Being Your Own Man Doesn’t Have To Mean Rejecting a Legacy

People leave the family farm. Sons go to college instead of going to work into the plumbing business. It has a thousand faces, but there’s this American idea that inheriting a vocation is “settling,” so you’d better go off and find a new one.

I know I feel it. It’s why I probably couldn’t have been satisfied just taking over the reins of my father’s successful landscaping business – and why indeed that wasn’t even something he tried much to encourage.

This same idea has killed many multi-generational businesses – and seems to have killed much hope for this one kind of intergenerational wealth transfer possible to most people. The result? Each new generation of men are poor and alone, and therefore at the mercy of the lenders and the mercy of the state.

Ironically, the mythos of dreaming-big and independence may be contributing to the destruction of both.

But “being your own man” doesn’t have to mean rejecting the legacies people try to leave you – including the legacy of training, capital, and vocation. Indeed, accepting a good legacy in these things can help to ensure that you remain as much your own as possible.

I’d look at the character of Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies* as my model. He comes from a long line of kings yet struggles with his legacy – particularly with the less than wonderful parts (like when Isildur keeps the Ring of Power for himself). So he wanders the north alone, fighting bad guys. Yet he only comes fully into his own when he accepts his legacy – but also transforms it through rejecting the evil of the Ring and Sauron for himself.

Aragorn becomes “his own man,” yet not from traveling footloose and fancy-free and deciding he doesn’t want to be king. His individuality established, he comes back and accepts and redeems his legacy.

We live in a mythos right now of “leave and never come back” – from a lot of things – family, life, work. This may be better than the ethos of “never leave” – certainly for some people it is. But the right ethos is “leave and then come back different.”

*It’s worth noting that (to my knowledge) this is not a conflict or at least not a major conflict for Aragorn.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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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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Is Bernie Sanders a Crypto-Communist? A Bayesian Analysis

The word “crypto-communist” has a paranoid, McCarthyite connotation.  But during the Cold War, numerous communist intellectuals and politicians deliberately concealed their commitment to Marxism-Leninism.  Why?  To be more successful intellectuals and politicians.  A few crypto-communists even managed to become national leaders.  Fidel Castro gained power in 1959, but only announced his communism in 1961.  Nelson Mandela presented himself as a reasonable democratic reformer.  Yet after his death, the African National Congress openly admittedly that Mandela had been on the politburo of the South African Communist Party for decades.  Ho Chi Minh joined the Communist Party in 1920, but in 1945 he loudly posed as a moderate democratic reformer – famously quoting the U.S. Declaration of Independence to charm the West.  Juan Negrin, last prime minister of Republican Spain, was also very likely a crypto-communist.

Which brings me to my question: What about Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders?  Is he a crypto-communist?  Sanders has sent decades worth of frightening signals – praising Soviet bloc regimes, honeymooning in the Soviet Union, and such.  Indeed, he’s said and done almost exactly what you would expect a sincere Marxist-Leninist who wanted to be a U.S. Senator would say and do.  Note, moreover, that Sanders came of political age during the 60s and 70s, when communism made a big comeback in the U.S. radical left.

True, this hardly proves that he’s a closeted communist.  Alternately, Sanders could be a communist dupe, or a even a true believer in “finding the good in the bad.”  The upshot: We have to settle for a probability that Sanders is a crypto-communist, all things considered.

When constructing such probabilities, Bayes’ Rule is usually helpful.  As you may recall, the Rule states that: P(A|B)=P(B|A)*P(A)/[P(B|A)*P(A) + P(B|~A)*P(~A)].  In this case, we want to know the probability that (A) Sanders is a crypto-communist given (B) his track record.  Piece-by-piece:

1. What’s the probability of Sanders’ track record if he is a crypto-communist?  Here, I’d go high.  Most crypto-communists in Sanders’ position would look like him.  I give this 75%.

2. What’s the probability of Sanders’ track record if he isn’t a crypto-communist?  Sanders view have long been extremely unpopular, but quite a few non-communists on the radical left would have shared them.  So I’ll give this 1.2%.

3. What’s the prior probability of being a crypto-communist?  Even during the 60s and 70s, this would be low, but not astronomically low.  .3% seems plausible.

4. What’s the prior probability of not being a crypto-communist?  100%-.3%=99.7%.

Plugging in to Bayes’ Rule, I get 15.8% – a low but hardly negligible risk that Sanders is a totalitarian hiding in plain sight.  Needless to say, you can alter this final estimate by fiddling with the value of the numerical components.  But you’d have to change them a lot to get the probability below 5%.

Which brings us to a big related question: When does the risk of crypto-communism become disqualifying for a presidential candidate?  I say even a 1% chance should be totally disqualifying, but I fear that most Democrats – and many non-Democrats – will demur.  So what risk would they consider acceptable?  5%?  10%?  I don’t know, but plausibly revising (1)-(4) to get below a 5% or 10% threshold is no easy feat.

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Real Democracy Requires a Separation of Money and State

As we enter a new year, the running battle between the world’s governments and the world-changing technology known as “cryptocurrency” continues. As 2019 drew to an end, Swiss president Ueli Maurer asserted that Facebook’s digital currency (not a real cryptocurrency), Libra, has failed “because central banks will not accept the basket of currencies underpinning it.”

Politicians want to regulate — or, if possible, kill — cryptocurrency.

Large firms like Facebook want to capture cryptocurrency’s potential without rocking those governments’ boats.

Cryptocurrency advocates want democracy. Yes, democracy.

Of all the important words in the English language, “democracy” (from the Greek demokratia, “rule by the people”) may be the most fuzzily defined. Some people define it in terms of raw majoritarianism, others as one of various forms of representative government.

I define “democracy” in words used by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. “Democracy,” to my mind, is government that enjoys the “consent of the governed.”

Not just the consent of 50% plus one of the governed, and certainly not just the consent of a few big players who can afford lobbyists and bribes to get their way, but the consent of ALL the governed.

One major hinge on which the door of democracy as I define it swings is control of money — who may create it, how it may be used, and what portion of it must be handed over to government for “public” uses those paying the bills may or may not approve of.

Involuntary taxation is the opposite of the consent of the governed. It’s the opposite of democracy. We can have financial regulators and central banks, or we can have democracy. We can’t have both.

Cryptocurrency threatens the reign of government over money. It bodes a future in which, as an old antiwar slogan puts it, the Air Force will have to hold a bake sale if it wants to buy a new bomber.

That’s the future I want. It’s also the future that politicians, regulators and central bankers fear.

They don’t want to have to ASK you to fund their schemes.  They’re not interested in requesting your consent. They prefer to simply demand your compliance.

The ability to anonymously handle our finances without reporting them to government or involuntarily giving it a cut is a revolutionary development. And it’s here, now. More and more of us are using cryptocurrency, and the politicians are panicking.

While cryptocurrency won’t entirely kill involuntary taxation — land can’t be easily hidden, so we can expect property taxes to persist — it will make the global economy harder for governments to manipulate and milk.

The inevitable future of cryptocurrency, absent a new Dark Age in which we all go back to plowing with mules and reading rotting old books by candlelight, is a future without income and sales taxes (to name two of the biggest and most pernicious).

The ruling class will do everything it can to prevent the coming separation of money and state.

They’ll fail. And democracy will flourish. See you at the bake sale.

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Non-Intervention: An Imperfect Solution to a Terrible Problem

On November 27, US president Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

The bill, passed by veto-proof majorities in Congress amid large protests in the “special administrative region,”  allows the president to impose sanctions on officials who violate human rights there, and requires various US government departments to annually review Hong Kong’s political status with a view toward changing trade relations if the US doesn’t like what it sees.

In response to the bill’s passage and Trump’s signature, the Chinese government in Beijing denounced US “meddling” in China’s “internal affairs” and threatened “countermeasures.”

Some non-interventionists agree with Beijing’s line on the matter, claiming that Hong Kong is intrinsically part of a thing called “China” and that the US simply has no business poking its nose into the conflict between pro-democracy (and increasingly pro-independence) protesters and mainland China’s Communist Party regime.

I happen to disagree with Beijing’s line, but that doesn’t mean I think the bill is a good idea. Non-interventionism is sound foreign policy not because the situation in Hong Kong is simple, but because it’s complex.

In 1842, the British Empire forced China’s Qing dynasty to cede areas including Hong Kong to it as a colony. In 1898, that same dynastic regime granted Britain a 99-year lease on Hong Kong.

When Britain’s lease ran out in 1997, Hong Kong wasn’t returned to the Qing dynasty. That dynasty no longer existed. It had been replaced in rebellion and civil war,  first by a notional republic under Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist Party, then in 1949 by Mao’s Communist Party.

But Britain still returned Hong Kong to “China,” albeit with some negotiations for “special administrative status,” meaning more personal, political, and economic freedom than the people of mainland China enjoyed. Now the Beijing regime is acting to erode the prerogatives of that “special” status, and the people of Hong Kong are unhappy about it.

The problem is that the Westphalian nation-state model that has prevailed for the last 400 years treats given areas as “sovereign” even if the governments  within those areas change. “China” is the territory enclosed by a set of lines on the ground (“borders”) agreed to by politicians once upon a time, and nothing that happens within those borders is anyone else’s business, forever and ever amen.

Yes, Hong Kong was “returned” to a “China” completely different from the “China” it was torn from, but nobody gets to tell the new “China” what to do within the agreed borders. At least, it seems, not for more than 20 years or so.

I don’t like that, but I don’t have to like it. That’s how it is whether I like it or not.  Beijing doesn’t get to decide how Washington treats us. Washington doesn’t get to decide how Beijing treats the people of Hong Kong.

That being the case, the choice is non-intervention or some form of conflict, up to and including war. I prefer the former — and I hope we evolve out of the nation-state political model before the latter destroys us.

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The Gods Whose Sacrifices We Neglect

The old gods have a lot to teach us.

Sure, we all know that the Greek pantheon – Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Hades, Ares, Athena, Artemis, Demeter, Dionysus, and the rest – don’t *really* exist.

But there is a reason people chose these characters to personify their understanding of the world. As psychologist Jordan Peterson points out, each god (in all of his or her power and pettiness) represents some of the fundamental human drives or attributes – sex, intelligence, wrath, independence.

The old Greek pantheon is a sophisticated way for understanding the complex human mind, which is home to many powerful needs and drives that sometimes act like personalities.

Like the gods of legend, these “gods” of our personality don’t like people who spurn them. And it doesn’t take a long look into Greek mythology to know that the gods do awful things to people they don’t like. Afflictions of madness, afflictions of lust, transformation into animals – it’s not pretty.

Aren’t fighting for your rights, your ideas, or your self-respect? You are neglecting Ares (the god of war) and he will exact his sacrifice someway. Usually this will look like a gradual building resentment, with an explosion of anger toward someone who doesn’t deserve it at a time it’s not called for.

Aren’t honoring or expressing your own sexuality? You may be offending Aphrodite (who brought about the downfall of Heracles – so not someone to be messed with). She’ll have her due, in uncontrolled, warped, or frustrated desire.

Aren’t preserving your independence and purity? Giving in to the crowd? Surrendering what makes you unique? In a sense you are offending the virgin goddess Artemis, who is perhaps the scariest of them all (she’ll turn you into a stag and have your own hounds kill you).

It’s all imagination, I know. But I still find it interesting to think of my own drives or needs as personalities. With personalities, at least we can bargain. We can make the sacrifices that all good Greeks knew to make. And we can remember that neglecting any of the gods has terrible consequences.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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