The Speech of Heroes

Almost everyone loves the idea of “speaking truth to power.”  Standing tall, talking boldly, consequences be damned – how heroic!

Yet on reflection, this Speech of Heroes takes two radically different forms.

The most common Speech of Heroes, by far, upholds Social Desirability Bias.  Example: “Everyone should be completely equal” sounds wonderful, but no actual society follows through.  Many self-styled heroic orators respond along these lines:

Equality!  We all say we believe in it.  We know it’s the right path.  Yet we are a den of hypocrites!  We pay lip service to the ideal of equality, but when inequality glares at us from every corner, we avert out eyes.  Shame on us!  Shame!  I say unto you, we must practice what we preach.  Let us live the equality we love.  Put apathy aside, my brothers and sisters.  Let us tear down all the inequalities we see.  Then let us ferret out every lingering pocket of inequality.  We must tear power from the grasp of all the corrupt leaders who casually say they oppose inequality but never do anything about it.  Together we can, should, will, and must build a totally equal society!

This kind of heroic rhetoric is standard in religious societies.  The sacred texts provide a strict blueprint for life, yet the government makes only a token effort to strictly implement the blueprint.  In response, the heroic orator sticks out his neck, decries the hypocrisy of the Powers That Be, and demands strict adherence to the holy book.  Which is music to the ears of every pious members of this society.  See the Protestant Reformation or radical Islamism for nice examples.

Notice, however, that this heroic rhetoric also dominates socialist and nationalist oratory.  Step 1: Loudly and clearly affirm a crowd-pleasing ideal.  Step 2: Decry the obvious hypocrisy of the status quo.  Step 3: Promise to strictly implement the crowd-pleasing ideal.  You’ve got socialist slogans like, “Social ownership of the means of production,” “Complete equality,” or “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  You’ve got nationalist slogans like, “Death before dishonor,” “Germany for the Germans,” or “The safety and prosperity of all our people.”  In each case, the speaker presents himself as a hero by puritanically appealing to popular sentiment.

Once in a long while, however, we encounter a radically different form of heroic oratory.  Instead of upholding Social Desirability Bias, the hero frontally attacks it.  As in:

Equality!  You all pay lip service to it, but who really believes it?  Why should people who produce and contribute the most receive the same treatment as people who do little or nothing?  You love to denounce the hypocrites who say they believe in equality but fail to deliver it.  But I say to you: Those hypocrites keep you alive!  In a totally equal society, there’s no incentive to do anything but kvetch.  If you’re tired of hypocrisy, remember that there are two ways to end it.  You could strictly implement this monstrous ideal of equality.  Or you could proclaim the truth: Equality is a monstrous ideal!  Let’s raise the banner of meritocracy, and thank our greatest producers instead of scapegoating them.

In a religious society, the analogue would naturally be rationalistic atheism: “Forget these pathetic ‘holy’ books, fantasies written long ago by ignorant fanatics.”  In a nationalist society, the analogue would be along the lines of, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” or even, “Our country is not the best in the world.  It’s not even average.  It’s below average – and things won’t improve until we admit our failures and humbly emulate the winners.”

Which form of oratory is more heroic?  Once you take Social Desirability Bias seriously, the answer is clear.  You can’t “speak truth to power” unless you speak the truth.  Implausible scenarios where Social Desirability Bias and the truth coincidentally converge, appealing to Social Desirability Bias is deeply unheroic.  Even villainous.

And truth aside, challenging your society’s fundamental values takes a lot more courage than merely decrying the violation of those values.

Yes, when you damn ruling elites for hypocrisy, those elites often retaliate.  Rhetorically, however, you’re still taking the path of low resistance.  You start with simple-minded feel-good slogans with broad appeal.  Then you point out corruption flagrant enough for anyone to see.

When you denounce your society’s fundamental values, however, you outrage elites and masses alike.  When you merely attack hypocrisy, elites have to worry about making a martyr out of you.  When you spurn Social Desirability Bias, in contrast, elites win popular support by teaching you the price of arrogance.  Who but a hero would openly challenge such a powerful pair of enemies?

Do I hold myself out as a man who embodies the Speech of Heroes?  Barely.  While I routinely challenge Social Desirability Bias, my society remains highly tolerant.  No one’s going to jail me for my words.  Indeed, since I have tenure, no one will even fire me for my words.  If I lived in a normal repressive society, I would publicly say far less than I do.  A gold-star hero would publicly express thoughts like mine… while living in Communist China or Saudi Arabia.

While I wouldn’t advise you to try this, anyone who does so is my hero.

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Courage: Use It While You Have It

“What do you fear, lady?” [Aragorn] asked.
“A cage,” [Éowyn] said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”

The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien

“Gone beyond recall or desire.” What Tolkien’s female Lord of the Rings heroine Eowyn fears most is not death or even the dark lord Sauron – it’s the loss of her desire for adventure.

Tolkien gets at a real, healthy fear here: courage does have an expiration date.

Youth gives us some natural boldness and courage. Testosterone helps. Anger or indignation might give us another temporary boost. Desperation drives us to boldness, as does loyalty and protection of those we love. But all of these motivators to courageous action are finite, though. And ignored often enough, they will start to burn less and less brightly.

I think it’s safe to bet that we all spend a good deal of my time analyzing and wondering about what will happen if we make bold moves (rather than actually making bold moves). Only a couple of times a year – or a decade – do we have the fire in our bellies to actually make the bold moves and damn the consequences.

This is a new decade, and it’s a perfect time to start making the most of the courage we do have, when we have it. Let’s not sit on our boldness. And who knows? We might even get some more out of the deal.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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David Friedman: A Consequentialist Theory of Anarcho-Capitalism (1h47m)

This episode features a lecture by economics professor David Friedman from 2013. He looks at anarcho-capitalist political theory from its consequences in the economy and to society. Purchase books by David Friedman on Amazon here.

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Controlled Choice Isn’t School Choice

I recently heard the term “libertarian paternalism.” It was presented in an article about health care, specifically doctor-patient relationships, as a strategy for helping patients choose among the various best options the doctor recommends. There were many good points in this article about personalizing medicine, but that term made me cringe. Taken literally, “libertarian paternalism” means the free will to select among the choices that some authority figure determines is in your best interest. I don’t like this term, mainly because it’s an oxymoron. The dictionary definition of “libertarian” is a person who believes in the doctrine of free will. To add a caveat that limits free will to options chosen by some allegedly omniscient actor rubs me the wrong way. And yet, we see this contradictory and demeaning idea enacted in many areas of life, especially education.

The comparable term in education is “controlled choice,” or the idea that someone will pre-select among the best options and then allow an end-user (e.g., a student or a family) to choose from among those established options. At the student level, controlled choice might look like a teacher announcing a unit on US presidents and then letting the learner pick which one to research. Central planning, even when seemingly well-thought-out and with good intentions, ultimately restricts free will.Or it could look like a lesson on mammals in which a teacher allows the child to pick the elephant group, the bat group, or the whale group. In this environment, the teacher (or curriculum developer) decides what the child will learn but allows the child some discretion. It’s a lot like reading a choose-your-own-ending book: It can make the story more enjoyable, but only if you are interested in the overall theme. We can contrast controlled choice at the learner level with self-directed education in which the child is fully in control of what, how, when, and with whom she learns.

At the macro level, controlled choice manifests in policies that allow families some degree of choice over their assigned district school, as long as it meets a district’s overall enrollment distribution goals. My city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of the first to enact this type of controlled choice program in 1981 as a way to let families choose among the city’s various public elementary schools through a ranking system, as long as each school met its preferred socioeconomic distribution quota. The goal was economic integration and improved academic performance, particularly for disadvantaged students, while retaining some choice beyond a zipcode school assignment.

Controlled Choice Programs Results

But new research reveals that controlled choice programs in many urban districts have not achieved their intended goals of socioeconomic integration or the narrowing of achievement gaps between high- and low-income students. An in-depth analysis by David Armor of the Cato Institute finds that not only were intended goals not reached but also that unintended consequences, including “white flight,” were widespread in controlled choice districts. Armor concludes:

Most larger school districts that have implemented controlled-choice plans have experienced (or are experiencing) demographic changes like those experienced during race-based busing, meaning the loss (or “flight”) of white and middle-class families. Moreover, there is ample evidence that economic diversity is not producing academic benefits for poor children in these districts. In other words, controlled choice can bring much pain and controversy for little or no educational gains, at least as measured by test scores.

Central planning, even when seemingly well-thought-out and with good intentions, ultimately restricts free will. Concerned that when given real freedom individuals will make the wrong choice, those with power often seek to limit—or control—choice. It is true that freedom means the freedom to make bad choices, but that isn’t a compelling reason to curb one’s freedom to choose. It’s also important to note that what constitutes a “bad choice” is subjective. Individual freedom means toleration of individual choices. As the Nobel prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty:

What is im­portant is not what freedom I per­sonally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things bene­ficial to society. This freedom we can assure to the unknown person only by giving it to all.

Hayek goes on to say that the essence of real freedom is humility. He wrote:

All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest.

Controlled choice, libertarian paternalism, or any number of similarly discrepant terms suggest that appointed wise ones should have the power and influence to coerce others through policy or decree. Those of us who truly believe in the doctrine of free will should recoil at attempts to add qualifiers to its promise.

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The Gods Whose Sacrifices We Neglect

The old gods have a lot to teach us.

Sure, we all know that the Greek pantheon – Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Hades, Ares, Athena, Artemis, Demeter, Dionysus, and the rest – don’t *really* exist.

But there is a reason people chose these characters to personify their understanding of the world. As psychologist Jordan Peterson points out, each god (in all of his or her power and pettiness) represents some of the fundamental human drives or attributes – sex, intelligence, wrath, independence.

The old Greek pantheon is a sophisticated way for understanding the complex human mind, which is home to many powerful needs and drives that sometimes act like personalities.

Like the gods of legend, these “gods” of our personality don’t like people who spurn them. And it doesn’t take a long look into Greek mythology to know that the gods do awful things to people they don’t like. Afflictions of madness, afflictions of lust, transformation into animals – it’s not pretty.

Aren’t fighting for your rights, your ideas, or your self-respect? You are neglecting Ares (the god of war) and he will exact his sacrifice someway. Usually this will look like a gradual building resentment, with an explosion of anger toward someone who doesn’t deserve it at a time it’s not called for.

Aren’t honoring or expressing your own sexuality? You may be offending Aphrodite (who brought about the downfall of Heracles – so not someone to be messed with). She’ll have her due, in uncontrolled, warped, or frustrated desire.

Aren’t preserving your independence and purity? Giving in to the crowd? Surrendering what makes you unique? In a sense you are offending the virgin goddess Artemis, who is perhaps the scariest of them all (she’ll turn you into a stag and have your own hounds kill you).

It’s all imagination, I know. But I still find it interesting to think of my own drives or needs as personalities. With personalities, at least we can bargain. We can make the sacrifices that all good Greeks knew to make. And we can remember that neglecting any of the gods has terrible consequences.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Christopher Coyne: Why Humanitarian Action Fails (46m)

This episode features a lecture by economics professor Christopher Coyne from 2014. He discusses the sometimes disastrous unforeseen consequences of poorly-planned humanitarian interventions around the world. Purchase books by Christopher Coyne on Amazon here.

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