I Want Rocket Scientists to Have the Rockets

I want those who know how to create the most value out of a resource to have the most access to it.  Silicon and copper in my hands are just about worthless, yet in the hands of computer manufacturers they can change the world and make millions of lives better, not to mention dramatically reduce the quantity of other resources required to accomplish tasks.

Resources need to flow where they can best be used for all of us to get the most out of life and what’s around us.  That’s why I like markets.  Those who can get most out of a resource bid the most for it.  Initially, those who created a lot of value in the past and thus earned wealth are in the best position to obtain new resources.  But if they can’t do anything to enhance the value of those resources, they’ll want to resell them to others who can, or loan money to people who can enhance the usefulness of the resource.  Quickly, resources start to flow to where they can be utilized to create the most value.

Imagine the disaster if, instead, resources flowed where some resource manger thought they should.  No expert has expertise enough to know the best use of every material in every field.  Of course, we needn’t imagine what would happen, because we’ve seen it.  “Planned” economies like the Soviet Union were an unmitigated disaster that literally starved millions to death.  Factories produced massive quantities of goods that had no value, and there were chronic shortages of important stuff.  Valuable resources were converted into worthless objects left to rot.

Worse still, innovation was nearly impossible.  How could cutting edge inventors get resources to work on something new?  They had to be politically connected.  How much value they could create for people with their improvements was irrelevant.  What a terrible system for everybody except the dictator and his buddies.

Maybe total top-down control is out of vogue, but democratically controlled resource directives are no better.  Rather than channeling resources to those willing to bid the most for them because they expect to transform them into something valuable enough to exceed the cost, democratic institutions channel resources to people who merely “like” things, or those who are good at political games.

Imagine you’re stranded on an island with a handful of people including one radio expert.  You stumble upon a broken radio.  The expert is confident she can fix it and send a distress signal.  Two other people think it would look really cool as a decoration for their lean-to.  Being firm believers in democratic institutions, you vote and the coalition of two wins.  The radio expert tried offering whatever she had to convince others to vote for her to have access to the radio, but the group considered that unfair tampering with the decision making process.  Everyone gets one equal vote, regardless of how important the resources are to them.

Thank goodness there is still enough of a free-market in the world that most resource allocation happens via voluntary transaction, and goes to those who can use it in productive ways.  Imagine how much better off we’d be if the coercive absurdity of politics was completely absent from the process?

Video Games as High Art

A few years back, I listened to a phenomenal ten-part lecture series on commerce and culture by Paul Cantor.  In the final lecture, he discusses the future of art, and his prediction is that video games will emerge as the next dominant medium.  I thought it was an interesting conjecture, but it didn’t really sink in.

Fast forward to today, when my eight-year-old son is immersed in a world of video games I could not have imagined.  It’s not gaming as I knew it, which was basically another form of sports – a competitive one-on-one or one-vs.-computer activity that involved the same trash talking and bragging rights as a basketball game or water balloon fight.  Nor is it an arms race for the most realistic graphics, or the most amazing explosions, as it once was.  My son and his peers use games as the backdrop for their imagination, and the medium to convey both fanciful and practical narratives.

They have more graphic realism available to them then we ever did, but that’s not the thing they care most about.  They’re equally happy with lifelike 3D, cartoonish 2D, and even old-school pixelation.  What they like is the story, they worlds, the characters, and the collaboration.  Cantor was dead-on in comparing video games to the most enduring works of sci-fi and fantasy; those that spawn multi-generational followings and fan fiction.

What makes Star Wars or Lord of the Rings so powerful is that they are not single stories, but entire universes.  They are loved as much for the minor details of the worlds in which the characters live as for the characters themselves.  They are so vast in their scope that the consumer cannot help but imagine what lies outside the area traveled by the main characters, or what background the minor characters have.  It’s not a passive kind of art, but an immersive, almost participatory one.  And it’s fully participatory when the fans begin to write their own prequels, sequels, and spin-offs.

Video games take this participation to a whole new level.  Not only do they place you in a massive world, they let you control where to explore, and some even let you expand and create that world.  You are not only adding new story arcs and characters to the imagined universe, you are co-imagining that universe as you go.

What amazes me is how games have become the default creative language for my son.  He spends hours imagining and creating – from drawing, to Legos, to things entirely in his mind.  It used to be that he made up stories and characters in the abstract.  Once he began playing video games, all of his stories and characters and even Lego creations are nested in video games he’s invented.  He thinks in games.  So much so that when he starts to describe elements of a game, we have to stop him and ask if this is an existing game or one in his mind.  To him, it’s a blurry line.  The role that books, movies and TV shows played for me as a kid – a realm of imaginative play and allegory – seems to be dominated by games for my son.

He might pass out of this phase, but it seems pretty clear that games will continue to grow as a medium for conveying ideas and showing off artistic talent.  I’ve noticed profound and deeply philosophical story lines, amazing design work, and even excellent original music in games.

Like all the media that have come before – epic poems, theater, novels, radio, cinema, TV – gaming has a bad rap with older generations.  There is a tendency to think the medium itself is somehow inferior to older media, even if the content is the same.  It’s not.  If anything, gaming might be a more interactive, stimulating, and cooperative medium than some of the older, more passive forms.

Movies were low-brow common fare for years before many emerged as high art.  TV shows are going through a similar transition, as many beautiful and powerful shows have emerged from the blasé heap of sitcoms.  Comic books are sometimes called graphic novels now, revealing a deeper level of respect for them as culture.  Video games are next.  I still barely understand them, but it’s exciting to watch a new art form evolve.

Good Enough for a Dog?

I’m not a dog owner, but everyone else seems to really love their dogs.  So much so, that if I offered the following service, most would consider it beneath them as pet owners to take me up:

Every work day, you’ll wake your dog before it wants to get up, force feed it some breakfast, and tie it to a pole at the corner of your street, then go to work.  A giant vehicle with no safety harnesses will stop by and load your dog, along with fifty or sixty other dogs, and haul them off to a huge dog daycare center.

The dogs will be crammed thirty or forty to a room, and each room will have one person there to look after them, and make them go through a number of drills and activities that dogs hate, sitting still the whole time, not being allowed to do what dogs really want to do – run around.  This supervisor will be unionized and paid based on years of service, with little or no connection to how well your dogs fare under their care.  Some are good people who like dogs, though many found veterinary school too challenging and would struggle to gain employment as private dog trainers, groomers, or sitters.

At noon, hundreds of dogs will funnel into one huge room where they’ll eat stuff of lower quality than what you give them at home.  Then back to the little room where they’ll be forced, once again, through activities with dozens of dogs of radically different sizes, tendencies, breeds, abilities, and behaviors.  Your dog may be a loyal and gentle Lab, paired up for an activity with a few vicious Pit bulls and a Rottweiler   They’ll have to learn to adapt.

If your dog acts up, fails to complete activities, resists commands or any other kind of behavior generally frustrating to the supervisor, the dog will be punished, shamed, confined to a small cage, possibly drugged, and you’ll likely get a stern rebuke.

Just before you get home from work, your dog will be carted back to your street on the bus of rowdy creatures, and left to wander home.  There it will wait for you to return, and when you do, you will have the duty of looking over a stack of papers sent home with your pet.  They detail several hours more of activities you must force your dog to do before it goes to sleep so it can be ready to be awakened while it’s still dark the next day to do it all over.

The whole program will cost upwards of $10,000 for your dog each year, summer excluded.  The good news is, you will be forced to pay this fee for all your neighbors, and they’ll be forced to pay it for you via monthly charges on your property value and earnings.  Even those with no dogs and no desire to have dogs will pay, and those with tons of dogs will pay the same.  Payment won’t be based on the service at all, but on how much money you have.

You’ll send your dog here every day for years, during the most active and formative years of the animal’s life.  You’ll have to have special permits and permission to opt-out, and you’ll be treated like a crazy, neglectful person if you do – even if you quit your job just to stay home to raise, care for, and train your dog yourself.

Just about every dog owner I’ve ever met would consider this an outrageously offensive rip-off that borders on animal abuse.  Most of those same people beam with pride and “spirit” while putting their children through the same basic routine.

The Renewing of the Mind

The transition from one deeply held belief to another is not a matter of intellectual argument.  It’s not a matter of adapting a new set of ideas on an issue, it’s a matter of becoming a new person.  The more deeply held the belief, the truer this is and the more laborious the transition.

It does take logical arguments.  But walking through the reasons a belief you have is false, and why an alternative is true, will not be sufficient to change your point of view for good, even if you accept the argument.  You’ve got to go out into the world and experience things, at which point your old beliefs will creep back in, since they are comfortable and second nature.  Even if you know they’re wrong, you won’t be able to recall exactly why.  A single convincing is not enough to overcome years of justifications and deeply etched neural pathways.  You’ve got to return to the logic, time and again and from every angle, until the conclusions no longer require work, but flow from you.  You don’t accept a new idea, you become a new person, one who holds that idea.

You have to be baptized over and over until all the residue of the former belief washes off.  You have to remove the scales from your eyes, layer by layer, until you see the world anew.  And you truly do see a whole new world.  It’s stunning how the acceptance of a different set of logical conclusions is not merely a swapping of bits of data in the brain, but a fundamental shift in the lenses through which the entire world is taken in.  All looks different from the vantage point of the new belief.

One of the surprising things is how incapable you are after your transformation of acting like your old self.  It becomes impossible to even remember how and why you used to believe what you did.  You may lose patience with others who believe what you once did.  It would seem, coming as you did from the same place, that you’d have a keen understanding of their position.  Instead, you find as time passes and your new self becomes more familiar, you look at the same picture and see things so different that dialogue becomes difficult.  You have to remind yourself that they are on a journey, and a single conversation will not suffice to transform their mindset.  You can’t get them to see what you see with one dose of data.  They’ve got to be curious enough to examine and reexamine the issue, each time removing another layer of the lens, just like you did.

You can become many different people over the course of one lifetime.  I recall some of the biases and beliefs of my former selves, and I can only smile in wonderment.  How did I persist in believing those things for so long?  How much happier am I now with new eyes!  I imagine I’ll eventually think the same about some of my current beliefs.

Some new beliefs still aren’t second nature.  I find myself in situations where I no longer believe my default response, but I haven’t transformed enough to know what my new ideas mean in practice.  I’ve got to return to the arguments, again and again, until my mind makes a shift.

First, you get the idea intellectually.  Enough work, and you get it on a gut level.  Finally, when the transition is complete, you understand it well enough to explain it to others.  Arguing for an idea you haven’t yet become is difficult and counter-productive, unless you’re doing it as a lighthearted intellectual exercise.  Become a new person, and your very life will be an argument for your beliefs.

Roll without Models

If information about someone you’ve never met would devastate you, you might be idolizing them.  Role models are not helpful.  They usually start off in a positive, inspiring way, but result in disappointment, confusion, or naivety.  The reason is that, while ideas, traits and tendencies can be a North Star, no human can.  We’re too fallible.

There’s nothing wrong with being fallible, and a person can still be great despite shortcomings.  But when you make another person, rather than their better qualities, your object of emulation, it becomes hard to deal with reality.  The tendency, upon discovering unsavory behaviors, is to excuse or justify them away until you become a silly cult member, or embittered, and dismiss all the good with the bad.  Neither help you make progress in your own journey.

We need ideal types to really inspire, not just decent people.  This is why myths and legends and fables have such cultural staying power.  They isolate the best traits and turn them into superheros and gods.  Even these heroic characters have flaws, but because we know they aren’t real, we aren’t offended by them.  We knowingly enter a world of idealism, and as such we can be inspired without feeling the need to explain shortcomings away.

If you have role models, consider how you would feel if it turned out they had some horrible skeletons in the closet.  If the thought worries you, you need to step back and think about what it is you value in those people.  Focus on the traits and ideas, make those your role models, and disembody them from the person.  The people are probably fine individuals – maybe you’d enjoy being friends with them, maybe you wouldn’t – but it’s dangerous to turn them into gods or look to them for inspiration.

This approach might seem a little disappointing.  It feels less exciting, perhaps, to remove great individuals from pedestals just because they have some flaws.  I find the opposite to be true.  When you separate ideals from people, you can put the actions of flawed people on a pedestal just because they have some greatness.

In Praise of Discontentment

On more than one recent occasion I have publicly complained about air travel. In nearly every instance, someone responds by sharing a video clip of comedian Louis C.K. reminding us that everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.

His point is that we need to be more content with the wealth, technology and opportunity we have. He condemns the discontent voiced by air travelers and users of technology. It is a hilarious clip and a good reminder to marvel at the world around us. But we shouldn’t let this stop us from being discontent.

In fact, without discontentment, none of the innovations we rightly appreciate would exist. Our desire to improve our conditions is powerful, and our ability to imagine a better life than what we have serves humanity like little else.

Discontentment with the status quo spurs us to innovate; it inspires others to innovate and profit from solving our problems; it helps us recognize innovation when it’s in front of us. If we cannot imagine anything better than horse travel, we may look at an airplane and fail to see its value. Discontentment is the result of a big imagination.

Discontentment also helps us see when something is unnecessarily or artificially interfering with the workings of the world and making our lives worse, or preventing our lives from getting better. The first step to removing the impediments we face is being unhappy about them. Discontentment awakens us to features of the world that are changeable—and is thus empowering.

Some worry that the drive for more and better makes us materialistic and unhappy. Many people are materialistic and unhappy, but an imagination with the power to see a better world is not the cause. If someone suffering from a curable disease chose to eschew treatment and die at a young age for reasons of principle, we may think them noble or strong. On the other hand, if they did not get treatment simply because they didn’t know treatment was available, there would be nothing noble about their choice; it wouldn’t be a choice at all.

It is no credit to us if we are not materialistic only because we have no materials. We can always choose, but ignorance of our choices does us no good. To desire betterment and to feel dissatisfaction with our present state is not evil and need not make us unhappy. It is the cause of action aimed at making us happier, and it can spur a burst of creative energy that fulfills us in a very deep way.

Economic thinking helps us see and appreciate the wonder all around that results from the spontaneous order of free people. But we shouldn’t stop there! Economic thinking leads us further still, opening our eyes to new possibilities and reminding us of the power of human energy when free to produce things currently out of the question. Entrepreneurship can also open our eyes to where we have less than we could or than we once did, because of regulatory intervention.

Jeffrey Tucker is one of my favorite thinkers because he has a knack for pointing out all kinds of little things that have gotten worse in recent years: lawnmowers that don’t cut, soap that doesn’t clean, showers that don’t refresh, toilets that don’t flush and much more.

If we are simply content with the technologies and solutions around us, we might not notice the degradation of many of our household goods. We mightn’t question why things would get worse, rather than better, given the incentives in the market. We might fail to discover the oppressive and destructive power of regulators and busybodies who have interfered and moved us a few steps back in the process of civilization. Sometimes it’s seemingly small things, but sometimes this retrogression results in loss of life. Our discontentment helps us discover these hidden interventions, which is the first step to remedying them.

In sum, discontentment generates the creative power of the market and awareness of the destructive power of the state. Airline travel is painful precisely because we can imagine it being so much better. It seems problematic that it has barely changed in several decades and that, overall, the experience takes longer than it did 20 years ago. The provision of health care is increasingly like a trip to the DMV. It’s good that this troubles us. Many people in countries with even more government involvement in the health care industry can’t even imagine anything better. They have stopped being discontent with months-long waiting lists for basic procedures. If we have no power to imagine anything better, we won’t get anything better or we won’t recognize it when it’s there.

You can be discontent and happy at the same time. In fact, this may be the key to the most fulfilling, creative and purposeful life. I try to remind myself to sit back and marvel at the wonders of the market; indeed it is this awe-inspiring power that opens my imagination to see what more could be. My appreciation for the power of human creativity as evidenced by the world around me is what opens my mind enough to be unhappy with long lines at the airport or a dysfunctional medical system.

Learn to love the world around you and appreciate the powerful forces that created what is; then let that recognition open your imagination to what could be. Discontentment carries the seeds of its own resolution and the fuel for innovation. It’s OK to want more.

Originally posted here.

Break Your Paradigm, Enhance Your Paradigm

“[T]he scene in which we live is an abstraction, experience must be make-believe, a painting by some clever master”

The quote is from the fascinating book Phi.  It comes during a discussion of art, and how it represents the underlying truth in an object or concept, even though to do this, it must use ever-changing specific visual inputs.  Just prior to the above quote comes this statement:

“Many of the neural systems in the cerebral cortex…learn to predict what remains constant in the world, despite the seeming onslaught of constant change.  They paint a scene of what the world should be…with scarce regard for all the changing details our senses bring in most of the time.  So in our consciousness the cone’s shape stays the same, though when we see it from different angles, the images formed onto our eyes are different entirely.”

This account of our process of perception got me thinking about innovation.  If the above is true – if our brains look for patterns and sameness in the specific and unique – it seems there are two primary ways in which to achieve practical or conceptual breakthroughs.

The first is to halt the brain’s efforts at categorizing and generalizing.  Learning to see a sideways cone not as a cone, but as a triangle, may open opportunities to solve problems in new ways.  If we can force ourselves to step outside of the condensing process and analyze stimuli as much on their own terms as possible, rather than immediately trying to stick them into a more fundamental category, we may learn valuable things about objects, ideas, and systems.

The second is just the opposite: by enhancing our ability to identify the changeless substance amid the fluctuating details, we can more quickly see patterns and systems at work that operate beyond the visible artifacts they produce.  Those who are first to recognize fundamental relationships in seemingly random data points often reap the rewards of innovation.

We needn’t decide whether it’s helpful or harmful that our brains tend to sort, categorize, and omit.  It happens.  Understanding the process might help us break from it for fresh perspective at times, and enhance it for quicker insight at others.

When to Take the Plunge

Every idea is not worth pursuing.  Even good ideas may not be worth pursuing.  And sometimes, even mediocre ideas are worth pursuing.

If you’re thinking in terms of odds of success, you might be going about it the wrong way.  It’s very difficult to realistically assess the odds of success.  If you are in love with an idea, every data point will scream, “this is going to work!”.  On the other hand, if you are only surveying the landscape for a sure thing, no matter what it is, you might end up pursuing something with good data behind it, but for which you have no particular passion or special skill.  Neither are great recipes for success.

So if the odds of success, the level of love you have for the project, or the “goodness” of the idea are not sufficient metrics for deciding whether or not to act, what is?  Tolerance for failure.

Only go after an idea that you are willing to fail at it.  There is always a chance of failure.  If you can imagine pursuing something and failing, and it doesn’t feel that bad, do it.  If you know you’d be happier to have “loved and lost” on your idea than never to have attempted, do it.  If, on the other hand, you think failing at something sounds worse than never trying it, it’s a good sign that it’s not a project worth your effort.  If your main worry is over the chance of failure, rather than the discomfort of not attempting, it’s not a good fit.

Interview with a Renaissance Man: Jeff Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is a pioneer in the emerging world of digitally driven freedom.  He’s been ahead of the curve in online publishing, building virtual intellectual communities, and exploring the myriad ways technology lets us live outside the state.  He’s a challenger of the status quo, and one who welcomes risk, uncertainty, and new ideas.

This radical, open-minded approach has greatly benefited me personally.  Some of the very first articles I ever wrote were published by Jeff.  I had no idea if my thoughts were any good.  I was a little embarrassed to share them, but I wanted to try.  I knew some other outlets that would never consider publishing articles by some kid with no credentials or reputation.  I emailed an article to this Jeff Tucker guy, knowing nothing about him.  He responded in minutes with a simple, “This is great.  I’ll post it tomorrow.”  That changed my life more than I could have realized at the time.

You’d think this forward-thinking convention-buster would be on the fringes of every social convention, yet Jeff sports a bow-tie, cuff-links, and a panache for gilded-age foppishness.  He’s an advocate of timeless ideas and traditions, and a fan of ancient religious music.  It’s not about newness or oldness with Jeff; it’s about what’s good, true, beautiful, and what allows humans to reach their potential and find fulfillment.

IMM: Would you say you have a mission in life?  What is it?

JT: Probably that is true. I’m constantly dazzled by the capacity of society to manage itself and constantly annoyed by the impulse to control it, an impulse that results in denying people access to life-improving material goods and services. I suppose I’ve made it something of a personal mission to draw attention to the great battle between society, on the one hand, and the forces of power on the other. This is also the theme of great literature, music, poetry, film, and this is the great lesson of economic science too. There are seemingly infinite ways to apply it, and I’ll never find them all so long as I live and write. But I’m going to keep trying.

IMM: Are you the same Jeff Tucker, in terms of core beliefs, as you’ve always been, or have you changed over time?  In other words, has your journey been a process of learning and realizing what new ideas are more in harmony with who you are, or has it been a process of changing who you are?

JT: I suppose we all have moments when we think back to what we were like as a teenager or a young college student. Sometimes we recognize that person and other times we think: “how could I have been so stupid?” There are certain traits I’ve always had. I love music. Even my elementary school teachers called me “chipmunk” because I never stopped making little musical sounds. Another theme is that I’ve never fit in well with regimented systems of social management. For example, I was in the marching band and hated its strictures. One day I just walked off the field in the middle of rehearsal, knowing for sure that I would never go back. That was a liberating moment for me because I realized, maybe for the first time, that it was possible to shape my own world through my own choices. I realized that the network effects in my own life didn’t have to be determinative.

Discovering economics was a big moment for me at the age of 18. And there are times when I look back at some of my old writings and wince because it is really clear that I was trying to sound like someone else, trying to affect a way that was not really mine. Not that there is anything wrong with imitation but it can be tricky to sort out what is valuable and needs repurposing from outright appropriation of attitudes and styles. I think this comes with maturity really. As with any skill, the key to thinking and writing is to gain as much broad exposure as possible, and then finally just forget all that and do the thing. This can be hard, though, because it means have trust and confidence in the product of your own mind. Also, I think this is why most people don’t write well: they are always looking over their shoulder, worried about revealing their ignorance. You have to get over that.

IMM: There’s a lot of talk these days about managing our personal brand.  You’re branded as a libertarian thinker and communicator.  Do you ever feel hemmed in by that brand?  Do you work to broaden it?

JT: I never really sought out this brand. I think I would struggle with any brand for fear that you sort of end up sustaining something others pin on your rather than enjoying the opportunity to change and adapt over time. Actually, when I started using social media, I did have something a problem that I dealt with. On the one hand, many people knew me as an anarchist radical and defender of free-market economic theory. On the other hand, there was also this huge sector out there that only knew me as an apologist for Gregorian chant in Roman Rite liturgy. I didn’t know which identity to choose. Finally, I just decided that I wouldn’t worry about it, and now I just post on both topics or any topics. This can lead to some curious engagement between diverse communities on threads!

IMM: Does being “out there” in the public eye ever bother you?  Do you segment your life between your public persona and your family and other hobbies, or do see it as a unified whole?

JT: Yes, I’m bugged by the public personality thing, because I’m most happy working alone in a tiny space and I’m happy to go days on end without contact with others. The truth is that I’m rather shy and internal. But eventually I came to realize that being a public person is something that just happens and you finally just embrace it. At the same time, I do try to maintain a private sphere, and I do actually work to maintain this. If I screw up or become the source of some calamitous public controversy, that is something I want to bear myself without dragging others in. Also, separating public and private allows me to have normal conversations with people without constantly being asked: what is the anarchist point of view on this subject?

IMM: You’re a relentless optimist.  What’s one recent development that’s most challenged your positive, progressive prognosis?

JT: Here again, I don’t really think of myself as exclusively occupying the optimist sector. It’s striking to me that people say this because vast amounts of my writing have consisted of kvetching about the terrible effects of government — material which can be very dreary actually! At the same time, I’m profoundly aware that in the great struggle between liberty and power, liberty enjoys the upper hand so long as we see any evidence of progress around us. Every advance that we see in civilization I treat as a sign that freedom is not dead but instead still thrives, and this thrills me. I love to see data about the decline of violence, malnutrition, infant mortality, and disease because these are all signs that liberty is on the march.

It’s interesting that you ask about recent developments that challenge optimism. This weekend I was seriously vexed by two recent developments. First, libertarian broadcaster Adam Kokesh was arrested and jailed for, so far as I can tell, just speaking at a rally. Adam and I are very different people but I respect his intelligence and his courage. I went online to see what people were saying about this. I bumped into a conservative forum in which the posters were cheering the police. Then I bumped into a white nationalist forum in which these proto-Nazis were saying that the arrest was great because Adam is Jewish. I nearly became sick reading those comments.

The second thing that bugged me this weekend was seeing how an emergent establishment within the sector of digital currencies is calling and lobbying for government regulation as a means of achieving some measure of legitimacy. I kept thinking: we wonder how it is that great things get destroyed. This is how. We are watching this in real time. Fortuntely Bitcoin can survive this.

IMM: What do you see as some of the common pitfalls those who want to make the world a freer place should avoid?

JT: Many people are tempted by the belief the answer rests with political activism, that is, by getting the right people in public office. This proposed solution can end up with a vast waste of resources. Nothing comes of it. Also, this approach fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the state itself. It does not really consist of elected officials. They are mostly the veneer, and their focus is their specialization: getting in office and staying there. They are the state’s iconography in effect. They are there for us to look at and communicate with, and they are happy to play that appointed role as a career builder. But the real machine consists of the permanent bureaucracy in charge of enforcing a century-old legacy of bad laws, regulations, and legislation. This machinery prides itself in ignoring elections and political controversies.

I’m actually far more hopeful about the capacity of commerce and technology to change the world than for political forces to do good for the world.

Another common error was identified very well by Leonard Read, and that is the tendency to think of ourselves as teachers and everyone else as our obedient students. Our job is to pass on our great knowledge and their job is to listen and be enlightened. This can create a condescending environment that is no longer plausible or compelling in a digital age in which ideas come from everywhere and are constantly remixed and repurposed. A better approach, Read said, is to think of yourself as a co-learner who contributes special insight due to a familiarity with the liberal tradition. Inviting others to explore and understand that tradition — because it is underrepresented in official institutions — is a more successful approach. Of course this always requires some humility. You know how old people always say that the more you know, the more you realize how little you know? It sounds like a cliche doesn’t it? Well, it’s true.

In terms of writing and research, I would like to see fewer attempts to re-write Human Action and more applied histories and analysis of contemporary events, and I would like to see more attempts to solve the practical problems that come with living under leviathan.. Sometimes as libertarians we make it too easy on ourselves by presuming that our only audience is other libertarians. We should imagine that we are competing with all existing ideas around out there, and make sure that everything we write stands on its own terms without ideological preconditions. We all need to be harder and more critical of ourselves and our work in that sense. It’s long past time for liberty-minded writers to come out of hiding and expose our stuff to the hardest criticism we can find. Every critic is a benefactor. We can stand the scrutiny.

IMM: How has your approach to advancing liberty changed over the years and why?

JT: I’ve always been driven by the desire to get as much information out there as possible through whatever way I can. This is one reason I like to write about presumably petty topics like gas cans, showerheads, and silly putty. These are topics that interest people, and if we can engage people on them, we can get our ideas out there. In fact, I don’t regard any aspect of life as beyond liberty-minded analytics. Nor do I think anyone is beyond persuasion. The longing for liberty is universal. It is just a matter of finding that aspect of each human personality that long to be free and working from there.

Has my approach changed over time? Maybe I’m less puffed up than I once was. I do look at some of my past writing and wonder why I wrote what I did. There are some book reviews extant in which I picked mercilessly on an author for one slipup, for one deviation. There is nothing wrong and everything right about challenging people’s ideas. But it is also possible to cross the line and do it with a desire to harm. As critics, we need to be careful to not create strawmen or attempt to whip up people in frenzies of hate against someone because of a disagreement. This strikes me as essentially uncivilized and unproductive. I now try my best to crawl into the thinking of my interlocutors and try to make points that they would find challenging and compelling. In other words, it is not enough just to presume the right point of view and attack those who deviate. You have to actually make the case in a way in which your opponent would understand — and this is a point I owe to Sheldon Richman. He inadvertently trained me to see this.

Liberal intellectuals should be the model here. And this is for a specific reason: we’ve all be treated very unfairly in the past. I read a book review recently of an excellent defense of markets and it was clear to me that the critic had either not read the book or had no interest in taking the author on directly. Instead, the critic just caricatured and smeared. We should not be part of such a game. The ideas of liberty are robust enough to stand on their own without having to resort to such tactics. In fact, it is a measure of how confident you are in your position that you can state your points calmly, clearly, and coherently — and apply them to anything and everything — without resorting to name calling, sarcasm, or accusations of malice.

Mises offers some words at the end of Liberalism that have haunted me since I first read them. He says that liberty will win the day through reasoned argument, not through parades, songs, uniforms, and personality cults. Was he naive? I don’t think so.

IMM: I’ve heard that major intellectual celebrities are a thing of the past because we’re in an age where fame is less centralized.  Instead of one Milton Friedman, you have dozens or hundreds of podcasters, bloggers, and other public intellectuals with smaller individual market share, but a more robust presence overall.  What’s your take on the way the marketplace for ideas has developed?

JT: I agree with this. The struggle to disseminate information and the struggle to shine the light of liberty are the same struggle. In the past, there were fewer opportunities to do this and fewer transmission sources for information. The progress toward where we are today goes back some one thousand years, which only the elites could reach others with ideas. Now they are everywhere. It’s like a sandstorm that never stops.

Ideas are not like physical goods. They are infinitely reproducible in that there is no need for a contest over the right to consume them.. They are malleable in that they never leave our minds in the same shape they enter. They are immortal in that they long outlast our physical lives. We are just today discovering the potential here in this digital age. None of this means that we won’t continue to have heroes and that is a great thing. But it does mean that we need not rally around  one person’s ideas as the only basis for belief or as the sole litmus test. The body of ideas called liberalism is naturally destined to have as many permutations as the free society itself.

IMM: You are a big advocate of information sharing.  Tell me a bit about your views on intellectual property and how you came to them.

JT: When I first heard the idea that intellectual property should be abolished, I thought it was crazy. I didn’t think it was really untrue in some strict doctrinal sense but I seriously doubted the merit of talking about it. I thought this was a bit like one of those weird libertarian puzzles like “what happens if you fall out of a window and grab someone else’s flag pole on the way down?” I just didn’t think it mattered, and I found the whole subject a bit embarrassing.

But once the US government made IP a centerpiece of its attack on the Internet and even its trade and foreign policy, I knew that I had overlooked something important. I read Stephan Kinsella and some applied work and I eventually came around completely. I think the process took me six years in total. It is a hard subject, one that reaches the the root of subject we all think we understand but probably we really do not.

Gradually, I came to realize something. Ideas are the most important commodity in the world. To control them is to control people. IP is nothing but a mercantilist leftover. But it is even more profound than that. Within the sector of ideas, we find something that evades the requirements of normal property. Ideas are non-scarce goods. They can be owned socialistically so to speak. You see the first notions of this possibility in the works of the Austrians but needed fleshing out more. In other words, this is a huge area with massive implications for economic theory and the future of liberty. The subject of IP opened up new vistas of thought. Actually, the subject changed my life and represented a fundamental expansion of the way the world looks through my eyes. We see in the world of ideas a beautiful anarchy and a vision of what can be for the whole world.

IMM: What gets you up in the morning?

JT: I wake because I can’t wait to be surprised by what the day will bring.

IMM: Thank you Jeff!

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