The importance of gardening, isonomia, federation, and free banking

I’ve recently taken up gardening, in a very amateurish way. Right now I’ve got two plants growing out of a bucket filled with dirt. I water them every day. I talk to them. I rotate them so that different sides face the sun at different times of the day. I spray them with water, too. I have no idea what they are. I suspected they might be peppers, but I’m not sure now because there are tiny white flowers that bloom and then quickly wilt away.

I plan on building a few garden beds when I finally buy a house.

I have become convinced that if Charlie Citrine had simply taken up gardening he would not have gotten into all that trouble.


As a libertarian I think three topics are going to be huge over the next few decades: 1) inequality, 2) foreign policy/IR, and 3) financial markets. Libertarians have great potential for all three arguments, but they also have some not-so-great alternatives, too.

1) Libertarians are terrible on inequality. We try to ignore it. Jacques’ debt-based approach to reparations for slavery is as good as any for addressing inequality in the US. In addition to reparations for slavery, I think Hayek’s concept of isonomia is a great avenue for thinking through inequality at the international level. (I even thought about renaming this consortium “Isonomia” at one point in time.) Isonomia argues for political equality rather than any of the other equalities out there.

2) I think federation as a foreign policy is a great avenue for libertarians to pursue. It’s much better than non-interventionism or the status quo. It’s more libertarian, too. Federation addresses the questions of entrance and exit. It allows for political equality and market competition and open borders. It also takes into account bad international state actors like Russia and China. Dismantling the American overseas empire is needed, but large minorities want the US to stay in their countries. Leaving billions of people at the mercy of illiberal states like Russia and China is morally repugnant and short-sighted (i.e. stupid). It’d be better to dismantle the American empire via federation.

3) Free banking is a wonderful way forward for libertarians to address financial markets. Finance is a boogieman for the Left and can be used as a scapegoat on the Right. They’re not wrong. Financial markets need to be reexamined, and libertarians easily have the best alternative to the status quo out there.

Second Nature

Michael Pollan gets me. Highly edumacated middle class white guy whose in to food and gardening. Last year I read Omnivore’s Dilemma and became convinced that Pollan occupies essentially the same position as me (challenging my preconceptions): the humble anarchist. Pollan has a sense of emergence, and skepticism of the beneficiaries of government policy. He might not take public positions as an anarchist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see Ol’ Spooner’s ghost whispering in his ear.

This Christmakwanzakkah I read an older book of his. Second Nature is his record of the same experiences I’m currently going through as a gardener. This is from way back in 1991, and in it gives some evidence that he might be an epistemological anarchist:

As it happens, the etymology of the word true takes us back to the old English word for “tree”: a truth, to the Anglo-Saxons, was nothing more than a deeply rooted idea.

p. 159

Here he is appreciating emergent order in markets:

More than a work of art, I like to think of the garden as if it were a capitalist economy, inherently unstable, prone to cycles of boom and bust. Even the most prosperous times contain the seeds of future disaster. A flush year in the perennial border usually means lean times ahead; now spent, the perennial need dividing and won’t peak again for two years. Unless pruned in spring, my asters, phlox, and delphinium willput out way too many shoots, a form of herbaceous inflation that will cheapen all their blooms come summer. Wealth is constantly being created and destroyed in the garden, but the accounts never blanace for very long–a shortage of nutrients develops in this sector, a surplus in that one, the value of water fluctates wildly. Who could hope to orchestrate, much less master, so boisterous an assembly of the self-interested? The gardener’s lot is to try to get what he wants from his plants while they go heedlessly about getting what they want. …

The garden is an unhappy place for the perfectionist. Too much stands beyond our control here, and the only thing we can absolutely count on is eventual catastrophe. Success in the garden is the moment in time, that week in June when the perennials unanimously bloom and the border jells, or those clarion days in September when the reds riot in the tomato patch–just before the black frost hits. It’s easy to get discouraged, unless, like the green thumb, you are happier to garden in time than in space; unless, that is, your heart is in the verb. For the garden is never done–the weeds you pull today will return tomorrow, a new generation of aphids will step forward to avenge the ones you’ve slain, and everything you plant–everything–sooner or later will die. Among the many, many things the green thumb knows is the consolation of the compost pile, where nature, ever obliging, redeems this season’s deaths and disasters in the fresh promise of next spring.

p. 131-2

Pollan is showing as a great an ability to appreciate the market as a process as any Austrian economist.

A Millennial’s New Perspective on Home Ownership

The last few years I’ve loudly protested that home ownership is overrated; it’s a bad investment plus lots of responsibility. And yet, this summer my fiance and I bought a 100 year old house on the south shore of Long Island.

Yes, I have lost my mind.

I basically stand by my earlier position, but with greater nuance. Owning a home is a complicated undertaking. But it’s given me a greater appreciation for the nuance involved in managing real estate.

Home ownership is a great big Gordian knot of inter-dependencies. It’s massive set of knowledge problems wrapped in externality problems.There’s a massive role for local knowledge which means policy makers’ attention should be less focused on things like home ownership rates, and more on guiding the right people into the right places to take advantage of that local knowledge.

With local knowledge comes local politics. I don’t know anything about local politics, but expect more posts about what’s going on in my town hall over the next few decades.

So what have I learned in this first month of home ownership?

  • There’s something to be said about pride in ownership

It’s still a real trip to turn on my lights in my kitchen so I can do my laundry in my laundry machines. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it this much. The endowment effect is real. One effect has been to increase my interest in contributing to local public goods via civic engagement and other routes.

I haven’t been to a town hall meeting yet, but I plan on going to one tomorrow. I suspect it will be awful. But I’m walking distance, so I’ll be a little bit drunk.

  • The real estate market has some serious frictions

This might be obvious, but it’s interesting. There are artificial and natural obstacles to the efficient use of real estate. Transaction costs are significant and property rights issues are hairy.

Buying a house is a complicated transaction and going through the process has really made clear to me how difficult it is to commodify land. Each piece of land has a unique location and history. Information asymmetries are substantial. The neighborhood you’re buying into is utterly out of your control. Put simply: Amazon won’t be selling real estate any time soon.

Part of the reason I’m happy with buying a house is that our rent had been increasing about $100/month/year. Land lords absolutely take advantage of real estate frictions to charge as much as they can. The alternative (which I chose) is to lock-in to a specific property.

  • The required knowledge to operate a home is significant and difficult to evaluate.

It takes a lot of knowledge to manage a house. If I were to take a wild guess (at this non-quantifiable variable), I’d say that between 5% and 50% of a homeowner’s brain is necessary to operate a house. Even if you bring in experts to do everything, evaluating those experts is a lot of work.

There are repairs and upgrades to make, and my formal education prepared me for exactly none of those projects. On the other hand, I’ve got the Internet. Without YouTube and Reddit I’d be a half dozen unlucky mistakes away from homelessness.

On the other other hand, I’ve learned a ton of stuff I’ve got no use for. Like how to grow asparagus (which it turns out it isn’t worth doing except out of boredom).

You can’t evaluate knowledge until it’s too late. And there’s more to learn than you ever will, so you have to make mistakes. It’s true of home ownership and it’s true of life more generally.

  • Gardening is a real trip.

In History of Economic Thought professor Gonzalez shared a story about two economists meeting in Switzerland during WWII. On showing his vegetable garden to the visiting economist, the visitor said “that’s not a very efficient way to grow food,” to which the gardener said, “yes, but it’s a very efficient way to grow utility.”

I’ve wanted to garden for some time, but the market for gardens is thin. So now I’m starting with almost no useful experience. My public stance has been that lawns are boring and dumb. But figuring out how to manage a little ecosystem ain’t easy. I now get why someone would just put in a lawn and be done with it.

At my old apartment complex the entire ecosystem was made of: humans, trees, lawns, cockroaches. I suspect the cockroaches did so well because all their competition was poisoned away. As an emergent order guy, I’m not really into that. But I get it now. In the same way the king wants everyone living in neat little taxable rows my life would be easier if I could just slash and burn all the complexity out of my yard.

Tl;dr: My biggest surprise as a new home owner is just how big a cognitive load owning a house is. You hear homeowners talk about how much work it can be, but I think it’s rare to hear someone talk about how much know-how is required.

Given the capacity to generate externalities, I’m a bit surprised that there isn’t more public policy devoted to issues of home ownership* (beyond subsidizing finance and increasing barriers to entry). I supposed I’ll learn a lot more about these issues as I learn about local politics.

*That isn’t to say I think it’s a good idea to get the government involved in trying to tell people how to go about the business of daily life. I think homeowners are (basically) doing fine left to their own devices.