The Delicate Art of Listening but not Listening

“If I asked people what they wanted, the would’ve said a faster horse.” — Maybe Henry Ford

Changing the world means showing people something they couldn’t tell you that they needed.

Nevermind. They can and do tell you what they need. Just in the wrong language.

People will tell you what they need in a language composed of what they see around them. You need to listen carefully to the meaning but ignore the language. When they tell you “faster horse”, you listen and take it seriously as a clue to a problem while ignoring it completely as a solution.

Why faster? What does a horse do? Get you from A to B. OK. That’s a real problem people are telling you they want solved. Better A to B travel. Listen to that. But ignore the word “Horse”. That’s a solution word. For real innovation, you don’t want to listen to their solutions, only their problems.

If their solution was awesome, it’d probably already exist. But their problem is a source of all kinds of inspiration and opportunity.

This is a weird kind of listening. You can’t play the tortured creator who hates consumers because they demand things you think are crappy. The consumer is king and deserves utmost attention and respect.

But you can’t treat them as a solution generator either, and focus group your way to innovation by asking them to design it for you.

Your job is to be more keyed in on the problems people feel than anyone else. Listen to the pain. Your next job is to be less keyed in on the expected and proposed solutions than anyone else. Ignore the remedies.

That’s how you change the world. Introduce something nobody was asking for but everyone was asking for.

Easy, right? 😉

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Governing Least: A Litany of Insight

Dan Moller’s Governing Least is packed with random insights and philosophic wit.  Some highlights:

Why so much political philosophy sounds desperate:

Only those already unsympathetic to utilitarianism are likely to be swayed by Rawls’s brief observations. Those who begin their political philosophy by defending the morality of rights don’t so much preach to the choir as exorcize the elect.

Why so much political philosophy sounds so blind:

The reason France does not require aid is not because some external group took pity on the French, but that they were able to generate exponential economic growth themselves. This makes it puzzling that philosophers write long books about aid without mentioning economic growth, and generally seem to imply that the path to escaping poverty lies through individual altruism. Why ignore the only mechanism that has ever succeeded in lifting millions of people out of poverty when thinking about poverty?

A great explanation of the Theory of the Second-Best:

Suppose that a company enjoys monopoly powers that we cannot immediately remove under the present regulatory regime, but that one of its upstart rivals enjoys a market- distorting state subsidy which we can remove. It is a fallacy to infer that market efficiency will be improved by at least killing the subsidy— the reverse may well be true— just as it is fallacious to reason that if our military lacks both bombs and bombers the second- best solution is at least to build the bombers.

Why predictable outcomes can co-exist with abundant opportunity:

The data on intergenerational mobility or its absence is sobering, to say the least. In the United States, sometimes this leads commentators to call into question the traditional self- conception of America as a “land of opportunity.” It’s hardly a land of opportunity if outcomes are determined at birth, runs the criticism.

Let us consider this reasoning in more detail. The critic seems to reason as follows: If there were anything like equality of opportunity, then we couldn’t predict outcomes at birth, but we can, and so the land of opportunity is a myth. Let us assume the standard to meet here isn’t exact equality of opportunity for every single citizen. Could there still be reasonably high levels of opportunity despite outcomes— including bad ones— being highly predictable from the start? The critic seems to assume the following principle:

Predictability defeats opportunity: if we are able to specify social outcomes with a high degree of accuracy in advance, then the people in question cannot enjoy much opportunity.

Why accept this principle? What is it that connects predictability and opportunity? The obvious answer is that we think we know enough about people to be confident that if they did enjoy opportunities, they wouldn’t exercise them in a way that leads to bad social outcomes. The fact that we know that Smith will end up poor in all likelihood suggests that he is powerless to avoid it, since if he were capable of influencing the outcome, then he would. This amounts to another, deeper principle:

Predictability is evidence of incapacity: the fact that we can predict poor social outcomes is evidence that those who experience them lack a capacity for avoiding them.

Another way of putting the matter is that a fixed proportion of poor outcomes might be bad, but it wouldn’t be bad for reasons of diminished opportunity, since it might be the case that there are going to be winners and losers in anything resembling a free society, and as long as everyone has a fair shot at being a winner, things aren’t so bad. (No doubt more would need to be said about what “losing” amounts to for us to feel reassured.) What is terrible about predictability is that the losers aren’t just random, but never had a chance. Because predictability is evidence of incapacity, we know that those with poor outcomes never had a chance to succeed, and a fortiori they lacked anything like an equal or reasonable opportunity for success.

The problem is that it isn’t true that predictability, in itself, is evidence of incapacity, that outcomes are beyond our control. I don’t want to deny in the end that certain forms of incapacity do play a role in social outcomes, but how much is far from settled, and by opening with the assumption that predictability implies incapacity, we go wrong from the start. The fundamental confusion is between the epistemic question of what we can say about the future and the metaphysical question of what people are able to do at a given time in given circumstances. There are various fancy examples to illustrate this in the free- will literature, but for our purposes we can stick to some everyday examples:

Rope line: at the airport, we predict with great confidence that people will walk along a particular circuitous path— the one laid out by the velvet ropes. Nevertheless, the passengers are free to step over the ropes any time they like. It’s just that hardly anyone does. Predictability here doesn’t imply incapacity, it’s just that the passengers all have reason to exercise their freedom in a certain way.
Victim-blaming is (often) question-begging:
[I]t sounds mean to claim that people generally have a capacity to influence social outcomes when thinking about the poor, a bit like victim-blaming. But such a denial would involve insisting that something like the following claims are generally true (readers are invited to imagine these in the mouths of their own children facing unfavorable social circumstances, such as a lousy school system):
• “I can’t help it that I skipped class.”
• “It wasn’t possible to do my homework.”
• “I had no control over whether I had children.”
• “There was no way I could have worked this past year.”
It is important to acknowledge that for some people, these statements will be true. Mothers have children due to rape, classes go unattended because of gunfire or violence in the school, recessions destroy employment opportunities even for those who are highly qualified and persevering and willing to accept low wages. The point isn’t that all poor social outcomes are blameworthy, but that most (not all) people can exercise an enormous amount of influence over whether they lead a decent life in the developed world, even when ignorance or other internal impediments bar the way.
Governing Least is so packed with insight that I could easily have made this post three times longer.  Read it and see for yourself!
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What Intelligence and Insanity Have in Common

The brain’s ability to make connections.

There are many forms of intelligence. But all of them I can think of have a lot to do with making connections.

Mechanical intelligence sees the connections between parts of a machine. Social intelligence sees connections between people. Physical intelligence makes connections between actions and re-actions. Creative intelligence sees connections between disparate ideas. Entrepreneurial intelligence sees connections between different goods or services, or a new nexus between supply and demand.

A low intelligence person takes the discreet items in the world individually at face value. A high intelligence person sees causal chains, analogies, parallels, and processes that bind the discreet items in various webs.

If you’ve ever witnessed a high connections person in action, it’s fun and surprising. Where most people would see an umbrella over the lunch table, they’d see a wooden pole with canvas, think about their friend who sails boats, wonder about the material that makes sales vs. table umbrellas, then parachutes, then the different levels of wind-flow needed in each application. Before long they’re working out how you might have a single supplier for each item, or a new kind of material. This is how theories and businesses begin.

Our brain dices the world into discreet units for a reason. Seeing connections is a super power, but it can also be a curse. If you can’t unsee them, and your brain goes on a high speed runaway connection binge, you might lose your grip. Each event, object, and activity cannot be encountered and engaged discreetly if your brain is reeling six levels deep on connections.

There’s a reason meditative or hallucinogenic states where everything feels connected and all is one cannot persist while you try to brush your teeth and go to the office. Most of life is encountered in bites. And most of it has to be.

I think conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs have a ton of connection intelligence, but not a strong enough dissection filter. They see too many connections too much of the time. Pretty soon, everything reminds of everything else. Hence things like the “Illuminati confirmed” meme, where every shape, color, name, and logo on every product and commercial gets quickly connected to some kind of other symbol with occult meaning.

People often accuse paranoid conspiracy types of being stupid, or failing to see the meaning of things. The problem is they see too much meaning. They can’t stop seeing meaning.

The trope of the mad scientist, or brilliant mathematician who descends into ravings with old age show the same problem. Too many connections.

But there’s something interesting going on in there too. These are not stupid people, or people to dismiss out of hand. They see too many connections to handle, many of which aren’t useful. But they see a lot of useful connections the rest of us miss in our fragmented world. There’s insight to be found here.

I’m not sure exactly how to cultivate the ability to make connections and guard against connection overload at the same time. But I suspect most of us are in far more danger of making too few connections than too many.

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“Intellectual”

“Intellectual” is not a dirty word. It disturbs me how often it is used as one.

On the other hand, many of those who are called “intellectuals”– particularly “public intellectuals”– are really just government extremists and elitists. They may have degrees and positions, but their position on issues is anti-intellectual. They follow the religion of statism and worship the god of government.

It is not rational to be a statist. It is vulgar to believe people should be governed by others, and to use politics as a tool for this purpose. Any illiterate punk might believe the same thing, but without claiming the “authority” to force everyone to go along.

They believe they know better how to run your life than you do. And they are willing to use government violence to prove it.

These people may be clever. They may be smart in some ways. But their ignorance and emotionalism overwhelm their intellect. They betray their own intellectualism with their belief system. They’ve decided which is more important to them, personally. And it’s a shame.

Think of all the good they could have otherwise done if they are really as “intellectual” as they are made out to be. The world is poorer for having lost their contributions. When you side with darkness and ignorance– with statism– your intellect, if any, becomes a net negative to society.

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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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My Provisional Support For “Borders”

The only legitimate justification for something like a “national border” would be to separate a free territory from any unfree territories around it. In order to protect the people in the free territory from the statists surrounding them.

This situation doesn’t exist anywhere in the world because there are no free territories (other than small scale experimentsmaybe). America hasn’t been a free territory since America was replaced by “the United States” with the ratification of the U. S. Constitution. As long as there are “taxes” and other counterfeit “laws” and politicians in a territory, it is not free. Even though there are differences in degree, there are no differences in kind.

As it is, national borders are rather like the internal fences in a feedlot. They separate different groups of cattle from each other for the purposes of those who exploit them. It’s not for the good of the cattle. It would be genius to brainwash the cattle into believing it is.

In our human situation, it’s as if the cattle in one pen are getting angry at the cattle who hop the fence instead of focusing their anger at those who manage the feedlot. “We must remain ‘King of the Dung Heap’ in our little pen!

Those humans who hop the fence may be hoping to avoid a looming appointment on the kill floor, or maybe they hope for more food on the other side. But if they are looking for liberty they are doing it wrong and looking in the wrong place. Still, I can’t blame them for doing something in their desperation, even if it amounts to jumping out of the fire and into the smoldering kindling.

And, the ones who hop the fence and then demand to make this side similar to the side they were desperate to escape are being stupid and are committing evil.

To be clear: nothing excuses archation by fence hoppers. Nor by fence defenders.

Instead of abandoning principles over your “border”, why not make this side of the fence free. Create a condition of liberty. That means zero “taxes”, zero counterfeit “laws” of any kind, and zero politicians. This side of the fence cannot be a State.

Then, and only then, I’ll help you secure the border from anyone who tries to bring a little bit of archation into this free territory– while welcoming all others (because they couldn’t be a problem). Anyone else should be free to cross this border in either direction with no delay or difficulty whatsoever.

Because it’s always up to the believers to convince the skeptics, it’s up to those who support the “borders” to make this a free territory and convince me to support their walls and fences. If they have a workable plan which doesn’t involve me compromising food with poison or liberty with statism, I’ll jump right in.

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