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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Economics 101: Opportunity Cost & Wizard’s Fifth Rule: Deeds Will Betray a Lie (22m) – Episode 285

Episode 285 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following topics: a list of things teachers say to manipulate and control children in the classroom; he continues the Economics 101 mini-series with “opportunity cost”; he also continues the Wizard’s Rules mini-series with the fifth rule, “Mind what people do, not only what they say, for deeds will betray a lie”; and more.

Listen to Episode 285 (22m, mp3, 64kbps)

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In the Grain

Nobody asked but …

As has been made clear by countless libertarian sages, there are only two classes — the first seeks freedom and the second wants to intervene in that search for freedom.  I have been listening to an old set of podcasts from the Mises Institute’s The Libertarian Tradition, presented by Jeff Riggenbach. In one episode, Jeff points out that European civilization in the North American new world was founded by two distinct types of adventurer, the first sought freedom from the old order, while the second sought to impose a new order.  We Americans, as a people have been in fundamental conflict ever since.  Riggenbach says it is the instance of individualists versus the zealots.  Individualists make their own goals, take their own actions, and accept all responsibility for the consequences of those actions.  Zealots want to dictate your goals, command your actions, blame you for consequences, and blur the lines of responsibility.

Throughout the history of society, there have been struggles for the collectivization of individualists.  But in the new land that would become the USA, the battle lines were far more clearly drawn among those who would colonize America, those who would seek freedom according to individual codes against those who would create new empires modeled upon the old empires.

A libertarian/voluntaryist/individualist/anarchist always looks for the simplest rule of thumb by which to gauge the self’s deeds with regard to consistency of principle.  Let me suggest the question, am I doing a thing that is my business, or am I doing a thing that will shape somebody else’s business?

— Kilgore Forelle

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Connecting Your Work Tasks to Meaning

I’m really good at getting a lot of things done, taking action, piling up a buttload of completed tasks.

Action isn’t my problem — it’s making the tasks themselves feel more meaningful.

Do any of you have that problem, that your work just feels like busywork, not super meaningful?

By the way, if your problem is not taking action … here’s my action rules:

  1. Pick important things to work on
  2. Do only one of them at a time
  3. Set aside everything else and do only that one task
  4. Make it smaller so it’s easier to start
  5. Feel the joy of getting stuff done

And yes, getting stuff done is so much fun. But at the end of the day, you just churned through a whole bunch of things, and it doesn’t feel that meaningful. Sure, at least you didn’t just procrastinate all day, didn’t fritter the day away in distractions … but there’s more to life than just churning and being super busy.

Let’s talk instead about meaning.

The Joy of Meaningful Work

Not everyone has the luxury of doing meaningful work — maybe you have to work at a fast food restaurant just to buy groceries, for example. I get that. I’m incredibly lucky to have work that I find meaningful.

But it is one of the most incredible things I’ve been able to create in my life. Purposeful work. Work that feels like I’m doing something good in the world.

People in all kinds of fields have found meaningful work — it’s usually when you’ve done some good in the lives of others. Teachers who see a kid’s eyes light up when they do a science experiment or read a good story. Nurses who help someone who is in pain. Volunteers who help with a project that makes a community better. Writers who inform or delight or provoke. Mothers who help babies grow into wonderful people. A bus driver who keeps his students safe so they can learn. Scientists who are advancing human knowledge. Yoga teachers who bring a measure of inner peace to people’s mornings. A flower gardener whose product will make people’s homes happier. A counselor who helps someone deal with their grief or anxiety. A software engineer whose app empowers creators. An artist whose work gives people a new way of seeing the world. A personal trainer who helps her clients get healthier. A coach who helps his clients make breakthroughs in their lives.

And it’s my belief that anyone can find meaning in their work. Work in an office? Maybe it can feel meaningful to serve your team so that their work gets done easier, or so that the project they’re doing actually gets done. Maybe you help brighten people’s day with your positivity or sense of humor. Maybe you delight your customers with your service. Work as a janitor? Imagine not cleaning for a week and think about how miserable people would be — your work makes their lives better, even if they don’t realize it. A feeling of meaning can come even if the people benefitting don’t realize what you’ve done. Just knowing you’ve made lives better is a wonderful thing.

Meaning is anything that makes lives better — your own life included. If you are putting smiles on people’s faces, helping them find mindfulness, helping them make a living, making their jobs easier or their headaches smaller … you’re doing something meaningful.

Meaningful work is all around us, and it is deeply satisfying. Even joyful, if we can connect to that meaning instead of going through the motions.

Connecting Your Work Tasks to Meaning

It’s one thing to realize how meaningful your work is … and another to actually feel that meaning throughout the day.

The key tools to help you connect any task to meaning are these:

  1. The Pause. Before you start a task, pause. Then check in with yourself about why this is meaningful (see next two tools). If you’re in the middle of the task and you’ve gotten into Get It Done mode, pause. Check-in. If you’re moving through your day mindlessly, pause. Check-in again. Do this all day long — pause and check in. Then do the next things on this list.
  2. The Why. When you pause, check in and ask yourself why you’re doing this. Why is it meaningful? Whose life will be made better in some small way? For example, as I write this, I imagine one of you might feel that their work is a little more meaningful. Maybe two of you. That warms my heart (see next step). As I went to yoga class with my daughter this morning, it felt really meaningful to be bringing mindfulness and activity into her life. As I did a coaching call with someone today, it felt meaningful to support their incredible work in the world. As I did chinups with my son this afternoon, it felt meaningful to be bonding with him doing something active. Why does this matter to you? Why is this important enough to be in your life? Connect your task to this Why.
  3. The Heart. It’s one thing to intellectually know why you’re doing something, and to know in your head why it’s meaningful … but quite another to feel the meaning in your heart. When you think about someone’s life being made better, try to feel the pleasure of doing something good for them. How often do we let ourselves feel pleasure? Feel the love you have for them, in your heart. Feel the joy of putting a smile on their face or easing their burden. You don’t need them to know — but it’s a wonderful thing to do this for them.

It’s that simple. Pause. Check in with your Why. And feel the pleasure, the joy, the love, in your heart.

Keep coming back to that, and tell me your life isn’t better.

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Be the Euphoria You Want To See In the World

Euphoria, n. A feeling or state of intense excitement and happiness

When I experience euphoria

I’m a pretty stereotypical runner guy now. So I’d have to tell you first about the euphoria that kicks in several miles into a long run. I’ve written before that it’s like:

You become an animal – something far more basic than your everyday self. You feel amazing, transcendent even – and you also feel desperate. You are being tested and rewarded. You sweat out your distractions, your pettiness, your greed, your insecurities.

This sort of thing isn’t unique to running, though.

I might get it when I wrap up a difficult jiu jitsu class (or some other session learning some difficult skill).

I just about always get it when I’m vulnerable with someone about attraction, or my failures, or difficult truths.

And I probably get it when I work my butt off to organize an event at work or home, when I’m working late in the office and no one’s around*, and when I hit “send” on an email delivering a hard project at 3 AM in the morning.

The common denominator is that I experience this kind of euphoria whenever I confront the things I might tend to avoid. Chemically, it’s adrenaline. Psychologically, it’s conditioning. Spiritually, it’s growth.

The world becomes lighter, I become stronger, and everything falls into place because I know I can take it.

But there’s also euphoria in reflection and dreaming.

When I’m going for a long drive I’ll reflect on where I’ve been and the beauty and chance and hard work (my own and others’) that has gotten me to where I am. There’s a euphoria that comes with realizing that (despite the many problems) you’re living in the fairest, freest, healthiest, wealthiest, and most peaceful society in all of human history.

Also while I’m driving, I’m probably listening to film scores (one of my favorite genres, judge me) and imagining a more adventurous life. If I’m going fast, with the windows down, with courage, and with the hope of a challenge ahead, I’ll feel just a bit euphoric. Heck, I get this sometimes on the way to work, right where I get to pick up speed.

When I see euphoria in the world

I wouldn’t say I often see euphoria – it’s pretty hard to separate from normal happiness or excitement from the outside looking in. But I do see often enough when people come alive – that low-level hum of euphoria and joy that can characterize not just a moment but a life.

You can tell pretty fast whether someone has that low-level euphoria. They voluntarily spend their time exploring a topic. They start talking faster when it comes up. They alternate between grinning with joy and frowning with focus. They own the adrenaline rush, and their initiative is magnetic. It makes you want to work harder.

I see something like this when I see great young apprentices in the Praxis community. They’re often just 18 or so and moving cross-country to work in startups. And the ones that are asking questions, doing hard work, and eking all the value they can get from their experience clearly have that “alive” quality that I don’t see in most young people.

I also see that low-level euphoria when I see great artists at work, like when I saw Lindsey Stirling perform around Christmastime. She may have been tired after a long tour of the same routine, but she did not show it. In the dancing, the decor, the stories, the music, the humor there was this sense of tremendous effort but also of effortless joy. Stirling was someone who from love brought together all of the best of human potential into this show. You have to be alive to do something like that.

So I suppose the answer is the same – if you want to see euphoria, go where the effort is. You can find it at celebrations occasionally, but you’ll find it often where the most sparks are flying.

Be the euphoria you want to see

How do I contribute to euphoria?

I guess I start by experiencing a lot of euphoria (when I can). I’m a big fan of the popular Howard Thurman quote:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

What I want to do is show people that it’s possible and practical to live a life of joy. Most people don’t believe that and so don’t find much euphoria.

So a good deal of that is on me. I’ve had experiences that have convinced me that truth (a big prerequisite for undivided joy) is worth it, and that effort is worth it. I want to communicate that. And I’ll do that best by taking as many chances as I can to surprise and delight people into the realization that joy is *right there* for anyone willing to act boldly.

I can encourage euphoria just by finding and encouraging others already on the path to “what makes them come alive.” If you’re an alive person, you can basically expect to have my friendship, or at least my alliance. Your fire is precious and deserves respect (the world is boring without people like you). I will root for you at least, and I might even be willing to fight for you in the extreme.

And what I’d like to continue to develop is a philosophical grounding for joy. People need to know that their struggles are worthwhile and their joy possible and good. Plenty of good thinkers (Ayn Rand for me, especially) have started this work. I’ll continue to try to share the words I’ve learned and find new ones that make the case for joy.

*The euphoria here is not much different than the state of “flow” in psychology.

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Generations, Vices or Crimes, American Letter Mail Company (29m) – Episode 277

Episode 277 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following topics: generational whining about the symptoms of multi-generational statist beliefs; Lysander Spooner’s essay “Vices are Not Crimes” as written about in a November 2009 essay; Lysander Spooner’s battle with the US Federal government over first-class letter delivery; and more.

Listen to Episode 277 (29m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “everything voluntary”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc.

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