Reflections on Guatemala

I first journeyed to Guatemala 20 years ago, hosted by Universidad Francisco Marroquín.  Two weeks ago, I returned for a delightful extended visit, accompanied by my Spanish-speaking elder sons and former EconLog blogger Jim Schneider.  I spent over a week doing guest lectures at UFM, then gave Friday’s keynote talk for the Reason Foundation’s “Reason in Guatemala” conference.  During our trip, we were also able to visit the awesome Mayan ruins of Tikal and Yaxha.  Here are my reflections on the experience.

1. Guatemala has dramatically improved over the last two decades.  Multinational businesses are now all over Guatemala City.  Restaurants and luxury products are all over, but so are businesses that cater to average Guatemalans.  Local grocery stores are packed with familiar international brands and products.  There are multiple Walmarts.  Even Costco is there, doing business as Pricesmart.  We argued about whether the Oakland Mall was more impressive than Tyson’s I, but it was definitely a tough call.  Smartphones are naturally ubiquitous.  Whenever we strayed from the tourist areas, we saw ordinary citizens enjoying simple material pleasures like Pollo Campero.

2. When I last visited Guatemala, the high-end businesses seemed grossly overbuilt; the shiny malls were almost empty.  Now, however, Guatemalans actually seem to be consuming the fruits of progress.  The cavernous Oakland Mall was packed at lunchtime on a weekday – and the pedestrianized streets near the National Palace were full of locals.  La Aurora Zoo was world-class, but we saw no other foreign tourists.

3. Our sponsors at UFM strove to keep us perfectly safe.  For the first few days, they drove us everywhere.  Yet almost every local assured us that four guys walking around Zone 10 in broad daylight were extremely safe.  By the end, we were walking comfortably through a wide range of neighborhoods, though only by day.  Crime is clearly down, thanks in no small part to massive private security.  Even small stores often have heavily-armed guards, and razor wire is almost always in your field of vision.

5. The greatest danger to pedestrians is probably the poor sidewalks; there are many dangerous pits even in elite neighborhoods.  The problem is so dire and the cost of fixing it is so small that I’m surprised that local businesses haven’t raised money to solve it.  I know Latin America’s philanthropic tradition is weak.  Yet good publicity aside, wouldn’t the Oakland Mall soon recoup a $50-100k investment in the surrounding sidewalks?  Would local government really block this public-spirited initiative?

6. We didn’t have to walk far to see absolute poverty.  No one looked malnourished, and even kids living in shacks and huts usually wore new, store-bought clothes.  Still, we saw families living in shacks (in Guatemala City, especially near the airport) and huts (especially on the drive to Yaxha).  During one severe traffic jam, we saw kids under ten washing car windows.  We also witnessed several families of clowns busking in the streets.

7. By official measures, Guatemala is dramatically poorer than any of the Caribbean islands we recently toured, with per capita GDP of $3200 nominal and $7600 PPP.  Yet this is mightily difficult to reconcile with what we saw with our own eyes.  Overall, the Caribbean islands looked a lot like the road from Flores to Yaxha – a mixture of modest modern houses and primitive shacks and huts.  Everything else in Guatemala looked vastly better than St. Maarten or St. Kitts.  While this partly reflects higher population, the biggest contrast is that almost every Guatemalan looks like he has useful work to do.  The Caribbean islanders, in contrast, have high levels of desperate peddling and outright idleness.

8. Guatemalan prices confused not only us, but local economists as well.  Grocery prices are very high.  Guatemala’s Pricesmart and my local Costco sell many identical goods, so I can confidently say that the former’s prices were roughly twice as high as I normally pay.  Local chains were even pricier.  One prominent local businessman blamed Guatemala’s low port capacity – and impishly shared his thrilling plans to build a big new port in the near future.  Restaurant meals aren’t cheap either; everything from fast food to premium steaks costs about the same as it would in Virginia.  The only product that was blatantly cheaper than usual was Uber – about one-third of the U.S. rate.  (Since gas prices were a bit higher than in Virginia, drivers’ take-home pay must be low indeed).  Other services, such as tour guides, were also big bargains.

9. As I toured Guatemala, I couldn’t help but notice how happy the people looked, especially the women.  I wondered if my impression could just be confirmation bias, but now that I’m back home I’m confident that the contrast is stark.  Guatemalan men look at least marginally happier than American men.  Guatemalan women look much happier than American women.  You could say that this merely reflects cultural differences in expressiveness, but that strikes me as sheer stubborn denial.

10. UFM was the jewel of our visit.  UFM could well be the most beautiful of the hundred-odd universities I’ve toured in my life.   Built in a ravine, it elegantly blends distinctive architecture with gorgeous tropical flora.  UFM also hosts two stunning museums – Popol Vuh (archaeology) and Ixchel (textiles).  Best of all, UFM is an academic libertarian paradise.  The ideas and imagery of my intellectual heroes adorn the whole campus – Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Ludwig von Mises are only the beginning.  Yet there is no sign of dogmatic orthodoxy.  Good manners prevail; faculty and students are eager to hear new ideas and debate old ones.   Unlike most other institutions, UFM administrators are especially intellectually engaged.  UFM President Gabriel Calzada Alvarez was overjoyed to talk ideas with my sons for hours.

11.  The students of UFM look even happier than the rest of their countrymen.  You could say this is because they’re drawn from Guatemala’s richest families, but so are Americans in the Ivy League – and those kids are hardly pictures of good cheer.  The gender gap was so big that I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own ideas; female UFM students appear extraordinarily happy.  UFM econ’s male/female ratio is also strangely low; several of the classes I taught were virtually all-female.

12. My Guatemalan audiences took to Open Borders like fish to water.  The cultural and political threat of Muslim immigration was the sole recurring objection.  In Guatemalan eyes, Latin America and the U.S. share a common Judeo-Christian culture, so many were surprised to hear how many U.S. citizens view Latin Americans as culturally alien or even unassimilable.

13. On the latter issue, the Guatemalans are plainly correct.  Pre-assimilation to the North American way of life is prevalent and intense.  Virtually everyone at UFM speaks and understands English well.  About a fifth of the public signs in Guatemala City are entirely in English, and an additional third are in Spanglish.  The Guatemalan elite already lives the American dream, más o menos.  The average Guatemalan struggles to do the same.  A dozen different people emphatically described Guatemalans as “deeply conservative,” but Tarantino was on t.v. every time I flipped the channels.

14. Even Guatemalan libertarians rarely complained about specific domestic government policies, but if you look at their Economic Freedom of the World ranking, there is plenty to decry.  Guatemala gets great scores on Size on Government and Sound Money, and a good score on Freedom to Trade Internationally.  Yet it gets an awful score for Legal System & Property Rights, and an even worse score for Regulation.  New construction projects are all over Guatemala City, but one of the locals told me it takes 2-3 years to obtain permission to build.  Imagine how much construction there’d be if you cut the delay down to 2-3 months or 2-3 weeks!

15. So what do Guatemalans complain about?  I asked one of my classes to tell me what most bothered the average Guatemalan; then I proposed workable policy responses for each problem.  Their first answer was “corruption.”  I suggested hiring a team of Swiss or Singaporeans to take over Guatemala’s internal affairs department.  They saw the logic of importing trustworthiness, but told me that Guatemalans wouldn’t accept it.  Their next answer was “traffic.”  I proposed electronic road pricing.  They again saw the logic, and again told me that Guatemalans wouldn’t accept it – even if the gas tax were abolished at the same time.  My students also saw crime – especially kidnapping – as a grave problem.  They were almost dumbstruck when I suggested a big switch from incarceration to flogging, even though Guatemala’s indigenous peoples already heavily rely on corporal punishment.  In a poor country with heavy corruption and high crime, the case for flogging is mighty indeed.  Just ask criminal-justice reformer Jason Brennan!

16. If I had to move to another country, Guatemala would be high on my list.  First and foremost, I love the UFM community.  American liberalism and conservatism are intellectual dead-ends, and I would enjoy forever escaping from both.  I also prefer to be around very happy people, and on that score Guatemala handily beats the U.S.A.  Guatemala does have some scary features, but the longer I stayed, the more I relaxed.  Yet for now, I continue to prefer the U.S.  Wages are obviously much higher here, and PPP measures notwithstanding, a dollar goes further in the U.S. than in Guatemala.

17. The Mayan archaeological sites we visited deserve all the hyperbolic adjectives people apply to them.  The contrast between the pyramids and the palaces, however, is vast.  The pyramids you leave thinking, “Human beings made these?!  Without wheels?!”  (As well as, “They performed human sacrifices here?!  What the hell was wrong with these Mayans?!”)  The “palaces” of the Mayan leaders, in contrast, look smaller than many apartments in Fairfax.  To reverse Galbraith, the Mayan elite lived lives of public affluence and private squalor.

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Helping the “Homeless”

All the cries to “solve the homelessness problem”, especially by using political government, fall flat with me. It’s not that I’m heartless. I’ve even been homeless myself, so I should have empathy. But I also have experience with homeless people.

Years ago I met a homeless guy named Paul. He was nice enough, but it was clear he wasn’t “all there”. He had left his home in Kentucky and traveled in his car (I’m assuming it was his) to western Colorado. There he spent the nights in his car, which he kept parked in the back-country, and walked into town almost every day.

He told me tales of his affair with a ghost back in Kentucky, and told me he left home because his parents wanted to have him committed to a mental hospital. I could see their point.

I did what I could to help him. I taught him some survival skills I thought might help. I gave him a hatchet that had been mine since I was a teen and also gave him some candles and other things I thought he might benefit from. I gave him food a few times.

Paul liked to hang out in my store and visit. I did sometimes get tired of him– my enthusiasm for socializing can get used up pretty quick in any situation that’s not karaoke. He often smelled bad– but he did bathe at campgrounds from time to time.

The worst thing (for me) he did was hit on women who would come into my store– right in front of their husbands. I told him he had to stop this or he couldn’t come in my store anymore; he was driving away what few customers I had. This made him angry and he said he would come smash my front window that night. I had a few overnight armed vigils in the back of the store but he never acted on this threat. And soon enough, he acted like he forgot this had ever happened.

That summer, the sidewalk in front of the store was being torn out and replaced and I found an old horseshoe in the dirt under the concrete. I put it on display in my store. He became very interested in this horseshoe and wanted to take it to his car and let it “speak” to him overnight. So I let him.

He came back the next day with stories of what the horseshoe had “shown” him. He even wrote an account of some of this– minus the darkest parts about dismembered bodies in steel barrels– on a notepad I had given him. (See the scans at the bottom of the page.) He just told me those parts but didn’t include them in the written account for some reason.

But he became convinced the horseshoe was cursed and that was the reason my store wasn’t flourishing. Its presence was the problem.

He said I had to get rid of the cursed horseshoe before something horrible happened to me. To humor him I tossed it.

Oddly, things didn’t improve.

He told me one day that Fall that he was moving to Utah. He packed up his car, I contributed some gas money, and he took off. I thought that was the end of that.

A week or two later I saw a very scruffy-looking guy crossing the street and thought it looked like Paul. It was him and he was soon in my shop again. He was dirtier and smellier than ever before. It turned out he had driven almost to the Utah line, but then turned up the interstate and headed toward Denver, and then his car had stopped running. I don’t know if he was out of gas or if it broke down. He didn’t stick around to see, but started walking back “home”. That was over 130 miles, and maybe a lot more, depending on how far he’d gone on the interstate. He abandoned all his possessions there in his car on the side of the interstate, never to be seen again.

He said he’d gotten one ride– an insistent cop had picked him up on the west side of one of the very few towns along his route and dropped him off on the east side of town so he could continue his journey. He refused all other rides along the way, and slept in the grass beside the highway every night.

His feet were sore, and now he had no place to sleep at night. A preacher friend of mine happened to come in the store about this time and heard the story. He offered to have the town’s ministerial alliance pay for a hotel room. Paul refused, saying he wouldn’t accept anything from them because he didn’t know them. The preacher said, “but that’s what we do– help people who need help”. Paul was having none of it and my preacher friend finally went on his way.

So, instead of a nice hotel room, Paul started spending the nights in a porta-potty at the construction site of the new school. It was now late November, with the temperatures falling well below freezing, and often dipping below zero. I gave him a few candles for warmth.

I began to see less of him, usually only every few days or so.

Around this time there were reports of homes in that area being entered during the night– their toilets being used and food being eaten. Only one homeowner caught a glimpse of someone fitting Paul’s description walking away from their house. It was in the paper and I suspected it was him, but I never found out for sure.

Not long after that, Paul decided to go see if there were more opportunities for “the homeless” in Denver, and he somehow got a bus ticket and left, and I never saw him again.

One result of this experience is that it kind of made me skeptical about the homeless. Yes, he was only one example (although there have been others I’ve met who were very similar). But homelessness isn’t about a lack of homes. Paul had a home and he left. He had opportunities to be housed, he rejected the offers. He was a beggar and didn’t want anything to jeopardize his chosen lifestyle.

At least I don’t believe he was an addict; his mental issues were burdensome enough.

I know most (or all) of the beggars here locally are the same way. Their signs say they are stranded and need gas money, but they live in houses. Here. And have for years. Stranded? Where do they imagine they are going?

I was homeless for a time several years ago. But I didn’t sleep on the streets (I slept in the woods) and I didn’t get handouts or steal from anyone. I kept my job and worked to get myself out of that situation. But I also wasn’t addicted or mentally ill (some might disagree on that last point, though).

It doesn’t bother me if people choose to give to the homeless, but I know it’s not going to fix anything. Nor would building houses for them. They generally have issues beyond what those things can solve. Paul was a case in point.

Below, for posterity, are scans of Paul’s “horseshoe visions”.

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The Badassity of Migrant Workers

If the pioneer and frontiersman spirit has disappeared in most Americans, it’s alive and well in migrant workers.

Imagine traveling all the way from Guatemala to Maine to pick blueberries, or from Nicaragua to Alberta to tend cattle, or from Mexico to Washington to harvest hops. There are people who do this, and they are badasses.

The people who make this journey often do it with few resources, and in spite of laws, ruffians, and thousands of miles. And they do it with vision: to support a family back home, or to make a new life possible for a family here.

There is almost unheard-of long-range thinking, courage, self-discipline, work ethic, and resourcefulness. Why are we not doffing our caps to these people?

There may be a language and cultural barrier, but it’s a true shame if we don’t get to know them and understand the realism in which they’re rooted as well as the ambition that lets them dream and travel vast distances for a better life. These people could teach us something. If the “spirit of America” is or should be anything at all, it’s embodied in the risk-taking of the migrant.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Caplans of the Caribbean

I just returned from cruising the Caribbean on Anthem of the SeasMaybe you’ve heard of it? Fortunately, no coronavirus panic marred our vacation, and the concluding scare at the dock turned out to be a false alarm.  Though I’d seen a little of the Caribbean before, this trip was a heavy dose: after a stop at San Juan, Puerto Rico, we sailed on to St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts.  My social science reflections:

1. I’ve been writing about Puerto Rico for years.  Its great open borders experiment doesn’t just put an upper bound on the dangers of “brain drain”; it also shows that liberalization makes migration serenely “snowball” rather than frighteningly “flood.” I was excited, then, to finally see Puerto Rico with my own eyes.  San Juan, at least, met my high expectations.  It’s a rich and beautiful city – and I didn’t merely visit the tourist areas.  The country is packed with Walmarts and other big-box retail.  Uber works well.  I saw near-zero remnants of Hurricane Maria, and – through my bilingual sons – had two fun chats with jovial Uber drivers.  Next time, I’d really like to drive the Ruta Panorámica.  No doubt I’d witness some serious poverty, but I doubt it’s more disturbing than driving around rural Mississippi or West Virginia.

When I invoke Puerto Rico, immigration skeptics often scoff.  Hurricane Maria aside, they deem Puerto Rico a disaster zone.  After all, if it were a U.S. state, Puerto Rico (with a per-capita GDP of just $32,000) would be even poorer than Mississippi, right?

I call this a willfully misanthropic comparison.  To grasp the effects of open borders on Puerto Rico, you have to ask, “How would Puerto Ricans be doing if they didn’t enjoy free migration to the U.S.?”  To answer that question, you’ve got to look not as Mississippi, but at other Caribbean islands.  Which I then proceeded to do.

2. Our next stop was St. Maarten (the Dutch side).  Official estimates of its per-capita GDP vary very widely.  While the CIA absurdly sets it at $66,800 (PPP), Wikipedia provides only a 2008 estimate of $15,400 (nominal).  Compared to Puerto Rico, in any case, the island looks quite poor.  A good chunk of this admittedly stems from low population; 42,000 people plus tourists aren’t enough to sustain more than a few restaurants or entertainment venues.  Even taking population into account, however, living standards look low.  Desperate peddling of tourist wares is a common job.  Roads are bumpy.  The shiniest business we saw was a KFC.  The biggest grocery store we found wasn’t bad, but about a third of the refrigerated shelves were empty.  There’s no Uber, but since there are plenty of taxis, I blame regulation.  After SNUBA diving (awesome), we taxied to the local tropical zoo, which sadly turned out to be shuttered since Maria.

What explains the gap between the official economic statistics and what we saw?  The simplest story is that a few super-rich expats drive up the average, but it’s hard to believe that’s close to the whole story.  The next explanation is that I’m such a spoiled American that almost everywhere on Earth looks impoverished to me.  Another is that the statistics are fake; but wouldn’t countries want to overstate their poverty to get extra foreign aid?  Last, CPI bias is plausibly astronomically unfavorable in small islands where there’s not much to spend your money on.  (As I told Tyler, there are odd parallels between small Swiss towns and these Caribbean islands; in both places, even the rich have little to buy).

While we’re on the subject of CPI bias, the Internet has clearly been a nearly unmeasured godsend for the whole region.  In 1990, islanders would have been cut off from 99% of humanity’s cultural bounty.  Today, the curious can sample and savor this bounty for modest connection fees.

3. Then we sailed on to Antigua (a subset of Antigua and Barbuda), with recent per capita GDP estimates of $17,500 nominal and $28,000 PPP.  It did indeed look a little richer than St. Maarten, though that too could be confounded with higher population.  The downtown was fun to see, but the roads were bumpy and even the main sidewalks poorly maintained.  While shuttling to snorkeling, we saw a huge sports stadium (10,000 seats!) largely funded by the government of mainland China.  (Other islands, in contrast, seemed oriented toward Taiwan).  There were fewer desperate peddlers, but almost no businesses even in the historic downtown.  As Richard Scarry famously inquired, “What do people do all day?”

4. Next, we saw St. Lucia.  Geographically, it was the most beautiful of the islands.  The Pitons are splendid, and we passed some scenic harbors and resorts.  Economically, though, St. Lucia looked the worst.  This fits with official statistics, which put its per-capita GDP at $10,000 nominal and $15,000 PPP.  Even though it has roughly twice the population of Antigua and Barbuda, the KFC was again the shiniest business we saw.  The main downtown church was closed, and the nearby park contained about a dozen apparently homeless men, though perhaps they were just relaxing and drinking alone.  Desperate peddling was intense.  The local police seemed to be one of the main employers.

5. Our last stop was on St. Kitts (a subset of St. Kitts and Nevis), whose per capital GDP of $19,000 nominal and $31,000 PPP make it the richest island we saw after Puerto Rico.  Since we spent six hours hiking Mount Liamuiga, the local volcano, we never walked the town.  Yet we did get to see a long stretch of one of the main coastal highways, and the country did indeed look marginally richer than Antigua.

My hiking guide described himself as “fascinated by economics,” and we had a good amount of time to chat.  He suffered from severe pessimistic bias; I tried in vain to calm his fears that U.S. agro-business faced imminent crisis.  When he playfully accused me of having naive faith in mankind, I told him, “No, I just believe in business.”  He mentioned his Netflix subscription, but I didn’t have time to rhetorically build on that foundation.

My guide knew a handful of islanders who worked in the UK, but viewed his countrymen as deeply provincial.  Cruise ships dock all the time in St. Kitts, but when I asked him if he knew anyone who worked on such a ship, he insisted, “It’s not something they would ever think about as a possibility.”  This surprised me, because workers of Caribbean origin were fairly common on my ship, especially relative to their countries’ populations.

6. Are the latter four islands the ideal comparison group for Puerto Rico?  Not really.  Antigua, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts are all former British colonies, and St. Maarten’s is so anglophone that it might as well be.  A better approach is to compare Puerto Rico with other former Spanish colonies; the Dominican Republic is the most obvious counterpart.  Since the latter’s per-capita GDP is only $9000, Puerto Rico’s open borders experiment look even better.

7. I’ve repeatedly heard people claim that open borders would turn the U.S. into Haiti.  On this journey, I was struck by the fact that almost nowhere in the Caribbean is remotely as awful as Haiti.  St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts all have roughly the same demographics has Haiti – all are 90%+ black.   They all have roughly the same history of hellish slave plantations.  Furthermore, according to the least-bad estimates, their national average IQs are all extremely low.  St. Lucia comes in second-to-last on Earth, with an average national IQ of 62 (versus Haiti’s 67).  Despite these parallels, St. Lucia roughly matches average global per-capita income, and St. Maarten, Antigua, and and St. Kitts are comfortably above this average.

8. With the able assistance of Nathaniel Bechhofer, I’ve pointed out that “Deep Roots” theories of national development are highly sensitive to population-weighting.  If you count China and India as two data points, the empirics say that national ancestry matters a lot.  When you weigh countries by their populations, however, national ancestry barely matters at all, because the two most-populous countries on Earth have done poorly in modern times despite their illustrious histories.  Critics have pushed back; each country should count as a separate “experiment,” so we should base our worldviews on the unweighted results.

Yet in that case, each and every tiny upper-middle-income Caribbean country should statistically count as much as China and India.  I just checked Putterman and Weil‘s data, and found that none of my last four islands is actually in their sample.  (Haiti and Jamaica are, but even the Bahamas fell through the cracks).  If we re-did Deep Roots estimates with ten more Caribbean data points, I predict that their results would markedly attenuate.  So would Garett’s main findings in Hive Mind.

Personally, I continue to think that population-weighting is the way to go in cross-country regressions.  If you disagree, though, you’d really better add the island nations of the Caribbean to your sample and watch what happens.

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The Honest Guide to Mindfulness

Mindfulness has (amazingly, wonderfully) become quite a buzzword in the last decade or so, and for good reason. It’s powerful, and can help us to become more present, happier, more focused, and much more.

However, if you’re new to mindfulness, it’s easy to get the wrong idea from all the marketing you’ll find online. Images of people at complete peace with the world and themselves, full of bliss, simply by sitting still and meditating for a few minutes … they are beautiful images, but they don’t tell the whole truth.

Mindfulness is powerful, and you should absolutely do it. But you should do it with your eyes wide open, knowing what’s up.

So here’s my attempt at an honest guide to mindfulness.

Mindfulness is hard. You can meditate and get antsy, want to get up, want to go do something else, plan your day, dive into your work, answer a few messages, search for some information you’re itching to know about.

Mindfulness is hard, which is a good reason to do it.

Mindfulness is messy. You’ll get started with meditation, maybe get on a streak of meditating every day, and feel really good about yourself. Then you might fall off, struggle to start again, feel bad about it. You’ll do this for years, perhaps. Or maybe you’ll meditate regularly but struggle to be mindful throughout the day, especially during certain situations like working online or while you’re eating or socializing. You’ll get better at being present, but only in spurts and starts, and the learning will be anything but smooth.

Mindfulness is messy, just like life, which is the reason to open up to the messiness instead of our usual desire for things to be orderly and neat. We can learn to accept the messiness of life if we practice with it.

Mindfulness is uncomfortable. Sitting still and facing the sensations of the present moment can feel boring. It can bring up itches that you just need to scratch right now. Urges to go to do something else, to plan and solve and remember, will come up, because they are the old mental habits. And not following those urges can be very uncomfortable.

Mindfulness is uncomfortable because it’s so rare for us not to indulge in those old mental patterns. But that’s the very reason it’s so powerful.

Mindfulness pulls the rug out from under your feet. Let’s say you’ve been practicing meditation for a few months, and you think you’re getting the hang of it. All of a sudden, everything you think you knew about meditation can be upended, as you learn something new, or as a new pattern starts to come up. Now you have to adjust to that. After a few months, you might think you know a thing or two, and then you read a book or listen to a talk from a teacher, and that gets yanked away from you too. Over and over, you get upended, and it can be very jarring each time.

Mindfulness can be jarring when you get upended. And that’s part of the magic too — feeling like we are on solid ground is an illusion, and learning to deal with the groundlessness of not knowing is an incredible practice.

Mindfulness takes a metric crap-ton of practice. You’ll suck at meditation (or any other mindfulness practice) when you first start. You can’t “do it right” or keep your attention on anything for very long. Don’t worry, you never really master it! It’s all continual practice, without ever feeling like you know exactly what you’re doing. You practice and practice, and then practice some more. You might make some progress, only to find out that you still have so much more to learn.

It takes a crapload of practice, and that’s a beautiful thing to open up to.

You’ll think you’re doing it wrong, and fail a lot. You’ll start out and continually feel like your’e doing it wrong, and that won’t feel very good. The good news is that no one knows what the hell they’re doing, and it often won’t feel very good. The better news is that it’s not supposed to feel good, and you learn to accept the idea that you’re never very sure of anything. This is what life is always like, but we just usually blame it on the external circumstances (or think there’s something wrong with us), rather than accepting this uncertainty about everything as a basic part of our lives that we can open up to and even love.

It’ll show you all your “faults.” You’ll learn through mindfulness practice that you’re not as disciplined as you’d like to be. You’re not as tough, competent, skilled, exceptional. This will become clear as you practice.

You’ll come face-to-face with all of your demons. And then you’ll make friends with them.

You’ll start to think other people should be more mindful … and you’ll be wrong. As you start to get “better” at mindfulness, and more and more aware of your habits and patterns and thoughts … as you drop into the present more often … it will become clearer when other people aren’t being mindful. And you might think they should be practicing too, that they should put their phones down and be more present. You’ll think you know how others should be mindful, because you’ve learned a thing or two.

And then you’ll realize that judging others and thinking you know how others should behave is just your mind’s old pattern of judging and trying to get control. You’ll learn to let that go too, sometimes … and when you do, that’s when you’ll become more open to connecting with others vulnerably.

It requires more than mindfulness. As you practice, you’ll find that mindfulness by itself isn’t the answer to everything. It doesn’t magically solve any problems. It’s a powerful practice, and can bring wonderful awareness to your life. But sometimes that awareness is of all the terrible things you’re feeling, all the harsh thoughts you have about yourself, all the harsh thoughts you have about other people or the world around you. Awareness doesn’t always feel good! And it doesn’t solve everything.

Mindfulness is only part of the work. The work also requires compassion — for yourself and others. It requires vulnerability and the ability to open your heart. It requires honesty and the willingness to face things. It requires being willing to love things as they are, without needing to control things. It requires letting go of what you think things should be like, letting go of what you think you should have or shouldn’t have. The work requires you to be willing to be curious, to be open, to remain in not knowing.

It is beautiful work, and requires courage. I am learning along with you, and am glad to be on this journey with a fellow explorer.

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I Dream of Anarchy

Literally.

Last night I dreamt (whoa, spellcheck doesn’t like “dreamt”. This prompted Googling. Apparently some do not accept this spelling. Weird.) that I was at some event somewhere, and some guy showed up. He was there either as a maintenance man to fix some kind of large trailer, or he was there to interview the attendees. It was a dream, so maybe he shifted between both roles.

Anyway, he made some comment about libertarians being recalcitrant. I asked what he meant. The rest of the dream was a discussion between us. I told him the classical liberal tradition is long and broad. You might begin at Hesiod, then Aristotle. You might include interesting figures most have never heard of, like Auberon Herbert, as well as luminaries like Adam Smith and Milton Friedman.

As any good conversation about liberty ought to, it turned to the question of anarchy. Not in the positive, bomb-throwing sense. Anarchy simply meaning society without a political ruler, or without the initiation of violence. I shared with him a deep and rich body of thought, from Linda and Morris Tannehill, to Lysander Spooner, to Frank Chodorov, to Roy Childs, to David Friedman (Milton’s son), to Spencer Heath MacCollum, to Murray Rothbard, to Leo Tolstoy, to Leonard Read, to Randy Barnett, to John Hasnas, to Bruce Benson, to Robert Higgs, to Edward Stringham, to Peter Leeson, to Jeffrey Tucker and more.

Then we discussed the lived experience of a great many societies at a great many periods in history – some long, some short. We talked about the Hanseatic League. We talked about free market money in Scotland. We talked about the not so wild, wild West in the U.S. before government and military arrived to “civilize” it with violence. We talked about the nearly three-hundred years of peaceful anarchy in Iceland.

We talked about every major function of the current government – from police, to courts, to rule-making, to defense, to infrastructure, to money, to education, to health care – and discovered how every one of them emerged as a market function that was only co-opted by violent monopolists late in the game, and that the monopolized version is in every way morally and practically inferior to its voluntary foundation.

I haven’t had an ideological debate or attempt to persuade anyone in years. I’ve moved into the world of action through entrepreneurship, trying to build a freer, better, more peaceful world through voluntary exchange instead of arguments. But this dream was a ton of fun. I woke up with my mind reeling through all the other stuff we didn’t even touch on. My intellectual and experiential journey to anarchism took nearly a decade and thousands such arguments, books, lectures, observations, points, and counterpoints. It felt like I crammed a few years worth into a single conversation in a dream. It was kind of a rush!

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