The Benefits of My Evangelical Upbringing

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

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

Those benefits are philosophical. Epistemological, not aesthetic.

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

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

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

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

I was disappointed.

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

This was a real shock to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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Elitism for Everybody

While not everyone is great, everyone can be.

This may be my most American idea.

As Gordon Wood argues in American Characters, we live in a populist country founded by elitists: a strange twist in history that has given to a mass population personal role models who had extraordinary (if flawed) personal character.

We’re taught from an early age that we should look up to and imitate founders like George Washington – a landed aristocrat – and Thomas Jefferson – who was reading Latin and Greek classics in his teens. There’s an idea in most of our educational systems that we can be like these men.

That’s a pretty crazy idea. It’s a pretty wonderful one, because it’s true (we can exceed those men). And it breaks categories.

It’s not a pure egalitarian idea. Egalitarianism is a leveling force. This idea calls us to go higher, and to be as good or better than men who were superior to their cultures.

But it’s also a revolutionary idea. In calling everyone to become elite, this American idea redefines aristocracy. It offers admission to anyone – if they’re good enough, that is.

It’s a hard belief to maintain, but I want to believe and try to act in a way that assumes that everyone can (in some way) become great and virtuous. It may be the idea that makes America special. It’s the idea that makes it possible for me to work hard to make the world better. I want to believe that there is some profound and great potential in every person.

As far as I know, that idea hasn’t been disproven. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, the idea of “egalitarian elitism” may not have been tried and found wanting, but found difficult and left mostly untried.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Defending the Castle

My first house was eight-hundred and twenty square feet, in a “working class” neighborhood beyond the city limits at the edge of hundreds of acres of woods.

I was home alone one day. My days off were Thursday and Sunday, so this would have been a Thursday afternoon.

My (at-the-time) wife had the car with her (the other one must have been in the shop) so it looked like no one was home.

I was back in the bedroom and heard the front door open and someone come in. I glanced out the window but the car wasn’t there so it wasn’t my wife getting home early.

I grabbed the .22 rifle sitting in the corner and walked to the living room and the front door.

There, in the middle of the room looking a bit shocked, was a boy of around 10 years old. I wasn’t pointing the rifle at him, but I had it ready and asked what he was doing in my house. He stammered that he was looking for me. I said “Well, here I am. What do you want?

He couldn’t come up with a plausible story and I told him to get out and to never set foot on my property again. As far as I know, he didn’t.

A couple of weeks later I heard that several houses in the neighborhood had been burgled— with TVs being the most commonly stolen object. This kid wasn’t big enough to carry most TVs of the era (mid to late 1980s), but he was big enough to scope out houses for an older sibling or a parent. I was glad I was paying attention and glad I looked scary enough that I didn’t seem worth the risk.

But I did start locking the door when I was home alone.

My yard eventually became scary enough that no one wanted to come near my house, anyway. Not even the meter readers for the electric utility, who told my dad– their boss– that a Satan worshiper lived in that house. They came to this conclusion because there were skulls and strange “ritual objects” in the yard.  It turns out they were scared of my tomahawk block and my sling target (which was a cow skull on a crude tripod). Plus, I didn’t mow except for a narrow strip right around the house (I’ve never believed in mowing our lawns). Whatever works, right?

Some defense is active and some is passive. I support the use of both.

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I Dream of Anarchy

Literally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Real Democracy Requires a Separation of Money and State

As we enter a new year, the running battle between the world’s governments and the world-changing technology known as “cryptocurrency” continues. As 2019 drew to an end, Swiss president Ueli Maurer asserted that Facebook’s digital currency (not a real cryptocurrency), Libra, has failed “because central banks will not accept the basket of currencies underpinning it.”

Politicians want to regulate — or, if possible, kill — cryptocurrency.

Large firms like Facebook want to capture cryptocurrency’s potential without rocking those governments’ boats.

Cryptocurrency advocates want democracy. Yes, democracy.

Of all the important words in the English language, “democracy” (from the Greek demokratia, “rule by the people”) may be the most fuzzily defined. Some people define it in terms of raw majoritarianism, others as one of various forms of representative government.

I define “democracy” in words used by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. “Democracy,” to my mind, is government that enjoys the “consent of the governed.”

Not just the consent of 50% plus one of the governed, and certainly not just the consent of a few big players who can afford lobbyists and bribes to get their way, but the consent of ALL the governed.

One major hinge on which the door of democracy as I define it swings is control of money — who may create it, how it may be used, and what portion of it must be handed over to government for “public” uses those paying the bills may or may not approve of.

Involuntary taxation is the opposite of the consent of the governed. It’s the opposite of democracy. We can have financial regulators and central banks, or we can have democracy. We can’t have both.

Cryptocurrency threatens the reign of government over money. It bodes a future in which, as an old antiwar slogan puts it, the Air Force will have to hold a bake sale if it wants to buy a new bomber.

That’s the future I want. It’s also the future that politicians, regulators and central bankers fear.

They don’t want to have to ASK you to fund their schemes.  They’re not interested in requesting your consent. They prefer to simply demand your compliance.

The ability to anonymously handle our finances without reporting them to government or involuntarily giving it a cut is a revolutionary development. And it’s here, now. More and more of us are using cryptocurrency, and the politicians are panicking.

While cryptocurrency won’t entirely kill involuntary taxation — land can’t be easily hidden, so we can expect property taxes to persist — it will make the global economy harder for governments to manipulate and milk.

The inevitable future of cryptocurrency, absent a new Dark Age in which we all go back to plowing with mules and reading rotting old books by candlelight, is a future without income and sales taxes (to name two of the biggest and most pernicious).

The ruling class will do everything it can to prevent the coming separation of money and state.

They’ll fail. And democracy will flourish. See you at the bake sale.

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#GIRLBOSS Author Left School, Built $100 Million Company

I love reading books about successful entrepreneurs and how they got there. Generally, these entrepreneurs share common qualities of ingenuity, hard work, and determination to turn opportunity into a thriving enterprise. I recently finished Sophia Amoruso’s book, #GIRLBOSS, and was blown away by this young woman’s accomplishments. She went from selling vintage used clothing on eBay to running a 350-person, $100 million apparel company, Nasty Gal, in eight years. Wow.

I had heard about this bestselling book when it was first published in 2014. Likely in a sleep-deprived stupor with my littlest newborn at the time, I didn’t get a chance to read it until it appeared in our Little Free Library in our front yard a few weeks ago. It’s a fascinating, fast-paced book that is hard to put down.

The first page offers a chronology of Amoruso’s life, including this detail from 2000: “I hate high school, and am sent to a psychiatrist who diagnoses me with depression and ADD. I try the white pills. I try the blue pills. I decide that if this is what it’s going to take to like high school, forget it. I throw the pills away and decide to homeschool.”

I often write about how conventional forced schooling can stifle creativity, exuberance, and human flourishing. It prioritizes conformity over self-determination. Square pegs don’t fit well into round holes, and the hole of standardized schooling is growing increasingly narrow and deep. Amoruso refused to be squished into that hole.

Later in her book, Amoruso shares more details about her schooling experience. She writes:

The pure mechanics of the traditional school system were spirit crushing. I felt it was the Man’s way of training America’s youth to endure a lifetime repeating the behaviors taught in school, but in an office environment. I felt like a prisoner. I woke up at the same every day and sat in the same chairs five days a week. I had no more autonomy than a Pavlovian dog.

We should listen to the entrepreneurs. Questioning the status quo is often what makes them highly successful. They don’t tolerate how things are and instead work toward creating what could be. They dream and they do, fueled by the human drive to explore and invent. Amoruso continues:

It’s unfortunate that school is so often regarded as a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. And if it doesn’t fit, you’re treated as if there is something wrong with you; so it is you, not the system, which is failing. Now, I’m not trying to give every slacker a free pass to cut class and head straight to Burger King, but I do think we should acknowledge that school isn’t for everyone. So, #GIRLBOSS, if you suck at school, don’t let it kill your spirit. It does not mean that you are stupid or worthless, or that you are never going to succeed at anything. It just means that your talents lie elsewhere, so take the opportunity to seek out what you are good at, and find a place where you can flourish.

How many young entrepreneurs are sitting in one-size-fits-all classrooms today being told to conform, to bury their creativity and hide their originality? How many are being forced to squeeze into a pre-cut round hole? How many are made to feel stupid? How many of these talented individuals are losing their inner spark, and how many of us will lose from the enterprises, masterpieces, and inventions they may never build?

Freeing these young people from conventional classrooms will help them to pioneer the unconventional goods and services that drive human progress and improve our lives.

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