Too Terrified to Talk About It

I recently compared the fear of contracting coronavirus to the fear of sexual harassment accusations:

Am I really comparing the risk of contracting coronavirus with the risk of being accused of sexual harassment?  Verily, because the parallels are loud and strong.

In both cases, people use social distancing for risk reduction.  In both cases, the risk of most specific interactions is low.  At the same time, however, people encounter an endless succession of risky situations – and the bad outcomes are very bad.  Many (most?) men would rather endure sickness than public accusation.

When I said “many,” I was picturing 10-20%, but I felt genuinely uncertain.  So I decided to run some Twitter polls to get a better handle on the situation.  The results suggest that I was much too cautious; almost 90% of all respondents (not just men) would rather endure sickness than public accusation.  About two-thirds of respondents “definitely” prefer coronavirus.

The results are only slightly milder if you specify a social media scandal rather than a work scandal:

The implied terror made me wonder: If coronavirus pales before sexual harassment accusations, what doesn’t?  So I tried something extreme: work accusation versus a lifetime of celibacy.

Even here, about 25% of respondents prefer celibacy.  While I’m tempted to disbelieve, I guess I can accept that 25% of people fall into at least one of the following categories: (a) highly risk-averse people; (b) people who are no longer very interested in sex; (c) people who think their mating options are very poor.  More strikingly, just over one-third of respondents definitely prefer to endure an accusation.  Notice, moreover, that accusation need not imply the harsh consequences of firing or ostracism.  Celibacy, in contrast, is a life sentence by construction.

At this point, I decided to flip the survey around.  Sure, being accused of sexual harassment is bad; but perhaps it’s comparable to the badness of being sexually harassed.  The result?  Only about a third of my respondents deem workplace sexual harassment worse than coronavirus:

Kahneman’s work on focusing illusion reminds us that, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you’re thinking about it.”  Inspired by this insight, I maintain that people are overly worried about coronavirus, sexual harassment, and sexual harassment accusations.  Why?  Because society keeps reminding us to think about these specific traumatic experiences.  Still, I see little reason to doubt the relative importance that people assign to these dangers.  In absolute terms, most people remain terrified of coronavirus, so it’s hardly surprising that sexual harassment worries them less.  The fact that sexual harassment accusations actually worry the average respondent even more than coronavirus, however, suggests that most workers really are living in fear during normal times.

Why then don’t we hear more about their terror?  Because people – especially men – are too terrified to talk about it!  At risk of hyperbole, the situation brings to mind the Twilight Zone classic, “It’s a Good Life,” where the whole world lives in mortal fear of omnipotent child-tyrant Anthony Fremont… including his father, Mr. Fremont.

Anthony Fremont No kids came over to play with me today, not a single one, and I wanted someone to play with!

Mr. Fremont Well, Anthony, you remember the last time some kids came over to play. The little Fredricks boy and his sister.

Anthony Fremont I had a real good time.

Mr. Fremont Oh, sure you did, you had a real good time, and it’s good that you had a good time, it’s real good. It’s, uh, just that…

Anthony Fremont Just that what?

Mr. Fremont Well, Anthony, you, uh, you wished them away into the cornfield.

Catching coronavirus is bad, but apparently not as bad as the cornfield.

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Is It Better To Be Public or Private In an Age of Surveillance?

Like it or not, we now live in an age of surveillance.

If the state isn’t actually surveilling you, a corporation or business is gathering data about your location, your browsing history, your interests, your employment, and more. You’re also probably subscribing yourself to a system of (voluntary) surveillance from friends, family, and colleagues via social media.

Whether or not any of this is good for humans on net, it’s clear that there are new risks to deal with in a surveillance-oriented world. There’s the growing risk of social engineering attacks (people pretending to be you to get your stuff or hurt you), scaled-up libel due to “cancel culture,” doxxing, and actual physical attacks.

So, what is the best way to protect yourself and people you love from the consequences of the surveillance state? Beyond personal cybersecurity (that could be its own blog post *series* from a better techie), there are two possible approaches.

The argument for privacy

Being public in the way many folks are can open you and your loved ones to attack. Every time you post something on social media about yourself or your family, you might be opening yourself up to attack via that vector. So just don’t do it.

You can resist the surveillance society is to disappear – relatively speaking. While it may not be possible to get fully off the radar and off the grid, if you ditch your cell phone, run a privacy-friendly OS, use a VPN, delete your social media accounts, and use cash, you can get pretty hard to track.

There are still millions of unknown folks all over the world who live blissfully free of Facebook and its ilk. They don’t have to worry about their digital “permanent record” because they aren’t really known to begin with.

The argument for publicity

On the other hand, if it is impossible for you to go off the grid, being as public as possible – building a brand/reputation, developing a following, and documenting much of your life online – may be your best defense.

Criminals and even states like to work in secret and attack the marginalized. If you have a clean public reputation and supporters who have your back, it will be harder for bad actors to use the outcomes of surveillance to harm you. If you do go down, bad folks can be pretty sure that they will be found out.

If you are in the public eye, attempts on you will certainly increase, but your access to deterrents and protection will also increase.

I don’t know which is the right answer, but I have considered (and lived) both approaches in my own small way. Right now I lean toward privacy – before I leaned toward publicity. But whatever the case, I hope to maintain the freedom to choose either.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Technocracy is Evil and Inhumane

The instant, simultaneous, total state takeover of the “civilized” world revealed how dire our situation is.

The battle of this generation is liberty against technocratic control; living, organic order vs. dead, clean chaos.

 

Order is natural, emergent, dynamic, unpredictable, useful, creative, and meaningful. It can’t be wholly contained, but it can be harnessed, guided, played with, adjusted to, and discovered in a continual dance. It is moving into the future. It is an infinite, positive-sum game.

Chaos is stripped down, unnatural, incapable of growth or change, dead or decaying, empty, and devoid of depth. Once natural order is made wholly legible and containable, it has been killed. Life and control are anathema. Chaos is the result of attempting total control. It freezes the present and reverts to stagnate snapshots of the past. It is a finite, zero-sum game.

Chaos is not the result of freedom or the state of nature, order is. Chaos is the result of efforts to defy the freedom of the state of nature. Chaos results when liberty and life are stripped from the world and all that remains are sanitized elements easily countable, reducible, and containable.

Architect and philosopher Christopher Alexander made a life’s work of studying the concept of “aliveness” in footpaths, windowsills, buildings, neighborhoods, and natural and designed systems of all kinds. His books offer many side-by-side photos of homes or other scenes, and ask the reader to, on a gut level, decide which is more “alive”. Every single person agrees easily and quickly. We know the more living from the more dead when we see it, but understanding why is difficult. Alexander made great progress. Living systems are in harmony with natural human tendency. For example, humans are phototropic. We also like to sit after more than a few minutes. So a chair placed near a window harmonizes with these subconscious patterns, while a chair facing a windowless wall does not.

Social architects (who dwell in brutalist buildings that suck all life from the ground where they stand) do not observe and contemplate life. They calculate and scheme control. They want legible, definable utility, based on static definitions and stale answers without questions. They kill the human spirit the way a giant parking lot kills the view.

The Great Sanitizer

The state and the obsessive, maladjusted, soul-dead busybodies who pull its levers are always seeking to remove impurity and unpredictability from the world. That is the same as removing life itself. This is what Ayn Rand meant when she called collectivist, command and control philosophies “anti-life”. That is the essence of what they are. To control is to kill.

The state wants to aggregate, categorize, sort, label, and track. James Scott describes in his several works the driving force of the state to make all persons and property “legible”. If they cannot be defined into conceptual submission and measured until all surprise is extinguished, how can they be controlled? So states set about to kill the creative, generative forces that make life worth living.

C.S. Lewis, in the final installment of his sci-fi space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, describes a scientific institution (called N.I.C.E.) with aims at global domination. The reason isn’t a lust for power per se, but a desire to make the world clean, free of germs and dirt and bugs and unpredictability, and all the shifting variables which make complete legibility impossible. In other words, they want to snuff out that pesky thing fueled by liberty that we call life.

Stranger Than Stories

These ideas used to seem a bit much to me.

Sure, some people are control freaks. Yeah, religious devotion to science is a contradiction to all reason and sometimes gets nasty. Yes, unspeakably awful ideas like eugenics have been a major part of every government in modern history (much as they might now deny it), but total rule by technicians whose greatest foe is unpredictability? Isn’t that the stuff of bad Bond villains?

No.

It is the outlook I see as the greatest present threat to all that is good and true and just and humane.

Total global lockdown – the literal imprisonment of entire populations without even the pretense of wrongdoing by the state’s own absurd and shifting standards – and introduction and embrace of oxymoronic phrases like, “Social distancing” came about not out of fear of some feigned foreign enemy or revolt against some unpopular dictator. They came about in an instant solely because the idea of planned chaos (to quote Ludwig von Mises) has so overcome the notion of spontaneous order.

Devotion to the fiction that men with guns and laws and stolen money can control microscopic pathogens we barely understand animated the acquiescence to complete boot-licking servitude. Anything – anything! – but unpredictable organic nature in all it’s life-giving danger and beauty. We must collectively pretend we can eradicate uncertainty, all physical and spiritual casualties be damned.

When Science Died

The oxymorons in the air are rooted in a deeper one.

“Belief in science”.

That’s a phrase people have been unironically uttering with increased frequency for at least a few decades.

“I believe in science” is a contradiction in concepts. It is meaningless, used only to signal superiority by unthinking people who are scared of unknowns.

Belief means to assume the truth of something and act on that assumption without fail. Science means to assume the fallibility of everything and never stop trying to prove it false. I would like to be charitable and say that people simply mean this in a tongue-in-cheek way, to say they are religiously devoted to questioning everything.

Except the complete opposite is true everywhere you see “belief in science” trotted out, or true skeptics called “deniers of science”. The scientific process is nothing if it is not a perpetual threat to the consensus view. Yet the word has come to mean nothing more than blind defense of the consensus view. Scientism is antithetical to science.

Similarly, those who question mainstream ideas (not merely ideas, but the violent imposition of those ideas) are called “believers”, and those who crouch and lick the hand that whips them are called “skeptics”. If Orwell never seemed relevant before, he surely does now.

A History of Inhumanity

Those with rabid, hateful, desperate, lurching faith in state agents to neatly destroy organic order and replace it with clean chaos are naive about the power of the state to do harm. Even granting stupidly charitable assumptions about the state’s goals being good to begin with, bureaucracies being capable of carrying them out perfectly, and no unintended consequences resulting, there is no instance in the history of the organized crime that calls itself government where states did not venture far beyond what the public knew or desired.

Did you know every single state in the United States had forced sterilization programs at one point? Health departments with an explicit goal of reducing the population of blacks, handicapped persons, poor people, and other “undesirable” individuals surreptitiously injected people to prevent them from procreating. The last state to finally end the practice was North Carolina, and it didn’t end until the 1980s.

Citizens are aghast at the atrocities of Stalin, Mao, and Hitler. We would’ve resisted such horrors! Except most of the time we don’t know they’re happening. Because we trust the scientific central planners.

Liberty is Life

We don’t understand reality.

Hayek famously said the “curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design”.

Not just economics. The task of every thinking person is to discover the limits of our knowledge. To replace answers with questions, arrogance with curiosity, intellectual death with life.

One of the greatest casualties in rule by diktat is experimentation and discovery. We don’t know anything about the human body, virology, epidemiology, or any of the other specialized fields of human health. The absurdity of assuming one small body can accurately surmise and prescribe a single path for all people in all places and times is beyond the pale.

Millions of messy experiments. People with dramatically different risk tolerances, trying dramatically different approaches. Sharing their feedback. Profiting from effectiveness, losing from error. This dynamic churn is the source of all progress. To decree a single plan backed by the threat of murder (as every single government law is) is to destroy humanity’s best hope of flourishing.

Julian Simon famously shot down the doomsdayers who fear human life and liberty above all (excepting of course their own) by winning a bet about the availability of resources as population expands. But his bet was a gimmick compared to the profound insight of his masterful book, The Ultimate Resource. Simon points out that individual humans, free to explore and try and fail and succeed and compete, are the source of progress not only for the human race, but the entire natural world.

We are relentless problem solvers. But we do it in messy ways not fun to watch and even harder to catalog in textbooks. We teach and learn through experience and consequences. We progress when we do the most outlandish things all the smart people thought were pointless. Our glories and triumphs are utterly illegible. Historians and bureaucrats have no choice but to guess, fudge, lie, and misinform, because to accurately chart the true path and nature of progress is impossible.

We don’t know what ingredients matter most or what will work best. That is precisely why we need the free and open contest of liberty to discover it.

It is the same with ideas. John Milton said it is best to let truth and falsehood grapple, because truth is the stronger in the long run. The sycophantic obeisance by every major media outlet and online platform to moronic political power-seekers is the opposite of this dynamic discovery process. Labels and warnings about “fake news”, removing ideas that deviate from those spouted by humanity’s lowest lifeforms (politicians and bureaucrats), and propping up “official” ideas are bad for curiosity, bad for liberty, bad for progress, and bad for life.

The Renegades

Historian Thaddeus Russell (driven from academia by the mindless literatti) documents how the least reputable people tend to expand human freedom, and thereby progress, opportunity, happiness, and meaning. I don’t think you have to be a deviant or a scoundrel in order to enhance liberty, but I do think those who resist the drive for a sanitized world will be labelled as such, and those already labelled as such are less likely to cave to prestige and pressure.

The cold dead hand of Communism could no longer control Poland, not because respectable ideologues educated enough people on the virtues of freedom, but because the illegal underground market became bigger than the respectable above ground one.

Humanity needs gray markets, black markets, shady people, fringey people, all kinds of people running all kinds of experiments. Ideas bumping into ideas and exploding into new ideas. Bad ones. Good ones. Easy ones. Hard ones. Dangerous ones. Safe ones.

Unpredictability, unknowability, dynamism, the organic nature of emergent phenomena, entrepreneurship at the edges, opposition to expert consensus – that is human liberty. That is life.

We don’t need more experts. We don’t need more controls. We don’t need to eradicate variability. We need gritty, dirty, messy, imperfect, unpredictable, wild, untamed, dangerous, beautiful human freedom.

Fuck the cold metallic gloved dead hand of human chess playing technocratic ghouls who want to squelch and contain and document and track and sterilize it to death.

The man who knows freedom will find a way to be free.

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Reflections on the Krikorian-Caplan Soho Forum Debate

Thanks again to Gene Epstein and Reason for sponsoring last week’s immigration debate between myself and Mark Krikorian.  Thanks to Mark, too, for debating before an unsympathetic audience.  The resolution, you may recall, was: The current pandemic makes it all the more necessary for the federal government to tighten restrictions on immigration.

Here are my extra thoughts on the exchange.

1. I was stunned that Mark did not think we should limit immigration to help fight contagious disease.  While this position is deeply flawed, it has great surface appeal.  I have to think that most of his supporters would endorse it enthusiastically.  Hopefully he’ll strive set them straight, though I doubt it.  (Prove me wrong, Mark, prove me wrong).

2. Instead, Mark dusted off the classic populist argument that we should limit immigration to fight high unemployment.  Since he never argued in favor of immigration a few months ago when unemployment was at a 50-year low, one can’t take him too seriously.  As I keep saying, immigration restriction is a solution in search of a problem.

In any case, this is a textbook example of misguided recession policy.  Yes, deliberately restricting production during a recession can help some workers, but only at the expense of consumers (most of whom are workers in other industries).   When Roosevelt ordered the destruction of food during the Great Depression, he helped farmers, but only by depriving the rest of the population of affordable calories.  Excluding immigrants, similarly, helps competing native workers, but only by depriving the rest of the population of the goods and services immigrants produce.  Wise recession policy focuses on reviving production, not destructive redistribution.

3. Curiously, Mark granted that during this crisis, we should not exclude foreign agricultural workers.  His logic is hazy.  Today offers a prime opportunity to help native farm workers at the expense of native food consumers.  If you think that’s good policy in general, why not here and now?  The real story, I suspect, is that slashing the food supply during a crisis would be highly visible – and Mark wants to keep the costs of immigration restriction hidden.  I’d be amazed if Mark thought now was a good time to let in more foreign agricultural workers; if the existing number is temporarily good during this emergency, though, why stop there?

4. Mark combines this concession on immigrant farm workers with a bizarre long-run plan to wean U.S. agriculture off its “addiction” to cheap foreign labor.  Yes, a large fall in labor supply would induce mechanization.  But as long as human labor is cheaper, what’s good about switching?  Mark’s central argument is aesthetic; in this modern age, people shouldn’t be digging around in the Earth like “serfs.”  (His word).  This is economically absurd.  As long as the low-tech approach is cheaper than the high-tech approach, the low-tech approach is better.  Sure, we could force-feed mechanization.  If we taxed human-powered lawn-mowers, we’d switch sooner to robotic mowers.  The wise course, though, is to wait until upgrading actually makes us better off.

(Mark did vaguely allude to a technological path-dependence argument, but those are a dime a dozen even when fully fleshed-out).

5. Toward the end of our debate, Mark claimed that our fundamental difference is that he takes our obligations to fellow Americans seriously, while I think our obligation is to all mankind.  I agree that this is a difference, but it’s not fundamental.  Why not?  Because if I were an American nationalist, I would still favor open borders in order to maximize Americans’ standard of living.

6. What then is our fundamental difference?  I say it comes down to misanthropy.  Mark hears about a human being who wants to immigrate here – and presumes he’s going to make our lives worse.  Sure, he’s glad that we got Albert Einstein on our team, but negativity is Mark’s default.  My default is exactly the opposite.  When I hear about a human being who wants to immigrate here, I presume he’s going to make our lives better.  Yes, he could be the next Hitler, but the odds are astronomically against it.  The vast majority of human beings make valuable contributions to the world, even though some of us contribute far more than others.  That’s what the history of the U.S. shows, and what our future history is going to show.

7. Is Mark really a misanthrope?  Notice how he responds when an audience member asks him about government regulation of natives’ child-bearing.  He doesn’t try to argue that native babies grow up to be better people than immigrants.  He explicitly disavows the idea that we’re “superior” to people from other lands.  The concrete social effects of an extra native or an extra immigrant should therefore be comparable.  And since he deems the typical immigrant to be a negative, he should think the same about the typical native as well.  While Mark opposes government regulation of natives’ child-bearing, his rationale is not about consequences, but our “social contract.”  Americans are entitled to have as many kids as they want, even if they’re a burden on society.  Would-be immigrants, in contrast, are only entitled to burden their own societies.  So while we’re obligated to put up with burdensome Americans, we can and should refuse all those burdensome foreigners.

By the way, the misanthropy is palpable if you peruse the main page for the Center for Immigration Studies.  See for yourself; it really is monomaniacal collection of complaints about immigrants.  Assembling an analogous collection of ceaseless negativity about any human group – or humanity in general – would be child’s play.  Just let your inner pessimist fly.

8. The most intellectually solid case for immigration restriction is that natives are civilized, while immigrants are awful barbarians.  (Remember “rapefugees”?)  Why doesn’t Mark defend this position?  The charitable story is that he knows it’s false.  But if so, why doesn’t he try harder to disabuse his fellow restrictionists of their xenophobic pessimism?  The better story, I’m afraid, is Social Desirability Bias.  Calling immigrants “awful barbarians” makes you sound like a mean person, so Mark won’t endorse this position – or even engage it.  Social Desirability Bias elegantly explains why his organization puts the nonsensical “low immigration, pro-immigrant” motto on its masthead instead of a more honest slogan like, “Savages are at our gates!”

9. Suppose we accept Mark’s view that we have special obligations to our fellow Americans, just as parents have special obligations to their own children.  If you take this analogy seriously, you should still be very nervous that the United States is callously violating the rights of foreigners.  After all, parents’ sense of love and obligation for their children often leads them to mistreat strangers for their children’s benefit.  (Remember the quaint “College-gate” scandal of 2019?)  Shouldn’t we similarly expect nations’ sense of love and obligation for their citizens to lead them to mistreat foreigners for their citizens’ benefit?  It would be amazing if it didn’t.

10. Mark casually dismisses estimates of the massive economic gains of open borders.  It’s only a model; and the problem with models, as faulty coronavirus projections show, is: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

The real story, though, is that economists who work with trade models are well-aware of their potential limitations.  If immigration leads to bad economic policies, for example, simple models are overly optimistic.  However, that realization is only the first step.  The next step is to look at the data and measure how much immigration is likely to degrade the quality of economic policy.  That’s what I do in Open Borders, and I conclude that the effect if any is tiny.  The same goes for the other major challenges to the simple model.  And while we’re checking the model for excessive optimism, it’s also worth checking it for excessive pessimism; most notably, the standard Clemens model completely ignores the effect of immigration on innovation.

Further point: Even if Mark were right to reject predictions about the economic effects of extreme liberalization, he has no reason to dismiss predictions about the economic effects of moderate liberalization.  Maybe letting in a billion foreigners would destroy our institutions, but letting in ten million won’t.  Frankly, it seems like he’s more interesting in categorically dismissing a model with uncomfortable results than in figuring out the extent to which the model is true.

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By The Time We Notice We’re Hungry, It May Be Too Late

“[A]s the top U.S. watermelon-producing state prepares for harvest, Reuters reports, “many of the workers needed to collect the crop are stuck in Mexico …. Without the workers crops could rot in fields throughout the country,” starting in Florida and California where major harvests begin in April and May.

As you can probably guess, the problem stems from the COVID-19 panic. The US State Department has halted routine visa applications and consulates are limiting both staff numbers and staff contact with applicants. That’s making it difficult for the quarter million migrant workers who normally pick America’s crops to get here and get to work.

Most Americans aren’t hungry. Yet.

But unless something changes, we’re going to start GETTING hungry in a couple of months.

And by then, it will be too late. Planting cycles don’t turn on a dime for our convenience and ripe crops don’t wait. They get picked when it’s their time, or they go to waste. We get the food while the gettin’s good, or we don’t get it at all.

There’s a non-trivial chance that Americans are rushing headlong into a horror we haven’t seen since the Civil War — mass starvation — or, at the very least, malnutrition on a scale we haven’t suffered since the Great Depression.

We can’t avoid that outcome with stimulus checks in our mailboxes. All the money in the world won’t buy you a cantaloupe if there aren’t any cantaloupes to buy.

We can’t hold it off with corporate bailouts, either. It’s not money Big Agriculture’s lacking for, it’s permission for its workers to come pick the crops.

If we want to keep eating, our politicians are going to have to knock off this “shutdown” nonsense and let people get back to work.

Yes, even if that means that COVID-19 remains a problem or becomes a bigger problem.

The varying probabilities of catching the disease, and the varying probabilities of dying from it, pale next to the absolute, indubitable, 100% certainty that if we do not eat, we WILL die.

Politicians can’t just shut down major parts of an economy at will, start them back up, and expect things to go well. They can’t throttle the food supply chain without consequences.

We gotta eat.

Which means we’re going to have to insist that the politicians hang their Mussolini costumes back up in the closet and magnanimously permit us to get back to our lives.

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You Are Not Alone

Nobody asked but …

I just read two case histories on coronavirus. In one, a young mother died, in another a young mother lived. Both people had to face their outcomes alone. But many others were affected.

I don’t know if there were clear choices that could have been made, nor whether either of these young women were free to make choices.

But there is no guarantee of good, even if you check every box.  One is an individual, and one’s circumstances roll out unpredictably.

 … never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

— John Donne

We are all susceptible.  This is not a commercial, however, for fatalism.  I believe that every course has a point, maybe points, where the individual could exercise an option.  The option may be more or less clear.  But no option has guaranteed alternatives.  The natural laws on unforeseen consequences still apply.

The important thing is to be as prepared as possible with rational information.  For instance, politicians rush in regardless of their ability to effect change.  One should keep a jaundiced eye toward their theatrics.  You still have to make the choices.

— Kilgore Forelle

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