Who Owns You?

The issue comes down to whether the individual is viewed as a private person or as public property: the former has no obligation to the community to be or stay healthy; the latter does.

Virtually everything the Founding Fathers sought to achieve by separating church and state has been undone by the apostles of modern medicine, whose zeal for creating a therapeutic state has remained unopposed by politicians, priests, professionals, journalists, civil libertarians, and the public.

–Thomas Szasz

Many people have legitimate complaints against the Food and Drug Administration. For example, during its long history, the FDA has delayed the marketing of badly needed drugs and medical devices, leading to unnecessary pain and death. Excessive bureaucratic requirements for testing have made drugs more expensive than they would have been otherwise. And, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, its regulation of tobacco and nicotine interferes with people’s enjoyment of those products.

I want to suggest, however, such isolated complaints fail to go to the heart of the matter. The problem is not this or that regulation. Nor is the problem even the FDA itself. The root problem is the government’s claim to jurisdiction over so-called “public health.” In the United States, once Congress assumed this power and created myriad regulatory agencies to exercise it, the door was opened to the kinds of mischief that Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) placed under the label “the Therapeutic State.” All manner of interference with individual freedom can be and has been presented in the name of safeguarding public health. It’s a Pandora’s box.

The ultimate question is: who owns you? The answer will determine who is to be in charge of health.

The courts have routinely affirmed that the government has a “substantial interest” in the “health, safety, and welfare of its citizens.” In other words, citizens are public property. It’s time that this currently uncontroversial premise was questioned.

The modern state’s “substantial interest” in the physical and mental welfare of its citizens is an echo of the pre-liberal era, when the sovereign was seen in part as the father and custodian of the physical and spiritual welfare of his subjects. Paternalism served the interests of the sovereign, of course: he needed healthy taxpayers and soldiers. But the relationship was bigger than that.

The liberal revolutions of the 18th century did not fully push aside that model of governance, and many vestiges of the old regime have remained. Whatever the rationalization, whatever the ostensible basis of authority, the state was (and is) about taboos and social control. Of course, the form changed — church and state have been more or less separated — but in many ways the substance has been unchanged. The power of state-related clergymen was succeeded by the power of state-related medical men (including psychiatrists) and putative scientists. As the theological state receded, the therapeutic state advanced. Illness (including so-called mental illness) came to play the role in public policy that sin once played. Health stands in public life where salvation once stood. Treatment is the modern way of redemption. The burning of witches was succeeded by, for example, the confinement in madhouses of people who had committed no crimes. Electroshock and lobotomy replaced the rack and thumbscrew. The pattern repeated itself in the United States; state governments involved themselves in public health from an early date, followed by the federal government. Drug dealers and users became the modern scapegoats who had to be cast out (imprisoned) to protect the public’s health, although drugs entered people’s bodies by volitional acts. (On the resemblance between the theological and therapeutic states, see the works of Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist who made a career demonstrating the unappreciated parallels. Links to many articles are here.)

In the modern age, Szasz wrote, “To resolve human problems [e.g., “bad habits”], all we need to do is define them as the symptoms of diseases and, presto, they become maladies remediable by medical measures” — more precisely, political-medical measures. Doctors, having been deputized by the state, wield power they could have not obtained otherwise. (The head of the FDA, Scott Gottlieb, is a physician.) Thus we have (to use another phrase from Szasz, “the medicalization of everyday life.” For example, any disapproved behavior that anyone engages in repeatedly is branded an “addiction,” which is in turn defined as a disease, as though calling behavior, which has reasons not causes, a disease were not a category mistake. Never mind that metaphorical, or mythical, diseases are not real diseases. (Are substances or people habit-forming?) To say that an ascribed disease is a myth is not to deny the behavior or even to deny that the behavior may a problem for either the actor or the people around him. As the philosopher Gilbert Ryle wrote, “A myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms belonging to another. To explode a myth is accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate them.”)

It is in this light that we should view the FDA and other government medical and scientific entities. They are part of a massive apparatus of social control, making their personnel agents of social control, not truth-seeking. Whether the FDA, for example, is a friend of industry or an adversary (at different times it’s been both), the public is ill-served precisely because the right of individual self-determination in a free market, including tort- and fraud-redress procedures, is undermined by prohibitions and restrictions. It is also ill-served by the monopolistic effects of centralized political authority over science and medicine. (On the FDA’s growth, see this.) Free competition is the universal solvent because facts emerge through rivalrous activity, both economic and intellectual.

Many people don’t see things that way, of course, and so government has increasingly controlled people’s choices with respect to health and science. On the basis of the fiction that the free market has failed in these realms — when has it actually been tried? — politicians, bureaucrats, and deputized practitioners have gained power. A gain in political power, Albert Jay Nock taught us, necessarily means a loss in “social power,” that is, self-control by individuals and their voluntary associations (including families). If self-control is denied in one area of life, we should not be surprised to see it fade from other areas of life. Today, the battle cry is “Medicare for all!” But if “the public” (the state) is to pay for everyone’s medical care collectively, won’t the public’s putative representatives want to impose restrictions on individuals’ risky behavior if for no other reason than to minimize the hit to the government’s budget? What then becomes of what’s left of individual freedom?

The coercion exercised by the government-medical complex is routinely defended as being for people’s own good: in this view, they are compelled to do only what they really wish to do but cannot because of addiction, mental illness, etc. To Szasz, this is “the authoritarian, religious-paternalistic outlook on life,” to which he responded: “I maintain that the only means we possess for ascertaining that a man wants to [for example] stop smoking more than he wants to enjoy smoking is by observing whether he stops or continues to smoke. Moreover, it is irresponsible for moral theorists to ignore that coercive sanctions aimed at protecting people from themselves are not only unenforceable but create black markets and horrifying legal abuse.”

Szasz added: “The issue comes down to whether the individual is viewed as a private person or as public property: the former has no obligation to the community to be or stay healthy; the latter does.”

We know how the “public health” lobby views the matter. When it panics over how much smokers “cost the economy” in lost productivity (through sick days and shorter lives), the lobby is proclaiming that Americans are indeed public property. How dare they enjoy themselves and risk their health at the expense of the economy, the people, the nation? (The Nazis and Bolsheviks followed this idea all the way.) In contrast, quaint classical liberals believe “the economy” — that is, the institutional framework for free exchange — exists to serve people. When the “public health” lobby advocates coercion for a person’s own good, in reality it does not speak of treatment and cure but of assault and battery — and perhaps torture. A medical relationship without consent is like a sexual relationship without consent. But few people understand that.

Perhaps sensing the flaw in the case for coercion based on preventing harm to self, much medical coercion is offered in the name of protecting others. There is a grain of truth here, of course. People can carry deadly communicable diseases. (Whether the state’s centralized bureaucracy is needed or competent to deal with this is another question.) But as the public-choice thinkers point out, state officials won’t be satisfied with such a narrow mission as protecting people from such diseases. Public-health jobs will tend to attract people dedicated to reforming other people’s “vices.” Inevitably, they will push the boundaries to acquire more power, money, staff, and prestige — all dedicated to breaking our “bad habits.” The alleged threat from second-hand smoke is in no way analogous to the immediate threat from a communicable disease. The former can easily be dealt with through contract and other voluntary arrangements but that doesn’t stop the public-health zealots from working to outlaw smoking in bars, restaurants, and even tobacco shops.

But what about the children? In a free society, families are responsible for raising children to be autonomous adults. Of course, this does not always happen, part of the reason being the government’s own obstacles, such as rotten schools for low-income kids. At any rate, history makes clear that government crusades, say to keep adolescents from doing “adult” things — such as drinking, smoking, and now vaping — only adds to their allure and has horrendous unintended consequences. Fruit is harder to resist when it is forbidden. Meanwhile, adults find themselves harassed — in the name of protecting the children — as they go about enjoying themselves.

Would life be perfect if “public health” were left to free and consenting adults in the free market? No, of course not. But a real-world free society should not be compared to an unreal and unrealizable utopia of all-wise, all-knowing, and all-good “public servants” who have only your health and welfare in mind. Rather, it should be compared to the real world of fallible, morally flawed, egotistical, self-serving, and centralized politicians and bureaucrats whose worldview is one where they give orders and you obey. Markets — which is to say, people in both profit-seeking and non-profit capacities — are capable of producing reliable consumer information and guidance, not to mention certifying the quality of products. They do it every day. Governments, after all, are comprised of nothing but human beings.

“Those who would give up essential liberty,” Benjamin Franklin might have said, “to purchase a little temporary health, deserve neither liberty nor health.”

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Be the Euphoria You Want To See In the World

Euphoria, n. A feeling or state of intense excitement and happiness

When I experience euphoria

I’m a pretty stereotypical runner guy now. So I’d have to tell you first about the euphoria that kicks in several miles into a long run. I’ve written before that it’s like:

You become an animal – something far more basic than your everyday self. You feel amazing, transcendent even – and you also feel desperate. You are being tested and rewarded. You sweat out your distractions, your pettiness, your greed, your insecurities.

This sort of thing isn’t unique to running, though.

I might get it when I wrap up a difficult jiu jitsu class (or some other session learning some difficult skill).

I just about always get it when I’m vulnerable with someone about attraction, or my failures, or difficult truths.

And I probably get it when I work my butt off to organize an event at work or home, when I’m working late in the office and no one’s around*, and when I hit “send” on an email delivering a hard project at 3 AM in the morning.

The common denominator is that I experience this kind of euphoria whenever I confront the things I might tend to avoid. Chemically, it’s adrenaline. Psychologically, it’s conditioning. Spiritually, it’s growth.

The world becomes lighter, I become stronger, and everything falls into place because I know I can take it.

But there’s also euphoria in reflection and dreaming.

When I’m going for a long drive I’ll reflect on where I’ve been and the beauty and chance and hard work (my own and others’) that has gotten me to where I am. There’s a euphoria that comes with realizing that (despite the many problems) you’re living in the fairest, freest, healthiest, wealthiest, and most peaceful society in all of human history.

Also while I’m driving, I’m probably listening to film scores (one of my favorite genres, judge me) and imagining a more adventurous life. If I’m going fast, with the windows down, with courage, and with the hope of a challenge ahead, I’ll feel just a bit euphoric. Heck, I get this sometimes on the way to work, right where I get to pick up speed.

When I see euphoria in the world

I wouldn’t say I often see euphoria – it’s pretty hard to separate from normal happiness or excitement from the outside looking in. But I do see often enough when people come alive – that low-level hum of euphoria and joy that can characterize not just a moment but a life.

You can tell pretty fast whether someone has that low-level euphoria. They voluntarily spend their time exploring a topic. They start talking faster when it comes up. They alternate between grinning with joy and frowning with focus. They own the adrenaline rush, and their initiative is magnetic. It makes you want to work harder.

I see something like this when I see great young apprentices in the Praxis community. They’re often just 18 or so and moving cross-country to work in startups. And the ones that are asking questions, doing hard work, and eking all the value they can get from their experience clearly have that “alive” quality that I don’t see in most young people.

I also see that low-level euphoria when I see great artists at work, like when I saw Lindsey Stirling perform around Christmastime. She may have been tired after a long tour of the same routine, but she did not show it. In the dancing, the decor, the stories, the music, the humor there was this sense of tremendous effort but also of effortless joy. Stirling was someone who from love brought together all of the best of human potential into this show. You have to be alive to do something like that.

So I suppose the answer is the same – if you want to see euphoria, go where the effort is. You can find it at celebrations occasionally, but you’ll find it often where the most sparks are flying.

Be the euphoria you want to see

How do I contribute to euphoria?

I guess I start by experiencing a lot of euphoria (when I can). I’m a big fan of the popular Howard Thurman quote:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

What I want to do is show people that it’s possible and practical to live a life of joy. Most people don’t believe that and so don’t find much euphoria.

So a good deal of that is on me. I’ve had experiences that have convinced me that truth (a big prerequisite for undivided joy) is worth it, and that effort is worth it. I want to communicate that. And I’ll do that best by taking as many chances as I can to surprise and delight people into the realization that joy is *right there* for anyone willing to act boldly.

I can encourage euphoria just by finding and encouraging others already on the path to “what makes them come alive.” If you’re an alive person, you can basically expect to have my friendship, or at least my alliance. Your fire is precious and deserves respect (the world is boring without people like you). I will root for you at least, and I might even be willing to fight for you in the extreme.

And what I’d like to continue to develop is a philosophical grounding for joy. People need to know that their struggles are worthwhile and their joy possible and good. Plenty of good thinkers (Ayn Rand for me, especially) have started this work. I’ll continue to try to share the words I’ve learned and find new ones that make the case for joy.

*The euphoria here is not much different than the state of “flow” in psychology.

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Portray a Sense of Confidence

People often feel agitated and uncomfortable in the presence of religious/spiritual people. This is because holding any strong moral ideology infers judgement on behavior and that judgement implicitly means judgement of other people’s behavior. This makes people uncomfortable partially in the same way that overly dramatic people make people uncomfortable … their emotional disposition dictates the underlying tone and culture of the interaction.

While this isn’t how it emotionally works with religious people, the higher moral/ethical/personal standards make it so it strongly affects the behavioral culture within the climates they are involved and people don’t wish to be subject to judgement within an ideology they haven’t subscribed to. Additionally, most people feel various subtle feelings of guilt, confusion and a lack of purpose … the presence of someone who seem to have resolved these issues make them feel incompetent and diminished.

While many religious people intentionally elicit these feelings in others as a means of setting the culture, and attaining power/control/dominance, most probably don’t. Most people have these standards and don’t desire to use it as a weapon to hurt or control (at least in Western society). Sure, they might think your behavior isn’t a good idea, but they have no desire to control you or treat you as an inferior.

If you set a culture of tolerance and portray a sense of purpose, confidence, and a coherent value system, you can often feel very comfortable around religious people. You won’t feel subject to their ideology, and the religious person won’t believe it is appropriate to use their values and beliefs in any way to distort the situation. They will often respect the difference and no one will feel feelings of inferiority/superiority.

I believe our discomforts around people who aren’t malicious often reflect our own perceptions of inadequacy and/or insecurity.

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Elon Musk’s Innovative Education Blueprint

“I hated going to school when I was a kid. It was torture,” said Elon Musk while describing Ad Astra, the school he opened on the California campus of his SpaceX company’s headquarters. In 2014, Musk pulled his five boys out of an elite private school in Los Angeles and decided to open his own school for his children and the children of some of his SpaceX employees. He recruited one of his sons’ former schoolteachers to help run the school, which currently serves about 50 students.

Disruptive Alternatives to Traditional Schooling

In a 2015 interview about the school, the billionaire inventor said: “The regular schools weren’t doing the things that I thought should be done. So I thought, well, let’s see what we can do.” Ad Astra, which means “to the stars,” disrupts the very idea of school. It has no grade levels, an emergent curriculum, and no mandatory classes. As Fortune reports, “There are no grades given to students at the school and if the children don’t like a particular class they’re taking, they can simply opt out.”

At Ad Astra, young people work collaboratively on projects ranging from robotics and coding to chemistry and math. Creative problem solving is a guiding principle. According to the Washington Post: “There are no sports, music or languages taught. Musk believes computer-assisted language translation is not far from being widely available.”

A Growing Trend

Recognizing a mismatch between coercive schooling and the rise of a creative economy where human ingenuity will be our key professional advantage when competing with robots, innovative companies are increasingly launching their own unconventional schools. WeWork, the co-working office space company now valued at $45 billion, launched its alternative school, WeGrow, in 2017 in its New York City headquarters. It now has 46 students in grades pre-K through fourth grade. Like Musk’s Ad Astra, WeGrow sprouted because WeWork’s founding partner and chief brand officer, Rebekah Neumann, wanted a different educational experience for her five young children. In an interview with Fast Company, Neumann said: “These children come into the world, they are very evolved, they are very special. They’re spiritual. They’re all natural entrepreneurs, natural humanitarians, and then it seems like we squash it all out of them in the education system.” Neumann continued:

The whole format was created during the Industrial Revolution, so that people would grow up and learn how to take orders on an assembly line…A lot of parents say, “Schools are not doing it right. But we’re going to kind of go with that anyway because there’s no better option.” I just wasn’t willing to accept that, especially during such formative years.

WeGrow and Ad Astra share a similar educational philosophy focused on cultivating children’s passions, immersing them in authentic projects, and encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit. WeGrow hopes to expand its schooling network alongside its WeWork shared-office network, offering WeWork members and employees a flexible, on-site, alternative education option for their children. Neumann describes her vision for WeGrow: “We have WeWorks located all around the world, thank God. A lot of members don’t see their kids for many, many hours a day. So I’m passionate about actually opening these schools inside WeWork buildings, so that parents can bring their kids to school, see them possibly at lunch, maybe bring them home.” Neumann also sees the value of the WeGrow school network in an increasingly global economy:

The idea that once your kids enter kindergarten you cannot move around the world anymore is completely archaic…We have many global entrepreneurs, citizens of the world, who want to live global lifestyles or need to for work.

Entrepreneurs are notoriously ahead of the curve. It’s no surprise that successful, forward-thinking company founders are rejecting an outdated conventional schooling model and building something new and better—for their children, for their employees’ children, and, as is the case with WeWork, for their customers’ children, as well. With entrepreneurial parents at the helm, the future of education looks bright.

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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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On Antinatalism

I’m not exceptionally well versed on “antinatalism“, the belief that it is morally wrong to procreate. Some antinatalists make the argument that procreation is morally wrong because it is nonconsensual as far as the offspring is concerned. Other antinatalists make the argument that because there is suffering in life (some times and places more than others), it is morally wrong to create a life that you know is going to suffer. I have no sympathy for the first argument, and some for the second. Consent presupposes existence, and unless the antinatalist is able to prove some sort of spiritual pre-existence, then making an argument concerning consent of the offspring is nonsensical. As for procreating into a life of suffering, this argument is much more powerful for me in times and places were suffering was guaranteed, eg. under slavery and under Communism. But then again, who are we to decide how others may feel throughout their life? That seems arrogant, does it not? You may just procreate someone who grows up to have a significant influence on ending said suffering, after all. Parents should not be the direct source of suffering for their children, in any event. And that’s today’s two cents.

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