Institutions Can Improve Even If People Don’t

Originally posted here.

Airlines are loaded with passengers who surf the Internet while soaring through the air, chatting in real-time to anyone else on the globe, posting in social media, shopping, and downloading and reading books on a wide variety of readers. Such a scene would have astonished a person living 50 years ago, to say nothing of a person living 500 years ago.

How do we account for this? A person born five centuries ago is probably just as smart as someone born today. The raw material of the human brain has not changed much during this span of time. Yet people are today infinitely more capable of accomplishing almost any task imaginable than people in 1512.

The greatest navigator of centuries past would have found it a monumental task to leave from one destination and arrive at a precise latitude and longitude halfway across the globe, and it would have taken months. Today, a half-witted teenager can use Google Maps and modern transportation to accomplish the same feat in a single day.

The greatest communicators in the past were unlikely to reach 1 million people with their ideas in a lifetime. Today, the most-incoherent celebrities can reach millions in minutes on Twitter. Conversely, if the greatest scientists today were sent back in time, they would be able to achieve almost nothing absent computers and modern lab equipment.

A weak and feeble worker today can move more tons of earth than the strongest shovel-wielding excavator of the past. Given the inherited technological progress of humanity, even an average Joe can do amazing things with ease. It does not take a superior human to achieve superior results.

Economically speaking, the marginal productivity of workers increases with the capital and technology available to them.

But let’s broaden the point to issues of morality. How can we become better people — more peaceful, cooperative, and creative — in the same spirit in which we have become more effective and productive with better technology? We need better moral “capital” and moral “technology” that enables morally superior outcomes even without morally superior people.

The moral technology I am speaking of is social and political institutions. A person born today is no more or less likely to be moral than a person born 500 years ago, but they can be more or less likely to act morally based on the institutions around them.

Moral institutions change and evolve just like technology. They can reduce or expand not only the morality of individuals on the inside, but the harm or good caused by their actions on the outside. The most saintly person born into a world where slavery was the norm would have very limited ability to stop the practice, though she could abstain from participating in it at great personal cost.

A horrendously evil person born into a world where slavery is considered abhorrent would be unable to lord over slaves, without tremendous personal cost. It is entirely possible that many people living today have it in them to be on par with the worst slave masters in history — only the opportunity for their evil does not present itself, given the progress in this area of our social and political institutions.

This does not mean that individual choices are meaningless. Far from it. A moral person can always do good within their institutional framework, and a good framework can exponentially enhance the good one can do. Individual choices are vastly important.

But in order for the world to be free of oppression by states, for example, it does not require that every individual be an angel or that the average morality of the population be better than it currently is.

How can institutions improve if morality does not? Institutions are ultimately the result of our beliefs. Better beliefs will result in better institutions, but better beliefs do not require morally superior people any more than beliefs in a heliocentric solar system require more-intelligent people.

Many people believe the Earth revolves around the sun not because they are smarter than ancient peoples, but because they grew up in a world where that was accepted. Many people believe slavery is wrong not because they are morally superior to all people from ages past, but because they grew up in a world where slavery was condemned.

The broader social narrative creates the institution. But where does this narrative come from? Here’s where individuals come in again.

Progress typically begins with iconoclasts and radicals espousing and experimenting with ideas that challenge the status quo. This is true of technological, intellectual and moral progress. The few who advance these radical ideas attract small, but influential followers, and some minds are changed by argument alone. But the real change comes when discussion turns into demonstration.

When the Wright brothers got off the ground, when slavery ended in some countries and the economy did not collapse — these occasions did more to change the prevailing beliefs about manned flight and slavery than did the necessary intellectual work that preceded them.

People do not have to possess superpowers to learn and adapt. All humans do it. Learning even to reject foundational and dearly held beliefs is possible and frequent in history, especially because the change typically takes place over several generations, so that each generation has to learn to give up only a part of the cherished belief. When it is understood that a new belief will result in better outcomes, it can be adopted with relative speed and ease, sometimes without any conscious “a ha!” moment at all.

Neither technological nor institutional progress is inevitable. History is replete with times of retrogression and collapse. When there are no radicals challenging the status quo, innovating and demonstrating new and better beliefs, it is not long before the prevailing institutions stagnate or advocates of a romanticized past win the day and drag humanity backward.

Progress is not inevitable, but progress is entirely possible even with flawed humans like us. Our beliefs can change as we learn better ways of doing things, and with our beliefs will change our institutions. Better institutions — free institutions, rather than coercive ones — will result in a better world.

We ought to continue to discuss and demonstrate the fact that states — their oppressions, confiscations, impositions, kidnapping, counterfeiting, and war — are not necessary or beneficial. Better morality is always better, but if we change the prevailing narrative about states, we can live in a stateless world even without a saintly populace.

It is a false and arrogant belief that only angelic geniuses are capable of believing that statelessness is possible and desirable. If a bunch of idiots can live in a world of technological wonder, so too can a bunch of jerks live in a world of freedom.

But Who Would Bilk the Roads?

But who would create the long lines in which to wait to be told you have the wrong documents?  Who would build the bridges to nowhere?  Who would pay $300 for a toilet seat?  Who would lose your important items in the mail?  Who would force you to turn off your cell phone while taxiing on the runway?  Who would pay a horseshoer to not shoe horses?  Who would pay a farmer to not grow crops?

Who would encourage the poor to buy education and housing they can’t afford?  Who would encourage workers not to work?  Who would encourage the generous not to give?  Who would encourage the productive to stop producing?

Who would punish the innocent for doing what makes them happy?  Who would subsidize some chemicals and plants and ban others?  Who would perpetuate gang wars across the globe?  Who would encourage and prop up organized crime?  Who would jail sickly grandmothers for seeking natural pain-relief remedies?

Who would incentivise healers not to heal?  Who would force entrepreneurs to become legal experts rather than creators?  Who would create laws sufficient to make everyone a criminal?  Who would artificially raise the price of health care?  Who would artificially lower the price of waste?

Who would prevent people from seeking damages when another pollutes the water?  Who would fail to maintain the forests?  Who would squander the resources?

Who would help well-heeled businesses crush their competition with laws and regulations?  Who would steal half of the production and spend it on stifling the other half?  Who would pay thousands of agents to create thousand of rules to penalize millions of people for making a living and not properly filling out paperwork to classify and justify it all?

Who would force the children into factory schools?  Who would cram bad ideas into their heads?  Who would drive them to near madness with tedium and tyranny controlling their every waking minute?  Who would call it bullying or a disorder when they reacted?  Who would cram pills down their throats when they thought divergently?  Who would lie to them about the value of schooling?  Who would teach them to obey arbitrary authority instead of their own consciences?

Who would force the peaceful to pay for war?  Who would encourage the violent to aggress and call it honorable?  Who would give sanction to racist, hateful tendencies and call it security?  Who would attack the innocent?  Who would build the drones?  Who would man the concentration camps?

Indeed, who would carry out the genocide?  Who would massacre the millions?  Who would force famines?  Who would torture?

Want a Better World? Make a Profit

A few days ago, I noticed a post on Fast Company’s Co.Exist titled, “Is Working on Wall Street Actually the Most Ethical Career Choice?”  The post is about a project called 80,000 hours that is trying to get people to think about how best to spend the average 80,000 hours they will be in a career.

Somewhat refreshingly, the project encourages people to consider going into high-income careers rather than the non-profit world.  It describes the outsized impact you can have by funding several causes vs. working in one.  But the premise remains: to do good, it’s nonprofits that provide the boots on the ground.  You might have to bite the bullet and take a high-paying job so that you can support such efforts, but it’s very clear that aid and charitable organizations are what make the world a better place.

What’s so odd about this perspective is that all the evidence in world history reveals just the opposite.  There has not been a single, massively transformative development driven by charity work.  But millions upon millions have seen the end of poverty, disease and plague; we’ve seen lifespans extended, air and water cleaned, culture, art and beauty preserved and enhanced, and lives saved by profit-seeking enterprises.

Working for profit is, in a free-market, always a win for others.  Profit is a signal.  It reveals when value has been added to society, as measured by the subjective values of those in society.  Resources are purchased for a price.  That price is what the resources are valued at for their next best use.  Profit-seekers then do something to the resources.  They apply ideas, time, other resources and labor.  What comes out the other end is sold.  If consumers willingly pay a price high enough to cover the cost of inputs plus some, profit is made.  What does that profit signify?  It signifies value created.  It shows how much more valuable the resources are after the transformation than before.  It shows, in dollars, how much better off people are because of the enterprise.

Of course dollars are not a perfect measurement of value.  And of course economic value is subjective and changing.  But there is no perfect measurement, and there is none clearer, cleaner, or fairer.  You can ask people what they value, but when they willingly trade their dollars for it, it speaks volumes.  Any uncoerced exchange that generates profit should be hailed as a wonderful benefit to the world.

Sure, you can make a bunch of money so you can give lots away to causes you believe in.  That’s a wonderful thing.  It feels good.  It can help some people in tangible ways that are fulfilling to be a part of.  The truth is, whether you like it or not, you’re doing more good for the world by the activity that makes you the money (so long as it’s not subsidy, tax, or regulation supported) than by the activities you support in giving it away.

I highly recommend this excellent article by F.A. Harper on “The Greatest Economic Charity“.

When to Tame the Snark?

If you use social media and you like to consume and communicate ideas, there will be times when a funny one-liner pops into your head as a representation of your thoughts on an issue.  Do you post it, or refrain for fear of coming off as dismissive?

The best snark comes from being the opposite of dismissive.  When you really dive into an idea, read some books, discuss with friends, and ponder it, you begin to form coherent responses.  They begin as big gnarly beliefs about the idea that would be hard to communicate without a long treatise.  The more you think about it, the more you can pare it down.  At some point, you have an epiphany, and a short phrase pops into your head as a summary of the entire idea and your beliefs about it.  If it’s an idea that you find lacking, it’s probably a snarky comment.

When you post your thoughts for the world to see, you know the denizens of world have been doing thinking of their own behind the scenes, just as you have.  They’ve been thinking about other things.  They don’t have the context you have for your snark.  Those who are inclined to agree with your position instinctively find it hilarious.  Those who take the idea more seriously are apt to be offended.  No one is going to understand everything that you imagine to be so brilliantly wrapped in that little bit of wordsmithery.

You can deal with this by posting the entirety of your thoughts on everything rather than or in addition to a short quip.  You can pack it with links and references.  “If they don’t read it, at least they’ll know I know what I’m talking about, damnit!”  Oddly, this approach does not prevent misunderstanding, but often generates more.  It also reduces the number of people who pay any attention at all.

Another approach is to not post anything snarky.  Stick to safe wording or mundane topics, and reserve your thoughts on complex or controversial issues for forums where you have better opportunity to engage in meaningful back and forth, show you care, etc.  This is a way to reduce the stress of haters hating your Facebook posts.  It’s also a way to be boring.  That moment of epiphany, when you think you have a clever way to sum up an idea, is actually pretty energizing and fun.  It feels good to test it out.  Social media is perfect for that.  Not posting things that may come off as too glib will take a lot of the fun away for you, and for those who follow you.

Know yourself.  Will you be able to handle being misunderstood?  If not, practice.  Get used to it.  Don’t be threatened by it.  Try to actually have fun with it.  Find a way to be content even if someone says, “So let me see if I get what you’re saying”, and proceeds to describe nothing remotely close to what you mean.  Can you let it go unexplained?  Learn to.

There is value in explaining yourself.  There is value in being sensitive to how your words may sound to others.  There is value in being thoughtful about how to best communicate an idea without offending.  But it’s certainly not the highest value.  Don’t be afraid to put your ideas out there.  Your own ideas are subject to change with time and information, so if you’re going to put your stuff out there, you’ll also need the freedom to publicly change points of view.  As long as you see social media not as a way to present your Magnum Opus to the world, but as a way to have fun exchanging ideas – even those you’re only toying with – I say bring on the snark.

Protect Us From ‘Consumer Protection’

Back in 2007, I wrote a short piece for the Mackinac Center that showed, through a hypothetical story, how occupational licensing laws come about. It was published in a few local newspapers, and elicited its fair share of responses – primarily because shortly after I wrote it interior designers, who I chose for my example, began lobbying for exactly the kind of thing I discussed. Good timing I guess.

I responded to several angry emails, and I recently rediscovered one of my responses. I probably would say a few things differently today, but I still thought it was a fun exchange and I was reminded of it after discussing a current effort afoot in Minnesota to require interior designers to be licensed. The idea is as stupid now as it was then, no matter what state it’s in.

Below is the original article, followed by the response letter and my reply. The names have been changed to protect the innocent interested.

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Article originally posted here.

Michigan ranks sixth in the nation when it comes to occupational licensing, with 116 different occupations requiring state approval, according to a recent Reason Foundation report.

Michigan even has a license for reptile catchers. You’d think with only one native venomous snake, the Massasauga Rattlesnake — and a relatively benign one at that — we might not need to rank so highly in this area of policy. Apparently not.

So, why do we have all of these licenses? Who comes up with them? Here’s a hypothetical example of how such policies come about:

A lawmaker meets with lobbyists representing an association of interior designers. The lobbyists say interior designers contribute $10 million annually to the state economy and provide more than 10,000 good paying jobs. Interior designers work hard to have a good reputation, say the lobbyists, but all of that is in danger. Rogue designers who are not members of the association have been undercutting prices and providing shoddy workmanship that damages all designers’ reputations. The lobbyists tell of one such designer who made a cheap shelving unit that collapsed, injuring the customer.

To remedy this, the association proposes requiring all interior designers to be registered with the state. They propose a course of study (provided by the association, to members only) and a test administered by a state panel of design experts (largely representatives of the association). Applicants must pay a $500 fee to cover the cost of the course, the test, the panel and all other related activities. Fee money would also be used to investigate and prosecute any unlicensed designers — including levying a $500 fine for first time offenders and $1,000 for repeats.

The lawmaker likes the idea of “protecting” his constituents and introduces a package of bills, mostly drafted by design association lawyers. The legislation passes the Legislature and is signed by the governor with little fanfare, as the association lines up members to testify in favor of it and the media reprints their supportive statements on this “consumer protection” package.

That’s the side of the story that is easy for everyone to see. Here’s another side:

Jane Citizen works 40-plus hours per week to sustain her family, and because of her interest in it, started her own interior design business. She has no formal training in design, and neither time nor money to pay for it. Her customers are happy, and her business has been steadily growing by word-of-mouth. Jane has never been a member of any design associations and doesn’t have time to attend conferences or read their publications, nor does she have extra cash to pay their dues.

The new “consumer protection” act goes into effect without Jane’s knowledge. She is soon approached on the job by a bureaucrat asking to see her registration. He informs her that she is violating the law and must pay a $500 fine and cease plying her trade immediately. She must become registered or face additional fines and/or legal action. Jane doesn’t have the extra $500, nor does she have the time to take the state-required course or the money to pay for it. She has unknowingly violated the law and must cease earning her living.

Lawmakers received short-lived but positive press for “protecting consumers.” But who was protected? Jane and those depending on her income were not protected by the new law. Her happy customers who lost her skills and competitive prices were not protected. The design association was the only party protected. They eliminated competitors who drove down prices. They protected their monopoly and damaged the marketplace.

Under such a law Jane and her willing customers are “protected” from an honest and mutually satisfactory transaction. Free exchange ceases to be a natural right protected by government; instead it becomes a privilege bestowed by government. No longer can market competition ensure the best services at the best price; instead a trade monopoly, using the force of government, ensures the highest price for their service. No longer do free people choose what constitutes a fair price, a fair wage and good design; instead a government panel decides for them.

The next time you hear about “consumer protection” legislation that requires yet more licensing, check to see who it really protects. When government uses force to create and protect industry monopolies for “public safety,” it subverts our natural rights. That’s more dangerous than a room full of collapsing shelves.

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Dear Mr. Morehouse,

I am writing in reference to your Thursday, December 13, 2007 article “Consumer protection often isn’t”. It seems to me you have on [sic] idea what a [sic] educated Interior Designer has to learn before they should be able to call themselves a professional. I have a Bachelor of Science Degree from Michigan State University and almost a second degree in Art History. All of these I paid for myself working two or three jobs while taking a full load of course. I have no sympathy for your Jane Citizen!

There are university extension classes and night sessions available. She obviously wants a free ride. Thank God she didn’t want to be a BRAIN SURGEON!!!! I believe you should visit two or three of the fifteen colleges or universities in our state with Interior Design programs before you ridicule a profession. May I suggest M.S.U., Wayne State, Eastern Michigan or Kendall. All have excellent programs. If the educational aspects of a profession do not concern you why haven’t you gone after Attorneys, Architects, Doctors, Plumbers, Etc? They are all licensees.

All Interior Designers want is the recognition of time spent getting the proper credentials for practicing their profession so they can serve their clients properly thus protecting their safety and welfare.

Mr. Doe

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Dear Mr. Doe,

Thank you for your comments on my article. It seems, however, that you have misunderstood its very simple point. I made no attempt to single out any one profession in occupational licensing (I could’ve used anything as an example), nor was I attempting to besmirch the hard work and training many interior designers go through.

I have no doubt that you have worked hard, and are very talented at your profession as a result; and I have absolutely no problem with occupational licensing or certification that is voluntary. What my article warned against is licensure by force. Whenever the state acts, it backs up its laws with force.

I do not believe anyone should be forced or threatened with the use of force for choosing to not get a certain amount of training in a profession. If Jane citizen wants to offer her services, that is her business. Consumers should be free to hire whomever they choose. I have no doubt that voluntary certifications would (and do in some professions) abound, and many consumers would choose only to hire those with a consumer report stamp of approval (for example). However, the choice should be up to the individual, not for the state to impose upon individuals by force.

All state-forced occupational licensing is in effect a barrier to entry for entry-level workers and a protection for well-entrenched industry lobbies. I have no doubt that your design skills can stand on their own in a free-market, and I do not believe you need the blunt force of government to coerce customers into hiring you over a less qualified competitor. I wish you had as much confidence.

Sincerely,

Isaac M. Morehouse

Review: Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers

Any book that uses an Oxford comma in the title is immediately in my good graces. Add the nicely designed cover, the slim size, and the intriguing topic, and Edward Lopez and Wayne Leighton would have had to commit heinous rhetorical or logical crimes to turn me off of their new book, Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers. Fortunately, they commit no such crimes but present a sweeping and readable examination of the forces that generate social change.

I have long been obsessed with the question of how to change the world. In my personal life, this question took me from humanitarian mission trips, to politics, to policy advocacy, to education, to developing educators, to raising support to develop educators. To borrow the old adage, I found I could do more in teaching a man to fish than giving a man a fish…then I took it further: Now I raise the capital to build the factories to make the rope to produce the nets to give the teachers to teach people to catch millions of fish.

This doesn’t mean I’ve discovered once for all the secret of changing the world; far from it. Every day my approach changes as I gain experience and learn new ideas. Madmen is, in many ways, a clear articulation of many of the ideas I’ve come to hold about social change. It details how Public Choice Theory reveals that governments have all the wrong incentives for positive change. It discusses the role of ideas, and how they are able to overcome the vested interests that Public Choice makes seem so insurmountable. It lays out Hayek’s description of social change coming from intellectuals, and spreading through the general public. But Madmen adds a new dimension, one I have not been able to integrate into my worldview until recently: the bottom-up role of culture, and the circumstance of time and place.

It is not only coherent, conscious ideology that determines what institutions will be tolerated, and therefore what incentives exist and what outcomes result. The conscious beliefs of individuals in society do play a major role, and are something we focus on perhaps because we feel capable of altering them through education and persuasion. But there is also a role for bottom-up, experiential, subconscious or tacit knowledge. The kind of knowledge that culture carries from generation to generation, passing on when it produces better outcomes.

Often no one is aware the valuable function of such cultural trends or norms. Economist Peter Leeson has done research on a variety of bizarre superstitions and practices embedded in various cultures; memes that seem to have no value. If you asked the members of that culture what the purpose was, they would likely provide an answer steeped in their religion or mythology. Yet time and again, the practices have proven efficient means of achieving desirable ends, at least compared with the known alternatives. Such cultural norms needn’t be recognized for what they are even by the people that benefit from them in order to have influence over institutions, incentives, and outcomes – good or bad.

I’ve come to believe that, when it comes to bringing about a better world, valuing freedom because we’ve experienced it and consider it normal is just as important as valuing freedom because it makes sense in the moral or utilitarian abstract. A generation that believes in the power of voluntary cooperation because they take part in it every day is no less valuable than one that reads libertarian theory.

Madmen integrates the top-down flow of ideas from intellectuals to the general public with the bottom up influence of learned cultural memes, and uses the combined forces to explain where the ideas come from that shape the institutions in which (as Public Choice reveals) incentives will lead to predictable outcomes. To create this integrated view of social change, Leighton and Lopez ask and answer three questions:

1. Why do democracies generate policies that are wasteful and unjust?

2. Why do failed policies persist over long periods, even when they are known to be socially wasteful and even when better alternatives exist?

3. Why do some wasteful policies get repealed (airline and telephone regulations) while others endure (sugar subsidies, tariffs)?

They offer answers in less than 200 pages, yet somehow manage to work in an expansive history of economic and political thought, beginning with the earliest philosophers and ending with the most current economists. This is an excellent tour of political economy as a discipline: what questions it asks, what personalities populate the field, and what competing and complimentary theories they present. There is enough detail to satisfy the wannabe economist in me, and enough colorful storytelling to sate my inner layman.

The book opens with a story of the shot-clock that saved basketball, and closes with a story of hybrid wheat that saved millions of lives. It is full of examples of social change, both good and bad, and the authors’ thoughts on why it happened when and how it did. If you are interested in how the world works from a ten thousand foot vantage point, I cannot recommend Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers enough.

Waking Up

I never saw before
Or felt the awe before
I never knelt before
I never felt before

I am waking up

I never slept before
I never wept before
I never knew before
Was never you before

I am waking up

I never dreamt before
I never meant before
I never burned before
I never learned before

I am waking up

How the World Will Change

(Originally posted here.)

When the world becomes free it will not be by the creation of new laws, or the removal of old, or new political leaders or any election result. It will not be because of a change in government, but because of a change in attitude toward government. It will not be because of legislation, but because of disregard for legislation.

Genuine change will come when the state is ignored, not reformed. It will come not when politicians are better, but when they are irrelevant.

When state-made law is no longer deemed necessary or important it will not be respected. When it is not respected it will not be enforced because it will not be enforceable.

This is how the world will change.

Evidence in the Face of Disbelief

The world can become free of the barbarous relic called the state. The state is a dangerous fiction whose power rests entirely on people’s belief in its necessity, or inevitability. Belief in the state is not insurmountable. It is not hard-wired into the human mind. It is not a given that a state must or will always exist. The state, like so many other superstitions now thought to be outrageous, inhumane and inefficient, can be left in the ash heap of history.

Many once laughed at the notion that an institution as old as humanity itself, the institution of slavery, would or could ever be removed. The prevailing wisdom for centuries, even among those who had discovered the moral repugnance of slavery, was that it was just a part of human nature. Reformers argued the best thing was to work for a more humane version of slavery.

Slavery was an institution that, however evil it may sometimes be and however utopians might imagine a more perfect world without it, was here to stay. Some embarked on efforts to improve the institution, to teach masters to be “good” to their slaves. Some setup rules and mores designed to limit the nastiest outcomes of the institution. But the institution itself was as unavoidable as scarcity and death.

The fatal flaw in this thinking is that slavery and government, unlike scarcity and death, are human institutions. They are, above all, mental constructs. Their physical manifestations are not physical realities humans simply encounter in nature, but realities we create, and humans only create by first imagining. An idea does not become an action unless the individual actor believes that the idea is worth acting on. To subjugate another human being, or to condone or allow the subjugation of one by another, one must first have the idea of subjugation and must believe that acting on it is preferable to ignoring or condemning it. Scarcity and natural death need no such human consent. The old saying about death and taxes turns out to be only half true.

If the state, like slavery, is the result of the ideas held by people it is not inevitable. Some day humanity could look back on the institution called the state with the same sense of shame and wonder that we now have about slavery. How could so many people – many of them good people – live their lives day in and day out surrounded by an institution so inhumane, so nakedly violent and demeaning? Did they really think it was necessary? Did they not understand how degrading it was? It will be hard to understand how so many humans thought the state was inevitable, tolerable and even good. As sure as slavery became a hated relic, so can the state.

How It Happens

When slavery ended it was not by changes in rules or laws or political leaders. Such changes often quickly follow changes in belief and mistakenly receive the credit, but they are never the cause. Slavery ended as people’s ideas about it changed. People began to believe it was not only an evil, but an unnecessary one. People began to believe it so evil that they were willing to tolerate the short-term sacrifices of ending it in order to reap the long-term improvement in the human condition.

The calculation of cost and benefit changed as people’s sense of morality trumped their sense of conservative institutional stability. The unknown outcome of ending slavery became an acceptable risk when considered against the known evil of the institution, which became an unacceptable reality.

Political Reform

Political reform can never bring about liberty. It can on rare occasion expand a bit of liberty for a few, but as long as that expansion occurs via political methods, it means bargaining that often takes away freedom in some other arena, or the long-term furtherance of trust in the state. The political game is about reshuffling and re-enforcing the necessity of the state.

The political game attracts great attention, and as such many suggest using it as a means of educating people about the power of liberty. Politics as education is only valuable in the long term to the extent that it educates people that politics is at bottom bad and government cannot ever be good. If it merely inspires people to advocate that the state do to things better, it is not, in the end, going to make society more free. It is disbelief in politics and in the state that leads to freedom.

The Chinese army fired on their fellow citizens in Tiananmen Square. This massacre was not caused by political leaders and generals saying, “Shoot”; but by men in the Chinese army deciding to shoot. It was not caused ultimately by bad leadership, but by a belief in the necessity of obeying orders. There will always be people with a will to power; a desire to control. Only when the rest don’t believe that power to be necessary and therefore do not obey does freedom reign.

Shift Focus

Humans want to solve problems in the most immediate and direct way possible. We want to know where the problem of restricted liberty begins. We discover the source in a gradual progression. First the focus is on people – the wrong political leaders. This quickly generalizes to political parties or groups, then to policies or laws, then to agencies and institutions, and finally to the state itself.

Here it seems we’re at the core of the problem: the state itself. Not any of the personalities or parties or bureaus or laws under its aegis. But a further shift in focus is required. The state is not the root of the problem. The real problem is not an institution, but an idea. It is the idea that government is necessary. That’s the culprit and final basis for every bad thing the state has ever done.

To a small degree, a shift in focus is happening now. A great many people don’t believe that a particular politician will solve the problems created by the state. An increasing number don’t believe one party is more likely than another to do so. It is more common to hear institutions or the incentives built into the system of government blamed. This is progress. It is, however, still rare to hear the existence of the state itself blamed, and rarer still to hear blame placed on the idea that a state is necessary.

The belief in its necessity gives rise to the state, which by definition is full of bad incentives that attract and nurture bad people in bad parties. To say the people, parties, or policies are the problem would be like blaming the sidewalk for breaking your leg after you walked off a tall building because you were ignorant of the staircase and elevator. Frustration with the sidewalk is useless and ignorant. The proper response would be to question the necessity of walking off the building; perhaps in so doing you would discover other less painful methods of achieving your goal and reaching the ground floor.

There is no form or arrangement of a state that can guarantee liberty. The answer is always peace, markets, and voluntarism. The ring of power cannot be wielded for good, but must be thrown into the fire before it uses good for evil.

Changing Lives and Changing Life

I do not wish to downplay the possible outcomes of attempts to reform the state. By such efforts lives can be changed. A court decision can save an individual or a whole neighborhood from being bulldozed by the state. The removal of a regulation can change the life of an entrepreneur and allow her to pursue her dream. These activities are analogous to disaster relief or soup kitchens; they can genuinely change lives and offer welcome relief. They can change lives, but they cannot change life.

Disasters will still come and go. The conditions that brought about hunger are not ameliorated with the appetite of the person receiving soup. The liberty-crushing actions of the state do not cease when it ceases to crush one neighborhood or regulate one industry for some period of time. The state will – must – continue to seek its own expansion, and it will push at every weak point it finds to do so, ensuring that an endless stream of lives will remain to be helped, but that the conditions of life itself will not be fundamentally altered. Treating disease is noble, but it is different than eradicating disease.

Changing lives is good and fulfilling work. But for those courageous enough to dream, changing life itself is bliss, and can only be done by undermining, not improving the state.

What to Do?

The only tactic worth pursuing is enlightenment. Enlightenment of self and of others, and both continuously. This does not mean telling people what to believe or what to do. It is more akin to discovery than education. A teacher may help you discover truth by providing information, but the discoverer has to have curiosity and openness. It is the discoverer himself who chooses to discover.

Become a free person, and your freedom will be a beacon to others who are searching. Create liberty in your own life, exchange ideas, be open to the power of human creativity. Free your own mind and you will begin to help others to free theirs not by telling them what to believe, but by demonstration and discussion.

The market does not produce new innovations and technologies because smart people tell others what to design; instead it is a constant dynamic give and take, show and tell, creation and imitation, trial and error, the greatest ongoing play of economic exchange.

The building of a free-society needn’t wait until the state is limited or absent; indeed the state will not wither until the free society is first built to replace it. The explosive power of ideas will destroy the foundations of the state as free people continue to live and breath those ideas and demonstrate the life, energy, fun, progress and fulfillment in freedom.

This does not mean everyone who wants liberty must do the same thing. Demonstrating and discussion the ideas of a free society is such a broad and evolutionary task that it opens endless doors. The differences we have in ability and interest lead to numerous efforts, and enlightenment leaves ample room for differentiation.

Our differences will manifest in which “others” we exchange with, and what methods and mediums we use. But it must be an exchange of ideas and the building of a free society. It cannot mean deceiving, cajoling, “nudging”, forcing, bribing, or dictating. These, in the end, will only lead to less freedom.

Liberty not inevitable, but it is possible. A state that does not trample liberty is not possible. So long as the state is deemed necessary it will exist, and the state will always grow beyond its originally desired limits. The state will prey upon society until it destroys it, and then destroys itself. But if the belief in the necessity of the state remains, the deposed state will soon be replaced by a new one and the process will begin again.

The only foundation that society can be built on without collapse is a belief in statelessness.

It must be belief. Consequential (practical) and deontological (moral) arguments against the state miss the point. People will accept an inefficient and immoral system if they believe it necessary. Once they find it unnecessary, they will abandon it and give moral or practical reasons for doing so, but the belief in the necessity of the state must go first.

Imagine Liberty

Ludwig von Mises described three preconditions to human action. An individual must have dissatisfaction with his current condition, a vision of something better, and a belief in the ability to achieve that vision.

Everyone has dissatisfaction with government. Almost no one has a vision of something better. People have visions of a differently structured “necessary evil”, but their lack of imagination makes them keep the modifier, “necessary”. The Proverb says that for lack of vision people perish.

If we open up our imagination there is abundant evidence of order without the state. Non-state norms and institutions produce the majority of the world we see around us. Historically, society precedes the state, and there is ample evidence of stateless solutions to problems we are taught to believe only the state can solve.

Beyond past or present evidence, an application of our knowledge of human potential can also help us envision what could be. Science fiction writers imagine unheard of technologies by looking at technological advances in the here and now. They extrapolate and predict where human ingenuity, if it continues on its present course, may go. The best social thinkers do the same with society.

Some advocates for liberty do have a vision of something better. They can imagine multifarious social arrangements without the state. But most still lack the third condition of human action; a belief in the ability to get there. After so many vein attempts at revolution and political activism it seems there is no answer. But in some ways, the second condition of action is the answer to the third. If enough people can imagine a better solution, they will cease to support an inferior one (even in the face of the unknown, if they believe it to hold promise) and cease to prohibit new experiments. People with imagination too small to envision an automobile may very well accept restrictions on road building. But people who can’t envision the specific manifestation of the automobile, but can imagine human progress and invention capable of surprising them will be reticent to restrict the construction of something with unknown promise.

This is why we needn’t all share the same, or even a very specific, vision of a stateless world. We must, however, be brave and broad-minded enough to see in human relations the potential of order without the state.

For those who can imagine such a world, the task is to open others up to the same possibility. Show them, intrigue them, inspire them. Where imagination is wanting, so is liberty.

When It Happens

Perhaps the beginning of the end of the state will be gradual. Maybe state efforts to restrict minor activities will be increasingly ignored. Bans on food and drink may be laughed at and become unenforceable. Perhaps it will slowly extend to ignoring bigger and bigger restrictions.
Perhaps it will start with a bang. The prohibition of drugs may simply come to an abrupt end, and sooner than anyone expects. Public schooling may suddenly become so little used and so uncompetitive in the face of educational innovation that it disappears.

It may happen without a big production. The visage of the state may not even die with its function. The royalty of England still exist, but they are longer relevant in regulating daily life. They exist as reflection or memory of what was once believed. Some Native American tribes perform rain dances not because they believe, as they once did, that they will bring rain, but as an homage to their past. The state may transform similarly. It may never “go away”, but it may cease to have meaning except as a tradition. Parades and pomp may remain while power over our lives withers.

Fast or slow, big or small, conscious or unconscious as it may be, the world will change. The state can be a relic of the past, harder to understand as time moves on, like slavery in America today. In so many ways the trend is well underway and we are already in a mostly stateless world, though it is little appreciated or understood. It may be a matter of merely realizing what is already true: the state is not, and never has been necessary.

Realistic and Radical

The dissolution of the state doesn’t rely on people to become better or morality to change, or for the next step in evolution. It is a fallacy that government is inevitable and necessary. It could wither away in no time. It is only a matter of us changing our beliefs, paradigms, and theories of world. It only requires that we realize that it is not necessary. I say only, but the power of imagination necessary to see that the state is not is no small thing. Opening our minds to this possibility is the greatest and most promising intellectual and practical adventure.

Rhetorical Martyrdom, or Self-Defense?

Let’s say someone aggresses against you. You’ve done no wrong and are morally justified in defending yourself with force. You are also morally justified in choosing not to resist, and possibly become a martyr for your non-aggression. Both responses are morally acceptable, but which is more effective at achieving your goals?

If your goal is self-preservation, it might seem defense is the obvious choice. Upon further reflection, the case isn’t so simple. If someone says, “Your wallet or your life”, non-resistance might actually improve your odds of walking away unharmed, even if a little poorer. Even when the aggressor wants your life rather than your money, it is possible a passive countenance might protect you better than defense. If you’re outmatched, firing a few shots in defense only makes your attackers bolder and more aggressive – now you’ve put them on the defensive and they can kill with clearer conscience. Non-resistance, on the other hand, puts the full weight of the action on their shoulders. They must decide to kill a peaceful human being. They may not be able to go through with it. Of course there is no guarantee that willingness to be a martyr will protect you better than self-defense: many times it may be the opposite. It requires reflection and it’s not an easy call.

If your goal is not self-preservation, but changing the world, the decision is no less difficult. Resistance movements and rebellions have played a major role in history. So has martyrdom. Consider the early Christians who peacefully succumbed to torture and death. Consider the peaceful activists in the Jim Crow South. Arguably, nothing did more to further the spread of their ideas than their refusal to defend themselves from physical force. When you are willing to suffer or die for your beliefs, rather than stoop to the level of physical violence, the world takes notice.

Let’s move away from the high stakes realm of life and death and into the world of words.

If you face an unjust rhetorical attack, how do you respond? Defending your ideas may be perfectly acceptable but not always effective. If you watch professional football you sometimes see a player get in a cheap shot after the whistle. If the other player responds with a cheap shot of his own, it is almost always the responder, not the initiator, who gets a penalty. If there is no response, the penalty may go unnoticed, but often the passivity of the victim provides a contrast that makes the perpetrator’s action stand in high relief. He is revealed for the immature thug that he is.

When someone launches an ad hominem against you, or unfairly attacks your ideas in words, you have a choice. Certainly a well-reasoned defense is in order at times, and it can be very effective and very powerful. But perhaps we undervalue the power of non-resistance and even rhetorical martyrdom. Refusing to respond can make the verbal aggressor look like a fool and undermine their credibility. It can make your ideas stand out all the more, and cause observers to wonder why you seem so unshaken; they may want to know more about your beliefs. It can also bring personal peace.

It’s worth considering martyrdom over self-defense from time to time.

The Worst Protection

You feel safe in your neighborhood, but worry about the small chance of a break-in or act of vandalism. To protect yourself from these risks, you pay a security company to look after your house. It costs a little more than you’d like, but you determine it’s worth it.

They put an unarmed guard in front of your house at night, just to keep an eye out. It seems a bit unnecessary, but you rest easier knowing he might deter would be thieves. The guards start coming earlier and staying longer. It seems silly to have them there before sundown, but you ignore it. Soon, they’ve got someone there almost around the clock. Then they send you a bill with a new higher rate for their services. You suggest going back to night only guards, but they assure you this is necessary to protect you, and also tell you the neighborhood is getting a bit more dangerous. You pay.

The next week, not only do they have a guard around the clock, but he’s armed. Then there’s two or three patrolling at a time. Rates go up again. You’ve been hearing more stories about how dangerous the neighborhood is, so you pay. Before long, they have a constant cadre of armed guards patrolling not just your sidewalk, but the whole neighborhood. They start randomly knocking on your neighbors’ doors and searching their houses for anything they might use against you. They set up permanent stations throughout the area, manned 24/7. Guards constantly patrol and conduct random searches, without permission, and occasionally they cage or kill someone. They assure you; there was reason to believe these neighbors had it in for you. It’s a jungle out there. They raise their rates.

Some of your neighbors object. Some devise ways to protect from being searched or bullied. All become suspicious of you, and a little angry. After all, the guards are invoking your name when they do this. The more the neighbors resist or lash out at the guards, the more the company explains just how unsafe you are unless you purchase the latest upgrade. You do. They deploy more street walkers. They pre-emptively kill and cage more neighbors. It seems a fight breaks out every day. Bands of neighbors form for the sole purpose of combatting you and your security team. Their children grow up afraid of you and they hate you, and your children, for it.

The company says more is needed; threats can come from anywhere. Now guards are groping your guests and your children each day before they enter or exit your house. They search your house on occasion, just to be sure your conspiring neighbors don’t have an inside man. They treat you like a suspect on your own property. You pay the new fee with the only credit card you haven’t yet maxed out.

Every day you wake up scared of your neighbors, suspicious of your guests, leery of your own children, and irritated by the guards who may or may not rummage through your belongings. You juggle money around just to keep the lights on, meanwhile the guards roll around in tanks, thanks to your borrowed money. You remind yourself that they’re here to protect you from an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. It’s worth it. Sure, they could cut some costs, but it’s a struggle to convince them of anything, and it’s a little intimidating to try. Besides, what’s a few dollars overspent compared to the imminent danger you’d face if they scaled back too far?

One day it hits you: you’re not safer. You’re paying a lot of money, not to insure you against unlikely violence, but to stir it up. You’re paying to create enemies, not defend against vandalism. You’re paying to be treated not like a customer, but a criminal in your own home. You’ve been ripped off. You have fewer options when it comes to social circles, since you’ve made a lot of enemies. You can’t travel down certain streets, because there your name has become a byword. You’ve learned to fear your neighbors and you’re not really sure why, or what threat they pose except to the guards that harass them.

You fire the company and begin the long task of putting your life back together.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy in the real world. You can’t fire those that provide supposed security. You have to pay, and you have to obey, or else. Don’t be mistaken: just because it’s done on a grander scale and wrapped in a lot of fuzzy feelings and national myths, doesn’t make it different from the neighborhood story above. States are supposed to provide protection; instead they poke people with sticks and incite them to violence.

The United States has enemies. I do not have enemies. There is no one in a far flung place in the world looking at a map and saying, “Here, on the Atlantic coast where the Cooper and Wando rivers come together. The people who have chosen to live on this bit of land are terrible. Let’s invade them. Let’s kill them.” Every international threat to me is a threat to me because I am associated, whether I like it or not, with the United States government.

Acts of terrorism and war are strategic acts. They are intended to pressure the state into changing its policies, or to make it pay for previous policies. Attackers know that the state ultimately responds to the views of its people and the interests that form around it. They attack civilians because they believe it creates impetus for the state to do what they want. We are the pawns in the game of states. We are at risk because we are seen as leverage with which to manipulate the political class.

The state is often defended as necessary to secure individuals against foreign aggression. Yet foreign aggression has no target if there is no state. The state does not make us safer, it makes us less safe. It kills in our name, with our money. It harasses us in our own country in the name of protecting us. It makes us suspicious of people we’d otherwise never know, or know only through Tweets or peaceful commercial interactions. It makes us hated.

The sooner we can forge an identity separate from the states that claim to protect us, the safer we will be. If the state is a kind of security provider, or insurance against international aggression, it’s the worst form of protection I can imagine. You wouldn’t stand for a company that marauded through the neighborhood in your name; you shouldn’t stand for a nation that does either.

Old, New, Borrowed, Blue

Old

An imaginative and captivating read, Screwtape Proposes a Toast was C.S. Lewis’s follow-up published in the Saturday Evening Post to his popular book, the Screwtape Letters.  Screwtape is a fictitious correspondence between a senior and junior devil about how to damn men’s souls.  In the follow-up, Lewis has poignant insights into the nature of modern society, and in particular the way in which equality and democracy can corrode all that is good and sturdy in humans.

The text is posted here.  You can also read a PDF version of the original magazine publication here.

“Now, this useful phenomenon is in itself by no means new. Under the name of Envy it has been known to humans for thousands of years. But hitherto they always regarded it as the most odious, and also the most comical, of vices. Those who were aware of feeling it felt it with shame; those who were not gave it no quarter in others. The delightful novelty of the present situation is that you can sanction it — make it respectable and even laudable — by the incantatory use of the word democratic.”

New

Jeffrey Tucker absolutely nails it in this piece for The Freeman.  Jeff is one of those guys that gets freedom on a real gut, rubber-meets-the-road level.  He also gets it on an intellectual level.  He can pull from a treasure trove of work done by great thinkers on why liberty trumps central control, and he can also pull from keen insights on every day life and apply it all to present ideas for living free, here and now, and fighting to free the future.  Tucker talks first of the intellectual journey to anarchism, then the practical journey; the part that really transforms your outlook on life.

“[L]et me admit that my anarchism is probably more practical than ideological—which is the reverse of what it is for the most well-known anarchist thinkers in history. I see the orderliness of human volition and action all around me. I find it inspiring. It frees my mind to understand what is truly important in life. I can see reality for what it is. It is not some far-flung ideology that makes me long for a world without the State but rather the practical realities of the human struggle to make something of this world though our own efforts. Only human beings can overcome the great curse of scarcity the world has imposed on us. So far as I can tell, the State is, at best, the great annoyance that slows down the mighty project of building civilization.”

Borrowed

I borrowed this story from a friend’s Facebook feed.   She rightly pointed out that this research has pretty significant implications for the social sciences and might alter the current direction of sociology, psychology, and behavioral economics.  What I find interesting is how common-sensical the findings are.  The fact that this work will shake up these disciplines reveals just how silly and prone to trendiness academia can be.  I’m also willing to wager that, should this and similar work start a new trend in the social sciences towards more context-dependent theories, the pendulum will swing absurdly far and another counter-revolution will happen a few decades later reminding us that, yes, some elements of the human mind are universal.  The paper posits, in short, that institutions matter, a lot.  They shape our worldview and affect everything from how our brain processes spacial relations, to our sense of fairness.

“The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences—particularly in economics and psychology—relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments. At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.”

Blue

This excellent book review by Anthony Gregory is depressing, or “blue”, upon first reading, especially if you’re new to revisionism.  The patriotic myths of war heroes and cunning statesmen are shattered, and with them a sense of American identity.  It takes some time.  You have to stand back and look at the facts and alternative narratives free from nationalistic impulse.  Then you grasp that most history books are little more than propaganda favoring the powerful status quo.  It hurts at first. With time, it is liberating.  This book review is an excellent appetizer for this way of examining the past.  Open your mind and give the revisionist view a try.  Let it sink in before you reject it.  See what happens.  I’m willing to bet you’ll develop lingering suspicions about mainstream histories.  That’s a good thing.

“The Founding Fathers are the first official heroes targeted, appropriate in both chronological terms and in considering the civic mythology of the United States. And so who were the true heroes? According to Russell, it was the rabble. John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Sam Adams, John Jay and the rest of them looked upon the common American people, populating Philadelphia where they were holding their conspiratorial meetings, as “vicious,” “vile” and otherwise unsavory folk. “But what the Founding Fathers called corruption, depravity, viciousness, and vice, many of us would call freedom”

Conquering Time and Space with Facebook

It is obvious how Facebook allows conversations to take place regardless of the distance between participants. Conversational threads between multiple parties in locations spread across the globe happen with more ease and efficiency than any conference call. An element of this new conversational dynamic that is easy to overlook is the way Facebook conquers not just space, but time.

When you have a pint with someone and discuss matters of the day, sports, philosophy, or family, you’ve got the time allotted, and then you can mill it all over and process the implications of the conversation later. On the phone, you’ve got a a few seconds to reply to questions or to pose them. It would be awkward and disruptive to make your interlocutor wait for minutes or hours as you think over her comments before responding. Hanging up and calling back every few hours or days to complete the conversation in fragments is equally cumbersome. In many ways, time, rather than the flow of ideas, is in control of what gets covered. Facebook overcomes this constraint.

Online threads can begin anytime, and participants in the conversation can post immediately or hours, or days, or even weeks later. Everyone is notified, and everyone has the chance to let it sink in, go about the day’s business, and respond only when they have the time and their thoughts are clear. There are myriad conversation flowing at any given time, and you are free to enter and exit at will, around your schedule.

The ability to maintain relationships and social connections on your own schedule is incredibly freeing. It allows you to break your day into modules and specialize in particular activities when you are most capable of doing them well. I often lump all my social interactions for the day around lunchtime by browsing Facebook. I might be lying in bed that night when someone’s post pops into my head. I can post a comment immediately from my bedside smartphone, or wait until the next morning. The conversation’s not going anywhere.

The passive nature of Facebook, like email, is easy to manage and keep from being a disruption. But unlike email, Facebook has an open format where posts are directed at nobody in particular, so you can freely enter or exit the stream. It may seem like a recipe for shallow relationships and flighty social bonds, but I have not found this to be the case. Facebook is not replacing dinner with my family, or a phone call with my brother, or a funny text with a good friend; it is supplementing them. It opens entirely new groups of people to socialize and share ideas with; people who, if only phone or in-person meetings were available, I would realistically never have the ability to get to know. What’s really cool is that, if you so choose, you can form in-person relationships with these people at any time and much of the small talk is already out of the way. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve met fellow travelers at events and been completely unsure whether we’d ever met in the flesh before, because we know each other so well from Facebook.

Your social life is in your own hands like never before. You are no longer bound to friendships of happenstance – who happens to move in next store, or share an office – but can build various overlapping social circles based on your genuine and dynamic interests. Of course you’ll still talk to the neighbor. But if they happen to be crazy or uninteresting, that’s not your only option. You’re free from the constraints of proximity. Neither are your forced to get all your catching up done during those difficult to schedule windows when both parties are free. You’re free from the constraints of time.

This new way to interact might seem like a fun little perk for your personal pleasure, but does it really have transformational power over society? Consider the efficiencies in knowledge capture and transmission and the ease and individual control with which social capital can be built and maintained. The freedom from time and place in the social arena has staggering implications if you ponder and let it sink in.

What the News Could Never Do

I love Facebook.  It’s a great way to connect to people I enjoy communicating with, see new ideas and articles, enjoy social diversions during the day (when you work from home it can replace the water cooler), and of course keep up on memes and videos of cats.  But there is another function of Facebook I didn’t foresee that has become increasingly valuable.  It does something news outlets can’t do – respond to exactly what I’m interested in at the moment and give me stories about it.

A few weeks back I realized it had been some time since I read or watched anything about new advances in science and technology.  I remembered the excitement I got as a kid looking at Popular Mechanics magazine, and wanted to get that thrill again by hearing the coolest stuff now within the realm of possibility.  I could have gone to any number of news outlets and browsed the technology section.  I could have gone to tech specific magazines or websites.  But these don’t always have articles on the most cutting edge stuff, and if I picked the wrong day, I might get a story about a new app instead.  It would require some browsing.  I could use Google, but Google is best when you know what you want to find, and I was looking for something I didn’t know existed.  In short, I needed to be inspired by the creative power of mankind, and I had no where to turn for a quick overview.

I posted an open-ended question on Facebook: What are the coolest things going on in science and technology? Within a few hours I had dozens of amazing articles, video clips, pictures and stories of everything from 3D burrito printers, to graphene smart phones, to particle accelerators, etc. ad nauseam.  Not only that, the responses were from people who knew something about me and could add some humor, flavor, or insight no other outlet could.  There was even some friendly competition over what was truly the best innovation going.  I’ve only read through half of the things posted thus far, but I still go back to the thread from time to time to be further amazed.

News outlets and periodicals can produce great stories.  The problem is, they have no way of knowing when I’m going to be in the mood for the latest trend in herb gardening or the latest adventure sport.  They publish such pieces, but most of the time my interests don’t intersect with their schedule.  Sure, they archive them, but there’s no good way for me to access the info unless I already know exactly what I want to read.  Enter Facebook.  Now it’s like every one of my digital acquaintances work for me.  I can outsource the article reading, categorizing and rating to a few thousand people I find interesting.  They enjoy the chance to share their interests, and I get the benefit of good stories without wading through all the other fluff.  I do the same for them.

I’ve got a lot more to say about Facebook, but I’ll save it for another post.  I am of the opinion that we haven’t fully internalized how radical is the shift in social order wrought by Facebook.  We have yet to appreciate the tremendous impact on every facet of social and commercial life.  The layers are many.

Nothing is Something

Nothing’s more complicated
Than the absence of a dream
Like an end without means,
And without a beginning it seems
Your eyes are running over,
With all that’s left inside
This little, this much,
This hollowness such
A thing to bear, or worse yet you fear,
Nothing at all, no place to fall
To fall from what?
From what you don’t have
Or at least you don’t realize,
And it’s driving you mad
Scooped out it feels,
And biting your heels
But in all that’s real,
It no longer lingers
Its now removed fingers
Lie powerless to touch
What once hurt so much
There’s only one clutch
In which you now reside
A hand so firm, and with sole design
To hold you and mold you
And fulfill what was told you
To create in you by this creativeness
What once felt like emptiness
Emptied out now, of all that was shallow,
Hollowed somehow, of all that was hollow
Yet you fear for tomorrow
For tomorrow may bring
May sting;
May not come
Still in it all, your eye’s filled with awe
Are yet soft as they thaw
To this goodness
This love
Your all

The Things That Make for Peace

(Originally posted here.)

“I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” – Psalm 120:7

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes.” – Luke 19:41-42

“All men desire peace, but very few desire those things that make for peace.” – Thomas a Kempis

I recently heard praise among churchgoers for the movie, “Act of Valor”, a movie about Navy SEAL’s funded in large part by the Navy itself. (And, judging by the previews, essentially a military recruitment film.)  There is even a Bible study that coincides with the movie and is based on the SEAL code of honor.  I was unexpectedly overcome with grief when it was excitedly mentioned during a church service I attended.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the terrible contrast I had just experienced.  The sermon was on this verse from the Beatitudes in the book of Matthew:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

Blessed are the peacemakers.  And yet here Christians had high praise for a code of conduct espoused by an outfit whose entire purpose is to kill ruthlessly and efficiently.  And not merely to kill, but specifically to kill whoever they are commanded to kill by the political powers in the United States without question.  The very first tenet in the SEAL code of conduct is “Loyalty to Country” which means, in practical terms, obeying the orders of your superiors who are supposed to represent “the country”, however ill-defined the term.

Not only does obedience to the first tenet render obedience to any of the rest impossible, it is unfathomable to me how a Christian could find this a suitable basis for a Bible study intended to make men into better Christians.  The first tenet of this code means, quite plainly, to forsake your own conscience, do not question the morality of your orders, do not seek to understand why you are supposed to be at war with whomever you are told to be at war with, do not investigate whether or not your targets are a genuine threat or deserving of death, but simply pull the trigger.

The Evangelical Church in America today looks very little like a body of Christ followers and more like a body of state and military followers.  American flags grace many a pulpit.  Veterans Day celebrations are common.  Prayers for the success of military ventures are not unheard of.  Calls by politicians and pundits for the use of violence in almost any country for almost any reason will almost always gain the unwavering support of the entire Evangelical community.  Anything – including torture, assassinations, and “collateral damage” – can be excused and even praised if it is done “for the country” and under the stars and stripes.

How did this happen?  Can you imagine Jesus, or Peter or John with Kevlar vests and M-16’s kicking in doors, screaming , and “double-tapping” people in the head before yelling, “All clear!”’ and high-fiving each other?  Can you imagine them dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki?  Can you imagine Jesus instructing his followers to study a code of conduct that begins first and foremost with, “Be loyal to the Roman government”?

Not only did Christ and the giants of the Christian faith refuse to aggress against others, no matter how sinful or evil, they even refused to use violence in self-defense and instead chose martyrdom.  When Peter tried to defend Jesus with the sword by cutting off the ear of a soldier, Jesus rebuked him and healed the man’s ear.

Jesus did not instruct the disciples to go to the wilderness and train for a few months so they could plan a stealth nighttime assassination of the guards who crucified Him or any who opposed the Way.  He told them to forgive.  To Baptize.  To turn the other cheek.  To submit even to death for the sake of the gospel, rather than resort to violence.  That is a radical message and they lived it.

And yet the Church finds herself cheering for the military and honoring them without questioning what they are doing, who they are killing, why they are doing it, or if it’s right.  Worship of America and the myth of its righteousness have taken the place of any sense of individual moral responsibility on the part of soldiers or those who support them.

I left the church that morning with an immense weight on my soul.  I wept.  I wept because I knew exactly the sentiment expressed by most of the churchgoers that morning.  I used to share it.  I wept as I remembered my bloodlust after 9/11.  I wanted the United States military to kill people.  I wanted bombs to drop and guns to fire.  I wanted somebody to get it, good and hard.  I wanted death.  I wanted war.  I did not want peace.  I felt no love, only hate.

This impulse is perhaps the most human of all impulses.  It is also the very impulse Christ taught us to overcome and demonstrated how to do so by His own example.  Even when others hate, love.

I wept as I saw in my mind’s eye the blood on the hands of nearly every Christian in this country.  How many self-proclaimed followers of Christ have cheered on “the boys in uniform” during every conflict we’ve ever had, including wars of aggression, just because they’re “our countrymen” fighting for “our side”?

What are “the things that make for peace”?  The belief that right and wrong trump nationality and patriotism.  The belief that killing is only ever permissible as a last resort and in self-defense.  An understanding that Congressional or Presidential approval of an action does not make it moral.  That obeying orders is not a virtue unless the orders are virtuous, in which case they should be obeyed because they are right, not because they are orders.  That voluntarily agreeing to kill whomever you are told to kill is not honorable.  That love is better than vengeance.

Before you support any military action, conduct a brief mental experiment: imagine not the US Military, but you as an individual embarking on the mission in question.  In the end it is only individuals who can act and bear moral responsibility for their actions.  Imagine standing before God and saying, “I was only following orders”.

How many churches cheered for war against Iraq?  Yet can you imagine a pastor standing before his church and saying, “For the next six months we are all going to train in explosives and guns, and we are taking a church trip to Iraq to kill bad people and make the world a safer place.”  Who would support it?  In moral terms, it is no different to support taking money from taxpayers to pay soldiers to do the same.  In fact, the latter is in some ways more nefarious and less honest.

Most would argue that there is a difference between unjust violence and just violence – indeed there is.  Some argue there is a difference between just war and unjust war – perhaps there is.  But never in my years of observing church support for state military action have I witnessed a single discussion of whether the action was just or right.  There have been a few discussions of whether it was “Constitutional”, but never whether it was moral.  The morality of war is assumed by the mere fact that the war is waged by the United States Government.

Until the Church in America stops blindly supporting violence done in the name of patriotism, our hands are bloody and our witness is tainted.  We say we are for peace, but we want war.  We say we pray to the Prince of Peace, but we ask him to bless the violence committed by soldiers.  We say “the law is written on our hearts” yet we ignore our hearts and only follow the laws of governments and call what they call right “good”, and what they call wrong “bad”.

In our ignorance, we support violence.  We can cry out, “Father forgive us, for we know not what we do.”  But after our eyes are opened and we begin to examine the morality of acts of violence, we will be held accountable for what we know.  I pray we will be willing to oppose violence, even when doing so makes us “unpatriotic” or “un-American”; even when doing so may lead to our own persecution.

“He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God himself” — C. S. Lewis.