Neither Pandemic nor Panic Supersede the First Amendment

Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River church in Tampa, Florida, strongly believes that God wants his church to continue holding live services for hundreds of parishioners even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hillsborough County sheriff Chad Chronister and state attorney Andrew Warren strongly believe that they’re entitled to threaten Howard-Browne with arrest for holding those services, then follow through on that threat.

Howard-Browne is obviously willing to go to jail for his belief. Are Chronister and Warren willing to go to prison for theirs?

Whether Howard-Browne is correct in his assessment of God’s commands isn’t something I’ll pretend to know. But Chronister and Warren are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, incorrect in their claims of authority.

The First Amendment to the Constitution protects both the “free exercise of” religion and the right “peaceably to assemble.” While that amendment initially bound only Congress, the 14th Amendment has generally been construed to extend its strictures to the state and local levels of government.

And then there’s 18 United States Code, Sections 241 and 242.

Section 241 provides for up to ten years of imprisonment if “two or more persons [for example, Chad Chronister and Andrew Warren] conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same.”

Section 242 adds another potential year of imprisonment for doing the above “under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom,” including “stay-at-home” or “lockdown” orders issued by local and state political officials.

I double-checked, just to make sure. Neither the First Amendment nor either of those US Code provisions include an “unless someone jumps up and down and screeches that there’s an emergency” exception.

Rodney Howard-Browne may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer (many churches are holding services online and I haven’t heard of any divine smite-downs over it), but he’s within his rights.

Chronister and Warren may be genuinely concerned about the spread of COVID-19, but they’re also lawless hooligans operating well beyond any reasonable claim of legitimate authority.

Sadly, they’re far from unique. Once the immediate danger is past, we should proceed immediately to Nuremberg-type tribunals to deal with them and the hundreds or even thousands of temporarily over-empowered scofflaws like them.

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Daniel Ikenson: How Free Trade Creates Wealth (58m)

This episode features an interview of trade policy researcher Daniel Ikenson from 2015 by Trevor Burrus and Aaron Powell, hosts of the Free Thoughts podcast. He explains how trade between countries increases wealth all around—and why restricting that trade is harmful to economic growth. Purchase books by Daniel Ikenson on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (58m, mp3, 64kbps)

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Ransacked American Grocery Stores Are Still Pretty Amazing

The other night I made my first post-lockdown grocery store run. And I’ll admit it was a bit unsettling.

It was strange seeing a security guard. It was strange wearing a mask. It was strange feeling a sort of fear of my fellow shoppers. And it was really strange and disturbing to see shelves stripped of goods. The whole experience of going grocery shopping became a bit nerve-wracking.

But still: in the midst of a panic, I could look around and see dozens of varieties of ice cream. There were produce bins full of fresh fruit from all over the world. There were turkeys and smoothies and fresh bread and milk and eggs.

The abundance is staggering. Yet the fact that my mind focused on the (relatively few) empty shelves is a testament to how much wealth of variety we have to enjoy even in troubled times.

What’s my point?

I guess it’s worth being grateful for the wealth generally available to all Americans in the form of shopping choice and resilient availability of life’s necessaries (and not-so-necessaries). Even in an economic slump, which seems likely, much of that choice will still continue to be available. In the grand scheme of history, that’s pretty crazy.

I will look forward to a day when a grocery run is the same calm, peaceful, unrushed, and unafraid affair it was only a few weeks ago. But until then I won’t believe that I am living in great hardship, at least where food is concerned.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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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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Being Your Own Man Doesn’t Have To Mean Rejecting a Legacy

People leave the family farm. Sons go to college instead of going to work into the plumbing business. It has a thousand faces, but there’s this American idea that inheriting a vocation is “settling,” so you’d better go off and find a new one.

I know I feel it. It’s why I probably couldn’t have been satisfied just taking over the reins of my father’s successful landscaping business – and why indeed that wasn’t even something he tried much to encourage.

This same idea has killed many multi-generational businesses – and seems to have killed much hope for this one kind of intergenerational wealth transfer possible to most people. The result? Each new generation of men are poor and alone, and therefore at the mercy of the lenders and the mercy of the state.

Ironically, the mythos of dreaming-big and independence may be contributing to the destruction of both.

But “being your own man” doesn’t have to mean rejecting the legacies people try to leave you – including the legacy of training, capital, and vocation. Indeed, accepting a good legacy in these things can help to ensure that you remain as much your own as possible.

I’d look at the character of Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies* as my model. He comes from a long line of kings yet struggles with his legacy – particularly with the less than wonderful parts (like when Isildur keeps the Ring of Power for himself). So he wanders the north alone, fighting bad guys. Yet he only comes fully into his own when he accepts his legacy – but also transforms it through rejecting the evil of the Ring and Sauron for himself.

Aragorn becomes “his own man,” yet not from traveling footloose and fancy-free and deciding he doesn’t want to be king. His individuality established, he comes back and accepts and redeems his legacy.

We live in a mythos right now of “leave and never come back” – from a lot of things – family, life, work. This may be better than the ethos of “never leave” – certainly for some people it is. But the right ethos is “leave and then come back different.”

*It’s worth noting that (to my knowledge) this is not a conflict or at least not a major conflict for Aragorn.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Glimpses of Hidden America

I’m a pretty cynical guy when it comes to nation-states. So it might be surprising to hear that I sort of love in the vision of America most of us learned in school.

It’s a place where people generally tell the truth, work hard, love their families, help each other, stand up for the weak, tolerate differences, resist tyrants, chase frontiers, do justice, and create wealth.

If this seems like a dream, it is. This is “hidden America.” Probably the America you’ve experienced hasn’t worked out quite this way.

Part of the problem is that we may be looking in the wrong place.

I don’t believe the “United States” has very much to do with a good vision of America. The bureaucrats and the enforcers typically just control, manipulate, and harass. The politicians grandstand, and the legislation corrupts and impoverishes. The corporate types join in.

But there’s a whole lot more to America than the government, the big corporations, or the culture wars. I catch little glimpses of this “hidden America” here and there.

I see it in people who volunteer their free time to make things better, like when my friends and I showed up to help a forest cleaning crew this Saturday. They hardly asked any questions: we just grabbed saws and got to it. There was trust there, and an openness to strangers I doubt you’d find much elsewhere.

I see it in countless small businesses. There’s a plumber I know who comes home every day to feed his horses alongside his wife and two young daughters. And he has the biggest grin and joy to spare for his kids despite a hard job.

I see it in every old-timer who passes on wisdom and every young person who listens. It’s there in the kids who leave the countryside for the big cities, or leave the big cities for the countryside. It’s the high-fives at 5Ks, the fierce competition that ends with a handshake, and the company that makes electric scooters the new fad.

In hidden America, cooperation is the norm, and people couldn’t care less what your politics are. Character comes before party or belief. It’s the America that could live without the American empire. It’s the America that shares a common thread with the pioneers, the farmers, the inventors, the musicians, and all the decent people who came before us.

This is the America I suppose I will always love, even if it is a myth 9 times out of 10. And every now and then, I get to meet it.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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