Apology for a Trainwreck

The ethnographies of Oscar Lewis paint a bleak picture of lower-class life.  The thousands of pages of published interviews in books like Five FamiliesThe Children of SanchezFour Men, and La Vida show a relentless trainwreck of impulsive sex, unplanned pregnancy, child neglect, child abuse, drug addiction, drunkenness, degenerate gambling, intra-family violence, near-random violence, parasitism, and gross financial mismanagement.    The picture is so bleak that I struggle to believe Lewis’ subjects are representative of any human subculture.  But if his subjects are representative, it’s hard to imagine how a thoughtful person could look upon their “culture of poverty” with anything but horror.

Yet in the rare moments where Lewis stops letting his subjects speak for themselves, he is far from horrified.  From the Introduction* to La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty – San Juan and New York:

Middle-class people — and this would certainly include most social scientists — tend to concentrate on the negative aspects of the culture of poverty. They tend to associate negative valences to such traits as present-time orientation and concrete versus abstract orientation. I do not intend to idealize or romanticize the culture of poverty. As someone has said, “It is easier to praise poverty than to live in it”; yet some of the positive aspects that may flow from these traits must not be overlooked. Living in the present may develop a capacity for spontaneity, for the enjoyment of the sensual, for the indulgence of impulse, which is often blunted in the middle-class, future-oriented man. Perhaps it is this reality of the moment that the existentialist writers are so desperately trying to recapture but that the culture of poverty experiences as natural, everyday phenomena. The frequent use of violence certainly provides a ready outlet for hostility so that people in the culture of poverty suffer less from repression than does the middle class.

Yes, Lewis even finds something positive to say about “the frequent use of violence.”  Sure, the victim gets a savage beating, often leading in his narratives to permanent disability.  But on the other hand, the perpetrator eases his “repression”!  Frankly, if social scientists are going to “overlook” anything, this dubious “positive aspect” of violent crime should be near the top of the list.

Why would Lewis makes such bizarre claims?  The only plausible explanation is the painful psychological tension between his scrupulous empiricism and his fervent Marxism.

A typical Marxist would have searched the world’s slums for heroes to interview, but Lewis had too much integrity for such trickery.  An apolitical ethnographer would have followed Lewis’ methods, but drawn the obvious conclusions that (a) his subjects’ culture is plain evil, (b) since the subjects refuse many opportunities to exit this culture, they’re evil too.  The most sympathetic thing you can reasonably say is, “I feel so sorry for the innocent children in these families.”

Intellectually, however, Lewis was stuck between a rock and a hard place.  So he showed his readers the trainwreck in gory detail, then tried to convince us that trainwrecks have “positive aspects” that “must not be overlooked.”  A crazy route, to be sure.  But the day you admit that personal irresponsibility is the leading cause of adult poverty – and parental irresponsibility the leading cause of child poverty – you have left the church of Marxism.

* You can read the Introduction online; go here, then scroll down to Chapter 7.

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Who Owns You?

The issue comes down to whether the individual is viewed as a private person or as public property: the former has no obligation to the community to be or stay healthy; the latter does.

Virtually everything the Founding Fathers sought to achieve by separating church and state has been undone by the apostles of modern medicine, whose zeal for creating a therapeutic state has remained unopposed by politicians, priests, professionals, journalists, civil libertarians, and the public.

–Thomas Szasz

Many people have legitimate complaints against the Food and Drug Administration. For example, during its long history, the FDA has delayed the marketing of badly needed drugs and medical devices, leading to unnecessary pain and death. Excessive bureaucratic requirements for testing have made drugs more expensive than they would have been otherwise. And, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, its regulation of tobacco and nicotine interferes with people’s enjoyment of those products.

I want to suggest, however, such isolated complaints fail to go to the heart of the matter. The problem is not this or that regulation. Nor is the problem even the FDA itself. The root problem is the government’s claim to jurisdiction over so-called “public health.” In the United States, once Congress assumed this power and created myriad regulatory agencies to exercise it, the door was opened to the kinds of mischief that Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) placed under the label “the Therapeutic State.” All manner of interference with individual freedom can be and has been presented in the name of safeguarding public health. It’s a Pandora’s box.

The ultimate question is: who owns you? The answer will determine who is to be in charge of health.

The courts have routinely affirmed that the government has a “substantial interest” in the “health, safety, and welfare of its citizens.” In other words, citizens are public property. It’s time that this currently uncontroversial premise was questioned.

The modern state’s “substantial interest” in the physical and mental welfare of its citizens is an echo of the pre-liberal era, when the sovereign was seen in part as the father and custodian of the physical and spiritual welfare of his subjects. Paternalism served the interests of the sovereign, of course: he needed healthy taxpayers and soldiers. But the relationship was bigger than that.

The liberal revolutions of the 18th century did not fully push aside that model of governance, and many vestiges of the old regime have remained. Whatever the rationalization, whatever the ostensible basis of authority, the state was (and is) about taboos and social control. Of course, the form changed — church and state have been more or less separated — but in many ways the substance has been unchanged. The power of state-related clergymen was succeeded by the power of state-related medical men (including psychiatrists) and putative scientists. As the theological state receded, the therapeutic state advanced. Illness (including so-called mental illness) came to play the role in public policy that sin once played. Health stands in public life where salvation once stood. Treatment is the modern way of redemption. The burning of witches was succeeded by, for example, the confinement in madhouses of people who had committed no crimes. Electroshock and lobotomy replaced the rack and thumbscrew. The pattern repeated itself in the United States; state governments involved themselves in public health from an early date, followed by the federal government. Drug dealers and users became the modern scapegoats who had to be cast out (imprisoned) to protect the public’s health, although drugs entered people’s bodies by volitional acts. (On the resemblance between the theological and therapeutic states, see the works of Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist who made a career demonstrating the unappreciated parallels. Links to many articles are here.)

In the modern age, Szasz wrote, “To resolve human problems [e.g., “bad habits”], all we need to do is define them as the symptoms of diseases and, presto, they become maladies remediable by medical measures” — more precisely, political-medical measures. Doctors, having been deputized by the state, wield power they could have not obtained otherwise. (The head of the FDA, Scott Gottlieb, is a physician.) Thus we have (to use another phrase from Szasz, “the medicalization of everyday life.” For example, any disapproved behavior that anyone engages in repeatedly is branded an “addiction,” which is in turn defined as a disease, as though calling behavior, which has reasons not causes, a disease were not a category mistake. Never mind that metaphorical, or mythical, diseases are not real diseases. (Are substances or people habit-forming?) To say that an ascribed disease is a myth is not to deny the behavior or even to deny that the behavior may a problem for either the actor or the people around him. As the philosopher Gilbert Ryle wrote, “A myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms belonging to another. To explode a myth is accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate them.”)

It is in this light that we should view the FDA and other government medical and scientific entities. They are part of a massive apparatus of social control, making their personnel agents of social control, not truth-seeking. Whether the FDA, for example, is a friend of industry or an adversary (at different times it’s been both), the public is ill-served precisely because the right of individual self-determination in a free market, including tort- and fraud-redress procedures, is undermined by prohibitions and restrictions. It is also ill-served by the monopolistic effects of centralized political authority over science and medicine. (On the FDA’s growth, see this.) Free competition is the universal solvent because facts emerge through rivalrous activity, both economic and intellectual.

Many people don’t see things that way, of course, and so government has increasingly controlled people’s choices with respect to health and science. On the basis of the fiction that the free market has failed in these realms — when has it actually been tried? — politicians, bureaucrats, and deputized practitioners have gained power. A gain in political power, Albert Jay Nock taught us, necessarily means a loss in “social power,” that is, self-control by individuals and their voluntary associations (including families). If self-control is denied in one area of life, we should not be surprised to see it fade from other areas of life. Today, the battle cry is “Medicare for all!” But if “the public” (the state) is to pay for everyone’s medical care collectively, won’t the public’s putative representatives want to impose restrictions on individuals’ risky behavior if for no other reason than to minimize the hit to the government’s budget? What then becomes of what’s left of individual freedom?

The coercion exercised by the government-medical complex is routinely defended as being for people’s own good: in this view, they are compelled to do only what they really wish to do but cannot because of addiction, mental illness, etc. To Szasz, this is “the authoritarian, religious-paternalistic outlook on life,” to which he responded: “I maintain that the only means we possess for ascertaining that a man wants to [for example] stop smoking more than he wants to enjoy smoking is by observing whether he stops or continues to smoke. Moreover, it is irresponsible for moral theorists to ignore that coercive sanctions aimed at protecting people from themselves are not only unenforceable but create black markets and horrifying legal abuse.”

Szasz added: “The issue comes down to whether the individual is viewed as a private person or as public property: the former has no obligation to the community to be or stay healthy; the latter does.”

We know how the “public health” lobby views the matter. When it panics over how much smokers “cost the economy” in lost productivity (through sick days and shorter lives), the lobby is proclaiming that Americans are indeed public property. How dare they enjoy themselves and risk their health at the expense of the economy, the people, the nation? (The Nazis and Bolsheviks followed this idea all the way.) In contrast, quaint classical liberals believe “the economy” — that is, the institutional framework for free exchange — exists to serve people. When the “public health” lobby advocates coercion for a person’s own good, in reality it does not speak of treatment and cure but of assault and battery — and perhaps torture. A medical relationship without consent is like a sexual relationship without consent. But few people understand that.

Perhaps sensing the flaw in the case for coercion based on preventing harm to self, much medical coercion is offered in the name of protecting others. There is a grain of truth here, of course. People can carry deadly communicable diseases. (Whether the state’s centralized bureaucracy is needed or competent to deal with this is another question.) But as the public-choice thinkers point out, state officials won’t be satisfied with such a narrow mission as protecting people from such diseases. Public-health jobs will tend to attract people dedicated to reforming other people’s “vices.” Inevitably, they will push the boundaries to acquire more power, money, staff, and prestige — all dedicated to breaking our “bad habits.” The alleged threat from second-hand smoke is in no way analogous to the immediate threat from a communicable disease. The former can easily be dealt with through contract and other voluntary arrangements but that doesn’t stop the public-health zealots from working to outlaw smoking in bars, restaurants, and even tobacco shops.

But what about the children? In a free society, families are responsible for raising children to be autonomous adults. Of course, this does not always happen, part of the reason being the government’s own obstacles, such as rotten schools for low-income kids. At any rate, history makes clear that government crusades, say to keep adolescents from doing “adult” things — such as drinking, smoking, and now vaping — only adds to their allure and has horrendous unintended consequences. Fruit is harder to resist when it is forbidden. Meanwhile, adults find themselves harassed — in the name of protecting the children — as they go about enjoying themselves.

Would life be perfect if “public health” were left to free and consenting adults in the free market? No, of course not. But a real-world free society should not be compared to an unreal and unrealizable utopia of all-wise, all-knowing, and all-good “public servants” who have only your health and welfare in mind. Rather, it should be compared to the real world of fallible, morally flawed, egotistical, self-serving, and centralized politicians and bureaucrats whose worldview is one where they give orders and you obey. Markets — which is to say, people in both profit-seeking and non-profit capacities — are capable of producing reliable consumer information and guidance, not to mention certifying the quality of products. They do it every day. Governments, after all, are comprised of nothing but human beings.

“Those who would give up essential liberty,” Benjamin Franklin might have said, “to purchase a little temporary health, deserve neither liberty nor health.”

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Addicts Can’t Think Outside Their Box

A heroin addict might not like the side effects and other consequences of being addicted to heroin, but giving up the drug is unthinkable, so they try to find ways around the consequences which don’t involve giving up heroin.

Statists don’t like some of the side effects and consequences of statism, but giving up the State is unthinkable so they try to find ways around the consequences which don’t involve giving up their drug.

Thus you have borderists screaming that you can’t get rid of government borders or you’ll have people flocking to America to get free stuff from “welfare” or committing crime. They can’t even see that they’re in a box, much less think outside it.

This utter lack of awareness illustrates my point about statism being an addiction.

No part of statism is a given. Any of it can be eliminated; all of it can be eliminated. That one part of it excuses another part doesn’t mean you have to keep either part. Ditch them both. It’s the sensible thing to do.

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Time to Break Government Addiction

When an addict’s supply is cut off, it’s usually an agonizing journey through withdrawal to the other side of the addiction; where the poison finally loosens its grip on the person, giving him a new chance at life.

I’m not talking about a chemical dependency this time, but a far more deadly condition: government addiction.

If you are feeling effects from this imaginary government “shutdown,” even as simple as having noticed it, you are most likely somewhat addicted to government.

Do you feel as though you are suffering because you don’t have enough government? Are you buying into the hysterics coming from the government extremists wanting the shutdown to end?

Other signs of addiction can include a desire to see taxes increased, a call to build border walls, the obsession to outlaw tools of self-defense while saying that’s what police are for, and many other things.

Those aren’t the cravings of a healthy mind or spirit.

If you’ve ever wanted more government than you have, you are addicted and on a self-destructive path. Are you suffering any discomfort or emotional distress at all? If so, you are feeling the effects of withdrawal caused by your government addiction.

I’d love to help you kick your habit. You may think I’m joking; I’m not.

Like all addictions, breaking the addiction to government is going to hurt. Withdrawal is never fun. It is so much easier to chase after one more hit; one more law to ease the pain for the moment. If someone offers you a hit of government, and you take it, you’ve fed your addiction. You’ve kicked the can down the road. You’ve delayed healing rather than facing the problem and dealing with it in a responsible manner. It’s your choice.

Addicts are responsible for their choices. No one is obligated to bail them out or save them from themselves. Yes, it is hard to watch someone hurt themselves. Worse, irresponsible behavior always has innocent victims; those who never asked to be a part of the sickness, but who get dragged down with the junkie.

This unique chance to break your addiction won’t last forever. When it ends, and someone offers you a hit of your old vice, I hope you’ll be strong enough to say “no.” To say you don’t need the poison anymore. If you need someone to talk to, to help you through the pain of withdrawal, I’m here for you. I’m completely serious.

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On Voluntaryists IV

One notable difference between voluntaryists and coercivists are the former’s insistence on tackling issues from their root, largely dug deep in a coercive foundation. Coercivists prefer to hack away at the branches with nary a concern for those whose lives and liberties they may be violating. Drug addiction is a problem of traumatic childhoods and broken social bonds. You can either examine and deal with the root, or throw guns and prisons at the branches in a futile attempt at solving the problem. Likewise for “illegal” immigration, human trafficking, terrorists, business cycles, and every other socio-economic problem that stems from utilizing coercion. Voluntaryists know better, if only the world would listen. And that’s today’s two cents.

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Ego Dropping: The Magic of Breaking Free from Self-Concern

There’s a mindfulness technique I’ve been practicing for a number of years now, and when I can do it, it’s like magic.

The practice is dropping the ego — dropping my self-concern, my sense of being separate from everything else, and returning to wholeness with everything.

While that can sound a bit new age-y, what I’ve learned is that almost all of our problems are caused by our self-concern.

Consider these common problems:

  • Angry at someone else: We’re mad because they were inconsiderate to us, insulted or offended us, made us feel bad about ourselves. But that’s because we’re caught up in self-concern. We are thinking about ourselves and how they’ve hurt us. Dropping self-concern, we can see that this other person is hurt in some way, and reacting badly because of it (which we all do sometimes).
  • Worried about failing: We might not try to do a big project, start a business, write a book, found a non-profit organization, create art … because we’re worried we’ll be a failure. This is obviously self-concern. Without this focus on ourselves, we might focus on the people we’re serving, or focus on just getting started without worrying too much about the perfect outcome.
  • Procrastination: We all procrastinate in some way, and this is always caused by self-concern. We don’t want to face the discomfort of a difficult task, which is worrying about our comfort (self-concern). Dropping that self-concern, we can just get started without worrying about our comfort, without worrying about failing, without worrying that the task is too hard. Just get started, serving others through doing.
  • Anxious about a social situation: Going to an event, we worry about what other people will think of us, which is again, our focus on ourselves. Dropping that self-concern, we can think about how going to this even might serve others, we can go there with curiosity about other people, we can go and grow as we practice mindfulness at the event.
  • Eating too much junk: Like all comforts (games, porn, videos, shopping, etc.), food is a way to comfort ourselves, to give ourselves pleasure. Dropping self-concern, we can see that eating more junk food will lead to worse health, which is not only hurting us but those who we serve in the world. Instead, we can put delicious healthy foods into our bodies to nourish ourselves.
  • Not exercising enough: Again, this is usually a focus on our own comfort. It’s uncomfortable to exercise, it’s more comfortable to sit and look at a computer some more. Dropping self-concern, we can see that exercise is necessary to do the work we want to do, to live a healthy and happy life, to be a vibrant member of our community. And it can also be wonderful, if we let go of a need for constant comfort.
  • Too distracted: We’re constantly checking our phones, social media, messages, email, news sites, and much more. What’s going on here? We’re caught up in self-concern — what others think of us, our comfort and pleasure, fears of missing out on things, etc. All of it is self-concern. Dropping self-concern, we can let go of checking anything for a little while, and stay with the discomfort of focusing on one thing so we can get our meaningful work done, or have a meaningful connection with another person or with nature.
  • Addictions: Like comfort food, addictions are about the self-concern we have for our comfort. For example, alcohol addiction is often a way to comfort ourselves when we’re stressed, feeling bad about ourselves, feeling angry or depressed. These are all forms of self-concern. Dropping self-concern, we can go through the discomfort of not indulging in our addictions because we know that they’re damaging not only to ourselves but to everyone we love, and to the work we want to do in the world.

There are many other kinds of problems, of course, but you can see that self-concern lies at the root of almost all of them. Dropping self-concern means that we can serve others, push into discomfort for the benefit of those around us, and serve a bigger mission with meaningful work.

So how can we drop this self-concern, which could also be called “ego”?

The answer lies in mindfulness practices. I’m going to teach you one here, and encourage you to practice it.

The result is nothing short of magical. All of these problems become easier, and life changes.

The Mindfulness Practice of Ego Dropping

This practice can be done anywhere, no matter what you’re doing, but it’s best started sitting still, in a quiet place.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sit still and notice how your body feels. Find a comfortable, stable seated position, and just notice how your body feels. Scan your body and notice as many sensations as you can. Then just hold all of your bodily sensations in your awareness at once, or as many as you can.
  2. When your mind wanders, bring it back to the present. Your mind might get caught up in thoughts — that’s OK. Just notice that, and come back to the sensations of the present moment, whichever step you’re on.
  3. Open your awareness to sensations all around you. Next, keep your open awareness, but widen it to include sound sensations from all around you, then touch sensations from outside your body (the air on your skin, clothes on your body, ground beneath your feet), then open your eyes (if they were closed) and notice all sight sensation from all around you — light, colors, textures, shapes. Don’t focus on any one thing, just allow your awareness to open to all of these sensations around you.
  4. Keep a relaxed open awareness to just one field of sensation. Keeping this relaxed, gentle open awareness … just allow the sensations outside of your body and inside your body to become one field of sensation. There’s no outside or inside, it’s just all sensation, one big ocean of sensation.
  5. Drop your sense of separation. Let go of any sense that you are separate from everything around you — it’s just one field of sensation. Relax any boundaries and feel at one with everything, returning to wholeness with the universe. It’s just one big open experience, constantly changing as each moment changes.
  6. Notice that there’s no self — just sensation. There’s no “self” as we normally know it — which means we can’t have self-concern. We have dropped the ego, which is something our minds construct, a “self” that’s separate from everything around us and which we need to protect from the world. It just drops away as we practice this relaxed, open awareness, one field of sensation, one ocean of experience. We are whole with the world around us, just as we were in the womb.
  7. From this open awareness, open your heart. Keeping this sense of wide open awareness, dropping separateness, staying in this field of experience … notice your heart in the middle of it. It’s open, tender, loving. It loves everything in its awareness. In fact, your awareness is love, and it is all-encompassing. You send out a universal love equally to everything in your awareness, because none of it is separate from you. No one is separate from you — we’re all interconnected.

Here’s a guided meditation I recorded on this mindfulness practice (right click to save to your computer).

This takes practice, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t get it at first. Sit and practice daily. Try it when you’re on the bus or driving, washing the dishes or in a meeting. You can practice anywhere, doing anything.

What happens once you drop the ego and drop into a wide open, gentle, loving awareness? Magic. You don’t have to run to comfort and away from discomfort, you don’t have to protect your self-image from others, you don’t have to defend yourself or worry about failure or being judged. All of that self-concern drops away, and you are left with two things: peace, and an open heart.

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