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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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Democracy is Not Our Savior

(Originally posted here, but I remain bewildered by the religious devotion to democracy, so I'm reposting.)

Imagine if your local grocer used mass voting to determine what to stock on the shelves. Everyone in a 30-mile radius of the store would get a ballot every few years, and you could vote on what items they should sell. Think long and hard about what people would vote for. Do you think this would result in better selection and quality than the current system of letting markets decide?

Voting is an incredibly inefficient mode of social organization. It rewards irrationality, selfishness, ignorance and greed. It makes peaceful coordination and cooperation incredibly difficult. It is divisive and hopelessly, systemically flawed. All the incentives are wrong. We should not see voting or democracy as a solution to social or political problems, but one of the primary causes.

Perhaps my example of voting on groceries is unfair. In most political systems we don't vote on each and every issue. Instead, imagine that residents within 30 miles of the grocer don't vote on the store's stock and policies, but rather vote on who should manage the store. Let's go a little further and say they vote on the manager, CFO, board members and a handful of other middle-management roles. What would be the result?

For starters, those seeking to hold management positions at the grocery store should forget about any skills except the skill of convincing all the voters to vote for them. Marketing themselves as better than the other would-be managers would be the only thing that would get them the job; not their expertise at running a store or their knowledge of stocking procedures, management or the industry. Would people's votes provide better and clearer information about who should manage the store than the profits, losses, operations and happiness of employees? Of course not.

At first glance, voting may seem similar to a market. After all, when people buy or don't buy from the grocer, it sends price signals telling management what shoppers value. It's like a vote, with a crucial difference: It costs the buyer. Market exchanges reveal what people want when they face trade-offs. Voting reveals what people want when it's "free." Lots of people might vote for the store manager who promises not to import anything from other countries because it makes them feel good to support local farmers. These same people, when faced with higher priced and lower quality local food in the open market might very well choose to purchase imported produce. Voters support candidates who promise to restrict cheap imported goods, then on the way home from the polls they stop and buy cheap, imported goods. Voting irrationally is costless, while shopping that way hurts your pocketbook.

Voting also turns friends into enemies. I have neighbors that support different products and services and businesses than I do, but this doesn't cause any tension in our relationships. But if we were forced to vote on which products, services and businesses were available to us, how much they should cost and who would pay for it, in a zero-sum election, you'd better believe tension would arise.

The fact that no grocery stores select products or managers by popular vote should clue us in to something: Democracy is a far worse way of coordinating and managing complex processes than markets.

It's easy to see how disastrously inferior democracy is to the market in providing groceries. The provision of food is the most fundamental and important service to any society; if the market can handle food provision so much better than democratic processes, why not the provision of less fundamental services like health care, education, protection and all kinds of lesser services? In truth, the incentives built in to the democratic process create massive inefficiencies in all these government services, as well as allow for corruption and all manner of moral transgression.Government failure is an inescapable part of government.

In civil society, voting is a rarely used mechanism. We vote on inconsequential things like where to eat or what movie to see with a small group of indecisive friends. Voting is used in religious or civic organizations to select board members or decide on some major issues. Not only are these relatively small, homogenous groups, but they are groups of people who have voluntarily come together around a shared vision. They can also freely enter and exit; shopping for a church or denomination may sound off-putting, but the freedom to do so is crucial to the health of individuals and churches.

Even in these smaller, voluntary institutions, voting has important incentive and information problems that most organizations try to curb in some way. The more populous the group, the more complex the decision—and the more costly or important the outcome, the worse voting is as a coordinating mechanism. When you're dealing with hundreds of millions of people and a cross-section of highly complex policies with life-and-death consequences and millions in potential gains or losses, voting becomes an absurd mechanism of coordination. Governments may try to supplement voting with all kinds of irritating and invasive data collection like censuses, but these do not solve the problem in any way—and can make it worse. Does your grocery store need to conduct a census to supplement the anonymous information you provide them with your purchasing behavior?

Most advocates of limited government understand why tyranny and central planning are dangerous. But too often they assume more or better democracy will improve things. We hear about turning backward countries around by making them more democratic. We hear about turning our own country around by convincing people to vote for better candidates or policies. None of these will ultimately address the problem. The grocery store that is managed by vote would not be much better off if the residents selected a "better" manager; the manager would face the same lack of vital information, and the voters and manager would face the same bad incentives.

The way to make the world a freer, better and more prosperous place is not to enhance and expand democracy or to elect better people through the democratic process. It is instead to reduce to a minimum the number of things decided through the democratic process, and to allow more peaceful and emergent institutions for social and economic coordination to take its place. This can only happen when enough people understand and believe in the power of peaceful, voluntary interactions over the power of coercive political methods.

Be a Philosopher

I have had the privilege of meeting a lot of very successful people.  Some have been successful in academia or art, but most have been successful in business of some kind.  No matter how diverse the industry or experiences or path, all of these successful people have one thing in common: they are all philosophers.

Obviously, all of these people don't have "philosopher" written on their business cards and they don't publish articles in journals of philosophy.  But they are all lovers of knowledge and people who have spent and do spend significant time and energy examining their life and pondering the world.  I'm always amazed at how clear and coherent their life philosophy is.  Scratch that; I'm amazed that they have a life philosophy.  How many people do?  Do you?  Could you describe it in five minutes if someone asked you?

Highly successful people work hard and they work a lot.  But they also observe and ponder.  They continue to refine their worldview and test new theories to see if they work better than the old.  If you want to achieve great things, cultivate your mind.  As I've written before, you need to work your butt off, but if that work isn't fueled with fresh ideas and new ways to see the world, you'll only get so far.  Take time to think.  Let your thoughts grow and develop.  Be a philosopher.

Carnivals Just Aren’t That Cool Anymore

We took the kids to a carnival of sorts last weekend.  It was nothing huge, but I thought it would be pretty exciting for them.  When we arrived, I was underwhelmed.  There was popcorn and hot dogs and a little cotton candy machine.  There was an inflatable slide and ski-ball.  There were a few games and a few people in Star Wars costumes.  We spent a few hours there and had a fine time, but it was nothing amazing.

It would be easy to fall back into the old-guy attitude of, "Things were so much more amazing when I was a kid", or, "Kids these days are so spoiled, nothing is special anymore."  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the Carnival wasn't all that amazing simply because every day is so amazing for my kids.  We've been to numerous backyard birthday parties or get-togethers for no special occasion at all where the hosts have rented giant bounce castles, slides, or water playthings.  Cotton candy can be purchased cheaply almost anywhere.  My kids love these things no less than I did as a kid, they just have the ability to enjoy them more often and on their own terms, not only after waiting in long lines and being crammed in with sweaty strangers.

It's pretty amazing that it doesn't require a monumental feat of organization, fundraising, ticket sales, and planning to have a once a year event with cool stuff for the kids.  I appreciate this even more as I watch my kids have those nervous moments of indecision about whether or not to hazard the giant water slide.  If they chicken out, they don't have to spend possibly years regretting that they missed that one opportunity, as I had done in similar situations as a kid.  They can take their time, and if they regret the decision not to give it a try, they'll likely have a next time soon.  They probably make better decisions because of the everyday availability of carnival trappings - I remember feeling sick almost every time I pounded giant wads of cotton candy or elephant ears with all the pent-up demand of an inmate on holiday.

I could be bitter at the fact that, in many ways, my kids have it better than I did, and therefor they don't seem as excited about stuff I loved.  But why?  Who cares?  I decided to enjoy the fact that I don't have to run out and attend every fair, because my kids have a lot more options than I did.  Yeah, sometimes it hurts that they don't lavish me with praise for getting them a pack of Big League Chew or a corn-dog, but that's my problem, not theirs.  It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them, it means I'm too sensitive and doing stuff more for me than them.  They'll probably never realize how awesome their world is compared to the past, but none of us really can.  Let's enjoy the present regardless!

I Write Because it Changes Me

In the movie Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) is told by a friend that, despite the mockery of his atheist colleagues, his prayers for his sick wife are having an effect.  Lewis, however, is not concerned with whether or not prayer "works" in altering the universe:

"I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God- it changes me."

This is a powerful bit of self-honesty.  Lewis felt no need to respond to philosophical or theological objections to his actions.  He wasn't praying to convince God, he was praying because he knew the value to him of this activity, regardless of the outcome.

I have made a point recently to remind myself of why I write; not to change my audience, but to change me.

There will never be a shortage of people who offer objections to ideas I put to paper, or critique the way I choose to communicate those ideas.  If my goal were to win over as many people as possible to my point of view, this would be incredibly stressful.  Every objection would require a response or a change in my future behavior. It's not a particularly fun or productive way to live.

Feedback is wonderful.  It creates a connection between creator and consumer that results in better content.  But feedback is only helpful if it doesn't make us bitter and we don't worship it.  If it hurts us to hear and we begin to create things motivated entirely by the need to stick it to the "haters", we'll produce lower quality content and be less happy doing so.  If we overvalue feedback and rethink every word to predict every possible way in which it might be misinterpreted, we'll produce boring content and have less fun in the process.  Both of these responses put the feedback of others in the drivers seat and you, the creator, in the passenger seat.  Don't let that happen.

Take in feedback, enjoy it, laugh at it, use it, but don't pay it too much attention.  Remind yourself that the reason you write (or read, or speak, or paint, or sing, or...) is because it changes you.

Homestead Your Interests

Homesteading is an age-old form of gaining common-law right to property.  A piece of land that is unowned or abandoned can become yours if you improve upon and maintain it for a period of time.  In the American West, pioneers would find a parcel of land they liked and stake it out as their own.  So long as they built fences or signposts or boundary markers of some kind and generally maintained the property, it was considered theirs.  Smart pioneers would homestead more than they could gainfully farm at first, looking to the future and leaving open the opportunity to expand their operation.  We may not have vast stretches of unclaimed land today, but the need to homestead some metaphorical acreage is still very real.

You have a body of knowledge, expertise, and a set of activities that define you.  This is your brand.  I've written before about the danger of being hemmed in by your brand, especially if it's a successful one.  But how exactly can one prevent it?  By homesteading more space than you can currently occupy.

If you really enjoy architecture and keep in the back of your mind the idea that someday you may put a lot of yourself into it, whether vocationally or avocationally, you need to stake out a territory that includes architecture, and keep the underbrush trimmed so it doesn't begin to encroach on your homestead.  Maybe you're a lawyer, and all your friends and associates know you as the law guy.  If you keep your passion for architecture under the surface for twenty years, never letting it see the light of day, it will be a lot harder to make a sudden switch from law to design.  People will find it odd and see it as a frivolous deviation from your brand.  You will feel a lot of pressure to prove that you're serious about it.  It will take a monumental amount of courage and resolve to make the move, and you will have to steel yourself against the reactions should you fail at first.  It's like homesteading a virgin wilderness full of hostile flora and fauna.

If, on the other hand, you staked out your creative territory early in dimensions far beyond just lawyerdom, and you maintained your property line with the occasional foray into architecture, the opportunity to make a move later will be far more real and the transition far less daunting.  Maybe you keep copies of popular architecture magazines around for inspiration, and to let visitors see that you consider it a part of who you are.  Maybe you write about it from time to time, or offer amateur architectural tours of your city.  Maybe you keep a design table in your house and draw up blueprints.    Whatever it is, if you maintain the fringes of your property, it will be a lot easier to occupy it should the opportunity arise.

I make myself post a song or a poem once a week on this blog.  It feels a little odd sometimes, and It's a little embarrassing.  But I love creative writing and keep in the back of my mind the possibility of composing short stories, recording songs, or working on film scripts as something I may want to put more of myself into someday.  I feel like it's somewhere in me, but not yet ready to fully occupy my energy.  If I go on only producing what currently comes more naturally, commentary and prose, one day I'll feel the urge to emerge creatively and it will feel like such a drastic transition it may be overwhelming.  I want to trim the weeds back at the corners of who I am by a little creative writing here and there.  I want it to be public, so that a later switch won't seem quite as out of left-field to the observing world.  I'm under no illusion that posting a song once a week means I will be taken seriously should I become a full-time songwriter; far from it.  It won't be quite as scary though, and I'll have a little more confidence being used to putting my creative side out there.

Think about who you are, what you love, and what far-fetched dreams you entertain.  Draw a generous property line that includes even the most out-there interests.  Homestead it, and keep title to your identity with regular maintenance.  You never know when you'll want to expand your brand.  If you never do, who cares.  You won't have lost anything by keeping your boundaries wide.

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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