Robin Grille: Parenting for a Peaceful World (1h28m)

This episode features a talk by psychologist Robin Grille from 2015. Robin invites you on a journey that begins with the surprising and often shocking history and evolution of parenting. With the aid of recent revolutionary discoveries about early childhood development and the human brain, the history of childhood offers vital clues about the roots of human violence and social disharmony. Purchase books by Robin Grille on Amazon here.

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Bruce Benson: The Evolution of Law (48m)

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.

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Rebellion is Harder than it Looks

When you watch The Hunger Games, or Braveheart, or think about the American Revolutionaries, it’s easy to see yourself as one of them. Rebellion against a tyrannical power looks inspiring and enticing.

These portrayals are all about the people – of which you are one – against the big nasty government tyrant. You see the price paid by the rebels – physical threat, torture, death – and you see the inspiration they create and the crowd of people behind them. It looks doable.

The problem with these portrayals is they aren’t very realistic. They make it look too easy. A common scene is a crowd of frightened, oppressed people, all of whom hate the tyrants equally but stand still only for fear of physical retribution, until a brave soul defies them. Even if no one says it, the rebel knows they all stand with her in spirit.

In the real world tyranny looks different and rebels rarely get praised.

The thing most often preventing resistance to tyranny isn’t the guns of the tyrants, it’s the people’s love of tyranny. Rebels rarely inspire in real-time. Instead, their oppressed fellows hate them. They call them names. They accuse them of being selfish, ignorant, crazy, dangerous. They heap more shame and derision on the person who stands against the tyranny that oppresses them all than they do on the tyrants.

To defy tyranny does not make one popular among the oppressed, because the oppressed are part of the tyranny.

Our idea of sacrifice for a good cause doesn’t go deep enough. It’s not that you must have the courage to die for what you believe in. It’s that you must have the courage to have your reputation murdered. You have to be willing to not only face physical threats from the state, but to be seen as evil by the majority of people. You will not only suffer for a cause, you will be utterly misunderstood and vilified by the very people you represent. They will view your cause as stupid and your suffering as just.

Why don’t people stand up to tyranny more often? There’s so many more oppressed than tyrants, and the oppressed have so much more power. Except that most of them view resistance to evil as evil.

If you stand for freedom don’t expect to be saluted and thanked by your fellow man. Don’t expect to start a movement. It rarely happens. You’re more likely to lose your reputation at the hands of the masses than your life at the hands of the tyrants.

As I’ve written elsewhere, death is not the ultimate sacrifice.

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Reflections on the Leiter-Caplan Debate

It was a pleasure debating Brian Leiter last week.  The resolution, to repeat:

“Social democracy is preferable to market capitalism, but ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”

Here are some thoughts I failed to fully articulate at the live event.  As always, I’m happy to publish any reply my opponent wishes to compose.

1. To his credit, Leiter expressed zero sympathy for any actual socialist regime.  He even condemned Cuba; good for him.  But Leiter still insisted that the totality of these awful experiences show next to nothing about the desirability of socialism, which frankly seems crazy.  As far as I could tell, Leiter hews to the classic Marxist position that we should transition to socialism only after capitalism creates incredible abundance.  Unlike most historical Marxists, however, he doesn’t think that even the richest countries are ready yet.  My question: If we finally got rich enough for socialism, why think that a socialist regime would be able to maintain the prior level of prosperity, much less provide continued progress?

2. When I discussed the actual performance of social democracy, Leiter was surprisingly apologetic.  He conceded that we have wasteful universal redistribution, instead of well-targeted means-tested redistribution.  His only defense was to repeat the flimsy argument that it’s too hard to sustain popular support for means-tested programs.

3. On regulation, Leiter appeared to endorse open borders; good for him.  He also professed agnosticism on housing regulation.  Since these are by far the two biggest forms of regulation in modern social democracies (measured by how much regulation changes the likely market outcome), it’s hard to see why he would believe that increased regulation has, on balance, been good for humanity or the poor.

4. According to Leiter, “ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system” because automation will one day cause mass unemployment.  This position baffled me on multiple levels.  Most obviously, why not respond to automation with redistribution rather than nationalization, and thereby avoid killing the capitalist goose that has hitherto laid a mountain of golden eggs?

My fundamental objection, however, is that history teaches us that technological unemployment is only a morbid fantasy.  When firms figure out ways to get more output out of fewer workers, this may cause unemployment in the short-run.  Soon enough, however, business has repeatedly figured out new jobs for workers to perform.  Business has already accomplished the miraculous task of creating new roles for the enormous number of workers disemployed by the mechanization of agriculture.  Every future economic transformation pales by comparison.  Remember: Almost everyone was a farmer for almost all of recorded human history.  Then industrialization eliminated almost all farm jobs.  Yet today, we don’t miss these jobs.  Instead, we get fat on all the cheap food, and do jobs our agrarian ancestors would have struggled to understand.

Leiter had two responses to my reaction.  One was “maybe this time it will be different”; Leiter even appealed to David Hume’s problem of induction to downplay all prior economic history!  If you take this line, however, it would only entitle you to say “it is logically possible that America will need to move towards a socialist system” – a vacuous claim indeed.  Frankly, if you take Hume seriously, even the best empirical evidence shows nothing about the future, so why bother debating at all?

Leiter’s better argument was that capitalists are perennially trying to cut costs – and that in the long-run capitalism works.  So eventually capitalists will figure out a way to run the economy without workers – an outcome that is individually rational for a capitalist, but socially disastrous for capitalism.  My response: Yes, capitalists want to figure out how to produce a given level of output with fewer workers.  Their deeper goal, however, is to figure out the most profitable way to employ all available inputs.  As long as there are able-bodied people who want to work, there will be a capitalist brainstorming how to make money off the situation.  And to echo Leiter, in the long-run this works.

5. Leiter bizarrely insisted that “the” goal of socialism was to allow human freedom – legions of vocally authoritarian self-identified socialists notwithstanding.  He followed up with the classic socialist argument that saying “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is just as much an abridgment of freedom as “If you don’t do what I say, I will shoot you.”

The standard reply, of course, is that there is a vast moral difference between getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are morally entitled (e.g., your life) and getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are not morally entitled (e.g. my assistance).  Thus, imagine you will be suicidally depressed unless I marry you.  Is my refusal to marry you morally equivalent to making you suicidally depressed by threatening to shoot you unless you break off your engagement to your willing fiance?  Of course not.  You aren’t entitled to marry me if I don’t approve, but you and your fiance are entitled to marry each other even if I don’t approve.

6. Moral entitlement aside, “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is rarely relevant in modern labor markets.  Why not?  First, there are competing employers, so if you don’t like an offer, you can shop around for another.  (Smarter yet, take what you can get, but keep searching for a better offer).  Second, if you live frugally, even a relatively low-wage worker can save up a nest egg, making it easy to turn down unappealing offers in the future.  Naturally, you can object, “I still face the choice to either live frugally, work for some employer, or starve.”  If so, we’re back to my original reply: Complaining about being “free to starve” is the flip side of demanding that strangers support you whether they like it or not.

7. Leither took umbrage at my authoritarian interpretation of Marx.  I freely grant that Leiter’s invested more time reading Marx than I have.  However, I too have devoted long hours to Marx’s oeuvre (though I’ve spent far more reading about the actual history of socialist regimes), and I stand by my bleak assessment.

Did Marx explicitly say, “We should round up priests and execute them”?  To the best of my knowledge, no.  Yet that is the most reasonable interpretation of what Marx had planned.  What are we supposed to think when Marx makes Orwellian statements like,  “[B]ourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part [socialism] endeavors rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion” (Critique of the Gotha Program)?  It doesn’t sound like Marx plans to respect the rights of people who don’t wish to be so “liberated.”  If Leiter is right, why did so few Marxists protest Lenin’s religious persecution?  I say it’s because Marx provided the Orwellian language they needed to insist that Freedom is Slavery.  As I wrote two decades ago:

Innumerable social thinkers disagree with much of Marx’s thought, but praise his reflections upon human freedom, the depth of his insight in contrast to the shallowness of liberalism. Yet it is difficult to understand how Marx’s concept of freedom is anything more than a defense of tyranny and oppression. No dissident or non-conformist can see society as the “realization of his own liberty.” And what can the attack on “the right to do everything which does not harm others” amount to in practice, except a justification for coercing people who are not harming others? The problem with “broad” notions of freedom is that they necessarily wind up condoning the violation of “narrow” notions of freedom. Under “bourgeois” notions of religious liberty, people may practice any religion they wish (“a private whim or caprice” as Marx calls it); how could this liberty be broadened, without sanctioning the persecution of some religious views?

Listening to Leiter, a law professor at the University of Chicago, I couldn’t help but think, “Leiter is talking like Marx’s lawyer.”  When a Mafia enforcer says, “Sweet kids you got there; be a shame if anything happened to them,” a Mafia lawyer will vigorously deny that his client threatened to murder children.  Any neutral adult, however, knows that the Mafioso did exactly that.  I say the same about Marx’s writings.  “I’m going to bring you real freedom” is a classic Offer You Can’t Refuse – as Marxist revolutionaries have shown us time and again.  A skilled lawyer can obfuscate this scary truth, but a learned philosopher should not.

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Coronavirus Reminds Us What Education Without Schooling Can Look Like

As the global coronavirus outbreak closes more schools for weeks, and sometimes months—some 300 million children are currently missing class—parents, educators, and policymakers are panicking.

Mass compulsory schooling has become such a cornerstone of contemporary culture that we forget it’s a relatively recent social construct. Responding to the pandemic, the United Nations declared that “the global scale and speed of current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education.”

We have collectively become so programmed to believe that education and schooling are synonymous that we can’t imagine learning without schooling and become frazzled and fearful when schools are shuttered. If nothing else, perhaps this worldwide health scare will remind us that schooling isn’t inevitable and education does not need to be confined to a conventional classroom.

Mass Schooling Is a New Idea

For most of human history, up until the mid-19th century, education was broadly defined, diversely offered, and not dominated by standard schooling. Homeschooling was the default, with parents assuming responsibility for their children’s education, but they were not the only ones teaching them.

Small dame schools, or nursery schools in a neighbor’s kitchen, were common throughout the American colonial and revolutionary eras; tutors were ubiquitous, apprenticeships were valued and sought-after, and literacy rates were extremely high. Public schools existed to supplement education for families that wanted them, but they did not yet wield significant power and influence.

The Puritan colonists’ passed the first compulsory education laws in Massachusetts Bay in the 1640s describing a state interest in an educated citizenry and compelling towns of a certain size to hire a teacher or to open a grammar school. But the compulsion rested with towns to provide educational resources to those families who wanted them, not with the families themselves.

Historians Kaestle and Vinovskis explain that the Puritans “saw these schools as supplements to education within the family, and they made no effort to require parents actually to send their children to school rather than train them at home.” This all changed in 1852 when Massachusetts passed the nation’s first compulsory schooling statute, mandating school attendance under a legal threat of force. Writing in his book, Pillars of the Republic, Kaestle reminds us: “Society educates in many ways. The state educates through schools.”

Society Without Schooling

We already have glimpses of what education without schooling can look like. When the Chicago teachers’ strike shut down public schools for 11 days last October, civil society stepped up to fill in the gaps.

Community organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club opened their doors during the daytime to local youth, the aquarium and local museums offered special programming, church and religious organizations welcomed young people with tutoring and enrichment activities, public libraries and parks were populated with families, and the federal school lunch program continued to nourish children in need.

This same pattern repeats itself during summer school vacation each year, with various community organizations, local businesses, and public spaces such as libraries and parks offering educational and recreational experiences for young people.

The idea that children and adolescents need to be enclosed within a conventional school classroom in order to learn is a myth. Humans are hard-wired to learn. Young children are exuberant, creative, curious learners who are passionate about exploration and discovery. These qualities do not magically disappear with age. They are routinely smothered by standardized schooling.

As Boston College psychology professor and unschooling advocate, Peter Gray, writes in his book, Free To Learn:

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. . . Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.

As humans increasingly coexist with robots, it’s crucial that young people retain and cultivate the imagination, ingenuity, and desire for learning that separate human intelligence from its artificial antipode. These qualities can be ideally nurtured outside of a standardized, one-size-fits-all school classroom where children and adolescents are free to pursue their interests and develop important skills and knowledge, while being mentored by talented adults in their communities.

An example of this type of learning is a series of spring daytime classes for homeschoolers at a makerspace in Boston offering up to nine hours of content each week in topics ranging from architecture and design to STEM science and art, taught by trained engineers, scientists, and artists. These are the types of high-quality educators and learning experiences that can and do flourish when we seek and support education without schooling.

In addition to its health scare, coronavirus has triggered widespread fear about how children can be educated when they can’t go to school. Despite the fact that mass compulsory schooling is a relic of the industrial age, its power and influence continue to expand. Perhaps some families will now discover that education outside of standard schooling is not only nothing to fear but may actually be the best way to learn in the innovation era.

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Socialism: Playing With Fire

Imagine you’re a socialist.  You read Kristian Niemietz’s Socialism: The Failure Idea That Never Dies and declare him most unfair: “Sure, the typical socialist defended totalitarian regimes during their ‘honeymoon periods.’  The best socialists, however, spoke out at once.  And it’s the best socialists who speak for socialism.”

A reasonable position.  I don’t want my views judged by the quality of the typical person who shares my label, either.

Still, this raises a weighty question: How should the best socialists react when they discover that a new socialist experiment is about to start?  “With dread” is the only sensible answer.  After all, the best socialists don’t merely know the horrifying history of the Soviet Union and Maoist China.  The best socialists also know the psychotic sociology of the typical socialist, who savors the revolutionary “honeymoon” until the horror becomes too blatant to deny.

If dread is the sensible reaction to the latest socialist experiment, then how should the best socialists react to any earnest proposal for a new socialist experiment?  It’s complicated.  The proposal stage is the perfect time to avoid the errors of the past – to finally do socialism right.  Yet this hope must still be heavily laced with dread.  After all, socialists have repeatedly tried to learn from the disasters of earlier socialist regimes.  When they gained power, disaster still followed.

At this point, it’s tempting to shift blame to the non-socialist world.  Without American-led ostracism, perhaps Cuba would be a fine country today.  Or consider Chomsky’s view that the U.S. really won the Vietnam War:

The United States went to war in Vietnam for a very good reason. They were afraid Vietnam would be a successful model of independent development and that would have a virus effect–infect others who might try to follow the same course. There was a very simple war aim–destroy Vietnam. And they did it.

If Chomsky is right about U.S. foreign policy, however, the best socialists should feel even less hope and even more dread.  Even if the next generation of socialists finally manages to durably build socialism with a human face, the U.S. will probably strangle it.

Personally, I’m the furthest thing from a socialist.  If I were a socialist, though, I would be the world’s most cautious socialist.  Socialist experiments don’t merely have a bad track record; socialist self-criticism has a bad track record.  That’s why it took years for the failures and horrors of each experiment to come to light.  And even if you blame these failures and horrors on the enemies of socialism, how does that change the pessimistic forecast?  All wishful thinking aside, anyone who builds socialism is playing with fire.  If you really care about the people you want to help, you’ll keep that in mind.

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