The Victoria LBC is currently reading ‘A Mencken Chresomathy‘, a title we were very excited to select. Mencken is frequently quoted by libertarian scholars, particularly concerning his contempt for democracy, government, and politicians, and I had come to see him as dependably libertarian. Imagine my horror to read this –
“Few professional criminals are able to withstand a really brisk third degree. They may hold out long enough to be somewhat severely mauled, but by the time the ceiling begins to show bloodstains and their bones begin to crack they are eager to betray their friends and get to hospital. Many a time such a session in camera has yielded enough evidence to fill the death-house. Thus, while the third degree is clearly illegal, it is justified by the national pragmatism, for it undoubtedly works.”
This quote can be found about 1/5 the way into the book, and is so at odds with everything that comes before or goes after that I can scarcely believe it comes from the same man. I suppose I’m all the better for having seen it, though. The shock alone reminds me of the foolishness of hero-worship, against which I aim to be more vigilant.
Matt Damon’s new film “Promised Land” has drawn some criticism thanks to a conservative think-tank. The Heritage Foundation has raised concerns about the movie’s financing –
“A new film starring Matt Damon presents American oil and natural gas producers as money-grubbing villains purportedly poisoning rural American towns. It is therefore of particular note that it is financed in part by the royal family of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates”….”While left-leaning Hollywood often targets supposed environmental evildoers, Promised Landwas also produced “in association with” Image Media Abu Dhabi, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media, according to the preview’s list of credits. A spokesperson with DDA Public Relations, which runs PR for Participant Media, the company that developed the film fund backingPromised Land, confirmed that AD Media is a financier. The company is wholly owned by the government of the UAE.”
Like everyone else, I have my biases. Even so, although I may approach material with a presumption that it is wrong (or right) depending on its source, I judge that material on the strength of its arguments. To dismiss material because of its source is, I think, a form of intellectual bigotry, and unsuited to any serious scholar. And I don’t think I ever concern myself with the motives of the material provider, which is largely irrelevant. Now, there are obviously things wrong with “Promised Land” (chiefly, that it stinks), but I think Heartland is kicking up more of a fuss than this merits.
Henry Hazlitt’s novel Time Will Run Back explores the subjects of capitalism and free society from first principles, by looking at them from the naive perspective of a world in which they are unknown concepts.
The novel is set about 100 years in the future, in a world in which the Soviets won the cold war. The entire world is run as a communist dictatorship with a centrally planned economy. Through a series of chance events, a young man named Peter comes to lead the nation. Peter, unlike everyone else in the society, has been raised without being indoctrinated into the communist ideology, and thus is able to approach the problems he faces as leader without any preconceptions.
The novel describes how Peter tries various methods of organizing the production and distribution of goods in society. In trying to solve his immediate problems, he keeps running into new problems as unintended consequences of his different economic interventions. These problems include both calculation problems, where the central planners are unable to obtain the information necessary to properly allocate resources, and motivation problems where the workers have no incentive to be productive. Through a series of trial and error steps, Peter comes to discover that a system of private property ownership with free exchange is the only way to properly organize an economy.
Although the book does an excellent job in its treatment of economic principles, it overreaches a bit when Peter goes on to sort out the political setup of the country. He basically ends up re-creating a democratic republic similar to the United States, but the reasoning for for this setup is not convincing. It seems contrived, and influenced by the author’s preconceptions, in contrast to the parts dealing with economic reform, in which the reasoning was logical, and various pitfalls with non-free market arrangements were well explained.
Overall, this book is well worth reading. The premise of a person naively trying to solve economic problems is an excellent thought experiment to explain the pitfalls of various forms of central economic planning. The novel was apparently inspired by Hazlitt’s reading of Socialism by Ludwig von Mises, and it does a good job of outlining the socialist calculation problem in a fun and accessible manner.
Movie reviewers give the new ‘Atlas Shrugged’ movie 6%, while your friends and neighbours give it 81%. Well, it’s not like we haven’t seen this kind of disconnect before. But let’s not be hasty. Perhaps movie reviewers aren’t mostly big-government, anti-freedom types. It could just be that the works of Ayn Rand translate into works that simply don’t appeal to more refined, discriminating cinephiles. It’s entirely possible that a film could be made in which regular, everyday people successfully struggle against powerful government institutions and special interests, and critics will find that film just as praise-worthy as do the masses.
“The seasteader-in-chief is headed ashore. Patri Friedman (that’s Milton Friedman’s grandson to you), who stepped down as the chief executive of the Peter Thiel-backed Seasteading Institute in August, has resurfaced as the CEO of a new for-profit enterprise named Future Cities Development Inc., which aims to create new cities from scratch (on land this time) governed by “cutting-edge legal systems.” The startup may have found its first taker in Honduras, whose government amended its constitution in January to permit the creation of special autonomous zones exempt from local and federal laws. Future Cities has signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding to build a city in one such zone starting next year.”
“Citing laissez-faire entrepots such as Hong Kong and Singapore as examples, the company’s founders believe that strong property rights and business-friendly regulation are key to creating jobs, stimulating investment, and lifting millions out of poverty, a la China’s special economic zones. “
This won’t just be an economically free city… since residency in the new cities will be voluntary, no one will be subject to regulations on behaviour to which they have not previously agreed. Competition between the three cities for good workers will help insure such regulation is not overly restrictive.
Having a libertarian personality at the forefront of one of these projects is an exciting and promising development. Stay tuned for further development on what continues to look like a Very Big Deal.
Having completed our last book (“The Market For Liberty“), but not quite ready to start our next (“For Your Own Good“), the Victoria Libertarian Book Club has taken a slight detour into a draft by David Friedman (“Legal Systems Very Different From Our Own“). Last night we discussed the chapters on Amish law, and on Gypsy law. They are both very brief reads, and I had only one quote from each that grabbed my attention. I’ll share the Gypsy quote tomorrow, but for now, here is the quote from the chapter on the Amish –
“Twice a year, all members of the congregation gather to take communion. Two weeks before, each is asked “whether he is in agreement with the Ordnung, whether he is at peace with the brotherhood, and whether anything ‘stands in the way’ of his entering into the communion service.” Communion does not take place until all members agree.”
What Friedman is talking about here is an example of a social contract to which the participants explicitly consent. Perhaps because libertarians have to spend so much time defending against arguments that there exists a social contract to which we all implicitly consent, the idea of of a voluntary social contract often goes unconsidered. I found the quote striking because the existence of such agreements only recently came to my attention. You can hear Cato Institute Senior Fellow Tom G. Palmer describe them, starting around the 11:00 mark of this video –
I have previously cited Tom Naughton and his terrific documentary “Fathead”, in which he not only provides evidence that debunks the claims of the movie “Supersize Me“, but also walks the walk by putting himself on a high-fat.low-carb regimen (to good effect). The film is done with intelligence and humour, and is now available for you to watch, free, anytime you like –
It seems like only yesterday that I was urging all of you to make a habit of listening to CBC’s The Invisible Hand. Well, it wasn’t yesterday, it was two months ago, and I am abashed to confess that I have not listened to a single episode since. Something jogged my memory recently, and I visited the site today to find to my horror that I have missed eight episodes. I can only imagine what you all must think of me…
In an effort to restore your faith, I pledge to listen to one episode each day, until I am all caught up. If you had intended to follow the program, but failed to follow through, I hope you will join me in my campaign. If you care to follow my progress, visit our Facebook page , where you can confirm I have met my daily goal OR berate me for my pathetic failure.
Episode 2: Gold Vs. Chickens – When the economy fails, which of these commodities will best avail you? Heck, you’re libertarian, you already know the answer! Or do you…
I used to enjoy science fiction a great deal, but it’s difficult to become libertarian without learning a fair bit about economics, and once you learn a fair bit about economics, most science fiction becomes too implausible to enjoy (Star Trek, I’m looking at you). However, there is some great libertarian sci-fi, and if you like that sort of thing, you will enjoy Eric Frank Russell’s “And Then There Were None”. Four hundred years after faster-than-light drive has enabled Earthlings to populate the galaxy, a spaceship sets out to visit some of the populated planets with en eye towards unifying the galaxy under a new empire. Attempts to subjugate the population of the final planet prove challenging in ways they could hardly have anticipated. Here’s a taste –
“Edging ponderously around on his stool, Jeff reached to the wall, removed a small, shiny plaque from its hook and passed it across the counter.
‘You may keep it,’ he said. ‘And much good may it do you.’
Gleed examined it, turning it over and over between his fingers. It was nothing more than an oblong strip of substance resembling ivory. One side was polished and bare. The other bore three letters deeply engraved in bold style:
Glancing up at Baines, his features puzzled, he said, ‘You call this a weapon?’
‘Then I don’t get it.’ He passed the plaque to Harrison. ‘Do you?’
‘No.’ Harrison examined it with care. ‘What does this F.—I.W. mean?’
‘Initial-slang,’ informed Baines. ‘Made correct by common usage. It has become a worldwide motto. You’ll see it all over the place if you haven’t noticed it already.’
‘I have seen it here and there but attached no importance to it and thought nothing more about it. I remember now that it was inscribed in several places including Seth’s and the fire depot.’
‘It was on the sides of that bus we couldn’t empty,’ put in Gleed. ‘It didn’t mean anything to me.’
It means plenty,’ said Jeff, ‘Freedom-I won’t!’
‘That kills me,’ Gleed responded. ‘I’m stone dead already. I’ve dropped in my tracks.’ He watched Harrison thoughtfully pocketing the plaque. ‘A piece of abracadabra. What a weapon!’
‘Ignorance is bliss,’ asserted Baines, strangely sure of himself. ‘Especially when you don’t know that what you’re playing with is the safety catch of something that goes bang.’
‘All right ’challenged Gleed, taking him up on that. ‘Tell us how it works.’
‘I won’t.’ Baines’ grin reappeared. He seemed to be highly satisfied about something.
‘That’s a fat lot of help.’ Gleed felt let down, especially over that momentary hoped-for reward. ‘You brag and boast about a one-way weapon, toss across a slip of stuff with three letters on it and then go dumb. Any folly will do for braggarts and any braggart can talk through the seat of his pants. How about backing up your talk?’
‘I won’t,’ repeated Baines, his grin broader than ever. He gave the onlooking Harrison a fat, significant wink.
It made something spark vividly within Harrison’s mind. His jaw dropped, he dragged the plaque from his pocket and stared at it as if seeing it for the first time.
‘Give it me back,’ requested Baines, watching him.
Replacing it in his pocket, Harrison said very firmly. ‘I won’t.’
Baines chuckled.’ some people catch on quicker than others.’
Resenting that, Gleed held his hand out to Harrison. ‘Let me have another look at that thing.’
‘I won’t,’ said Harrison, meeting him eye to eye.
‘Hey, don’t start being awkard with me. That’s not the way—’ Gleed’s protesting voice petered out. He stood there a moment, his optics slightly glassy, while his brain performed several loops. Then in hushed tones he said, ‘Good grief!’
‘Precisely,’ approved Baines. ‘Grief and plenty of it.’ “
I recently attended the Capitalism and Morality conference in Vancouver on 28 July, organized by Jayant Bhandari. Overall this was an excellent event, with a good crowd of about 150 attendees, and a great selection of speakers. The speakers were very high quality, and represented a nice spectrum of backgrounds, including the academic Walter Block, popular philosopher Stefan Molyneux, and people from the world of investment like Doug Casey, and Rick Rule. The crowd was also quite diverse with a wide range of ages, and walks of life represented.
It was very nice to be in a crowd of like-minded people, and having side discussions with other attendees was a great opportunity to share ideas and make contact with other libertarians. Although the speakers all share a similar philosophy, especially compared to the rest of society, it was amusing to see that there were some differences of opinion expressed, and some pointed questions among them. The main issue for this was whether supporting Ron Paul was productive, or whether politics should be avoided, with Walter Block staunchly defending Ron Paul against all criticism.
The focus of the seminar, however, was on philosophy and ideas, not politics. There were interesting and new ideas presented, even for someone very familiar with libertarian topics. Some of the ideas that struck me as interesting from the various speakers are as follows:
Stefan Molyneux: Mr Molyneux was the first and keynote speaker. His two talks centered around his theory of Universally Preferable Behaviour, which is his theory to establish a rational basis for ethics. He made an interesting point about universality for ethical rules, which can help explain many of the problems with ethics in society today. If you look at ethics from the point of view of someone who wants to take advantage of others, there can be great advantage to promoting “universal” ethical rules for others, but carving out exceptions for yourself. For example, for a government that wants to extract wealth from society, it is best to promote a general prohibition of theft as an ethical norm, but then carve out an exception for the state and call it “taxation”.
Frank Holmes: Mr Holmes’ talk consisted of practical advice for people to help them achieve success. His overall them was to be “self aware” rather then “self absorbed”, and many specific bits of advice such as take initiative and be responsive, recognize achievement, smile and connect with people, be curious, and compliment and encourage often. He also talked about the need to develop both tacit and explicit knowledge.
Rick Rule: Mr Rule, a hugely successful investor in the resource sector, talked about how libertarians can and should use their knowledge to properly assess risks in investing, or any other field. He made the point that we are authors of our own risk, we are responsible for the risks we take on, and thus the biggest risks arise from our own mind. Many libertarians who should have a good understanding of the state still fall into the trap of misjudging political risks based on emotion. For example, third world countries are often perceived as riskier than developed countries, but in reality the most efficient states can be the worst for the investor. His personal worst investing loss from state interference took place in California. Political risks going forward may actually be lower in places that have undergone recent nationalizations, such as Argentina, although that is not the general impression among most investors. He also talked about how government monopoly on regulation ensures failure, while at the same time promoting a false sense of security. An unregulated market with many competing and skeptical people assessing risk would actually be far less risky than the current situation where the government monopolizes regulation, resulting in repeated failures such as Bernie Madoff, and Enron.
Doug Casey: Mr Casey’s talk mostly discussed the concepts of evil and stupidity. He contends that collectivism and statism are not really intellectual problems, but rather are psychological or spiritual problems. He was exploring the idea of whether our rulers are knaves, or merely fools. There is a common expression that power corrupts, but power also attracts corrupt people, and Mr Casey contends that many of the people attracted to government power have sociopathic tendencies. He also discussed the concept of “phyles” as a way that society could be organized in the future, and as a strategy to achieve a free society. This is a system of organization in which like-minded people form voluntary associations not necessarily bound by geography, culture, or language, but on whatever is important to them, such as a common philosophical outlook. This concept is based on Neal Stephenson’s novelThe Diamond Age, and Doug Casey recommended that people read the book, a recommendation with which I heartily agree. Mr Casey’s talk was enjoyable for the ideas he presented, but also for his iconoclastic and spirited style, which was very refreshing.
Walter Block: The final speaker was Dr Block, noted Austrian economist, and professor of economics at Loyola University. His talk revolved around the concept of sociobiology, and the problem that human evolution has not prepared us to intuitively appreciate economic reasoning, and, to the contrary, predisposes many people to collectivist ideas. He also discussed some controversial libertarian topics, such as abortion, and whether a libertarian could morally justify being a concentration camp guard. He also talked of his support for Ron Paul as a great promoter of libertarian ideas, and he criticized libertarians who are opposed to Ron Paul.
Overall the event was very worthwhile, well worth the time and effort to attend. It provided me with many interesting ideas, and the opportunity to meet and connect with a good group of libertarians. For anyone who has the chance to attend next year, I would highly recommend that you make the effort to do so.