In Praise of Spontaneous Order

My girls and I recently spent several days in New York City, where I filmed this clip about unschooling and self-directed education. We decided to make it a field trip, enjoying a Broadway show, Central Park, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although I have been a city dweller in Boston for over 20 years, it pales in comparison to New York City’s size and scale. Walking through Times Square, the phrase that kept popping into my head was: spontaneous order.

Here were thousands of people in a few square blocks, all peacefully pursuing their own interests in an environment of voluntary association and exchange. Some people might have been in search of Italian food, others Mexican. Some visitors may have been shopping for shoes, or pocketbooks, or travel memorabilia, while others were interested in the street performers and musicians. Some arrived by taxi, others by subway, and still others by foot or bicycle. Some were there to sell, while others were there to buy.

There were countless reasons all of those people were in Times Square, but they came as a result of their own distinct interests, taking advantage of a panoply of dining, shopping, and artistic vendors, without any central planner coordinating their activities. It is an extraordinary example of the power of the marketplace to spontaneously facilitate peaceful, voluntary exchange for highly diverse individuals with many different interests and needs. As State University of New York economist Sanford Ikeda writes, “great cities are Hayekian spontaneous orders par excellence.”

Spontaneous Order

In his book, The Fatal Conceit, the Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek explained the beauty of spontaneous order in greater detail, arguing that while it’s not perfect, the order that arises through decentralized, individual interest is superior to any external attempt to mastermind human action. Hayek wrote:

Such an order, although far from perfect and often inefficient, can extend farther than any order men could create by deliberately putting countless elements into selected “appropriate” places. Most defects and inefficiencies of such spontaneous orders result from attempting to interfere with or to prevent their mechanisms from operating, or to improve the details of their results. Such attempts to intervene in spontaneous order rarely result in anything closely corresponding to men’s wishes, since these orders are determined by more particular facts than any such intervening agency can know.

A few days in Times Square gave me an even greater appreciation for the spontaneous order of the marketplace and its ability to satisfy an array of preferences, peacefully and voluntarily, without central planning or control. It’s an extraordinary display of emergent, harmonious human action.

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How Micro-School Networks Expand Learning Options

Technology has the potential to decentralize K-12 education and make it more learner-directed, upending a top-down system in favor of individual autonomy and self-determination. But the technology can’t do this alone. It requires a learning environment that fosters creativity and curiosity, using digital platforms and supportive adults to facilitate exploration and discovery. The entrepreneurial educators at Prenda, an Arizona-based network of micro-schools, think they have uncovered the right mix of powerful technology and warm, nurturing learning spaces that could help to transform education.Like many education innovations, Prenda began with a parent who was looking for something better for his child.

Like many education innovations, Prenda began with a parent who was looking for something better for his child. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kelly Smith sold his software company in 2013 and moved back to his hometown of Mesa, Arizona, where he began hosting weekly, after school computer coding clubs for his eight-year-old son and other children at the local public library. The enthusiasm for these clubs swelled, and before long Smith was supporting code clubs in libraries across the country, reaching over 10,000 children in 30 states. “The energy of these code clubs was astonishing,” Smith recalls.

Smith estimates that he personally worked with about 2,000 children during his time of running the code clubs and he was increasingly fascinated by his observations about how people learn. “Learning is a very different thing when a human being wants to learn something than when a human being doesn’t want to learn something,” says Smith.

I would watch these kids come to the club complaining about how much they hated school and how they were bad at math and then I would see them figure something out in computer programming that was much harder than anything their teacher would ask them to do.

He began to see the importance of free will and choice in learning. Smith continues:

My experience and my kids’ experience in traditional education is that it was things done to you against your will. You may do fine, some kids do fine, but you’re not really going to learn unless you choose to learn. There is this agency, this humanity, at the bottom of it. It may sound fluffy but it’s a profound insight.

The Micro-School Movement

Smith started to wonder what would happen if school were like his coding clubs, fostering agency and eagerness for learning, without coercion. In January 2018, he launched Prenda to create the type of school he envisioned. Prenda is part of the larger micro-school movement, an educational shift occurring over the past decade in which entrepreneurs and parents create intimate, mixed-age learning spaces, often in homes or local organizations.

A blend between homeschooling and private schooling, micro-schools retain the curriculum freedom and schedule flexibility characteristic of homeschooling, while relying on paid teachers to facilitate the classroom experience. Micro-schools are typically a fraction of the cost of a private school and educate no more than 10 to 15 students at a time. Prenda, for example, caps enrollment at about 10 students per classroom with one teacher, or “guide” as they call them, and costs $5,000 per child per year.

Prenda began in Smith’s home with seven children spanning kindergarten to eighth grade, with a focus on self-directed learning tied to mastery in core academic subjects. As the children’s excitement for learning grew and more parents became interested in Prenda, Smith built an integrated software platform to support and scale his emerging model. The software emphasizes three broad, daily categories of interaction and introspection: Conquer, Collaborate and Create. In Conquer mode, the learners set daily goals for mastery in basic skills, such as reading, writing, math, and other core subjects.

The students use various online learning programs, including Khan Academy, No Red Ink and Mystery Science to build competency, and the Prenda software helps to track their progress against their personal goals. In Create mode, the learners work on individual projects, while Collaborate mode emphasizes group projects, Socratic group discussions, and critical thinking and reasoning skills in core subject areas. The Prenda software buttresses these activities by offering resources and a structured framework for the guides, as well as tools and transparency for students and parents.

Today, Prenda micro-schools operate in 80 locations throughout Arizona, serving about 550 children. Smith expects to expand Prenda beyond the state, and double its enrollment, within the next year. He attributes Prenda’s massive growth over the past few months to the rising number of parents who are looking for alternatives to conventional schooling. Smith says:

It turns out that there are a lot of parents who are asking: Is the traditional approach to education going to do it for my child? Maybe their kid is doing fine, getting good grades, but in their eyes parents see the love of learning draining out of them.

Most of these parents are not interested in full-time homeschooling or some other unconventional path, says Smith, but the Prenda micro-school model offers the best of schooling and homeschooling. According to Smith:

I think the real reason we have been able to scale so quickly is that we are able to offer something that parents have been looking for.

Prenda San Carlos School

Some of those parents include members of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona. Located in a rural section of the state, the education options available to the children on the reservation are limited. The reservation’s public schools consistently receive “F” ratings with the Arizona Department of Education, and student proficiency scores are strikingly poor, despite annual per-pupil spending of nearly $17,000 in 2018, or about 70 percent more funding per pupil than Arizona’s average of $9,900.

Two private, religious schools on the reservation provide alternative options for some Apache children, but most families have no choice but to send their children to the failing public schools or leave the reservation. “Arizona is leading the way in school choice and charter schools,” explains Cota. “It’s crucial we keep this going.”For Jeremiah Cota, a tribal member, this was unacceptable. In August he helped to launch two Prenda classrooms on the San Carlos reservation using borrowed church space. The school currently serves 22 students, with the goal of expanding to meet mounting parent demand.

Cota, who grew up on an Arizona Apache reservation, says that many parents in tribal communities are frustrated by their limited options. At an information session he hosted at the San Carlos reservation before opening Prenda, more than 200 parents showed up, concerned mostly about ongoing bullying and safety issues in the public schools. They were also frustrated by a lack of academic rigor and a curriculum that lacked cultural relevancy. “Parents thought their only other option was to send their children off the reservation, but we can do this here in our community,” says Cota.

We can have ownership. We can have a world-class education that’s culturally appropriate, that’s within our own context.

The flexibility of the Prenda model allows for both academic rigor and a culturally appropriate education. For example, daily individual and group projects at the Prenda San Carlos School involve bringing in guest speakers from the reservation or doing hands-on exploration of the tribal lands. “We are very connected to our land, our wildlife, and we want to continue to teach children how to preserve and protect our land,” says Cota.

Prenda’s accessibility and expansion have been abetted by Arizona’s robust climate of education choice. For instance, many of the children participating in the Prenda San Carlos School use funds available to them through Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account, an education savings account (ESA) available to many tribal members, as well as other eligible children throughout the state. For Prenda students who are not eligible for an ESA in Arizona, they are able to access Prenda through the state’s Sequoia Charter School network, which supports hybrid learning models.

“Arizona is leading the way in school choice and charter schools,” explains Cota. “It’s crucial we keep this going. Without this flexibility, we couldn’t do this.” He is optimistic about the growth and replicability of the Prenda model to serve many more students, including those who have historically had limited access to education choices. “It gives hope and empowerment to these communities,” says Cota.

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Open Borders: Hopes and Fears on Release Day

My first graphic novel, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, co-authored with the great Zach Weinersmith, released October 28th.  Since I’ve already shared the backstory, today I’ll share my hopes and fears.

All of my books have been controversial.  Yet so far, almost no prominent critic has accused any of my books of being “ideological” or “dogmatic.”  Instead, they open the books and engage the arguments.  As a result, even staunch critics almost always find some common ground.  Few deny me a minimal, “While he goes too far, some of what Caplan is saying sure seems true…”

hope this pattern of reactions to my books continues.  I fear, however, that I’ve reached the end of the line.   Immigration has become so ideological during the last five years.  Pessimism about immigration is almost a litmus test for conservatism.  Yet there is no fundamental reason for this change of heart.  Yes, today’s immigrants are heavily Democratic.  As I explain in the book, however, this is a recent pattern.  During the Reagan era, immigrants were almost equally divided between the two major parties.

While it’s tempting to blame the changing national origin of the immigrants, this doesn’t hold water.  Indian-Americans are the richest and most socially conservative ethnicity in modern American, yet they’re probably even more Democratic than Hispanics.  What’s going on?  I say we’re seeing the Respect Motive at work.  Immigrants have turned away from Republicans because they no longer feel the heartfelt welcome that leaders like Reagan once eloquently voiced.

When I say this, I fear that conservative readers will feel attacked.  I also fear that liberal readers will amplify those fears by attacking them. My hope, however, is conservatives rediscover Reagan’s perspective – and liberals will show appreciation for those who do.  Support for immigration used to be bipartisan.  It can be bipartisan again.

Wishful thinking?  Perhaps.  With Zach Weinersmith’s help, however, it’s not hard to visualize…

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In Syria “Withdrawal,” Less is Probably More

When US president Donald Trump announced his plan to relocate a few dozen US soldiers in Syria — getting them out of the way of a pending Turkish invasion — the Washington establishment exploded in rage at what it mis-characterized as a US “withdrawal” from Syria.

Instead of fighting that mis-characterization, Trump embraced it, pretending that an actual withdrawal was in progress and announcing on October 9 that “we’re bringing our folks back home. ”

If he’s telling the truth, hooray! But so far as I can discern, no, he isn’t telling the truth.

Since taking office (after campaigning on getting the US out of military quagmires in the Middle East and Central Asia), Trump has boosted US troop levels in Syria from 500 or fewer under Barack Obama to at least 2,000 and possibly as many as 4,000.

Even at its most ambitious, the supposed US “withdrawal” from Syria consisted of moving a few hundred soldiers across the border into Iraq, from which they could launch operations in Syria at will.

The Iraqi government objected to hosting more US troops on its soil, so now the plan has changed to deploying elements  of an armored brigade combat team (“less than a battalion,” so call it “less than a thousand troops” depending on what kind of battalion) to protect Syrian oil fields from the Islamic State (and from Syria’s own government).

Exactly how many US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines were in Syria prior to the supposed withdrawal? How many are there now? How many will be there by the end of the year?

That’s hard to say with any exactitude. Over the last several years (and not just on Trump’s watch), the US government’s troop level claims have become less specific and more general,  less matters of public record and more notional state secrets.

But so far, according to those claims, Trump has escalated US involvement in every conflict he inherited from Obama, even after promising to do the opposite and even while pretending to do the opposite.

If past performance is an indicator of future results, what’s going on in Syria isn’t a US withdrawal at all. Instead of US forces departing the country, more troops and heavier weapons seem to be flowing into the country (and the region, including B-1B bombers to Saudi Arabia).

Will Trump’s non-interventionist supporters finally notice or admit that, as usual, his rhetoric and his actions don’t match? Fat chance.

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The USA PATRIOT Act: The Story of an Impulsive Bill That Eviscerated America’s Civil Liberties

The USA PATRIOT Act provides a textbook example of how the United States federal government expands its power. An emergency happens, legitimate or otherwise. The media, playing its dutiful role as goad for greater government oversight, demands “something must be done.” Government power is massively expanded, with little regard for whether or not what is being done is efficacious, to say nothing of the overall impact on our nation’s civil liberties.

No goals are posted, because if targets are hit, this would necessitate the ending or scaling back of the program. Instead, the program becomes normalized. There are no questions asked about whether the program is accomplishing what it set out to do. It is now simply a part of American life and there is no going back.

The American public largely accepts the USA PATRIOT Act as a part of civic life as immutable, perhaps even more so than the Bill of Rights. However, this act – passed in the dead of night, with little to no oversight, in a panic after the biggest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor – is not only novel, it is also fundamentally opposed to virtually every principle on which the United States of America was founded. It might not be going anywhere anytime soon, but patriots, liberty lovers and defenders of Constitutional government should nonetheless familiarize themselves with the onerous provisions of this law, which is nothing short of a full-throttle attack on the American republic.

What’s Even in the USA PATRIOT Act?

What is in the USA PATRIOT Act? In the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9/11then Rep. John Conyers cracked wise about how no one had actually read the Act and how this was in fact par for the course with America’s laws. Thus, before delving into the deeper issues surrounding the PATRIOT Act, it is worth discussing what the Act actually says. Here’s a brief look at the 10 Titles in the PATRIOT Act:

  • Title I: Enhancing Domestic Security Against Terrorism: This provision dramatically expands the powers of the President, the military and the intelligence community whenever the specter of “terrorism” is invoked. Bizarrely, it contains a provision condemining discrimination against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians, which seems to have very little to do with protecting Americans from terrorism.
  • Title II: Enhanced Surveillance Procedures: Title II contains the meat of the Act with regard to massive, industrial-scale surveillance on the American public. Beyond the simple spying on Americans and their communications, Title II increases the ability of federal intelligence agencies to share your private communications with one another.
  • Title III: International Money Laundering Abatement and Financial Anti-Terrorism Act: Not simply a section of the USA PATRIOT Act, Title III is an Act of Congress in its own right. You might have noticed how much more difficult it is to open a bank account or send a wire transfer after 9/11. You can blame this provision, which shredded banking privacy rights in the United States.
  • Title IV: Protecting the Border: Other than expanding the number of federal employees (of course), the provision of the USA PATRIOT Act charged with protecting America’s borders does little other than point toward paths for future action and study. It is worth noting that the weakest provision of the Act is the only one explicitly authorized by the Constitution — protecting the border.
  • Title V: Removing Obstacles to Investigating Terrorism: Title V authorizes bounties for the apprehension of alleged terrorists, broadens government power to conduct DNA analysis, allows for greater data sharing between law enforcement agencies and, perhaps most disturbingly, requires private telecommunication carriers to comply with government requests for electronic communication records whenever requested by the FBI. It also expands the power of the Secret Service to investigate computer fraud.
  • Title VI: Providing for Victims of Terrorism, Public Safety Officers and Their Families: Perhaps the most innocuous portion of the USA PATRIOT Act, Title VI provides for a victims’ fund for victims of terrorism and their families.
  • Title VII: Increased Information Sharing for Critical Infrastructure Protection: The subtitle of this section of the Act is a rather wordy way of saying that the United States federal government is allowing for law enforcement agencies to share information across jurisdictional boundaries in an easier fashion than was previously legal. To that end, the Bureau of Justice Assistance was given a $50,000,000 budget for 2002 and a whopping $100,000,000 budget for fiscal year 2003.
  • Title VIII: Strengthening the Criminal Laws Against Terrorism: Title VIII is where the rubber meets the road: What exactly is terrorism, according to the federal government? Unfortunately, this Title does little to clarify what terrorism is, instead focusing on declaring a number of actions (such as attacks on transit) as “terrorism,” regardless of intent.
  • Title IX: Improved Intelligence: The section subtitled “improved intelligence” largely expands the powers and responsibilities of the Director of Central Intelligence.
  • Title X: Miscellaneous: When the federal government titles a segment of a law “miscellaneous,” you know it’s going to include everything and the kitchen sink. And so it does: The definition of electronic surveillance, additional funds for the DEA in South and Central Asia, research on biometric scanning systems, a limitation on hazmat licensure and infrastructure protections are all addressed in Title X, which is a catchall for everything the federal government forgot to address in the first nine sections of the law.

Most of the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act were set to sunset four years after the bill was passed into law. However, the law was extended first by President George W. Bush and then by President Barack H. Obama. The latter is particularly scandalous given that, at least in part, a rejection of the surveillance culture that permeated the Bush Administration was responsible for the election of Obama in 2008.

Continue reading The USA PATRIOT Act: The Story of an Impulsive Bill That Eviscerated America’s Civil Liberties at Ammo.com.

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Grateful I Don’t Live in California

Sometimes it’s hard to remember to be thankful for life’s little blessings. Recently I was reminded to be grateful I don’t live in California.

My electricity went out for a little while a few days ago, but the power company was on the ball and power was restored in no time; long before it could have become inconvenient for anyone but the least prepared among us.

By contrast, the electric utility in California plans to shut off power to hundreds of thousands of its paying customers. On purpose. For hours or days or however long they feel is necessary — without much warning or a chance to properly prepare — to prevent their substandard system from starting wildfires.

Do you think this will cause many Californians — both those personally affected and those who aren’t — to start taking the idea of “prepping” seriously? I have my doubts, but I’ll hope.

For most of my life, people have either joked about those who prepared for emergencies, calling them paranoid, or they quipped “If society collapses, I’ll just come to your house.” Showing up empty-handed at the house of someone who has spent years of planning and piles of money for just such a crisis will only be welcomed if the residents of the house are out of meat and hungry enough to consider adding you to the menu.

If you don’t value your own life enough to plan for emergencies and put those plans into action, why should anyone risk their own life and the lives of their children to save you?

Anyone should be able to see the value of preparing for natural disasters, and political disasters — like the one playing out in California — may become more common in the coming years. “It’s not political,” you say? Sure it is. When political deals grant a power utility a monopoly over an area, and state laws and “green energy” policies prevent proper infrastructure, capacity, and maintenance, then the problem is political, no matter who you would rather blame.

It’s even more directly political when laws require a prepper to handicap himself by staying hooked to the electrical grid and shut off his system in the event of a blackout so as to not have an advantage over his less-prepared neighbors — as is the case in California.

Any real solution begins with barring politics from the discussion. Then, plan for what happens if politicians interfere anyway. And take a moment to be grateful you don’t live in California.

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