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Friday, May 26, 2006

Idea Mill

The article excerpted below appeared in last week's WSJ.

May 20 sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Stuart Mill, the greatest exponent of 19th-century liberalism, whose philosophy still dominates jurisprudence in the English-speaking world.

Mill's rebellion against utilitarianism did not prevent him from writing a qualified defense of it, and his "Utilitarianism" is acknowledged today as one of the few readable accounts of a moral disorder that would have died out two centuries ago, had people not discovered that the utilitarian can excuse every crime. Lenin and Hitler were pious utilitarians, as were Stalin and Mao, as are most members of the Mafia. As Mill recognized, the "greatest happiness principle" must be qualified by some guarantee of individual rights, if it is not to excuse the tyrant. In response to his own wavering discipleship, therefore, he wrote "On Liberty," perhaps his most influential, though by no means his best, production.

According to Mill's argument, that way of thinking has everything upside down. The law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny--including the "tyranny of the majority." Of course, if the exercise of individual freedom threatens harm to others, it is legitimate to curtail it--for in such circumstances one person's gain in freedom is another person's loss of it.

This principle has a profound significance: It is saying that the purpose of law is not to uphold the will of the majority, or to impose the will of the sovereign, but to protect the will of the individual. It is the legal expression of the "sovereignty of the individual."
Of course, liberty is maintained with effective but limited government. Individuals have rights but also responsibilities. License is a notion of "anything goes", liberty is not license. While Mill had much to offer in the area of jurisprudence, elsewhere he stumbled.

"On Liberty" sees individual freedom as the aim of government, whose business is to reconcile one person's freedom with his neighbor's. "The Principles of Political Economy" by contrast, while pretending to be a popular exposition of Adam Smith, accords extensive powers of social engineering to the state, and develops a socialist vision of the economy, with a constitutional role for trade unions, and extensive provisions for social security and welfare. The book is, in fact, a concealed socialist tract. While "On Liberty" belongs to the 18th-century tradition that we know as classical liberalism, "Principles" is an example of liberalism in its more modern sense.

Mill's hostility to privilege, to landed property, and to inheritance of property had implications which he seemed unwilling or unable to work out. His argument that all property should be confiscated by the state on death, and redistributed according to its own greater wisdom, has the implication that the state, rather than the family, is to be treated as the basic unit of society--the true arbiter of our destiny, and the thing to which everything is owed. The argument makes all property a temporary lease from the state, and also ensures that the state is the greatest spender, and the one least bound by the sense of responsibility to heirs and neighbors. It is, in short, a recipe for the disaster that we have seen in the communist and socialist systems, and it is a sign of Mill's failure of imagination that, unlike Smith, he did not foresee the likely results of his favored policies.

Mill famously referred to the Conservative Party as "the stupider party," he being, from 1865, a member of Parliament in the Liberal interest. And no doubt the average Tory MP was no match for the brain that had conceived the "System of Logic"--an enduring classic and Mill's greatest achievement. Yet Mill suffered from the same defect as his father. He never understood that wisdom is deeper and rarer than rational thought. He never understood that the intellect, which flies so easily to its conclusions, relies on something else for its premises. Those conservatives who upheld what Mill called "the despotism of custom" against the "experiments in living" advocated in "On Liberty" were not stupid simply because they recognized the limits of the human intellect. They were, on the contrary, aware that freedom and custom are mutually dependent, and that to free oneself from moral norms is to surrender to the state. For only the state can manage the ensuing disaster.
It was Hayek who in The Fatal Conceit blamed Mill for leading formerly classical liberals astray by asserting that we must merely handle the matter of distribution of goods to make society better. Production was mistaken to be a given without any understanding of the role of property or incentives in the exploration process that is wealth creation.

Oh how those false premises and abused reason bite mankind on the behind again and again. Very bright people, overly impressed with their own intellectual fire power, often have the hardest time grasping this.

Roger Scruton who is the author of the above referenced article presented some additional ideas of interest in this article which is excerpted below.
To be a conservative, I was told, was to be on the side of age against youth, the past against the future, authority against innovation, the “structures” against spontaneity and life. It was enough to understand this, to recognize that one had no choice, as a free-thinking intellectual, save to reject conservatism. The choice remaining was between reform and revolution. Do we improve society bit by bit, or do we rub it out and start again?

She replied with a book: Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, the bible of the soixante-huitards, the text which seemed to justify every form of transgression, by showing that obedience is merely defeat. It is an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the “discourses” of power. The book is not a work of philosophy but an exercise in rhetoric. Its goal is subversion, not truth, and it is careful to argue—by the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies—that “truth” requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the “episteme,” imposed by the class which profits from its propagation. The revolutionary spirit, which searches the world for things to hate, has found in Foucault a new literary formula. Look everywhere for power, he tells his readers, and you will find it. Where there is power there is oppression. And where there is oppression there is the right to destroy.

In 1970s Britain, conservative philosophy was the preoccupation of a few half-mad recluses. Searching the library of my college, I found Marx, Lenin, and Mao, but no Strauss, Voegelin, Hayek, or Friedman. I found every variety of socialist monthly, weekly, or quarterly, but not a single journal that confessed to being conservative.

In effect Burke was upholding the old view of man in society, as subject of a sovereign, against the new view of him, as citizen of a state. And what struck me vividly was that, in defending this old view, Burke demonstrated that it was a far more effective guarantee of the liberties of the individual than the new idea, which was founded in the promise of those very liberties, only abstractly, universally, and therefore unreally defined. Real freedom, concrete freedom, the freedom that can actually be defined, claimed, and granted, was not the opposite of obedience but its other side. The abstract, unreal freedom of the liberal intellect was really nothing more than childish disobedience, amplified into anarchy.

Perhaps the most fascinating and terrifying aspect of Communism was its ability to banish truth from human affairs, and to force whole populations to “live within the lie,” as President Havel put it. George Orwell wrote a prophetic and penetrating novel about this; but few Western readers of that novel knew the extent to which its prophecies had come true in Central Europe.

Briefly, I spent the next ten years in daily meditation on Communism, on the myths of equality and fraternity that underlay its oppressive routines, just as they had underlain the routines of the French Revolution. And I came to see that Burke’s account of the Revolution was not merely a piece of contemporary history. It was like Milton’s account of Paradise Lost—an exploration of a region of the human psyche: a region that lies always ready to be visited, but from which return is by way of a miracle, to a world whose beauty is thereafter tainted by the memories of Hell. To put it very simply, I had been granted a vision of Satan and his work—the very same vision that had shaken Burke to the depths of his being. And I at last recognized the positive aspect of Burke’s philosophy as a response to that vision, as a description of the best that human beings can hope for, and as the sole and sufficient vindication of our life on earth.
Indeed and it is ever thus!

Monday, May 22, 2006

No - we did not squander what we never had!

This recent WSJ article highlights some things which demonstrate attitudes regarding Islam and related matters:

America welcomed a victim of political and religious persecution this week. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been living for years with death threats for her criticisms of radical Islam. But in the end it was not her former co-religionists who have caused her to seek refuge in the U.S. It was rather the native-born citizens of her adopted country, the Netherlands, that have driven her off. If the reader will forgive a little indulgence in the soft bigotry of low expectations, it is the role of her fellow Dutchmen and women that are most worthy of contempt in this tale.

Ms. Hirsi Ali first achieved international prominence when Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh was stabbed to death on an Amsterdam street in 2004. The killer pinned a five-page manifesto to his victim's chest with the knife he'd used to kill him. The letter was titled "Open Letter to Hirsi Ali."

Ms. Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born Dutch immigrant, a female member of the Dutch parliament and an outspoken critic of Islam, particularly Islamic attitudes toward women. Ms. Hirsi Ali had scripted Van Gogh's film "Submission," on the mistreatment of Muslim women.

For making this film, Van Gogh was killed and, the letter from his killer explained, Ms. Hirsi Ali was condemned to "torture and agony." Holy War against the U.S. and Europe was also threatened. Already under police protection since 2002 for having renounced her faith, Ms. Hirsi Ali had to go into hiding. For the second time in her life she became a refugee, this time in her adopted homeland.

Now she is being put on the run again, this time by the Dutch who have grown tired of protecting such an outspoken critic of Islamic extremism. Last month a Dutch judge ordered her out of her apartment. Her fellow tenants had argued that her presence endangered them and lowered their property values, in violation of their "human rights." The judge agreed and ordered her evicted.

There are striking parallels between the way many in Europe view the U.S. and the way the Dutch and many Europeans view Ms. Hirsi Ali. Outrage over September 11 soon gave way to a reversal of cause and effect. The victim, the U.S., was held responsible for the destruction it supposedly brought upon itself through its policies and provocation of Muslims. Similarly, solidarity with Ms. Hirsi Ali quickly changed to attacking Ms. Hirsi Ali for being too provocative. Government adviser Jan Schoonenboom accused Ms. Hirsi Ali of "Islam bashing," a theme often repeated in the media.

Ms. Hirsi Ali might be the first, but won't be the last, post-9/11 dissident to seek refuge in the land of the brave and the free. And so, any recovery of property prices in Ms. Hirsi Ali's neighborhood will be short-lived. Where the defenders of democracy have to flee while the enemies of free society roam the streets, not only real estate is bound to become very cheap. So will be life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This inability or lack of willingness for the tolerant and multicultural elements of the West, represented by the Dutch to come to terms with reality is at the heart of this correspondence from Claire Berlinski to Instapundit:

Changing the subject, I have been at times been tempted to respond to those who disagree with my assessment of the moral climate of the Netherlands, but if the invalidation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's citizenship does not persuade them, they are not susceptible to persuasion, so I may as well save my time and breath. Still, I think the event should be noted, and I note it thus.

All of which brings me to the following point. When someone says that the U.S. squandered the goodwill of other nations after 9/11 it never really rang true to me. This blogger says it quite well:

This old yarn has been in circulation since 9/12/01: the USA squandered the world’s goodwill after 9/11. It irritated me then, and now it enrages me. Not because it’s untrue - that, at least, I could forgive with a little education. No, it angers me because it says something about our enemies that nobody is willing to say:

If it takes a terrorist attack to make countries feel beneficent toward the USA, those countries are not your friends. Why would a country feel “goodwill” after a terrorist attack? Because we were, for a moment, the Victim. And as everybody knows, there is leverage in victimhood.

But America doesn’t like being anybody’s victim. It’s just not who we are. Within a day or so we were picking ourselves up and looking around for the ones who momentarily knocked us on our ass. Then we picked ourselves up and went after them with everything we had.

We did not squander the goodwill of the country. The sympathy, maybe. But not the goodwill - because we never had any of that to begin with.

On the mark!

A good policy idea

The regular and guest financial columnists at National Review Online provide anyone interested a real service with the quality of their work. This column by Cesar Conda and Ernest Christian is yet another example:

The recipe for high GDP growth in the future is the same as it was in 2003-04, when the combination of lower tax rates and “bonus depreciation” caused a spurt in investment that helped lead the economy out of recession and toward its current strong standing.

Standard neoclassical econometric models confirm what common sense and experience suggest: Replacing old-fashioned tax depreciation with immediate first-year expensing would add more than $200 billion to GDP, boost wage incomes, and add upwards of 750,000 jobs. Because the static revenue cost of first-year expensing quickly phases out after four years, it is also in the long term the cheapest, most bang-for-the-buck, and most growth-oriented tax change the Congress could make. When you use dynamic scoring that takes into account induced economic growth, first-year expensing costs nothing.

The best and quickest way to promote high growth and better living standards is to accelerate investment in new and efficient capital stock. Even if there were no energy crisis, Congress would still be justified in immediately enacting first-year expensing. After all, it is their duty to help the economy grow and make the American people better off — and expensing will clearly do just that.

Some tax cuts are just lost revenue, some might provide a payback over long periods of time through increased economic activity and some provide rapid payback. Taxes on capital are amongst the most potent of these. This despite the howls of the collectivists and statists!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The ever amusing Tom Wolfe

This article is a reminder of how insightful and entertaining the author Tom Wolfe can be.

Wolfe lectures with the vigor of youth, animating his witty insights with eyes popping, a tongue darting across his lips, broad smiles, and dramatic hand gesticulations, especially when he comes upon one of his "aha" findings, to wit, some insight or story that explains Everything.

A favorite target of his is the "intellectual." As the prodigy put it the other night, the intellectual is "a person knowledgeable in one field who only speaks out in others."

One of the reasons Wolfe fastens on the intellectual so frequently is that a major interest of his is "status."

No group in society more earnestly appropriates the constituent elements of status to "exalt" themselves in society than the intellectuals, though adepts of the "hip hop" culture run a close second.

Turn to an interview Wolfe gave to the Wall Street Journal in March. There the brightest young man of American letters said this: "I really love this country. I just marvel at how good it is, and obviously it's the simple principle of freedom....Intellectually this is the system where people tend to experiment more and their experiments are indulged. Whatever we're doing I think we've done it extremely well....These are terrible things to be saying if you want to have any standing in the intellectual world."

All very amusing to my taste!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Superiority of Self Organizing Systems

Various aspects of life, society, and other complex systems can be, are, or are thought to be organized by Omniteleological1 forces or alternatively along self organizing lines. In other words, those integrants can be controlled by a centralized entity or instead be open-ended processes, where creativity, enterprise, and/or random forces, operating under predictable rules, generate change and/or progress in unpredictable ways. Systems organized (or believed by some to be organized) according to Omniteleological principles include The Creation, Intelligent Design, many organized religions, and most forms of Statism including Socialism and Collectivism. Systems organized (or believed by some to be organized) according to self-organizing principles include Evolution, democracy, and free market economies.

In some cases, like economic organization, societies can choose between Omniteleological Statism and self-organization (or what Virginia Postrel
calls Dynamism2). In other cases, humans aren't involved in setting up the systems. For example, the processes underlying the ecosystem are not a result of human activity. Then, instead of a choice, it's a debate about whether those processes are Teleological or self-organizing. The Creation is the teleological version. Evolution is the self-organizing version.

There is, of course, no reason the processes can't be based on a mixture of Omniteleological and self-organizing principles. For example, an economic system often has free-markets (self-organizing) with State interventions (e.g. taxation) and support (central banks and other institutions). Though, even in this case, the interventions and support organized themselves over time.

Whenever there is a choice, my personal preference tends towards assuming and/or using self-organizing principles. Thus, the big bang, Evolution, democracy, federalism, and free markets are all appealing to me. Each is based on decentralization and distribution of information and processes. I believe that such processes are inherently much more robust than centrally designed and carefully controlled processes. They are able to respond and adapt to a much wider range of stimuli.

An interesting conundrum (to me) is the use of Omniteleological methods (Statism) in order to support self-organizing principles. Examples include using the federal government to limit religious activities or to enforce teaching of subjects that include self-organizing principles (e.g., Evolution).

While I think that it is important to keep the State from suppressing self-organization or the teaching thereof, I think that strengthening the State for the purpose of weakening other centralized processes (religion, etc.) is counterproductive. In the end, there will be more entrenched Statism, and it just isn't worth it.

Because of the superiority of self-organizing systems, there's also no reason to use the levers of State power to protect them.

(1) Thanks to Hey Skipper for his suggestion of the word teleological in the comments of another post. I feel that teleological is most commonly used to describe (divine) order in nature and doesn't necessarily refer to social systems. As a result, I decided to add the prefix "omni" (all) to it to refer to any centrally designed and/or controlled system. I realize it's a little rude to add a Latin prefix to a Greek root, but hey, I'm American, and we do things like that.
(2) From The Future and its Enemies.

Friday, May 12, 2006

I Need a Word

I'm trying to think of the word that fits the following definition:

The belief or intuition that all complex systems, natural or man-made (e.g., social systems), can, should, or ought to be or have been created and maintained by a centralized authority and/or power.

What's the word? What's its antonym?

The word (let's call it Xism for now) would be a superset of Statism and Creationism. It implies a need to impose order or to find order in already existing complex systems. That order needs to come from an supreme authority.

The closest I've come up with so far is "anti-dynamism" where dynamism is used per Virginia Postrel's definition in "The Future and its Enemies." But she uses the term dynamist solely when referring to social systems and stasist (the opposite) as opposing change, which is a bit different than what I'm looking for.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Children of the State

The rights and freedoms defined in the Constitution of United States don't really apply to children. They can't vote, own guns, etc. It's not surprising that the founders didn't consider the rights of children. After all women and slaves had no rights either and I think it was assumed that parents had the final authority and responsibility for raising a child. Of course, most of the parents back then belonged to a community and church, each of which absorbed part of the burden of raising children.

On the other hand, the Constitution doesn't define any rights for parents either. While I'm confident the founders expected parents to raise their own children, there's no inherent conflict between the Constitution and Jonathan Swift's Lilliputian style society (from Gulliver's Travels) where children are taken away from their parents at birth and raised by the State:
Their [the Lilliputians'] notions relating to the Duties of Parents and Children differ extremely from ours. For since the Conjunction of Male and Female is founded upon the great Law of Nature, in order to propagate and continue the Species, the Lilliputians will needs have it, that Men and Women are joined together like other Animals, by the Motives of Concupiscence; and that their Tenderness towards their Young proceeds from the like natural Principle: for which reason they will never allow, that a Child is under any Obligation to his Father for begetting him, or his Mother for bringing him into the World; which, considering the Miseries of human Life, was neither a Benefit in it self, or intended so by his Parents, whose Thoughts in their Love-Encounters were otherwise employ'd. Upon these, and the like Reasonings, their Opinion is, that Parents are the last of all others to be trusted with the Education of their own Children: and therefore they have in every Town publick Nurseries, where all Parents, except Cottagers and Labourers, are obliged to send their Infants of both Sexes to be reared and educated when they come to the Age of twenty Moons...
It sounds eminently reasonable. After all, I can't count the number of times I've been told that some/most/all parents are incompetent idiots/fanatics because they do one or more of the following:
  1. Bring up their children to be religious;
  2. Bring up their children to be non-religious;
  3. Advocate for teaching Intelligent Design in high school;
  4. Advocate for teaching Evolution in high school;
  5. Teach their children to play a lame sport like soccer;
  6. Teach their children to play a lame sport like baseball;
  7. And so forth...
The reasons parents are bad are varied and contradictory. There's only one common denominator: that everybody else who doesn't raise their children the One Right Way is a bad parent. Bad for the child. Bad for society. So, if only the State would follow in the footsteps of the Lilliputians and take over the task of childrearing, both the children and society would be far better off.

Where have I heard an argument like that before? Ahhh, I Remember. It sounds much like what advocates for Socialism said: why let ignorant and loathsome merchants, businesses owners, and entrepreneurs, who are distributed throughout the country control the means of production? Clearly the government with centralized control and access to numerous experts can do a better job!

Well, that didn't work so well.

Same for the kids. Why let ignorant parents control the upbringing of the future citizens of our society? Clearly the government with centralized control and access to numerous experts can do a better job!

Well, that won't work so well either.

Centralized authorities can do okay at one-size-fits-all sorts of programs. However, children are individuals with large variations in their needs and abilities who live in communities that are each unique. Thus, the one-size-fits-all approach is likely to be far from optimal.

Some parents will be bad parents. However, overall, the individualized attention parents can give their children is a huge advantage relative to one-size-fits-all and will create more robust generations of citizens which will be able to deal with a wider set of challenges in the future.

Let parents do their jobs.

Monday, May 08, 2006

little things that make me smile

Just thought I would share some excerpts from this Stephen Moore column.

Meet Charles Koch. Philosopher, engineer, self-trained economist, libertarian activist, philanthropist--and the CEO of Koch Industries, a $60 billion, 80,000-employee empire, which just recently became the largest and most profitable privately held company in America.

"We couldn't have achieved the profitability we have," Mr. Koch insists, "if we had been a public company. No investor would have been patient enough to allow us to build a firm oriented toward long-term growth and profits." This is one of Mr. Koch's bugaboos regarding the deficiencies of modern corporate management. He notes, "The short-term infatuation with quarterly earnings on Wall Street restricts the earnings potential of Fortune 500 publicly traded firms. Public firms are also feeding grounds for lawyers and lawsuits."

He then confidently predicts: "Regulatory laws like Sarbanes-Oxley will only increase the earnings advantages of private firms. I would suspect that there will be more of these private company takeovers of publicly traded companies."

This creative forward-thinking should come as no surprise, because Mr. Koch is immersed in the ideas of liberty and free markets. Whereas the bookshelves of most of America's leading CEOs are stocked with pop corporate management and "how to succeed" books, Mr. Koch's office is a wall-to-wall shrine to writings in classical economics, or, as he calls it, "the science of liberty." The authors who have had the most profound influence on his own political philosophy include F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Joseph Schumpeter, Julian Simon, Paul Johnson and Charles Murray. Mr. Koch says that he experienced an intellectual epiphany in the early 1960s, when he attended a conference on free-market capitalism hosted by the late, great Leonard Reed.

Mr. Koch is by training a scientist, with master's degrees from MIT in nuclear and chemical engineering. Despite his business success, he has no MBA or formal management training. Mr. Koch sees that as an advantage. "Being an engineer, I realized there's an objective reality that helps one understand the rules and conditions that improve the human condition," he says. "Laws and principles that facilitate the advancement of peace, prosperity and social progress are as immutable as the laws that work in science. . . . Politicians often come up with misguided policy solutions," he continues, "because they suffer from Hayek's 'fatal conceit' and believe they can violate basic laws of economics. They are just as misguided as the man who jumps out the 14th floor of a building convinced that he can repeal the law of gravity."

As we continue, Mr. Koch becomes increasingly animated. He discusses another seminal work in his collection, F.A. Harper's 1957 "Why Wages Rise." The book demonstrates "that wages rise not because of unions or government action, but because of marginal productivity gains--people get more money when they produce more value for other people." Then he confides, "I was so thrilled by this revelation that I had what Maslow called a 'peak experience.'"

"Long term success entails constantly discovering new ways to create value for customers and building new capabilities to capture new opportunities," he instructs. "In this sense, maintaining a business is, in reality, liquidating a business." Mr. Koch likens the cycle to Schumpeter's "creative destruction"--where the old and inefficient are ruthlessly swept away by the new.

What we have here are the theories of supply-side economics operating on the micro-level of the firm. Incentives matter; competition fosters innovation; property rights must be firmly established. Koch Industries gives big financial bonuses for entrepreneurial behavior by employees, whether it's a project head or a janitor. The idea is to reward all activities that add to the bottom-line profitability of the firm. "We want our employees to act like owners," Mr. Koch explains. Similarly, employees earn "decision rights" for past successes. "Just as central planning is a failure in running government, so it is at the level of the firm," he says, repeating one of his favorite operating tenets.

Good ideas can be so powerful! If they can be demonstrated in the form of an entertaining story, even better, as Bret reminds us. If you did not catch the above reference to Leonard Reed, let me point you to a terrific story - I, Pencil, which I believe is one of Bret's favorites. Everyone should read this at some point and I do mean everyone. Be sure to see Milton Friedman's introduction:

Leonard Read's delightful story, "I, Pencil," has become a classic, and deservedly so. I know of no other piece of literature that so succinctly, persuasively, and effectively illustrates the meaning of both Adam Smith's invisible hand—the possibility of cooperation without coercion—and Friedrich Hayek's emphasis on the importance of dispersed knowledge and the role of the price system in communicating information that "will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do."

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Crime and Punishment

Assume someone has been convicted of a crime. Let's say the punishment is 2,000 days of sitting still in a chair in a room for six hours a day listening to a corrections officer drone on about various topics. Every so often the corrections officer will interrogate the prisoner to ensure that he's been paying attention. If the prisoner isn't paying attention or gets up out of his chair too often, he's forced to take medications against his will. Also note that there's no chance for parole. If the prisoner tries to escape, he's put in a tighter security facility.

From the above description, you might assume that the prisoner committed a really serious crime and has probably been convicted several times. I would imagine it would be a crime at least as serious as grand larceny, maybe even nearly as serious as rape.

However, the punishment I'm talking about is compulsary education (the medication is Ritalin) and the crime is nothing more than managing to survive your first six years of life. For both adult crime and punishment and child survival and compulsary education we do it for the good of society and arguably for the good of the individual. But punishing it is.

For some it's worse than others. Typically boys have a harder time of it than girls. For me personally, sitting there day after day, year after year, alternately looking out of the window while daydreaming and staring at the clock watching the second hand go tick, tick, tick, moving slowly, painfully slowly, toward the dismissal bell, it was cruel punishment. And it was relatively easy for me. Even though I almost never payed attention, I was able to do pretty well on the tests. Even though it was torture to sit there, I was able to do it, so the teachers liked me well enough. For those that don't do well on the tests or just can't sit there, the level of misery is taken to a whole new level. Ritalin is probably a welcome relief.

It always amazes me that this aspect of the educational system is rarely, if ever, contemplated: the huge amount of pain it inflicts on children. For sure, the overwhelming needs of society trumps the freedom of individuals (the draft in wartime is another example), but the sacrifice that we force our children to make against their will should never be taken lightly.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Hey, Hey, My, My, Socialism Can Never Die

There's more to the picture than meets the eye? Hey, Hey, My, My.

While our attention is focused on the Middle East and beyond, storm clouds are gathering in other parts of the world. For example, on May Day, Bolivia nationalized its natural gas and oil fields. The president, Evo Morales, "ordered soldiers to occupy Bolivia's natural gas fields..." He plans to nationalize other sectors as well.

Morales seems to be part of a small, but growing, contigent of socialists. He joins Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and, of course, Fidel Castro, who are intending to create a web of socialist economic alliances in South America.

These developments prompted Lee Harris, in yet another excellent article, to ask "why isn't socialism dead?" After all, each of the many versions of socialism that has even been implemented has been far from optimal and has very often created massive suffering and death. It's usually very difficult to answer most complex economic questions regarding optimal organization of societies, but the hypothesis that socialism doesn't work has an overwhelming preponderance of evidence supporting it.

So why isn't socialism dead? Short answer: it can't die. Longer answer:
It may well be that socialism isn't dead because socialism cannot die. As Sorel argued, the revolutionary myth may, like religion, continue to thrive in "the profounder regions of our mental life," in those realms unreachable by mere reason and argument, where even a hundred proofs of failure are insufficient to wean us from those primordial illusions that we so badly wish to be true. Who doesn't want to see the wicked and the arrogant put in their place? Who among the downtrodden and the dispossessed can fail to be stirred by the promise of a world in which all men are equal, and each has what he needs? [...]

[T]he whole point of the myth of the socialist revolution is not that the human societies will be transformed in the distant future, but that the individuals who dedicate their lives to this myth will be transformed into comrades and revolutionaries in the present. In short, revolution is not a means to achieve socialism; rather, the myth of socialism is a useful illusion that turns ordinary men into comrades and revolutionaries united in a common struggle -- a band of brothers, so to speak. [...]

Thus, in the coming century, those who are advocates of capitalism may well find themselves confronted with "a myth gap." Those who, like Chavez, Morales, and Castro, are preaching the old time religion of socialism may well be able to tap into something deeper and more primordial than mere reason and argument, while those who advocate the more rational path of capitalism may find that they have few listeners among those they most need to reach -- namely, the People. Worse, in a populist democracy, the People have historically demonstrated a knack of picking as their leaders those know the best and most efficient way to by-pass their reason -- demagogues who can reach deep down to their primordial and, alas, often utterly irrational instincts. This, after all, has been the genius of every great populist leader of the past, as it is proving to be the genius of those populist leaders who are now springing up around the world, from Bolivia to Iran.
In other words, ideas are more powerful than facts. Myths are more powerful than reason. Humans are not primarily rational animals and can never be primarily rational animals. Indeed, I doubt we even have the mental capacity to make rational decisions in the face of great complexity and uncertainty. Following our intuitions, institutions, and traditions is probably the best we can ever do.

Lee Harris finishes with the following:
This is the challenge that capitalism faces in the world today -- whether it will rise to the challenge is perhaps the most urgent question of our time, and those who refuse to confront this challenge are doing no service to reason or to human dignity and freedom. Bad myths can only be driven out by better myths, and unless capitalism can provide a better myth than socialism, the latter will again prevail.
I believe this to be true. Fortunately, the American myth, which is a combination of Christianity and the puritan work ethic intertwined with a belief in self-sufficiency, strong property rights, and free markets, is quite a powerful myth as well. Thus Americans are fairly well inoculated from being infected by "bad myths."

However, I cringe when the Rationalists and Materialists among us strive to weaken or destroy the American myth. They do so, in my opinion, at great peril. I believe America's myth was crucial to keeping civilization going in the 20th century. It may well be needed again in the 21st.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

I Love $3.00 Gasoline!!!

If you could pay $2.00 a day to shorten your daily commute time by 10 minutes, would you do it? That's the equivalent of $12.00 per hour in order to avoid sitting in stop and go traffic. I would take that deal in a second.

Well, that's exactly the deal for me with high gas prices. As prices rise, my commute time shortens. The cost is definitely worth it to me.

Too bad the money goes to such nasty and undeserving countries.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

One Economy to Rule Them All...

... is one of the category names for posts at Brothers Judd. The economy they're referring to is the economy of the United States and right now I definitely have to agree with them.

It's amazing to me that we can achieve this level of GDP growth with the current global political climate. The preliminary estimate for the first quarter 2006 is 4.8% annualized real growth. Coupled with the previous 3 quarters the growth was 3.5%. Those are really excellent numbers, even for really wonderful economic environments.

But consider what happened in those 12 months. Several devastating hurricanes, continued war in Iraq (and Afghanistan), already high oil prices increasing an additional $10 per barrel to nearly $70 per barrel, the presidents popularity plummeting (though this may be due to the other factors), rising interest rates, the imminent collapse of a housing bubble (supposedly), a series of political scandals (Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Tom Delay, etc.), huge trade deficits (investment surpluses), and sizeable federal deficits.

If the economy can do that well during periods like that, what growth would we have if the circumstances became more favorable?

The End is Near

The New York Times has been critical of the economy ever since Bush was elected president, though I'm sure that's just a coincidence. Through robust GDP growth numbers, rising productivity, increasing wealth, dropping unemployment, recording breaking corporate earnings growth, etc., the New York Times, with the help of their columnists such as economist Paul Krugman, has rarely, if ever, praised the economy in the last several years. Even before that, the New York Times was a pretty good contrarian index. Whatever they're saying, believe the opposite.

That's why I'm now worried. Much to my dismay, they've now used the word "boom" to describe the economy:
[T]he national economy continues to speed ahead, with families and businesses spending money at an impressive pace. Forecasters expect the Commerce Department to report this morning that the economy grew at a rate of around 5 percent in the first quarter, the biggest increase since 2003. [...]

Americans seem to have noticed the boom, too.
I'd say that's an indication of imminent collapse. Run for the hills!!!