Bowling Alone: How Washington Has Helped Destroy American Civil Society and Family Life

Church attendance in the United States is at an all-time low, according to a Gallup poll released in April 2019. This decline has not been a steady one. Indeed, over the last 20 years, church attendance has fallen by 20 percent. This might not sound like cause for concern off the bat. And if you’re not a person of faith, you might rightly wonder why you would care about such a thing.

Church attendance is simply a measure of something deeper: social cohesion. It’s worth noting that the religions with the highest rate of attendance according to Pew Forum have almost notoriously high levels of social cohesion: Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelical Protestants, and historically black churches top the list.

There’s also the question of religious donations. Religious giving has declined by 50 percent since 1990, according to a 2016 article in the New York Times. This means people who previously used religious services to make ends meet now either have to go without or receive funding from the government. This, in turn, strengthens the central power of the state.

It is our position that civil society – those elements of society which exist independently of big government and big business – are essential to a functioning and free society. What’s more, these institutions are in rapid decline in the United States, and have been for over 50 years.

Such a breakdown is a prelude to tyranny, and has been facilitated in part (either wittingly or unwittingly) by government policies favoring deindustrialization, financialization and centralization of the economy as well as the welfare state. The historical roots of this breakdown are explored below, along with what concerned citizens can do to mitigate its impact on their loved ones.

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Find Community, Give, Receive, Repeat

Last night at a beer garden here in Atlanta, I got to see what a healthy modern tribe could look like.

I was meeting with dozens of new and old participants, alumni, and team members from Praxis, the startup apprenticeship program that helped launch my career. If it sounds like a staid old business conference, it wasn’t.

The atmosphere most closely resembled a family reunion more than anything. People were snapping photos and perching on picnic tables, and everyone felt free to talk to everyone else. Shared values and mission brought together people of different genders, ethnic backgrounds, places, ages, religions, and more.

Because of all the differences we brought to the gathering, there was this beautiful cycle of exchange at play – particularly between veterans and beginners. I received affirmation and welcome from mentors and role models. They received thanks and praise from me. I gave affirmation and welcome to younger, newer members of the community. They in turn honored me for my experience.

Everyone had a role to play in the cycle of exchange that comes with a healthy community – and everyone walked away with something. Communities like last night’s little ephemeral gathering provide opportunities to work, explore, play, support others, and receive support and encouragement ourselves. For me (and I suppose for many people), it felt good to play our roles well within that.

The giving and receiving of a healthy community (reciprocal respect and affirmation) is just *right*, and last night’s event was a small glimpse of what life can be like inside that flow.

What if that giving and receiving wasn’t an exception?

What if we engaged ourselves meaningfully as members of as many communities as possible? Or as meaningfully as possible in single communities?

Obviously adding value and receiving value from community isn’t something that can be done haphazardly. But given that stable, geographically-fixed tribes aren’t a thing anymore, we are going to have to work harder to replicate the feelings of closeness and reciprocal respect and love that we need.

Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to get community (and especially that reciprocal respect-affirmation cycle) in jiu jitsu classes, at church, at work, in my small group, and with my accountability partners. But even these small pockets of integrated community aren’t enough. I want to go deeper into relationship there, and I want to cultivate more areas where I can find reciprocal respect and affirmation.

I’m not one to harp on how we *need* other people (we do to some extent, just like we need independence). But community – and giving and receiving inside community – is not so hard to find and not so hard to recognize as one of life’s great gifts. Let’s make it the rule, not the exception.

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See What You Can Build on Your Own

There’s a sense of personal accomplishment, of self-worth, when you make something with your own hands through your own efforts. Even if you seek guidance from someone with experience, you’ve learned more than you knew before. You’ll probably value the results more than if you had no part in making it.

If, after you do the work yourself, you decide you’d rather pay someone to do it for you next time, at least you now know what’s involved. You will probably have a better sense of whether someone is doing a good job or not. You might be able to tell if they are trying to scam you or overcharge for their services.

To prevent someone from making things on their own is bad in two ways. You show you don’t trust them to be competent, and you keep them from becoming competent; from learning how to do things they’ll value. If you never allow someone to succeed or fail on their own, always doing everything for them, they’ll never really grow up. They’ll never learn responsibility.

Self-government is the same way. Until you try to govern yourself, without any laws or representatives to fall back on, you’re not a fully competent human being. You may even surprise yourself when you discover you don’t need those things, nor do you want them imposed on others. I have more respect for myself than to look for someone to govern others — even my enemies — on my behalf.

To me, insisting that others must be governed for my benefit is a sign of weakness and immaturity.

People tend to live up or down to your expectations.

So how do you govern yourself with your own two hands? Be responsible. Don’t pawn your responsibilities onto others. Don’t expect others to take care of you, or to protect you from threats you should be dealing with on your own. Mind your own business and expect others to mind theirs. If someone violates you, deal with it yourself. Only seek help if absolutely unavoidable, and then only from truly voluntary sources. You aren’t entitled to other people’s time or money, so don’t act as though you are. Governing yourself isn’t achieved through voting or expecting representatives to fix anything. If you want to do that anyway, don’t stop there and think you’ve accomplished something.

See what you can build with the effort of your own mind and hands. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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In Sync: How Business Responds to Gratis Government

Whenever people criticize government provision of a product, clever analysts often demur that private suppliers who compete with government have exactly the same problems.  Part of Helland and Tabarrok‘s case for the Baumol effect in education, for example, is that prices have risen at the same rate in both the public and private sectors:

Prices are much lower at public than at private institutions. The vertical scale is a ratio scale, so equal slopes mean equal rates of growth. Thus, although prices are lower at public institutions, the rate of growth in prices has been similar at private and public institutions. Between 1980 and 2015, real prices more than doubled.

OK, let’s step back.  Picture a typical government service.  The price: gratis.  The quality: mediocre.  Private competition, however, remains legal.  Should we expect the private part of the market to look just as it would under laissez-faire?

No way.  Unless the government rations the free mediocre product, consumers have virtually no reason to ever pay for products of mediocre or lower quality out of their own pockets.   At minimum, then, government’s gratis products kill private production of all products of equal or lower quality – a textbook case of predatory pricing.

That’s not all.  Gratis production also effectively kills private provision of products of moderately higher-than-mediocre quality.  After all, if you can get a C+ product for free, who wants to pay full price for a B- alternative?  With gratis public provision, private providers must convince consumers that the marginal quality improvement is worth the total price of the product.  A tall order.

What does this mean?  Well, if public schools add more low-value services, private schools must keep pace in order to compete.  If public schools add more sports, more specialized teachers, or more courses, private schools that fail to keep up will lose their customers.  The first rule of private competition against gratis government is: Always keep your product quality well above the government’s.  This remains true even if the government adds services that consumers value well below cost.  If you can get them for free from the government, why pay extra for a private school that refuses to offer them?

The lesson: When government supplies free (or highly subsidized) products, we should expect private suppliers to supply gold-plated versions of the standard government-issue.  As a result, their prices and costs will be closely synced.

There are admittedly some exceptions: If government is spending money for no gain at all, private competitors needn’t bother.  If government supplies numerous expensive low-value services, private competitors might decide to just outshine the government on other dimensions.  Most realistically, if government refuses to provide some cheap, highly-valued options (such as religious education), then private competitors can win customers by filling the gap.

Yet overall, when there is a dominant public sector with a private fringe, we should expect the Helland-Tabarrok pattern – without or without a Baumol effect.  Given the pathologies of the public sector, it’s nice to have a private option, but don’t get too excited.  The private options will generally be extravagant, because gratis government strangles budget-friendly alternatives.  Tragically, this in turn sustains the illusion that in the absence of government, only the rich would be able to afford whatever the government now provides.

P.S. Another reason to expect public and private education to closely resemble each other is that both are almost always non-profit.  Morally, yes, there is a major difference between public and private non-profits.  Economically, however, they’re very much alike, because both give managers flimsy incentives to raise value or cut costs.

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If You Hate it, You’re Not the Audience

A lot of people who work in venture capital hate the show Shark Tank.

They feel it portrays an unrealistic image of investing; one that will spread and cause viewers to misunderstand the business and then go on to make terrible choices because of it.

There’s definitely a bit of the Theoretical Man argument going on here, but it’s more than that. The investors who hate the show aren’t the show’s audience. They misunderstand the show’s purpose (besides to entertain).

They compare the show against what they would put in a TV show about investing, which is all the stuff they think is important. But they’re so deep in the business, they don’t realize how many steps a total noob must take to even understand what they consider basics.

I love Shark Tank. I used to watch it with my kids. It exposed them to tons of new concepts. The idea of building a business with someone else’s money was novel. The realization that you’ve got to have a story that’s compelling enough to convince the holders of that money to join. The concept of a “pitch”. The understanding that a good pitch and a good company aren’t always the same thing. The realization that investors can be wrong and can be jerks. And founders can be nice or idiots. The knowledge that investors might collaborate or compete with each other on deals while remaining friends.

It doesn’t even matter if the stories are real or realistic. Uninitiated viewers take away the basic insights. These are so basic that VCs forgot everyone doesn’t know them. But if someone doesn’t know it yet, there’s no way they’ll understand a Medium article about power laws and term sheets.

When you hate something popular, it’s prudent to pause and consider there’s probably something in it that is doing something for those who love it. You don’t have to love it, but it’s probably not supposed to serve your ends anyway. If you can discover the reason it brings value to others, you might navigate the world more effectively and enjoy it more.

(Still trying to understand this when it comes to Old Town Road. I’m not ready to give up yet…there must be something valuable in this song to those who like it).

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I Do Not Fear Flat Earthers

Someone Tweeted the other day that what scares them the most is the growth of anti-scientism among the public, as evidenced by things like the niche of people who believe the earth is flat.

My first reaction to any fearful claims about the state of the world today is skepticism about the superiority of the past. Flat earthers have always existed. I’m not sure if they have actually swelled in number, or just been given a temporary internet celebrity status as the meme of the moment.

But let’s just accept that it’s true. Let’s say anti-scientism is growing. Why is this scary?

I heard someone say if you pursue any field of study deep enough you arrive at mystery. Yet the popular scientistic outlook is the opposite of mysterious. It presents a cocksure, “Everything’s settled but the details, and someone in a lab in Sweden is working those out as we speak”. What kind of invitation to inquiry is that? Where’s the adventure?

There’s a sense in which popular scientism makes the world smaller, rather than more expansive. Specialization need not lead to reductionism, but the fashions in science feel that way.

The funny thing is, scientific thought has a checkered history if you judge it by it’s own standards of what’s scientific. How many of the big conceptual breakthroughs come from alchemists, drug-trippers, and people who prayed to gods or sought mediums? You might be surprised. How many looming figures admit in private discourse their fundamental bafflement with reality, and belief that something like mind, or spirit, or consciousness must be at work in ways that don’t fit the models?

There’s a kind of arrogant front put forward by the PR arm of intelligentsia. If a public company presented it’s business condition in such a way it would be considered fraudulent. The nice, tight, all-but-the-details presentation is not only boring and wrong, it runs counter to the zeitgeist.

The current trend is for openness and transparency. So much so that satirical labels like “Struggle porn” have popped up. Today, people want an unfiltered, rambling, three-hour drinking session on the Joe Rogan podcast instead of a well-written statement at a press conference. People want Medium articles about what it’s really like to run a startup, instead of post-IPO retrospectives. Some entrepreneurs have gotten famous by publishing their monthly income statements for all to see.

What about scientists? We’re confidently assured that they know how the world works, and if we wait patiently a few more years for some lab somewhere to tally some numbers no one’s allowed to see, and submit it to some journals no one can access, and let some anonymous referees behind closed doors approve it, it will see the dark of day and get improperly summarized in a news story and used as a bludgeon against anyone openly exploring other ideas.

No wonder mushroom-taking conspiracy YouTubers are more interesting to people!

I see the openness to fringe theories as a good thing. I think the best way to understand the world is to question it. The more fundamental the question, the better. It’s excellent mental exercise precisely because it’s so hard. If an intelligent 10 year old asked you to prove to them the earth was round, could you do it without appeals to authority? It’s shockingly difficult! And that is the kind of difficulty that should be embraced! That kind of question is the gateway to scientific understanding, and possibly breakthrough!

I say bring on the scientistic skepticism. Hopefully it keeps curiosity in the driver’s seat, rather than an obsessive illusion that we have everything neatly labelled and understood.

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