Episode 57: Thaddeus Russell on the Launch of Renegade University

Thaddeus Russell comes back to the show to talk about his upcoming project called Renegade University.  RU will be a combination of online lectures, readings and interactive seminars based on his book A Renegade History of the United States and an attitude of individualism and free inquiry.

We also talked about where Thaddeus sees renegades today and how culture changes over time so that black market activities become legal and accepted. We cover his upcoming book that deals with US interventionism abroad and the blowback that ensued, as well as the vastness of pop culture influence, along with what he thinks is wrong with modern universities and current protests over racism and diversity.

Check out more about Thaddeus and the Renegade University at thaddeusrussell.com

This episode sponsored by Praxis and the Foundation for Economic Education.

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Why Do We Have to Pick Sides?

Not long ago I was discussing the famous Sons of Liberty who sparked the events leading to the American Revolution.  We grow up hearing of their exploits as heroic, bold, and founded on the highest principles.  Yet there is an alternative account too.  If their deeds are described devoid of historical context they have all the attributes we would associate with terrorists.  It was violent, destructive, thuggish, and as fueled by hate as principle.

The traditional historian will tend to whitewash these historical figures and focus only on the ultimate outcome, an independent nation, and assume that because it exists it is good, and therefore whatever led to it was also good.  The radical revisionist will brand them as evil and by extension whatever their deeds may have helped to accomplish must be bad and the right thing would have been no revolution at all.

Something about the history of whatever political jurisdiction we grow up in makes us incredibly dumb when it comes to analyzing actions and individuals.  If your dysfunctional neighbors had a nasty divorce that you knew about only through the grapevine, would you immediately proclaim one side just and the other unjust?  You’d be smart enough and staid enough to stay out of it and understand that both sides are equally likely to be in the right, if there even is a right at all.  Yet people few centuries ago with whom we share little in common got into complex conflicts and we feel the need to come down hard for or against one side or the other.

Free yourself from the patriotic reading of history which demands good guys and bad guys.  You don’t need to pick sides.  You can admire or be repulsed by all sides in historical epochs, or simply admit ignorance and have no feelings whatsoever.  The need to find the “right” side always results in fact-bending and uncomfortable association.  It makes you dumber and less happy, as there is always some alternative version you feel the need to respond to or stamp out.

History is not a football game where your team either wins or loses based on what the textbooks say.  It’s a bunch of messy stuff that already happened, and who was more or less wrong or right has no bearing on your life today unless you let it.  Don’t shackle yourself to the deeds of dead strangers.  If you want to understand history, move beyond good and evil.

What History Really Is

The other day one of the Praxis participants posted this to Facebook:

“As a former history major in college and a college drop-out, I never thought I could love history even more then I did back in school. But as I go through the history module for Praxis, I feel like I’ve been cheated my whole life through school. Instead of learning about the greatness of government and its political figures we get to learn about individuals that have actually changed society for the better through markets and with an entrepreneurial spirit.

He found the secret.  Each module contains a core theme not directly expressed but conveyed through the broader arc of all the content.  The secret of the history module is to dispel the myth of Great Men.

Most history in textbooks and schools tells very little about how we got here.  How did humanity overcome environmental and social challenges to move from stone tablets to touchscreen tablets?  How did all the order we see around us evolve?  How did languages form, and great stories and myths, and breakthrough inventions?  How can the great fact of exponential human progress after the Industrial Revolution be explained?

Most histories are really only the history of those who have ordered and overseen the deaths of masses of people.  Military and political figureheads who pass laws and give speeches and take credit for all the good things that happen during their reign.  Even non-political figures like artists or entrepreneurs get portrayed as lone geniuses who never collaborated with others or engaged in a rigorous, messy, back-and-forth process in broader society and market.

History is now.  We are making it.  So has everyone before.  We want to open up the mind to the possibility that the great advances in society aren’t from Great Men or Lone Geniuses with top-down plans, but from the dynamic creative process of market and social exchange.  Whether hearing Stephen Davies discuss lesser known but more important dates in history, reading Anderson and Hill on how complex disputes were settled in a decentralized way in the American West, listening to Paul Cantor on Shakespeare and Dickens and the X-Files taking feedback from their audiences and incorporating it into their work, or watching Kirby Ferguson on how everything is a remix, the secret is there.  History is about a complex interplay of people and processes.  The pomp and parades and statues are easily seen, but they don’t tell of the fundamental force in society; creative individuals interacting and exchanging with one another.

Five Great Economics Books

Originally posted here.

1. That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen, Frederic Bastiat

This essay is almost single-handedly responsible for sparking my interest in economics. If you don’t have any economic understanding, this is sure to give you several “lightbulb” moments. Though two centuries old, it is still the best introduction to the economic way of thinking I know of. The book addresses common economic myths—like the idea that government programs can boost the economy—with clarity and wit. Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson is essentially a modern revision of Bastiat, and it is also excellent, but I still find Bastiat’s style and frequent sarcasm unbeatable. Start with this book, and if you’re not intrigued by what you learn, you can have your money back.

2. Beyond Politics, Randy T. Simmons

This is a fine introduction to the field of Public Choice Economics. Just when you thought you had come to the end of epiphanies after reading Bastiat, you discover Public Choice and the lightbulb goes on hyperdrive as you see economic thinking applied to the political process. This book is a must for anyone who thinks democracy is the cure for the world’s ills, or that electing better politicians is the key to securing liberty. In fact, I would be so bold to say that if you engage in any type of efforts to reform policy without a knowledge of Public Choice, you are acting irresponsibly and doing more harm than good. Beyond Politics will open your eyes and clear your head.

3. Economics for Real People, Gene Callahan

This is an incredible book. It’s not only fun to read and at times humorous, but it’s immense scope is dumbfounding given its reasonable length. If you want to understand economics from the very first principles and see how things like the law of demand are derived, this is your book. It is an introduction to the Austrian School of economics, so you will not have math and charts and graphs, but logic as your guide. If you have no mainstream economic knowledge, start with this book before you take a class and become polluted by make-believe models and regressions. If you already have mainstream economic knowledge, read Economics for Real People and be refreshed!

4. The Fatal Conceit, F.A. Hayek

Hayek is not always easy to read, but this is his best book in terms of readability, and I think his most profound in terms of possible applications. Hayek’s most interesting work focuses on the role of information in the economy, and how amazing markets are at giving us information to act on. The Fatal Conceit is the opposite side of that coin; how deluded central planners are to presume to have enough information to make good decisions absent the market process. This book is short, but after you read it you will want to apply these Hayekian insights elsewhere. I suggest reading some Thomas Sowell to follow the rabbit trail.

5. Human Action, Ludwig von Mises

I know, I know, this book is really big. Some people complain Mises is hard to read. I could not disagree more. His writing is very structured, his arguments very logical and clear, and his conclusions groundbreaking. Human Action is one of those very few books that every thinking person should read. This is the more sophisticated version of Economics For Real People (but don’t worry, real people can read this too!). Mises takes aim first at the methodology of economics as a discipline, then builds a comprehensive theory of economics from the ground up, and uses it to expose all manner of fallacies in socialist and mainstream economic thought. Before you either embrace or dismiss the Austrian School of economics, you have to read Human Action. After you read it, you will start to see everything else through a Misesian lens, and you will be the better for it. This book changed my life!

I decided to stop at five books, but I am going to add a little caveat to sneak in a few more.  The granddaddy of the discipline, and still probably the single most insightful book that launched political economy as we know it is Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.  When paired with his Theory of Moral Sentiments, you get the moral backdrop.  Everyone talks about Smith, but really reading and rereading him firsthand is unbeatable, even if challenging at times.

For a more modern intro to basic economic thinking than Bastiat or Hazlitt, Stephen Landsburg’s Armchair Economist is a great book.  It’s got a lot of non-intuitive insight, but on a more solid foundation than some of the Freakonomics style stuff.  If you have an interest in economic history or you are grappling with questions about economic booms and busts and the growth of government, Crisis and Leviathan by Robert Higgs is your book.

Finally, some readers may have noticed that my economic reading list includes nothing of what people call economics today. Between the five books above I don’t believe there is a single chart or graph. There is no talk of determining someone’s utility function, no calculus, and none of the stuff that most people associate with the discipline. That is because I think most of that stuff is bogus and has nothing to do with understanding how the economy works. If you are unsatisfied with my dismissal of what most economics courses teach, and in particular if you are curious to learn about macro economics, I highly recommend Micro Foundations and Macro Economics by Steven Horwitz. Read it after you have read Economics for Real People and preferably also Human Action, and it will help you relate those principles to the things your professors talk about.

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”

Beyond Good & Evil

Since our move to South Carolina I’ve had a renewed interest in American history and, in particular, the history of the South and the institution of slavery. I’m a Yankee invader, so my notions of the South were pretty simplistic. I saw monuments and read snippets that were incongruent with the narrative I grew up with regarding the Civil War, slavery, and the South in general. It became clear how uncomfortably complex the whole mess was.

A friend recommended Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese. What an excellent book! The author filters some things through a lens of Marxian class theory, which is not really my thing, but the book is jam-packed with counter-intuitive insight and uses tons primary sources in a very enlightening way, not just a bombardment of long quotations or endless footnotes which historians sometimes do. The book is a great reminder of how much more complex the world is than we try to make it in retrospect. American slavery was not a simple story of good people and evil people. It was not a simple case of economic exploitation. It was an elaborate and highly nuanced institution with unlikely defenders and enemies. It was an evil institution, but the people within it were not necessarily evil or good.

I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that institutions can be good or evil even if the people within those institutions are not. I think it’s important to remember this. It doesn’t let us off the hook with sweeping declarations of good and evil. It forces us to look at the world as it is, and understand that people respond to incentives, and that good people can support bad institutions because of false beliefs. It doesn’t mean they aren’t accountable for their beliefs, but they mightn’t be knowingly engaging in evil.

Genovese’s book revealed that some slave owners abhorred the institution. Why didn’t they simply free their slaves? Sometimes state law prohibited or made very difficult the freeing of slaves. Some owners believed that, once freed, the slaves would risk re-enslavement by others, a much crueler life in the free but still racist North, or great hardship in a world for which they were not equipped. Whether this was true, there was some reason for slave owners to have such fears. Some freed slaves did suffer these fates. One doesn’t have to hate slavery any less or agree with the logic of these conflicted slave owners to allow the possibility that they needn’t have been pure evil. One former slave owner wrote how wrong he had been to assume that the slaves needed him and that he needed the slaves. He described how poorly most plantations were doing financially, and how the end of slavery actually improved them economically. He talked about how well the former slaves got on away from the plantation. Both of these outcomes surprised him. His worldview was so entrenched that he failed to see how the institution was harming not only the slaves but his own economic well-being.

The more difficult fact is how many slaves claimed to not want freedom, and how many chose not to take it when given the chance. One could make the material case that some slaves might have had better lives on a plantation than the other options available at the time, and that is certainly worth considering, but it strikes me that there’s something deeper at play here. There is a belief in one’s own helplessness and a fear of the unknown common to all people who have long been oppressed. When the Soviet Union fell there were stories of people who did not know what to do and longed for the security of the previous tyranny. Abused spouses sometimes exhibit similar behavior. Fear of the unknown dangers of freedom does not make the captives bad people in any of these cases. It reveals the complex nature of such institutions and reminds us that long-run oppression of such magnitude requires far more than physical force: it requires some level of belief on the part of oppressors, oppressed, and third parties that the institution is either moral, necessary, or at least inevitable.

We do ourselves a disservice if we boil everything down to good vs. evil and explain every tyranny as the result of raw physical power. People are complicated creatures who seek the most gain at the least expense and who accept or contrive all manner of beliefs to justify their choices. Or maybe the beliefs come first and determine the choices. Either way, in the long run ideas shape the institutions we live under. History and our own times are better understood when we treat people like rational actors whose choices are shaped by their beliefs rather than evil egomaniacs or saintly altruists.

There is a lot to learn from the experience of American slavery. It was a unique institution, but not so unique that it doesn’t have modern lessons and parallels. Many people failed to see beyond slavery. What evils do we fail to see beyond or imagine the world without? Robert Higgs provides some provocative food for thought here.

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