Do Intellectuals Make Life Any Better?

There’s a path my life could have taken – could still take – toward the life of an intellectual.

I’ve just about always been interested in one or more of the favorite intellectual subjects of philosophy, history, politics, theology, economics, psychology, and sociology (whatever that is). I’ve always liked to have big opinions on things. And I’ve always preferred toying with ideas to toying with numbers or machines.

But I’m beginning to think this is an aptitude worth resisting. It’s not obvious to me that intellectuals as such bring a whole lot of benefit to the world.

Obviously this will be controversial to say.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be using a Wikipedia-derived definition:

An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking and reading, research, and human self-reflection about society; they may propose solutions for its problems and gain authority as a public figure.”

Let me be clear that I think everyone ought to engage in critical thinking. It’s in the rest of the definition that the problems start to emerge.

Every intellectual is a person who not only has a pet theory about what’s wrong with the world – but who makes it their job to reflect/research on that problem and write about that problem.

When you think about these intellectuals, what do you think of?

My mind wanders to the endless number of think-pieces, essays, and books with takes what’s wrong with humans, what’s wrong with society, or what’s wrong with intellectuals (that’s right – I’m currently writing a think-piece. Shit.) The history of this produce of intellectualism is an a stream of lazy, simplified pontifications from individuals about things vast and complex, like “society,” “America,” “the working classes,” “the female psyche,” etc. in relation to something even more vast and complex: “human life.”

It’s not that thinking about these things are wrong: it’s that most of the ink spilled about them is probably wasteful. Why?

Because core to the definition of intellectualism defined above is its divorce from action. Intellectuals engage in “reading, research, and human self-reflection,” “propose solutions,” and “gain authority as public figures,” but none of these acts require them to get their hands dirty to test their hypotheses or solve their proposed problems.

The whole “ivory tower” criticism isn’t new, so I won’t belabor the point. But I will point out two consequences of intellectualism’s separation from practical reality.

First, intellectuals don’t often tend to be great people. Morally, I mean. Tolstoy left his wife in a lurch when he gave up his wealth. Marx knocked up one of his servants and then kicked her out of his house. Rousseau abandoned his children. Even Ayn Rand (whom I love) could be accused of being cultlike in her control of her intellectual circle. Those are just the notable ones – it’s fair to say that most of the mediocre “public intellectuals” we have aren’t exactly action heroes. While they may not be especially bad, they aren’t especially good on the whole.

There seems to be some link between a career which rewards abstract thought (without regard for action) and the mediocre or downright bad lifestyle choices of our most famous intellectuals.

The second major problem with intellectuals springs from the fact that nearly everything the intellectual does is intensely self-conscious. Whether it’s a philosopher reflecting on his inability to find love and theorizing about the universe accordingly or an American sociologist writing about the decline of American civilization, the intellectual is reflecting back upon what’s wrong with himself or his culture or his situation constantly, usually in a way that creates a strong sense of mental unease or even anguish.

Have you ever seen an intellectual coming from an obvious place of joy? The social commentators are almost always operating from malaise and malcontent, which almost always arise from a deep self-consciousness.

Of course it’s anyone’s right to start overthinking what’s the matter with the world, and to feel bad as a result. The real problem is that the intellectual insists on making it his job to convince everyone else to share in his self-conscious state of misery, too.

How many Americans would know, believe, or care that “America” or “Western Civilization” was declining if some intellectual hadn’t said so? How many working class people, or women, or men would believe they are “oppressed”? How many humans would be staying up at night asking themselves whether reality is real? Both are utterly foreign to the daily experience of real, commonsense human life. And while the intellectual may draw on real examples in his theories, he’s usually not content to allow for the exceptions and exemptions which are inevitable in a complex world: his intellectual theory trumps experience. The people must *believe* they are oppressed, or unfulfilled, or unenlightened, or ignorant of the “true forms” of this, that, or the other.

I’m wary of big intellectual theories for this reason, and increasingly partial to the view that wisdom comes less from thinking in a dark corner and more from living in the sunshine and the dirt. The real measure of many of these theories is how quickly they are forgotten or dismantled when brought out into daily life.

People who use their intellects to act? The best in the world. But intellectuals who traffic solely in ideas-about-what’s-wrong for their careers? More often than not, they are more miserable and not-very-admirable entertainers than they are net benefactors to the world.

The ability to think philosophically is important. But that skill must be used in the arena. Produce art. Produce inventions. Be kind. Action is the redemption of intellectualism.

Disclaimers

*By “intellectuals,” I don’t mean scientists. On the humanities side, I don’t even mean artists. The problem isn’t artists: it’s art critics. It’s not scientists: it’s people who write about the “state of science.”

There are exceptions to the bad shows among intellectuals, but usually these are the intellectuals who are busy fighting the bad, ideas of other intellectuals: people like Ludwig von Mises fighting the ideas of classical socialism, or . The best ideas to come from people like this are ideas which don’t require people to believe in them.*

And don’t get me wrong: this is as much a mea culpa as a criticism of others. I’ve spent much of my life headed down the path of being an intellectual. I’m starting to realize that it’s a big mistake.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The Pan[ic]demic is a Rahm-portunity

As usual, I will assume my readers were not caught with their pants down when this coronavirus cold pan[ic]demic erupted. You’re smarter than most people.

It isn’t my intention to add to the panic with my previous posts on the local effects (link and link), but just to observe that being prepared for the unknown is always smarter than being unprepared. It’s also my pat on the back to you for not being caught up in the panic.

Most of the people I see pushing the pan[ic]demic narrative are government-supremacists. They want government to save them in some way. They want government to do more and crack down on liberty a little harder to save us from this virus. Some of them want to punish you if you don’t go along with whatever “plan” comes out of this Rahm-portunity.

If you don’t panic you foil their scheme. If you were prepared all along so that this doesn’t even require a change to your routine you’ve probably spoiled their whole day. They need you to be afraid so you’ll clamor to be rescued.

I notice Scott Adams– famous government-supremacist– is getting angry over anyone who calls this a panic, saying it’s “preparedness”, not panic. Wrong-o.

Preparedness is what you do BEFORE the crisis happens. Months or years before you even know it’s a possibility. Panic is when you try to “prepare” as the shelves are being emptied by everyone else who failed to prepare. This is panic.

As long as you prepare, there’s no reason to panic. This may turn out to be a giant nothing. Or, it may become everything disastrous you are being told it will be. It will probably end up being somewhere in between the extremes, closer to “nothing” than to disaster. In any of those cases, being prepared is still going to make your life better. So why not do it? Make it a lifestyle or a hobby.

And, if I missed my guess and you weren’t ready for this, remember this experience as soon as shelves are restocked and don’t ever let yourself be caught short again. “Prepper” is not a dirty word. Preppers are the barrier between civilization and panic– in some cases, the last stand of civilization.

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The Leiter-Caplan Socialism Debate

Last night, I debated the University of Chicago’s Brian Leiter on “Capitalism, Social Democracy, and Socialism” at the University of Wisconsin. Leiter wrote the precise resolution:

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

Here’s my opening statement; I’ve debated Elizabeth Bruenig and John Marsh this general topic before.


All First World countries are already social democracies.  Their governments continue to allow markets to provide most goods and services, but they heavily regulate these markets, heavily subsidize favored sectors like education and health, and heavily redistribute income.  The U.S. is moderately less social democratic than France or Sweden, but the idea that we have “market capitalism” while they have “social democracy” is hyperbole.  If you favor social democracy, you should be happy because your side won long ago: free-market rhetoric notwithstanding, the U.S. has Social Security, Medicare, Medicare, and public education, and strict regulation of labor markets, construction, and other major industry.  My view, however, is that social democracy is a awful mistake.  Despite its bad press, market capitalism would be much better than what we have now.

Advocates of social democracy typically claim credit for three major improvements over market capitalism.  First, they’ve used redistribution to greatly reduce poverty.  Second, they’ve used regulation to make markets work better.  Third, they’ve used government funding to provide wonderful services that markets neglect.  I say they’ve greatly overstated their success on all three counts – while conveniently neglecting heavy collateral damage.

Let’s start with redistribution.  The rhetoric of redistribution revolves around “helping the poor.”  When you look at redistribution in the real world, however, this is grossly misleading.  The U.S. government spends far more on the elderly – most of whom aren’t poor – than it spends on actual poverty programs.  Programs like Social Security and Medicare are popular because they “help everyone.”  But “helping everyone” is extremely wasteful because most of the people government helps would have been quite able to take care of themselves.  Instead, we absurdly tax everyone to help everyone.

This humanitarian rhetoric rings even more hollow when you examine the most important forms of government regulation.  Domestically, nothing does more harm than our draconian regulation of the construction industry.  This regulation, primarily state and local, makes it very hard to build new housing, especially in high-wage places like New York City and the Bay Area.  It’s hard to build tall buildings.  It’s hard to build multi-family housing.  You have to waste a lot of valuable land; builders put houses on an acre of land because zoning laws force them to do so.  The connection between this regulation and exorbitant housing prices is almost undeniable.  In lightly-regulated areas of the country like Texas, business supplies ample cheap housing.  Anytime someone tells you regulation makes markets work better, just look at San Francisco’s housing market for a reality check.  And this hardly one tiny failure of regulation; housing absorbs about 40% of the average Americans’ budget.

Immigration regulation is an even more egregious failure.  The single best way for people around the world to escape poverty is to move to high-productivity countries like the U.S. and get a job.  This benefits not only immigrants, but us, because we’re their customers; the more they sell us, the better-off we are.  A hundred years ago, immigration to the U.S. was almost unregulated, giving people all over the world a viable way to work their way out of poverty.  Now, in contrast, immigration is very tightly regulated – especially for those most in need.  Economists’ estimates of the global harm of these regulations sum to tens of trillions of dollars a year, because each immigrant worker vastly enriches the world, and hundreds of millions of workers wish to come.  Again, this is the opposite of one tiny failure of regulation.

Finally, what about education, health care, and other sectors that government subsidizes?  I say these policies are crowd-pleasing but terribly wasteful.  Yes, more educated workers make more money, but the main reason is not that you’re learning useful skills.  Most of what you study in school is irrelevant in the real world.  Degrees mostly pay by convincing employers that you’re smarter, harder-working, and more conformist than the competition.  That’s why there’s been severe credential inflation since World War II: the more degrees workers have, the more degrees you need to convince employers not to throw your application in the trash.  Pouring money on education is an exercise in futility.

The same goes for health care.  Almost every researcher who measures the effect of health care on health agrees that this effect is much smaller than the public imagines.  Diet, exercise, substance abuse, and other lifestyle choices are much more important for health than access to medicine.  But these facts notwithstanding, the government lavishes funding on health care that barely improves our health.  If this seems implausible, just compare American life expectancy to Mexico’s.  Medicare plus Medicaid cost well over a trillion dollars a year, let we only live a year-and-a-half longer.

A reasonable social democrat could object: Fine, actual social democracies cause great harm and waste insane amounts of money.  But we can imagine a social democracy that limits itself to helping hungry kids and refugees, fighting infectious disease, and other well-targeted programs for the betterment of humanity.  Frankly, abolishing everything except these few programs sounds really close to market capitalism to me… and it also sounds like wishful thinking.  In the real world, governments with lots of power and a vague mandate to “help people” reliably do great harm.  This is true in the U.S., and it’s true in Sweden.  Yes, the Swedes strangle their housing industry too.

Given all this, I predictably deny that “ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”  Full-blown socialist systems make social democracy look great by comparison.  Indeed, once you draw the distinction between social democracy and socialism, it’s very hard to find to find any socialist regime that isn’t a tragic, despotic disaster.  If Sweden is the jewel of social democracy, what’s the jewel of socialism?  Cuba?  Nor is there any sign that socialism somehow becomes “more necessary” as countries progress.  The main reason governments have gotten bigger over the last thirty years is just the aging of the population.

Finally, let me underscore what I’m not saying.  I’m not saying that life in the U.S. or Sweden is terrible.  In fact, human beings in both countries enjoy close to the highest quality of life than human beings have ever achieved.  My claim, rather, is that even the most successful countries in history could do far better.  I know that social democratic policies are emotionally appealing.  That’s why they’ve won.  Yet objectively speaking, market capitalism should have won because market capitalism offers much better results.

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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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You Are Responsible for Your Own Disillusionment

We aren’t so much disillusioned by the failures of others as by our own failures.

We aren’t just disillusioned with our ideals because of the corrupt systems at our companies or in our countries. Plenty of people keep their idealism while fighting corrupt systems. We are disillusioned because we go along with the systems.

We aren’t just disillusioned with courage and adventure because the lifestyles around us are comfortable and craven. We are disillusioned because we recognize the mediocrity of our lifestyles but do nothing to change them.

And we aren’t just disillusioned with faithfulness in friendships and relationships because our friends are unreliable. We are disillusioned because we know we aren’t willing to give the work, time, and resources of true comrades.

If you want to believe that people are better, become a better person.

If you want to believe that the world is good, do something to make it so.

If you wait on the world to confirm or deny your highest hopes for the world, you’ll be shocked by how disillusioned you become – but it won’t be the world’s fault.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Closing the Choice Gap In US Education

We hear a lot about education achievement gaps, learning gaps and opportunity gaps between different groups of students, typically based on socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity. Generally speaking, the achievement gap describes persistent differences in academic proficiency. The learning gap reveals discrepancies between what children are expected to know at a certain stage and what they actually know. And the opportunity gap explains how differences in resources, backgrounds, and circumstances can lead to different outcomes, such as college attainment rates. These are all important gaps to consider and strive to close, but one glaring gap is missing: the choice gap.

The Choice Gap

The reality is that many families have limited choices about where and how to educate their children. They may not like their assigned district school, but homeschooling may be undesirable or unrealistic and private school is often too expensive or unavailable. In some states, lower-and middle-income families may be able to take advantage of emerging education choice mechanisms, such as education savings accounts and tax-credit scholarship programs, that give them access to funds to use for private education options, but for many lower- and middle-income families, private alternatives are out of reach.

The choice gap is particularly clear and concerning when surveys show that selecting private options is the preferred choice for many parents. According to EdChoice’s 2019 Schooling in America Survey:

More than four out of five students attend a public district school, but less than half of public school teachers and less than a third of current school parents would prefer to send their children to a district school.

For Shaylanna Hendricks Graham, the lack of private options for her two children, ages seven and five, is frustrating. I wrote about Graham in my book Unschooled where she described why she and her husband made the decision not to enroll their children in school and to homeschool them instead. “There is a clear disadvantage for children of color and it can be damaging emotionally and psychologically for many children of color,” Graham explained.

We wanted to shelter our children from having that experience in school. We also wanted to make sure that they learned the true history and origin of our ancestors and the great impact that our African ancestors had in the history of the world.

She added:

Schools systematically treat our brown children as if they are less-than and less deserving than the rest and it is our intention that our brown children have a much more positive life experience.

I recently checked in with Graham, who lives in Boston. She said that homeschooling has become challenging, particularly as she tries to meet her children’s varying needs and give them enough social and academic enrichment, while also running a small consulting business. This reflects a wider trend among homeschooling families. The recent EdChoice survey mentioned above found overall satisfaction with homeschooling decreased by 10 percent since last year. After looking into local private school options with price-tags of over $35,000 a year, the couple realized that was more than they could pay, especially for two children.

Entrepreneurs Creating New Alternatives

Ideally, says Graham, she would prefer a more affordable, private hybrid homeschool program or micro-school that would allow her to continue the homeschooling lifestyle that she and her husband cherish, while also offering consistent, high-quality opportunities for her children to play and learn outside the home.

A model that allows for drop-off, offers enriching classes or opportunities for development in areas, as well as the freedom for the children to choose how they want to spend their day, would be a dream come true,

Graham says. “We would be happy to pay $7,000 for a program like this,” she adds.

Low-cost micro-schools, hybrid homeschooling programs and other affordable private options would help to close the choice gap. Tuition that is a fraction of the cost of a traditional private school in a given location would expand choices for many parents and kids. Entrepreneurs will be the ones to successfully create and scale affordable alternatives to conventional K-12 schooling.Education choice programs and similar public policy efforts can also help to narrow the choice gap for lower- and middle-income families, but entrepreneurs are showing that they can accelerate the process.

Acton Academy has been expanding its low-cost private education model nationwide, with classes occurring in homes and other intimate settings to simulate the multi-age, “one-room schoolhouse” atmosphere. Prenda is a rapidly-growing network of micro-schools in Arizona that also runs on a hybrid model and costs families about $5,000 per year.

While policymakers may continue to make headway with education choice programs, entrepreneurs will be the ones to successfully create and scale affordable alternatives to conventional K-12 schooling, closing the choice gap and perhaps the others as well.

If you are interested in learning more about a large-scale entrepreneurial project I am currently working on to fill this choice gap, please reach out.

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