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.

Published in Libertarian Papers: Milton’s Areopagitica and Economic Freedom

My paper on John Milton’s Areopagitica was just published in Libertarian Papers: An Online Journal for Libertarian Scholarship.

Abstract: This article draws general economic arguments against central planning, state licensure and regulation from Milton’s Areopagitica, a 17th Century pamphlet on free-speech. Though Milton’s work was written primarily as a defense for moral man and a warning against religious encroachment by government it provides some of the best and most foundational general arguments, both moral and practical, against government intervention in any field. Milton’s accessible and persuasive style and his ability to combine practical and moral arguments made his work a monumental case against censorship. However, the work has more to offer than a defense of free-speech. Libertarian economists can find in Milton many compelling arguments against central planning, licensure and regulation which have been and should continue to be reiterated.

Check it out.

The Problem of Paradigms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elections Don’t Matter

This was written for the Shotgun Blog during election season.

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

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

None of them.

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

Ideas, not people, run the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attack of the Moral Busybodies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greed.  Just pure greed.

Aristotle on Mixed Economies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capitalism is just. Socialism is unjust. There is no “messy middle.”

Christianity and Freedom

Is there a dichotomy between law and love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palm Sunday and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Don’t Follow the News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pursuit

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

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

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

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

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

“Tad! Tad! Shep!”

“C’mon boys, c’mon…”

“Good hunting dogs indeed!”

A Pure Duality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“Now, your choice?”

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

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

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

“What choice?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Precisely.”

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

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

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

“Surely there is another way!”

“There is no other way!”

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

“But I tell you, there is not!”

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

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

“Granted!”

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

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

Vice and Virtue

I was talking with a friend recently who said that he didn’t beleive the government should legislate on “purely moral” issues, such as gay marriage.

He also said he thought the government needs to make sure to have social programs for the poor, and programs to create greater “equality”.

I had to break it to him – prohibiting vice and forcing virtue are both “purely moral” uses of legislation. Not to mention, using government to try to achieve “equality” and alleviation of poverty doesn’t work.

Great article on vice, virtue and morality in law here – http://libertyunbound.com/archive/2003_04/legate-christ.html

Monster and the Fed

A blog post originally written for the Prometheus Institute.

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There’s a reason the earliest economists likened the economy to a human body

I’m a huge fan of Monster energy drinks.  The things are dangerous.  I have to severely limit myself.  I only consume one if I’m in desperate need of a wake-up and I know I can handle the crash that inevitably follows.

Energy drinks are basically a way of fooling your body.  When the human body needs something, it sends all kinds of signals to let you know.  When you need sleep, you feel tired.  It tells you when you need food.   You feel sick when you’ve not eaten the right nutritional mix.  Health problems kick in when exercise is lacking.  Headaches can mean lack of sleep, water, nutrition, too much stress, bad posture, etc.  These signals can be a pain in the butt – but they perform a vital function.  Ignore them at your own peril.

Your body is begging you to sleep; so you slam a Monster to make you feel like you have energy and shut down the bodily signals screaming for repose.  This may give you a temporary productive burst, but there is no long-run net benefit.  The burst is followed by a crash of equal (sometimes greater) magnitude on the opposite end.  Worse still, the greenish liquid you’re putting in via Monster has other deleterious health effects (sugar and acid which rot your teeth to name just one) that will be especially pronounced if you frequently imbibe.  So while your body is tricked into telling you that you feel great for a few hours, inside bad things are happening, and they’ll be felt in short order.

If you begin to rely on high doses of caffeine and ginseng, you find the dosage must be continually increased, which makes the crashes greater.  To avoid the crashes, even more must be taken; but this only prolongs the inevitable and causes more negative health effects.  It can get to a point where the Monster fails to give you a boost at all.  (If you’ve gotten this far, I suggest stopping vs. moving on to anything stronger).

Monetary inflation is a lot like a Monster drink, and the Fed is a lot like an addict.

The current housing “crisis” was created in part by the Fed injecting constant doses of caffeine-like dollar bills into the economy, tricking the market into thinking it had more capital than it did, and mixing up a system as vital to economics as your nerves are to your body – prices, profits and interest rates.

The problem with mortgages was created largely by the Fed increasing the money supply, causing rates to be artificially low like your body is artificially energized via Monster.  Meanwhile, the screwed up rates diverted capital and production away from its truly best use towards uses that looked deceptively profitable – i.e. the purchase of crappy mortgages banked on exaggerated equity rates.  The natural market signals were fuzzied by an injection of valueless dollars, and some made decisions based on those false signals.

As with Monster, a crash has to come.

I would say that the Fed should be as careful with inflation as I am with Monster, but that wouldn’t be a fair comparison.  They need to be far more careful than that.  When I drink Monster, I choose to do so and take the consequences myself.  When the Fed inflates they are force feeding the monetary Monster to us and making us pay for the fallout.  That’s not just economic stupidity, it’s moral transgression.

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