Keep Healthy Habits, Help Others

How will you spend your time now that civilization has been canceled by executive command? Is it time to brush up on your stone-age skills?

This would be a good time to familiarize yourself with the edible wild plants growing in your yard and to learn the natural substitutes for toilet paper.

Learn to make and use an atlatl and stone-tipped spears in case you need to bring down a mammoth. Pool cues might be a good raw material for this sort of thing. Of course, the recent scarcity of mammoths could put a kink in this plan.

A bonfire in the backyard for roasting your kill would probably attract the wrong kind of attention anyway. This should be a last resort.

Perhaps you could choose to go to the opposite extreme and retreat to a virtual world for a fortnight or two, where your biggest dangers are ransom-ware and scammers promising eternal love in exchange for airfare to America.

Or will you ignore the hoopla?

I’m always in favor of taking precautions against unnecessary risks, but people can go overboard. There are times precaution gets replaced by panic. Politicians love taking advantage of panic since they rarely pay a price for being wrong. They claim the credit if people believe they got it right, but you pay the price every time they are wrong.

I’m going to hope you’re a regular reader of this column and as such you’ve listened to my frequent suggestions to be a “prepper” and stock up on essential supplies in case of unforeseen circumstances. This means you were already prepared and didn’t get caught up in the last-minute scramble for essentials … or for the luxuries some people consider essential.

Aren’t you glad you listened?

The phrase “May you live in interesting times” is said to be a curse. I’m not certain it is. Would you rather be bored to death? Times can be interesting, but — when you’re ready for whatever life throws at you — not cursed.

This too will pass. You’ll be fine when all is said and done. There are lessons in all this. Smart people will learn and remember these lessons; others will stay clueless.

Don’t let the hand-wringers and fear-mongers upset you. Do things you already know will help you stay healthy. Healthy habits haven’t suddenly become dangerous. Lend a hand to those who, due to age or health conditions, may be more at risk. Together, but maybe not within coughing distance, we will get through this.

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Villages to Cities to Villages?

Humans used to mostly live in villages. Clusters of families where the adults did work and the kids roamed and observed and played and learned work by being around it.

With specialization, mass scale production, and technological advances the arrangement changed. People lived in neighborhoods or cities that were often much larger, adults commuted to cities during the day vastly larger still, and kids were shipped off to huge age-segregated clusters, before smaller immediate families came back together for dinner in the evening.

The benefits of technological progress are astounding and I wouldn’t trade them. The benefits greatly outweighed the costs, which is why just about everyone who had the chance chose it. But shifting living arrangements were (often) one item on the cost side of the ledger. It was sometimes necessary, not necessarily optimal.

With increasing automation, software, robotics, and information access, the equation is changing again. Humans don’t need to cluster together en masse for economic production. That means one of the costs we had to pay to get the benefits of economic progress has been removed. Now there is choice. You can do the commute to cities and office buildings while kids commute to age segregated schools thing if you want. But you don’t have to.

This is a pretty new choice. And so far, only a handful of early adopters see an seize it. People can now live where they want with who they want with kids and adults alike doing their work and play near the home. Most people still do not realize this is an option. They are wedded to the status quo by inertia, not necessity.

Recent voluntary and forced quarantines are waking some people up to this possibility. More people than realized can work from anywhere. People also realize how they might want to change their living arrangements if they were to continue this more flexible, work and learn from home arrangement. For example, you might want to choose your neighbors more deliberately if you’re spending more time in a village-like setting. If you and your kids social life and work life and learning will be more local, spontaneous, and collaborative, you might change the kind of natural environment you’re in. Climate, house type, access to outdoors, etc.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slow steady uptick in deliberate village-like communities. Clusters of families with some shared interest, ideology, religion, or profession who have adults who can work from anywhere on flexible hours and kids roaming around learning through mixed-age play and imitation.

It’s possible the reason few people do this now is that few prefer it. It’s also possible the reason few do it now is because they’ve been conditioned for several generations into the assumption that it’s not on the table. More short-term experiments in this type of arrangement could inspire more to do it.

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You Are Not Alone

Nobody asked but …

I just read two case histories on coronavirus. In one, a young mother died, in another a young mother lived. Both people had to face their outcomes alone. But many others were affected.

I don’t know if there were clear choices that could have been made, nor whether either of these young women were free to make choices.

But there is no guarantee of good, even if you check every box.  One is an individual, and one’s circumstances roll out unpredictably.

 … never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

— John Donne

We are all susceptible.  This is not a commercial, however, for fatalism.  I believe that every course has a point, maybe points, where the individual could exercise an option.  The option may be more or less clear.  But no option has guaranteed alternatives.  The natural laws on unforeseen consequences still apply.

The important thing is to be as prepared as possible with rational information.  For instance, politicians rush in regardless of their ability to effect change.  One should keep a jaundiced eye toward their theatrics.  You still have to make the choices.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Reflections on the Leiter-Caplan Debate

It was a pleasure debating Brian Leiter last week.  The resolution, to repeat:

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

Here are some thoughts I failed to fully articulate at the live event.  As always, I’m happy to publish any reply my opponent wishes to compose.

1. To his credit, Leiter expressed zero sympathy for any actual socialist regime.  He even condemned Cuba; good for him.  But Leiter still insisted that the totality of these awful experiences show next to nothing about the desirability of socialism, which frankly seems crazy.  As far as I could tell, Leiter hews to the classic Marxist position that we should transition to socialism only after capitalism creates incredible abundance.  Unlike most historical Marxists, however, he doesn’t think that even the richest countries are ready yet.  My question: If we finally got rich enough for socialism, why think that a socialist regime would be able to maintain the prior level of prosperity, much less provide continued progress?

2. When I discussed the actual performance of social democracy, Leiter was surprisingly apologetic.  He conceded that we have wasteful universal redistribution, instead of well-targeted means-tested redistribution.  His only defense was to repeat the flimsy argument that it’s too hard to sustain popular support for means-tested programs.

3. On regulation, Leiter appeared to endorse open borders; good for him.  He also professed agnosticism on housing regulation.  Since these are by far the two biggest forms of regulation in modern social democracies (measured by how much regulation changes the likely market outcome), it’s hard to see why he would believe that increased regulation has, on balance, been good for humanity or the poor.

4. According to Leiter, “ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system” because automation will one day cause mass unemployment.  This position baffled me on multiple levels.  Most obviously, why not respond to automation with redistribution rather than nationalization, and thereby avoid killing the capitalist goose that has hitherto laid a mountain of golden eggs?

My fundamental objection, however, is that history teaches us that technological unemployment is only a morbid fantasy.  When firms figure out ways to get more output out of fewer workers, this may cause unemployment in the short-run.  Soon enough, however, business has repeatedly figured out new jobs for workers to perform.  Business has already accomplished the miraculous task of creating new roles for the enormous number of workers disemployed by the mechanization of agriculture.  Every future economic transformation pales by comparison.  Remember: Almost everyone was a farmer for almost all of recorded human history.  Then industrialization eliminated almost all farm jobs.  Yet today, we don’t miss these jobs.  Instead, we get fat on all the cheap food, and do jobs our agrarian ancestors would have struggled to understand.

Leiter had two responses to my reaction.  One was “maybe this time it will be different”; Leiter even appealed to David Hume’s problem of induction to downplay all prior economic history!  If you take this line, however, it would only entitle you to say “it is logically possible that America will need to move towards a socialist system” – a vacuous claim indeed.  Frankly, if you take Hume seriously, even the best empirical evidence shows nothing about the future, so why bother debating at all?

Leiter’s better argument was that capitalists are perennially trying to cut costs – and that in the long-run capitalism works.  So eventually capitalists will figure out a way to run the economy without workers – an outcome that is individually rational for a capitalist, but socially disastrous for capitalism.  My response: Yes, capitalists want to figure out how to produce a given level of output with fewer workers.  Their deeper goal, however, is to figure out the most profitable way to employ all available inputs.  As long as there are able-bodied people who want to work, there will be a capitalist brainstorming how to make money off the situation.  And to echo Leiter, in the long-run this works.

5. Leiter bizarrely insisted that “the” goal of socialism was to allow human freedom – legions of vocally authoritarian self-identified socialists notwithstanding.  He followed up with the classic socialist argument that saying “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is just as much an abridgment of freedom as “If you don’t do what I say, I will shoot you.”

The standard reply, of course, is that there is a vast moral difference between getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are morally entitled (e.g., your life) and getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are not morally entitled (e.g. my assistance).  Thus, imagine you will be suicidally depressed unless I marry you.  Is my refusal to marry you morally equivalent to making you suicidally depressed by threatening to shoot you unless you break off your engagement to your willing fiance?  Of course not.  You aren’t entitled to marry me if I don’t approve, but you and your fiance are entitled to marry each other even if I don’t approve.

6. Moral entitlement aside, “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is rarely relevant in modern labor markets.  Why not?  First, there are competing employers, so if you don’t like an offer, you can shop around for another.  (Smarter yet, take what you can get, but keep searching for a better offer).  Second, if you live frugally, even a relatively low-wage worker can save up a nest egg, making it easy to turn down unappealing offers in the future.  Naturally, you can object, “I still face the choice to either live frugally, work for some employer, or starve.”  If so, we’re back to my original reply: Complaining about being “free to starve” is the flip side of demanding that strangers support you whether they like it or not.

7. Leither took umbrage at my authoritarian interpretation of Marx.  I freely grant that Leiter’s invested more time reading Marx than I have.  However, I too have devoted long hours to Marx’s oeuvre (though I’ve spent far more reading about the actual history of socialist regimes), and I stand by my bleak assessment.

Did Marx explicitly say, “We should round up priests and execute them”?  To the best of my knowledge, no.  Yet that is the most reasonable interpretation of what Marx had planned.  What are we supposed to think when Marx makes Orwellian statements like,  “[B]ourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part [socialism] endeavors rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion” (Critique of the Gotha Program)?  It doesn’t sound like Marx plans to respect the rights of people who don’t wish to be so “liberated.”  If Leiter is right, why did so few Marxists protest Lenin’s religious persecution?  I say it’s because Marx provided the Orwellian language they needed to insist that Freedom is Slavery.  As I wrote two decades ago:

Innumerable social thinkers disagree with much of Marx’s thought, but praise his reflections upon human freedom, the depth of his insight in contrast to the shallowness of liberalism. Yet it is difficult to understand how Marx’s concept of freedom is anything more than a defense of tyranny and oppression. No dissident or non-conformist can see society as the “realization of his own liberty.” And what can the attack on “the right to do everything which does not harm others” amount to in practice, except a justification for coercing people who are not harming others? The problem with “broad” notions of freedom is that they necessarily wind up condoning the violation of “narrow” notions of freedom. Under “bourgeois” notions of religious liberty, people may practice any religion they wish (“a private whim or caprice” as Marx calls it); how could this liberty be broadened, without sanctioning the persecution of some religious views?

Listening to Leiter, a law professor at the University of Chicago, I couldn’t help but think, “Leiter is talking like Marx’s lawyer.”  When a Mafia enforcer says, “Sweet kids you got there; be a shame if anything happened to them,” a Mafia lawyer will vigorously deny that his client threatened to murder children.  Any neutral adult, however, knows that the Mafioso did exactly that.  I say the same about Marx’s writings.  “I’m going to bring you real freedom” is a classic Offer You Can’t Refuse – as Marxist revolutionaries have shown us time and again.  A skilled lawyer can obfuscate this scary truth, but a learned philosopher should not.

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Happy National Tired and Grouchy Week

On Sunday, March 8, millions of Americans woke up an hour early, having set their clocks ahead by an hour the night before, and dug in for a week or so of bleary-eyed, irritable attempts to tweak their bodies’ natural sleeping and waking rhythms. This fatuous semi-annual “spring forward, fall back” ritual, called “Daylight Saving Time,” ranks high on my personal list of “dumbest ideas in the history of mankind.”

Why do people put up with Daylight Saving Time and obediently change their clocks twice a year? You may have heard that it has to do with saving energy, or making sure children don’t arrive home from school after dark or have more time to do farm work when they get home, or other such nonsense excuses.

In reality, the practice was first proposed by a George Hudson, a New Zealand postal worker and entomologist who wanted more daylight after his regular job to catch bugs, then later by William Willett, a British builder who hated having his golf games cut short by darkness.

More than a century later, is it fair to say that Willett’s tee times and Hudson’s bug hauls were worth the 30 additional deaths (and associated $275 million in costs) that come with “springing forward” every year (according to a 2017 study in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics)?

Or the billions of dollars in other costs, including, it turns out, increased rather than decreased energy use?

Or, for that matter, the cost of the extra cups of coffee I have to add to my morning intake to jolt myself awake for the first week or two of getting up an hour early?

I don’t think so. But then, I’m grouchy this morning. I wonder why that might be?

Changing our clocks back and forth on command doesn’t magically alter the passage of time. Basing our schedules on  periodic changes to the markings on those clocks, or vice versa, won’t make our day/night-based circadian rhythms go away, or even become less relevant (ask anyone who’s worked “graveyard shift” for an extended period — the body doesn’t easily adjust).

As an alternative to conscripting everyone into these silly back and forth “Saving Time” games, individuals and groups should be left to adjust their own schedules to fit their own needs. Since I don’t collect bugs or play golf, I don’t need to get up an hour earlier in the spring and summer.

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Natural Law, Fictions, Context

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

Natural Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fictions

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

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

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

Context

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

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

— Verbal Vol

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