Thursday, December 10, 2009

Science Does Not Demand Belief

... but Scientism does.

Scientism is what Chris Mooney (author of Unscientific America) advocates. He thinks that scientists and their supporters "must work to influence public opinion, and anticipate and thwart the skeptics." Ironically, this isn't what science demands--it is what True Believers demand. Under this system, scientists assume the roles vacated by discredited religionists under a new modern secular mass movement, replacing old ideas with a new metaphysics of value which is always completely unscientific (by definition) in order to craft a worldview that is a viable context for meaningful and moral human action. This is ostensibly done with "science" as its foundation and framework, which is of course nonsense.

Science doesn't say anything about value. It can quantify physical and empirical properties of things, but it can't give direction on what those properties should mean to humanity, philosophy, politics, religion, or economy. We have to infer those connections from another value context which is intuitive to humans but never scientific. There are no scientific tests for human rights, for acquaintance, for aesthetics, for morality, for being, or for value. It is impossible to prove that these things exist in an empirical domain; they rely ultimately upon subjective conviction.

People don't operate under the rules of science which level all measurable things in a sort of objective equality. Humans naturally stratify things into value groups, and that is what has ultimately brought about "ClimateGate." It isn't good enough merely to do science for the sake of finding things out; it has to mean something. It has to be important. When it comes to praxis, there is also a moral dimension because application always involves human action. None of those are scientific phenomena, but they begin to lead scientists in different circles more familiar to those who seek religion. We soon find that there are scientists who see data where there are none to be seen; scientists who desperately need to advocate a cause. In the end, Scientism gets in the way of science. It's just another religion.

None of us possess all of the objective facts. We don't do primary research of a generalized nature (few of us do any at all); we increasingly specialize. This requires a great deal of faith in other specialists who claim to have the first-hand knowledge that we lack. In this regard, we are something like those who once waited for Moses to come down from the mountain. While the true prophet of religion is measured on a scale that weighs the purity of his causes, the true scientist is identified by his lack of any cause at all. True scientists are the ones who don't evangelize--they don't have a reason to influence public opinion or to thwart skeptics. When scientists forsake science to become activists, like Chris Mooney thinks they should, that is when things like "ClimateGate" happen.

Monday, September 7, 2009


In 1858, in the midst of turmoil incident to the American Abolitionist Movement, James Henry Hammond addressed the 35th United States congress with a speech that would later become known as the Mudsill Theory. In his speech, Senator Hammond claimed that all societies are built upon a class of people "requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill." Such a class was a necessary prerequisite of "progress, civilization, and refinement." Hammond said that a race of people "eminently qualified" for this role in society had been found for the south: "We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves."

At this point in Hammond's speech, things get interesting. Slavery, said Hammond, could be done away with in word only -- "the name, but not the thing; all the powers of the earth cannot abolish that."In support of his assertion, Senator Hammond pointed to the only class of people worse off than slaves: those who relied, for their subsistence, on a wage paid out of someone else's pocket. Hirelings are "essentially slaves," said Hammond; only, without the perks. Hammond claimed that his slaves were well compensated, "there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either." In Senator Hammond's view, it was far better to be a slave than an employee.

In 1859 an Illinois Senator, Abraham Lincoln, refuted the mud-sill argument. Interestingly, this refutation did not include support of a working class of hired labor over a class of chattel slaves. Instead, Lincoln claimed that Free states didn't have a mud-sill class at all; almost everyone was self-employed! And those who weren't, Lincoln claimed, were just working their way up to it. The hireling was a transitory phase leading to self-sufficiency. According to Abraham Lincoln, America didn't need slaves of either stripe.

Six years and 360,000 dead Union soldiers later, the name "slavery" had been abolished from America, but not the thing. The institution had merely been transformed, and in July of 1894, in an unconscious vindication of James Hammond, Federal troops killed numerous laborers in the Pullman dispute. The strike was broken on August 3, and six days afterward the 53rd Congress bestowed national recognition to "Labor Day" (at the emergency request of President Cleveland) in a futile attempt to quell the anger. Grover Cleveland learned the hard way that it's often poor policy for a government to murder its own citizens.

Woodrow Wilson re-enshrined the Mudsill Theory with his "class of necessity" before America entered into World War I. Over a decade later, in the desperation of the Great Depression, James Truslow Adams coined the phrase "The American Dream." It is true that sometimes we don't find words for things until we lose them and wonder what it is that we lost. Abraham Lincoln was wrong.

At the turn of the 20th century, economist Thorstein Veblen tackled the mud-sill theory from the other end, publishing in 1899 his Theory of the Leisure Class. The book was not an exposition on the nature and practice of leisure, but rather an investigation of Darwinian-style institutional economics; of what happens when leisure meets money and power.

Veblen said that, as a society matures, some of the people will find that they can escape the need for full-time subsistence labor. This is done through the means of exploit and predation upon a class of industrious and unrefined (i.e. "those of a low order of intellect"). In Veblen's own words, industry "is effort that goes to create a new thing, with a new purpose given it by the fashioning hand of its maker," while exploit "is the conversion to his own ends of energies previously directed to other ends by another agent."

The leisure class coincides with "a transition from a peaceful to a consistently warlike habit of life." Leisure must be preserved by predation and by inflicting injury on others (ostensibly to protect the economy or preserve the way of live). "the ancient tradition of the predatory culture is that productive effort is to be shunned as being unworthy of able-bodied men."

The rich and powerful wear leisure as a badge to distinguish them from the lower classes, thus in the distinction of class, "the performance of labor has been accepted as a conventional evidence of inferior force; therefore it comes itself, by a mental short-cut, to be regarded as intrinsically base."

Veblen said that time had to be consumed in ways that are not productive "as evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness." From this idea arises the now-famous term, Conspicuous Consumption. There must be visible evidence of worthiness for one's exalted position in society, which demands excess and waste in the highest degree. From this perspective, the first institution of ownership "has begun with the ownership of persons..." Human resources, if you will. Ironically, this feeling of ownership does not extend to family ties; "the reputable maintenance of a child is very considerable and acts as a powerful deterrent."

Conspicuous consumption turned superfluous things into commodities and then into necessities of life. Things that had been done without in the past would become indispensable to the present. Even religion was a thing to be consumed, without the actual need to follow a particular precept or to mind inconvenient "commandments." Religious devotion was a putative thing; meant to be worn on the sleeves and displayed as a public adornment.

To the leisure class, utility and beauty become a function of cost. You get what you pay for. Under the law of conspicuous consumption, "admission to the [leisure] class is gained by... aptitudes for acquisition rather than serviceability."

In modern times, Veblen said, the "lines of demarcation" between the classes would become "vague and transient." In such a condition, the "norm of reputability imposed by the upper class extends its coercive influence ... down through the social structure." Each class would accept as its ideal of right living the form practiced by the next higher stratum. The dignity of the poor would not allow them to cast aside some "last trinket or... pretense of pecuniary decency" (better to starve); the middle class (a well-compensated class of people among whom there was "no starvation, no begging, no want of employment," to use James Hammond's verbiage) would fill its spare time with petty consumption, recreation, and ease.

Education for the leisure class gains as its "dominant aim... the preparation of the youth... for the consumption of goods, material and immaterial[.]" As for teachers, "administrative ability and skill in advertising the enterprise count for rather more than they once did, as qualifications for the work of teaching." The idea of work would become limited to only those activities likely to produce pecuniary gain while the standard of living would reach and even exceed the earning capacity of the class. Regardless of the situation, the tendency would be to live beyond one's means.

There is, however, a certain dissatisfaction with belonging to a leisure class. It is that nobody wants to feel useless or unproductive. Veblen said that people have an internal instinct for workmanship. How can there be a reconciliation between the ideal of conspicuous waste and the human need to produce?

It would be done through the "make-believe of purposeful employment." The leisure class would invent for itself "duties of a ceremonious nature." There would be much coming and going and a great deal of talk; they would become talkers and take their place among the most busy of all people. This new kind of "work" would leave little time to reflect on the "economic value of their traffic." A whole new type of false production was imagined: man invented the MBA. Leisure would be filled to the brim with management.


Leisure, when corrupted by money and power, is no better than idleness and extravagance. But it has not always been the case for leisure to be viewed exclusively as an indicator of class distinction or economic success. It's true that leisure is more precious than gold. Leisure is the mother of philosophy and an essential vehicle for the development of character.

David McCulough said that, to the American Founders, the pursuit of happiness "didn't mean long vacations or material possessions or ease. As much as anything it meant the life of the mind and spirit. It meant education and the love of learning, the liberty to think for oneself."

In twenty-two volumes of British National Biographies detailing the lives of noteworthy individuals, there are nearly a thousand instances of leisure. In not a single case, that I could find, did leisure coincide with idleness. These notable people, almost without exception, filled their leisure with literacy and a passionate pursuit of self improvement.

"I must study politics and war," wrote John Adams, "that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

Is it fair to view John Adams' vision as a litmus test for the success of the American experiment? In America, do we have time for leisure? If so, how do we spend it? Is ours a culture of economic and conspicuous consumption that relies on the toil of lesser classes, or is it a culture of refinement, education, and self improvement where Americans are self sufficient?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gatto, Farragut, and the Nature of Machines

I just finished reading John Taylor Gatto's Weapons of Mass Instruction. It took me four days to do it, compared to the months it took me, slogging through the epic Underground History of American Education. Part of that is because Weapons is a shorter read, and maybe a little bit easier too. Another part of it is that I'm quite a bit more literate now than I was then.

In 2003, I lost the best job I had yet been in. In a panic, I sold our little house and eventually sought low-paying employment programming financial software at a multinational mega-corporation while I pursued what I thought would be a beneficial education at the University of Utah. This was during the tech bust that followed the dot-com boom of 1999 and 2000. We rented a small apartment that kept the family close — when we were together — and I spent my time between work, school, and my small replica of the Armed Virginia Sloop (which I finished building in less than two years, in spite of my insane schedule).

The only really interesting thing I learned at school that year was how to make a blind continuous contour drawing. My math teacher was so useless that I started skipping class regularly, teaching myself at the kitchen table instead. To my knowledge, I'm the only one who achieved a perfect score in the class of about 200 students. I got a 4.0 GPA for the term; other than that, I don't remember anything about my schooling (well, there was once when I almost got crushed by a train while trying to find a shortcut across campus in the dark. But the risk shaved about five minutes off my walk and I was able to get home early that evening). Today, I'm a college dropout.

It was also in those days that I began to feel a vague uneasiness about the upbringing of my two kids.

I began to realize that I hadn't been sufficiently programmed to fit the image of "father" that I had been taught about in church. It was the dormitory model that I pursued instead. My three-year-old wanted bedtime stories and playtime with dad, but I wanted to do my own things after a crazy day at work and school. It occasionally bothered me that I spent so little time with him. I don't even remember what my daughter was interested in as a fourth-grader at Midvale Elementary school. All I remember was that sometimes I had to pick her up from school, that once I went to a parent teacher conference, and that there was mold growing in her bedroom closet.

I wondered who my daughter was, or who she was becoming. Even had I wanted to be an engaged dad, the short windows of actual human interaction enforced by lives lived away from home made the prospect of my daughter turning into a decent adult seem like a twisted sort of lottery. I counted on other people not to mess her up. It wasn't a good feeling.

In 2003, the best education I got happened during the frequent train rides between work, home, and school. It was the only leisure time I had, other than occasional after-dinner spurts of work on the model sloop (also quality education) when there was no homework to worry about.

Some friends of mine, Aaron and Diana, were homeschooling their kids. Sometimes they talked about it with us, and one way or another, I ended up with a loaned copy of Oliver DeMille's "Thomas Jefferson Education" which I read on the train. I must have been inspired by something in that book because soon enough I was consuming every classic I could get my hands on. I read Defoe, Verne, Goldstein, Richard Feynman, Roger Lancelyn Green, David McCullough, among many other classics related to my own profession. Once, on a visit to Aaron's house, he pulled out a copy of Gatto's "Underground History" and began quoting passages from its pages. It was mostly boring stuff; I couldn't understand it. I wasn't interested in education or in schooling at all, only in forgetting about it. What in the world is pedagogy, and why would I ever care to know about that?

But the schooling problem still nagged: I was walking on that line between trusting my kids to the invisible hand of the public school lottery (Look, I turned out OK! I work for a successful fortune 500, spending most of my conscious hours in a 4x4 cloth-covered cubicle worthy of Dilbert!) and the unknown world of homeschooling that I once perceived as the exclusive realm of crazed conspiracy theorists and deranged, maladjusted cranks. I decided that if my homeschooling friends thought Gatto had something important to say about school then I would read it and then make my decision.

The Underground History was not an easy read, but in the pursuit of it, something happened that I hadn't experienced since I learned to speak fluent Portuguese in the early '90s. As a result of that effort (accomplished largely on the streets of Gramado, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil) my mind was expanded to new thoughts, never to shrink again. As I struggled through Gatto's prose (often with multiple re-readings, with the aid of a dictionary, and with Wikipedia), I felt and understood ideas in a way that I had never experienced before. It was real education like I never knew, and I could hardly explain the sense of it even if I possessed Gatto's own considerable talent for exposition. I realized for the first time what it felt like to come face-to-face with greatness, and that was a life-changing moment.

Gatto spurs and prods. He is a revolutionary, a trouble-maker, a dissenter, a rule breaker. He is the kind of man who can give a calm lecture at an upscale school (by invitation) right here in America, armed with nothing but independently verifiable facts, and be forced from the podium by the police before he is allowed to finish his speech. That's how dangerous his ideas about society and freedom are, even in America. His writing can be angry, shrill, agonizing; but it is all true. Mostly true; true in the important, overarching sense.

Gatto is a conspiracy theorist worth listening to, because he bothered to do the research needed to sketch legitimate pictures of actual reality. He knows how to connect dots or at least how to ask the important questions, like Neil Postman, Eric Hoffer, Aldous Huxley, and all of the other great Noticers the world has ever seen.

How do I know? Because the allegations Gatto levels against schools (himself a decorated veteran of the New York public school system, an English teacher of some 30 years experience) are so serious, so monumental, and so intricately detailed that I had to look into it for myself. It seems I suddenly lost my disinterest in schooling and education.

So I read Hobbes, I read Adam Smith, John Locke, Hugh Nibley; I'm on track to finish everything Eric Hoffer ever wrote. I was introduced to Niel Postman; I discovered the Catholic Distributists quite on accident (McNabb, Belloc, and Chesterton among others), and I've even read a great deal from the Pope (Benedict XVI). As a non-Catholic, I'm quite impressed, really. I have my fingers in Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Whitehead, and Newton; some of them still waiting for more anxious scrutiny.

Gatto cracked open a whole new world of yesterday, today, and tomorrow; showed me that I am allowed to make my own connections between people and places and ideas and things that happen in this world. I don't have to wait for the textbook assignment. Now my appetite for this kind of learning is insatiable. This is the love of education that prepares a man for freedom, the kind that Thomas Jefferson knew was the only hope for America.

All of my reading and personal observations have, up until now, proven to me that Mr. Gatto is overwhelmingly correct in his mighty harangue against public schools, and against most kinds of schooling in general.

I also find that I can criticize Gatto on some of the particulars.

For instance, David Farragut didn't exactly sail a captured British ship to Boston at the age of 12, Like Gatto claims in Weapons. He even has some of the story a bit out of order in The Underground History. I checked the facts myself.

It is true that David Farragut was only 12 years old when he was given command of the HMS Barclay as prize master — an occasion in which Farragut had to overcome the rage of a much older British captain whom he subordinated (Gatto recounts this bit, if I recall). On that particular cruise, Farragut had already completed the second year of his service in the Navy.

Now, the Barclay wasn't a warship, it was a whaler captured by the US privateer, Essex (itself, a fifth-rate frigate useful mostly for prize taking). Farragut sailed the Barclay from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Valparaíso, on the coast of Chile, where he rejoined the crew aboard Essex as midshipman. He didn't sail to Boston, but it was a great feat nevertheless.

The Essex was later attacked by the combined forces of a powerful British fourth-rate ship of the line and a smaller sloop of war. It was then that Farragut first experienced the horrific carnage of naval battle, another character defining moment. During the battle, Farragut — considered an officer — was charged to "do his duty" against a fellow crew mate, "a quarter gunner named Roach," who had deserted his post in awe of the advancing British forces.

Of that experience, David Farragut wrote:
"The most remarkable part of this affair was that Roach had always been a leading man in the ship, and, on the occasion previously mentioned, when the Phoebe seemed about to run into us, in the harbor of Valparaiso, and the boarders were called away, I distinctly remember this man standing in an exposed position on the cathead, with sleeves rolled up and cutlass in hand, ready to board, his countenance expressing eagerness for the fight: which goes to prove that personal courage is a very peculiar virtue. Roach was brave with a prospect of success, but a coward in adversity."
A keen observation, for a teenager. Don't you think?

Farragut would have been 13 at that event. In the end, the Essex was badly beaten and those still living who hadn't deserted were captured. The crew, including Farragut, were paroled by the British and, by stratagem, the captain escaped to rejoin them in New York to a hero's welcome. Heroics don't always include winning.

Reading David Farragut's cruise diary is like reading fiction. How can these things happen to ordinary people, much less to "children"? How can mere kids be so magnificent? Gatto may be technically inaccurate about David Farragut, but even Gatto doesn't do Farragut justice. Not by half.

The stories of David Farragut, of Thomas Edison, of George Washington, of the founder of my own Church, Joseph Smith (One of Farragut's contemporaries, getting his leg cut open at the age of seven, having refused anesthetics, possibly around the same time of year when Farragut was sailing to Chile); they all really bother me.

I once led a group of church boys. I was in the business of teaching them that they had great potential. They were choice people, perhaps the best young people in the history of the world. They had powerful true doctrines and a powerful heritage to live up to. They had the very power of God to reckon among their virtues. And yet all they wanted to do was talk about XBox and pop culture! Some of their forbears walked in theological darkness, by my estimation; yet they commanded ships, ran successful businesses, walked barefoot and fatherless across vast tracts of America, and talked to God like Moses once did. All this because they stood as men, not as boys. They had done just what Paul once suggested in the book of Corinthians and put off childish things.

In 2004, a researcher by the name of Dr. Jay Giedd reported that, in spite of the human brain being materially complete at age 12, it takes until at least age 25 before the synapses are sufficiently "pruned" for an individual to exhibit judgment advanced enough to be considered "adult."

Far from interpreting Dr. Giedd's work as a wake-up call to action against a system of learning that is so flawed it keeps us childish until at least age 25, we now use this research as an excuse for everything from jurisprudence to insurance claims. We have been absolved of all fault. Our biology has predestined us to stupidity; adolescence is a greater disease than we first suspected.

John Gatto says that if we are still treating kids as little children much beyond the age of seven, then we are doing them a huge disservice. Oddly enough, the Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith said the same thing: when any child reaches the age of eight, let him be accountable for his own actions and a full-fledged member of the congregation (with its attendant responsibilities — no small order) if he should so desire.

At age twelve, we consider worthy male members of the laity qualified to wield the authority of God in ministering to the Church. No schooling required. That used to mean something. Smith claimed that God revealed these things to him, and I can believe it. Today we barely allow our eight-year-old to walk on his own to Cub Scouts, half a block from home. What happened? Gatto knows.

Is it any wonder there is such a mess of broken homes in our communities? I can't seem to escape stories about it on the Mormon media these days. Have you ever seen kids play together, especially young siblings? Not five minutes can pass before they've resorted to physical violence against each other. Could divorce be largely a result of adult children getting married? Do you think it's important for people to grow up? John Gatto shows us just how schools are designed to ensure that never happens — and why.

There are other nits I can pick with Weapons of Mass Instruction. The open-source learning metaphor, with its cathedral and its bazaar, and used without citation by Mr. Gatto, comes from an idea published by Eric S. Raymond, a computer programmer who was preceded ideologically by Richard Stallman (another alumnus of the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab).

What has happened to me? How is it that I begin to discover the provenance of ideas not even properly cited by the author? I would still be ignorant of Mr. Gatto's little sin to this day, except that I once read Eric Raymond's book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, on that train to and from the University of Utah in 2003. It is a treatise on something called "open source" software. There is a long-standing dispute between the Free Software ideal and the Open Source ideal. Richard Stallman still bothers the prestigious Association for Computing Machinery with his insistence on Free Software instead of Open Source. Dr. Stallman wrote the essay "The Right to Read." Gatto might be interested in it (available here). I would have never known all this, except that Oliver DeMille, who studied one of the most brilliant men in American history, told me that I could educate myself about my own profession by going straight to its classics. So I did.

Perhaps I differ from Gatto in the nature of Conspiracy that is afoot in the world. Hobbes envisioned an artificial man; Adam Smith, an invisible hand. I have worked with artificial machines for long enough, coaxing them to do what I want, to know that they are all psychopathic creatures in spite of the best intentions of their stewards. I say this in all seriousness.

Not long ago, a friend and I traded ideas over stir-fried eggplant at a local Chinese restaurant. My friend, Paul, is probably the most brilliant programmer I know. Without any college degrees, Paul is presently Chief Technology Officer at a tech firm with customers like Facebook, Harvard, and NASA. He's interested in the anarchist philosopher, Jacques Ellul; and it was Paul who introduced me to Niel Postman's work, among others.

During our lunch, Paul was telling me all about psychopathy from his latest reading (a book called Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work, if I remember). Paul was working on hiring some new employees and was interested in discerning emotional health, hence the incursion into the subject. It turns out that psychopaths are to emotion as the blind are to color. It is often true that psychopaths know all about emotions and that people have such things as feelings, but psychopaths experience little of these things for themselves. They become dangerous when they learn to manipulate emotions in other people by carefully programmed stimulus and response. It occurred to me that business organizations are naturally psychopathic, out of necessity.

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported on Dr. Horvitz, a researcher in machine intelligence, who is concerned that smart machines might someday look down on humanity and get out of control. In spite of this, he feels that research into machine intelligence can benefit humans and perhaps even make up for our failings. To illustrate his hopes, Dr. Horvitz demonstrated a medical machine that could detect negative emotions from a patient's spoken words and then respond with carefully programmed, simulated empathy.

The machine exhibited the disturbing trait of a psychopath: carefully measured response to an emotion that it knew about, but could not actually feel.

The most disturbing part of the article is that, "a physician told him that it was wonderful that the system responded to human emotion. 'That's a great idea,' Dr. Horvitz said he was told."

Now, ask yourself this: Would a master painter cherish praise, even if it came from the blind? So, who craves empathy from a psychopath? The same kind of people who have been taught to believe that praise is important, even if it isn't real. To these, Dr. Horvitz's machine must seem like a miracle.

The irony of this is that we have already subjected ourselves to machinery, described best by Thomas Hobbes as "the Leviathan, that mortal god." The machinery is invisible to us because we are its pieces. Our great social machines make all of this hand-waving about robot overlords seem a little bit silly. We've been trying to automatize ourselves ever since the Industrial Revolution; is anyone surprised that actual automatons would be better at the new humanity than people?

The Leviathan — embodied in any bureaucracy (school, business, or government) — is just as psychopathic as all other artificial machinery. It matters very little how benevolent its stewards, how righteous its members. Each of them may have only the best interests of the commons at heart. They only wish to help the children, the shareholders, the underdog.

Eric Hoffer once wrote that "there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them. It is as if ivied maidens and garlanded youths were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse." Such is the nature of inhuman machines, and those who worship them; whether they be machines of steel or of abstract social, economic, or political systems.

It requires very little actively malicious conspiracy to produce a system of conspirators, as cogs in a clock unwittingly conspire with each other to measure time. This is the sort of conspiracy we are dealing with (and participating in): one conspired years ago, mostly by men long dead. Philosophers, businessmen, pedagogues, clergy. They all had a hand in it, some of them ignorant of the fact, others perhaps less so.

Gatto tells us all about many of them, and how he has connected their dots together into the modern sickness of forced schooling. I recommend his work to anyone who has courage to read it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Global Warming & My Letter to the Editor of Meridian Magazine

Global warming is a topic actively debated in America today. Opinions are divided roughly along party lines.

I am a religious man, and when I read a recent article about global warming from Meridian Magazine (an independent, Latter-day Saint publication), I was skeptical. In summary, Brother Lawrence feels that Global Warming could be a subtle tactic to distract good people from believing in God. I felt inclined to respond to that, feeling that it was more inspired by faction than by God.

Due to my lengthy prose, I rarely get published; but this time the editor put my letter up in full (Why Are We Angry When Others Tell Us To Do Better?).

I was one of only two writers who did not agree with Brother Lawrence's idea. The letter is under-attributed (I always like to source my ideas), but you can see that it is influenced by some of my recent thoughts that I have posted here.

Since this letter was posted to a religious forum, my argument is not as secular as what you might expect to see on this blog. My general opinion is that religious arguments are the poorest and least persuasive (since they require something from the audience in addition to -- or aside from -- pure Reason), but when I speak to the religious, I like to speak on religious terms.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Property and the Wrong Road

Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which is their own; nay, they learn to love the very soil which yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of the good things for themselves and those that are dear to them. -Leo XIII

In my last essay on property, I appealed to the common-sense reasoning of G. K. Chesterton to demonstrate one fallacy of modern economy. Today's economists, laboring under the delusion that theirs is an empirical science, endlessly seek to distill prosperity from money like the old alchemists sought to turn lead into gold. We fully expect to find "the answer" somewhere between free markets and regulation, making economy an increasingly complex subject (complex like alchemy was and like chemistry is not); thus our notion of property has become more abstract than ever before. There are some — pessimists, we call them — who are starting to feel crowded out by the elephant in the room. They have a sense that the perfect economic recipe will never be found. In the end, they are resigned to "suffer under some combination of capitalism and socialism."1 What other option can there be?

It is a fact that progressive thinking tends to mistrust what used to pass for common sense. The argument goes like this: Who wants to live in the stone age, anyway? Didn't we already try all of the old answers? Didn't they fail? Following this shallow examination, progressives dismiss the brutish past and campaign (like heroin addicts zealously advocating their differing methods of needle hygiene) for the candidate most qualified to wrangle the economy. It is no surprise that we have a new kind of common sense in the Nonsense Age, and I suspect that is because we find ourselves in a different context where the old questions cease to be relevant because we have forgotten what they mean.

The truth is that it doesn't matter much which way we turn once we have already traveled far down the wrong path. That doesn't stop us from arguing about it, though; brilliant, virtuous, and impassioned arguments that congeal into opposing gospels, each with its congregation of savage and loyal adherents. Dale Ahlquist wrote of "this seemingly endless battle where the virtues on either side are doing war with each other[.]"2 It is often easier to see the Devil in the competition than in the opposition.

It is impossible for those who do not stand scratching their heads at the Fork in the Wrong Road to join in the argument between the Lost and the Misguided. Unfortunately, America hasn't seen a leader who does not advocate some direction of either Right or Left (or in between) since Thomas Jefferson faded from living memory. There are precious few who have stepped back far enough to see that we have traveled a road that goes nowhere near where we expect it still to take us.

On the Wrong Road of 21st century politics (and economics), I imagine that prosperity feels something like the synthetic "high" must feel. We enjoy prosperity immensely while it lasts, we know that it won't last forever, and we are frantically depressed when it is gone. But never mind this temporary discomfort; we also know where to go to get more "prosperity" - until it bankrupts us, or until we die of the overdose. Who is really in control of a system that "has its ups and downs?" The invisible hand pushes us along whither it will.

"For it is possible," wrote Thomas Hobbes, "long study may encrease[sic], and confirm erroneous Sentences: and where men build on false grounds, the more they build, the greater is the ruine[sic][.]"3 It is a remarkably true statement, and it must lead us to consider, when faced with financial and economic disaster, the fundamental premises upon which our system is built.

The Distributists, including G. K. Chesterton, pointed out the elephant of credo quia impossible that stands front and center on the stage of global economics. What I shall demonstrate now is the elephant of false property; the wooden nickel of free-market Capitalism, zealously guarded by men and women who label themselves "conservatives" and imagine a noble calling as stewards of the sacred treasure of their forefathers.

The polymath, Hugh Nibley, provides one of the best definitions of property that I know of:

The words property and private have the same root (prop = priv by Grimm's Law) and emphasize the same thing — that which is the most intimate and personal part of an individual. The Oxford English Dictionary specifies "privatus — peculiar to oneself ... that belongs to or is the property of a particular individual; belonging to oneself, one's own." And "proprius — own, proper, ... property, the holding of something as one's own." Both definitions fall back on Old English agen (German eigen), "expressing tenderness or affection ... in superlative, very own." Webster has "Latin privatus, apart from the state ... of or belonging to one-self, ... single , private, set apart for himself." What is privatum or proprium is therefore peculiar to one person alone (not a corporation). It is something that I could not do without, under any social or economic system, and that would have little interest for anyone else, such as my clothes, shoes, books, notes, bedding, glasses, teeth, comb, and so on. Because they are personal and indispensable to me and of no value to anyone else, they must be inalienable to me, for there is great danger if they fall into the hands of another.4

The Distributists have claimed all along that clothes and shoes are for wearing, that books and notes are for reading, and that all other things have their proper and personal use. Nibley goes further when he tells us that the moment these things become primarily for profit; when their values become money values exchangeable for abstract denominations, they no longer even qualify as property by definition. They become, in essence, something entirely different.

"The word 'property,'" says Dale Ahlquist, "has to do with what is proper. It also has to do with what is proportional."5

From this natural and rational definition of property, the Distributists claim "Father McNabbs' Law," that the areas of production and consumption ought to be, as far as possible, coterminous. In other words, things ought to be produced as close as possible to where they will be consumed, and in proportion to the need.

How surprised would today's businessman be to discover Adam Smith's own view of the excess, the "mere trinkets of frivolous utility" made possible by modern Capitalism? What of the "greatest good" of power and riches, considered to be the final result of the free-market economy?

"Power and riches appear then to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body, consisting of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labour of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which while they stand, though they may save him from some smaller inconveniencies, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death."6

John Locke once wrote that "it was a foolish thing, as well as dishonest, to hoard up more than [man] could make use of." He then proceeded to explain how the introduction of money, which "has its value only from the consent of men," gives rise to the "disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth." Thus, according to Locke, property arises from the act of labor, which naturally limits "largeness of possession" to that which the laborer can produce and consume (or exchange for what he can consume).7

What this means is that the maker, or creator, naturally owns the work of his own hands. It is the inalienable right to property that Locke wrote about — a far cry from today's "work for hire," where all that we make belongs, upon creation, to the investors (who consequently derive the greatest benefit). The markets and the managers will determine how much abstract money the work of other people's hands can command. By our own American theory, such a contract is impossible to make without some fundamental violation of human right.

It is also in the original, rational definition of property where we find that the real solution to Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" lies not in redefining morality or in dissolving the natural family (ideas that have manifested themselves among progressives in interesting ways since Hardin first proposed them), but in rediscovering what the central problem really is. Instead of "the greatest good for the greatest number" (a proposition that the Communist and Capitalist will both agree is the only important question in spite of their disagreement on how to achieve it), Father Lawrence Smith wrote that "the common good is not merely a matter of what is good for all, but what is good for each."8

The natural law of property, then, is simply "the proper amount of good for each individual." This is a suitable definition to replace the wrongheaded and fallacious definition of property that now exists as a tenet of economics, and until this is done, we risk facing the reality of Hobbes' assertion of false grounds.

Property has nothing to do with things bought on credit or with things hoarded for profit or gain; and nowhere can I find that property is rightly distributed based on merit instead of need.

Another central problem of economy is that the current notion, as a system established on a global or large scale, is a contradiction also by definition. I'll write more about that in a future essay on the principle of subsidiarity.

1. Beyond Capitalism & Socialism, Aidan Mackey, et al. p. 38

2. Ibid, p.33, emphasis mine

3. Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes (Kindle edition, location 2940)

4. Approaching Zion, Hugh Nibley. From the Essay "Work We Must, but the Lunch is Free," p. 221.

5. Beyond Capitalism & Socialism, p.33.

6. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith, section IV, chapter 1

7. 2nd Treatise on Government, John Locke, chapter 5.46-51; Kindle edition location 2974

8. Beyond Capitalism & Socialism, p. 128

Friday, March 6, 2009

My Comments to the ACM, Re: Women in Computing - Take 2

I indicated in my last post that I would be writing about property in this essay. Since then, I had the opportunity to test the new CACM beta site and leave a comment on the February CACM feature article, entitled "Women in Computing - Take 2." I will defer my next essay on property until next week.

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is the monthly periodical published by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). The ACM is arguably the most respected computing association in the world (of which I am a member).

The ACM is currently presided over by Professor Dame Wendy Hall, of the University of Southampton in the UK. Over the past few years, I have noticed a very focused effort within the ACM to promote the "equal representation" of women in the field of computing. Whether this is due to notable fact that our president is a woman, I do not know.

In any case, the article in question goes into some detail about the numerous strategies that can be employed to bring equal representation to women in the field of computing. Since my comments tend toward exposition, they typically get rejected by moderators. Also, since the idea of egalitarianism is appropriate to the topic of this blog, I am publishing my comments below. The argument I make can be applied to other areas besides computing:

I often read about how women are underrepresented in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.(STEM) I have always wondered exactly what "underrepresented" means. I now see that this is a function of population, given that "the gains listed here, while encouraging, stop short of achieving equal representation and point to the fact that much work has yet to be done."1 Ideally, there would be an equal number of men and women in the field.

Based on this same reasoning, I fear that the Amish are woefully underrepresented, as a minority, in the field of computing. Yet to achieve equity in this demographic would require a certain cultural destructiveness - an intrusion into the lives of people who don't wish to participate in the first place.

Equal participation between men an women in the field of computing is based on unexamined premises. It assumes a general equality in psychological, mental, cultural, biological, and lifestyle aspects of both men and women. It is a sort of egalitarianism that seeks to erase distinctions in order to serve an agenda.

In fact, the APA recently published a press release about a study that examined the participation of women in technical fields. The press release contains the following text:

"Even though institutional barriers and discrimination exist, these influences still cannot explain why women are not entering or staying in STEM careers... The evidence did not show that removal of these barriers would equalize the sexes in these fields, especially given that women's career preferences and lifestyle choices tilt them towards other careers..."2

While it is important to eliminate all unfairness to women who demonstrate interest in pursuing technical careers, it may be that pushing the ideal of "equal" representation is akin to forcing computer jobs onto the Amish. What valuable attributes are being forced out in order to equalize the sexes? Such an approach is actually detrimental to the notion of diversity. Normalizing people rather detracts from the qualities that make them distinct from each other.

In mathematics, the inequality of values is what makes them diverse and gives them their unique and important features. Equations can only evaluate truthfully when the variables have the right value, regardless of how great or small.

Men and women are not the same. The numeric value "two" is not the same as the value "seven." In math, we do not hesitate to call two things that are not the same unequal. In politics and activism, however, it just isn't done. We must all be different yet equal. Thomas Hobbes once called that kind of logic "absurd."

We have a cultural confusion about what equality means when applied to people. We ought to examine the premise of equality before advocating beyond fairness.

1. Women in Computing - Take 2. By Maria Klawe, Telle Whitney, and Caroline Simard. CACM, 02/09 Vol. 52 No. 2

2. APA Press Release, March 3, 2009.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Property in the Nonsense Age

One of the more amusing aspects of the present "global economic downturn" was the early resistance to the word "recession." It turns out that things like economic recessions are actually self-fulfilling prophecies: once you say it, it becomes true. By this I do not mean that there were no problems with the economy before it received its official designation of "recession;" I only wish to emphasize the highly perceptual nature of prosperity. As far as I can tell, there has been no great material change in the world from the days of our past excess to the days of our present want.

A paragraph published by the Associated Press in late January made an impression on me:
A build-up in business inventories — which in calculating GDP adds to economic activity — masked the fourth-quarter's true weakness. When inventories are stripped out, the economy would have contracted at a 5.1 percent pace in the fourth quarter, closer to the 5.4 percent drop that economists expected. Businesses couldn't cut production fast enough in response to waning customer demand and got stuck with excess inventories, economists explained.1 (Emphasis mine)
In other words, symptoms of economic sickness include excess inventory — too many things sitting on shelves. I picture store shelves stacked with goods and no one around to buy them. This is essentially what the Associated Press is suggesting, that able-bodied people are going without, living in the midst of an untouchable surfeit.

Could it be that after years of consumerism, everyone is finally satisfied and we all went home? If that is true, why do I begin to hear reports of increasing poverty?

Perhaps no one ever wrote more appropriate words for our time than G.K. Chesterton did during the early part of the 20th century:
"No creed or dogma ever declared that there was too little food because there was too much fish. But that is the precise, practical and prosaic definition of the present situation in the modern science of economics. And the man of the Nonsense Age must bow his head and repeat his credo, the motto of his time, Credo quia impossible."2
It requires only a few moments' reflection on the mortgage crisis to realize how far this contradiction has gone. In America, we very seriously regard the condition of paying a mortgage as "ownership" of Real property. If you can qualify for a sufficiently large loan, then congratulations; you can now "own" a home!

The truth is that banks own most homes. It seems that Capitalism is also a collectivist theory, at least in practice.

How is it that "to own" now means the same thing as "not to own?" Is it so we can claim that the "American Dream" is somehow still a reality even for people who do not actually own the type of property that John Locke once considered fundamental to being free?

Today we see that homelessness is on the rise, but not for lack of houses. They increasingly sit empty. I occasionally hear news on the radio of how the present poor economy wreaks equal havoc on the general quality of nutrition, but not for lack of nutritious food!
"The Irish have sometimes been accused of unbalanced emotion or morbid sentiment. But nobody says that they merely imagined the Great Famine, in which multitudes starved because the potatoes were few and small. Only suppose an Irishman had said that they starved because the potatoes were gigantic and innumerable. I think we should not yet have heard the last of the wrong-headed absurdity of that Irishman. Yet that is an exact description of the economic condition to-day as it affects the Englishman. And, to a great extent, the American"3
Chesterton went on to discuss the hypothetical orchard farmer who grew nothing but apples. His business plan was to make a profit by selling apples to the whole world. Unfortunately, his neighbor's orchard was full of apples too, resulting in a glut of apples on the market. Apples being so worthless, the farmers couldn't make a profit to buy pears and peaches at the grocer.

What if, instead of selling apples, the farmer could reach out his hand and pluck all types of food from his own trees and from his own garden? And then eat it?

Cynics may cast into doubt whether this is entirely relevant to the present catastrophe. They will call the idea too simplistic. Things are never so simple as this, which is true enough; and finally, we do not all want to become farmers anyway. Of course, such cynics lack sufficient imagination, or perhaps do not understand that the paradox of over-production only serves to illustrate what the right premise of economy ought to be.

It really is as simple as that when we put things in their right perspective and, in any case, "we must understand things in their simplicity before we can explain or correct their complexity."4

I once invited a salesman in from the cold. The gentleman was training a neighbor of mine in the arts of entrepreneurship, and so I had previously agreed to the presentation which included an interesting discussion on how one ought to properly use other people's money to "grow wealth" for one's self. We reviewed my financial situation, including the status of my mortgage. In the shelter of my warm and cozy dining room, this salesman proceeded to show me, by infallible mathematics, the ways in which my money did not work for me. It turns out that in those days I might have used my house as a type of leverage to get even richer — which is apparently what houses are good for.

Had I taken his advice then, my family and I might very easily be homeless today. This brings us to the rotten heart of the modern notion of economy, the root of the paradox that Chesterton describes in the following way:
"When God looked on created things and saw that they were good, it meant that they were good in themselves and as they stood; but by the modern mercantile idea, God would only have looked at them and seen that they were The Goods. In other words, there would be a label tied to the tree or the hill, as to the hat of the Mad Hatter, with "This Style, 10/6." All the flowers and birds would be ticketed with their reduced prices; all the creation would be for sale or all the creatures seeking employment; with all the morning stars making sky-signs together and all the Sons of God shouting for jobs. In other words, [certain mystics, in the American business world] are incapable of imagining any good except that which comes from bartering something for something else. The idea of a man enjoying a thing in itself, for himself, is inconceivable to them. The notion of a man eating his own apples off his own apple-tree seems like a fairy-tale...

The last result of treating a tree as a shop or a store instead of as a store-room, the last effect of treating apples as goods rather than as good, has been in a desperate drive of public charity and in poor men selling apples in the street."5
Of course, it does not begin nor end with apples.

What is the permanent solution for a broken economy? It is simply that we put first things first, to understand that "the only way to proceed through a complex situation is to start with the right first principle." 6

Houses are first valuable because they are good for living in. Apples are first valuable because they can be eaten. Books are first valuable because they can be opened and read. Clothes and shoes are first valuable because they can be worn.

A bank has no interest in houses for their own sake, only as leverage for something else. To a bank, houses and food and clothing are first valuable because they can be bought and sold.

Insisting that the real value of things is the same thing as the purely abstract monetary value represents a fundamentally flawed premise that will never produce enduring prosperity. This is the Big Lie implicit in modern economics.

In nature, ownership is determined by intrinsic value, not by price. This is the correct first principle that has been forgotten.

In the next essay, I will write a little bit about what property really is and how it is important to the state of freedom.

1. Economy shrinks at 3.8 percent pace in 4Q, by Jeannine Aversa, Associated Press, Friday, Jan. 30, 2009

2. Works of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Kindle edition. From the Essay, "Reflections on a Rotten Apple" found in "The Well and the Shallows," beginning at position 111763, by G. K. Chesterton.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Three Aspects of Liberty: Awareness

In the previous two essays, I demonstrated how America regressed to a pre-Revolution state that might conceivably seem familiar to the Tories who once enjoyed the unrivaled security and prosperity of George III's empire. In those days, as in other times, intellectuals turned the wheels of revolution and advocated their brand of back-to-nature philosophy in the form of John Locke's Natural Law.

But if freedom has since lost its meaning, as I claim, why is there so little outcry among Americans who still pay lip service to the ideal of liberty? It is tempting for me to say that this is because prosperity, or "way of life," feels so much like our notion of genuine freedom that we can't make a distinction. Certainly that would be a form of ignorance indeed. But the citizens of George Washington's era also enjoyed relative prosperity, yet they rose up against their government. What made the difference?

Our word "liberty" comes from the Latin word liber. When used as an adjective, liber means "the quality of being free" or "lacking restrictions." When used as a noun, liber means "book."

In order to be Liber, a person must be aware. A man who does not examine premises, test his faith, or think his own thoughts cannot expect to become master of himself or of his destiny. Such people would be perfectly satisfied with no real responsibilities and with infantile dependency upon artificial social systems. On the other hand, free men and women are prepared for liberty through literacy and education. A true liberal education is designed to prepare its students for the hard responsibilities of freedom. To be truly free, we must become generalists: "A classical definition of a liberal education is that you know everything about something, and something about everything." 1

A friend of mine recently brought to my attention an article published by the ACM entitled The Five Orders of Ignorance.2 In this article, Phillip Armour lays out the orders of ignorance as follows:

0th Order Ignorance (0OI)— Lack of Ignorance. I have 0OI when I know something and can demonstrate my lack of ignorance in some tangible form.

1st Order Ignorance (1OI)— Lack of Knowledge. I have 1OI when I don’t know something and can readily identify that fact. 1OI is basic ignorance.

2nd Order Ignorance (2OI)— Lack of Awareness. I have 2OI when I don’t know that I don’t know something. That is to say, not only am I ignorant of something (for instance I have 1OI), I am unaware of this fact.

3rd Order Ignorance (3OI)— Lack of Process. I have 3OI when I don’t know a suitably efficient way to find out I don’t know that I don’t know something. This is lack of process, and it presents me with a major problem: If I have 3OI, I don’t know of a way to find out there are things I don’t know that I don’t know.

4th Order Ignorance (4OI)— Meta Ignorance. I have 4OI when I don’t know about the Five Orders of Ignorance.

What should become the central pursuit of a society that is interested in the principle of liberty, considering that liberty can only be secured in an atmosphere of general awareness? Who among us, in addition to heeding our life's calling, should not be engaged in the career of liberty? To be free, we must be educated.

"Ah!" Some might say, "But we already put such a tremendous emphasis on education in America! We understand this requirement for freedom!"

Do we?

Eric Hoffer wrote that "it stands to reason that the central pursuit of a society attracts and swallows individuals who by nature are meant for other careers."3 He also claimed that "the best of our literature, painting, sculpture, music, etc. has not come from our schools."4

So what is the central pursuit of our society, if it isn't liberty or even individual fulfillment? It is the quest for efficiency and innovation; to compete with foreign powers in a global marketplace. Instead of providing us with the liberal education that will prepare us as free men and women, our schools are designed to provide us with the security of good jobs -- to maintain America as the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world.

In short, we are a massively illiterate people. Yes, we can read the words and (arguably) follow the instructions, but as individuals we no longer own much knowledge or remember first principles. We have traded knowledge for minutia and principles for privileges.

It all comes down to leisure. When I say "leisure," I do not mean that form of largely useless entertainment that we have come to associate with leisure in modern times. In fact, the contemporary idea of leisure is partly to blame:
A great media metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense... Under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now -- generally coherent, serious and rational... under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd. 5
The truth is that a rational sort of leisure is actually the solution to the problem.

For instance, Hobbes said that leisure is the Mother of Philosophy.

Eric Hoffer taught that leisure is required for a person to grow and mature; time for leisure enables one to leave the juvenile madhouse of constant activity and continual change (this comes from a man who spent many of his leisure hours reading Montaigne and Dostoevsky among many, many others).6

The Mormon religious Utopian and savant, Hugh Nibley, derided the American "work ethic" as pretentious, greedy, and distracting: "Those very popular how-to-get-rich books, which are the guides to the perplexed of the present generation, say we should keep our minds fixed at all times on just one objective; the person who lets his thoughts wander away from anything but business even for a moment does not deserve the wealth he seeks. Such is the high ethic of the youth today. And such an ethic places us not on the level of the beast but below it." 7

The British engineer, C.H. Douglas, ruminated about the 15th century laborer who was "able to maintain himself in a standard of living considerably higher, relative to his generation, than that of the present time."8 It turns out that Christopher Columbus' contemporaries somehow recorded far less time working in the fields providing for themselves than we, in our mechanized and automated age, spend in the office working for someone else.

In contemplating the eight pathologies of character that mass-schooled students consistently demonstrated during his thirty year tenure as a public School Teacher, John Taylor Gatto attributed it to either schools or television. "It's a simple matter of arithmetic, " he wrote, "Between schooling and television, all the time the children have is eaten up."9 The leisure hours of our youth are filled up with equal portions of Global Economy and entertainment.

Gatto traced the blight of modern public schooling to an infancy where fathers had been removed from their homes by a new mass-production industry, from the resulting broken families and moral vagaries that would be put right by a reinvented American State destined to become, like James I, Father of the People; and from roots in the Prussian school system originally designed to churn out professional soldiery that would reign on the battlefields of the Napoleonic wars.

If mass urbanization and industrialization constitute the first great American Tragedy, then the resulting idea of public schooling is a close second. In a system designed to produce efficient workers for a global mass-market economy, we lost the process we needed to become prepared for the unique and individual responsibilities of liberty. Those lessons require moral, character, and mental education that our schools, and now our communities, are no longer equipped to give us. We live, for the most part, with fourth order ignorance.

"Character," Helen Keller once told us, "is not developed in ease and quiet." As of January 28, 2009, and with the sum of $819 billion imaginary dollars, the United States Government (We the People), made an attempt to restore ease and quiet and to defer the development of national character for another day and for another generation. For the time being (it is widely hoped), instead of going home to our families and communities, we will return to our jobs and to our economy and to our silly schools.

Because in America, ignorance truly is bliss.

1. Donald Knuth: A Life's Work Interrupted (CACM interview with Donald Knuth by Edward Feigenbaum), Communications of the ACM, Volume 51, Number 8, p35

2. The Five Orders of Ignorance, by Phillip G. Armour, Communications of the ACM, Volume 43, Number 10, p19.

3. The Temper of Our Time, p.98

4. Ibid. p.38

5. Amusing Ourselves to Death (20th Anniversary Edition, 2006), by Neil Postman, p.16

6. The Temper of Our Time, ch. 2

7. "Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free", Approaching Zion, 1989, by Hugh Nibley, p. 236

8. Quoted in "I Fear No Peevish Master," by Anthony Cooney; Beyond Capitalism and Socialism, 2008, p.17

9. Dumbing us Down, 2nd edition, 2005, byt John Taylor Gatto. p.28

Friday, January 23, 2009

Three Aspects of Liberty: Choice

Freedom is predicated on the presence of alternatives in the economic, cultural, and political fields. Even in the absence of tyranny, freedom becomes meaningless where there is abject poverty, political inertness, and cultural sameness. -- Eric Hoffer
It is beyond argument that an increase in security coincides with a decrease in possibilities. Security, by definition, is a regulator of risk. Risk is reduced by eliminating potential paths of action, and with them, unknown and potentially hazardous future consequences.

In the computer industry, security is about locking down systems. A secure network is one where ports are closed or well-policed. Well-secured companies restrict their employees' computer activities. At a bank, it is not uncommon for employees to be denied access to instant messaging, to certain internet web sites, and to configuration and software settings. The approved activities are permitted and the forbidden activities are denied through the application of electronic policies enforced by a central governing Information Technology group. The result is that security is greatly enhanced. The risk of infestation by malware is reduced or eliminated. Sensitive data are safely stored where they cannot be accessed by prying eyes. Productivity is generally improved. It could be argued that security is good for business.

Security can benefit the individual as well. If a person decides to eliminate risky behaviors such as alcohol consumption, the abuse of food or drugs, sexual licentiousness, and so forth, he may well expect to likewise avoid the adverse consequences that such behaviors can cause. Security can be had in adopting a positive work ethic and assuming responsibility, in fulfilling duties and in practicing trustworthiness.

Security is the antithesis of freedom. A well-worn quote is attributed to Ben Franklin: "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."

If security is such a desirable quality, why must it be at odds with liberty?

In fact, liberty itself requires a certain type of security. Garrett Hardin understood the principle, which he called Hegelian in nature.1 But our founding fathers also understood it, and this is why they reluctantly allowed the Constitution to be amended with the Bill of Rights. It was to be understood that these Rights did not come from the Constitution itself, but were intrinsic human rights that needed to be secured by a limiting of risks presented by excessive government power. So, in order to be free, a type of limiting security must be practiced.

Sometimes security comes as a reaction to fear. We fear death, pain or suffering and we desire to avoid these possibilities.

Eric Hoffer wrote that "It is in the city that man's lusts and fears have free play, and dehumanization spreads like the plague... We savor power not when we move mountains and tell rivers whither to flow but when we can turn men into objects, robots, puppets, automata, or veritable animals."2 As city-dwelling automata, our choices are largely predetermined for us.

For example, building codes are a type of urban security. We will be safe from fire and poisonous gasses because we have installed arc-faulting circuit breakers and special chemical and particle detection alarms. Specific artificial materials must be used with certain ratings and in particular quantities and configurations. This results in safer communities and sturdier buildings that can better withstand disasters.

Earlier this month, a group of Old-order Amish families entered into a lawsuit against their Upstate New York town. The town had refused to grant these families permission to build their own homes without first obtaining specific permits. 3

The Amish said that they would be willing to pay for the permits (since permits also serve as a source of revenue to the city), but were unwilling to conform to some building codes that required engineered materials or electrical wiring. Some of the construction requirements were not compatible with the unique beliefs of the Amish people.

These building codes don't just make us safer and more secure, they also intrude into the separate lives of a religious people who can no longer practice their religion without breaking the law. Liberty and freedom suffered.

Does it make sense to require building codes in dense urban residential zones? Eminently so. Does it make sense to enforce these same codes on self-sufficient rural Amish communities? This is tyranny.

Sometimes security comes as a result of political or professional jealousy, or from the fear of losing a lifestyle or material wealth.

On February 18, a committee will convene in Salt Lake City to hear the case of a group of professional medical practitioners who desire to outlaw the natural birthing process.

Although humans have successfully given birth to children for perhaps millions of years without any medical bureaucracy, this group will require every baby to be born in a room that is sterile only in its ambiance, and in the presence of professionally trained medical staff.

Upon entering the world, the first experience our children encounter will be that of steely needles and burning synthetics coursing through their veins. All of this will be for the sake of security; that no woman or child should suffer or die from a natural birth.

It all has the flavor of professional disdain for natural and alternative health options. Perhaps these professionals are losing too much business to those despicable and pretentious upstarts who know nothing of the One True Path of modern medical practice.

These builders of Utopia will take away our pain and wipe away our tears; and so they will make us empty. We will have no landmarks in our lives against which we may measure any joy, which must fade into a gray contentment and the dull yearning of the soul.

Is it possible there are hills that nature or God demands we climb alone or become forever the less for having been carried over them?

The plans of true believers for our lives may well be better than our own when judged against some abstract official standard, but to deny people their personal struggles is to render existence absurd.4

Liberty comes from within, and so must security. Security is the result of virtue practiced, not of entitlements enforced. We would do well to adhere to the principles of liberty envisioned by our Founding Fathers, in applying the tenets of security wisely and sparingly. Unfortunately, security has become the pursuit of our nation.

1. "It is the newly proposed infringements that we vigorously oppose; cries of 'rights' and 'freedom' fill the air. But what does 'freedom' mean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin; once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. I believe it was Hegel who said, 'Freedom is the recognition of necessity.'" From "Recognition of Necessity" in The Tragedy of the Commons, by Garrett Hardin, 1968.

2. The Temper of Our Time, Eric Hoffer, p38

3. AP article, 1/6/2009 1:10:51 PM MST, Amish sue over upstate N.Y. town's building rules

4. The Irony of the Safety Lamp; The Lure of Utopia, from The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Three Aspects of Liberty: Independence

America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbears, and true to our founding documents. - Barack Obama

Liberty was the vision for America and the charge of our political philosophy. It was not given to us by our forbears or by the government they created, rather it was defended and advocated. Liberty is a universal intrinsic property and Right of all men that can only be taken away by injustice or by indifference.

Where there is independence, choice, and consciousness there is also liberty.

Independence is the first aspect of liberty.

Thomas Hobbes would have categorized "independence" among the same pile of nonsense words inhabited by "free will." He would probably point out that universal independence is an absurdity and cannot be demonstrated anywhere. Perhaps early theologians sensed this uncomfortable fact when they re-invented their god sans parts or passions, without substance and without being, but finally independent! I suspect that if you were to order a cheeseburger without parts or passions, you would end up with exactly the same thing as our third and fourth-century churchmen: Nothing.

Let us admit that there is little room for "pure independence" within our universe. Being itself demands a hierarchy of dependencies before creation is possible. Existence depends on matter, energy, properties, and laws. Outside of these boundaries, ontology, epistemology, and philosophy all become paradoxical, self-contradictory, and illogical.

However, if we place the idea of independence within a certain context, it becomes a very useful and natural concept. The independence upon which liberty is predicated belongs to a natural human domain. It is not infinite and absolute.

For example, Free people enjoy healthy bodies unhampered by sickness or addiction. Dead or sick people are less free to choose and to act than healthy living people. Thus, freedom itself depends in part upon health and wholeness.

A healthy body requires clean air to breathe, fresh water to drink, wholesome food to eat, and adequate exercise. A healthy body also depends on property, such as clothing and shelter. Physical property requires skill, knowledge, and tools to cultivate and create.

Infants depend upon parents to care for them; children and parents require family relationships in order to thrive. Local community and professional associations are important to secure stability and prosperity for all. To all of this, we must add a sense of spiritual fulfillment, a sense of purpose, and a sense of calling that humans need in order to be genuinely happy.

This web of dependence, far from being the enemy of liberty, is a natural and organic phenomenon. Indeed, wherever these fundamental and natural dependencies are infringed, it is liberty that suffers.

But it is possible for dependence to become artificial and complex, extending beyond or replacing the natural dependencies found wherever artifice is not imposed.

Instead of healthy food and exercise, a person may become dependent upon synthetic drugs and medical procedures.

Instead of depending on his own property for comfort and shelter, a person may come to depend on abstract money and the property of other distant and unknown people.

One may depend on virtual friends, committees, and political parties instead of parents, families, and communities.

Instead of relying on self-command, rely instead on the moral hazard of "technologically preempted" consequences. Choose results instead of actions.

Instead of personal skills, require the skills of impoverished aliens or invisible foreigners.

Unions replace local guilds, power and hierarchy replace common interest; sinecure and management replace actual productive work.

In the place of spiritual fulfillment, put insatiable consumerism and recreation.

Where there was once purpose and calling, there are now citizens ready-made by their government, not to follow their own dreams, but "to meet the demands of a new age."1

The test for independence is simple. Do individuals and local communities have all that they need to be self-sufficient? If not, then they are not Free. Where artificial, distant, and abstract dependencies have been introduced, the individual's influence and capacity for working out his own good and directing his own destiny is greatly reduced or eliminated.

Imagine if some or all of our artificial infrastructure were to disappear, including long-haul trucking, fossil fuels, synthetic drugs and contraceptives, artificial foods and materials; utilities, transportation, and so forth. If we were left thus, only to ourselves, to the care and skill of our neighbors, and to our own productive property, would we live or die? And if we live, could we thrive and progress on our own? This is what independence is all about. It exists at a national, local and individual level.

Our forbears envisioned an independent people, not a people dependent on distant strangers, complex processes, abstract systems, or bureaucracies.

Have we been faithful to this ideal?

In the next essay, some words about choice.

1. From Barack Obama's inaugural speech, January 20, 2009

Friday, January 9, 2009

Truth that is Pitiless and Pity that is Untruthful

The recent political elections provided a great opportunity to look into the nature of disagreement and argument in America. Have you ever wondered what is at the root of these differences? Our tendency is to adhere to the opinions we have been given, to live our scripted lives. Those who disagree with us are mysterious at best, and dangerous or threatening at worst. Let's examine the invisible premises that divide us.

Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought in America when it comes down to the ideas of Rights and Liberty.

Actually, "school of thought" is an interesting phrase in itself. In this case, the word "school" comes from scole, the old Dutch word, not from the Greek skhole. In other words, schooling is what fish do when they gather in tight groups and follow each other around. I could also argue that the modern implementation of our other word "school," which is theoretically based on the older Greek word for a place of learning, has come to better represent what fish do than anything remotely academic. But that is a topic for another essay.

What are the two schools of political thought in America?

The first major group of people call themselves conservatives. They believe themselves to be the heirs of a true and ancient legacy, faithful stewards of God's own politics. They are marching toward a glorious and righteous Zion. These are the Religious Americans. To them, God is the author of prosperity, and riches bestowed reflect a measure of God's approval and blessing. We associate these with the political "Right."

The second group consist of the self-styled progressives, or liberals. They identify themselves as intellectuals (just as Eric Hoffer described them) and believe that they are advancing the great work begun in the Age of Reason. They are marching toward a grand and secular Utopia. These are the Licentious Americans. To them, if there is a God, He is a god of tolerance and equality. We associate these with the political "Left."

The Catholic scholar, Dale Ahlquist, wrote the aphorism, "truth that is pitiless and pity that is untruthful"1 to describe the spirit of these two groups. I think it is the best description for them that I have ever read.

Truth that is Pitiless

The religious view of liberty is that action can rightly be constrained by taboo. Divine law, revealed through Holy scripture, teaches unquestionably where Rights begin and where they end.

According to the Religious Americans, the United States Constitution grew out of the Judeo-Christian tradition that is recorded in the Holy Bible, thus America must be a Judeo-Christian nation and her Rights are the God-given Rights of the Bible. Preserving liberty is therefore synonymous with preserving religion and religious freedom.

How is this liberty to be preserved? By incorporating into religion a certain reverence for the soldier. In an ironic twist, the religious will put his faith in the arm of man, in the mighty military with its fearsome guns and bombs; the biggest ever! To the conservative, a strong military is a central plank. Righteous Coercion will be the means of conservativism; it does not itself belong to the tradition.

Perhaps these conservatives forget how General Washington's cruisers sailed under a banner that had the words "Appeal to Heaven" on it, and how the Founding Fathers desired to never have a standing army if it were possible. The mistrust of military power is a central principal of sane living, but that is a topic for another essay.

To the Religious American, proof of freedom can often be found in his bank account. He may admit that his particular view of "economy" is not exactly God's view, but that it is the closest we imperfect mortals are likely to ever get. In a logical equivalence, all property has a monetary value, thus Freedom means having plenty of money.

But this wasn't what George Washington thought, or John Adams. David McCullough tells us how appalled the British and Hessian troops must have felt after landing on colonial soil. "The Americans of 1776 enjoyed a higher standard of living than any people in the world. [...] How people with so much, living on their own land, would ever choose to rebel against the ruler God had put over them and thereby bring down such devastation upon themselves was [...] incomprehensible."2 To the Founding fathers, wealth was more than riches and property more than money.

In argument, the religious' language is full of saccharine glurge, patriotic platitudes, inspirational slogans, and lordly pronouncements. He is wont to cast his pearls before the swine, appealing to authority little respected by his opponents; and so his discourse is met with scorn and derision.

Sadly for the Religious Americans, the original American Theory is more Locke than Moses, more Jefferson than Jesus. Though filled with reference to deity, the Founding Documents encode more of the philosophy of men than of God. How could freedom of religion be truly guaranteed if political philosophy was grounded in a discrete religious tradition? Whose god is not a jealous one?

While the Founding Fathers would likely agree that the Rights of man look very much like a particular set of rights that can be interpreted from holy scripture (John Adams is often quoted for his saying that the U.S. Constitution is best suited for a moral and religious people), they would argue that Providence had revealed these Rights through Nature and Reason.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke more accurately when he recently referred to an America that was formed upon ideas of "positive secularism."3 Unlike our modern secularism, which seeks to establish its own fervent beliefs as the supreme religion of the land, the positive secularism of the founding generation was theoretically friendly to all religion.

Pity that is Untruthful

This brings us to the modern secular, or licentious, view of liberty. The licentious view of liberty is summarized in the ukase that whatever I do, if it does not harm another individual, it is my Right. Individuals are free to behave as they please, so long as the behavior does not infringe on the Right of another person to do the same. Beyond a certain egalitarianism, no morality shall be legislated by anyone anywhere. This creates entire classes of minorities who must now be endorsed and welcomed by all with open arms, in spite of any differences. Tolerance now means acceptance.

Philosophically, this thinking is more Rousseau than Locke; more Robespierre than Jefferson. This has the flavor of the French Revolution, an anti-establishment, anti-corporate, anti-association, acutely individual philosophy. It embraces back-to-nature ideals: the human being, living as an animal, can do no wrong. "Wrong" (according to Rousseau and Hobbes) can only be defined once we get civilized. At the root of this system, there can be few or no intrinsic inalienable Rights at all, only as prescribed by the social contract -- perhaps a necessary evil.

Even so, Licentious Americans tend to incorporate the inalienable rights of the Founding Fathers into their worldview: Rights are an enumeration of instincts. Dignified with the language of Thomas Jefferson, this new philosophy says that the things we feel like doing are natural to us, thus we also have a Right to them.

It is a mistaken interpretation of Jefferson's Natural Law which was distilled from the likes of John Locke and Adam Smith; and, although Rousseau and Hobbes both developed coherent systems, they are not the American system.

Indeed, of the licentious, Adam Smith wrote that "a system of natural philosophy may appear very plausible, and for a long time be very generally received in the world, and yet have no foundation in nature, nor any sort of resemblance to the truth."4

Like Hobbes, the licentious are masters of definition. They are the fathers of "political correctness." The licentious re-cast all of the arguments into their own terms so that their opponents are obliged to hopelessly make a case for their own ideals using newly redefined language. The licentious are sophists.

Licentious Americans further confuse science with reason. They wrongly believe that scientific inquiry is an extension of the practice followed by the Natural Law philosophers. They forget that science merely quantifies objective experience and allows us to make concrete statements of fact (mostly reliable). Science does not give us meaning or reveal value, and it never will.

In general, the licentious make poor philosophers and poor theologians. Their application of science to ethics, politics, and religion is often arrogant and sophomoric. It substitutes psychology for philosophy. All action is deterministic and fatalistic; we are a product of our genes and are therefore absolved from blame or guilt. There is no good or evil -- code words for subversion.

Unfortunately for the licentious, American liberty precedes the social contract. It does not live or die with its definition, codified in legal documents. It comprehends more than just life. Liberty is not an enumeration of instincts. Liberty is not truth made.


The jealousy between the licentious system of the left and the religious system of the right fuels much of the argument in America today. What has been long forgotten is the positive secularism of the American Founding Fathers.

In the next essay, I will write about the concepts of independence, choice, and awareness that I alluded to in the previous essay.

1. Beyond Capitalism & Socialism, Part of this Complete Breakfast, by Dale Ahlquist, 2008. p.33
2. 1776, by David McCullough, published 2005. p.158
3. In-flight interview of Pope Benedecit XVI, by Father Lombardi, April 15, 2008.
4. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, "Of Licentious Systems," by Adam Smith, Barnes & Noble edition, 2004; originally published 1759. p.423.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Non-thought of Received Ideas

John Taylor Gatto once pointed out "what the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called the non-thought of received ideas."1 I've thought about this phrase considerably in the years since I first read about it. In this age of information excess, even our ideas are not our own.

It is evident that American attitudes toward politics and the principles of American Democracy are derived primarily from Television and Internet sources, mostly crafted at the hands of PR specialists or pundits who recycle the traditional party lines of major political or social groups of the day.

We wear other people's opinions like we wear fashion. While it's possible to feel strongly about such opinions, feelings do not make them ours. We must understand not only what we believe, but why. We own ideas through the process of thinking - even when those ideas originate somewhere else or coincide with the ideas of some other person.

Do we hold principles because of tradition? Because we "identify" with them? Because they resonate with us? Then we are a part of the non-thought of received ideas, simple threads in the tapestry of our culture.

Are we Free if we can't think for ourselves? Then what does it take to become Free?

The tiers of Liberty are independence, choice, and awareness. More on those later.

1. What Really Matters, by John Taylor Gatto, published in Natural Life Magazine, November/December 1994.