Six Presidents

Nobody asked but …

The Presidents of the United States are a motley crew.  So far the scorecard reads 45 attempts, 45 klunkers.  I am not saying there were no honorable persons in the group (“honorable” itself is a very iffy word).  I have the highest regard for the intellects of Jefferson and Madison.  I believe that John Adams was among the greatest lawyers (a rare occurrence).  But, to me, there is no such thing as a great President.  To have been one places a black mark on that career.  Few have risen above.

On some occasions, some wisdom has been dispensed independently of the degradation to the office.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from the first six:

It is far better to be alone than to be in bad company.

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.

It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin.

America… goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

But every person who has served in this inauspicious capacity, in my view, has a great atrocity to their name.  Again, the list:

— Kilgore Forelle

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Natural Law, Fictions, Context

In this post, we will examine 3 related areas of discussion.  They are related in that general failures to understand them are the sources of most (if not all) of our problems in the history, and pre-history, of the Sapiens species.  Natural law governs everything in the real world, but we need to create fictions to draw meaning among the events of natural law.  And we need to understand context to have more precise knowledge among the consequences of natural law interacting with human adaptation.

Natural Law

Natural law is not a topic for debate.  It applies in all events.  It cannot be overridden nor forestalled.  In the literature of freedom, you may encounter a question about natural law which might infer that its existence is a matter of agreement or disagreement.  You may see a phrase such as, “he was a foremost proponent of natural law.”  From that, one might interpolate a premise whereby natural law requires advocacy.  In some cases, one may draw the faulty conclusion that if you don’t like the consequences of natural law, then you can ignore natural law.

Natural law is not a menu item.  Natural law always applies, like it or not.  An example is the law of gravity, which must always be considered.  Sure, technicians can simulate “zero gravity,” but only within the framework of gravity.  Sure, random events can temporarily make it seem that gravity has taken a holiday, but that is only defined within the precise characteristics of gravity.  But think of this, gravity exists, in every venue, at all times in the Universe.

Natural law underlies everything, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Another example of a natural law is that all living things are mortal.  I have been on the lookout for immortality for a long time, but so far to no avail.  In fact I am now beginning to outlive many previously selected candidates.  Nobody has been powerful enough to live forever.  Methuselah?  He was going great for more than 900 years, but he eventually underwhelmed his bucket list.

How about this natural law:  for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction.  That is to say that if a weight of 1000 pounds must be lifted, there must be 1000 pounds of force applied in an upward direction.  When is Congress going to change that?  When will actions not involve consequences.  One of the reasons this natural law is so hard to conceptualize is that the force and its opposite often appear to be unequal in a technical sense.  The ancient torture of drawing and quartering seems to say, momentarily, that a human body has more strength than the sum strength of four horses.  It is more correct to say that the sum of 1 set of forces must be equal to the sum of any set of opposing forces.  It can get complicated, but never overridden.

It is a natural law that ordinary rocks are harder than ordinary marshmallows, but ordinary diamonds are harder than the average rock.  No set of fictional rules can counter this, only can they illuminate this.

Fictions

That which is manufactured by artificially combining facts of natural law is fiction.  Any one individual can only directly perceive natural phenomena by chance (this itself is in accord with natural law).  These chances are separate from one another in space and time.  Therefore, the individual must fictionalize the connections among events.  Scientists try to do this with objectivity, with fair measurements and conclusions based on probability.  But there are no completely objective observers, most of us probably having overweening self-interests which blur our outlooks.

Maybe it’s just me, but I can merely look at others and see how their short-term interests are nearly always served, at the expense of their long-term interests.  For instance, a person may let short-term considerations about coronavirus persuade her to wear a mask to a job interview, rather than reasoning that a prospective employer may instantly reject her as a carrier, or a hypochondriac, or a kook.

No one can know everything.  Most simply because there is no orderly structure or place for all information.  So everyone must extrapolate and interpolate among knowns and likelihoods in order to make rational guesses about all the unknowns.  Donald Rumsfeld famously told us there are knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

Context

Everything must be viewed within an appropriate context.  First, the context which you build through experience with previously observed natural phenomena and the fictions that you provide for getting the most realistic perception of reality.  And the second context comes from outside — what kind of freight has been attached due to the self-interest of others?  Also, we must consider whether the self-interest has been introduced by a natural desire for well-being, or a more sinister impulsion by greed, bias toward exploitation, ignorance, stupidity, and/or aggression.

We are often misled about context.  Inquiries are often deflected by claiming a lack of faith between what is said and what is not said.  Such cherrypicking can be either deceitful or innocent.  One must evaluate the completeness of contextual information.

— Verbal Vol

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Moral Approximates

 “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride–the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” – Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” Speech

During the Cold War, folks like Ronald Reagan accused their domestic opponents of believing in the “moral equivalence” of the United States and the Soviet Union.  Having lived through the era, I am confident that believers in moral equivalence existed.  Knowing the relevant history, I agree that this was an absurd belief.  However bad the United States was, the Soviet Union was vastly worse.

If you want to nitpick, admittedly, we never find literal moral equivalents in real world.  Why?  Because in a continuous world, one side in any conflict is bound to be at least a little worse.  Still, careful examination of real-world conflict does occasionally uncover not moral equivalents, but moral approximates.  Though the two sides’ moral status is not precisely equal, they are morally more-or-less the same.

It’s easiest to identify examples that are far away in time and place.  During the Wars of Religion, who was worse – the Catholics or the Protestants?  During World War I, who was worse – the Germans or the Russians?  During the War of the Roses, who was worse – the Yorks or the Lancasters?  You could plead ignorance.  Yet even if you studied the history for a year, you would plausibly conclude that the two sides were moral approximates – both sinned so egregiously that it really is hard to know who was worse.

For recent and ongoing conflicts, assertions of moral approximation naturally inspire far more pushback.  If we were rational, however, the opposite would be true.  The very fact that people have strong emotions about recent and ongoing conflicts is a strong reason to discount their judgment.  Furthermore, when a conflict is recent or ongoing, we usually lack a great deal of not-yet-released relevant information.  No one is likely to scare up shocking new revelations about the Lancasters, but in fifty years we’ll have a much better understanding of what the Trump administration actually did.

Those limitations in mind, here are the top three moral approximations I am willing to defend.

1. Communism and Nazism are moral approximates. Why?  Both movements were fanatical attempts to build dystopian societies – and both self-righteously murdered tens of millions of innocent people.  Contrary to much propaganda, Communists did not have noticeably better motives.  Both groups imagined that a totalitarian society would be a big improvement over the status quo – and recklessly embraced the necessity of mass murder to get there.

2. Socialism and fascism are moral approximates.  Why?  Socialism is a toned-down version of Communism; fascism is a toned-down version of Nazism.  As toned-down versions, they aim for much less, and murder far fewer people in the process.  Yet the vision of both movements – society as a big family with a common purpose – remains dystopian.  And while their methods are far less brutal than Communism or Nazism, socialism and fascism both casually advocate pervasive coercion for flimsy reasons.

(My main doubt here is that while I’ve repeatedly publicly debated socialists, I would not so engage a fascist.  Doesn’t that show that I think fascism is markedly worse?  Not exactly.  The main reason I don’t debate fascists is that avowed fascism is now so low-status that its adherents are low-quality and scary.  In a world where fascists were as mainstream as socialists, I would debate them).

3. The Democratic and Republican parties are moral approximates.  Why?  Both are dogmatic, emotional, and demagogic.  Neither party internalizes the maxim that with great power comes great responsibility – or dwells on the possibility that they might be mistreating people who don’t agree with them.  Both parties say they want various radical changes, many of which seem very bad.  The policies Democrats and Republicans actually impose when they have power are similarly mediocre, though that doesn’t stop them from rhetorically making mountains out of molehills.  On immigration, for example, the Democratic-Republican debate basically comes down to whether the border should be 98% closed or 99% closed.  Though I prefer 98% to 99%, it’s approximately the same.

I am well-aware that both Democrats and Republicans will protest angrily being lumped together; in their eyes, the differences between their parties are “huge.”  My question for them: In 200 years, how big will these “huge differences” look to historians?   Yes, during the Wars of Religion, Catholics and Protestants mutually called each other servants of the Antichrist.  Today, however, we can plainly see that both sides were unhinged.

Similarly, if you carefully studied the politics of, say, France in 1970, would you really conclude that the arguments that enraged contemporary French partisans were, in fact, a big deal?

Back in 2016, many Democrats told me that Trump’s election exposed the sheer evil of the Republican Party.  In a way, this understates.  I say that the mere fact that a man like Trump did well in the primaries shows that the Republican Party is rotten.  However, I’d say the same about Bernie Sanders’ success in 2016.  The mere fact that a man like Sanders did well in the primaries shows that the Democratic Party is rotten, too.

You could respond, “Suppose Democrats and Republicans really are moral approximates.  Shouldn’t an economist, of all people, still be eager to discover the slightly lesser evil?”  My answer: If I were America’s kingmaker, then yes.  But when I’m just one voice among tens of millions, no.  While I’m always happy to share my views with curious Democrats or Republicans, I’m too much of a puritan to ever join either party.

P.S. Lest anyone misinterpret me, I think the Democratic and Republican parties are markedly better than socialism and fascism, which are in turn markedly better than Communism and Nazism.  Mathematically: D≈R>>S≈F>>C≈N.

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“Gun Crime”

I’ve lost count of the times people have insisted my feelings about guns would change if someone I knew was a victim of a “gun crime”. This shows their ignorance. And even if my “feelings” did change, the truth doesn’t.

I’ve had three close friends shot by bad guys. Two of them died as a result. Do I blame the guns? That would be as pointless and stupid as blaming cars for my daughter Cheyenne’s death.

In one case, my friend was shot in the head by an angry ex who had been in and out of mental institutions. While she sat at a red light. I don’t think she ever knew he was in a car next to her. She probably wouldn’t have been saved if she’d had a gun– which she was in the process of trying to get government permission to carry. But it wouldn’t have made things worse. Making it harder for her to “legally” carry a gun didn’t help her.

In another case, a friend was shot in a mugging. He didn’t hand over enough money (he handed over all he had, the mugger just didn’t think it was enough) and then tried to elbow the excited mugger. He survived. Since he was not situationally aware, was in a dangerous place at a bad time of night, having a gun might not have done him any good. But if he’d had a gun it wouldn’t have made things worse for him. And, just maybe things would have gone worse for the mugger– who was never identified or caught.

In the final example, a friend of mine, my closest teenage friend, was shot in the gut “accidentally” and left to bleed out for an hour or more until a witness finally decided to call an ambulance. It was too late. According to the shooter, it was accidental. But I don’t believe my friend would have held a gun by the barrel while handing it to someone– he was more careful than that. Although I also think drugs, possibly a drug deal gone bad, were involved. If it was really an accident, then his having a gun wouldn’t have helped. If, however, it was a murder, then perhaps he could have defended himself had he been armed. Either way, having a gun wouldn’t have made it worse for him.

It’s so dumb to separate “gun crime” (or worse, “gun violence”) from other archation. I’m opposed to the innocent being harmed or killed regardless of the tool used by the bad guy. I wouldn’t feel better had my friends been violated with fists, bricks, knives, boots, or “laws”.

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Planned Retrogression

Nobody asked but …

I have been teaching computer literacy since the last millennium (since 1997 in layman’s terms), and I am amazed at the volume of innovation that we have seen in those 2+ decades.  I am amazed in two ways:  1) at the progress, and 2) at the lack of progress.  I will not belabor you with a discussion of the progress, since it is all around you.  But I will try to explain my contention that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I had to do some electrical repairs at the house this weekend.  There are many weekends in which I have to make electrical repairs, although not due to the age of our infrastructure.  Our house was finished, and wired, in 2008.  The failure of components is more due to sloppy manufacturing, overstretched distribution, and ignorance of consumer needs (which are, after all, human needs).  In plainer words, the big box stores relied excessively on third-world production to meet price points.  As a wit said, “I can get you goods or services, cheap, fast, good — choose any 2.”  By that filter, as Theodore Sturgeon said, “Ninety percent of everything is crud.”  Cheap and fast are chosen thousands of times more than cheap and good or fast and good.  As our attention spans shorten, the problem compounds.

Why do we still have the QWERTY keyboard, or any type of keyboard?  Why do we still have the mouse (51 years and counting)?

To me, the most telling example is my tractor, a Kubota.  The definition of good seems to dwell on the specifics of mechanized farming at the beginning of the industrial revolution.  If a male (not a female) can muster the strength to hook up an implement, such as a bush hog, then that is “good enough.”  Subliminally, men in the supply chain do not want to see any change.

Another example comes from the electrical system referred to above.  I am a septuagenarian who has seen no change in basic electrical hardware in 60 years, and I am fairly positive that there was no preceding fundamental change in the century since Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla were quarreling about the architecture.

Institutions (industrial complexes) have ways of embedding themselves so that expensive, slow, and no good become the choices.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Learn About Something Before You Talk

The better you understand something, the easier it is to notice when you’re being lied to. Plus, the less likely it is you’ll be fooled by the lies.

When I’m watching a movie and I see someone on screen starting a fire by randomly hitting rocks together and suddenly their campfire logs burst into flame I always think, “That’s not how it works!” Anyone who tries to light a fire this way isn’t going to end up with a fire unless someone else builds one for them.

The same thing happens when I hear a non-libertarian person or idea called “libertarian.” You can’t fool me, but those not as familiar with the core idea might accept the lie without question. For that matter, those spreading the lie may not realize they are lying.

How many people know “libertarian” refers only to those who understand no one has the right to use violence against anyone who isn’t currently violating the life, liberty, or property of another? My guess would be not many.

I also see this happen in debates about guns. Anti-gun activists are among the worst in this respect. Years ago a rabidly anti-gun politician was asked what a barrel shroud was since she was trying to get them banned. She said she wasn’t really sure but thought it might be the “shoulder thing that goes up.” Hint: It’s not.

It was obvious she hadn’t bothered to learn what she was trying to criminalize and didn’t even understand the basics of the English language. Knowledgeable people are still laughing at her.

If you’re trying to turn decent, everyday people into criminals by imposing a new law against objects, you could at least make an effort to learn the fundamentals of what you’re talking about. It would be a crime to destroy lives through your lazy legislative ignorance.

It’s usually helpful to know what you’re talking about before you start talking. Sure, you can use hyperbole for effect — unfortunately, humans respond to emotion better than to reason — but if you’re not even in the same hemisphere as reality, people familiar with the subject are going to notice and ridicule you.

When you catch someone lecturing on a topic they clearly don’t understand, pretending to know more than they do, point it out. You probably won’t change their minds, but you might help an onlooker learn enough to not fall prey to the lies being told.

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