Thinking Outside the Box

If someone were enough of a masochist to read through all the postings on this blog, one thing you might notice is that there are relatively few of them which actually discuss libertarianism.  Oh, quite a number will at least touch on the subject and almost all express opinions that most people would identify as libertarian, but there have only been a few attempts to flesh out an explicit philosophy.  That may have been a mistake and I am likely to venture that way at some point over the next few months.  I initially believed the audience would be those already libertarian or at least people that leaned that way.  My experience is that that is probably not the case and that readers are coming from all over the political spectrum and at all levels of knowledge.

I have also come to the conclusion that, in order to be open to libertarian ideas, most people require a fundamental shift in not just the way they think about politics, but simply in the way they think period.  A political philosophy must, at some level, be part of a larger philosophic framework that includes a discussion of ethics, as well as an investigation into what we even mean when we say we know something.  Without at least some element of a broader philosophy, we libertarians come off as just a bunch of oddballs.  

And, I believe, trying to get people to understand, not what we think, but how we think, may be the most effective way to create more libertarians.  At times, that has been my secret agenda in writing what I have written.  So, if you really were masochistic enough to read all the blog entries, I think you might notice that.  In addition to helping create new libertarians, I do think that such an approach may also serve to help bring diverse strains of libertarianism together.  You know…like Ecumenical style? 

Just wanted to share those few quick thoughts tonight.  Will be back later in the week with a longer piece which will likely offend and/or bemuse.  Until then, have a great week and thanks for reading!

The Limits of Security

One thing which pretty consistently comes up as an objection to a libertarian society is that it is dangerous.  Without a large nation-state to protect us, we would all be at the mercy of foreign governments and domestic terrorists.  In the “real world,” we must accept significant limitations on our personal freedom to remain safe because, after all, no one is free who lives in fear.  It is fine and dandy to speak of liberty but, without the protections provided by the state, we would have none.  Of course, the greater the size and scope of government activity, the greater the risk that the state itself becomes the biggest threat.

Interestingly, that argument is one most commonly heard from the Right.  A strong military and police are usually seen as acceptable because they are there to protect us from aggression.  But what do we mean by aggression and what in the world is “micro-aggression,” a term we now hear frequently coming from the Left?

On the surface, aggression seems like it would be pretty simple to define.  If you kill someone or assault someone or rape someone, you have clearly aggressed against them.  But what of verbal intimidation?  We have most all had moments where we felt very uncomfortable because of what someone said to us.  If you were in a situation where you felt singled out because of your race, sex, social standing or any other characteristic, it may have been very scary indeed.  Even if there was no direct threat of physical violence and none took place, it made you more likely to avoid any situation like that again.  

The frequent complaint of the Left is these things happen disproportionately to minority groups and help reinforce the existing imbalance of power in society.  You know what?  They are right.  If you aren’t a woman, you can’t possibly imagine what it is like to deal with men on a day to day basis.  If you aren’t a person of color, you can’t know what they face in dealing with us Caucasian types.  And the argument can be extended to pretty much any traditionally disadvantaged group.  Imagine being bullied, not just by random people, but by the very people who often still think of you as less of a person, just because of a secondary characteristic.

And yes, that is a matter libertarians need to address.  At its core is a very basic concept of ethics, that of respecting everyone as an individual person and treating them in the way we would want to be treated.  Racism and sexism are not consistent with any libertarian theory of morality.  We each need to be sensitive to how we are treating each other and need to listen more and talk less.  Being “politically incorrect” may sound like the cool thing to do but doing it just to hurt others is pretty lame and pretty mean.

And now I will be politically incorrect.  I’m sorry but I can’t endorse a society in which we micro-manage behavior, however boorish it may be.   The reality is that we can’t even effectively protect people against the most terrible forms of aggression.  And, even with a massive state police, we can’t stop all terrorists.  And, even with a massive military, we can’t be certain we won’t be attacked.  I wish we could live in a world where people stopped treating each other like shit.  But we likely never will.  

The kind of society that regulates every element of how we interact with each other and punishes (or re-educates) those who transgress those many rules has one name:  Totalitarianism.   The only way to protect you from everything that might cause you pain is to create a surveillance state so massive and ubiquitous that all privacy is gone.  But then who will protect you from your protectors?  As is often the case, defining the problem is easy.  Solving it is not.

As always, thank you for reading.  I hope that each person who reads each posting will at least think about something a bit differently than they did before.  Have a great weekend and we’ll be back next week with more controversial thoughts! 

Private Places Public Spaces

One concern that is frequently expressed about a stateless society is that people would lack the freedom of movement we have under the current circumstances.  Even assuming that places like sidewalks, roads and parks would no longer exist, I actually think that freedom of movement would be greater.

Two of my favorite places in the world are San Francisco and Las Vegas.  They could hardly be more different.  One is as close to socialism as anywhere in the United States.  The other is a bit of a free for all, where drinking, smoking and gambling are encouraged.

And, despite its all its public places, San Francisco feels restrictive.  Go where you will but follow the rules.  Go where you will but expect, in many instances, to be accosted by people you may not want to meet.  

And, while Vegas also has its own public places, it is in the private places where most people feel comfortable.  There are casinos and shopping centers that I rarely, if ever, patronize, which welcome me with open arms.  Outside of the time share people, you are most likely to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in public places.

Public parks may be avoided because of undesirables.  Private businesses are likely to be frequented because they offer a greater feeling of safety and security.    Public places have every incentive to keep people out.  Private places have every incentive to keep people in.

So, ironically, the most open and democratic places are likely to be avoided.  Conversely, the most private places are most likely to be open to the public.  Where would you rather be at Midnight?  A public park?  Or Walmart?

So the most private of places are frequently the most public of spaces.  For a private concern, there is every incentive to encourage 99% of people to walk through.  In a public place, the remaining 1% are liable to leave the rest of the public feeling unsafe and uncomfortable.

In other words, I think this objection is nonsense.  The most private of places are, for the vast majority, going to be the most public of spaces.

Just back from vacation.  Should now be getting back to posting a couple of times a week so look for that.  Thanks for reading and have a great week!

More Bad Healthcare!

Yes, have no fear.  The new Republican-only health care plan (replacing the previous Democrat-only plan) will continue to provide the same awful maze of premiums, deductibles, regulations, paper pushing and confusion that you all are used to.  And, in no time, I am confident we will all be gnashing our teeth over rising costs and poor quality service.  And, as always, the solution will be more government.  It is mind boggling that people keep falling for this argument but they do.

If wiping out perfectly legal businesses didn’t run counter to my moral principles, I might be inclined to suggest a reform that could actually work:  abolish all insurance and all insurance companies.  And just watch prices plummet in a market without all this artificial demand.  But I won’t advocate that.  

Health care is far from simple to understand, as even our great toupee topped tsar has come to realize.  I don’t presume to know all the answers but I will share what I believe are facts beyond dispute and allow you to reach your own conclusions. 

First, equating having insurance to having easy, inexpensive access to healthcare is false.  The goal should be the latter, not the former.  Second, if we want better prices for health services, we have two options:  decreasing demand or increasing supply.  Third, demand for health care is not ever likely to decline.  Even the healthiest societies will face accidents and end of life care.  When faced with life or death choices, we will choose life the vast majority of the time.  That leaves us with only one realistic option: increasing the supply of health services.

So why is that even an issue?  Imagine an industry with rising demand (and prices) for a service that is frequently essential to the well being of the consumer.  Sounds like the business for me!  And a great investment opportunity as well.  Haven’t I just described the health services industry?  So why hasn’t all this increased demand led to better service and lower prices as it has in most every other segment of our economy?

Well, in most industries, there are not nearly so many non-financial barriers to entry.  It is ridiculously expensive and difficult to become a Doctor and the number of available slots in medical schools is kept artificially low.  Many services that legally require a physician could be provided by non-physicians at little or no risk to the patient.  Frankly, most medicine is not brain surgery but it is often treated that way.  

Oh, and you have a drug or some alternative treatment that you would like to provide?  Good luck!  Unless you have the deep pockets of a multinational corporation, you will never have a chance.  It can take billions of dollars to bring a treatment to market and, even then, drug safety is far from a sure thing.  Oh, and if the drug gets approved, guess who ends up footing the bill in ridiculous drug prices?  Yeah, you figured it out.  That would be the consumer.

So, if you want more and better health care, get government out of the way and let the market provide it.  Legally require transparency so that consumers are better able to balance cost and potential risks/benefits.  Continue to provide recourse in the legal system for those who believe they have been harmed from improper or unsafe procedures.  If you must, ban or greatly restrict very risky options. But, as much as possible, let consumers make choices.  Will they make deadly mistakes?  Probably so.  But they make them now and with a false sense of security.

Someday I will discuss the emerging market out there for “insurance free medicine” and some of what I have read is very exciting.  For now, I will cut this short.  Just felt the need to say my piece, with all the misinformation I have had to wade through today.  Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

The Public Policy Problem

Happened to catch a few minutes of a couple of the network newscasts tonight and it really brought back memories.  Boy, back in the day, that was “the news” of the day.  You got 30 minutes minus commercials and that was it.  Today’s news was the usual mix of human interest, political celebrity and crisis.  Wars and rumors of wars.  Floods, famines and natural disasters.  Pretty Biblical stuff.  A few minutes later, I landed on CSPAN and that bit of great political theater, the Congressional hearing.  Marginally articulate pols from Maine to Montana grilling corporate mouthpieces about the latest “crisis” of the day.  In this case, airline customer service.  

Of course, the gist of all these stories is the underlying assumption that “something simply must be done!”  It underlies not just news reports but most any piece of investigative journalism.   Whether it be one of the cable network features or the old school shows like 60 Minutes and Dateline, the narrative is to expose some unseen crisis, convince us that it is something we need to be very concerned about and, usually, suggest that government needs to step in and make everything better.  If you haven’t noticed this before, just watch for it the next time you watch one of those reports.

Of course this isn’t new.  The idea of “muck raking” journalism dates back to at least the early 20th century.  The very idea of journalism as a profession dates back to around the same time.  The profession takes on almost a crusade-like quality by the mid 1970’s, in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam War.  Hard for me to say even one bad word about the people who brought down the scandal and war-ridden administrations of LBJ and Nixon.  The First Amendment at its finest!  But it also created the crisis narrative I described above.

At its base, the assumption that “something must be done” goes hand in hand with an increasingly broader definition of what is and is not a matter of public policy.  In some cases, that has been a good thing.  Child and spousal abuse were once considered “private matters” and that was wrong.  But, more often, it has meant more and more governmental meddling in private interactions.  As we have discussed previously, when people have differences with one another, there are two ways to “solve the probelem.”  One is through force and that is the government option.  The other is through negotiation and contract.  The latter should always be preferred but it frequently isn’t. 

Along those lines, I was reading an article shared by one of my Facebook friends tonight.  I knew I would likely disagree with many of the conclusions but I try to expose myself to writings from all across the political spectrum and so I checked it out.  The thesis of this piece was that an appointee of our current Grand Poobah was particularly biased against LBGTQ individuals.  In truth, I had to agree.  Seems like kind of a jerk.  But, of course, there was included several arguments which should have nothing to do with public policy.

It continues to baffle me why anyone would want to do any sort of business with an individual or company that had a bias against them.  You can’t find anyone else to bake you a cake or give you a job?  I would rather know that someone disapproved of me and my lifestyle than give them my business.  Of course I would also tell all my friends and acquaintances to avoid that company.  It is hard enough to succeed in the marketplace when you are open to everyone’s business.  Discriminating against a large segment of the market makes it almost impossible.

And, of course, if I don’t support free health care, which is not truly free in any sense of the word, I want you to die.  If I don’t support public schools, I want ignorant children.  And, if I don’t support the latest round of bombings, I want Sharia law to replace the Constitution.  No, what I refuse to support is a society based on compulsion and, by extension, violence.   All of the goals you seek to achieve can be achieved in a free society and at a lower cost in both blood and treasure.  But those aren’t the kinds of simple solutions that can be described in a news report or articulated in a Congressional committee.  They don’t make headlines or careers.  Public policy does and that is why we must always be skeptical of those who claim that a public policy solution is the only good one.  

So, the next time you see a news report that implies that something must be done, ask yourself if there aren’t better ways to solve the problem than with the blunt force of government.  You might be surprised how often it’s true.  I will be on vacation next week but will try to post something before I leave and maybe even a short post while I am away.  Thanks for reading and have a great week!

The Counting Fetish

The psychologist Abraham Maslow, in his book “The Psychology of Science” writes: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”  Of course, people probably have been saying something like that since we started hammering nails, but fancy quotes from authors make you look smart so I went with that.

Yesterday, in my other life as a modern day shopkeeper, my many colleagues and I endured the yearly debacle called inventory.  While there most certainly remain good reasons for any business to keep track of what it has on hand, the process itself often feels quite ridiculous and contrived.  Items are meticulously organized throughout the facility (a good idea in itself) and dozens of levels of auditors walk about repeatedly, making sure that the stocking are hung by the chimney with care.  The Christmas metaphor isn’t a bad one.  Everyone hustles around at the last minute, being sure we are “ready” and the night before is a late one, as the final pieces are put in place.  Finally, when the day arrives, a team of elves descend upon the facility in special costumes with magical tools.  Well, and then they count everything.

And, in the end, all these numbers from all these mysterious machines are fed into another magical “oompa loompa” contraption which spits out a number which, I believe, is actually inside a fortune cookie.  Much consternation exists about this special number and quite rightly so.  Careers may rise and fall depending upon what it is.  “Bad numbers” are likely to lead to special audits and even more counting and recounting.  It is, in fact, a big deal.

We humans love to count things and measure things.  We love statistics and lists.  We characterize each other by numbers every day.  She’s a 10; he averaged a triple double; his poll numbers are down 5%; the stock market closed up 76.44.  You can think of hundreds more without even trying.  So try it.  Once you are finished, notice how many of those numbers mean nothing or mean very little.  We like to count things because we can.  We like to hammer because we can.

And, frankly, nobody loves numbers more than I do.  I spent a good part of my cloistered childhood messing about with baseball statistics, adding things up and ranking things.  I was born too early.  These days my obsession might have landed me a high paying job in the front office of my beloved Chicago Cubs.  Back then I was just weird.  (Still am.)  In school, math and science were pretty easy for me.  It was all numbers.  Physics was the best.  Everything was just measurements and formulas and that was just fine by me.  In college I gravitated towards the social sciences (likely laziness) but, surprisingly, they all wanted to measure and count things too.  I learned about probability and statistics and that was most excellent.

Except it wasn’t excellent.  The further one strayed away from introductory physics, the more ambiguous those numbers became.  It was never as cut and dry as my meticulous little mind needed it to be.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Science (and engineering) contributes more to human health and prosperity than any other human endeavor.  Our brains are not significantly larger than they were 50000 years ago but the amount of information  (mostly counting and measuring) at our disposal is so much greater. 

But science is not perfect and human knowledge will always be flawed, no matter how smart we think we are.  In my short sojourn on this planet, the dietary recommendations have changed dramatically at least three times.  Back in the 70’s I was told to expect a new Ice Age and today I am told it is getting too hot.  People and their magic numbers routinely materialize on both sides of any argument, leaving the layman to wonder what it is all about.  It seems that everything is settled or everything is wrong.  In a world full of knowledge, we are often severely lacking in wisdom.

In that context, allow me to give a bit of unsolicited advice.  First, counting is valuable.   It is an incredible tool that we have at our disposal.  In many cases, it allows us to verify a claim or falsify a theory.  If someone tells you not to listen to the math or science, don’t listen to them.  Second, numbers are not gods that we worship and that, in turn, give us wisdom.  So beware of anyone who is always throwing numbers around as though he or she knows it all.  To be valuable, numbers have to be interpreted in the light of reason and logic and to be placed in context.  A count or measurement is, if accurate, an indicator of something that is happening, not a proof of any particular theory.   Basing important decisions on nothing but those numbers is a terrible idea.  Third, beware of bad measurements.  We all make mistakes and are not always accurate but, even more disturbing, we sometimes measure something that isn’t there or are simply wrong.  Google “journal articles retraction” if you want to discover how much inaccurate information is out there.  And, as always seems to be the case, the mistake appears in bold print on the front page and the retraction is a paragraph on the bottom of page 23.

In closing, don’t let numbers define who you are or what is true.  They are a tool but too often we grow so enamored with them that it becomes a kind of fetish.  Just as a person is not simply a foot, knowledge is not simply numbers.  That is the easy way and the lazy way and good leaders and good scientists would never fall prey to it.  As always, thanks for your continued support and enjoy the rest of your week!

Why Are We Still Working So Much?

Ever wonder why it is, with all the advances in technology in recent years, we are all still working so damned much?  The old 40 hour work week hasn’t changed in our lifetimes and most salaried or self-employed individuals work far more than that on occasion.  Oh, we may not be doing as much physical labor but, for most of us, work is exhausting and takes up far too many of our waking hours.  So what’s the deal?

To try and answer that question will require a bit of (very) basic economics.  Imagine our distant ancestors.  We don’t really have to imagine their day to day struggle to survive because there are still people around the world who are living that way.  For these individuals, most every waking moment is invested in the business of survival.  They grow or gather their own food, provide their own shelter and educate their children.  There is little time for leisure or the arts.  When an individual or group of individuals is in that position, only the most basic needs are met.

And this leads us to a central tenet of economics:  that the true cost of anything is the opportunity cost.  In other words, the cost of any activity (say composing a piece of music) is all the alternatives to that activity (building a hut or hunting rabbit.) In subsistence societies, the cost of most any leisure time is liable to be malnutrition, sickness and possibly death.  But why is modern society so different?  For one thing, we have learned to be more efficient in the production of our basic needs.  Some of that is simply better techniques but much of it through the application of technology.

The history of, for example, the United States is that, year after year, we are producing more and more food with fewer and fewer farmers.  In other words, we no longer use very much time as a society to produce the food we need.  That means that time is freed up for other purposes.  We can now afford to have people who do nothing but compose music or play basketball.  We have the time to master science and create amazing devices like smart phones and space ships.  And we have much more time to simply relax and enjoy our friends and family.  

So we are wealthy, not because we have more money, but because we have so much time.  Remember the opportunity cost.  Now the cost of composing music is not being able to watch Netflix instead of not eating.  Big difference!  And the historical data down through history is clear.  The average work week has been declining for centuries and that makes perfect sense.  But not recently.  With all the advances in computers and automation in the last few decades alone, you would think that the work week would have declined dramatically.  But many people are actually working more.

Some of this is likely pure greed, not that there is anything wrong with that.  If a business can make its workers more efficient, it isn’t likely that those workers will reap the lion’s share of those advances.  They may see some increase in pay or somewhat easier working conditions but are also likely to have more responsibility.  Technology now may make it possible for one person to do what once took two.  And you wonder why you are worn out on Friday!  

But some of it is structural.  We have built our economy around the idea of a 40 hour workweek.  Certain job related benefits require full time employment, which is usually considered to be around the 40 hour mark.  We expect to work those hours and are usually not taken seriously as candidates for advancement if we aren’t willing to “put in the hours.”  It just doesn’t seem right that we might only work 30 or 35 hours, even though most of would accomplish as much or more in that time frame than we did in 40 hours just a few decades ago.

But mostly we work so much because, apparently,  we want to.  If more leisure time and a shorter work week were really important to the average person, it is likely we would have seen changes.  Instead, we seem to prefer to have more things (and maybe more debt) rather than more time.  Who wants to spend more time with the wife and kids anyway when the opportunity cost is not driving a new SUV or having a new iPhone?  Because the opportunity cost of a shorter work week is going to be fewer things, at least in the short run.  So far, we seem to have decided that that cost is too high.

As always, thanks for following along.   If you enjoy what this blog, tell a friend or two.  Until next time, have a great week!