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.

The Pursuit


This was written in response to a challenge issued among myself and some good freinds.  We wanted to see who could write the best short story using only 200 words.  My attempt clocks in at 200 words exactly.

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The crinkling of the paper bag brought hope and tension…thankfully there was life inside.  Shep did not hesitate to pull out the store-bought mini pie, half eaten though it was.   They split it.  Any sustenance the two could get was welcome, especially in weather like this.

Until tonight Tad had enjoyed the thrill of the chase.  An outlaw.  Free, yet a slave to stealth.   Their faces were posted everywhere, they were wanted, and for no small reward.  Many days practicing the art of evasion were catching up to the old friends, and they felt it in their lungs and stomachs.  Both had thoughts of turning themselves in and ending the whole thing…not after coming so far.

Neither spoke; neither rested well, both constantly wondered when the other would suggest they continue on.  Both knew they soon must.  It was difficult to think of trading the shelter of the highway bridge for the cold rain.  A moment of daydreaming was broken…Tad’s muscles tensed as he saw light not fifty yards away…

As they fled their shelter the sound of voices echoed behind them, reminding them how close they were to caught:

“Tad! Tad! Shep!”

“C’mon boys, c’mon…”

“Good hunting dogs indeed!”

A Pure Duality


It has come into my mind that you’ve grown frustrated, or confused as to why I have not been in any real sense present in your life. I will not pretend to have an answer sufficient to settle your uneasiness and feeling of loss, but I can perhaps provide a fuller perspective.

I don’t know exactly where I am, or rather where all of me is. Have you ever been two places at once? I don’t suspect so, as I think it is rare among the healthy on earth. Maybe I should start from the beginning…

Late in the fall some twenty years ago I awoke on a typical morning and left for work. I left a wonderful family and a great house, and headed off to a promising job. I don’t remember giving much thought to my life during that short car ride, but I felt somewhere that I had led a good one.

Something happened…blackness…I don’t remember much for a long period of time-like when you know you’re asleep, but you’re not dreaming or thinking, just blackness. This felt like weeks, or months.

As if my eyes were opened, there I was. I was suddenly in a great green field, surrounded by multitudes of rejoicing people. It was a magnificent celebration, and we seemed to be in some beautiful valley on a beautiful sunny day. It was unlike any landscape I’d seen before, unreal in its beauty, yet more real than any solid object.

A wise old man, who seemed one thousand years of age, yet looked not fifty and healthy, stepped out from the crowd and greeted me warmly.

“Welcome! We have been waiting for you for quite some time!”

Thinking I was dreaming I didn’t respond, but just watched and listened.

“Come, walk with me; you have many choices before you.” He said, “You have come here because you are greatly needed…your gifts make you extremely precious in these times, and those to come no doubt. I can assure you it will all make sense eventually, and your every need will be met, you have only to choose whether you are willing, or not.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Not many are given this choice you know.” He replied.

“What choice am I given? Am I dreaming? Given the choice to wake or continue dreaming, I would gladly wake, and remain sensible.”

“You are in no way dreaming!” He shouted, not seeming in the least amused, “I took you for smarter than one who thinks this is a dream!”

Not wanting to further offend him, but still unsure of the nature if this experience, I did not attempt to defend my statement.

“Now, your choice?”

“Explain to me what choice you refer to, and I will gladly tell you my thoughts on it.” I replied.

“Your thoughts on it? Your thoughts? This surely will not do! This is not a choice but to muse on, or some hypothetical presented for mental exercise or sport! This is The choice! The choice!”

Still confused I was forced to ask again what now seemed a stupid question.

“What choice?”

“Sit down son.” He said, “I can see that you are still fresh in your logic, and your time in the darkness did not cleanse you from your confidence in what you know and have taught yourself to react to. Impressive mind indeed, very impressive.”

Not knowing what kind of statement this was, but choosing to take it as a compliment, I felt proud of whatever it was that my mind had done to slow this process, and necessitate further explanation.

“Your ignorance, at least, is a result of much discipline and so being is quite consistent, and finely tuned, so I shall paint for you a simpler picture, in your undeveloped language.”

I think he sensed my pride after his previous statement, and simply had to let me know that whatever plane he operated on was one higher than mine. At first I grew resistant, but this lasted only a minute, as my curiosity soon overtook my dual senses of dignity and defensiveness, and I listened to what he had to say.

“Here in this realm, let us call it X, for I can only assume by your look that you are comfortable with mathematical terms, there is a great movement occurring in the great war that is ever raging. Though I cannot explain it without giving you references to what you know as ‘time’, try not to focus on the sequential order of these events. Our enemy has hit us with something so twisted, so divisive and confusing, that we petitioned our superiors for an exception. This exception was sought so that we might bring you here, for we knew that to overthrow this plot of our foe, you were our only choice. An exception was granted. Which is what brought you, after a long time in the darkness for purposes of ‘unlearning’, (though now I see perhaps not long enough) out of what we shall call subordinate X, and into X.”

Though not understanding all of this, I moved on to the original question, and repeated it. “Yes, but you have still not told me what this choice is?”

“As with any exception, it is only granted on the condition that you are given the choice of whether or not to accept. You see, without this choice your presence here would be counterproductive and even fatal. By denying you choice, the enemy would have already won, and our need of you to combat his attack would no longer exist. Thus, I have been given the authority to grant you your choice.”

“Yes, yes but again, what is the choice! I cannot see any choice at all, for I am here listening to you speak whether I want to wake up or not!”

“You are incorrect! Even now you are choosing. You do not have to be here, but your willingness brought you, and now your curiosity keeps you here. Do not so underestimate your will. However, I need not go further into this. You are correct to seek an explanation of the choice. You have been pulled, temporarily, from subordinate X to be presented with the situation we are facing in our war, and our need of your gifts. Your choice is, quite simply, whether you want to help us, or return to your family and all that you previously knew (in the simplest sense of the word ‘know’ that is) in subordinate X. “

It suddenly occurred to me that I had a family. Three young children, a beautiful wife, a life that I loved….it suddenly sank in that I was indeed in another place, away from all of that, and that this wasn’t a dream.

“You mean, I must choose whether to stay here and help you, and never return to my family and my life as it was…or to go back, and leave you without whatever of me you are in need of?”

“Precisely.”

“And what of you, if I choose to go back?”

“I know not. I only know that things were desperate enough for me to be granted an exception. This is evidence enough of the nature of our situation for me to implore you with all my heart, please stay! But in any case, please choose soon, for time, as you know it, though not passing here, is growing short in the place from which you come.”

I felt, for no reason I could identify, an urge more pressing that any I’d felt before to stay with this wise stranger and to fight. I knew almost nothing of what I was needed for, or what would ensue, and yet never has my heart desired anything more than to stay and accomplish it. It was what I was made for! I almost shouted out with all my soul that I’d stay, and fight! But suddenly I saw my family again, my three children, my wife, my friends, all that was depending on me for provision, for love, for support and strength….I could not choose!

“Surely there is another way!”

“There is no other way!”

“But I cannot, and will not, abandon my family and my life for this! Yet I cannot and will not run from this place, where I know deep down I was made to serve and fight! No, there is another way, and I choose it!”

“But I tell you, there is not!”

“You? You who tell me all that is unbelievable, all that is profound, you who tell me that you yourself sought and were granted and ‘exception’, now say that there is no way?!?! I don’t believe it! There is another way, and I choose it!”

Suddenly another voice spoke, and thundered with all the urgency and authority in the universe…

“Granted!”

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I have been here in X since that one word was spoken. Yet somehow, in some way I know I am also somewhere else. I am two persons, not just one split in half, but two, somehow the same, but entirely different. Neither complete, both lacking something, but each existing where each is needed. I cannot tell you what this means, yet I know, somehow, that this was the right choice. I am here, fulfilling my destiny…yet I know, somehow I am there.

I am sorry you do not see me nor hear me as I once was. But I implore you, do not give up! I do hear you! I do see you! And what you see of me, whatever may be lacking, is me, and yet, not all of me. I am here….and I am there.

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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The Absurd Assumption Behind Schooling


A bright young woman sent a thoughtful email after reading my blog post about how my son learned to read when we stopped trying to teach him.  She largely agreed with the approach but voiced some concern of not pushing kids to learn things of value to them.  I responded:

"Once upon a time I would have been terrified at an approach like we ended up taking with my son (and all three of my kids now that we unschool them), but I've come to believe that fear was rooted entirely in a set of assumptions I was taught, and not in any way based on my experience of actual human behavior or logic.

The false assumption is that humans will always do what is bad for them, not what's good for them.  It's the idea that humans are irrational and don't know how to seek their own self-interest.  Thomas Hobbes is probably the greatest perpetrator of this idea (at least in reference to entire societies) which gives way to the myth of authority - the belief that, absent some violent strong man to set the rules and enforce them, people will loot and murder each other and destroy their own community, etc.

This idea is so utterly false and contrary to every shred of logic and evidence it's a wonder it ever took hold like it did.  Its greatest advantage is that it is a) handy for crude versions of "original sin" in some religions and b) handy for power-hungry despots and moral busybodies.  It of course never attempts to answer the question of how humans too dumb to make decisions in their own interest can somehow be trusted to make decisions in the interest of the community at large.

I've come to believe this idea is nonsense.  Humans have every incentive to do what is good for them (based on their own definition of good) and will do a lot of hard work to make it happen.  Learning is a key part of this.  There is no need to teach anyone some skill or fact they don't want to learn.  They will learn what they need when they need to.  In a literate society where the social and economic rewards of literacy are very high, people will learn to read.  When and how they want, but they will.  The Sudbury Valley school is an unschooling type facility that makes kids do nothing but what they want.  They've had kids learn to read at 4 and 14.  They all go on to live normal lives. (The 14-year-old won a prize for writing and became a professional writer, if I recall).

Humans don't need authority dictating what they should value.  They need the freedom to discover through trial and error what they value and what benefits them.

I highly recommend - if you are as serious as you seem to be about grappling with these ideas - a few books.

"Free to Learn" by Dr. Peter Gray

Anything by Daniel Greenberg at the Sudbury Valley School

The point is not that humans are "naturally good" or some such nonsense.  It's that they are naturally self-interested, and self-interest is sufficient motivation for them to learn what they need to live full lives.  Certainly better than what some dogooder thinks they "ought" to learn!"

Well That Didn’t Go as Planned…


Recovering from two days travel and a small backlog of work and errands, plus Michigan State playing their first round tournament game, so I decided to wait until the afternoon for my daily blog post.

I'd get caught up, watch MSU move on to the second round, and be in a great mood to think of a topic for the blog.

Oops.

I got a lot done and caught up on work.  MSU didn't do their part.

So here I am, grumpy and forlorn, listless, unsure how to use this weekend and next since my plan was to enjoy beer and basketball.  My bracket's busted right along with my heart.

The worst part?  MSU didn't look bad.  They played a decent all-around game.  Not great, but not major upset oh-my-gosh-how'd-they-choke bad.  Middle Tennessee State just played an exceptional game in all facets.  Yes, they got hot shooting.  Yes, every loose ball seemed to bounce their way.  But they also drove hard to the rim.  They got offensive boards.  They played as even-keeled a game I've seen, despite MSU runs.

There's no easy scapegoat.  Two teams played a good game and one team played better.  It's just that it was the vastly inferior team that played better!

Sigh.  My wife tells me not to emotionally invest so much in my sports teams.  But that's the whole point!  It's no delightful escape if I'm real-world-rational about it.

I've got nothing else to say.  Go listen to this podcast episode about why sports are great and then go check out MSU's all-time tournament record.  Maybe that will lift your spirits like it does mine.

I'll probably regress to the guy who just roots against Duke and UNC from here on out.  Oh, and go Middle Tennessee State!  Maybe they'll win it all and make MSU look relatively less disappointing.

Now leave me alone to wallow.

An Interview Question


A got an email survey recently asking what I thought it was an interesting question.

"If you could ask one question in an interview, what would it be?"

My response (maybe it would change if I thought more about it) below:

"What's one thing you do better than anyone in the world?"

I think it reveals what level of self-knowledge and confidence a candidate has and whether they are aware not just of generic skills, but truly unique aspects of their personality and experiences, and how those can create value for others.

Traits for Leadership


A friend emailed me the following question yesterday:

"What are the most important attributes of leaders?"

I thought about it for a few minutes and sent this reply.  This was off-the-cuff, so don't hold me too tightly to it.

Patience, impatience, perspective, morally neutral disposition, and a sense of humor.

Patience is pretty self-explanatory.  You can't be frustrated with everyone all the time and pressuring them.

Impatience is equally necessary.  When you have a vision, you have to be unable to sleep until you make progress on it.

Perspective allows you to weather the bad stuff.  I lost a customer early on and was feeling defeated.  My brother (a successful entrepreneur) asked me what the big deal was.  "So What?" he said.  "Cornelius Vanderbilt had steamers sink and people died.  Yet he was able to continue on and create value for millions.  What if he had quit?  You don't win everything."

Moral neutrality doesn't mean you have no morals.  It means you approach other humans with a rational choice lens.  You assume their actions are taken not out of goodness or evil, but rational self-interest.  This helps you understand how to change the incentives they face to get cooperation, instead of being bitter at what you think their motives are or what they "should" do.

A sense of humor is the only thing that keeps it fun, and if it's not fun it's hell!

Public Speaking Tips and a Workshop!


Two snippets from posts about public speaking:

How to be an Awesome Public Speaker

A great public speaker is not one who has tons of side-splitting jokes, or makes you cry, or delivers amazing ideas, or beautiful turns of phrase, or follows all those rules about signposting and structure from debate or forensics club.  None of those things really matter in the end.  Neither does your personality, voice, physical appearance, or whether you use your hands, a podium, or slides.

A great speaker is one whose ideas and heart are transmitted directly and clearly to the audience.  A great speaker is a genuine person whose unique perspective and personality isn’t obscured by nerves or ticks or anything else.

To be a great public speaker is to allow who you really are to come through.

What Public Speaking Can Teach You About Work

...

He asked me what are the most helpful things for me when it comes to reducing nerves and getting in the zone as a speaker.  I told him the two most important things for me are:

  • Lots of Practice
  • Unique Content

Practice is obvious.  Public speaking, like digital skills, social skills, bike riding, creativity, or confidence, is not one of those things you can become great at by studying.  You have to do it.  A lot.  There simply is no substitute for doing it when it comes to gaining comfort and skill.

The second point is not actually about the content in any objective sense.  I don’t think there are right and wrong content decisions, topics, formats, tones, or structures that will consistently lead to success and enjoyment as a speaker.  When I say content matters, I really mean crafting a talk that is unique to you.

Over the last decade or so I've had the pleasure of running public speaking workshops for hundreds of people of all ages.  Praxis participants go through them, and I've even done them for some seasoned CEO's as a last minute prep for a pitch or big presentation.

I'm just putting the finishing touches on a digitized version of the workshop, thanks to the help of Mitchell Earl and Derek Magill.  It includes not just the content of the workshop in terms of tips and techniques, but actually allows participants to give their own speech and submit it for feedback, then do a second take and walk away with some concrete tips unique to them.

We'll be using it for Praxis participants across the country, but I'm going to open it up for 10 people outside of Praxis to go through it as well, as a kind of test.  If you're interested, enter your info in the form below and you'll be notified when it's open!

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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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