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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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Strategies for Advancing Liberty


I just read an excellent article by Murray Rothbard (circa 1989) called, "Four Strategies for Libertarian Change".  Strategies for social change have long fascinated me. (I ran a student colloquium on the topic when I was with the Mackinac Center's Students for a Free Economy)

In the article Rothbard describes four approaches with four historical examples and discusses the pros and cons of each.  The piece is entertaining and well worth a read on its own, but coupled with the response by my current colleague Steve Davies (starting on page 13 of the linked article) it is especially savory.  Davies largely finds Rothbard on point but happily advances the discussion further.  He corrects a few of Rothbard's historical characterizations (Rothbard's histories are always engaging, but often portray events and figures as more libertarian than they probably were), and adds a dose of Public Choice realism. Most interesting to me, however, is the addition of other potential strategies.

Davies mentions the seldom attempted but often fantasized strategy of letting things get so bad they eventually get better (which I briefly address in this Liberty Magazine Reflection, "Story Time"), and wisely warns against it.  He mentions the possibility of violent revolution and rightly dismisses it out of hand.  He mentions the libertopian approach of a mass defection from current societal arrangements but, Seasteaders not withstanding, considers this highly impractical if not fundamentally flawed.

The final strategy that Prof. Davies mentions is to me the most promising and intriguing, and probably has the best track-record historically, though it often goes unnoticed.  That is the idea that existing coercive institutions can be toppled not primarily by direct attack, but by subterfuge.  Rather than convincing people they should give up the status quo, which means convincing them to drop the perceived security of the known and embrace an unknowable future, or overturning it by force or via an elite cadre, instead create the alternative.  Convince the world that non-coercive institutions and solutions to social problems are preferable by showing them.  If this is done well the act of formally removing state institutions becomes almost a foregone conclusion or a mere formality.

Though Hayek espoused a more ideas-based view of social change in The Intellectuals and Socialism, the Davies approach is quite Hayekian in that it is more of a spontaneous than a planned order.  That makes is somewhat unsatisfying to us as libertarian "elite" intellectuals.  It's messy, slow, unpredictable, and nearly always lacks that single climactic moment when freedom defeats statism.

Illustrative of how unsatisfying it can be, consider that we may be witnessing an example of this approach unfolding before our eyes in mail delivery.  Public Choice realities being what they are, the likelihood of toppling the state postal monopoly with any amount of education, policy paper publication, or direct civil disobedience is very slim.  (Ask Lysander Spooner.)  These efforts are not futile and, as Davies points out, work to compliment and aid the undermining process, but ultimately they cannot win the day alone.

We've seen the Post Office's monopoly weaken with the advent of UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc.  We've seen it's importance wane with new technologies like email.  Sure, policy battles have played a part in this process, but the real impetus was self-interest on the part of parcel delivery entrepreneurs.

It is likely that the Post Office will die a slow death - or maybe never even completely disappear on paper - but one day we will be so used to other methods of delivering goods and information that we will forget it ever existed.  I would not be surprised to see the public education system undermined in the same way.

The beauty of this method is that it does not require the agents of change to themselves be libertarian, only self-interested entrepreneurs.  Libertarian ideas still play a key role, as do policy and legal efforts, activism and education, but the real change comes when the alternatives to state programs are implemented rather than just talked about as possibilities.

Now a little twist.  This approach can be very powerful on an individual level when combined with Rothbard's first strategy, a sort of Taoist retreatism.  In order to make society a happier and freer place, it helps to make oneself happier and freer first.  (This is the nut of an argument I made against worrying about elections and reading the news.)  We ought to focus less on what makes us unhappy and thwarts our freedom, and more on how to be as free as possible as individuals.  Just like UPS undermines the Post Office, we can undermine our own oppressive mindsets and internal institutions by building up freer alternatives underneath them.

I do not mean to be cute or self-helpish.  I genuinely believe that a social movement led by unhappy or internally unfree people is doomed to failure.  Occasionally retreating from the things we wish to change in the world and realizing that true freedom is not contingent on other people not only improves our own quality of life, but makes us much more attractive to the freedom philosophy's would-be converts.

First free yourself.  Then work towards societal freedom by creating competing solutions to those offered by the state.  Simple, right?

Interview on Capitalism, Freedom and the Future


An interview where I am asked some nice open-ended softballs on liberty, regulations, and the future.  The blog where the interview is posted is apparently supporting a particular politician, but I do not personally support or endorse any politicians, and the fact that the interview is posted to this blog should not be interpreted as support.

Oh, and I am referred to in the post as an "economist" and "Dr. Morehouse", neither of which I am.  Full text of the interview below.

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Josiah Schmidt: Thank you for agreeing to talk with us, Dr. Morehouse!  Tell us how you came to hold such a liberty-oriented philosophy.

Isaac Morehouse: I grew up in a typical Midwestern conservative home and I was taught responsibility, hard work and initiative.  In high-school, my brother told me about this book he was reading called “Capitalism and Freedom” by Milton Friedman.  I liked the ideas in the book, since I was sort of predisposed towards free-markets.  As I began to read more I eventually (after a long road and lots of rabbit trails) realized that, at bottom, government is force, and everything it does is backed by force.  It made me realize that so many things I wanted done in the world–good things–should not be done by force, but peacefully and voluntarily.  Not only did it sit right with me from a moral standpoint, but I learned through studying economics that voluntary actions have better results than centrally planned attempts by government to make the world a better place.

Josiah Schmidt: How would you define capitalism, in short?

Isaac Morehouse: Technically, capitalism is simply an economic system where individuals own the “means of production”, rather than government.  In popular usage however, capitalism has come to mean a lot of different things, some of which I support (property rights, free-markets, etc.), some of with I do not (bailouts, subsidies, regulations against competition, etc.).  I’m careful how I use that word, since people give it different meanings.  To me, it means simply free-markets.

Josiah Schmidt: Why, fundamentally, does capitalism work?

Isaac Morehouse: Capitalism works because without private property and the right to reap the gains and losses of our own efforts there is little incentive to produce or to innovate.  Property and free-trade also allow prices to form, which provide some of the most valuable information on the planet such as where demand and scarcity are and where surpluses are.  Prices, which form spontaneously as a result of free-exchange, allow for the most impressive coordination in the history of man; billions of people and resources constantly adjust their individual behavior in a way that benefits society, not because they are trying to or would even know how if they were, but because they are responding to signals sent through the price system.  No “rational” system of central planning can even come close to replicating that.

Josiah Schmidt: Is it meaningful to advocate a “mixed economy” of capitalism and socialism?

Isaac Morehouse: No.  Any coercion in the peaceful, voluntary and spontaneously coordinating market reduces it’s efficiency, not to mention it’s a violation of individual rights.  An only partly “planned” economy may be degrees better than a fully socialist one, but a free economy is magnitudes better than both. [For more on "mixed" economies see this article.]

Josiah Schmidt: How does capitalism, as opposed to socialism, accept human nature as it is, accounting for the flaws and fallibility of man?

Isaac Morehouse: It avoids what F.A. Hayek called the “Fatal Conceit” by recognizing that no one has enough knowledge to know where to put all the resources in the world all the time.  It recognizes the dignity of each individual by allowing anyone to justly obtain and use property, but it recognizes the limits of each individual by not allowing any one person to control all others by force.  If people are corrupt, the last thing we want to do is give a small number of them monopoly control over the rest, which is what government is.

Josiah Schmidt: Do government “consumer protection” measures actually protect consumers?

Isaac Morehouse: What is called “consumer protection” is almost always a special privilege or protection for some politically favored business or industry over their competitors.  Since government hands out favors and makes regulations, instead of competing in the marketing place by trying to better serve customers, many businesses go to government and lobby for regulations that they can afford, but that will cripple their smaller competitors.  The result is higher priced products, fewer choices, less competition, corruption in government agencies, and often times less attention to safety by consumers and producers who believe the government will do the work for them.

Josiah Schmidt: What is one of the most egregious examples of “consumer protection” measures that actually harmed consumers, in your view?

Isaac Morehouse: Oh boy, there are so many.  It’s hard to say which is the most egregious, but certainly some very silly examples that really bug me are things like requiring decorators, hair stylists, yoga instructors or lemonade selling kids to get state licenses and pay fees just to offer their goods and services.  These examples all exists in at least some states, and in every instance the laws were passed at the behest of some industry lobby that didn’t like lower priced competition.  It’s very sad for the people who just want a chance making a living by offering their skills to consumers.  They aren’t forcing anyone to buy, yet government is forcing them not to sell.

Josiah Schmidt: What advice would you give to libertarians reading this interview?

Isaac Morehouse: Take heart.  It’s too easy to see all the violations of liberty around us and feel things are always getting worse.  If you keep the big picture in mind and study some world history you will see that, in so many ways, freedom has advanced tremendously and there is no reason it cannot continue to do so.  Don’t follow the news too closely or you’ll be angry all the time, and angry people are rarely good advocates of the ideas they believe in.  Be optimistic and never stop learning about and fighting for freedom.  It’s worth it.

Josiah Schmidt: Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

Isaac Morehouse: Sometimes it helps to remember that really, liberty is all around us.  We often feel that it would require such a radical change in our everyday existence if government were not so invasive.  While I do not want to downplay the destructive effects of government meddling, it is instructive to stop and think about what really makes the world tick.  Why don’t people run through the shopping mall naked?  I’ll give you a hint: it is not because they are afraid of indecent exposure laws.  That may play some very small part, but it is primarily because they would be embarrassed.  They are afraid of the social consequences.  This is just one example of how society remains orderly without the use of force; without government mandates and rules and regulations.  In fact, nearly all of the order, cooperation and coordination we see around us is not the result of government edicts, but of the forces of spontaneous order that emerge in a voluntary society.  In many ways, government is less important than even libertarians think.  The message we need to send to our big-government friends is not that government is so bad (even though it often is), but that society voluntarily produces so much good that we don’t need to use the blunt instrument of government.

Josiah Schmidt: Very insightful thoughts.  Thanks again for taking the time out of your schedule to answer some of our questions.

Worldviews Matter


This is an article I wrote during the last presidential election for the Western Standard Shotgun Blog.  The election-specific parts are really not the crux of the post, so I think it's still relevant.

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A colleague sent me this article by Michael Knox Beran for the City Journal, titled, “Obama, Shaman”. The article is fantastic, not because it is a critique of one candidate from one party, but because the insights are far broader and can be applied to nearly any political or cultural folk-heroes of today. Beran draws upon strains of thought throughout ancient and classical literature and philosophy to highlight two very different worldviews.

America has a strong tradition of the worldview that sees man as fallible and existence as including pain and discomfort. Indeed, this worldview sees any life without some form of pain being a life without cause and effect, without choice; a robotic reality that would really be no existence at all.

The other worldview, the author points out, has surfaced in various forms throughout history and is the impetus for movements that nearly always result in a great deal of concentrated power. Since man need not be fallible, giving “the right person” unlimited power to do what is good for all is not viewed as dangerous, but rather necessary. From Machiavelli to Saul Alinsky, strategists have created a playbook for an ascent to power by those believing pain can forever be alleviated if only they are given the absolute power to enact their reforms. But the strategists only lay the plan; the philosophy that engendered the belief that such a plan could (or should) actually work came first. In the article, Beran describes many of those who have championed a paradigm which makes this belief possible.

As I’ve written before, paradigms are powerful, and hard to change. The lens through which one views the world, especially the human world, will determine the conclusions drawn from any set of data. Data, sensory perceptions, are completely devoid of actionable meaning without a theoretical framework through which to interpret them. For this reason, establishing and continually re-evaluating one’s framework becomes the constant task of the honest intellectual.

All good political philosophy and economics is essentially an effort to synthesis data and extract some kind of meaning from it – to create from observations a viable paradigm of human action. Knowing human nature is the most important and foundational element of ethics, political philosophy and economics. As the old adage goes, “knowing thyself” is the best place to start. I submit that the best way to know thyself is to find out what your worldview is (you have one, whether you know it or not).

What kind of lens do you look at the world through? What are the assumptions you take with you into every situation? Know your worldview, analyze it for logical consistency, test it against observation, discard or reform it if need be; this is the most difficult, rewarding and necessary task of human understanding.

Some snippets from the Beran article below should whet your appetite to read the entire piece:

“In his unfinished treatise Economy and Society, Max Weber defined charisma as “a certain quality in an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Weber was able to do little more, before he died in 1920, than give a pseudoscientific élan to an idea that had been kicking around for centuries. Most of what he said about charismatic authority was stated more cogently in Book III of Aristotle’s Politics, which described the great-souled man who “may truly be deemed a God among men” and who, by virtue of his greatness, is exempt from ordinary laws.

What both Aristotle and Weber made too little of is the mentality of the charismatic leader’s followers, the disciples who discover in him, or delusively endow him with, superhuman qualities. “Charisma” was originally a religious term signifying a gift of God: it often denotes (according to the seventeenth-century scholar-physician John Bulwer) a “miraculous gift of healing.” James G. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, demonstrated that the connection between charismatic leadership and the melioration of suffering was historically a close one: many primitive peoples believed that the magical virtues of a priest-king could guarantee the soil’s fertility and that such a leader could therefore alleviate one of the most elementary forms of suffering, hunger. The identification of leadership with the mitigation of pain persists in folklore and myth. In the Arthurian legends, Percival possesses an extraordinary magic that enables him to heal the fisher king and redeem the waste land; in England, the touch of the monarch’s hand was believed to cure scrofula.

It is a sign of growing maturity in a people when, laying aside these beliefs, it acknowledges that suffering is an element of life that sympathetic magic cannot eradicate, and recognizes a residue of pain in existence that even the application of technical knowledge cannot assuage. Advances in knowledge may end particular kinds of suffering, but these give way to new forms of hurt—milder, perhaps (one would rather be depressed than famished), yet not without their sting. We do not draw closer to a painless world.”

And…

“The danger of Obama’s charismatic healer-redeemer fable lies in the hubris it encourages, the belief that gifted politicians can engender a selfless communitarian solidarity. Such a renovation of our national life would require not only a change in constitutional structure—the current system having been geared to conflict by the Founders, who believed that the clash of private interests helps preserve liberty—but also a change in human nature. Obama’s conviction that it is possible to create a beautiful politics, one in which Americans will selflessly pursue a shared vision of the common good, recalls the belief that Dostoyevsky attributed to the nineteenth-century Russian revolutionists: that, come the revolution, “all men will become righteous in one instant.” The perfection would begin.”

America’s Great Depression


Murray Rothbard's seminal but often overlooked work, America's Great Depression, is especially enlightening since the 2007 financial crisis.  If you want to read the entire 400 page book (which I highly recommend), here it is.  If you're short on time, here's a 12 page summary of the main arguments in the book with some additional context.  Enjoy.

Was Adam Smith Wrong?


Here's an article I originally wrote for the Prometheus Institute.

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Disagreeing with a man whose face appears on the necktie of many a freedom-lover is perhaps dangerous, but sound reason can’t be sacrificed on the altar of great men – and Smith was a great man.

Indeed, Adam Smith, in his depiction of the division of labor in a pin factory and his timeless prose on the invisible hand and the self-interest of the butcher, offers some of the greatest explanations and defenses of capitalism ever written, even some 230 years later. I consider Smith a great thinker, and a hero of liberty. That doesn’t mean he was never wrong; particularly when it comes to the question of value.

Smith’s thoughts on the derivation of value in his Wealth of Nations laid the groundwork in this area for later thinkers like David Ricardo (another brilliant mind who was right about many other things) and eventually Karl Marx. In the case of the latter we have clearly seen how bad ideas can have horrific real-world consequences. As John Maynard Keynes famously remarked,

“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

I might add too the bad ideas of otherwise good economists.

Smith essentially, though somewhat confusedly, argued that the value of any good was ultimately derived from the amount of labor it took to produce. Money or commodity prices reflected only the nominal but never the real value of a good. In this way he described the different prices of different goods as a simple formula:

“If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually costs twice the labor to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer.” (The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter VI)

Smith elaborated further by describing other costs of producing a good, including the role of the entrepreneur and capitalist and the profits they require. Unlike Marx, Smith never denigrated the role of the capitalist or the profits they earned, but his conception of value resulting from the cost of production (ultimately labor) opened the door for the idea that anything charged or earned above the cost of real inputs is unnecessary; excellent fodder for anyone anxious to obtain power by appealing to an envious middle class.

The problem with Smith’s analysis is not that the cost of production has no link to the value or money price of a good – indeed, the two are closely connected. He merely had the relationship backwards.

In reality, prices reflect the money equivalent of the value a buyer places on a good. That is to say, an individual who wishes to have a good places an entirely subjective value upon that good as compared to other goods, and the difference is typically expressed in terms of money. If in Smith’s example no one cared for beavers, the cost of killing a beaver wouldn’t matter; the beaver would sell for little or nothing. There is no one value of a good, but each individual values each good differently, as compared to other goods. It is the same for Smith’s supposedly changeless measure of value, labor. An hour of the same kind of labor may be valued (or disdained) to different degrees by different people.

It is for this reason that price is merely the reflection of the amount of money an individual was willing to give up to obtain a given good in the most recent exchange.

However, Smith was correct in seeing a relationship between the cost of production and price: Once a producer or entrepreneur has an indicator of what someone was willing to pay for a good, he can speculate how much others will be willing to pay in the future. He may be incorrect, but he will start with an estimate based on past experience and hope to get an equal or higher price. It is the estimated price (which reflects the value others place on the good) that will dictate how much he can spend on production. If a producer expects a good to sell for $1, he will be willing to spend up to $0.99 to produce it. (This is obviously a simplification, as he may be willing to take short term loss if he expects long term gains, he may want more than a $0.01 profit, etc.) In other words, the amount of labor and other costs of production flow from the expected sale price of the good, not the other way around. No one will spend more to produce an item than they believe others will be willing to pay to buy it.

Smith correctly saw that the various costs which go into production must be paid by the sale price of the final good. What he failed to see is that the costs of production do not create the price of the final good or imbue it with some objective value, but that the subjective value that each consumer places on the good sends signals backwards to producers and tells them how much they can expend on production without suffering a loss.

That Smith saw the factors which go into the production of a good as the cause of the price, rather than the effect, may seem like a small error. But economics, like all attempts to study the behavior of human beings, is a subtle science which requires great attention to the correct logical progression of actions. A misunderstanding between cause and effect can be fatal.

A slight adjustment to the angle of a satellite signal can, when extrapolated over thousands of miles, result in a beam nowhere near its target location. Likewise, looking at an economic phenomenon, such as the price of a good, from an even slightly incorrect angle can result in consequences far greater than imagined when spread over time and by different minds in different cultures. I would never single-handedly blame Adam Smith for the horrors of socialism. But his backwards theory of value contributed, over time and space, to a set of ideas which laid the theoretical groundwork for socialism – a philosophy completely contrary to the views of Smith.

I still admire and respect Adam Smith as one of the world’s great minds and a positive force in the battle for liberty. His conclusions and prescriptions were correct, even though his methodology was sometimes flawed. However, the lessons to be gleaned are to never let admiration for a great mind blind you to areas in which they are in error; and that even correct conclusions, if based on incorrect reasoning, can be dangerous.

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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