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No Such Thing As Society?

Via Patri comes this useful counter-meme on privilege. Which is not to say that privilege across racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious boundaries doesn't exist or isn't important, but that it's worth keeping in mind these sorts of privileges within a country like the U.S. vastly pale in comparison to the privileges between countries. Which is why, if you are truly interested in reducing the negative aspects of privilege (by hopefully lifting up the bottom and not crippling the top), then you absolutely must support the free flow of goods, people, capital, and information within but especially across borders. Deviation away from this and towards any form of autarky belies either radical ignorance and naiveté, or worse, a profound lack of seriousness about privilege - which is more than sufficient reason for anyone to ignore anything you may have to say on the subject.

The comment thread in the second link contains some interesting discussion as well. One personality type observed in the thread is a certain sort of vulgar individualist--the kind who loudly and unironically proclaims, "There is no such thing as society!"--and refuses to acknowledge the profound and all-encompassing impact society can have on structuring the way we interact with and understand the world around us. I used to be this worst sort of vulgar individualist, and when faced with overwhelming evidence that contradicted my mistaken beliefs about the relationship between an individual and society, I became terribly worried that my entire ideological worldview was at risk of collapse. It wasn't, of course; I merely needed to reexamine and modify my beliefs about sociology, and once I did that, my normative beliefs were that much stronger for it.

Consider the following exchange from that comment thread:

pjammer: People on welfare who own jacuzzis, get $50 manicures and drive cars less than five years old.

layo: If they do, they didn't get that money from welfare. There's a massive shadow economy existing side-by-side with the worst poverty, I think we know that - people who have nothing to lose are willing to take exceedingly high risks to improve their lot. In other words, the welfare mom has friends and relatives who come into a bit of cash on the downlow and share - or she gets the occasional prostitution gig. Mine did. Of course, middle-class people really have no idea what's going on down there, do they. The fact that poverty forces you into criminality at one point or another (try it, you'll find out; it's very hard to avoid when you're being hunted) is one of the most degrading things about it.

foobiwan: This must be why all those damn Indian immigrants are known for being gang-bangers and prostitutes.

Oh wait.

foobiwan (in followup): They [Indian immigrants] come here with nothing, and yet succeed. That's proof that poverty in the United States is caused by stupidity, plain and simple.

My response: Um, no. Individual poor decision making plays a part, but things like social capital and healthy communities matter a whole lot more. Would you rather be slightly smarter than average but grow up in a community characterized by isolation, atomization, and anomie, or would you rather be slightly less smart than average but grow up in a community that encourages strong social networks, charity, education, rational risk-taking, long-term investment, etc.? I'd gladly trade a good portion of my personal intelligence and decision-making ability for strong social capital.

This then raises the more abstract question: What are the determinants of better or worse communities, societies, and cultures? The answer, of course, is not simply a single person's stupidity. But that is a topic for another post and another day.


Kling on Paul

I can't believe I missed this; I rarely find myself in such total agreement with Arnold Kling:

I view the Ron Paul phenomenon as a successor to the Ross Perot phenomenon or the Pat Buchanan phenomenon. His supporters are expressing alienation and frustration with the establishment. Libertarianism is not really central to his appeal. My guess is that a militant fascist could pick up a lot of the same voters.

I doubt that libertarianism will be advanced by any campaign for national office. I suspect that the best way to advance libertarianism is not to compete for government office but to compete against government. Earn a living to support your family. Contribute to institutions, such as private schools, that compete with important government institutions. Vote against incumbents, but otherwise stay aloof from political campaigns.

Does this make Kling a minarchist agorist? I think it does. Neat. 


The End of Definitions

My final class for my final semester before I graduate is "Social Entrepreneurship." The course is about applying the tools of business entrepreneurship to organizations with a social mission above and beyond maximizing financial profits and increasing shareholder value. But the distinction between for-profit and non-profit organizations, between purely "self-interested" firms and firms with a "social mission" is not at all clear or easy to define:

Google.org will be a “foundation” that will invest in (and expect to make a return on) social problems. It fully expects to pay taxes, and asks no forgiveness from the American taxpayer. First up will be ultra fuel efficient plug-in automobiles.

But wait. There is actually a market for automobiles. There is also a market for clean technology for automobiles. How is Google.org a philanthropy? How is General Motors not a philanthropy? Making matters worse, GM is NOT making money and Google.org will (or it assumes it will). So, is GM a “nonprofit” and Google.org not?. ...

When nonprofits become the agents of government (as major contractors providing services that the government had previously provided), how are they the private expression of private voluntary effort to address social problems held in common? Are they not contractors like any other contractor? Does it matter if one privatizes prisons to a nonprofit or a for-profit entity? After all, the only real difference between the two as contractors is whether or not the net resources at the end of a fiscal year are distributed to shareholders or are held to be applied to next year’s budget. ...

The premise behind [Whole Foods' and Starbucks'] products, indeed behind their existence, is far beyond the product itself. The product reflects a relationship to some non-commercial value or mission. For Whole Foods, for instance, it is the premise that what is fresh and organic is good for the environment and good for the health of people. That it also makes money is an expression of the market (and a fortunate one at that) but it is not the purpose of the endeavor. Are these corporations not also on the social commons? Do they not address a problem (e.g., public health) that supposedly is not sufficiently in the interests of any one person or organization to address and therefore requires nonprofits and philanthropy? ...

If obesity is a public health problem, how is Gold’s Gym not classified as a nonprofit and the YMCA is? Apart from distributing profits to shareholders and paying taxes, of course. If Gold’s Gym dedicated itself to the health of America’s youth, but distributed its profits to its shareholders and paid its share of its taxes, is it any less on the social commons than the YMCA? ...

How is this “philanthropy?” The end is socially driven, but the means are the beauty of capitalism carried out largely in the marketplace. ...

The End of Definitions, however, does have immediate and concrete implications. Hundreds of millions of dollars are foregone in the U.S. economy because of the concept of tax-exemption for nonprofit roles. Tens of thousands of organizations are not expected to be transparent or to conform to many aspects of our legal and regulatory framework because they are nonprofit. Tens of thousands of philanthropies are afforded nearly complete freedom in how they allocate resources, and how they account for the utility of those resources, completely outside of the perceptions of taxpayers.

This is all good and has, for many, many decades, served the national interest. We as a nation have been enriched immensely by these policies.

However, if we no longer know what we mean by the term “nonprofit” or “foundation” or “philanthropy,” how will we continue to make these distinctions? When the world of capital and commercial markets blends into the world of the societal commons, when solutions to social problems are to be found not in voluntarism and the stray philanthropic dollar but on the very concrete commercial landscape of capitalism, how shall we define the nonprofit endeavor? Does the distinction even matter any more?

As someone who views the hundreds of millions of dollars forgone because of tax-exemption status, and the absence of government "oversight" and all the red tape that goes along with it, as decidedly Good Things™, I'd rather have for-profit organizations treated under the (largely more liberal) regulatory regime of non-profits, than have non-profit orgs treated under the regulatory regime of for-profits. On the other hand, as the author mentions, non-profits are held to stricter standards than for-profits regarding forced public transparency and, unmentioned, laws restricting explicit political campaigning. So both regulatory regimes are mixed bags.

What say you, readers? Can we say with certainty if either regime is preferable, or is the status quo--where firms get to choose by which regime they are to be judged--about as good as it can get under any system of income taxation and regulatory oversight? Does it matter that these definitional distinctions are becoming increasingly harder to make? Unless we can confidently answer the questions regarding the preferability of differing regulatory regimes, I don't see how the definitions matter that much.


Undocumented Immigrants as Heroic Agorist Entrepreneurs

Yesterday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:

When residents of Wynscape apartments wanted phone cards to call Mexico, El Salvador or Honduras, they didn't need to leave the north DeKalb County complex: A woman sold them out of her unit.

They could buy beer, too. All it took was a knock on the door of another of the 272 apartments.

Here, where many residents don't drive and cash is king, an underground marketplace has thrived.

But two murders at the complex's unofficial convenience store — a second-story unit that offered items from batteries to lime-flavored potato chips — has shed a tragic light on the shadow economy familiar to new immigrants in Georgia.

Two young men wearing jeans and hooded sweatshirts entered the apartment on a Saturday night, pretending to be customers. They pulled out a gun, and a struggle ensued.

Shot dead were Honduran immigrant Jose Roberto Nuñez, 49, and his 14-year-old son, Daison.

They died trying to protect the side business that helped supplement Nuñez's spotty house-painting in-come. Nuñez's wife, Alejandrina Salgado, who was awakened by the commotion, found her husband and son bleeding on the kitchen floor. ...

The kitchen snack bar was robbed four more times, including once in 2006 and again a few months ago, she says. But by then, the family of seven needed the extra income more than ever, Salgado said. Painting jobs had grown scarce for her husband, who had recently joined day laborers on a nearby street corner to find work. Though Hurricane Mitch wiped out their village, prompting their move to Atlanta, the family didn't apply for the temporary legal residency offered to Hondurans displaced by the 1998 disaster.

Salgado glances up at a photo of a smiling Daison, who loved to box and spend time with his girlfriend from Sequoyah Middle School. "I don't understand the mentality," she says. "We sold a few sweets, for so little money."

Operators of unlicensed businesses are easy prey. Thieves assume they have cash on hand. There are no security cameras. And in many cases, the owners are more reluctant to call police.

It's unclear to me why the lack of a business licence is relevant here, other than for the last reason given: if lack of a license is grounds for arrest or punishment, unlicensed businesses have a disincintive to rely on government police protection. Of course, that's not an argument for cracking down on unlicensed businesses; it's an argument for cracking down on requiring business licenses in the first place.

The attacks come amid grim times within Georgia's underground economy, said Jeffrey Humphreys, director of the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth. Roughly half of the state's nearly 1 million immigrants are estimated to be in the country illegally. And more than a few have been filling unofficial jobs in construction and landscaping, Humphreys said.

But 2007 saw a historic drought and a downturn in the home-building industry. "That's a very cruel combination for the underground economy right now," he said. "People are desperate."

Immigrants account for a small percentage of off-the-books commerce in Georgia, he said. Even so, demand for the services of a shadow market appears to be rising in increasingly isolated immigrant neighborhoods such as Wynscape. Traffic on I-85 roars past the aging brick buildings off Shallowford Road, but fewer residents are driving these days.

A new state immigration law has made it harder for illegal immigrants to obtain license plates. And some fear deportation for traffic violations.

So for many residents here, the Nuñez family store was a welcome convenience.

Manuel Morales, who no longer drives, said grocery shopping isn't easy. He sometimes walks across the I-85 overpass to a Publix. But staples from his native Mexico are a $10 cab ride away on Buford Highway.

And every evening, he keeps his eyes peeled for the box truck with two poblano chile peppers painted on the side. Jesus Morales, whose mobile fruit and vegetable stand is a licensed business, fields a flurry of calls from customers wondering what he has on board. Residents buy eggs, fresh tomatoes and paper towels. In 10 years, he says he's never been robbed. Of course, Morales' operation is legit. He keeps his business license on hand, is often surrounded by customers and wouldn't hesitate to call police.

Again, we see the perverse, unintended consequences of government intervention. Anti-immigrationists make it difficult for undocumented workers to drive legally, so we naturally see local convenience stores popping up in easy walking-distance proximity from where the immigrants live. The "legitimacy" mentioned in the preceding sentence is a distraction, a potential confusion: there is nothing more "legitimate" about Morales' licensed produce stand than Nuñez' unlicensed convenience store, other than an illegitimate piece of paper. The license requirement itself is the source of the problem here, not its solution.

Anti-illegal immigration activist D.A. King said "illegal immigration is a crime, and it breeds more crime." Police too often turn a blind eye to underground businesses in immigrant neighborhoods, he said, passing them off as part of the culture. "If law enforcement was fulfilling their duty," said King, president of the Dustin Inman Society, "maybe these two people would still be alive today."

At a laundromat across the street from Wynscape, construction worker Hector Cabrera said kitchen snack bars and mothers selling soup on the side aren't the problem.

"That's a way of survival."

The robberies and murders would wane, Cabrera said, if police took crimes in the Latino community more seriously.

D.A. King - a local figurehead for the modern incarnation of the Know Nothing Party - unsurprisingly gets his analysis exactly backwards: Making free, open, and peaceful immigration a crime is itself a crime, and it breeds more crime.

Questions to ponder: What alternatives might business owners in the shadow economy have to government police protection? Is it possible, in theory, for the market to provide sufficient protection of property rights and contract enforcement even while still enmeshed within a statist system that claims and enforces a monopoly on these services, without this private protection agency devolving into an illegitimate mafia? Is there anything we can do on the margins, in lieu of total system overhaul, to make these immigrants' lives easier and safer? Is there any way to break the state's monopoly on law enforcement through piecemeal efforts? Think of the relationship between campus police and city police. Might a similar arrangement be possible for immigrant communities?


Gay Marriage Redux

Co-blogger Jonathan wondered what Roderick Long's position on gay marriage is, given Long's statement:

But this means that we should be trying to wean people away from the political process – that we should be encouraging them to ignore the state, not to become energetically involved in political campaigns.

While searching for an unrelated Long post, I came across this from a few years ago, which pretty much echoes the same arguments I've made on this blog:

A correspondent asks me what rights the Federal Marriage Amendment would have violated. Gays would still have had the right to have private, non-state-sanctioned marriage ceremonies, he argues; they would simply have forfeited governmental benefits to which no one has any right anyway.

I think this is too quick. These “governmental benefits” include rights that any couple either should have (e.g., the right not to have employer-paid insurance for one’s spouse counted as taxable income, or a citizen’s right not to have his/her noncitizen spouse deported) or should be able to contract into (e.g., the right to make medical decisions for one’s spouse when necessary). These are not special state-conferred privileges we’re talking about. (Of course marriage does come with such privileges also. So does being a police officer or a physician – but that’s no argument for banning gays from being police officers or physicians. Instead we should be fighting to get rid of the privileges.)

Wouldn’t civil unions solve such problems just as well as marriage? Maybe. But such a “separate but equal” approach strikes me as repellent. What would we say if black couples could have “civil unions” but only white couples could legally “marry”? (And in response to those who reject this analogy on linguistic grounds, arguing that marriages are heterosexual unions by definition, see my post from a year ago: Who Defends Marriage?.)

Not that this directly answers Jonathan's question; there is an admitted tension between agorist avoidance of the political process in general and advocating for gay marriage, regardless of whether we get to advocate for our strictly libertarian view of gay marriage or embrace the second-best mainstream package-deal of legitimate rights and illegitimate privileges.

And from that final linked post comes this useful tidbit as well,

In the end, however, I’m happy to say that the issue between Mr. Sobran and myself is moot. For we both favour the abolition of the state. (See Mr. Sobran’s article The Reluctant Anarchist.) Under Mr. Sobran’s favoured political régime, and mine, the legal definition of marriage, like all legal issues, will be decided not by a monopolistic government but by private, co-territorial enterprises competing for customers. Within the same geographical area, some legal institutions will cater to socially conservative customers by offering only traditional heterosexual marriage contracts and advertising boldly “We defend the family!” while other institutions will cater to socially liberal customers by offering a wider variety of marriage contracts and advertising with equal boldness “We defend equality!” And the whole legal wrangle over marriage will be done with, forever.

In the meantime, however, so long as governments do monopolise the definition of marriage, the political struggle must continue between the social liberals who seek to defend the spiritual meaning of marriage and the social conservatives who seek to debase marriage to a merely biological function. Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.

Long wrote it, I believe it, that settles it. Kidding, of course, but life sure would be a hell of a lot easier if argumentation worked that way.


Your Dog Owns Your House

In the comments to Jonathan's post below questioning the legitimacy of specific performance in military service contracts, Arthur B. raises a point so important and so central to libertarian political economic theory that it cannot be emphasized enough:

The social contract was constructed by philosophers on top of real contracts, therefore the moral claim that you should obey an actual contract is obviously always stronger than the claim you should obey a social contract. Yet, he uses the later to make a case for the former. Absurd.

I first came across this integral insight in Anthony de Jasay's essay, "Your Dog Owns Your House", which reads like a distillation and combination of Leonard Read's economically intricate "I, Pencil" and Bastiat's classic political satire, The Candlemakers' Petition:

[D]id you know that your dog owns your house, or rather some portion of it? If this is not immediately obvious to you, you will find it helpful to consider some aspects of the ethics and economics of redistribution.

Your dog is alert, plucky and a fearsome guardian of your property. For all we know, without his services, you would have been burgled over and over again. Your belongings would be depleted and the utility you derived from your home would be much reduced. The difference between the actual value of your home and its unguarded value is the contribution of your dog, and so is the difference between the respective utilities or satisfactions you derive from it. We do not know the exact figure, but the main thing is that there is one.

More thought is needed fully to unravel the question of who owns your house, and indeed the question of who owns anything. If there were no fire brigade, the whole street might have burned down and your house would no longer stand. The fire brigade has contributed something to its value, and some figure ought to be put against their name. The utilities should not be forgotten, for how would you like to live in a house without running water, electricity and so forth? Some tentative numbers had better be credited to them. Surely, however, you cannot just ignore the builder who erected the house, the lumberman, the brick factory, the cement works and all the other suppliers without whom the builder could not have erected it. They too must have their contribution recognized, even if it must be done in a rough-and ready fashion.

Is it right, though, to stop at this primary level of contributions?—should we not go beyond the cement works to the builder who built the kiln, the gas pipeline that feeds the fire , the workers who keep the process going? Tracing the ever more distant contributions at level after level, we get a manifold that is as complex as we care to make it, with a correspondingly complex jumble of numbers that purport to place rough-and-ready values on the contributions. We can count them moving sideways as well as backwards as far as the mind can reach, starting with that of your dog and ending (if you finally lose patience and decide to stop there) with the Founding Fathers or Christopher Columbus.

At this point, you give up and say that your house, and any other holdings you thought you owned, really belong to society as a whole, and so do the holdings of everyone else. Everybody has a rightful stake in your holdings and you have a rightful stake in everybody else's holdings. Society, that is "we" are alone entitled to decide how big everybody's stake ought to be. "We" are the rightful owners of everything, the masters of "our" universe. As such, "we" are entitled to take from Peter and give to Paul, as well as to regulate what Peter and Paul are allowed to do in matters of production, commerce and consumption.

[...]

How soon, in reading the above, did you spot the underlying, crucial fallacy? Its course is a mixture of the plausible and the preposterous, and any reader who gets a little lost in the backing and filling between such opposites has an excuse of sorts for being bemused. However, clearing away the muddle is fairly straightforward provided we refuse to be impressed by verbiage, but stick doggedly to common sense, hard as that may sometimes be to do in the face of the massive browbeating that seeks to enthrone the verbiage.

There is a minor and a major point to recognise. The minor point is that the "framework" is not a person, natural or legal, to whom a debt can be owed, "institutions" do not act, "society" has no mind, no will, and makes no contributions. Only persons do these things. Imputing responsibility and credit for accumulated wealth, current production and well-being to entities that have no mind and no will is nonsense. It is a variant of the notorious fallacy of composition.

Once this is understood, we can move on to the major point. All contributions of others to the building of your house have been paid for at each link in the chain of production. All current contributions to its maintenance and security are likewise being paid for. Value has been and is being given for value received, even though the "value" is not always money and goods, but may sometimes be affection, loyalty or the discharge of duty. In the exchange relation, a giver is also a recipient, and of course vice versa.

In the broad scheme of things, all this is part of the universal system of exchanges. Some of these exchanges may be involuntary. Such is the case where redistribution, a coercive act, is taking place. We then lose the trace, the precise measure and the assured reciprocity of contributions to wealth and income, but this circumstance can hardly serve to justify the very redistribution that has caused it. However, where exchanges are voluntary, tracing and measuring become, in a strong sense, otiose and irrelevant. For in a voluntary exchange, once each side has delivered and received the agreed contribution, the parties are quits. Seeking to credit and debit them for putative outstanding claims is double counting.

All is left then for the redistributor to argue is that value received and value given are not necessarily equal. Some, perhaps most, transactions are inequitable, leaving behind them unsettled moral claims that tax-and-transfer policies are fully entitled to square. This is a far weaker claim than the one that would have everything paid for twice, but it is still effective because it is open-ended and beyond the reach of empirical disproof. Who can falsify the allegation that an exchange has unduly favoured one of the parties, that one of them was "exploited?

It is always possible to affirm that voluntary exchanges are seldom if ever equitable, for the parties have unequal "bargaining power." This term is wide open to abuse, and is in fact widely abused. It is so easy and so irrefutable to brand a bargain as "unequal" that it is doubtful whether the expression is anything more than the speaker's say-so that can be just as irrefutably opposed by an adversarial say-so. All we can safely say of any voluntary exchange is that either party would rather enter into it than not. This is the classic case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," for few social arrangements have more solid foundations in manifest agreement.

It is wrong to "fix it" not because "it works"—though it undeniably "works" better than other arrangements "fixed" by well-intentioned social engineers. Social democracy in today's Europe, stricken by chronic unemployment, and socialism in yesterday's workers' paradise, are eloquent enough examples. But the decisive, argument-stopping argument against "fixing it" is quite different and has little to do with property. It has everything to do with agreement.

Most modern theories of how society ought to work rest on some idea of agreement. Almost invariably, however, the agreement is fictitious, hypothetical, one that would be concluded if all men had equal "bargaining power," or saw things through the same "veil" of ignorance or uncertainty about their future. Or felt the same need for a central authority. The social contract, in its many versions, is perhaps the best known of these alleged agreements. All are designed to suit the normative views of their inventors and to justify the kind of social arrangements they should like to see adopted. Yet the only agreement that is not hypothetical, alleged, invented is the system of voluntary exchanges where all parties give visible, objective proof by their actions that they have found the unique common ground that everybody accepts, albeit grumblingly, but without anyone being forced to give up something he had within his reach and would have preferred. The set of voluntary exchanges, in one word, is the only one that does not impose an immorality in pursuit of a moral objective.

[Emphasis in bold mine]

I dare say that Anthony de Jasay is our contemporary Bastiat, and I predict (or at least hope) that this essay will continue to be read and reread in 150 years, just as Bastiat continues to be read and reread today.


Gender, Race, and the Presidency

Two great tastes that taste great together on the NYTimes' op-ed page these last few days. First comes Reason's Kerry Howley with "It Takes a Family (to Break a Glass Ceiling)":

[W]hile there are plenty of reasons not to vote for Mrs. Clinton (as an antiwar libertarian, I could happily list them for you at length), her marital journey to power is not one of them. The uncomfortable truth is that political nepotism has often served feminism’s cause well. ...

Social psychologists have found that women in leadership roles are typically seen as either warm, likable and incompetent, or cold, distant and competent. To be a strong, competent woman is to be something culturally unattractive, which probably says something about why few American women even aspire to political office. Worldwide, even popular female politicians — Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Angela Merkel — are slapped with the moniker “iron lady.”

Granted, women who rely on their last names to ascend to power are not especially likely to pursue explicitly feminist policies. They may even be less likely to do so, in order to seem worthy of office.

But their chief function to the cause is outside of policy. By their very existence, these women attack the norms and assumptions that bar other women from ascending to power on their own. ...

The best way to convince voters that women leaders are fully human — likable and competent at times, unlikable and incompetent at others — is to fill the world with more of them.

Next we have Ms. Man-Fish-Bicycle herself, Gloria Steinem, with "Women Are Never Front-Runners":

Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. ...

Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter). ...

So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more “masculine” for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

All that said, even if I was a voting kind of person, I don't think I'd be able to bring myself to vote for either Clinton or Obama, given their policy positions. Still, for the indirect effects their successful candidacies would have on the culture at large, I wish both of their campaigns well.


Holocaust Tips For Kids

At age ten, I went through my Holocaust phase.

This is a period in a child's life--more common for children raised as Jews, but many non-Jewish children go through a Holocaust phase as well--in which one becomes fascinated with the Holocaust, devouring books, movies, poetry, and diaries, visiting Holocaust museums, and interrogating one's parents and grandparents about where they were and what they did during the war. (My grandparents on both sides of the family were living in the U.S. at the time, and both of my grandfathers served in the U.S. military, one as an infantryman, the other as a radar engineer for the Navy.)

For some, this is just innocent childhood curiosity, and the phase eventually passes as the child loses interest after exhausting the subject matter. For others, though, especially those who are strongly (and inappropriately) encouraged by their parents and teachers to pursue this interest as far as it leads, this can become an unhealthy, psychologically debilitating obsession with long term, deleterious effects reaching far into adulthood.

And the trouble is, this abnormal psychology is not only encouraged but forcibly indoctrinated upon young Jewish children as a way of understanding their own identity, how non-Jews view them, and their relationship with secular/gentile society at large. The exaggerations, distortions, and outright lies are especially severe and explcit in the Orthodox Jewish community, for among the Orthodox there is an additional incentive to keep separate from the rest of society and avoid assimilation. (This incentive is simply what makes the Orthodox community Orthodox - their strategy of seclusion and isolation.)

Shalom Auslander, a recovering Orthodox Jew from Monsey, New York (although still a theist, Auslander is no longer observant of Jewish law), has devoted his literary career to poking fun at the illogic, dysfunction, and depression-inducing aspects of religious fundamentalism in general, Orthodox Judaism in particular, and the unhealthy, inappropriate childhood indoctrination of historical suffering, genocide, and oppression imbedded and central to all of Jewish history and every Jewish holiday ("They tried to kill us. They failed. Let's eat."), with the Holocaust being the most recent, extreme, and thus overplayed example.

In his collection of short stories, Beware of God, Auslander captures this distasteful, juvenile victim-mentality perfectly in "Holocaust Tips For Kids," about a boy who understandably mistakes Holocaust Remembrance Day as Emergency Preparedness Training for the future. Told from the perspective of a 10-year-old obsessed with Bruce Lee movies, Harry Houdini, a Jewish classmate crush named Deena, and a non-Jewish neighborhood playmate named Kevin, we see how his parents and school teachers have psychologically abused him into believing that behind every apparently polite and friendly gentile is a closet Nazi, and guilt-tripped him into thinking that even the smallest violation of religious doctrine - even the slightest movement toward assimilation and integration into secular society - is a recipe for ethnic disaster, to be punished by a hateful, vengeful, jealous God. Only a fascination with 70s martial arts movies, home-made nunchucks, tennis ball hand grenades, and always - ALWAYS - having an escape plan (Smokey Bear fire-safety style) for when the Nazis inevitably show up rap-rap-rapping on the front door will save the narrator and Deena from a horrible fate.

My favorite part, hitting way too close to home (as much of Auslander's writing tends to do):

These are some of the things in your house you could use as weapons: pens, pencils, scissors, a handsaw, screwdrivers, a baseball bat, a rolling pin from the kitchen, salt for throwing in Nazi's eyes, knives, forks, a hammer, toothpicks for stabbing, a blowtorch, lightbulbs for throwing, the hard end of a toothbrush, a pointy-handled comb, an ice pick, the ax, a sledgehammer, the lighter fluid from behind the barbecue that you could spray on them and then throw a match at, a shovel, the pick, a trowel, the cultivator rake, nails, screws, razor blades, sewing needles, safety pins, chisels, and knitting needles.

Jews were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306, Hungary in 1349, France again in 1394, Austria in 1421, Lithuania in 1445, Spain in 1492, Portugal in 1497, and Moravia in 1744.

Some ballpoint pens have replaceable ink cartridges. If you take the cartridge out and put a sewing needle in, you can shoot it out like a Ninja blowgun.

Rabbi Brier says that the Holocaust happened because the Jews assimilated.

That's also why Hashem made the Jews slaves in Egypt. And why He let the Holy Temple be destroyed by the Romans.

King Solomon built the first Holy Temple. Then the Babylonians destroyed it and deported all the Jews. Seventy years later, a second temple was built. Then the Romans destroyed it and deported all the Jews.

There was no third temple.

Assimilating is when you stop being Jewish, like Woody Allen.

My mother says Woody Allen is a self-hating Jew.

This logic encapsulates Richard Dawkin's explanation of religion as meme transmission. What better way to ensure the continued procreation and separateness of an ethno-religious culture than scaring the living fuck out of children, pounding away, again and again--through every classroom lesson, biblical exegesis, field trip, religious holiday--that God will have you killed if you give up the faith; that the rest of the world despises you, so that even if you try to abandon your birth culture, "they" will never fully accept you; that thousands of years of history bears this all out; that to disagree with any of this is to be worse than a traitor to one's own people. And in many respects, this analysis is entirely accurate, for it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: by refusing to integrate and embrace the rest of society, we come across as a holier-than-though "chosen" people, not to be trusted, always with ulterior motives, and therefore deserving of suspicion and rebuke, a convenient scapegoat in times of economic and social upheaval. It's no wonder the Jewish people have survived as a distinct group for thousands of years, nor is there any mystery to the origins of neurotic Jewish humor; if you can't laugh at the insanity of the meme, all that is left is tearful, suicidal depression.

I told my grandmother recently that I may very likely intermarry outside the faith, which is perhaps the worst possible thing a modern Jew can do. Many Orthodox Jewish families disown their children for intermarriage, performing all of the same rituals of mourning the death of a child, and refusing to ever speak to or visit the intermarried child again. My grandmother, who immigrated to Israel from Philadelphia in 1969, and lives in a very religious, Ultra-Orthdox community, responded with, and I am not making this up:

If you marry a non-Jew, you will be finishing Hitler's work.

Yup. I think I'll get off this train-wreck of a meme right here, thanks.


More on the Value/Disvalue of Monogamy

Mark asks in the comment thread to my post on BDSM and Feminism,

I'm not sure how monogamy would be incompatible with faithfulness.

It's like making a promise you know you can't keep. (Or, to be more precise, a promise most people can't keep; there may be some freaky faithful outliers among us.) It's sort of like the perspective Christianity has regarding Judaism; the rules and regulations expected of us in the Old Testament were just too unrealistic and overbearing given human nature (which of course raises the obvious question why a flawed Old Testament was needed in the first place), making sin and unfaithfulness to God practically inevitable.

The biggest problem with rejecting monogamy is the issue of jealousy, and how central and innate you think it is to the human condition. I think jealousy exists for most of us, but it can be dealt with (albeit not completely overcome) through proper conditioning. I like to make an analogy between monogamy/polyandry on the one hand and the question of how many children a couple should raise on the other. Any decision to raise more than one child will inevitably create issues of jealousy between the children, and since parents' time is limited, an additional child must inevitably constrain and limit the time, focus, attention, money, etc. a parent can give to the remaining children. And yet for many (most?) families, the issues of jealously and limited resources aren't enough to countenance against having more than one child, and even for those for whom it does so countenance against, they don't look down upon their neighbors who do choose to have more than one child. While the issues are certainly different in many important respects, I like to extrapolate these observations about children to having more than one romantic/sexual partner.

I also like to think about the ex post/ex ante distinction in relation to monogamy. From a forward looking perspective, I can (sort of) understand why couples would want to commit themselves against engaging in future extramarital relationships. But in order to make this commitment credible, each party to the monogamous agreement must be willing to follow through with the (often harsh) consequences if they find out their partner has been cheating. This leads to many unfortunate outcomes that don't make much sense on their own merits retrospectively, but can only be understood prospectively.

Analogize to nuclear warfare, Mutually Assured Destruction, and doomsday devices. Once you've been nuked by your enemy, it doesn't do either of you much good to respond in kind. But in order to prevent them from violating the peace in the first place, you have to credibly commit to irrational, self-harming behavior - irrational on its own merits ex post, but rational ex ante.

Of course, some couples are able to forgive and forget infidelities after the fact, even if they both claimed to want a monogamous relationship beforehand. Had they been able to overcome their fear of jealousy, loss, and abandonment, they wouldn't have had to worry about romantic doomsday devices in the first place, and could have lived happily ever after, the end.


Pragmatism and Economics

[So I'm digging through my email archives (yay gmail search!) looking for my resume, and I come across an old term paper I wrote for a philosophy course on pragmatism. I've probably posted this before, but it's one of my favorite essays, so here it is again.]

 


At first glance, it appears as though the field of economics and the philosophy of pragmatism[1] are fundamentally at odds with each other. Economics operates from the perspective of methodological individualism, focused primarily on the viewpoint of individual decision makers. Pragmatism, on the other hand, rejects an individualistic, atomic conception of man and takes a communitarian approach instead. Furthermore, economics has borrowed heavily from logical positivism, and logical positivism in turn has been historically opposed to pragmatism.

Despite these apparent differences, economics and pragmatism have much in common with each other. Indeed, on closer examination, many of the conflicts between the two disappear entirely. The cause of this misunderstanding is a lack of dialogue: economists have much to learn from pragmatists and so too the reverse. Specifically, economists practice a methodology of pragmatism (even though they mistakenly speak a language of logical positivism), economists share a pragmatist conception of value, and most importantly, economists and pragmatists use similar tools to explain how knowledge is acquired, modified, and disseminated.

It is somewhat ironic that during the same year when logical positivism was effectively destroyed as a sufficient explanation for scientific methodology among philosophers, it was just coming into fruition as a philosophy of science among economists. In 1953, the year that Willard van Orman Quine published his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,”[2] Milton Friedman published “The Methodology of Positive Economics.”[3] The importance of Friedman’s paper to how economists understand (or misunderstand) the methodology of their own field cannot be overstated.[4] Friedman begins by distinguishing between positive and normative economics along classic Humean lines. Although such a sharp distinction between fact and value is rejected by some pragmatists, it can be saved on validation/vindication grounds: economists are more likely to reach agreement with their colleagues and the general public if they avoid making policy recommendations based upon highly controversial values. This is not to say that positive, “factual” claims are immune to controversy, but less so than normative, value-laden ones. Similar to Quine’s soft-demarcation between more germane and less germane beliefs, positive and normative claims can be described as different in degree, not different in kind. All beliefs ultimately rest on some kind of value judgments, but the less a claim relies on controversial values, the less likely one needs to resort to vindication to resolve a dispute, if such a resolution is even possible at all. Conversely, claims based upon widely-shared values are more likely to be accepted through validation.

Later in his paper, Friedman defends economic methodology on instrumentalist as opposed to realist grounds. Friedman concedes that the basic assumptions of economics—people have rational preferences among outcomes; individuals maximize utility and firms maximize profits—are certainly not true in any universal sense and may not lead to reliable predictions insofar as the phenomena under examination are the assumptions themselves. However, Friedman argues that we can use these same assumptions legitimately if they are successful in predicting other phenomena of interest.

Friedman provides two examples. First, suppose a physicist wants to predict the shots made by an expert billiard player. The physicist can reasonably assume that the expert billiard player will make his shots “as if he knew the complicated mathematical formulas that would give the optimum directions of travel, could estimate accurately by eye the angles, etc., describing the location of the balls, could make lightning calculations from the formulas, and could then make the balls travel in the direction indicated by the formulas.”[5] Of course, even the most expert billiard players do not actually go through this impossibly complex process. Rather, our assumption that expert billiard players will act as if they do go through this process is justified based on the argument that “unless in some way or other they were capable of reaching essentially the same result, they would not in fact be expert billiard players.”[6] The phenomenon of interest is not the rationality or mathematical ability of the billiard player, but the results of his shots as if he acted upon perfect rationality or mathematical ability.

Friedman’s second example is similar to an evolutionary argument. Suppose a biologist wants to predict the density of leaves around a tree. The biologist can reasonably assume “that the leaves are positioned as if each leaf deliberately sought to maximize the amount of sunlight it receives, given the positions of its neighbors, as if it knew the physical laws determining the amount of sunlight that would be received in various positions and could move rapidly or instantaneously from any one position to any other desired and unoccupied position.”[7] Of course, leaves do not act this way; indeed leaves do not “act” at all in the sense that action requires conscious choice. Rather, those areas of the tree which receive more sunlight will be more conducive to leaf growth, and thus denser than areas which receive little or no sunlight. The phenomenon of interest is not the consciousness of the leaves, but the results of leaf density in relation to sunlight as if leaves were capable of conscious action.

However, there is a weakness in Friedman’s argument. As-if assumptions may be useful and reliable insofar as they are applied to the specific phenomenon for which they have been tested. But this presents a difficulty if economists ever wish to apply these assumptions to new applications, with no assurance that the same approximations will hold true. The as-if assumptions will need to be empirically tested for each new application; they cannot be relied upon as general principles because the assumptions themselves have not been tested as the phenomena of interest. Still, Friedman’s instrumentalism seems closer to pragmatism than to logical positivism.

Although Friedman tried to sidestep the issue by distinguishing between positive and normative economics, even positive economics must answer the question: What determines the value of a commodity? Economists from Adam Smith to David Ricardo to Karl Marx all shared a common belief that commodities have an objective value, independent of the subjective preferences people place on them. Smith came to this conclusion as a result of reasoning through the diamond/water paradox. Smith distinguished between value in use and value in exchange: Why is it that diamonds have such a high exchange value compared to water yet water is so much more useful than diamonds? Water is necessary for human existence and diamonds are not. Smith concluded that exchange value must be determined by a factor other than usefulness. The determinant of exchange value, Smith reasoned, is the labor cost of producing a commodity.

Smith’s reasoning, however, was flawed. He failed to distinguish between "total" utility and "marginal" utility. It is true that the total utility or satisfaction of water exceeds that of diamonds; if given a choice, people would prefer a life without diamonds than a life without water - which is, of course, no life at all. Yet most people would prefer to win a prize of a single diamond instead of an additional bucket of water. To make this last choice, people do not ask themselves whether diamonds or water give more satisfaction in total, but whether more of one gives greater additional satisfaction than more of the other. For this marginal utility question, the answer will depend on how much of each commodity the consumer already has. Though the first units of water consumed every month are of enormous value, the last units are not. The utility of additional (or marginal) units continues to decrease as a person consumes more and more.

Smith’s failure to distinguish between total utility and marginal utility does not necessarily demonstrate that the labor theory of value is wrong, but it does remove his impetus for rejecting usefulness—or preference—as a standard of value. There are numerous other economic arguments against the labor theory of value, the strongest of which—the transformation problem—was discovered by Marx himself. But these arguments are beyond the scope of this essay. More important for the present discussion is the modern understanding of what determines value.

The labor theory is an objective explanation of value in the sense that value is determined by material conditions, and not by the preferences of those living in a specific society. In contrast, the current paradigm in mainstream economics is based on economic subjectivism: the theory that value is a feature of the appraiser and not of the thing being appraised. According to economic subjectivism, commodities do not have inherent value, but have value only insofar as people desire them.

This notion of subjective economic value is nearly identical to the way pragmatism approaches concepts like moral values and legal or ethical rights. Values, whether economic or moral, cannot be derived from outside society – from outside the value makers. People cannot remove themselves from their social context in order to gaze at the objective principles “out there,” because there is no “out there” at which to gaze. Instead, since value does not exist outside of the social paradigm, it must come from within that community. The propensity of consumers to consume, the propensity of producers to produce, the relative scarcity of a good, the available substitutes, current technology – all of these factors—and others—interact with each other through a system of price signals to indicate to consumers and producers the values other people place on certain commodities and the opportunity costs one must give up in order to acquire a certain commodity or pursue a certain production strategy.

This system of prices for the economist is akin to a linguistic system for the pragmatist. No human knowledge can exist outside the linguistic system, and no economic knowledge (or economic values) can exist outside a pricing system. This idea was made clear in F.A. Hayek’s well-known essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.”[8] Hayek focuses on what initially may seem at odds with pragmatism: information available only to individuals through their particular circumstances of time and place and their subjective desires. Hayek, like other economists, ultimately operates from a standpoint of methodological individualism; the focus, as always is on how human action originating from the individual can lead to a social structure more than the sum of its parts.

However, this is not contrary to the pragmatist conception of human knowledge as a fundamentally communal process. Even though it originates from individuals, the kind of tacit, unarticulated, habitual, inchoate, personal knowledge Hayek describes can only be harnessed through a social process, precisely because it is dispersed across the very individuals who posses it. As Hayek puts it, “the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”[9] Hayek claims that

The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate "given" resources—if "given" is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these "data." It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.[10]

If this kind of tacit knowledge is dispersed across everyone in society, and cannot be concentrated or integrated into one single mind or entity, how can it be utilized? Hayek offers a two part solution. First, “the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them.”[11] It would be impractical if not impossible to communicate all of this tacit decentralized knowledge held by millions of individuals to one central authority and expect this authority to integrate and act upon this knowledge in time for it to still be relevant. Instead, there must be some method by which people can communicate their decentralized, tacit knowledge to each other. This method, Hayek argues, is a system of price signals.

Prices serve two basic functions in economics. In the short term, prices serve a rationing function by directing goods to their highest valued uses. In the long term, prices serve a resource allocation function by communicating to producers that consumers want more of good X and less of good Y. Through these two functions, prices communicate information to both consumers and producers and at the same time give them incentives to change their behavior.

The system itself is ingeniously simple. No one needs to expend much thought inquiring into the nature and causes of price fluctuations. The only thing consumers and producers need to do is react to the price signals as they receive them. Hayek recognized this beautiful simplicity when he wrote,

The problem which we meet here is by no means peculiar to economics but arises in connection with nearly all truly social phenomena, with language and with most of our cultural inheritance, and constitutes really the central theoretical problem of all social science. As Alfred Whitehead has said in another connection, "It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them." This is of profound significance in the social field. We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.[12]

This is nothing more than pragmatism. Hayek rejects abstract theorizing as essentially a waste of time and a distraction from real kinds of knowledge – knowledge which can influence our actions. His criterion for judging habits and institutions is Darwinian – that which succeeds over time survives and that which does not is discarded.

Most economists are already pragmatists; they just don’t know it yet. They have adopted the language of logical positivism to describe their methodology, yet they do not practice it. They have rejected realism as untenable for the study of complex human interactions, while at the same time, pragmatists have rejected realism insofar as they object to any claims of a reality or “Truth” external to the human language and human social experience necessary to understand it. Instead, both groups—economists and pragmatists—have adopted instrumentalism on grounds of practical results. Both economists and pragmatists reject any notion of objective value outside of human value-creators. And most importantly, economists like Hayek have come to recognize that the market itself is a social institution, and prices, like language, are a form of communicating knowledge for social progress.


[1] If not the philosophy of pragmatism, then the pragmatic way of thinking: “[William] James presented pragmatism…not as a philosophy but as a way of doing philosophy, and Peirce…described it as a method for making ideas clear and not as a place to look for ideas themselves.” Menand, L. 1997. Pragmatism: A Reader, pp. xxv-xxvi. New York: Vintage Books.
[2] Quine, W. 1953. Two Dogmas of Empiricism. In From a Logical Point of View, pp. 20-46. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
[3] Friedman, M. 1953. The Methodology of Positive Economics. In Essays in Positive Economics, pp. 3-43. University of Chicago Press.
[4] “Indeed, Friedman’s essay is by far the most influential methodological statement of this century. It is the only essay on methodology that a large number, perhaps a majority, of economists have ever read.” Daniel Hausman, D. 1988. Economic Methodology and Philosophy of Science. In Winston, G. and Teichgraeber, R. The Boundaries of Economics, p. 96. Cambridge University Press.
[5] Friedman, M. p. 21.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid. 19.
[8] Hayek, F.A. 1945 “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” American Economic Review, XXXV, No. 4; September, pp. 519-30.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.

Agorism, Immigration, and Ron Paul

Some really good stuff over at Rod Long's blog recently.

First, an illuminating exchange between Charles Johnson (aka Rad Geek) and David Gordon that should once and for all lay to rest any remaining nonsensical hand-wringing libertarians may have about open immigration:

DAVID: Free immigration combined with a welfare state is a dangerous brew: does it make sense to reject Ron Paul because he cannot accept it?

CHARLES: It may be true that when you combine something fundamentally moral – free immigration – with something completely immoral – a coercive welfare state funded by expropriated tax funds – you’ll get bad consequences from the combination. But that’s a good reason to try to limit or eliminate the immoral part of the combination, by undermining or dismantling the apparatus of taxation and government welfare. It’s certainly not a good reason to try to limit or eliminate the moral part of the combination by escalating the federal government’s surveillance, recording, searching, beating, jailing, and exiling innocent people.

DAVID: He points out that some efforts to restrict immigration use violence against people; and he is right that here lies danger. Libertarians who favor immigration restrictions need to specify exactly what measures they think permissible. Ron Paul doesn’t favor beating and jailing people.

CHARLES: Of course Ron Paul does favor beating and jailing people in the name of his immigration control policy. He favors the creation and enforcement of federal immigration laws, including a paramilitary lock-down of the land borders, aggressive enforcement of the existing visa system, and the continued criminalization (“no amnesty”) of currently undocumented immigrants. He also favors the necessary means to these ends: border walls, paramilitary border patrols, government immigration dossiers and employment papers, internal immigration cops, detention centers, and all the other necessary means to interdicting, discovering, arresting, jailing, and deporting people who try to live and work peacefully in the United States without a federal permission slip for their existence. If you don’t believe that this process necessarily involves violent means, then just try to cross the border without government papers and see what happens to you.

Next, Roderick eloquently echoes the point I was trying to make in The Medium Is The Message:

How strong is the libertarian case for rejecting electoral politics altogether? The Voluntaryist moral argument that electoral politics involves impermissibly lending one’s sanction to the state I continue to find unpersuasive, for reasons I’ve explained previously. But the Agorist strategic argument is one that I find more convincing than I used to.

The Agorist line is that, given the informational and incentival constraints on state behaviour, the ultimate triumph of liberty is unlikely to come through top-down political action. Hence the more effective strategy is to encourage the withering-away of the state through education, building alternative institutions, and encouraging the withdrawal of support via La Boétie-style mass civil disobedience. But this means that we should be trying to wean people away from the political process – that we should be encouraging them to ignore the state, not to become energetically involved in political campaigns.

David Gordon writes that “Rothbard scorned those who disdain political action. Interested only in their supposed ideological purity, they retreat to an intellectual pantisocracy and display little interest in actually securing libertarian political objectives.” But this is a misunderstanding, I think. Those who disdain political action in the sense of electoral politics are not necessarily disdaining political action in the sense of action aimed at achieving libertarian political goals; they just think that the best way to do the latter is to resist, rather than to embrace, the former. It’s sometimes said that anarchists and minarchists are headed in the same direction, and so might as well ride on the same train for the time being, with minarchists merely getting off a stop or two before the anarchists do. But if the Agorist argument is right, they’re not really riding on the same train; and the minarchist train encourages a mindset that tends to undermine the success of the anarchist train.

I plan to start writing (and reading!) a lot more about Agorism in the near future, starting with a discussion of two drug movies, American Gangster and Blow. Until then, here's a brief synopsis of my argument to hold you over:

I was comparing [American Gangster] to Blow the entire way through. Johnny Depp's character [in Blow] proved--to me, at least--the impossibility of explicitly using the drug trade to promote agorist ideals. Depp played a middleman who was either unwilling or unable to incorporate the use of violence into his entrepreneurial toolkit. He failed as a result, pushed out of the market by competitors who were so willing to use violence. It seems that in the absence of a functioning market for protection and enforcement of property rights, these protection services have to be bundled together with the distribution and sale of narcotics. Such bundling pushes peaceful actors like Depp out of the market, and welcomes the Denzel/American Gangster type (though Denzel's character was better than most aggressors).

More to come on that, so stay tuned...


A Conversation With Jesus

Many times when I am troubled or confused, I find comfort in sitting in my back yard having a scotch and soda along with a quiet conversation with Jesus. This happened to me again after a particularly difficult day.

I said "Jesus, why do I work so hard?" And I heard the reply: "Men find many ways to demonstrate the love they have for their family. You work hard to have a peaceful, beautiful place for your friends and family to gather."

I said: "I thought that money was the root of all evil." And the reply was : "No, the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. Money is a tool; it can be used for good or bad".

I was starting to feel better, but I still had that one burning question, so I asked it . "Jesus", I said, "What is the meaning of life? Why am I here?"

He replied, "That is a question many men ask. The answer is in your heart and is different for everyone. I would love to chat with you some more, Senor, but now, I have to finish your lawn."

- one of the wittier email jokes going around 


Breaking News: The Government Lies To Us

Shocking, I know, but there it is.

Don McAdam, a true American Patriot, writes in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

About two minutes into the video, I could take no more.

I was going to break decorum. I mumbled, "It's a lie. It's the worst kind of lie."

Realizing that not even the two people sitting directly in front of me had heard my utterance, I raised the volume and repeated it. I stood up from my cushioned chair and in a stronger voice said, "This ad is a lie!"

I didn't dare glance at my family. I needed to remain in denial as to how my wife and kids were reacting to my outburst. My heart racing, and in my angriest voice, I shouted, "It's a lie, just like this war!"

That was the scene at my local movie theater prior to a showing of "The Golden Compass." The pre-show ad that was playing was a music video titled "Citizen Soldier," a slickly produced and, I suspect, highly effective recruitment ad for the National Guard.

The 3 1/2-minute music video incorporated an original song by the successful rock band 3 Doors Down with images of the National Guard's responses to past, present and imagined wars and disasters.

The scenes of the band playing were magnificently filmed with a shakiness that evokes a sense of being in the midst of battle explosions. I hated it in part because it was so well-made. It's a great advertisement because it sells the dream of the product, not its reality or its true price.

Its lie is obscured under the veneer of misguided patriotism and false realism. Its sterilized depictions of death and destruction pale in comparison with what actually happens when people and war collide. In the video, there are no dismembered bodies, no blood raining from the skies, no charred remains of babies caught in bomb blasts. And always out of our view are the horrified, terrified faces of the survivors.

No successful ad campaign about national service under our current civilian leadership could possibly tell the truth. If Americans saw the ugly truth about the war and occupation of Iraq, they would turn in disgust. The war would be ended and the perpetrators prosecuted for the lies that created it and the utter incompetence with which it was waged. Still many, perhaps even most, Americans despair over this endless occupation and the needless suffering of those who serve.

The truth about today's military service is that almost 40,000 of our armed forces are dead and wounded in Iraq, with the Army National Guard constituting about 20 percent of those. Suicide and divorce rates are escalating for combat veterans. According to recent U.S. Senate testimony, almost half of our returning troops are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Cases of traumatic brain injuries are at high levels. The quality and quantity of medical care provided to veterans is frequently inadequate.

Even with the repeated warnings of military experts that our military is at the breaking point, the policies of repeated and extended deployments remain. They remain for the simple reason that our military does not have enough people to properly carry out its missions. No wonder the National Guard spared no expense with its latest ad.

It's kind of a shame I never bought a 3 Doors Down album, cause now would be a great time to publicly burn one.


Justin Raimondo Is A Decent Person

I never thought I'd say this, but Justin Raimondo is a decent human being. Ron Paul, however, is not.

Whatever sympathy I may have once shared for the Paul campaign has been completely lost. Now, more than ever, is the time to loudly and publicy withdraw support from the Ron Paul campaign.

Thousands of students from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Muslim countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and elsewhere come to this country and bring home with them the ideas of liberty, tolerance, and fair play that are the predominant themes of our culture. Barring them would be politically foolish, economically counterproductive, and a prelude to much worse.

It saddens me to write this, and yet I cannot be silent in the face of such a brazenly ugly attempt to cash in on barely disguised anti-Muslim sentiment, especially since his proposal would penalize large numbers of perfectly innocent people, young people whose only “crime” is to want to come to America. ...

This is about allowing legal immigration – and, specifically, of a type that benefits us in many ways, economically and in terms of the good will generated throughout the world at a time when we sorely need it.

Will you remain silent in the face of this monstrous campaign? Will you continue to support this ugly nativism and anti-Muslim (and Mexican) racism as the Paul campaign besmirches whatever decency libertarianism may have left in the public eye?


BDSM and Feminism

So Brian Macker raised a point in a comment to my personal ad that I've been meaning to clarify and discuss.

Brian writes,

Maybe I got this wrong but isn't a dominant woman going to want a guy
who can be shamed? Why would a dominant woman put up with you exploring
the poly lifestyle? Won't she reserve that perogative to herself and
lock you in your cage? Sounds like you are way to spirited and
unbreakable to me. What's the fun in trying to humilate someone who
can't be humiliated.

The problem here is a (reasonable and expectable) confusion that results from the term BDSM itself. So says Wikipedia:

The term "BDSM" is an abbreviation derived from the terms bondage and discipline, domination and submission and sadism and masochism. It defines a spectrum of usually sexual behavior, that can include dominance, submission, punishment, masochism, bondage, role play and a large variety of other activities.

BDSM refers to a group of related sexual preferences, but just because these preferences are related in some way does not mean that they are necessarily present in every case: Not every dom is a sadist; not every sub is a masochist. For some people, pain is pleasurable, both to give and receive; others prefer humiliation or just non-traditional gender roles. These preferences may be satisfied through role-playing, or may simply reflect underlying personality types, and are acted upon not just in the bedroom but throughout one's entire lifestyle.

I've read enough about the overall BDSM community to know that much of it is not for me. I do not like receiving pain, and I hate causing pain for others even more. I do not enjoy humiliation or shame in either direction. And yet there is something endearing about this alternative culture; something liberating and profound. These are people who are not afraid to buck (or enthusiastically embrace) gender stereotypes, to hell with what the rest of society thinks about them.

I remember reading a personal ad on a BDSM website by a women who used to consider herself "normal," but old-fashioned; she longed to be dominated by a man, not in any weird, freaky sense, but in a very conservative, traditional 1950s gender-roles way. She eventually realized that this sort of relationship was a thing of the past, a relic, and that times have changed so much that her preferences could only be met within an alternative lifestyle community.

Her case was instructive to me. By describing myself as submissive, interested in dominant women, I risk misleading people into thinking that I'm into all this weird stuff like pain and humiliatian and whips and chains and all sorts of freaky shit. Well, I'm not. It's just a description of my personality. And my personality, and the sorts of personalities I am looking for in other people, greatly differs from what present society considers normal for men and women.

Read any women's magazine or dating website, and you will find some columnist giving advice to women to not act "too smart" around men, as that will be a huge turn off and intimidate them. Instead, I suppose, this columnist is recommending... what? Pretend to be a ditz? Play the part of the dumb blonde?

Hey, if that's the sort of man a woman is looking for - the sort of man who is intimated by a more intelligent woman, the sort of man that has to always play the role of provider, decider, aggressor, initiatior - call all the shots, make all the decisions - I say, more power to both of them. I hope they find what they're looking for. But that's not for me. And yet I seem to be in the minority, so I've taken to associating with an alternative, minority community. And I don't really mind getting mistakenly lumped together with everyone in that community; that just goes with the territory of labels - ignorance and prejudgement are along for the ride.

At the risk of reading my personal preferences into a normative theory of the way society should be as a whole, I see an important connection between my interest in feminism and my interest in domination and submission. I believe that, as much as things may have improved in recent decades, we continue to live in a male-dominated society, with rigid expectations about acceptable gender roles, innumerable double standards regarding appropriate behavior for men and women, and countless other inequalities and injusticies, that - while not necessarily legally enforceable from a policy perspective, are worth fighting against with persuasion and culture hacks. One way of doing that, for me at least, is appropriating some of the language used by the BDSM community, if only to show how out of touch mainstream society is when it comes to healthy, ethical, egalitarian gender power relations. If that makes me a freak, so be it.