See What You Can Build on Your Own

There’s a sense of personal accomplishment, of self-worth, when you make something with your own hands through your own efforts. Even if you seek guidance from someone with experience, you’ve learned more than you knew before. You’ll probably value the results more than if you had no part in making it.

If, after you do the work yourself, you decide you’d rather pay someone to do it for you next time, at least you now know what’s involved. You will probably have a better sense of whether someone is doing a good job or not. You might be able to tell if they are trying to scam you or overcharge for their services.

To prevent someone from making things on their own is bad in two ways. You show you don’t trust them to be competent, and you keep them from becoming competent; from learning how to do things they’ll value. If you never allow someone to succeed or fail on their own, always doing everything for them, they’ll never really grow up. They’ll never learn responsibility.

Self-government is the same way. Until you try to govern yourself, without any laws or representatives to fall back on, you’re not a fully competent human being. You may even surprise yourself when you discover you don’t need those things, nor do you want them imposed on others. I have more respect for myself than to look for someone to govern others — even my enemies — on my behalf.

To me, insisting that others must be governed for my benefit is a sign of weakness and immaturity.

People tend to live up or down to your expectations.

So how do you govern yourself with your own two hands? Be responsible. Don’t pawn your responsibilities onto others. Don’t expect others to take care of you, or to protect you from threats you should be dealing with on your own. Mind your own business and expect others to mind theirs. If someone violates you, deal with it yourself. Only seek help if absolutely unavoidable, and then only from truly voluntary sources. You aren’t entitled to other people’s time or money, so don’t act as though you are. Governing yourself isn’t achieved through voting or expecting representatives to fix anything. If you want to do that anyway, don’t stop there and think you’ve accomplished something.

See what you can build with the effort of your own mind and hands. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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The Wheat and Tares Grow Up Together: Morality and Judging Historical Eras

Is the 21st century a time of great moral progress? Or is it a time of decadence? Ask different people and you’ll get different answers. In my view, the answer is “both.”

On one hand, humans are progressing. The internet and software are breaking down barriers between people and people groups. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other great prejudices (at least in their traditional forms) are losing their entrenched hold on the human mind. Individual humans can be freer, more creative, and more generous than ever before.

On the other hand, humans are regressing. We’re putting more and more faith in centralized governments (contrary to the lessons of the 20th century) and giving up more freedom and responsibility. We’re abandoning our commitments to friends, family, and ideas of honor and the sacred. We’re allowing ourselves to be addicted by digital stimulants from porn and video games to news feeds and notifications.

We like to be able to put simple moral judgments on historical eras, and every era presents difficulties for the person who wants to put simple labels of “good” or “bad”, “progressive” or “regressive” on any time in human history.

Jesus once told a parable which amateur cultural and historical judges (like me) should consider:

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Matthew 13:24-30

Now Jesus wasn’t talking about historical eras, but the metaphor of the wheat and the tares (the King James version of weeds) is a good one.

In any and every time, no matter how much we idealize or condemn, there is always wheat, and there are always weeds. The 16th century had exploration and cultural renaissance, but it also had religious warfare and barbaric tortures. The 19th century had abolitionism and industrialism, but it also had colonialism and imperialism. The 1st century had Stoicism and Christianity, but it also had mad emperors and slavery.

For all of these eras and all times (including our own), it does us good to remember the command to “[Let] them (wheat and weeds) grow up until harvest.” I read this as a metaphor for the wisdom of reserving blanket judgment.

We may one day be able to say that the centuries in our rearview were “good” or “bad.” But the harvest of consequence has not yet happened for the 21st century, and it’s hard to say that the harvests of the 19th and 20th are fully ripe, either. It is too soon to judge. Let time do that. In the meantime, resist the urge either to burn the fields or to swallow the weeds.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The Universal Basic Income: Newly Contentious

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) was the topic of my other “Contentious Issues in Classical Liberalism” presentation.  Here, at least, I can see the superficial appeal for the typical member of the Mont Pelerin Society.  Unlike the conventional welfare state, the UBI doesn’t try to micro-manage human behavior.  It doesn’t claim to know how anyone – no matter how poor – should live their lives.  It gives bureaucrats near-zero discretion.  And it preserves recipients’ marginal incentives to work.  The UBI gives money to everyone, then lets the free market work.

What do these arguments overlook?  For starters, since taxpayers have to support the UBI whether they like it or not, the moral presumption in favor of recipients’ “choice” is more than a little muddy.  Voluntary donors get to decide how their money gets spent; why shouldn’t involuntary donors have the same right?

On reflection, moreover, there are strong reasons for taxpayers to exercise this right.  Most obviously, because their first priority is to take care of children.  “You can’t use food stamps for alcohol” need not be paternalistic; maybe it’s just a pragmatic way to feed the hungry children of alcoholic parents.

Poor parenting aside, the very fact that an adult needs government help is good reason to question their personal responsibility.  If you want to sleep on my couch while you search for a job, I refuse to “just trust your best judgment” about how to get your life in order.  Anyone who wants my help has to strive to find a job, not sit around drinking my wine.  It’s hard to see why taxpayers should be more relaxed (though due to the tragedy of the fiscal commons, they almost always are).

The main reason why classical liberals smile upon the UBI, I fear, is its elegant simplicity.  If we adopt one straightforward poverty program, we can rid ourselves of all the rest.  Unfortunately, as my presentation explains, the UBI’s cost is exorbitant, the side effects are awful, and the moral justification is ultimately flimsy.  The right moderate reform for classical liberals to push is not the UBI, but Austerity for Liberty.

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Preferences Provide Opportunities

Preferences are a personal thing. Some people prefer dogs while others prefer cats, and some like both species equally. None of these choices is wrong, even if one choice might make more sense or be more right for some people.

If dogs are preferred, there are those who prefer large dogs and others who prefer small dogs. Some people prefer aggressive dogs while other people want a more sociable dog.

It’s all OK unless your preference is to prevent others from making their own choice based on their personal preferences.

If you decide your preference for large sociable dogs means cats should be banned or tightly regulated, and small, aggressive dogs must be confiscated and destroyed, your preference has crossed the line. It is no longer acceptable; it’s antisocial.

Even if the majority of people take your side.

Yes, there are acts that aren’t the same as preferences. You can’t just say your preference is to break into houses and steal what you want instead of earning money with mutually voluntary trade to pay for those things.

Well, you can say that’s your preference, but no one is obligated to sit by while you act on it. Anyone has the right to stop you when your preference violates others.

Very few of the things people choose between harm anyone. You might be bewildered by someone’s choice. You might even believe it’s immoral. Unless it “picks your pocket or breaks your leg” — to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson — it’s your responsibility to mind your business.

Differing preferences provide opportunities. If everyone liked the same thing, there would be no need to make different kinds of food. Generic “Human Chow” would be good enough. Everyone could wear the same style clothing, in the same color. All cars could be identical.

Life would never have a chance to improve because there would be no reason to experiment with different things.

Look how many innovations were stumbled upon by accident. Often the underlying cause was someone trying to fulfill their own, or a pool of potential customers’ preferences; some that are known and others that are a mystery even to those who possess them.

It would be sad if everyone were the same and liked the same things. I’m glad people like different stuff. It exposes me to things I might not otherwise experience, it gives me options and enriches my life. And it might someday introduce me to something I had no idea I was going to love.

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A “State” is a Failed Society

I’ve seen various places referred to as “failed states”– Somalia being a frequent example. The term is used in an attempt to insult.

The most insulting part is that anyone tolerates those trying to impose a state on them, or that anyone is dumb (or evil) enough to do it to themselves.

If you have a state, you’ve already failed. You’ve failed to find voluntary ways to live among other humans and have decided you’re going to cheat.

A state is a failed society.

To fail at something which is unnecessary is a tragedy which can bring disaster where none was inevitable before.

Yes, a failed state can be deadly. Any failure can be.

If a dishonest surgeon performs an unnecessary heart transplant on a patient, and it fails, the patient will die. Even if it doesn’t “fail”, it was a really bad idea. The patient has been harmed whether he realizes it or not. The heart transplant was not a good idea, nor was the one performing it a good guy trying to help.

A state is the same. It’s unnecessary and harmful– even if it doesn’t fail. The state is antisocial; based on theft and aggression. It is your enemy. There will be consequences when it fails.  And it will fail eventually. They all do.

And when it fails, tragedy is likely. Once you’ve crippled a population– trained them out of responsibility, competence, independence, and ethics– by imposing a state on them, how do you expect them to form a functional society if your state fails? You’ve done the damage; own it.

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War Crimes Pardons: A Terrible Memorial Day Idea

On May 16, 2008, near the town of Baiji in Iraq, 1st Lieutenant Michael Behenna, US Army, murdered a prisoner.  That was the verdict of the jury in his 2009 court martial, anyway. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but paroled in less than five. On May 6, 2019, US president Donald Trump pardoned Behenna.

As I write this, news reports indicate that Trump intends to celebrate Memorial Day by pardoning several other Americans convicted of (or accused of and not yet tried for) war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s a horrible idea for several reasons.

One reason is that it’s morally repugnant to excuse the commission of crimes, especially violent crimes, for no other reason than that the criminal is a government employee.

A second reason is that it is detrimental to the good order and and discipline of the US armed forces to excuse violations of law by American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.

That phrasing is not random: “[D]isorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces” are themselves crimes under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Yes, Trump has absolute power to pardon under the US Constitution, but this would be an abuse of that power that conflicts with his duties as commander in chief.

A third reason is that pardons of this type essentially beg other governments to take matters into their own hands where allegations of war crimes by US military personnel arise.

Among the US government’s excuses for refusing to join the International Criminal Court, and for forcing agreements by other governments to exempt American troops from prosecution under their own laws, is that the United States cleans up after itself and holds its troops to at least as high a standard as would those other governments. These pardons would give lie to that claim and expose US troops to greater risk of future arrest and prosecution abroad.

Don’t just take my word for these claims. Here’s General Charles Krulak, former Commandant of the US Marine Corps:

“If President Trump issues indiscriminate pardons of individuals accused — or convicted by their fellow servicemembers — of war crimes, he relinquishes the United States’ moral high ground and undermines the good order and discipline critical to winning on the battlefield.”

And here’s General Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“Absent evidence of innocence or injustice the wholesale pardon of US servicemembers accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously. Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us.”

After World War Two, the US and other governments which participated in victorious alliance versus the Third Reich and the Empire of Japan tried and punished — up to and including execution — German and Japanese soldiers accused of war crimes and the political leaders who ordered, encouraged, or excused those crimes.

If the US doesn’t hold itself to at least as high a standard, eventually someone else will.

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