Playing Chess with the Market

I just talked to an entrepreneur friend of mine and he had a great phrase for what building a company is like.

Playing chess with the market.

I love this because building a business isn’t so much about right and wrong, luck or skill. The outcome is determined by a series of moves made in response to another player whose mind you can never read. There are causal chains, but they’re all theoretical. They assume certain actions by the other player that may or may not happen. In fact, it’s like a never ending series of chess matches against a rotating cast of random opponents, where moves that worked the first five times stop working the next, and patterns you learned change.

This framing reveals how hard it is and makes the challenge exciting. It also depersonalizes it a bit. Of course you won’t get every move right or win every game. But you try to learn each time. Treating it like a game is a huge cognitive relief.

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The Benefits of My Evangelical Upbringing

I grew up in a pretty conservative Midwestern protestant situation. I was homeschooled and church was a big part of our social life. There are plenty of things to mock and joke about in this milieu (and I do!) but there are some under-appreciated benefits.

There are benefits to not getting into sex, drugs, and partying as a young person, but that’s not what I’ve appreciated most. As time has passed, I’ve seen other benefits I didn’t think about at the time. I took them for granted and assumed they were omnipresent.

Those benefits are philosophical. Epistemological, not aesthetic.

While not ubiquitous in Christian upbringings, the particular niche of Evangelical Protestantism I came up in was very focused on intensive Bible study, theology, and examining questions of meaning, free will, good and evil. There was an expectation that you should be able to logically prove every belief, examine arguments against it, and wrestle until you had coherent, non-contradictory ideas. Discussing claims made in sermons and questioning their accuracy, alignment with scripture, or logical consistency was normal.

There was utmost respect for reason and analytic philosophy. Difficult scriptures were studied in depth, arguments on all sides examined, original Greek and Hebrew checked, historical context learned, and commentaries consulted.

I always enjoyed this. I liked studying the Bible and various theologians. I loved their debates and disagreements. I was fascinated by questions of fate vs. free will.

There was a sense in which we Christians always felt the need to, “Be ready always to give an answer for the hope that you have”. You didn’t just believe stuff, it was incumbent on you to really examine it and understand it, and be able to explain it even to antagonists. I remember diving into apologetics and preparing to be attacked from all sides by classmates and professors when I took college philosophy classes.

I was disappointed.

Everyone in the class was an atheist (this was the very early 2000’s, before the resurgence of spiritual interest common today), but reflexively so. It was a default setting. No one had any arguments. None of them seemed to have examined anything. And it didn’t seem to trouble them. I was looking for some fights! I wanted to challenge and be challenged. It was as if everyone – even those wanting to major in philosophy – didn’t much care to examine the most fundamental questions of being and existence and morality and meaning. They would laugh at or dismiss ideas sometimes, but freeze up if asked to explain.

This was a real shock to me.

I had one TA who asked any theists to raise their hand. I was the only one. Some people snickered. He said, “Don’t laugh. All the best analytic philosopher were theists. Aquinas would run circles around most of you. Do you know why? Have you engaged this stuff?” He was an atheist moving towards agnosticism, but he had mad respect for anyone who did good philosophy (I later discovered he became a Bhuddist and quit academia. He was my favorite philosophy professor, so I’m not surprised). There was one other philosophy prof who was a Christian, and everyone was afraid to debate him. I think he dreamed in airtight symbolic logic.

I didn’t realize at the time that the intellectual tradition I’d inherited in all those Bible studies and debates and books was straight from Aristotle. The more I studied the history of philosophy, the more I realized I wasn’t the one who was wacky or out of step. Questions of God and religion had been taken the most seriously by the most serious thinkers. The whole Protestant project was, in a way, a big philosophical “eff you” to those who said don’t think for yourself, just act out the rituals. It was a celebration of reason. (This is not to say Orthodoxy and Catholicism do not retain a lot of sound philosophy, or that Protestantism always does. All religion tends to have interesting ideas at its core, and devolve into a less rigorous social movement subject to capture as it grows).

I often wonder how people go about their lives acting on important core ideas and assumptions without seeming to have any interest in or feel any necessity to examine, define, and make logical sense of those ideas and assumptions. Being wrong is one thing. Being uninterested in examining tacit truth claims is another.

I’m not looking down on people who are uninterested in or not conversant in inquiry into these things. I just don’t understand it. And because I value getting to the why of things, I am very grateful that I grew up in an arena that prized the most foundational questions, and expected one to be intellectually and morally accountable for their own beliefs – and comfortable being a bit of an outsider.

I must’ve seemed so weird. An early teen spending hours underlining, cross-referencing, diagramming, checking translations in my Hebrew-Greek keyword Bible, writing arguments and counter-arguments. Fortunately in my social circles, it wasn’t weird at all.

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Crazy People Work on the Most Interesting Stuff

Think of the most exciting possible inventions and discoveries you can imagine.

Deep space travel. Telepathy. Wireless electricity. Anti-gravity. Cold fusion. Terraforming. etc.

If you poke around YouTube or podcasts or badly designed websites, you’ll find people working on them. Devoting years to research and experimentation. You’ll notice their passion and conviction. But you’ll also notice something else: most of them are kinda crazy. Whether or not they are discovering anything true, you suspect they would be the last people on earth capable of bringing their idea to market or even credibly explaining it outside their niche circles.

But if you poke around places full of high achieving people with sharp minds, big vision, and lots of ability, you won’t hear them say stuff like, “I’m working on faster than light travel. I think the current model of physics is all wrong, and I suspect it’s possible so I want to prove it.”

Most of the best, most respected minds seem to be employed on the more mundane stuff. Sure, they’re doing cool valuable stuff (except when they go into politics), but how often does it question the most fundemental assumptions?

We know so very little about reality. We don’t even know what we don’t know, or whether what we know is actually true. And the most fundamental stuff – the nature and origin of the universe, our planet, our species, the basic rules of the physical strata, consciousness, death and beyond – is the stuff most of us spend the least time on.

Except the crazy people. They live there.

Part of the crazy label comes because they are working on this stuff. To examine widely accepted beliefs is often considered crazy. Part of the label is because most of the time these people are crazy. So it feeds itself. People who don’t know how to be normal are more likely to go into crazy stuff because they have less to lose. The more they do, the more the belief that “only crazy people study that” is re-enforced and better minds are repelled.

I’m not trying to place blame or cast judgement. I’m trying to understand this phenomenon. It’s the same thing that causes most conversations with neighbors and acquaintances to be so boring. Most of us – myself included – are not willing to dive into crazy stuff most of the time. If your reputation is shot, say, because you’re crazy, it’s easier.

Conformity is a powerful force. I try to do a little something every day to combat it. A world of crazy questions is much more interesting than a world of probably wrong answers no one wants to talk about.

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I Dream of Anarchy

Literally.

Last night I dreamt (whoa, spellcheck doesn’t like “dreamt”. This prompted Googling. Apparently some do not accept this spelling. Weird.) that I was at some event somewhere, and some guy showed up. He was there either as a maintenance man to fix some kind of large trailer, or he was there to interview the attendees. It was a dream, so maybe he shifted between both roles.

Anyway, he made some comment about libertarians being recalcitrant. I asked what he meant. The rest of the dream was a discussion between us. I told him the classical liberal tradition is long and broad. You might begin at Hesiod, then Aristotle. You might include interesting figures most have never heard of, like Auberon Herbert, as well as luminaries like Adam Smith and Milton Friedman.

As any good conversation about liberty ought to, it turned to the question of anarchy. Not in the positive, bomb-throwing sense. Anarchy simply meaning society without a political ruler, or without the initiation of violence. I shared with him a deep and rich body of thought, from Linda and Morris Tannehill, to Lysander Spooner, to Frank Chodorov, to Roy Childs, to David Friedman (Milton’s son), to Spencer Heath MacCollum, to Murray Rothbard, to Leo Tolstoy, to Leonard Read, to Randy Barnett, to John Hasnas, to Bruce Benson, to Robert Higgs, to Edward Stringham, to Peter Leeson, to Jeffrey Tucker and more.

Then we discussed the lived experience of a great many societies at a great many periods in history – some long, some short. We talked about the Hanseatic League. We talked about free market money in Scotland. We talked about the not so wild, wild West in the U.S. before government and military arrived to “civilize” it with violence. We talked about the nearly three-hundred years of peaceful anarchy in Iceland.

We talked about every major function of the current government – from police, to courts, to rule-making, to defense, to infrastructure, to money, to education, to health care – and discovered how every one of them emerged as a market function that was only co-opted by violent monopolists late in the game, and that the monopolized version is in every way morally and practically inferior to its voluntary foundation.

I haven’t had an ideological debate or attempt to persuade anyone in years. I’ve moved into the world of action through entrepreneurship, trying to build a freer, better, more peaceful world through voluntary exchange instead of arguments. But this dream was a ton of fun. I woke up with my mind reeling through all the other stuff we didn’t even touch on. My intellectual and experiential journey to anarchism took nearly a decade and thousands such arguments, books, lectures, observations, points, and counterpoints. It felt like I crammed a few years worth into a single conversation in a dream. It was kind of a rush!

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Guns and History

I don’t understand the desire to have governments take complete control of guns.

Familiarity with history and human nature unequivocally demonstrate just how ominous this is. The enslavement, oppression, torture, genocide, forced starvation, concentration camps, and wholesale mass murder wrought by governments on unarmed citizens utterly dwarf by orders of magnitude harms, crimes, and accidents done by armed citizens to one another throughout history. Armies of one government slaughtering helpless individuals living under another in war. Armies of governments slaughtering helpless unarmed citizens of their own. These account for hundreds of millions of deaths and far more in suffering the last century alone. It is the greatest human tragedy in history and always has been.

Complete government control of guns leads to an incredibly obvious and horrific lopsided condition: the worst, most dangerous people gain a tremendous physical power advantage over every decent person. Unchecked governments, organized crime, and unorganized thugs get all the guns. They will always find a way. Good people have nothing. To enact a policy that concentrates all physical power in the hands of all the bad people and takes any defense away from the good people is suicidal. It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this as a good idea given human history.

The freedom for individuals to access and own weapons is on a very real level the most fundamental freedom of all and the final backstop against all of the worst horrors of human mobs.

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The Formula for Anxiety

The magnitude of anxiety seems to be equal to the delta between expectations and self-assessment.

That means there are two variables to work on to reduce anxiety. Expectations and assessment.

On the expectations front, sometimes it helps to step back and remind yourself that you owe nothing to anyone, status in the eyes of others is a distraction, and there are really only a few things that matter.

It’s good to have expectations that exceed current reality. The discomfort it creates is the necessary impetus for action and progress, without which life is really depressing. But expectations can’t be so far out of reach that they leave you hopeless.

Self assessment is a bit trickier. Trying to believe you are closer to your expectations is tough. The old positive thinking stuff doesn’t work very well. Just telling yourself you are good isn’t super effective if your subconscious doesn’t believe it. Your inner self needs evidence along with intention. One of the best ways to raise your self assessment is to pair positive thoughts with small tangible accomplishments. Just bite sized bits of progress along the dimension of who you want to be.

Reducing the gap between expectations and self assessment is the key to anxiety reduction.

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