Fantasy Football and Economics


An article from last month's edition of The Freeman in which I discuss some economic lessons from fantasy football and at the same time grind an ax with a former fantasy football commissioner. Maybe it's wrong to use economic principles and a great outlet like The Freeman as a way to vent frustration, but it worked and I am now over it...mostly.

The article is here.

Mentors Don’t Have the Answers


The word mentoring sounds really nice. It gives everyone a good feeling. It's like "charity", "generosity", "helping", or "teaching"; they all evoke positive emotions and make you feel like it's something you should do. I think all of these words are overused, over-appreciated and under-scrutinized. There's a valuable way to engage in all of these things, but the common forms they take are pretty flimsy.

Take mentoring. Those seeking to mentor often see potential mentees as projects or people upon whom they must bestow wisdom and guidance. Those seeking to be mentored are often looking for answers to tough questions in life like what education or career path to pursue and what steps get them closer to their goals. Neither of these approaches yield much fruit. Why not? Because no one has better answers for the questions you face than you. No one knows more about your own life and the direction it should take than you.

I've had older guys that I really respected (and some that I didn't) attempt to take me under their wing and help guide my life. Sometimes I'd see something interesting in a person and seek them out to learn from them or ask them about it. So far so good. But at some point it would evolve into them feeling like they needed to provide not just conversation about whatever I was seeking, but guidance for my life as a whole. I balked at this. At the time I always felt a little guilty, like I shouldn't be so arrogant to ignore or turn away from their attempted mentoring. I didn't have a father figure in the traditional sense, and a lot of these guys recognized that and were trying to help fill that void. All good intentions. Looking back, I am thankful for that anti-mentee instinct I had. I never wanted or needed guidance on life in general and no one could have given it anyway. I wanted to learn from them and discuss with them specific areas in their thinking and action that I admired or found intriguing.

On the flip side, I've been guilty of the same. I've spotted talented young people and tried to help guide their lives. It doesn't work.

I recall a revelation I had that freed me from the guilt I felt for ignoring mentors. I realized that I knew more than they did. Not about everything, of course, but about my own life. I realized that they couldn't answer questions for me, but they could live their own life in a way that captured my attention and led me to seek specific bits of wisdom. I had to be the seeker to gain value. If they were seeking me to offer advice, chances are it wasn't all that valuable. There are exceptions, but as a general rule I found the most helpful wisdom was that which I sought myself and not that freely bestowed by well-intentioned mentors.

This realization did not cause me to respect my elders less, but more. I released them from the burden I had imposed on them to provide solutions and answers they couldn't and allowed them to just be who they where. It was then that I began to realize the things I did respect in them and the things I could learn.

I have endeavored to be a mentor only when sought, and even then not to attempt to offer answers for questions never asked or big-picture life questions I couldn't provide the answers to. If someone seeks me out to ask my thoughts on a piece of writing, a career move, or an educational choice, I gladly share them. I've tried to resist the temptation to go on to tell them much more. If I have anything valuable to offer, it is more likely to come from their observation of me than from my words. If they want more, they can seek more.

Mentoring is great, but you should always remember that no mentor has the answers to your questions. They have answers to their own questions, and those can provide helpful insight. Seek such insight from those you respect, integrate it into your worldview, but remember that at the end of the day, you are your best mentor. After all, it's you who lives with the choices you make, not others. Incentives are powerful.

Beyond Good & Evil


Since our move to South Carolina I've had a renewed interest in American history and, in particular, the history of the South and the institution of slavery. I'm a Yankee invader, so my notions of the South were pretty simplistic. I saw monuments and read snippets that were incongruent with the narrative I grew up with regarding the Civil War, slavery, and the South in general. It became clear how uncomfortably complex the whole mess was.

A friend recommended Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese. What an excellent book! The author filters some things through a lens of Marxian class theory, which is not really my thing, but the book is jam-packed with counter-intuitive insight and uses tons primary sources in a very enlightening way, not just a bombardment of long quotations or endless footnotes which historians sometimes do. The book is a great reminder of how much more complex the world is than we try to make it in retrospect. American slavery was not a simple story of good people and evil people. It was not a simple case of economic exploitation. It was an elaborate and highly nuanced institution with unlikely defenders and enemies. It was an evil institution, but the people within it were not necessarily evil or good.

I've written elsewhere about the fact that institutions can be good or evil even if the people within those institutions are not. I think it's important to remember this. It doesn't let us off the hook with sweeping declarations of good and evil. It forces us to look at the world as it is, and understand that people respond to incentives, and that good people can support bad institutions because of false beliefs. It doesn't mean they aren't accountable for their beliefs, but they mightn't be knowingly engaging in evil.

Genovese's book revealed that some slave owners abhorred the institution. Why didn't they simply free their slaves? Sometimes state law prohibited or made very difficult the freeing of slaves. Some owners believed that, once freed, the slaves would risk re-enslavement by others, a much crueler life in the free but still racist North, or great hardship in a world for which they were not equipped. Whether this was true, there was some reason for slave owners to have such fears. Some freed slaves did suffer these fates. One doesn't have to hate slavery any less or agree with the logic of these conflicted slave owners to allow the possibility that they needn't have been pure evil. One former slave owner wrote how wrong he had been to assume that the slaves needed him and that he needed the slaves. He described how poorly most plantations were doing financially, and how the end of slavery actually improved them economically. He talked about how well the former slaves got on away from the plantation. Both of these outcomes surprised him. His worldview was so entrenched that he failed to see how the institution was harming not only the slaves but his own economic well-being.

The more difficult fact is how many slaves claimed to not want freedom, and how many chose not to take it when given the chance. One could make the material case that some slaves might have had better lives on a plantation than the other options available at the time, and that is certainly worth considering, but it strikes me that there's something deeper at play here. There is a belief in one's own helplessness and a fear of the unknown common to all people who have long been oppressed. When the Soviet Union fell there were stories of people who did not know what to do and longed for the security of the previous tyranny. Abused spouses sometimes exhibit similar behavior. Fear of the unknown dangers of freedom does not make the captives bad people in any of these cases. It reveals the complex nature of such institutions and reminds us that long-run oppression of such magnitude requires far more than physical force: it requires some level of belief on the part of oppressors, oppressed, and third parties that the institution is either moral, necessary, or at least inevitable.

We do ourselves a disservice if we boil everything down to good vs. evil and explain every tyranny as the result of raw physical power. People are complicated creatures who seek the most gain at the least expense and who accept or contrive all manner of beliefs to justify their choices. Or maybe the beliefs come first and determine the choices. Either way, in the long run ideas shape the institutions we live under. History and our own times are better understood when we treat people like rational actors whose choices are shaped by their beliefs rather than evil egomaniacs or saintly altruists.

There is a lot to learn from the experience of American slavery. It was a unique institution, but not so unique that it doesn't have modern lessons and parallels. Many people failed to see beyond slavery. What evils do we fail to see beyond or imagine the world without? Robert Higgs provides some provocative food for thought here.

Resisting Anger


I'm not a fan of the state.  It's arbitrary and highly inefficient.  Still, it's here for the time being and I try to make my peace with it even while I try to change it.  For the most part I succeed in being happy despite the state harassment we all encounter.  Trips to the DMV, pat-downs by TSA agents and interactions with traffic cops can get me irritated, but I'm generally optimistic and calm.  So why did the relatively small increase in payroll tax get me so steamed?

To be honest I'm not entirely sure. For some reason I was really struggling to not feel anger and helplessness after recalculating our family budget post tax hike.  It was not the additional amount of money being taken that evoked such deep frustration, but the total inescapability of it.   It reminded me of the feeling I had when I had my bike stolen as a kid.  I came out of the store and it was just gone.  I felt violated and insecure.  But now it wasn't a random thief who strikes once and leaves you alone; it was the state, always there and ready to demand more when the mood strikes.

If your cable bill goes up, you have options.  You can call and vent your frustration.  You can tell them the increase was not in your contract, or in the very least not clear to you.  This often results in a renegotiation.  My wife has a knack for getting utility providers to reduce their rates or offer temporary discounts if ever they make an error.  As a last resort you can always cancel the service entirely and go with a competitor or simply go without.  The state leaves no such option.

Being completely captive to this supposed service provider is disempowering.  I was recently reading a book about depression and optimism in children and one of the things that stuck out to me was how powerful early experiences of helplessness can be.  When kids are not able to experience cause and effect; when they can't take action to alter the outcome of their world, they begin to despair.  The despair often manifests as depression, bullying and withdraw.  Punishment and reward with no connection to the child's actions plant seeds that can take a lifetime to uproot.

The realization of just how vast and impersonal the state is can have a similar effect.  One day you must pay the state X, the next day the rate is Y.  There is nothing you've done or chosen to make this happen.  There is nothing you can do.

My wife asked me what the least oppressive tax environment in the world was.  At first I tried to recall some of the lists and charts I've seen, but then I remembered that it wouldn't matter.  We were both born in this country.  That means even if we moved to another country, the IRS would demand income taxes from us for the rest of our lives.  The only option is to officially expatriate, in which case the state calculates your lifetime tax liability and asks you to pay it in one lump sum.  Some "social contract" this turns out to be!

I've been to countries with a high level of government "corruption" - an abbreviated way of saying a state that does what all states do, but without the factory-like repetition and paperwork.  It's not uncommon in such places to have a state agent approach you and claim you are in violation of some or another rule.  You pay them $20 or so and they're on their way.  The rules are used as a threat to get your money.  You pay, you can ignore the rules.  Here in America it works a little differently.  Instead of one agent showing up at your door, there are fifteen hundred bagillion nestled in cubicles wrapped in drab Soviet prison style architecture.  They send you a lot of papers demanding that you get in your car and drive to them.  You fill out six forms and wait in line for three hours.  Then they tell you one of the forms is out of date and send you away because the new form is only available tomorrow.  On your third visit you complete the forms properly so you can move on to the next step, paying whatever amount they determine you must pay.  You pay them.  But unlike countries with corrupt governments, your payment here does not buy you freedom from the silly rules.  You pay in order that you may obey them.

Of course there is no doubt this kind of system is more predictable than the corrupt states.  Then again, prison is predictable too.  Predictability is something, but it's not everything.

Back to my tax bill.  I was angry.  I knew it was unhealthy and counter-productive.  I indulged in it for a little while and then decided it was time to be free, state or no state.  I went and re-read this inspiring interview with my good friend T.K. Coleman.  It got me back on track.  T.K., The Shawshank Redemption and the late Harry Browne's book How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World are excellent go-to's when I start to let the oppressors win.  If I'm free, "what can man do to me"?

What is the State? Then What?


A few good friends and I teamed up with the Mackinac Center and put together a colloquium for undergraduates.  It gets its name from Thomas Clarkson, a young man who played a major role in ending the British slave trade.  More on Clarkson here.

The reading list is intended to have an arc to it.  We examine what the state is in theory, what the state is in practice, whether the state works well compared to non-state alternatives, whether states can be improved or constrained, whether statelessness is an option, and finally how to get from the current to a better (or no) state.  There are too many excellent books and essays for each of these questions, but I'm pretty excited about the sampling we put together.

I majored in political science as an undergraduate, and I can tell you we were never asked to consider fundamental questions like these.  Nearly all of my courses and readings assumed an idealized state or talked about what a noble or just state should be like.  Public Choice theory was never mentioned, nor did we engage in serious examination of competing views of the origin and nature of states (just Plato and Hobbes) and how they actually operate.  After a few courses touching on such theories, the rest was mostly squabbling over quantitative methods for gauging public opinion and whether single member districts were more "efficient" than proportional representation, whatever that means.  It was always assumed that democracy was wonderful in and of itself and achieving and maintaining it the goal of all political action.  I don't think you'd find such religious devotion to an ideal in divinity school.

Maybe I'm trying to relive my undergraduate days vicariously through the participants, but I hope it will be valuable for them as well.  Here's the reading list we compiled.

Too Quick to Close


I am an obsessive finisher.  Loose ends and unfinished projects drive me nuts.  Things in progress do not excite me, they stress me out.  I'm always looking to cross things off, get them out of my mind and move on to the next thing.  I think this is a major asset, but it has come to be a liability as well.  The more complex and long-term what I do becomes, the more I'm fighting against my own habits and instincts.

When I complete a phase of a project and pass it on to someone I'm collaborating with, within days I'm impatient and contemplating just finishing it myself even if it's imperfect.  I want to close the case.  This results in a lot of complex, messy projects either being dealt with in too much haste, or potential projects never launched, because it is not clear how they would be completed.

I'm trying to learn to love the process and be comfortable waiting.  I'll probably never be one of those people who has 10 books going, 25 internet tabs open at once and 50 emails they've read and not responded to.  I'm trying to get more comfortable with the idea though.  Most of the time, people with many things live at once are in that position because they are not very good at deciding how much time each project really warrants and when things aren't worth any time at all.  I'm good at that and I wouldn't trade it.  Realizing how much information is best completely ignored and how many emails should be deleted is powerful.  But in my haste to purge low value tasks and complete valuable tasks, I often miss out on the richness that can come out of a slow-growing idea or a longer collaborative project.

I want to wrap this post up nicely, but maybe I'll just leave it here...

A Few New Posts


The wonderful new Laissez Faire Books has been kind enough to post a few of my articles.  You can check them out here.

Also, check out the Morality of Capitalism Series at the Values & Capitalism Project here.  My archives at V&C has a number of new posts as well.

How Radical is Too Radical? Anarchism as a practical guide to advancing liberty


An article I co-authored with Chris Nelson, published in the Libertarian Alliance's Tactical Notes series.  It's an honor to be published in this series.  Several great thinkers have discussed tactics for advancing liberty via this publication, including Murray Rothbard.  Chris and I argue that, whether or not you believe in anarchism, it is an idea that demands serious discussion and thought if liberty is to be advanced.

Article here.

Isaac Morehouse


Isaac Morehouse is the CEO of Crash, the career launch platform, and the founder of Praxis, a startup apprenticeship program. Isaac is dedicated to the relentless pursuit of freedom. He’s written some books, done some podcasting, and is always experimenting with self-directed living and learning.

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Episode 48: How to Change the World


I wanted to make the world a better place and I tried everything from humanitarian aid to politics and education.  I discovered through both experience and theory that I was not changing the underlying causes of unfreedom. It takes ideas and experiences to alter beliefs and open up the possibility for greater freedom.

This talk is about my own experiences and how they affected my life and career choices, and was presented at a FEE seminar at Austin, Texas, in the summer of 2015.

Apply to attend a FEE seminar this summer to hear more talks like this live!

This and all episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, YouTube, and Stitcher.

Here's the audio:

 

And here's the video version with slides:

https://youtu.be/cK2DBsud3mo

 

My Current Reading List


I asked three of my best go-to's for reading recommendations when I'm in Ecuador.  I'm going to try to read ten books in the six weeks there.  We'll see if I can do it.  To create my list, I took two recommendations from each of the people I asked plus four of my own.

First, here are the books I'm trying to finish this week before we embark:

  • Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn (Nearly done, but will continue to reread)
  • Flatland by Edwin Abbott (Rereading (actually audiobook) and nearly done)
  • Evolve by Chad Grills (Halfway done)

And these are the 10 selections I've loaded up on my Kindle for the time away:

I'll be reviewing one of these selections in the next monthly newsletter.  If you're not signed up for it, join today!

 

Four Options When Government Gets in the Way of Your Dreams


Four Options When Government Gets in the Way

Illustration by Matthew Drake

 

This article is adapted from a presentation given at FEE and SFL seminars.  Co-authored with James Walpole for The Freeman.

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We all want to live free, but we have a problem: governments don’t always want us to.

From seemingly mundane rules (like banning raw milk sales) to the truly horrific (like taking your house from you or throwing you in jail), the state is probably going to mess with you at some point in your life. It will throw taxes and fees and fines and rules at you and erect roadblocks and regulations inhibiting your progress — especially if you’re trying to do something new and innovative.

What can you do?

You do have options. Grave as the stakes may sometimes be, you must first accept this outlook: it’s all a game. If you treat it that way, you’re more likely to find a way forward rather than simply cowering in fear or trembling with anger.

Here, then, are four options when you’re faced with the game of government interference.

1. Play the Game

This is the strategy you’re probably most familiar with. It’s what we’re all encouraged to do. Whether through voting, lobbying, or holding office, you can try to take on the state while playing by its rules. You can try to change it from the inside. This is a strategy we cannot recommend.

In business, this strategy leads to the phenomenon economists call “regulatory capture.” Many companies become involved in lobbying and political action to prevent hostile regulations. It’s understandable. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on campaign donations and dinners trying to sway politicians and regulators to delay a vote, join coalitions, or carve out exceptions.

It’s a tough, slow process, one that involves endless compromise of principle and decency, and the few who succeed end up with political power and the ability to gain more. They end up using that power not just to expand their own freedom but to crush the freedom of competitors.

But any changes you make will be temporary. Laws passed in one decade are easily repealed in the next, especially if they limit state power. The bigger loss is a personal one. If you play the game long enough, the game ends up playing you. You become a part of the power structure you were trying to fight.

2. Defy the Game

When the state crushes your dreams, you can fight back. History is full of people who stopped taking oppression for granted and started resisting. Look at the civil rights movement in the United States, the Hungarian revolt against Communist rule, or even Uber’s commercial rebellion.

Today, the ridesharing company is operating illegally in dozens of cities, and it’s already paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for its drivers who are caught violating local laws. The company is growing fast enough to absorb the damage, and while governments don’t like Uber, customers love it. In Uber-hostile cities like New York, riders are standing up for their favorite way to get around. The “rebellion” has been a huge success.

But rebellion plays out in more desperate ways in the rest of the political world. For people and companies without the money and reputation of Uber, successfully defying the game is hard. While you can get tremendous satisfaction from sticking it to the man, you might end up in jail. You might be killed. In other words, playing this way means you might run into the real power of the state in its rawest form.

3. Change the Game

Changing the game is about recognizing the incentive structures and putting external pressure on the government to bend. Often, all you need to do to win is to hold the state to its own rules.

But it’s not as easy as it sounds, and the people who try to change the game in this way have to be heroic, if not martyrs. They’re taking the longest route. Game-changers lower the cost of information to the public while raising the cost for government to break its own rules or be thuggish. This group includes lawyers, journalists, public intellectuals, and everyday citizens.

Look at the case of occupational licensing. Municipal and state governments throughout the United States require entrepreneurs to give up money and time to comply with regulations. Many would-be entrepreneurs are stopped dead in their tracks by competition-killing regulations.

Before the Institute for Justice (IJ) challenged the regulation, eyebrow threaders in Texas were required to train for 750 hours before they could set up shop. Before another IJ case in 2011, Texas required bakers wanting to sell cookies to the public to rent commercial kitchen space and obtain food-handling permits.

Changing the game isn’t limited to the courtroom. Governments will break their own rules if they can get away with it. Both IJ cases included concerted efforts to raise public awareness about the unfair consequences of the regulations while simultaneously challenging them in court. These efforts raised the stakes for any judge who wanted to rule for the status quo. It also resulted in politicians jockeying to change the law before the court case was even settled so that they could take credit and benefit from the positive PR. Think about the state lawmakers who jumped at the chance to restrict eminent domain after theKelo outrage.

This is one of the biggest pros of changing the game: if you’re successful, you’ve kept your own integrity, and you’ve helped to protect others from the dream crushers in government.

The problem is that you may not win. You can spend years of your life fighting the battle to change the game and lose — plenty of people have, from the Dred Scott case to the Kelo decision. Even if you do win, the victory is too often short-lived: as soon as public awareness and scrutiny abate, courts will “reinterpret” hard-fought constitutional changes put in place to restrict government.

4. Ignore the Game

Entrepreneurs in the last decade have made international-trade and immigration restrictions less and less important. Today, anyone can telecommute to work in the United States from a call center in India, an Internet cafe in Bangladesh, or a personal laptop in Mexico. These innovations allow labor to move freely, and the inventors never needed to lobby politicians.

You can quit, exit, and opt out of the games government uses to stop you. You can move. You can pull your kids out of school. You can alter your business plan. You can quietly sidestep the obstacles placed before you.

There are major benefits to ignoring the game. For one thing, you don’t have to think about politics. Psychologists and philosophers have long told us to not worry about things not under our control. By ignoring the game, you can be politically ignorant and much happier. You don’t have to fight court battles or Internet comment threads. You can focus on creating, not protesting.

Ignoring the game isn’t always as satisfying as defying it, but ignoring the game offers an immediate sense of personal freedom. It allows you to create a freer life for yourself while providing an example that others can learn from. Over time, if enough people ignore the game, it begins to wane in importance and power.

How Will You Respond?

If your goal is to live free, first understand the game and know the rules. The way you respond to the game is then up to you. The strategy you choose will have more influence over your quality of life than any near-term victory or defeat will.

You may respond to the government in many different ways throughout your life, but if you treat it like a game, it will be less likely to ruin you.

Episode 47: Tam Pham on Life Outside the Classroom


Entrepreneur, author, and college dropout Tam Pham is working hard to introduce people to self-directed learning.

Tam and I talk about jumping off the conveyor belt, how to identify one’s goals and directions, what obstacles are in the way of anyone publishing a book, the ‘Steve Jobs Fallacy’ and failure in entrepreneurship.

Check out his website outsideoftheclassroom.com and get his bestselling book on how to build a network for free.

This episode sponsored by The Foundation of Economic Education.  Check out seminars for 14-26-year-olds and enjoy a mind-opening experience!

This episode is also sponsored by Praxis, for those who want more than college and think they have the entrepreneurial bug.  Apply today for a real world education.

This and all episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, YouTube, and Stitcher.

Protest is a Poor Substitute for Living


You don't have to be against something to be for something else.

You can like what you like without feeling oppressed by the fact that others do not share your preferences and proclivities.

Any felt need to combat those who don't agree reveals a desire to gain their acceptance, which reveals a lack of self-acceptance.

You'll never enjoy what you care about as much if you keep caring that others don't.

Isaac Morehouse


Isaac Morehouse is the founder and CEO of Praxis, a startup apprenticeship program making degrees irrelevant for careers. Isaac is dedicated to the relentless pursuit of freedom. He’s written some books, done some podcasting, and is always experimenting with self-directed living and learning.

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