The Most Controversial Belief

Because I’m both a Libertarian and a loudmouth, I’m frequently hit with questions about libertarianism (and the Libertarian Party). Recently this one came up:

“What is the most controversial belief of Libertarians?”

Could it be our support of immigration freedom (and, generally, freedom to travel)?

Or our demand for separation of school and state?

Perhaps our hard-line support for gun rights?

Or our stand for legalization of all drugs?

How about our advocacy for keeping the government out of the sex lives of consenting adults (including marriage, and including sex for pay)?

Or our belief that who you do or don’t do business with — including for healthcare and retirement — is your decision and no one else’s to make?

My answer: It’s all of those, and others. But it really boils down to one issue.

The most controversial belief of libertarians (and partisan Libertarians) is the belief that you’re generally both more entitled and more qualified to run your life than someone else is.

Who considers that belief controversial? “Mainstream” politicians and their supporters.

Why do they consider that belief controversial? Because they consider themselves entitled and qualified to run your life for you, whether you like it or not. And, of course, to bill you for the costs of their supervision.

Politics isn’t persuasion. Politics is force.

Whether the issue is immigration, or education, or self-defense, or drug use,  or sex, or commerce, or, heck, what color you paint your house or how long you let the grass on your lawn grow, the political approach is not to present an argument and trust you to make the right decision. It’s to decide “for” you, then beat you down if you disobey (or fail to pay them for their services).

Libertarianism — even the “political” variety — isn’t really very political at all. It’s anti-political. As one fun meme puts it, libertarians are “diligently plotting to take over the world and leave you alone.”

Libertarians only recognize one valid constraint on your actions: A universal, mutual constraint against aggression, also known as initiation of force.

The simple version, courtesy of Matt Kibbe: Don’t hurt people, and don’t take their stuff.

When you throw the first punch, or pick someone’s pocket, or otherwise forcibly interpose yourself between someone else and that someone’s life, liberty, or property, you’re not running your own life. You’re trying to run theirs.

And that’s the only thing libertarians agree you should be stopped from doing or penalized (in a manner consistent with restitution, not “punishment”) for doing. Even if it’s “for their own good.”

If you’re down with that idea, congratulations: You’re a libertarian.

If you’re not down with that idea, I hope you’ll think it through more carefully.

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The History of History

It would be interesting, though very difficult, to study how history changes.

I don’t mean how the sequence of human events changes from the present into the future, I mean how the past changes. Since it exists only in memory from our present perspective, the stories we believe about the past are the past. But those stories aren’t fixed. They change all the time.

I’ve seen some books and studies that look at a few historical events and document the ways in which history textbooks dealt with them in, say, the 1950s vs today. The changes are often dramatic, but presented in a deadpan Orwellian fashion as if it has always been this way, nevermind what we used to say.

And it is of course true that history is mostly written by those on reasonably favorable terms with the dominant political powers. When those change, histories also change.

Imagine if the German army had won World War II, or the Soviet Union had won a nuclear showdown with the United States. Do you think the dominant historical narrative would be the same? Not only would the telling of those conflicts be different, but the story of all previous history would be different. There is little reason to believe our current historical story is any less biased.

And in most cases, you can’t easily go to the evidence to prove which version is true. Evidence is scant. Most of history, especially ancient history, is based on one or two fragments or artifacts that get translated by one or two people who then get referenced by others who get referenced. If you wanted to find out whether a particular ancient figure was real, you might find the best you could get was someone who wrote a story about them, and it’s unclear whether the story was intended as fiction. There is no harder evidence for many things in history.

This does not make history a scandal or conspiracy, but it ought to cause humility. It needn’t cause paranoia about being lied to. In fact, I find it thrilling. It means the world is full of so much more mystery than we assume if we simply accept dominant narratives as provably true.

It is useful to think probabilistically about history (and everything else). If you experience something firsthand, you can be certain it happened. If a trusted friend relays a story, you might be slightly less certain. By the time you’re hearing fifteenth-hand someone referencing an nineteenth century scholar’s belief about when the Sumerians built the Ziggurats based on one type of textual analysis, the probability is it totally accurate should be a lot lower.

In Orwell’s dystopia, history gets changed by the politically powerful at moments notice by changing the official story. While I do think it’s easier than most of us assume to change the dominant historical narrative, it takes a lot more than changing some government documents or publicly funded textbooks. Academics and professional historians are the easier part. Artists and novelists are the more important part.

When you think about the American West, or Ancient Egypt, or Medieval Europe, you have a lot of ideas that are pretty coherent and consistent with other people’s ideas about these things. While most are not contradicted by history books, they didn’t originate there. It’s not the source material that causes us to believe historical narratives as much as it is the fictional narratives built on top of it. Even though we know A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a fictional narrative (built on top of another at least mostly fictional narrative of Arthur), the historical setting becomes a little more real in our brain every time a fictional story uses it as a backdrop.

A handful of movies like Jurassic Park that portray dinosaurs as predecessors to birds probably do more to make that part of the historical narrative than whatever studies or researchers they are referencing.

On the one hand, the power of art and fiction to shape our beliefs about the past is a bit troubling. I takes very little evidence from very few sources for a bunch of stories to spin up and make us believe things with higher probability than warranted, simply because it is repeated in so many stories on top of stories.

On the other hand, it’s cause for comfort. It’s empowering. I means an Orwellian regime is going to have a harder time controlling the past. Sure, they can handle the subsidy-sucking professoratti, but to control the narratives of all the artists and story-tellers? A Herculean task. In fact, the inability to control rebel creatives has brought down many a dictatorship.

History is not a fixed thing. Our knowledge is so slim. This makes probabalistic thinking important. It makes the stories we tell important. It makes the lenses through which we view the past important.

History has a history. The way it’s presented today might not be better than it once was or could be. It’s useful to think about ways it might better be told and understood.

(Bonus: Here’s a great video on ways of seeing the past.)

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Reflections on The Sopranos

I just finished re-watching the entirety of The Sopranos, HBO’s classic Mafia drama. I saw it season-by-season when it originally aired (1999-2007), and I still hew to the allegedly philistine view that the ending was not only bad, but insulting. Overall, though the show’s reputation is well-deserved. Here are the top social science insights I take away. (minor spoilers)

1. Human motivation is overdetermined. For any important action, people usually have several plausible reasons, and pinpointing the marginal factor is nigh impossible. Thus, does Tony kill Ralph because he believes Ralph torched their racehorse? Because Ralph denied doing so? Because Tony had stolen Ralph’s girlfriend, and didn’t believe Ralph was OK with it? Or was it all because Tony never forgave Ralph for murdering his own pregnant girlfriend a season earlier?

2. Humans are unbelievably petty. By providing readers with an array of credible motives, the show leads us to think that small grievances at least occasionally cause massive reactions. When Paulie murders his mother’s elderly frenemy, for example, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that he wouldn’t have done so if the frenemy hadn’t tried to wrongfully appropriate his mother’s dinner rolls. Similarly, Carmela doesn’t try to divorce Tony because he’s a serial adulterer or brutal criminal. She’s known both for years.  Instead, she tries to divorce him because Irina, Tony’s ex-girlfriend, calls Carmela’s home to tattle that Tony slept with Irina’s one-legged cousin.

3. Out of sight, out of mind. In The Sopranos, criminals and non-criminals routinely interact. The non-criminals would have to be fools not to realize that the criminals aren’t merely violent, but murderous. Still, as long as the non-criminals do not witness the violence with their own eyes, they barely care. Even when they discover details that would lead any reasonable person to conclude that the horrifying had happened, they look the other way. Thus, everyone except Adriana’s mother gets over her disappearance (murder, actually) with minimal cognitive dissonance. Never mind that her boyfriend was a junkie who repeatedly beat her; Adriana must have just decided out of the blue to leave New Jersey and never talk to her family or friends again.

4. A disciplined organized crime family can act with near-impunity. It’s easy to catch the typical murderer because the typical murderer murders someone he personally wants to murder. A crime family, however, can handily re-allocate its crimes so everyone lacks a personal motive for the crimes he personally commits. Criss cross! When Adriana tries to get Chrissy into witness protection, he doesn’t murder her. Instead, he tells Tony, who delegates the job to Silvio.

5. Organized crime families are not, in fact, disciplined. Criminals are overwhelmingly impulsive, macro males. So even though they have a great social technology for manufacturing ironclad alibis, they routinely fail to use it. Early in the series, Chrissy shoots a random baker in the foot in broad daylight. A great way to get caught… but Chrissy felt slighted, so he shot anyway. Ralphie beats his pregnant girlfriend to death in the Bing parking lot because she insulted his manhood.

6. Hedonic adaptation is mighty. The leading criminals on the show aren’t just filthy rich; they’re very popular with the ladies. Yet these criminals almost never count their blessings or stop to smell the flowers. Instead, they’re deeply bitter – and constantly on the edge of throwing temper tantrums. The wives of the leading criminals objectively have even less to complain about; they enjoy their husbands’ riches without ever facing the danger and brutality of acquiring those riches. Even so, the mob wives spend their days complaining and feeling sorry for themselves. Carmela, Tony’s wife, is the clearest case. Her main happy minutes come when she unwraps new jewels and furs. The rest of the time, she’s crinkling her nose with crankiness.

7. Rooting for the bad guy is easy… as long as he’s got charisma. If you neutrally described the typical Sopranos episode, almost anyone hypothetical juror would hand down centuries of jail time.  As you watch, however, righteous verdicts are far from your mind. Why? Because the criminals have amusing personalities. My family’s personal favorite is Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri; we can’t stop quoting this scene:

Paulie: As far as f***n’ bears are concerned, I say, get rid of them all. They had their turn, and now we got ours. That’s why dinosaurs don’t exist no more.

Dancer: Wasn’t it a meteor?

Paulie: They’re all meat eaters.

Chris: Meteor, me-te-or.

How can we feel such affection for a sadistic killer like Paulie?  Because he’s hilarious, and we’re in no danger.  Oh, and how he loves his mother!

8. Psychiatric language is largely a set of excuses and power-plays.  The Sopranos addresses anxiety, depression, ADHD, addiction, sociopathy, Borderline Personality Disorder, and much more.  Yet in virtually every case, it acknowledges that there is, to quote psychiatrists’ psychiatrist Elliot Kupferberg, a reasonable “pre-therapeutic” take on the same situation.  Yes, you can say that addicts are helpless victims of a “disease.”  But you can also say that addicts are people who willfully place their own self-destructive habits over family harmony.  Indeed, The Sopranos standardly insinuates that psychiatric language mostly boils down to Social Desirability BiasIf a character has ADHD, he’s sick and needs help; only a monster would growl, “Man up and work harder.”  But as the plot plays out, attentive viewers will notice that it’s the no-nonsense approach that fits the facts and improves behavior.  Even psychiatrist Dr. Melfi reverts to old-fashioned theories of personal responsibility when she exits her office; if you cross her, she’ll lash out no matter what psychiatric labels you carry.

The only clear-cut exception to this psychiatric skepticism is Uncle Junior’s dementia.  Even here, he starts out as a faker, feigning dementia to delay his trial.  By the end of the show, however, Junior’s run out of money – and can’t remember where he stashed his emergency funds.  Indeed, he barely knows who he is anymore.  The lesson: Dementia, unlike the other mental problems characters face, is a hard constraint rather than an exotic preference.

9. Despite ubiquitous ambiguity, right and wrong is fairly obvious if you calm down and detach yourself from your society. In season 3, a lone righteous character, psychiatrist Dr. Krakower, sees through a web of wrong-doing and lame excuses in a matter of minutes.  Carmela Soprano goes to Krakower for help, and he delivers The Moral Answers.  Highlights from one of the greatest scenes of all time:

Carmela: […] [Tony’s] a good man, a good father.

Krakower: You tell me he’s a depressed criminal. Prone to anger. Serially unfaithful. Is that your definition of a good man?

Carmela: I thought psychiatrists weren’t supposed to be judgmental.

Krakower: Many patients want to be excused for their current predicament. Because of events that occurred in their childhood. That’s what psychiatry has become in America. Visit any shopping mall or ethnic pride parade. Witness the results.

Carmela: What we say in here stays in here, right?

Krakower: By ethical code and by law.

Carmela: His crimes. They are, uh, organized crimes.

Krakower: The mafia.

Carmela: Oh so, so what? So what? He betrays me every week with these whores.

Krakower: Probably the least of his misdeeds.  You can leave now, or you can you stay and hear what I have to say.

Carmela: Well, you’re gonna charge the same anyway.

Krakower: I won’t take your money.

Carmela: That’s a new one.

Krakower: You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him. You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself. You’ll never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about. As long as you’re his accomplice.

[…]

Carmela: So . . . You think I need to define my boundaries more clearly. Keep a certain distance. Not internalize my–

Krakower: What did I just say?

Carmela: Leave him.

Krakower: Take only the children, or what’s left of them, and go.

[…]

Carmela: I’d have to, uh, get a lawyer. Find an apartment. Arrange for child support.

Krakower: You’re not listening. I am not charging you because I won’t take blood money. And you can’t either. One thing you can never say, that you haven’t been told.

10. Dylan Matthews and Tyler Cowen notwithstanding, the Columbus Day episode was hilarious and wise.  The veneration of this murderous slaver isn’t just shameful; it exposes the shameful essence of identity politics of every description.  And what better vessels for these truisms than a gang of self-righteously aggrieved mafiosi?

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Social Media Companies “Struggle” to Help Censors Keep us in the Dark

According to CNN Business,  “Facebook, YouTube and Twitter struggle to deal with New Zealand shooting video.”

“Deal with” is code for “censor on demand by governments and activist organizations who oppose public access to information that hasn’t first been thoroughly vetted for conformity to their preferred narrative.”

Do you really need to see first-person video footage of an attacker murdering 49 worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand?

Maybe not. Chances are pretty good you didn’t even want to. I suspect that many of us who did (I viewed what appeared to be a partial copy before YouTube deleted it) would rather we could un-see it.

But whether or not we watch it should be up to us, not those governments and activists. Social media companies should enable our choices, not suppress our choices at the censors’ every whim.

If Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had been primary news sources in 1915, would they have permitted us to view footage  (rare, as film was in its early days)  of New Zealanders’ desperate fight at Gallipoli?

How about the attack on Pearl Harbor?

The assassination of president John F. Kennedy?

The second plane hitting the World Trade Center?

Lucinda Creighton of the Counter Extremism Project complains to CNN that the big social media firms aren’t really “cooperating and acting in the best interest of citizens to remove this content.”

The CEP claims that it “counter[s] the narrative of extremists” and  works to “reveal the extremist threat.”  How does demanding that something be kept hidden “counter” or “reveal” it? How is it in “the best of interest of citizens” to only let those citizens see what Lucinda Creighton thinks they should be allowed to see?

CNN analyst Steve Moore warns that the video could “inspire copycats.” “Do you want to help terrorists? Because if you do, sharing this video is exactly how you do it.”

Moore has it backward. Terrorists don’t need video to “inspire” them. Like mold, evil grows best in darkness and struggles in sunlight. If you want to help terrorists, hiding the ugliness of their actions from the public they hope to mobilize in support of those actions is exactly how you do it.

Contrary to their claims of supporting “democracy” versus “extremism,” the social media companies and the censors they “struggle” to assist seem to side with terror and to lack any trust in the good judgment of “the people.”

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Reward Someone’s Faith

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world in which humans had faith in other humans?

Wouldn’t it be nice if people had faith that good wins out over evil, that virtue leads to happiness, and that freedom creates the best kind of society?

Answer: it would be very nice.

But the faith – the core *trust* – in all of these notions is something that gets put to the test every day. And we’re often the ones doing the testing.

When we fail to keep promises, we don’t just make ourselves look bad. We actually *punish* the faith of people who trust that people keep their words. We make trust a liability.

We do the same thing when we condone evil people (cough, politicians, cough), or when we punish people for being better than us (see: all envy or “Puritan” name-calling, ever).

We punish people’s faith in the good all the time.

Why don’t we reward it for a change?

Let’s keep our words. Let’s use our freedom well. Let’s call out the evil around us. Let’s restore victims. Let’s reward excellence and virtue.

We all know we need to better with our lives. But there is a special power to just knowing how our actions shape the faith of those around us. In doing virtuous things, we will be doing more than just meeting some requirements, or pleasing some people. We will be giving a gift.

So many people out there long desperately for truth, goodness, and beauty. They’re caught in a desert. And we have the option to give them the water they’ve been seeking.

When we reward faith, we will be giving them hope. When they have hope, they will act.

And then maybe – one day – they’ll reward our faith, too.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Will Elizabeth Warren Take on the Biggest Monopoly of All?

For a “progressive” presidential candidate, US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is remarkably, well, conservative. Her proposals are neither new nor of the “democratic socialist” variety.  In fact, her aim is, as Matthew Yglesias puts it at Vox, “to save capitalism”  with stock proposals from the first half of the last century.

Much of her campaign platform co-opts Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s  1930s “New Deal” emphasis on social welfare, job creation, infrastructure, and highly progressive taxation to pay for it all — solutions she considers proven, for problems she considers similar.

Her latest proposal, though, takes an earlier Roosevelt as its model. Like  “Trust Buster”  Teddy Roosevelt, she wants to use regulation and antitrust enforcement to “break up monopolies and promote competitive markets.” Her initially announced targets for the idea included Facebook, Google, and Amazon. A couple of days later, she added Apple to  the list.

Interestingly, in her search for monopolies to slay, she ignores the biggest, most powerful, and most lucrative monopoly in America: The US government.

In 2020, the federal government expects revenues of about $3.4 trillion.

That’s more than 60 times what Facebook brought in last year. 25 times as much as Alphabet’s 2018 revenues (Alphabet is Google’s parent company). More than 14 times Amazon’s total 2018 take. Nearly 13 times Apple’s haul.

And then there’s market share. No one really has to do business with Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Apple. There are numerous alternatives to the offerings of each, and many consumers choose those alternatives.

Uncle Sugar, on the other hand, boasts 100% market share for his offerings. You’re required to be his paying customer whether you like it or not. Many of the alternatives are outright illegal, and among the ones that aren’t, you’re required to pay for them in addition to, not instead of,  the federal government’s services.

That’s the very definition of “monopoly.” And it’s the monopoly Elizabeth Warren wants to serve as CEO of.

Is Senator Warren is serious about “breaking up monopolies” and “promoting competitive markets?”

If so, I look forward to her proposal for breaking up the federal government and allowing real alternatives to compete for its market share.

A good start would be 100% federal tax deductibility for the purchase of private sector services that replace the government’s offerings, or a pro rata clawback for binding agreement to not use a particular government service.

Absent such a proposal, seems to me she’s just another greedy monopolist looking to suppress the competition.

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