly oblivious to the extent to which she is still trapped in a conspiratorial worldview, but one of the Left rather than of the Right. She has graduated from her parents’ belief that America was threatened by a giant left-wing conspiracy, in which every liberal was either a Communist or a Communist fellow-traveler to a belief that America is threatened by a giant radical-right conspiracy, stretching from the 1950s to the present. She lumps together with the Birch Society in this gigantic, ongoing, and diffuse conspiracy such disparate individuals and organizations as Bill Buckley and his conservative National Review; politicians such as Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan; Ayn Rand and her Objectivist followers; the libertarian Cato Institute; the modern Tea Party; and white supremacists of the Klan.

To support this portrayal, Conner engages in the same kind of guilt by association that Birchers employed to charge, for instance, that Martin Luther King was a secret Soviet agent. Thus, the fact that Fred Koch, the father of Charles and David, was a founding Council member of the Birch Society (who ultimately left because of opposition to the Vietnam War) implicates every person and organization associated with him and his sons. Although she honestly reports that Buckley eventually denounced the Birch Society, this cuts no ice for her. She recognizes no significant difference between the racist, anti-Semitic Revilo Oliver (kicked out of the Birch Society for those very reasons), who became virulently anti-Christian, and Jerry Falwell’s Christian Moral Majority, which was unabashedly pro-Israel. Indeed, nearly anyone who thinks that government has become too intrusive and extensive is somehow involved, wittingly or unwittingly. Most disgraceful and bizarre of all, the book’s introduction slyly tries to insinuate that the radical right somehow contributed to the Kennedy assassination, yet while fully accepting that Lee Harvey Oswald was actually the assassin as well as a Communist.

An occasional, slight acknowledgment that her parents or others she wishes to expose were correct about a few things slips into Conner’s story. Thus, only in a footnote to her memories about her parents indoctrinating her in the 1960s about how “the ultimate fiend was Mao Zedong” (p. 43), worse than Hitler, does she concede, “My parents were right about Mao” (p. 225). Late in the book she admits “I never would have guessed, not in a hundred years, that the John Birch Society would be as critical of President Bush and the fiasco in Iraq as I was” (p. 212). But none of this can soften her blanket denunciation of everything her parents advocated or embraced. As stated above, there is much fascinating historical detail in this readable book. With a little more nuance, balance, and objectivity, it could have been far more compelling and credible. Conner’s account of how her parents mistreated her, in particular, is in many places heartbreaking. Which makes it all the more sad that her scarred upbringing has turned her political landscape into the exact mirror image of that of her parents.

Riding Coach through Atlas Shrugged: Chapter 2 – Whistling In the People’s Key.

Part One

50th Anniversary edition pages 20-32

Chapter Summary – We are introduced to Dagny Taggart, brother of James, who reflects on neo-classical music, throws her family name around a bit, cuckolds her brother’s business, and smokes, also Kellogg turns down an offer he can’t refuse.

Dagny is one of the characters who I am somewhat familiar with due to cultural osmosis. Her strong willed antagonism, her intelligence and stubbornness, her anger, her misery, and her smoking. All things that I expected that were confirmed in her first chapter in Atlas Shrugged.

What I didn’t expect however was the amazing paragraphs about Richard Halley’s symphony.

“It was a symphony of triumph…”

the notes of the symphony

“spoke of rising and were the rising itself.

Emphasis mine. The way Dagny is enveloped by the symphony, it consumes her, and just for a moment she can do nothing but feel when she hasn’t in so long.

Then it is revealed that she is merely hearing it being whistled from across the train car by some blond brakeman. If one man whistling one part of that symphony can fill Dagny with such joy then what effect would a full orchestra have on her, on the people, on society?

That feeling is the very thing I hope to gain from this project. The sense of wonder that Dagny is overwhelmed with and a reminder that

“[T]his is why the wheels have to be kept going, and this is where they’re going.”

The brakeman is interesting as well. Rand’s description of him as a worker with no loose muscles was very telling to me. This blue-collar laborer is the one carrying the tune that is Dagny’s hope. This is in stark contrast to the train conductor for example who doesn’t seem to care about the problems he faces and simply hopes everything will work out.

He jerked his head up at the red light. “I don’t think the signal is going to change. I think it is busted.”

“Then what are you doing?”

“Waiting for it to change.”

I almost wonder if this theme of hard working but uneducated versus apathetic educated middle class will continue. I always felt that Rand was somewhat anti-laborer, that those who were not entrepreneurs were merely leaches on the productive members of society but I am beginning to think that impression may have been unfounded.

Speaking of entrepreneurs there were two major economic principles stated in this chapter. First was Dagny exemplifying the attributes of an entrepreneur when she makes the call to use Rearden Metal for the new railroad tracks. When James protests the use of the new metal she tells him that she is making the call using her own judgment, knowledge, and personal experience. She is willing to assume the risk for this venture based on a gut feeling and her own personal belief that it will work. It is important to notice that she doesn’t deflect responsibility or assume some other person or entity will absorb any losses if she is wrong.

The second economic point was in regards to monopolies. A great exchange takes place between Dagny and James that goes as follows:

“It isn’t fair,” said James Taggart.

“What isn’t?”

“That we always give all our business to Rearden. It seems to me we should give somebody else a chance, too. Rearden doesn’t need us; he’s plenty big enough. We ought to help the smaller fellows to develop. Otherwise, we’re just encouraging a monopoly.”

“Don’t talk tripe, Jim,”

“Why do we always have to get things from Rearden?”

“Because we always get them.”

“I don’t like Henry Rearden.”

“I do. But what does that matter, one way or the other? We need rails and he’s the only one who can give them to us.”

“The human element is very important. You have no sense of the human element at all.”

“We’re talking about saving a railroad, Jim.”

“Yes, of course, of course, but still, you haven’t any sense of the human element.”

“No. I haven’t.”

This exchange exemplifies the free market vs anti-property positions on monopolies but misses one crucial point. This anti-monopoly activity is driven solely by the free choice of the individual. Taggart is perfectly able to restrict his business from any source he chooses for any reason he chooses and this is the pure libertarian position on the matter.

Now, don’t get me wrong, he is making a poor entrepreneurial choice since Associated Steel has repeatedly failed to deliver on the contract and from a purely economic standpoint Dagny is correct. From a libertarian standpoint however, both are correct.

James is totally justified running his business into the ground for any reason he chooses and Dagny has every right to seek out new opportunities. Assuming of course she owns part of the company or has been granted the authority to act in the company’s name. The latter is the case here as far as I can tell.

I would also like to point out that other non-humanistic arguments against monopolies are almost universally false. Predatory pricing for example has essentially never happened successfully even in the case that made it illegal.

Now for the negatives.

Primarily I feel like James is a bit too obvious as a villain, he is almost too petulant and whiny. I just don’t buy that anyone would follow him and that the board of directors would have kicked him off years ago. I suppose Rand is pushing the whole feudalism thing. How many nations have fallen because of a weak King or Queen?

Also, I just don’t know how to feel about Dagny yet. The quirkiness is what bothers me the most. Sitting on the arm of the chair, her snarkyness and her general self-importance. I am not sure how much I am going to like her character yet but there is plenty of book to go so we shall see.

Finally I have to give the last story beat in this chapter credit. The final conversation Dagny has with Kellogg was an amazing piece of the mystery that literally gave me chills of anticipation. Where are these people going? Why are the best and brightest suddenly missing but still creating? And most importantly…

Who is John Galt?

Into the ear of every anarchist that sleeps but doesn’t dream…

We must sing, We must sing,We must sing…

 

 

There is no libertarian art.

Well, that is a slight exaggeration, but not much of one. Art is a vital part to any social movement and it is one area where libertarians suffer immensely. Sure there are libertarian leaning authors such as Robert Heinlein and modern Austrian economic art like the guys over at www.econstories.tv but for the most part there are few non-academic ways to inspire potential libertarians.

This is a problem I lament when I am feeling negative about the prospects for a free society which, to be fair, is usually the case. Sometimes reading an article about Intellectual Property just isn’t enough to get the passion flowing.

“But Wait!” You say, “you failed to mention the author who brought tens of thousands of people into the libertarian fold. The late, the great, the Ayn Rand!”

 

….yea about that.

 

I don’t like Ayn Rand. There, I said it. Bring out the pitchforks and tie me to a Rearden Steel railroad track if you must but I stand by my statement. Now I know what you are all thinking: “But her works exemplify the individual freedoms that a libertarian society should strive for!” or “Dagny is a strong independent woman who don’t need no government!”

Yes, I am aware, but it isn’t Ayn Rand the author I dislike. Actually it isn’t even Ayn Rand the person that I dislike. I don’t like the idea of Ayn Rand. The metaphysical zeitgeist that surrounds and worships her throughout every circle of the libertarian movement from Walter Block to Milton Friedman to every other subscriber on www.reddit.com/r/libertarian.

All too often I have had to argue about libertarianism through the lens of someone whose only exposure to the philosophy is Ayn Rand and the objectivist selfishness that nearly everyone associates with capitalism. In short, I think she is bad for libertarianism and provides no end of ammunition that can be used against those of us with a more nuanced moral/ethical position.

Here is the kicker though. I have not read a single Ayn Rand novel. Not Anthem, not the Fountainhead, and especially not her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. My knowledge of her works (outside of objectivist philosophy) comes mostly through a bit of osmosis during many diatribes in my conversion to libertarian thought and the first few chapters of Anthem I read in high school before being bored to tears.

I feel that my lack of personal experience with the work of Ayn Rand is a great injustice to someone so influential to many (but certainly not all) of the ideals that I hold so dear and maybe, just maybe, I can siphon off some of the passion that so many others feel when reading her novels.

So it is my objective to spend the next several weeks (months perhaps) reading Atlas Shrugged along with you, the faithful readers here at www.notesonliberty.com, and recording chapter based summaries of my thoughts, opinions, and analysis from a literary, ethical, and philosophical standpoint. These will be full of personal anecdotes and armchair analysis so be prepared for a tumultuous ride through one of the “great?” works of the 20th century.

Part one of many comes tomorrow morning.

My REASON review on the Panic of 1837

My review of Jessica Lepler’s The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis appears in the July issue of Reason. It has now been posted online.

Only after agreeing to review the book and receiving my copy, did I realize that Lepler’s study was far too academic and specialized for the typical Reason reader. But previously, when they had asked me to review Thomas Fleming’s Civil War book (A Disease of the Public Mind) and I had agreed, it turned out to be an awful example of cliche-ridden, superficial pop history at its worst. So I told them it wasn’t worth reviewing, and I didn’t consider it wise to do that again with the Lepler book, even though it would have been for the exact opposite reason.

A much better, recent book on the panic of 1837, despite my disagreeing with most of its interpretations, is Alasdair Roberts’s America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 (2013). I mentioned it in the first draft of my Lepler review, but it was in a section that Reason edited out.

A Renegade History of the United States: a brief response

A while ago I finished reading (by audiobook) A Renegade History of the United States. The overarching theme of this entertaining and interesting book often seems to be: “look at these fucking squares!”

And that’s important, because the author points out their illiberal, short sighted, and irrational views, the reactionary nature of those views. But the author turns it into yet another A vs. B situation; a linear spectrum. There’s the “renegades” and the “squares.” I’m absolutely on board with the idea that there are establishment squares to be derided. But just because The Man is stupid, doesn’t mean he’s got a monopoly on it.

The positive message is that “renegades” are exemplars of freedom, and especially the freedom to be wrong. If you aren’t free to make mistakes, you aren’t free. And the point of freedom (besides the fact that freedom is excellent) is that it allows a dispersed approach to figuring out the good life. I’m increasingly doubtful that The Hitchhikers’ Guide was anything but correct when it posited that Earth is a computer set in motion to determine the question that matches the answer to “Life, The Universe, and Everything” (the answer is 42, the question is something besides “What is 6×7?”). This history shows a number of instances that show how breaking from the status quo, actively doing what everyone else is convinced is wrong, contributes to the overall flourishing and success of later generations.

All told, I’m happy giving it 4 stars.

Around the Web

  1. The Globalization of Apartheid from anthropologist Keith Hart. I have a critique (as well as lots of praise) in process.
  2. Kapital for the Twenty-First Century: A review of Thomas Piketty’s new book by James K Galbraith.
  3. The Many Problems with “Equal Pay”: Legal scholar Richard Epstein brings his usually clarity to the table
  4. Taxes Are Much Higher Than You Think: A great op-ed from Nobel Prize winner Edward Prescott and UCLA economist Lee Ohanian in the Wall Street Journal
  5. An open letter to President Obama from a prominent center-Left economist (and Democratic Party member): Give Us Back Our Statistical Data
  6. Scratching the Surface: Some proposals for campaign finance reform from a law professor guest blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy

 

Polystate – book 3

This is my nth response to Polystate and covers the third and final portion of the book (for the 1st through n-1th responses see here, here, and here).

As a quick reminder, the purpose of this book is to consider a possible political structure where individuals choose their own government (“anthrostate”) and these governments operate in the same geographic area (under a “polystate”). This is in contrast to the current system of geographical monopolies on coercion (“geostates”).

Book three attempts to identify insoluble problems with the idea of a polystate. The first problem is the potential for bureaucracy explosion (no, not that kind). A greater (which is to say any) degree of customized service in our current government would surely come with increased costs. There may be technological solutions to this problem, and competition between anthrostates would surely add pressure to get around these costs. In any event, the administrative questions are actually quite interesting. I suspect that many government services would end up moving back into civil society and private markets and the result would be lower monitoring costs in the case of civil society (e.g. for social security through mutual aid societies), and greater use of specialization and innovation in the case of market goods (e.g. for safety standards).

Another big one is the importance of “sacred locations.” If we had always lived in a polystate, Jerusalem might be considered a state of mind. But in the world we live in, it’s a geographical location, and different groups want it for themselves. A market with private property allows these groups to express the importance of this location by outbidding others for its purchase, but such a system is likely not good enough for some members of the relevant groups, and it’s plausible that violence could be resorted to. At the risk of sounding like an insensitive social Darwinist… maybe that’s not the worst possible outcome?… But certainly still a bad, though the root problem is the beliefs of those people; determining which political structure (all of which have costs and benefits) is “best” is an interesting question.

I think the biggest area of potential contention (by non-libertarians) is demonstrated by the issue of gun control. One anthrostate’s gun control is meaningless if it coexists with another that doesn’t have gun control. In other words, a polystate is less polycentric confederacy and more anarchist default plus an odd contract structure for particular firms. This leads to the final problem: transition.

The epilogue discusses the “issue” that the proposal is for a minimal polystate. We can think of this as a contemplation of federalism. This is a thought experiment in radical federalism that is so far down the spectrum of possibilities that it puts the onus of governance on the individual. In many ways, discussions by libertarian political economists can be thought of more as discussions of federalism than discussions of liberty; I think it’s worth thinking about the connection between federalism and freedom, as well as different potential forms of federalism.

Here are my overall thoughts: The book presents an interesting thought experiment and the author does an excellent job of providing well thought out analysis without going overboard. There is plenty to think about, and plenty more discussion to be had (note: read this book with friends and discuss it over beers). ZW had a choice of going into more detail and making a stronger case, or going into less detail and leaving more of the thought experiment to the reader. I think he perfectly balanced these two goals.

Note: an ungated version of that last link is available here. The article is “Afraid to be free: Dependency as desideratum” by James Buchanan.

Polystate: Book 2

This is my third entry on Polystate and will cover book 2 (entries one and two covered book 1). This section covers a thought experiment in polystates and begins immediately with the flattering implication that macroeconomists can make speculative predictions about complex systems. This is typically where an Austrian would say “the world is too complex to make speculative predictions which is why  we need a flexible system.”

Quick reminder: a polystate is a state that contains non-geographical anthrostates. Anthrostates have rules relevant to their members, while polystates have rules relevant to the interaction of anthrostates and their members.

My first qualm with ZW’s conception of anthrostates is that there are local spillovers in governance, culture, etc. that would likely lead to enclaves. ZW addresses this now with rule number one of polystates being that no anthrostate may claim territory. My general feeling on federalism is that the higher units will have rules that are more universally accepted, so that a nation will have prohibitions on murder, while regions of states/provinces may have fairly uniform rules on abortion, drug use, etc., individual states have their own traffic laws, and cities have their own rules on neighborly conduct. Polystates are a radical form of federalism, but in order for them to work adequately, they must start with fairly uniform basic rules on property rights over land.

Rule two is that individuals choose their anthrostate annually (by birthday). The specific interval is fairly arbitrary but it seems obvious that it should be neither too long (in which case anthrostates gain monopoly power) or too short (in which case they can’t credibly commit to govern in difficult situations such as collecting taxes or enforcing punishments). The alternative to a time-based restriction would be a social-stigma based restriction which has pros and cons of its own but I’m tempted to think would be more effective (though with some very important caveats that warrant further discussion!). The birthday rule is interesting as it staggers political change leading to greater stability than having “global revolution” at each shift; we face a similar problem in today’s world of election days.

Rule three is where things get tricky: anthrostates that take territory lose their government status under the polystate order. This creates a collective action problem among other anthrostates as enforcing this rule won’t be free and won’t have uniform benefits to others. ZW recognizes this, but the problem still stands. This is essentially the same as the national defense problem. This is really the big one: are geostates unnecessary but inevitable? Essentially this book is considering a special form of anarchy and so belongs in the same category of other classic thought experiments.

It obviously isn’t statelessness, and so it isn’t quite anarchy, but I’m not so sure anarchy is quite anarchy either. Even the sort of state imagined by David Friedman has coercion, it’s just decentralized. Likewise, polystates specifically allow anthrostates to act coercively, but it subjects them to competition. In essence, the polystate proposal is to increase competition among governance structures by allowing them to be geographically diffuse.

An interesting institutional feature of polystates is that anthrostates are no longer bound to seek something like an end state. Where as the USA tries to set up a system for the median voter who is expected to be there for life, an anthrostate could specialize in particular stages of individuals’ lives. There could be a state for students and one for seniors (… I wonder what a world with AARP running an anthrostate would look like…).

ZW doesn’t mention this, but if individuals can be members of more than one anthrostate (of course, based on the rules and enforcement of those rules by the relevant anthrostates) then it is conceivable that government services not be so horizontally integrated. This raises an interesting line of inquiry: is a polycentric polystate possible?

A big problem is the “inherent goodness” of imposing rules on people who don’t want them. It’s easy for libertarians to say that drug laws are dumb (because they are), but as Ryan Murphy surely writes somewhere, where people see value/justification in imposing their views on others we run into problems. We’re pretty much all cool with prohibiting murder, but what about less clear cut issues? If I saw veganism as having the same moral weight as murder (“I don’t think humans should be treated like that.”) then I would be morally justified in striking down with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers with icky lentils. The best solution would be for me to stay the hell away from Berkeley. Again, we’ve got local spillovers in governance. We also have tribalistic barriers to the sort of integration economists want to see for the good of everyone.

In the final section on war ZW raises an interesting point regarding the possibility of war-mongers self-selecting into aggressive anthrostates. This is a troubling notion, but such behavior is expensive. North Korea is aggressive, but manageable because Kim Jong Un isn’t wealthy enough to pose a more drastic threat to NATO. With self-sorting, a North Korean anthrostate would lose many of its productive people and be even less of a threat. But ZW doesn’t raise the question of nuclear weapons…

The example of Kidnappocracy drives home the point that ultimately coercion underlies any system of governance. Rights are as rights are enforced. Political structures are created to resolve rights disputes in an amicable (sort of) fashion, and polystates will still need means of resolving these disputes. Even in a geostate, some people are willing to fight and die for their views, but the institutional change to a polystate seems somewhat orthogonal to such issues. Anthrostates will serve as focal points, and having more disparate focal points may increase the possibility for conflict. But mostly it would just be a different sort of federalism; if we don’t see violence between people from different states, and if effective institutions emerge quickly enough, this problem may be small and quickly swamped by other benefits.

Ultimately the resolution of problems between members of different anthrostates would require that 1) their disputes are matters of honest disagreement that can be resolved with arbitration, 2) interactions that may lead to such disputes are minimized by a general refusal to interact, or 3) there is a strong and near universal support for (this sort of) federalism such that people are willing to resolve differences to support the overarching system. The second seems most likely, supporting the hypothesis that geostates will typically be more successful even if they will be less prosperous.

I come away increasingly convinced that perhaps the most fundamental aspect of governance is geographical sorting. I don’t like geostates (I don’t think many people truly do), but I think geographically localized governance is effective because it reduces interaction by people with contradictory conceptions about good behavior and so reduces conflict while supporting order. I think ZW’s ideas are largely influenced by a sort of a sci-fi view (that I’m highly sympathetic to) which reflects the sort of governance we see on the Internet. 4chan is a very different place from Facebook and every subreddit has it’s own unique culture. In such a world, “geography” is a different matter; it takes a different form, but it’s still there.

Polystate, part 2

After much distraction I’m back to continue my review of Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government (part 1 is here). But now that I think about it, this isn’t so much a review, as a book club (of one…) where I respond to the book.

In this section, ZW gets into the benefits of polystates. He starts with the benefit of choice. Someone born into North Korea is utterly screwed, but someone born into an unattractive anthrostate can simply leave when they reach the age of consent. The reverse is also true: someone may join an anthrostate that the rest of us see as distasteful. Want to join a cult? You’re free to. The thought of that possibility will certainly make your inner-paternalist squeamish, but remember that if you aren’t free to make mistakes, you simply aren’t free.

Another benefit I wouldn’t have thought of is that traditionally problematic systems of government have a higher chance of success when they are separated from geography. For example:

It may be that the failure of collectivization has not got to do with the individual so much as the aggregate. If 95% of people work poorly in a collectivized environment, any random collectivized farm will perform poorly. But it may be the case that 5% of people would excel in such an environment.

I would expect a communist to protest that geographic seclusion is necessary to create New Communist Man. How are people supposed to learn how to shed their egoism if they cannot help but see the vulgar bourgeoisie all around them? But that sword cuts both ways and shows a benefit of polystates ZW didn’t bring up: a child raised in a fascist anthrostate can see non-fascists and so make a more informed decision of whether to stick with fascism when they get older.

ZW sees the polystate as offering a sort of decentralized Tiebout competition. That covers the demand side (what benefits to provide to whom). Adding in the supply side (who will face what opportunity costs) raises the problem of economic calculation in socialism. But ZW takes it in a different direction, hypothesizing that sorting between anthrostates would lessen decision making costs due to more homogeneous populations.

Choice ensures we get more of what we want with less hassle but also provides the option of exit at low cost. Taking geography out of the equation means that there is a larger number of potential state-competitors, as well as more credible movement on the part of citizens.

He raises an interesting problem related to a recent post of mine:

[T]here may be a difference between good governance and governance which pleases one’s constituency… But, regardless of the philosophy of good government, there is an extent to which good governance must have to do with what voluntary citizens decide is good.

First off: No! Government and governance are two different things! But putting that aside, the big problem we face is how to not just aggregate preferences (a difficult problem in itself), but how to ensure that (or even determine if) our method of aggregation results in something good.

I think cable TV is pretty good at giving people what they want, but I also think that the product is overwhelmingly bad. It’s not a big deal with TV because there are so many alternative sources of entertainment and information (although cable news might have existential dangers). Similarly, I think government broadly gives people what they want (not peace and prosperity, but xenophobia, “doing something,” paternalism, and the like) but that’s not a good thing. The idea of the U.S. senate was to prevent people from having too much choice so that good institutions could be preserved. So could the degree of choice offered by polystates be to much? On the other hand, how could you determine an answer without incorporating the revealed preferences of the governed?

Finally, ZW gets into an especially meaty benefit of anthrostates: peace. It’s hard to start a war with a disbursed enemy (“semi-random geographic distribution), and hard to finance one when your citizens can switch to a more peaceful government. This could be especially important in avoiding territory disputes as humans explore and colonize space (for example, if resources on the moon become valuable enough to justify the expense of following Newt Gingrich up there).

That concludes Book 1 of Polystate, and that’s where I’ll stop for now. I’ll be picking through the book fairly slowly, so I recommend that you buy the book for yourself!

A review in n parts: Polystate, part 1

Zach Weinersmith of SMBC comics just published Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government. I’ve started reading it and immediately needed to start commenting. Before I get into the review, let me say that SMBC comics is an excellent web comic that everyone should read.

The basic idea ZW introduces is the polystate, a system of government comprised of anthrostates. An anthrostate is “a set of laws and institutions that govern the behavior of individuals, but which do not govern a behavior within geographic borders.” It is essentially government that individuals get to choose in the same manner that they get to choose their insurance company; so to neighbors can live under a different set of laws and any disputes between them are a matter for their anthrostates to sort out. At this point you should be thinking: Nozick did it. The idea of a polystate is essentially Nozick’s Utopia of Utopias.

He contrasts poly/anthrostates with geostates, the geographically defined monopolies on the use of force we are used to today. Does it need to be thus?

Why should we suppose that a person who likes hot dogs, is familiar with a two-party electoral system, and believes Abraham Lincoln was a great man is necessarily someone who should live in a temperate climate in the Western hemisphere?… This is not to deny that history and culture and the choices of individuals matter, but rather to assert that many of the “essential” qualities of nationhood are not, in the long run, meaningful ones.

I’ll agree and disagree. These qualities are relevant to some sense of cultural identity, but are not essential for defining the boundaries of a state. This cultural identity is part of the environment of informal institutions, which are part of a broader polycentric order. This is the underpinning of law (the way Hayek characterized it) which is much broader than legislation.

ZW approaches the problem like a mathematician and sets himself up with a hard sell, by assuming there will be a huge need for technological advances to overcome transaction costs. His argument rests largely on technological possibility and is highly concerned with interaction at the anthrostate level.

A polystate would likely increase the complexity of business and legal transaction. In a world with only 200 or so geostates, most commerce is not interstate and even if it were, geometry tells us that the number of possible two-state transactions is given by n(n-1)/2.

Nobody thinks the distribution of such transactions is uniform, and in real life we see a large proportion of international transactions go through countries that specialize in trade. Hong Kong would surely have an anthrostate analog. In fact, there are historical antecedents. He foresees rules being designed at the polystate level to simplify interactions but, “whatever rules were put in place, the results would be too burdensome to exist without a large bureaucracy or some sort of computational way to arbitrate these many interactions.”

The basic flaw in ZW’s approach is that institutions and laws are provided from the state, and so technology is the answer to transaction costs problems. In fact, the issue is that ZW (though he’s not alone on this) wants a change in institutions that will require a new order to emerge. His book will help to peacefully guide the process of societal change towards that new order. Technology will surely play an important role as well.

That gets us through the first four chapters. I will continue with more tomorrow evening.

Ron Paul, Change Agent

From what I can tell, a “change agent” in the lingo of the conspiracy theorist is a person who seems alright on the surface but in reality is bought and paid for by the New World Order/Illuminati/Bilderbergs and whose primary function it to co-opt the opposition and channel their frustration into fruitless endeavors, so that the powers that be may effect the change they desire with virtually no threats to their plan. If someone like Ron Paul can be accused of this, of course, then no one is safe. Which is why using the term “change agent” in this way has little effect. But as an actual agent of change, Ron Paul’s record speaks for itself, I think. No, I don’t mean his legislative record, for this is rarely something anyone should be proud of, and at best serves only to condemn the person in question for the misdeeds they have committed in the name of making law and doing the will of the people. I refer to his other record. His list of achievements in public life outside of the halls of Congress.

The man has single-handedly convinced thousands upon thousands of people to adopt a more freedom-oriented outlook on life, if not also to utterly transform their worldview. And he continues to do so with his latest book, which I received in the mail today not more than a few hours ago. I’m already reading it and in the first chapter he is keen to stress the ideas that liberty and personal responsibility go hand in hand (one might term this a “Virtuous Voluntaryism“) and that an education’s structure and content must be consistent with one another in order to be effective.

I hope that thousands if not millions of people read this book (and/or others like it) and come away from it with a fresh or reinforced opinion on what needs to be done with our education system (hint, the bulk of the fight takes place outside of “the system”), which is in a complete shambles. Because that’s just how many people it is going to take to reform fix restructure completely uproot the current establishment. Doing this is an end in itself, of course. But it is also a means to a far greater goal. Children raised by the state cannot help, on the whole, but to be children raised for the state. Ron Paul forcefully drives home the point that the status quo cannot be successfully challenged without first addressing the wholesale brainwashing of what many deem to be society’s greatest asset: the children. Stop the elites and bureaucrats on this front and victory over them in perhaps every other field of battle is all but assured.

So I encourage you to read this book, to suggest to others that they read it, and once done, to share (your/their) copy with still others (could be wrong, but I think it’s WAY easier to do this with a hard copy than with a Kindle or iPad). That is what I intend to do with mine. I hope and expect to be finished with it within the week.

Around the Web

  1. On the Problematic Political Authority of Property Rights; Kevin Vallier, a philosopher, reviews a recent book on market anarchism (be sure to check out the ‘comments’ thread as well)
  2. Compton as the Bellwether for Urban America; interesting article from a graduate student at UCSD
  3. Rand Paul is no “isolationist,” contrary to the opinion of the ill-informed
  4. Liberty’s lost decade; the Economist decides that enough is enough
  5. Tyler Cowen’s ‘international trade’ reading list