Governing Least: A Litany of Insight

Dan Moller’s Governing Least is packed with random insights and philosophic wit.  Some highlights:

Why so much political philosophy sounds desperate:

Only those already unsympathetic to utilitarianism are likely to be swayed by Rawls’s brief observations. Those who begin their political philosophy by defending the morality of rights don’t so much preach to the choir as exorcize the elect.

Why so much political philosophy sounds so blind:

The reason France does not require aid is not because some external group took pity on the French, but that they were able to generate exponential economic growth themselves. This makes it puzzling that philosophers write long books about aid without mentioning economic growth, and generally seem to imply that the path to escaping poverty lies through individual altruism. Why ignore the only mechanism that has ever succeeded in lifting millions of people out of poverty when thinking about poverty?

A great explanation of the Theory of the Second-Best:

Suppose that a company enjoys monopoly powers that we cannot immediately remove under the present regulatory regime, but that one of its upstart rivals enjoys a market- distorting state subsidy which we can remove. It is a fallacy to infer that market efficiency will be improved by at least killing the subsidy— the reverse may well be true— just as it is fallacious to reason that if our military lacks both bombs and bombers the second- best solution is at least to build the bombers.

Why predictable outcomes can co-exist with abundant opportunity:

The data on intergenerational mobility or its absence is sobering, to say the least. In the United States, sometimes this leads commentators to call into question the traditional self- conception of America as a “land of opportunity.” It’s hardly a land of opportunity if outcomes are determined at birth, runs the criticism.

Let us consider this reasoning in more detail. The critic seems to reason as follows: If there were anything like equality of opportunity, then we couldn’t predict outcomes at birth, but we can, and so the land of opportunity is a myth. Let us assume the standard to meet here isn’t exact equality of opportunity for every single citizen. Could there still be reasonably high levels of opportunity despite outcomes— including bad ones— being highly predictable from the start? The critic seems to assume the following principle:

Predictability defeats opportunity: if we are able to specify social outcomes with a high degree of accuracy in advance, then the people in question cannot enjoy much opportunity.

Why accept this principle? What is it that connects predictability and opportunity? The obvious answer is that we think we know enough about people to be confident that if they did enjoy opportunities, they wouldn’t exercise them in a way that leads to bad social outcomes. The fact that we know that Smith will end up poor in all likelihood suggests that he is powerless to avoid it, since if he were capable of influencing the outcome, then he would. This amounts to another, deeper principle:

Predictability is evidence of incapacity: the fact that we can predict poor social outcomes is evidence that those who experience them lack a capacity for avoiding them.

Another way of putting the matter is that a fixed proportion of poor outcomes might be bad, but it wouldn’t be bad for reasons of diminished opportunity, since it might be the case that there are going to be winners and losers in anything resembling a free society, and as long as everyone has a fair shot at being a winner, things aren’t so bad. (No doubt more would need to be said about what “losing” amounts to for us to feel reassured.) What is terrible about predictability is that the losers aren’t just random, but never had a chance. Because predictability is evidence of incapacity, we know that those with poor outcomes never had a chance to succeed, and a fortiori they lacked anything like an equal or reasonable opportunity for success.

The problem is that it isn’t true that predictability, in itself, is evidence of incapacity, that outcomes are beyond our control. I don’t want to deny in the end that certain forms of incapacity do play a role in social outcomes, but how much is far from settled, and by opening with the assumption that predictability implies incapacity, we go wrong from the start. The fundamental confusion is between the epistemic question of what we can say about the future and the metaphysical question of what people are able to do at a given time in given circumstances. There are various fancy examples to illustrate this in the free- will literature, but for our purposes we can stick to some everyday examples:

Rope line: at the airport, we predict with great confidence that people will walk along a particular circuitous path— the one laid out by the velvet ropes. Nevertheless, the passengers are free to step over the ropes any time they like. It’s just that hardly anyone does. Predictability here doesn’t imply incapacity, it’s just that the passengers all have reason to exercise their freedom in a certain way.
Victim-blaming is (often) question-begging:
[I]t sounds mean to claim that people generally have a capacity to influence social outcomes when thinking about the poor, a bit like victim-blaming. But such a denial would involve insisting that something like the following claims are generally true (readers are invited to imagine these in the mouths of their own children facing unfavorable social circumstances, such as a lousy school system):
• “I can’t help it that I skipped class.”
• “It wasn’t possible to do my homework.”
• “I had no control over whether I had children.”
• “There was no way I could have worked this past year.”
It is important to acknowledge that for some people, these statements will be true. Mothers have children due to rape, classes go unattended because of gunfire or violence in the school, recessions destroy employment opportunities even for those who are highly qualified and persevering and willing to accept low wages. The point isn’t that all poor social outcomes are blameworthy, but that most (not all) people can exercise an enormous amount of influence over whether they lead a decent life in the developed world, even when ignorance or other internal impediments bar the way.
Governing Least is so packed with insight that I could easily have made this post three times longer.  Read it and see for yourself!
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“Intellectual” is not a dirty word. It disturbs me how often it is used as one.

On the other hand, many of those who are called “intellectuals”– particularly “public intellectuals”– are really just government extremists and elitists. They may have degrees and positions, but their position on issues is anti-intellectual. They follow the religion of statism and worship the god of government.

It is not rational to be a statist. It is vulgar to believe people should be governed by others, and to use politics as a tool for this purpose. Any illiterate punk might believe the same thing, but without claiming the “authority” to force everyone to go along.

They believe they know better how to run your life than you do. And they are willing to use government violence to prove it.

These people may be clever. They may be smart in some ways. But their ignorance and emotionalism overwhelm their intellect. They betray their own intellectualism with their belief system. They’ve decided which is more important to them, personally. And it’s a shame.

Think of all the good they could have otherwise done if they are really as “intellectual” as they are made out to be. The world is poorer for having lost their contributions. When you side with darkness and ignorance– with statism– your intellect, if any, becomes a net negative to society.

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There’s No Way to Know Everything

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and one many people can’t accept, but you and I can never know everything.

This means if you want to act politically, you’ll come from a place of ignorance whether you mean to or not.

I can’t know the ultimate reality about Anthropogenic Global Climate Change — commonly called “global warming.”

I can’t know all the possible consequences of building a new “Berlin Wall” between America and Mexico.

I can’t know how a total gun ban would affect actual aggression statistics.

I can’t know all the consequences of adopting fully socialized medicine in America.

I can’t know exactly what my life would be like without police, government schools, taxation, laws, and all the rest of the socialistic things I would like to see go away.

And it doesn’t really matter.

It’s enough to know when something violates other people’s rights and liberty; to understand I have no right to violate others even if I can’t know with certainty how things would go if no one violates them.

This knowledge — that I have no right to violate others — is sufficient and essential.

There are people who are arrogant enough to believe they can know it all. They may claim the reason you don’t know it all is because you won’t research it for yourself, or you’re just not smart enough. They are dishonest.

They don’t know it all. They only know enough to be satisfied with the position they’ve taken; a position that justifies their favorite violations of life, liberty, and property. If your research leads you to a different opinion, they’ll claim you don’t know enough until you agree with them.

They expect to use government against those who don’t agree with them on whatever issue they care most about. They’d like to have you on their side; superior numbers, expressed through a vote, to gang up and force others to go along with what they believe.

Yet, even if they are right in their beliefs, they aren’t right about how to carry them out. No one has the right to use government violence to force you to go along with them.

Such a right has never existed and can’t be invented.

Accept that no one can know everything and that no matter what you know it can’t give you the right to govern others, nor to select people to govern them on your behalf.

This knowledge will liberate you.

That’s one thing I can know for certain.

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Poverty and Success

Perhaps the most unpopular opinion I hold is that—in spite of the myriad obstacles to success instigated by the state—success is still achievable by a significant percentage of the population (>95%) and poverty is a result of one’s own choices in a similar percentage of cases.

I am not suggesting that everyone’s idea of success necessarily requires financial wealth or that poverty (a lack of financial wealth) is always an undesirable state of existence. Some people do indeed choose to prioritize other goals above wealth, and that is certainly their right. I also acknowledge that there are some people (<5%) in any population who, due to severe disability or state maleficence (typically through the so-called “criminal justice system“), have limited or no ability to achieve financial success.

Caveats aside, my basic thesis is that greater than 95 percent of people are capable of and have the opportunity to achieve financial success, but that many (and even a majority) do not take advantage of their opportunities. There are numerous decisions, reasons, and alternative priorities that explain this phenomenon and the following are far from an exhaustive list.

  1. Not taking advantage of educational opportunities. In the U.S. and most developed countries, basic education is available to all at no charge and higher education is available inexpensively or even at no charge to those who can demonstrate financial hardship. In addition, the information age has led to an unprecedented increase in the quantity and quality of educational materials available at little or even no charge. Nearly anyone can learn to do anything if they are willing to put in the effort. Those who choose to live their lives in ignorance have almost always chosen that path.
  2. Having children (they cannot afford) too young. This is another huge predictor of one’s likelihood of achieving financial success. Having children represents nearly a quarter-million dollars’ worth of expenses taken on which will have to be paid in a span of fewer than two decades. Why do people make this foolish choice? If your finances would not support the purchase of a Lamborghini Huracán, they also don’t support you having a child. Wait or abstain!
  3. An unwillingness to relocate. Here we see another significant problem that plagues the perpetually poor. Sometimes opportunity doesn’t knock on your door. Sometimes you have to go hunt for it. Cost of living is also a major factor here. The Apartment List National Rent Report found that the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New York City was $2,523. It was even higher at $2,621 in San Jose, CA. Compare that to Phoenix, AZ or Houston, TX where the averages were $1,061 and $1,024 respectively.

It is not just rent either; today, the average cost for a gallon of gas in San Jose, CA, is $3.27 while in Houston, TX, it’s $1.93. Play with a Cost Of Living Calculator and observe the difference. Right now, the cost of living is 44.33% lower in Houston than in the San Francisco area and 56.82% lower than in the Manhattan area. Why do poor people stay in expensive cities?

What about finding a job? The lowest unemployment in the country right now is in the Ames, IA Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) at just 1.4 percent. That’s less than half the 3.6 percent unemployment rate in the New York MSA, and yet the cost of living in Ames, IA, is 59.19% lower than in Manhattan. If you are working full time earning $20 an hour (well above the minimum wage) in New York, you could move to Ames, IA, and take a job making $8.50 an hour and you would be better off ($8.17/hr. is the breakeven point.) Oh, and gas at Sam’s Club in Ames is going for $1.86 a gallon today.

So what is my point with all this information? My point is that if people would make smarter decisions—particularly about their education, when they have children, and where they live—they would have a far greater chance of achieving financial success. I’m not suggesting that it is always easy or that there are not obstacles to overcome, but I am suggesting that it is not nearly as difficult as some people claim. Poverty is not the fault of billionaires or of “greedy capitalists” or of some systemic injustice that keeps “po’ folks” down. Poverty is the natural and predictable result of ongoing poor choices, and until people realize this and start taking responsibility for their own culpability in their financial situations, we will continue to hear the growing chorus of complainers demanding political intervention to redistribute money from those who earned it to those who did not.

With few exceptions, it is fair to say that poor people make poor choices.

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Good Intentions, or Not

I have no doubt that many “citizen” statists have good intentions. They are misguided by their ignorance but their intentions are mainly admirable. They may even align with mine.

However, that doesn’t apply to politicians.

Especially those who have been around a few years. I no longer give them the benefit of a doubt.

They know what’s up. Through experience, they know better.

Yet they keep doing the same old thing anyway. That they keep using politics instead of the economic means shows me they have no good intentions left. Even if they did, once upon a time.

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What Educators Can Learn from “I, Pencil”

I am a learner—ordinary and extraordinary. I am ordinary because, along with breathing and eating, learning is a simple and foundational human action. I am extraordinary because throughout history my drive to discover has led to profound inventions that improve our world, from the wheel to the lightbulb, penicillin to the microchip. Learning is what I do.

Sixty years ago, Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the nation’s oldest free-market think tank, wrote a simple essay called “I, Pencil.” In it, he traces the production of a common pencil, revealing that even for so humble an object, “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.” It is through an elaborate, decentralized, emergent, global process that a pencil is born. Read writes:

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human masterminding!

If no single person or centralized group of people can produce a lowly pencil, then how could we believe that a single person or group could produce something so magnificent as an educated human? We try. We believe that we can orchestrate others’ learning, breaking their natural will to explore by emphasizing conformity and compliance in early childhood and then filling their minds with the content we deem important. We pat ourselves on the back for being masters of others’ learning, for extirpating ignorance.

Never mind that much of what people learn in this top-down, coercive way is forgotten soon after it is learned. In a revealing study in the early 2000s of the Lawrenceville School, a top-ranked elite US private school, students who had completed a high school science class the previous spring semester were asked to take a watered-down version of the science final exam when they returned to school three months later. Over just one summer, the average grade on the exam fell from a B+ to an F.

We fool ourselves if we think our conventional system of education creates learners. It creates young people who, with varying degrees of success, learn to memorize and regurgitate arbitrary information to the satisfaction of a teacher or a test that is soon forgotten. It creates mimics.

In “I, Pencil,” Read concludes his story with a simple message: “Leave all creative energies uninhibited.” Don’t try to control the production of the pencil. That will most certainly result in an inferior and more costly good—if it could be created at all. Instead of directing the actions of others, let people be free to direct themselves. This leads not only to the human inventions that brighten our world and improve our existence but also to the actualization of personal fulfillment and agency that can only come with freedom.

For self-directed learners, their creative energies are uninhibited. They are not controlled by a mastermind or a group of omniscient rulers who believe they know what is best for others. Self-directed learners retain their creative spirit, that zest for learning which is so apparent in young children but is often eroded through years of forced education. These unschooled learners freely follow their passions and pursue their curiosities, supported by the resources of their families and communities and with a deep sense of personal responsibility.

In a society as rapidly-changing and technologically-fueled as ours, it is a mistake to think that any one person or group of people can decide what others must know to live a meaningful and productive life. According to the World Economic Forum, many of the most in-demand jobs and skillsets did not even exist a decade ago, and the majority of today’s elementary school children will work in jobs that have yet to be invented. We cannot pretend that we know what our children need to know, particularly as our children’s main competitors for the jobs of the future will be mechanical. To compete with robots, our children should be free to direct their own learning tied to their emerging interests in a way that retains their essential human qualities of creativity, ingenuity, and experimentation. Self-directed learning is the pathway to a free and flourishing society.

Free learners accomplish both the ordinary and the extraordinary. By unleashing the innate human drive to explore and discover, to build and synthesize—to learn—we ensure a future of both individual fulfillment and collective progress. Like a pencil, a learner is simple and complex, familiar and unknowable. All learners must be free to write their own story.

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