The Problem of Paradigms


Here's an old and dusty blog post on paradigms.  Recent events brought it to memory so I'm posting it here.  Also see this post on worldviews.

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Johan Norberg wrote a brilliant and devastating critique for the Cato Institute on Noami Klein's recent book, The Shock Doctrine.

Norberg's article is well worth a read.  It reminded me of the immense importance of the long-term battle of ideas.  The practice of teaching political ideas on a simple continuum of left to right, with fascism on one end and communism on the other, has resulted in all manner of untruthful re-interpretations of history, philosophy and economics.   This book is probably the strongest example of the major problems this simplistic and inaccurate paradigm creates.

Klein is unable to see the world through any lens besides the left/right paradigm.  Because of this, she is forced to make everything fit into this vision.  She crams big government Republicans, fascists, despots, corporate welfare leeches, bureaucrats, militarists, and libertarians all into one bizarre category.  No matter how strongly reality disagrees with this view, and no matter how impossible it is to fit these different shapes together, she still tries and apparently believes she’s succeeded.

The paradigms we form early in our intellectual endeavors can prove incredibly hard to shake.  Seeing the world as merely a left/right world is the root cause of almost all of Klein's inaccurate, and frankly stupid, conclusions.  It seems glaringly apparent that libertarians and neoconservatives are not even close to the same thing - scads of books, websites, essays and debates are widely available which make this overtly clear to even a casual observer.  Yet Klein holds so firmly to her left/right paradigm that she fails to see these distinctions, and sometimes even offers critiques of government and calls them critiques of free-markets.

If we are to analyze policies and philosophies on their moral and practical merits, it is imperative that we learn to break out of overly-simplistic paradigms, and allow each argument to stand on its own rather than be mashed together in unnatural associations that are easier to label and fit on our continuum.  (Though also simplistic, here's another at least somewhat better way to view political ideas - one that allows for more deviations and does a better job of explaining the world that we actually see.)

Paradigms are important and necessary mental tools that help us understand abstractions and put them into a broader and more meaningful context.  However, they are only mental tools – the paradigm should never be confused with the truth itself.  When reality does not fit into our paradigms, we need to explore new ones rather than bend and twist reality and deceive ourselves into believing it fits.  Paradigms should be checked against logic; a sometimes difficult task that would've saved Ms. Klein from a great deal of error.

Klein's book should serve as a reminder that the current left/right political spectrum is one of the least useful or explanatory paradigms around, and adherence to it in the face of divergent realities can be dangerous – to freedom and to truth.

Elections Don’t Matter


This was written for the Shotgun Blog during election season.

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“I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.” - Milton Friedman

Amidst the din surrounding the U.S. presidential elections there is much debate and discussion over which candidate can best lead the nation in the right direction. The right direction to me is towards greater freedom. Which candidate can move us there?

None of them.

This is not because of the specific field of candidates we have to choose from this election; this is always the case. As Milton Friedman pointed out (quote above), the nature of politics is such that a politician will only be able to do as much as he or she can get away with. No president, no matter how much he or she wanted to, could enact reforms more radical than what the general populace finds acceptable. In the end, all governments – monarchies, autocracies, democracies – can only do what the majority of the populace allows. Even a powerful tyrant, in the long run, cannot resist the will of the majority of people if they are motivated enough to oppose him. It is the ideas that they hold which determine their motivation.

Ideas, not people, run the world.

In a system like ours with democratic elections, government leaders are particularly sensitive to the mood of the public. Relatively frequent elections, recall threats, loss of fundraising from would-be supporters, and constant media coverage create a high price for unpopular decisions. Even the ability to change policy after being elected without sufficient popularity is limited – since multiple branches of government are needed to enact policy an unpopular leader will have little luck convincing congressional colleagues to go out on a limb for him.

Why then have we moved away from freedom in many areas? Because in the battle of ideas, temporary comfort, promises of impossible “equality”, lack of self-respect and responsibility, and a desire for the state to impose our tastes upon others by force have had too many victories.

Freedom will not keep without constant maintenance. Freedom is an idea. Ideas must be continually re-stated, defended against the trends of the day, taught and passed down, communicated and re-communicated in ways relevant to each generation. If we give an inch, the deceptive lures of state-sponsored “comfort”, “equality”, “fairness”, “niceness”, etc. will quickly creep in and gain a mile.

The ideas we hold, the value we place on freedom, our understanding of why it matters, our interpretation of history and the warnings it provides against statism – these are what determine the policies of the nation. Indeed, choose the candidate that seems best. Choose the one that you believe can best restrain the urge to take more power and trample more freedom. But know that in the end it is what you believe, and what others around you believe and how strongly we believe it that will determine what the politicians do.

Is freedom your passion this year, or is it the candidate of the month? The former can truly transform the world forever; the latter can only follow our mood swings. Don’t expect your vote or candidate to change the world - nothing worth having can be had so easily. I hope to change the world with ideas; the candidates will follow.

“I am really sorry to see my Countrymen trouble themselves about Politics. If Men were Wise the Most arbitrary Princes could not hurt them. If they are not Wise the Freest Government is compelled to be a Tyranny. Princes appear to me to be Fools. Houses of Commons & Houses of Lords appear to me to be fools, they seem to me to be something Else besides Human Life.” - William Blake

Attack of the Moral Busybodies


This is a post originally written for the Prometheus blog, but it no longer appears there so I thought I'd repost it.

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Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." -- C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock

At the gym the other day I overheard two older women talking as they ran on treadmills.  They were talking (quite loudly - I wasn't straining to eavesdrop) about the current situation with banks and home mortgages.  They both agreed that many people with adjustable-rate mortgages were going to be struggling to make payments if rates continued to rise.  The culprit, they said, was greed.  The banks were greedy for giving adjustable rate loans to people who may have a high risk of default.

I tried to tune them out and focus on pumping up my already massive 157 body to no avail (both the tuning out and the pumping).  Their conversation moved on to last night's TV viewing.  "I was watching that Deal or no Deal show, and I couldn't believe it!"  She went on to share her absolute amazement and disgust with various contestants for choosing to pass up tens of thousands of dollars in order to try for more.  Both of the treading ladies agreed that this was "A shame", and that it boiled down to "Greed.  Just pure greed."

As I strained to lift the smallest denomination of barbells in the gym I thought about these nice old ladies, seemingly concerned with the welfare of all mankind.  What was so greedy?  Banks chose to loan money to people, which always bears a risk of default.  These women felt the default risk was too great and the loan shouldn't have been made; the banks, apparently, did not.  Game show contestants were faced with a choice to take a sum of money and walk, or to risk walking with nothing for the chance of a larger sum.  The joggers thought they should take the money, they thought the risk of trying for more was too great; the contestants did not.

Both of these were instances where the risk preferences of the ladies differed from those whom they were criticizing as greedy.  Whose risk preference should be enforced?  If these ladies had their way, there might be laws and regulations imposing their risk preferences on everyone else.  Would we really be better off if the opinions of these women dictated who got a loan, rather the calculations of those who own the resources?  Would we be better off if game show contestants had to call the treadmill duo and ask permission to hit the big red 'No deal' button?

There are two problems with anti-greed sentiment that seeks government intervention.

1. One man's greed is another man's self-interest

Greed is an internal condition where a person wants more than is good for them or others.  Like lust, envy, or self-deception, it cannot be identified or defined from the outside.  Only the greedy person is really able to know whether or not they are greedy.  How is an outside observer to judge whether or not it is greedy for you to seek a pay raise, or try to find a cheaper car, or buy another song on iTunes?  They can't.

2.  There are some things the law just can't do

Even if we were able to find some objective, identifiable, universal definition of greed, how could it be enforced?  If the point is to make people less greedy when assessing risk and making decisions, how can any external punishment make them a better judge?  To add the additional risk of fine or imprisonment to behaviors deemed greedy (presumably because they bear more risk than the result warrants) the greedy person can still be perfectly greedy in choosing to abstain from the activity.  It is the self-interested or "greedy" desire to stay out of prison that motivates to obey the law.  Law cannot change the heart.

Both the bankers and the game show contestants were merely assessing risk, and choosing to do what they believed would give them the best result.  Isn't that what we all do with every decision we make?

As one of the ladies stepped off the treadmill and into the tanning booth I wondered to myself if she felt greedy for doing so.  Her skin was tan enough already.  Artificial sunlight increases the risk of cancer.  She chose to engage in the risky behavior of tanning anyway, just to have more bronze.

Greed.  Just pure greed.

Aristotle on Mixed Economies


This is an article I wrote some time ago for the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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A friend recently commented that he has found wisdom in moderation. He said it seems that truth and goodness are found not at the extremes, but at the place of balance between extremes. This can be very true.

As Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics, "Virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate." In Aristotle's examples, it is cowardice and recklessness that are the extremes, courage the middle ground. It is drunkenness and uptightness that are extremes, and moderate drinking the mean.

My friend went on from this concept to state that he believed in neither socialism nor capitalism, but in a mixed economy — or what he called a "messy middle ground." There are two main problems with this conclusion.

The first is that statements like this in the abstract are meaningless. To construct a pretend spectrum, and place various actions and beliefs on it and then to choose the "middle" between them does not give meaning to that middle in and of itself. That is, without actual arguments and definitions regarding what that middle choice or belief is, it is simply a made up point on an imaginary spectrum on which other ideas are arbitrarily placed. Using this logic, I could claim that, since the mean is always good, green beans and omelets are both extremes and I prefer the middle ground.

Most often, those advocating an idea simply because it is in the "middle" of their mentally constructed spectrum do so because they lack any real arguments about the idea itself. For the idea of a middle ground or moderation to have any meaning, the extremes must first be defined and understood as opposite responses to a common problem, and must be placed on an ordinal value spectrum, such as a standard of basic morality that always holds falsehood as bad and truth as good.

The second problem with the conclusion that, since even Aristotle recognized moderation as the source of virtue, a mixed economy is better than capitalism or socialism is that it departs from the logic used in the earlier examples of courage and moderate drinking.

Courage and moderate drinking were the mean because either an excess or a deficiency was problematic. However, both courage and moderate drinking are extremes in another sense. Courage is a word that describes the good state of mind in the face of danger. There is no case in which courage itself is bad or not to be desired, since it is by definition the proper balance between cowardice and recklessness — you cannot have too much courage, nor too little, only too much fear or too little. There is either courage or noncourage (cowardice, recklessness), just as there is either truth or falsehood. In this sense it is an extreme.

Perhaps this sounds like a simple matter of definitional difference. There is, however, a fundamental difference here, meant to show that moderation is only good if it is moderating between two bad extremes and to a good mean, and not if it is moderating between a good and a bad. As Aristotle put it:

But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excess or deficiencies of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong.

The midpoint between murder and nonmurder is not the good choice — nonmurder is. However, the moderation between not caring a lick about the actions of another and caring so much you would use violence to control them is a good middle ground — but this middle ground is not to be confused with socialism.

Socialism is a system where government uses force to tell people what decisions they can and cannot make. There may be degrees of freedom within different socialist systems, just as a prisoner may be treated better or worse by different wardens, but if you are not free, you are not free.

Capitalism is an economic system that allows people to make choices free from government intervention. All government intervention is backed by the threat of violence — if it were not, it would not be a government policy, but rather a voluntary recommendation, or a rule of a voluntary association. The fact that one cannot avoid taxation and obedience to a government without physical consequences proves that it is not a voluntary institution, but rather one backed by force.

Advocating a "mixed economy" or a middle ground between socialism and capitalism is nothing more than advocating a middle ground between threatening your neighbor with violence if he doesn't do your will and not threatening him with violence. If he resists, it becomes the same as the "middle ground" between murdering and not murdering. In that sense, capitalism is an extreme, just as courage is an extreme against noncourage.

In another sense, there is a middle ground economically. The middle ground is between caring so much about the economic decisions people make that you would threaten them with murder to control them, and caring so little that you would allow them to harm themselves or others. By definition, you cannot escape the second extreme by application of the first. You cannot care about individuals by threatening them with violence. Such care must come peacefully and voluntarily: by persuasion, not force.

The middle ground in this case is not socialism — or control by threat of violence — but a capitalist system in which individuals voluntarily look out for one another, and peacefully persuade others to look out for themselves and others. Capitalism is not a virtue in the way that courage is a virtue; it is rather a framework that avoids the extreme of violent coercion. Avoiding the one extreme, as a capitalist system does, does not guarantee avoidance of the other extreme, just as not being reckless does not guarantee you will be courageous. But again, avoiding the extreme of neglecting others cannot be achieved by embracing the extreme of coercing them.

The true middle ground is to accept a capitalist system — i.e., avoid the extreme of coercion — and choose personally to care for and about others, and persuade them to do the same — i.e., avoid the extreme of neglect. Since caring for others is a highly subjective, individual concept, no form of coercive economic arrangement can bring it about; one can only allow it to occur.

In one sense capitalism is an extreme in that it is the opposite of coercion. In another sense, capitalism is simply a system that allows individuals to choose the middle ground between coercion and neglect. Socialism, on the other hand, is an extreme in both cases; it is the opposite of freedom and it is not a middle ground between coercion and neglect; it is itself coercion.

Attempting to find a middle ground between coercion and freedom is a bad idea.

Finding a middle ground between coercion and neglect is a good one.

Capitalism is the only system that allows for both of these. We should not stop advocating capitalism, nor should we stop caring about ourselves and others in peaceful, voluntary ways.

I find it no less disturbing when someone says both capitalism and socialism are extreme and they seek a middle ground than if someone were to say both love and cruelty were extreme, and they therefore seek a middle ground. Some vices or virtues are found in moderation; some are found in absoluteness. As Barry Goldwater famously said,

Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! — Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Capitalism is just. Socialism is unjust. There is no "messy middle."

Christianity and Freedom


Is there a dichotomy between law and love?

After reading an article I wrote (Palm Sunday and Politics), a friend of mine told me he thought I espoused a sort of dualistic view of Christian life.  As if Christ came only to preach a spiritual transformation as something entirely separate from physical life.

Upon a rereading of the article, I can see how one might draw that conclusion.  That is not, however, what I meant to communicate.  Indeed, I view life as holistic, with all elements – spiritual, emotional, mental, physical – inextricably intertwined.  I view the Christian life as wholly transformative, of the spiritual life as well as the others listed above.  I do not see a dichotomy between the spiritual and physical life as far as my Christianity is concerned.

That said, there was a dualism expressed in the post.  It was not a dichotomy between the spiritual and physical life, but a dichotomy between peace and force - and by force I am referring to the initiation of physical violence, or the threat of it.

The things I believe as a Christian affect every aspect of my life.  My goals in life spring from my theistic view of the world and the resulting actions that view brings.  Things like caring for those in need, learning humility, showing love and offering freedom to others--these are goals because of my acceptance of the Kingdom Jesus preached.

These beliefs and duties are physical as much as anything else.  What they are not is violent.

To attempt to achieve these goals by initiating force against others is antithetical to the ends themselves.  Though physical force may be justified in some instances (such as self-defense, though Christ and many others refrained even from this and chose martyrdom), I do not see any way in which the initiation of violence can be seen as a moral way to advance the work of Christ.  When Jesus taught kindness to the poor, do you think he meant it by first doing violence to the rich or middle class?  When he taught righteousness, do you think he meant making others righteous on threat of fine or imprisonment?

I do not.

If we do not feel justified in using force to advance these goals individually, why should we feel justified doing it as a group, or hiring it out to others?

Everything government does is done by force.  If it’s a new law or regulation, it is backed by threat of fine, imprisonment, or (if you are persistent enough in resisting) force to the point of death.  If it is a welfare program, it is funded by tax dollars, which are not given voluntarily.  Try not paying your taxes long enough and you’ll find that indeed, force is what’s ultimately behind tax collection.  If it were not, funds would be collected by a voluntary association, not government.  Government has nothing to give but that which it first takes, and it takes by force or the threat of it.

If you’ve accepted the Christian life, it should indeed transform your entire being and all your actions.  Far from believing Christ’s example and words regarding righteousness or care for the poor to be merely spiritual commands, I see them as part of the holistic goal of His kingdom, and involving physical actions.  However, I do not see these ends as a justification for violent means.

To attempt to use government to achieve Christian goals is to, ultimately, use physical force.  This not only corrupts government, it corrupts the goals themselves and diminishes the true depth of the work of the Kingdom.  It reduces a life-transforming message delivered by loving believers into a program for political preferences pushed by a religious interest group.

Oh, and it just so happens that the way human nature works, peaceful and voluntary means of helping the poor and promoting moral behavior achieve unimaginably more than any force-backed government initiative ever can.  The genius of creation is manifest in economics – free individuals acting to prosper individually achieve more for their fellow man than mandatory efforts.  What is moral, it turns out, is also very efficient.

Christians should not only daily examine their hearts to see if their goals and actions are in line with the ultimate Truth; they should also ask themselves if the means they are using to accomplish those goals are righteous.  Sometimes a government program would be easier than doing the work of Christ ourselves, or organizing voluntary efforts.  Then again, Christ never said it would be easy.

Palm Sunday and Politics


When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, "If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes." Luke 19:41–42

As Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to shouts of, "Hosanna" and cloaks and palm branches thrown on the road before him, it seems it must have been a joyful experience. But instead of taking joy in the cheers of the people, Jesus wept over the city.

I’m no Biblical scholar or Jewish historian, but what little I’ve studied of the Bible and the history of the time suggests that the kind of savior the people expected was not the kind Jesus came to be. And for their misplaced hopes, he felt pain.

When Jesus came into the city that day the people gathered to see him and many began to think he may be the Messiah that had been promised the Jews for hundreds of years. They were under the control of the Roman Empire and its various local puppet governments. Understandably, when the Jews learned the promises of a savior and King in the line of their great king David, they expected a Messiah who would free them from Roman rule.

When Jesus entered the city they waved Palm Branches and shouted, "Hosanna." History suggests these were significant, even dangerous political gestures. Hosanna was a Hebrew word that meant, "Save, now!" and had a very physical connotation. It was not at that time a cry of spiritual or abstract salvation, but a very real shout for physical salvation, which had specific meaning to a people under Roman rule. The Palm branch was a nationalistic symbol for the Jews, a symbol that had appeared on the last coins made when Israel was free. That is perhaps why the Pharisees told Jesus to "rebuke" his disciples – because to openly praise one they thought came to defy their rulers was politically dangerous.

As the crowd of people saw Jesus entering the city, they saw a political savior; one who might at last rise up and free them from the Romans, and they cheered His arrival. But He wept. He wept because they did not know, "The things which make for peace." He had not come to free them from physical bondage.

Jesus did not intend to be a political figure. He seemed to largely ignore the Romans, and even saved His criticisms and rebukes not for the political leaders, but for the leaders of His own people; their spiritual leaders. When He taught righteousness it was never backed by force. When He told the rich man to give all he had to the poor the man walked away; Jesus did not force him to obey, but instead let him go. He refused to use earthly law to punish a prostitute by stoning; instead he told her, "Go and sin no more," and left her free to decide. He did not come to spread his Kingdom with the tools of earthly kingdoms – force and coercion. He did not come to offer political freedom. He came to offer freedom from something much deeper.

To conflate the work of Christ with the work of worldly politics is to miss the meaning of His life, death, and resurrection. To claim that a Christian must vote for a specific policy or politician, that Christians must use government to enforce our morals – to prohibit bad behavior or to force good behavior – is to reduce the work of Christ to the work of a politician. He is not too weak or insignificant for political battles; political battles are too weak and insignificant for Him. The kind of freedom and righteousness He offers is far too great, too personal, to be advanced by physical force (which all politics boils down to); politics is beneath the spiritual life, not above it.

Physical freedom is a worthy goal. Defending oneself from violence and oppression is not immoral. But as a Christian, to use government to enforce the morality you believe in through law, backed up by the agents of the state, is to contradict Christ Himself.

It is that desire to look to Christ as a way to accomplish political goals that made Him weep as He entered Jerusalem. They looked for peace through a political savior; He knew the peace He brought was much deeper and could be had regardless of the physical conditions around them. Politics is force. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem that day had been prophesied by Zechariah, who described Him as, "Gentle."

Let us emulate Him when we attempt to alter the world around us. Let us never forget that the freedom He brings transcends this world, and His peace cannot be attained or spread by force.

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Read the follow-up to this post, Christianity and Freedom.

Mises Dailies Archive


My articles published at the Mises Institute - http://mises.org/articles.aspx?AuthorId=1109

Why I Don’t Follow the News


I rarely follow the news and almost never get it direct from news sources. What news I'm up on tends to find it's way to me through filters - blogs I read, emails from friends, Facebook posts and hearsay.

This is not because of laziness or a lack of concern with being informed.  Indeed, I love information, trivia, knowledge and truth.  However, I found that keeping up on the news, especially reading papers and watching news shows, significantly diminished my quality of life.  It made me angry and depressed more often than not.

This is not because the cold, hard realities of terrestrial life are simply all bad news.  In fact every day billions of people are voluntarily, peacefully co-operating and being made better off through trade, commerce, community, and friendship.  Millions of things are invented, quality of life improves, the creative destruction of the market (in both goods and ideas) brings about untold beauty and opportunity.  Indeed, with a little bit of reflection it is not hard to see how vast, mysterious and awesome life is, even in the smallest tasks of a typical day.

But, probably for rational reasons, the news chooses to focus on those relatively few happenings between relatively few people that are violent, coercive and troubling.  A disproportionate amount of space is devoted to that tiny sliver of our individual and societal existence, politics, and nearly all the rest to all the other dangers and troubles in the universe.

It's not an accurate picture of the world, nor is it particularly useful.  I think it was for this reason (and perhaps the generally bad quality of the writing) that C.S. Lewis warned against frequent newspaper reading.  Mark Twain (I think) said "Those who don't read the news are uninformed.  Those who do are misinformed".

Does this mean we turn a blind eye to reality so that we can be happy?  Isn't that a form of escapism?  Frankly, I think that's the wrong question.

There is a phenomenal scene in The Silver Chair, part of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series, where a group of children and a kindly swamp creature are trapped in an underground world by an evil queen.  The queen has them under a sort of spell and she is trying to convince them that there is no outside world, but only the cavernous underworld.  When they object and say that the outside world is real she asks them what it is like.  They tell her it has a sun, which is much like the lights in the cave only bigger and brighter; it has lions which are much like the cats of the underworld only grander and more fierce, and so on.

The queen remarks that there is no outside world at all, but that the children have simply taken things from the real world and pretended they were bigger and better.  It was a mere game, and the reality was in the caves all along.

The group is on the verge of being persuaded of this sad state when the humble swamp creature proclaims that even if this were true, what would it say about the real world?  What kind of world would it be if children could easily create a make-believe world that was so much better?  Even if the outside world is make-believe, he declares, it's so much preferable to the "real world" underground that he'd rather go on pretending.  At that the spell was broken, hope restored and the deceptive queen's power rendered inert.

It is more than a mere cliche to say that perception is reality.  Expectation is also reality.  Believing a better world is real and possible makes this world better, if for no other reason than that positive, optimistic people are more pleasant to be around.

The evidence also supports optimism.  Who could ever have predicted the kinds of technologies and opportunities we have available today even just 50 or 100 years ago?  The iPhone alone is jam packed with capabilities that were the stuff of sci-fi even a decade ago.

Why then do we listen to the news when it constantly reports on the fearful side of the present and future?  That is only one view of reality.  It's a tiny slice of all that is, and a very unrepresentative slice at that.  If a human can only take in so much of reality at once, why would I focus on the negative in a sea of positive?

I'd rather create my own reality - a powerful, free, beautiful one - than get angry about the false reality portrayed by the news.  If that's escapism, so be it.  Escaping something bad into something better is nothing to be ashamed of.  It's a choice to perceive and embrace reality in a more useful, constructive manner.

It doesn't mean injustice doesn't exist, or that there are not things I am hoping and fighting to change - not least of which are in myself.  It just means there are better ways of doing it and thinking about it.

Instead of letting it be selected for me, I choose each day what bits of news I take in about the vast and wondrous universe.  It beats the hell out of the paper.

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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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.

Smart People Say Stuff About…Backup Plans


Are backup plans an absolute must, or can they actually do more harm than good? How can you think about and mitigate risk while not holding yourself back?

I asked seven smart, interesting people to give me their take on the concept of backup plans.

None of them heard each other's take and I gave no further instructions, just whatever came to mind. It's pretty cool to hear the results!

Responses from:
Cameron Sorsby
Levi Morehouse
TK Coleman
Jeff Till
Albert Lu
Derek Magill
Zak Slayback

There is a wide range of takes on the idea of backup plans, but some clear themes emerge. Enjoy!

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

Ask Isaac: Goals – Hate ’em? Love ’em? Use ’em? Shove ’em?


I'm not big on goal setting, yet I think consistent structure is key to achieving what you want (even if what you want isn't perfectly defined).

I discuss this and a few other items on this episode.

Check out the episode sponsor, The Foundation for Economic Education to apply for an amazing experience learning about economics!

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

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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