Episode 309 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following aphorisms written by Jakub Bożydar Wiśniewski: “A bad economist believes that he knows what to do to make the world prosperous. A good economist believes that he knows what to do to let the world make itself prosperous.”; “A barbarian believes in coercion as a means to establish cooperation. A civilized person believes in cooperation as a means to eliminate coercion.”; “A civilized person believes that what matters is not whether wealth is equally distributed, but whether it is justly acquired. A barbarian believes that the latter depends on the former.”; “Achieving peace of mind is the dual process of maximizing self-awareness and minimizing self-consciousness.”; “A commercial culture is a tautology. A political culture is an oxymoron.”; and “A civilized person uses reason to evaluate his instincts. A barbarian uses reason to justify his instincts.” (Please excuse the audio anomalies that occur a few times throughout.)Open This Content
Kids – especially young boys – are infinitely willing to play, infinitely willing to try new games, infinitely willing to suspend disbelief if it means they can compete and practice.
Seeing this is one of the most charming things in the world.
Today I got to see that firsthand with my little cousins (boys aged 5 and 8) when they asked me come swimming with them at my uncle’s pool. These young bros were showing off their jumps from the high-dive, showing off their swimming prowess, and in all ways showing a zest for life. And the games didn’t stop.
We played water gun tag, basketball, hot potato, “dinosaur hunter” (I played the dinosaur – they shot at me with water guns), and the simple old favorite “shoot James in the face with water”.
If you have the pleasure of being around this pure energy for play and improvement, you’d better take it. This will keep you young. Kids who know how to play are rehearsing the fundamental skills necessary for a good life: physical fitness, graceful movement, and social cooperation. Who of us couldn’t stand a little improvement in those areas even in adulthood?
It’s remarkable to see them practice these skills, but even more impressive to see their capacity for game-making. They will accept literally any kind of game with any kind of parameters and rules – as my two cousins accepted most suggestions (even half-baked) I made for games. That kind of imagination can never feel boredom.
Play is the driver for the most intense learning of a human’s life, and these boys showed me the energy and imagination I’ve been missing even in my finest moments. Probably one of the best things we can hope for is to keep that passion and openness as we level up in discipline and skill.Open This Content
This episode features a lecture by academic economist Bruce Benson from 1997. He talks about the origin and subsequent development of legal systems. He starts by reviewing Franz Oppenheimer’s distinction between two means to wealth- economic and political- and theorizes about the development of cooperation in society and the creation of systems of private property. Purchase books by Bruce Benson on Amazon here.Open This Content
I’m a pretty cynical guy when it comes to nation-states. So it might be surprising to hear that I sort of love in the vision of America most of us learned in school.
It’s a place where people generally tell the truth, work hard, love their families, help each other, stand up for the weak, tolerate differences, resist tyrants, chase frontiers, do justice, and create wealth.
If this seems like a dream, it is. This is “hidden America.” Probably the America you’ve experienced hasn’t worked out quite this way.
Part of the problem is that we may be looking in the wrong place.
I don’t believe the “United States” has very much to do with a good vision of America. The bureaucrats and the enforcers typically just control, manipulate, and harass. The politicians grandstand, and the legislation corrupts and impoverishes. The corporate types join in.
But there’s a whole lot more to America than the government, the big corporations, or the culture wars. I catch little glimpses of this “hidden America” here and there.
I see it in people who volunteer their free time to make things better, like when my friends and I showed up to help a forest cleaning crew this Saturday. They hardly asked any questions: we just grabbed saws and got to it. There was trust there, and an openness to strangers I doubt you’d find much elsewhere.
I see it in countless small businesses. There’s a plumber I know who comes home every day to feed his horses alongside his wife and two young daughters. And he has the biggest grin and joy to spare for his kids despite a hard job.
I see it in every old-timer who passes on wisdom and every young person who listens. It’s there in the kids who leave the countryside for the big cities, or leave the big cities for the countryside. It’s the high-fives at 5Ks, the fierce competition that ends with a handshake, and the company that makes electric scooters the new fad.
In hidden America, cooperation is the norm, and people couldn’t care less what your politics are. Character comes before party or belief. It’s the America that could live without the American empire. It’s the America that shares a common thread with the pioneers, the farmers, the inventors, the musicians, and all the decent people who came before us.
This is the America I suppose I will always love, even if it is a myth 9 times out of 10. And every now and then, I get to meet it.Open This Content
At this time of year especially, the wide variety of individual human preferences and interests becomes abundantly clear. My children’s Christmas lists display this diversity: Molly (13) wants a doughnut pan to feed her baking passion, Jack (11) wants anything tech-related, Abby (9) wants drawing supplies, and Sam (6) wants Lego pieces and stuffed animals. How do the elves satisfy these assorted preferences? It’s the miracle of the market.
FEE’s founder, Leonard Read, wrote about this miracle in his classic 1958 essay, “I, Pencil.” Writing cleverly from the pencil’s perspective, Read explains that even something as seemingly simple as a pencil is an extraordinary human creation involving countless decentralized, spontaneous actions prompted and facilitated by a free, global marketplace. The 18th-century philosopher, Adam Smith, described this unplanned process of social cooperation as the “Invisible Hand,” leading to collective human progress and abundance when each individual pursues his or her own interests. Read writes:
I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.
Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.
There is no central planner, no mastermind, as Read says, capable of making a simple pencil. Instead, there are the loggers who harvest the cedar from the Pacific Northwest and the innumerable actions that go into the loggers’ work, including the manufacture of their saws and machinery, the growing of hemp for their ropes, and even the cups of coffee they drink. All of these spontaneous actions contribute to the production of a simple pencil—and that’s only for its wood. Read then describes the graphite from Sri Lanka, the wax from Mexico, the miners of zinc and copper to create the small metal piece that attaches the eraser, which is made with rapeseed oil from the Dutch East Indies.
There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how…Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.
More profound than the dispersed and unplanned creation of the simple pencil is, as Read explains, the fact that it is accomplished without coercion through the uniquely human act of peaceful, voluntary exchange. Read writes:
For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand— that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding—then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this faith.
There are many miracles that get celebrated at this time of year, but one we shouldn’t forget is the miracle of the market and the power of free, voluntary exchange to unleash human creativity and inventiveness. Let’s take to heart Read’s words:
Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.
Happy Holidays!Open This Content
My eight-year-old daughter Abby recently started reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was prompted, in part, by watching the Little House on the Prairie television episodes with her great-aunt. Coincidentally, I have been reading more lately about some of the key women in history who promoted the ideals of individual freedom, limited government, non-coercion, and voluntary cooperation through trade. Rose Wilder Lane is one of these women. She was born on this day in 1886.
Liberty Should Always Trump Coercion
The daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder, baby Rose is the child many of us remember from the ninth Little House book, The First Four Years. Perhaps those years of growing up on the prairie instilled in Lane a sense of rugged individualism and self-reliance that ultimately found their way into her writings throughout the 20th century. By the late 1920s, she was said to be one of the highest-paid women writers in the US. She became an outspoken critic of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Social Security, and other government programs she felt disempowered individuals and gave greater authority to the state.
In her 1943 book The Discovery of Freedom, Lane makes a compelling case for individual freedom and limited government power. She traces the roots of compulsion in many areas of life, including education, and explains why liberty should always trump coercion. She writes:
American schooling is now compulsory, enforced by the police and controlled by the State (that is, by the politicians in office) and paid for by compulsory taxes. The inevitable result is to postpone a child’s growing-up. He passes from the authority of his parents to the authority of the police. He has no control of his time and no responsibility for its use until he is sixteen years old. His actual situation does not require him to develop self-reliance, self-discipline and responsibility; that is, he has no actual experience of freedom in his youth. (pp. 259-60).
Lane goes on to say that this type of American education, imported from Prussia by 19th-century education reformers, “is ideal for the German state, whose subjects are not expected ever to know freedom,” but it is “not the best preparation for inheriting the leadership of the World Revolution for freedom” (p. 260). She laments the “substitution of compulsory State education for the former American free education,” saying that formerly “American children went to school because they wanted to go, or because their parents sent them,” not because it was mandated of parents under a legal threat of force (p. 258).
As Abby digs into the Little House series (which Lane was instrumental in helping to create to catalog the experiences of her parents), I learn alongside my daughter, fascinated by the life and works of baby Rose, who would grow up to become a pioneer of liberty.Open This Content