Don’t Need Rescue from Everything

I’m surprised at how seriously people are taking the coronavirus. I’m even more surprised at how many believe government can save them from it, or that it’s even government’s job to do so.

This is the same sort of thinking that has led to the recent plague of “red flag” legislation.

If you believe you need politicians to save you from a virus or from someone’s gun, then you’ll keep handing control of your life over to anyone who promises to rescue you. Whether they actually can or not.

It’s not only diseases and guns. It seems almost everyone wants to be saved from something. Maybe they fear immigrants who don’t comply with unconstitutional anti-immigration legislation. Or maybe they want to be rescued from “inequality,” whatever they imagine it to be.

Others may want to be saved from weather, poverty, different political ideologies or other religions they don’t follow, or from rich people. Some beg to be rescued from their student loan debt or their own bad choices.

Drugs, other drivers, people who might appear to be smoking but aren’t, messy yards, backyard chickens, loud parties, tall grass, and more are all things someone out there wants government to save them from.

If this seems like a long list, you are right. Yet it barely scratches the surface. There appears to be no end to the number of things you could list that some people, somewhere at some time, have begged government to save them from.

Government encourages this pandemic of cowardice.

H. L. Mencken, a favorite writer of mine from early in the 20th Century, noticed this and called it out. He wrote: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

He’s right, and it’s working.

Were your hobgoblins listed above or are yours something else entirely?

It’s not that these things don’t exist, but making them into hobgoblins you fear irrationally is a path to slavery. You become so desperate to be saved you’ll accept those fanning the flames of fear as your self-proclaimed saviors.

Fear is the reaction to feeling you won’t be able to cope; of suspecting you aren’t enough. It’s a lie. You are enough.

You don’t need to be rescued from every little thing. I know you can do it without depending on government or its legislation. To conquer fear, get busy doing what needs to be done.

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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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Coronavirus: Politically Created Panic is the Real Pandemic

As of early March, there were fewer than 200 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the United States. Nonetheless Congress passed, and US president Donald Trump signed, an $8.3 billion “emergency funding” bill theoretically related to containing the disease.

Had the federal government done nothing at all, the “beer flu” might have conceivably have ended up killing a tiny fraction of the number of Americans who will die of influenza during the same period.

Now that the federal government is blowing $8.3 billion, the chances of that happening will likely decrease — not because coronavirus will kill fewer people, but because influenza will kill more. Attention paid to, and resources thrown at, victims of the predictable annual flu epidemic will decrease in favor of the minor but newly lucrative COVID-19 nuisance.

Yes, nuisance. Even the US Centers for Disease Control, a big beneficiary of health panics, says that “information so far suggests that most COVID-19 illness is mild” (especially among those without underlying serious health conditions), that the virus “is NOT currently spreading widely in the United States,” and that “[f]or most of the American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.”

So, why are people losing their minds? In a word, politics. Congress and the president are throwing $8.3 billion worth of gasoline onto an already raging fire of unjustified panic.

Rahm Emanuel’s Law: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

Every Politician’s Corollary: “Even if you have to manufacture  that crisis out of whole cloth.”

Panic kills people, and politicians are just fine with that as long as it increases their stature among, and power over, the survivors.

At this point, the main protective measure I recommend is laying in a couple of weeks’ worth of food and water. Not because you need to stay home to avoid the coronavirus, but because the panic might result in shortages or even idiotic government measures like mass quarantines. And having some food and bottled water around is always a good idea anyway.

If it makes you feel better to avoid travel and large crowds, wear a mask when you can’t avoid those things, and wash your hands 80 times a day, knock yourself out. But stay calm and be aware that you’re just going through self-comforting motions. Politicians, not viral nuisances, are the biggest threat to your survival.

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Instead of Tax “Holidays,” How About Real Tax Cuts?

Writing at the Florida Politics blog, A.G. Gancarski reports on three sales tax “holiday” bills working their way through the state’s legislature. Two of the bills would lengthen existing holidays on school supplies and storm preparedness products. The third would expand the holiday habit to hunting and fishing items.

According to the Sales Tax Institute,  at least 16 states have sales tax holidays scheduled this year on goods ranging from clothing to school supplies to generators to guns.

I’m all for lower taxes, but tax holidays aren’t about lower taxes. They’re about three things: Social engineering, political grandstanding, and special interest pandering.

Social engineering entails using the tax code to encourage some particular spending versus other kinds of spending.

If I offer a tax deduction for contributions to your favorite church, but not for payments to your favorite liquor store, I’m trying to encourage you to go to church and/or discourage you from boozing. Requiring you to pay  sales tax on a lawn mower, a container of motor oil, or a bottle of Vitamin C no matter when you buy them, but not on a pack of ball-point pens, an emergency generator, or an AR-15 if you buy them between Date X and Date Y, has the same effect.

The politicians grandstanding on these holiday proposals are hoping you’ll notice, and credit them for, the small tax breaks on a few things at particular times — and not think to ask why everything else is taxed all the time. They’re trying to buy your vote, but they don’t want to pay full price for it.

And it should come as no surprise that the biggest supporters of tax holidays on Product X (and likely the biggest campaign contributors to politicians proposing those holidays) are the makers and sellers of Product X.

If the legislators proposing these tax holidays were serious about cutting taxes, they’d propose reducing tax rates on everything, all the time, not on a few things now and then. That would be good for all taxpayers, including lower-income citizens who don’t have as much discretionary income to waste on the politically favored item of the week.

Florida’s general state sales tax rate is 6%. Instead of reducing it to 0% for laptops this week and storm windows next week and ammunition the week after that, I’d like to see my state’s holiday-happy politicians propose cutting the general rate to 5% on everything, year-round.

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The Politics of Panic are Far Deadlier Than the Coronavirus

US president Donald Trump “Has a Problem as the Coronavirus Threatens the US,” assert the authors of a New York Times analysis: “His Credibility.”

In the tagline and elsewhere in the article, the authors imply that the spread of COVID-19, aka “the coronavirus,” constitutes a “public health crisis” and a “national emergency” which Trump’s “history of issuing false claims” handicaps him in selling plans to address.

If they’re right about Trump’s credibility, they’re pointing to a feature, not a bug. The last thing we need is an impetuous political response to COVID-19.

The coronavirus is neither a national emergency nor a public health crisis in the US. Absent heavy-handed government involvement it’s unlikely to become either.

What is COVID-19?

It’s a regional epidemic in China, with a fairly low — and continuously falling as more and more asymptomatic cases are discovered — mortality rate even there.

It’s likely to be far less deadly in the US, which has better air quality than, and about 1/5th the percentage of smokers as, China. Like other “common cold” type viruses, it’s more likely to kill those with compromised lungs and/or immune systems.

Yes, COVID-19 is coming to America. In fact, it’s already here, and it’s going to spread.

It will spread whether Trump appoints vice-president Mike Pence to stop it or not.

It will spread whether federal government and state governments impose draconian but ineffectual measures like travel restrictions and large-scale quarantines or not.

Political grandstanding over the coronavirus and “emergency measures” versus the coronavirus will almost certainly kill more people — in the US and abroad — than the coronavirus itself.

Every “emergency measure” imposes costs in the form of drag on economic activity.

We’ve already seen what happens to the stock market when business gets nervous about the Chinese nodes in its supply chains.

Travel and trade restrictions mean higher prices and lost jobs, both of which discourage Americans from seeing doctors when they get sick.

Treating COVID-19 as a genuine American public health emergency instead of as an understandable but unjustified panic means  medical resources get mal-invested in fighting COVID-19 instead of the other real, existing health problems they’re needed to fight.

Higher prices, lost jobs, and medical mal-investment are a recipe for dead Americans.

You probably won’t get the coronavirus. If you do get it, it probably won’t kill you. But politicians and bureaucrats trafficking in panic just might succeed where it fails.

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Politics is Still Stupid

I don’t know how many times I’ve written about the stupidity of politics. Plenty.

I’ve given countless talks, podcast interviews, and most of my first three books were about how soul-sucking, distracting, useless, degrading, and pointless political involvement is. The combination of Public Choice theory, which explains how politics works and why it doesn’t, and understanding social change, plus lived experience of working in politics, policy, education, and finally entrepreneurship have made it abundantly clear to me that politics is at best a ridiculous spectator sport. At worst a terrible addiction that makes you an asshole and a moron all at once.

I’m a political atheist. I don’t acknowledge its power, because in my day to day life, I experience my own. It only matters when you believe it does. And I don’t.

Politics turns friends into enemies. It breeds fear. It creates mental blocks and blinders to reality. It indulges the most socially destructive vice, envy. It deceives us into downplaying our own agency and becoming victims. It makes us feel pressured to pretend to know and care about everything.

Doing nothing. Having no opinion. Not following the news. These are steps towards personal emancipation.

Building a life you want. Cultivating mindsets that add to your sense of life. Going about your business as if you own your outcomes. These are steps toward a creative and fulfilling life.

These acts of productive omission and commission are indifferent to politics. Best case it’s a distraction to the good life. Worst case it’s destruction of the good life.

To all my brothers and sisters mired in the struggle, try walking away. See if your life doesn’t improve.

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