The World Would Be a Great Deal Better

I’m not a moral philosopher or a theologian. I was once a half-decent economic historian, but that’s another story. Anyhow, I’m going to offer you a few words of unsolicited moral advice along with some observations on the nature of the world in which you live. You may not need this advice, in which case I apologize for bothering you, but it’s clear that many people do need it.

First, you should take note of the great diversity of people in the world. People have different ethnicities, languages, religions, customs, ideologies, habits, and tastes. This variation in itself need not trouble you, amigos; it’s better for everyone if you do not hate people who differ from you.

Second, it’s especially important that you not try to kill these people unless they happen to be carrying out an actual violent assault on you. Also important, you should not call on the criminals who rule your society to kill these “others” on your behalf on the pretense of protecting you.

Third, you should not mislabel events such as peaceful “others” crossing your nation’s border as an “invasion” or some such, because this kind of talk not only corrupts language, but fosters serious mischief. If people come into your area from El Salvador or New Jersey, don’t freak out. They might be a lot nicer than you imagine. But in any event it’s wrong for you to hurt them simply because they are not carbon copies of you.

If you take the foregoing advice to heart and act accordingly, the world will be a great deal better for everyone, including you. In time you might even come to recognize that people are people, that you are just one of them, neither inherently better nor inherently worse unless your actions show that you are truly a demon or a saint in disguise.

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My Most Excellent Election Day Experience

Last Tuesday, special day that it was, I awoke early and prepared to go out. By 7am, I was where I always go on this special day, eager to do my duty and exercise my sacred right to choose. Entering the warm, brightly lit building, I was greeted by friendly folks who make me feel welcome. Not many others were there yet.

I got down business and made quick work of it. Systematically, I scanned my alternatives in the various categories, now and then consulting the list on my mobile phone that I had earlier drawn up so I wouldn’t forget my game plan. Everything was just as I expected it to be, and so I executed my plan flawlessly. I made my picks and bypassed those that I saw no need for.

My choices made, I left content, confident I had achieved everything I had set out to achieve.

To be more precise: in each case, my choices counted; no, better: they were decisive. In other words, I got everything I wanted — on the spot.

Obviously, I was not at the polling place on Tuesday, which I hear was Election Day. I was at the supermarket. But I didn’t lie. Tuesdays are special: it’s the day my supermarket discounts all items for those they call “seniors.” The discount more than offsets the sales tax. That makes it a special day, though, alas, the state still takes it illicit cut.

The tip-off that I had not been at the polling place should have been my statement, “I got everything I wanted — on the spot.” This cannot happen at the polling place. There, my choices would have been limited to two or three or possibly four candidates, but only two had any real chance of winning since one of the dogmas of our civic religion is that any “third party” is somehow suspect.

True, the supermarket must limit the selection; shelf space is limited. But I usually see more than four choices in most categories, and store owners have a continuing incentive to expand their stocks to please their customers, who, unlike taxpayers, can say, “No thank you.” And I can always go someplace else where the stock is more to my liking. Yet I can go to only one polling place, which doesn’t matter because every polling place has the same limited stock — like the stores in the old Soviet Union.

Also at the polling place, no one’s choice is decisive; for many people, that’s a feature, but it looks like a bug to me. Unlike at the supermarket, what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. At the supermarket, if I want bacon rather than sausage, I get bacon every time. But my preferring candidate Jones to candidate Smith for dog catcher does not mean I will get Jones. Sure, you make your “free” choice among the vetted candidates, but you don’t know what you’ll get until all the votes are counted. Despite that other constantly repeated dogma, your vote doesn’t really count. In nearly all cases, the chance of a tie is only insignificantly greater than zero. What matters is how a whole lot of other people voted, and what they do on election day has nothing to do with what I do. I have not lived through a single election the outcome of which would have differed had I done something other than what I actually did on that day. Last Tuesday was no different.

Since my “votes” are decisive in the supermarket, I have a natural incentive to think carefully about what I want, although, within limits, if I make a mistake, I can exchange what I choose for something else or even get my money back. Try that in an election. Candidates may say they favor this rather than that, but they might only be saying what they think the voters want to hear. What the winners end up doing could markedly diverge from what they promised to do or undo, but even in the most flagrant instances, you can’t get your vote (or money) back.

Another thing that gives me an incentive to choose with great care what I buy is that, for the most part, I will not only reap the benefits but also bear the costs of my own choices. That has a way of concentrating the mind. In an election, even under the best of circumstances, only a sliver of the costs will fall on any particular individual, although the total costs could be immense. Worse, most individuals probably won’t realize that the costs are attributable to what the victors have done. Tracing the consequences of much of what officeholders do requires at least a basic understanding of how markets and the price system work. Few understand economics.

In light of this, most people do no serious research about candidates. Candidates know this and exploit it to the hilt. That’s why election campaigns look more like theater — bad theater — than markets. The candidates seek to create atmospheres in hopes of emotionally motivating enough people to go to the polls and vote for them. Top among the emotions aimed at is fear, which makes for a proliferation of bogeymen (such as immigrant invaders and foreign manufacturers).

Now I know that the standard response here is that what we buy at the supermarket or bookshop or even the insurance agency and doctor’s office is not like the things that elections are concerned with, that is, those things known as indivisible and nonexcludable public goods. Fair enough — except that 1) government does lots of things that bear no resemblance whatever to classic public goods and 2) a voluminous historical and theoretical literature exists documenting that public services, including security and conflict resolution (assuming they really are public goods), have at one time or another been provided in what look awfully like … marketplaces.

So maybe we’ve been sold a bill of goods in the state. Let’s check our premises, shall we? (Here are more titles in addition to the archive linked to above: Harold Berman’s Law and Revolution, Peter Leeson’s Anarchy Unbound, Gary Chartier’s Anarchy and Legal Order, Edward Stringham’s Private Governance, and Robert Ellickson’s Order without Law.)

As for elections, I’d rather spend my time doing things that are likely to benefit myself and those I care about. Practicing rituals designed to make the predator state look like a saintly government of, by, and for the people is not among them.

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“Birthright Citizenship” Kerfuffle is Mostly a Get Out The Vote Tactic

In a late October interview with news website Axios, US president Donald Trump announced his intention to sign an executive order doing away with “birthright citizenship” — the notion that persons born on US soil are citizens from birth with no need for any naturalization process.

It’s not exactly an “October surprise.” Trump used  birthright citizenship as a rallying complaint on the campaign trail in 2016. He’s done nothing about it in the nearly two years since.

Now he’s weaponizing it again, along with fear-mongering about a migrant caravan wending its way through Mexico toward the US, in a last-minute effort to drive an extra (and possibly decisive in places) fraction of a percent of Republican-leaning voters to the polls for the 2018 midterms.

After which he will almost certainly go back to doing nothing about it for another two years, until he trots it out a third time when seeking re-election in 2020.

Will he issue the threatened executive order? That seems unlikely, as does the passage of regular legislation ending birthright citizenship. The matter is too clearly settled, and has been for far too long, for a change to pass muster with the courts on any basis other than a constitutional amendment.

Birthright citizenship has been US citizenship doctrine since the country’s founding, in keeping with the English common law tradition of jus soli (“right of the soil”). It was codified in the Civil Rights Act of 1866,  then enshrined in the 14th Amendment, then upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1898 case Kim Wong Ark v. US.

Its likely resistance to easy change is a good thing for at least two reasons, even if you oppose “birthright citizenship.”

First, letting  the president  discard parts of the Constitution at will, or Congress at a lower legislative threshold than the required 2/3 of both houses of Congress and 3/4 of the state legislatures, is inherently dangerous. If they can do it with the 14th Amendment, they can do it with the 1st Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, and assembly), the 2nd Amendment (gun rights), the 22nd Amendment (limiting the president to two terms) … where would it end?

Secondly, with respect to citizenship in particular, does anyone really want to give an ever-changing government discretion to tinker with the longstanding definition? Right now the threat is to “children of illegal immigrants.” Release the genie and who’s to say that three years from now it won’t become “people with fewer than three generations of American ancestors?” Or, for that matter “people who aren’t registered to vote as [insert political party here]?”

Like many libertarians, I hold the whole concept of “citizenship” suspect. No less a light than Thomas Jefferson argued against the notion that a compact entered into in 1787 by one set of people could bind subsequent generations who haven’t explicitly consented.

That said, the Constitution is the set of rules on which the American political class stakes its claim of legitimacy to rule us. If they won’t abide by it, why should we recognize their authority at all?

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“Guilty” of Possession?

Mere possession of anything can’t be a krime. There must be possession plus… something. What “something”? To be a krime there has to be possession plus archation–possession plus an act which violates someone, and mere possession doesn’t. It can’t.

Possession is passive. Believing this violates someone is basically the same as believing offending someone violates them– it’s like believing in “microaggressions”. No one has a right to not be offended, and no one has the right to prohibit mere possession of something.

This was the realization which long ago ended my support of the War on Drugs; which made me realize it was really the stupid and evil War on Politically Incorrect Drugs.

But then I thought and considered this from every angle for a decade or two and finally came to realize it didn’t end there. Mere possession of anything doesn’t violate anyone, ever. I keep trying to think of a way to passively archate– violate someone in some real way without acting– and I haven’t yet.

For possession of anything anywhere to be archation you have to have possession plus. Plus a credible threat to archate. Plus aggression. Plus theft. Plus radiation or some other active dispersal of something physically harmful onto another person or their private property. Plus something. Because mere possession isn’t a violation of anyone’s rights.

Just one example, concerning a hypothetical freedom of religion scenario:

You can possess any religious beliefs you want. You can possess those beliefs wherever you go, even when on the private property of someone with different religious beliefs. This is passive. No one can possibly be violated by your religion– no matter what it is– until you put your beliefs into action by actually doing something; by no longer passively possessing those beliefs, but by acting them out. By whipping them out and waving them around, as it were. You can be banned from performing rituals on someone else’s property, but they can’t reasonably (or ethically) ban you from passively possessing religious beliefs they oppose while on their property. It’s just none of their business.

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The Damaging Nature of Spirituality

I find religion less poisonous than spirituality. In the same fashion, I find forms of introspection incredibly damaging.

We are tools of evolution. We are here to produce, consume, and breed at the fundamental level. The beauty of life is that evolution endowed us with emotions in order to do this in such a manner that we can love producing, consuming and reproducing.

Our mind is a tool that senses and interprets reality. We use that information to act on our desire to accomplish our goals. I find that religion can often be harmful to these ends, but what I find vastly more harmful is spirituality and certain types of introspection. When our mind turns its powers upon itself it is a hall of mirrors. There are no answers when a sensor reads a sensor. This turns people erratic, highly emotional, and constantly looking for answers with only momentary glimpses of a perception of confidence in what they believe.

The people who turn to spirituality/introspection become lost in their minds. They disconnect themselves to reality. They become highly influenced by gurus and others who confirm their spiritual assumptions. They feel unsupported by people who don’t validate their premises, and they further seclude themselves in their narratives.

Religion doesn’t often have this effect. The narratives aren’t turning the mind against itself. The narratives are social, and turns the minds towards an external purpose of reality. While the narratives can be inaccurate or harmful, I believe someone can be happy while being religious vastly more than with spirituality.

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The Conclusion Comes Last

How do you know if a shoe fits? You have to try it on.

How do you know if the blue shirt is a better fit for you than the red shirt? You have to try them on.

Even if you already know your size, the best way to know if something is a good fit is by trying it on.

Ditto for your career and your curiosities.

If you’re wondering “Is this sport, subject, or style good for me?”, the best way to find out isn’t by guessing or navel-gazing.

You find it out by trying it out.

Instead of pressuring yourself to make a religion out of some specific passion you think you need to have, give yourself permission to playfully explore the ideas and interests that intrigue you.

Discovering what you love is like doing science:

1. Start with a hunch (ie. “this seems interesting”).

2. Formulate a hypothesis (ie. “I think I’d really like this”).

3. Conduct an experiment (ie. “I’ll sign up for one lesson to see if I’m good at it” or “I’ll take an online course to see how it goes” or “I’ll do an internship to see how it feels from the inside-out” or “I’ll invest a small amount of money that I can afford to lose”).

4. Form a working conclusion (ie. “I think I would like to do this for the next couple of years” or “I’m ready to invest more money into this”).

5. Be willing to revise your conclusion in light of new evidence and future experience (ie. “my passions are not religious beliefs that I need to be loyal to. They’re evolving interests that I’m free to upgrade along the way.”

Notice something here: The conclusion comes last.

Instead of announcing to the world “this is what I’m born to do” after having a single rapturous experience or after making a single interesting observation, you take a “wait and see” approach.

The “wait” in “wait and see” isn’t about waiting on taking action. It’s about waiting on the decision to marry the first hypothesis you form about yourself.

Discovering and doing what you love is analogous to dating. Before getting on bended knee to propose to a beautiful stranger, it might be wiser to flirt first and see where that goes. There’s no need to make an overnight leap from “this person has captured my attention” to “I’m ready to spend the rest of my life with you even though I don’t even know what it’s like to have a disagreement with you.”

In the same manner, get to know your interests before you get on a mountaintop and declare “this is the whole meaning of my existence” or “this is my calling.”

You don’t need to put your entire life on the line for the first beautiful thing that captivates your attention.

You can afford to relax a little.

Before you lose anymore sleep trying to figure out how you can “follow your passion,”  it might help if you just slow down a little and flirt with your curiosity.

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