How Many Angels?

Nobody asked but …

And you learn something new every day.  Recently, I learned a new point of view regarding global warming.  The source of my learning was a WWW article, Libertarian Principles & Climate Change, from the Niskanen Center, written by Jerry Taylor.  I’m not sure that I am less confused, or just confused in a new direction.

When I was younger, the prevailing wisdom was that “everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”  Now, it seems that everybody talks even more, and demands to know what can be done.

Medieval philosophers wondered how many Angels could dance on the head of a pin. I believe that the pursuit of climate prediction, principled or otherwise, is such a futile practice.  Natural law will prevail.  The weather, the temperature, and the climate have been managing themselves for eons.

Of course, humans and other species have pushed the needle a few centimetres off of true.  But that certainly does not mean that we humans will have either the will or the way to fix anything.

I am not a denier.  Natural law will run its natural path.  That is the only libertarian principle involved.  We will not be able to ratiocinate the outcome, else we would have done so long ago.  The same applies to war.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies

I’ve easily read a hundred books on the evils of socialism.  I was quite surprised, then, by how much I learned from Kristian Niemietz’s Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, available for free download.  Yes, I already knew that socialist regimes go through a popularity sequence, starting at “This socialist regime is a model for the world” and ending with “That’s not real socialism.”  Niemietz, however, describes this sequence with great precision and eloquence:

1. The honeymoon period

The first stage is a honeymoon period, during which the experiment has, or at least seems to have, some initial success in some areas. During this period, its international standing is relatively high. Even anti-socialists concede, grudgingly, that the country in question has something to show for it.

During the honeymoon period, very few dispute the experiment’s socialist character; almost nobody claims that the country is not ‘really’ socialist. On the contrary: during the honeymoon period, large numbers of Western intellectuals enthusiastically embrace the experiment. Self-declared socialists claim ownership of it, and parade it as an example of their ideas in action.

2. The excuses-and-whataboutery period

But the honeymoon period never lasts forever. The country’s luck either comes to an end, or its already existing failures become more widely known in the West. As a result, its international standing deteriorates. It ceases to be an example that socialists hold against their opponents, and becomes an example that their opponents hold against them.

During this period, Western intellectuals still support the experiment, but their tone becomes angry and defensive. The focus changes from the experiment’s supposed achievements to the supposed ulterior motives of its critics. There is a frantic search for excuses, with the blame usually placed on imaginary ‘saboteurs’ and unspecified attempts to ‘undermine’ it. There is plenty of whataboutery.

3. The not-real-socialism stage

Eventually, there always comes a point when the experiment has been widely discredited, and is seen as a failure by most of the general public. The experiment becomes a liability for the socialist cause, and an embarrassment for Western socialists.

This is the stage when intellectuals begin to dispute the experiment’s socialist credentials, and, crucially, they do so with retroactive effect. They argue that the country was never socialist in the first place, and that its leaders never even tried to implement socialism. This is the deeper meaning behind the old adage that ‘real’ socialism has never been tried: socialism gets retroactively redefined as ‘unreal’ whenever it fails. So it has never been tried, in the same way in which, in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, the government of Oceania has always been at war with East Asia.

This is not a conscious process, let alone a purposefully orchestrated one. There is no equivalent of an industrial standards body, which awards a ‘real socialism’ certificate of authenticity, and then withdraws it again with retroactive effect. Socialists do not hold clandestine conferences in secret hideouts; they do not deliberately cover up their former support for the regime in question. They simply fall silent on the issue, and move on to the next cause.

At some point, the claim that the country in question was never ‘really’ socialist becomes the conventional wisdom. Since it is only the opponents of socialism who still refer to that example, while socialists themselves no longer do, it is easy to gain the impression that it must be a straw man argument. This book will show that these alleged ‘straw men’ were all once very much alive. They are not straw men at all. They are the failed utopias of yesteryear.

In short:

The not-real-socialism defence is only ever invoked retrospectively, namely, when a socialist experiment has already been widely discredited. As long as a socialist experiment is in its prime, almost nobody disputes its socialist credentials. On the contrary: practically all socialist regimes have gone through honeymoon periods, during which they were enthusiastically praised and held up as role models by plenty of prominent Western intellectuals. It is only after the event (i.e. once they have become an embarrassment for the socialist cause) that their version of socialism is retroactively redefined as ‘unreal’.

Niemietz then provides long list of case studies of self-labelled socialist regimes.  The two biggest examples – Soviet Union and Maoist China – fit his sequence to a tee.  So do North Korea, Cambodia, Albania, and Venezuela.  The chapter on the latter was especially eye-opening for me.  Choice passages:

Chávez defined his version of socialism explicitly in opposition to previous models. This was not empty rhetoric. Under Chavismo, there were genuine attempts to create alternative models of collective ownership
and democratic participation in economic life. In particular, the formation of worker cooperatives and various forms of social enterprises was heavily promoted. Exact figures are hard to come by, but, according to Piñeiro Harnecker (2009: 309), the number of worker-run cooperatives increased from fewer than 1,000 when Chávez was first elected to well over 30,000 in less than a decade. By the end of Chávez’s second term, cooperatives accounted for about 8 per cent of Venezuela’s GDP and 14 per cent of its workforce (ibid.).

Venezuelan socialism would later show many of the negative features associated with earlier forms of socialism, but it was never government policy to replicate any of those earlier models. When Western Chavistas insisted that the Venezuelan government was trying to create a different model of socialism, they were not deluding themselves.

At that point, the tone among Western Chavistas changed noticeably. Pro-Venezuela articles, which had so far tended to be hopeful and optimistic, became angry and defensive. The emphasis shifted from the supposed achievements of Chavismo to whataboutery, and to questioning the motives of Chavismo’s critics both in Venezuela and internationally.

In 2014, Owen Jones wrote an article for the Independent entitled ‘Socialism’s critics look at Venezuela and say, “We told you so”. But they are wrong’. Jones acknowledges the existence of ‘recent economic troubles’, but the emphasis of the article is on the problems of the pre-Chávez era (‘let’s have some context’), and on the violence committed by parts of the opposition. It culminated in the claim that ‘[t]hose who relish using Venezuela’s troubles for political point-scoring have no interest in the truth’.

Since this is a high-quality book, Niemietz searches for counter-examples to his own thesis, and identifies two.  Cuba doesn’t fit because after decades of tyranny, many socialists still admire it.  East Germany doesn’t fit because it never had much of a honeymoon period.  Overall, though, these are minor deviations.  The socialist big picture is at once bizarre and horrifying, especially as so many young people negligently convert to this once-dying creed.

P.S. This spring I’ll once again be debating “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” this time at the University of Wisconsin versus Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago.

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Evolution in the Age of Lying

Nobody asked but …

Yesterday I picked up my two youngest granddaughters after school.  We talked over frosty shakes, slushes, and sodas at a local drive-in.  At some point, it occurred to me to say, “It must be tough for a young person to grow up in a world that is so full of lying,” as though this might be some wisdom available only to an ancient man.  I was most happy to hear, in unison, “We know!  Right?”  Evolution is the friend of the human animal.  Today, I am listening to an EVC podcast from Peter Gray.  In Dr. Gray’s talk, I learned one of the secrets to the discernment that my teenage granddaughters have attained. Survival of the fittest applies.

Children who do not learn, do not survive to have offspring, or their offspring will not have the learning to survive. For ages, children have educated themselves to survive, by learning what to learn. Among other things, smart, competent children develop good BS filters. Even though a child is often taught, in part, by parents, siblings, neighbors, and friends, whose average intelligence brings down the communal average, the child has a built-in BS filter by which to evaluate survival information. The young human needs to know what kind of chaff to separate from the wheat. The young human will thereby develop intelligence above the group average, they will stand on the shoulders of giants who have knowledge made up of the best intelligence from all the resources.

People, who believe in the state, will die out. People, who believe in magic, will die out. People, who heed false scares, will die out. People, who believe in Santa Claus, will wise up.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Instead of Acting Rich, Take Advantage of Your Time Billionaire Status

There are few things we young people like more than competing for status. Unfortunately, we’re often tempted in the direction of acquiring status by buying stuff we can’t afford so we can fool people into thinking we have wealth we don’t have.

Look – it’s not cool to flout riches under any circumstances. But if we absolutely *must*, why not flout our richness in time? Let’s act like the time billionaires we are.

Real monetary wealth (as opposed to rented Ferraris) comes with wisdom and age for most. But ask any 40 or 50-something what they wish they had, and they would covet what we young people have to spare: time.

Sure – we can’t afford Ferraris in our 20s. But we have ample time to restart a career in the automotive industry. We have the time to actually go to work for Ferrari, or any car company of our choosing (Tesla) and retrain, climb ladders, and build careers working around cars we love. The 60 year-old executive who can finally buy one of their vehicles can’t do that so easily.

We can’t afford houses, but we can learn how to build them. We can’t afford home cinemas, but we can dabble in acting. We can’t afford elite universities, but we can afford to spend weeks reading whatever books we want.

Why do we not find this luxurious in itself? We still have relatively limitless potential, (most) of the time in the world to realize it, and even some time for mistakes. Instead of cashing in on our futures by indulging in extravagant physical things, wouldn’t it be much more satisfying to indulge in extravagant uses of our time? *That’s* high-status in its own way.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Complexity Resists Control – So Become More Complex

Have you ever tried to use finely instrumented computer? Fly a plane? Manage the sound mix of 20 microphones at a live concert?

What about hitting a nail with a hammer?

All of these activities involve the use of tools, but the first three are far more complex than driving home a nail.

Complexity makes control more difficult. This is true with physical tools, and it is also true with humans.

The first three tools I mentioned are so complicated because they involve many, many parts, while a hammer can very easily be broken down into its components. Like simple tools such as hammers or levers, “simple” people are people who are one-dimensional. Sadly, they are prone to manipulation by people who are good at taking advantage of their patterns.

If you wish to not be controlled, you should aim to become as complex, as complicated, as nuanced, and as difficult to categorize and understand as possible.

Your sources, resources, inspirations, ideas, influences, and origins should boggle the minds of every would-be manipulator and authoritarian in the world.

How can you do this?

Speak more than one language. Adopt more than one culture. Heed the words of multiple wisdom traditions and religions. Read lots of books (some from obscure authors). Soak yourself in histories of yesterday and long ago.

Don’t limit yourself to one career (or source of income). Don’t stay in one place for too long – or, if you do, don’t maintain just shallow relationships. Don’t associate with just one kind of person or viewpoint.

Don’t take the same paths. Grow. Expand. Try new things. Evolve faster than them.

As the poet Wendell Barry wrote:

“Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.”

– Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Or as Carl Jung once said:

“Resistance to the organized mass can be affected only by the man who is as well organized in his individuality as the mass itself.”

– The Undiscovered Self

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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On Twitter, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

“There continues to be meaningful public conversation about how we think about Tweets from world leaders on our service,” begins a post at the micro-blogging service’s non-micro-blog.

In summary, certain Super Very Important Special People (“world leaders”) are exempt from Twitter’s rules, but henceforth Regular Normal Completely Unimportant People (like you and me) are subject to new rules. We can’t like, reply, share or retweet rules-violating tweets from Super Very Important Special People.

“We understand the desire for our decisions to be ‘yes/no’ binaries,” the blog post continues, “but it’s not that simple …. Our goal is to enforce our rules judiciously and impartially.”

Well, yes, it is that simple. Impartiality in rules is the exact opposite of  dividing Twitter users into two classes, one of  them subject to the rules, one of them not.

In their great and unmatched wisdom, Twitter’s owners have over time moved to police speech on their platform in various ways.

They don’t HAVE to do that, at least in the US — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects them from legal liability for user-created content under most circumstances.

There’s not even any particularly good reason to police user content, since the service’s “block” option allows users to ignore (by not seeing) content from other users whose opinions or language offend.

But hey,  OK, fine — Twitter is a privately owned service, not a public square, and its owners are entitled to set any rules they care to set for its use.

On the other hand, it’s neither judicious nor impartial to make some rules, then announce exemptions from those rules for Super Very Important Special People while heaping new rules on Normal Completely Unimportant People to keep us from acting like Super Very Important Special People.

Not judicious. Not impartial. In fact, pretty [insert your preferred non-newspaper-safe expletive here] offensive.

The Super Very Important Special People already have their own bully pulpits from which to yell anything they like and be heard and obeyed. We Normal Completely Unimportant People don’t get to hold press conferences in front of news cameras on the White House lawn in Washington, or on the front stoop at 10 Downing Street in London, or on the steps of the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.

Twitter keeps making itself less useful to most of us in order to curry favor with a few. That’s not just injudicious and partial, it’s a bad business plan.

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