All We Really Need to Know . . .

 | 

Kindergarten was a lot of fun, but I’m glad it’s over. Some people liked it so well they wish they’d never left. A few give every indication that they wish they could go back. I think a great many really need to.

In 1988, a Unitarian minister named Robert Fulghum published a bestselling book entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I’ve only read excerpts from it, so I can’t be sure of the author’s intention. From the parts I’ve seen, my guess is that he agreed with me.

I used to think that growing up was, you know, some sort of goal; it was the state of being that was ultimately desired by most human beings. The only alternative I could envision, as a child, was dying before I got old enough to be an adult. That didn’t seem like a very attractive option.

But our government, in its infinite benevolence, offers us another one.

The dominating State doesn’t want us to be adults, because adults are independent and think for themselves. It wants us to remain forever little children. It doesn’t even mind that we might be oversized brats, because then it has a ready excuse to use whatever force may be necessary to control us. Because of this, it directs much of its efforts toward treating us like children. And when we’re persistently treated in this way, most of us are going to behave like children.

That, of course, gives the State an excuse to go on treating us like kids, and on and on it goes. None of us wants to think that we are anything less than adults. But we see all those other people out there carrying on like toddlers, so we easily become convinced that for the sake of us grownups, the government must be stern and parental with them, just to keep them in line.

The dominating State doesn’t want us to be adults, because adults are independent and think for themselves. It wants us to remain forever little children.

Libertarians annoy people, because we tend to remind them of the things they learned in kindergarten and then, evidently, forgot. Most people think they remember everything they learned in kindergarten. It’s all those other fools who need to be reminded. When libertarians remind them of the basics, they’re insulted. But they really ought to humor us. All those other poor fools need every reminder they can get.

Among the admonitions issued by the Rev. Fulghum, we must share everything, play fair, not hit people, clean up our own messes, and never take things that aren’t ours. There are more rules — 16 in all — but those are the ones that absolutely must be remembered if we are to have a harmonious society. If we don’t always flush, wash our hands before eating, consume warm cookies and cold milk, or take a nap every afternoon, we might be a little tired and somewhat unhygienic, but most people will never know. And putting things back where we found them, saying we’re sorry when we’ve hurt people, watching out for traffic, and holding hands and sticking together pretty much go along with the most important suggestions. The others — living balanced lives, being aware of wonder, remembering that we will all die, and just looking — we either figure out over the course of our years on this planet or suffer the consequences ourselves.

But libertarianism is an even simpler philosophy. It boils everything down to basic logical and moral principle. It can be gunked-up and expanded into all sorts of things, many of them complicated and some even crazy. Those who, for whatever reason, dislike the notion that others might enjoy the same degree of freedom they want for themselves seem to have an extra bone in their heads that blocks them from understanding libertarian ideas.

It especially irks “progressives” — civilized, evolved, peaceful, and nonviolent as they want to think they are — to be told that when they resort to government action against people they dislike, they are using violence. It isn’t being administered directly, because they aren’t going out and shooting them or personally threatening them with guns, so they don’t want to see the connection. When libertarians patiently explain that the State has guns, bombs, tanks, police dogs, and now drones, means of force that it uses with ever-increasing frequency even on its own citizens, they pretend that’s just a technicality. No doubt they even want to believe it.

They have fallen so totally in love with government intervention in every dispute that they are actually all about aggression. Instead of progressives, they could more accurately be called aggressives.

When I debate this with aggressives on political blogs, the argument always runs something like this: “They [whoever they are, though almost always conservatives] are bad people. So we must hit them.” It’s never articulated this plainly, but of course that always comes down to being what they’re saying.

That’s the reasoning of a 5-year-old — a 5-year-old who has either yet to enter kindergarten or flunked it. And when this is pointed out to them, however gently, they almost invariably resort to calling people names and using profanity. They may think this makes them look more grown up, but it makes them look like seriously delinquent 5-year-olds. In an era when their favorite means of settling disputes was more readily employed, they’d have been hauled out behind the woodshed and paddled.

“But-but-but,” goes the standard whine, “they do it, too!” Johnny’s mommy lets him, so why can’t I?

As for conservatives, they are frankly authoritarians. They groove on violence. They can’t understand why 5-year-olds aren’t still being hauled out behind the woodshed and paddled. Johnny’s mommy probably takes him to the playground with an Uzi on her shoulder. This is the attitude they want to emulate?

How can we withdraw from imperialistic military adventures in other countries if we see violence as the solution to absolutely every problem?

How much aggression can a progressive society tolerate? That is not a trivial question. If everybody in a society behaves like a kindergartener, is real progress possible? Can such a society even function on a basically civilized level?

Libertarians may be annoying, but they’re raising a concern it behooves any serious progressive to consider. How, for example, can we withdraw from imperialistic military adventures in other countries if we see violence as the solution to absolutely every problem? If all we have is a hammer, as the saying goes, will everything in the world, at home as well as abroad, not look like a nail? How we behave at home, toward one another, does in large part determine how we behave abroad.

And if we can muster no greater fellow-feeling for other people in our own country, how on earth are we to deal with those in faraway lands with genuine compassion? There’s also a lot to the saying that charity begins at home.

I may be horribly misguided, but I’ve always been under the impression that progressives wanted to be “the adults in the room,” as they often say. That they believed human beings needed to continue evolving from a more primitive and childish state to a higher consciousness. That they wanted to keep the torch of the Enlightenment lit and moving forward through the generations. Yet increasingly they carry on like the studio audience of Captain Kangaroo.

Their response to nearly every situation is, indeed, to use government force. Not as a last resort — as may occasionally be necessary, out of self-defense, when their adversaries insist on using force against them — but as the very first and only resort. Without even trying to, as one of their heroes, John Lennon, so famously sang, “Give Peace a Chance.”

Another holy word in the progressive vocabulary — ranking right up there alongside peace — is democracy. In which they claim to fervently believe, and for the sake of which they can apparently justify almost anything they do. But without the sort of mutual respect, willingness to listen, to share everything, play fair and not hit people we were supposed to have learned in kindergarten, democracy is impossible. As are peace, equality, justice, and everything else that self-professed progressives say they favor.

Our school years, even the later ones, often seem to have been meaningless. “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school,” sang Simon and Garfunkel, “it’s a wonder I can think at all.” But some of that stuff was, indeed, meaningful — and what we learned in kindergarten actually may have been some of the most important stuff of all. They gave it to us early not because it was OK if we forgot it, but because it would be most fundamental to our lives from that time on.

Do we know enough to read the writing on the wall? Will we awaken to the realization that only in a society where everyone’s rights and freedoms are respected can anyone’s be safe? If not, that moving finger’s message on the wall will spell not progress, but doom.

Any society that has degenerated into a gigantic, unruly kindergarten will eventually find itself deprived of freedom. The jackboots will step in to restore order. For the big-moneyed backers of big government — those who actually benefit from it, those whom it ensconces in power — this is undoubtedly the plan. I wonder when “progressives” are going to wake up and see that.

I know it will happen eventually. They’ll figure it out sooner or later. I only hope that later doesn’t turn into too late.




Share This


Libertarian Patent Reform

 | 

Liberty has recently been a forum for discussing copyrights; this brief essay on patents is intended to contribute to the intellectual property conversation. First, I will suggest several legal reforms that could narrow patents — in my opinion, a good thing. Second, I will explain why patents should exist, although in a form more limited than the present one.

Much has been made in the media about “patent trolls,” companies that file or collect patents, not with the intention of ever selling a product, but simply with the desire to litigate against others for patent infringement. Their special target is small businesses that lack the legal resources to fight back. They extort money from these businesses by threatening to sue them. Patent trolls should be repulsive to all libertarians. Even libertarians who devoutly believe in patent law should consider this a blatant example of people gaming the legal system to steal money from innocent, productive businesses.

Twenty years enables a virtual monopoly that may encompass the bulk of a person’s working life, and that’s too long.

What can be done about such trolls? I have some recommendations for changes in the patent laws. I am confident that these changes would satisfy a broad swath of libertarians because, while hurting the trolls, they would provide a healthy limitation to the laws themselves, laws that, according to some libertarians, are too powerful and tend to help patent owners at the expense of the public.

1. Shorten the term of patent protection to ten years. A patent currently lasts for 20 years from its grant date. But the purpose of the patent laws, as spelled out in the United States constitution, is to encourage innovation — “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.” An adequate incentive to invention would be ten years. Twenty years enables a virtual monopoly that may encompass the bulk of a person’s working life, and that’s too long. Ten years of protection rewards and encourages invention but allows a patent to pass into the public domain early enough so that the public can freely make use of inventions while they are still technologically relevant. This is the public’s reward for granting the patent to the inventor. In other words, the public and the inventor enter into a bargain wherein the inventor gets a temporary monopoly and the public gets the useful knowledge embodied in the invention after the monopoly ends. If the technology is out of date by the time the patent ends — and after 20 years most tech is outdated — then the public is not getting its end of the bargain.

2. Require “intent to use.” Currently a person may file and own a patent merely for having invented it, and may assign it to whomever he likes. Trademark law contains a concept called “intent to use,” but this doctrine has not migrated to patent law. If a legal requirement were imposed that to file or own a patent a person must possess a legitimate intent to develop the invention commercially and sell it, then patent trolls would cease to exist. This would not hurt penurious inventors, because the only requirement would be a good faith intent to use the patent at some point, and there would be no requirement of actually being commercially successful, nor of having the financial resources to start manufacturing in the near future.

3. Give teeth to the “obviousness” requirement. The two legal requirements for a patent to issue are, in the words of patent law, “novelty” and “non-obviousness.” Novelty means that no one has done it before. This is strictly enforced by the courts. But as to the invention being non-obvious, the test is enforced very loosely. The best example is the Amazon “one click” patent. Amazon filed a patent that was, really, for nothing more than the process of buying something on a website by means of a single click of a button on the site, where that one click does everything necessary to complete the sale. Apparently it was novel, and the patent issued. But, in my opinion, one click is patently obvious (pun intended). Clicking a button to buy something seems so obvious that a monkey could think of it. Yet this patent still exists, although it was somewhat narrowed by later litigation.

One click is not an isolated exception. For another example, Yahoo! has a patent, which Google licenses, a patent for including ads in search engine results. An idiot could have invented that patent. But patent law deems it “non-obvious.” I advocate, in all seriousness, the creation of a “monkey-or-idiot” test: if a monkey could have designed something or an idiot could have invented it, then it is obvious, and no patent may issue for it. The test used by the courts for “obviousness” right now is merely whether prior art anticipated it, which improperly collapses the obviousness test into the novelty test, and in practice creates one hurdle to clear when the laws explicitly require that a patent must clear two hurdles.

4. Make patents non-assignable. Right now, there is a handful of big corporations that dominate an area of technology and collect patents in order to prevent smaller startup companies from competing against them. For example, in the software realm, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, and Amazon collect patents aggressively and use their patents to stifle competition. This is rightly characterized as the rich exploiting the laws to hurt the poor and the middle class, because the big corporations are owned by the rich while the small startups tend to be ambitious hard-working poor or middle-class entrepreneurs.

If a monkey could have designed something or an idiot could have invented it, then it is obvious, and no patent should be issued for it.

The solution to this problem is to make patents non-assignable: only the inventor of a patent can own it. This will diversify patent ownership so that the rich cannot use patents to suppress the middle class. One of the purposes of a patent is to reward the inventor for his creative contribution to society, and this reform would force corporations to pay inventors what they are due.

5. Make independent creation a defense to the charge of infringement. In the realm of copyrights, independent creation is already a defense to infringement. If Singer A writes a song, and Singer B writes the same song by himself and does not copy A, then B cannot be sued for infringement by A, even if A owns the copyright in the song. This makes sense, because intellectual property infringement is basically a claim for theft, and B did not steal or copy A, despite the two songs being identical. I advocate a similar defense of independent creation to patent infringement. If an inventor creates an invention by himself, and does not copy or steal from the patent’s owner, then he will be free to use it. (We can discuss whether, in addition to freedom of use, he should also have the right to file a patent for it, when a patent already exists.) This makes sense, because the inventor should reap the rewards of his work, and nothing that the patent owner has done makes it just or right to block an inventor from using the invention that he himself created.

Some libertarians suggest that “loser pays” should apply in patent litigation. Recent legislation to apply “loser pays” to patent cases, in an effort to curtail patent trolls, massively failed to elicit voter support and died in Congress. And the trillion dollar technology industry, and its lobbyists, will never allow patents to be eliminated. However, by intelligently advocating selective, sensible, wise reforms, we can nudge patent law in a direction that makes it more responsive to the needs of the public.

Of course, some libertarians will be outraged that I am advocating patent reforms instead of the wholesale abolition of patents. To enable a discussion of this topic, allow me to review the three libertarian arguments for patents. I call these the Randian argument, the Rothbardian argument, and the Nozickian argument.

1. The Randian (Ayn Rand-derived) argument is simply this: assume that John Galt designs a motor that can convert static electricity to usable electric power. This motor will solve the world energy crisis and create clean, cheap, limitless electricity. Should Galt own a patent in the motor? The Randian answer is yes, because Galt created it by using his hard work, intelligence, and genius, and a person deserves to own the results of his labor, as a matter of justice: you should be allowed to reap what you have sown. If you oppose patents, just imagine James Taggart, a principal villain of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, taking Galt’s motor and using it without his consent in order to make money for Taggart, who gives nothing to Galt. To a libertarian, this should feel shocking and ghastly. In fact, it should feel like the parasites exploiting the geniuses, opposition to which is the whole point of Rand’s philosophy.

2. Many libertarians oppose patents, not because of analysis or thought, but because libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard told them to. Many libertarians obey the Rothbardian party line and do what Rothbard says without any critical inquiry. But a little critical thinking shows why, even if we concede Rothbard's basic economic theory, we can still justify patents.

Why did Rothbard oppose them? My reading of Rothbard is that, for him, property exists in order to prioritize scarce resources. He believed that ideas are not scarce, and that therefore ideas cannot be subject to ownership. My analysis is that Rothbard confused the use of ideas and the creation of ideas. Once an idea is created, it cannot be used up or depleted, and anyone can employ it without taking it away from someone else. An idea is not scarce in its use. But the creation of ideas is scarce. If the design for a motor that could create cleaner, cheaper, more plentiful electricity is not scarce, then where is this idea? If not truly scarce, it should be growing on trees and waiting to be plucked and used, like berries on a bush or air to breathe. But Galt’s motor is nowhere to be found. Indeed, the motor must be created by Galt before we can use it. And, until it is created, it is scarce.

Recent legislation to apply “loser pays” to patent cases, in an effort to curtail patent trolls, massively failed to elicit voter support and died in Congress.

The creation of ideas uses scarce resources, such as Galt’s genius, or funding for research laboratories. Therefore, even according to Rothbard’s basic idea that property exists to prioritize scarce resources, patents should issue to inventors, so that money can be paid to the creators of inventions, to prioritize the resources that go into creating inventions.

3. Robert Nozick, Harvard’s most notable libertarian, once posed a thought experiment about what would happen if people were allowed to sell themselves into slavery. He posited that everyone would buy an interest in everyone else, leading to a communal society grounded in contract law.

Nozick's argument, which comes from the second section of chapter 9 in his book Anarchy State and Utopia, is very complicated and difficult to summarize. The gist of it is that a socialist state could arise from a series of contracts if everyone were allowed to sell to others the right to make the seller's important life decisions, such as the decision of which job to work, what drugs to use, what to do with money, etc., because eventually everyone would own a decision-making interest in everyone else, so the community would then have the contractual right to make each individual's decisions. Nozick's prose is dense enough and meanders so much that it is debatable whether he thought this was an argument against the right to make such contracts, or whether he merely found it a thought experiment colorful enough to elaborate. I have no need to answer this question, because my version of Nozick's argument focuses on other contracts that, in general, most libertarians would agree that a person has the right to make.

Let us assume that in a libertarian utopia a person is free to enter into contracts with other consenting adults, without limits. And let us assume that Galt invents a great motor. Then, as a condition to telling anyone else how his motor works or showing his design to others, he requires that everyone else involved with it, such as the investors who fund it and the consumers who buy it, signs a contract. This contract between Galt and third parties would say that the other person consents not to use, buy, make, or sell a motor similar to Galt’s, without Galt’s permission or without paying Galt a licensing fee, in return for the right to do business with Galt. How would this arrangement differ from a patent?

But, also consider: what in libertarian theory would forbid such a contract? If such contracts were allowed, then de facto patents could exist, although they would be based on contract law and not on patent law. So the Nozickian argument proves that a libertarian utopia would collapse, or develop, into a society where de facto patents exist, even if patent law had been abolished.

For all three reasons, Randian, Rothbardian, and Nozickian, it is worth asking: why should (some) libertarians be so passionate in their hatred of patents? I do not ask for your blind agreement on an answer, but merely ask that you consider whether your position on patents is the result of thoughtful reflection or peer pressure from the libertarian movement to conform to the standard form of Rothbardian dogma.




Share This


A Row of Ducks

 | 

Have you ever thought about joining the jihad? No? Neither have I, at least not in the sense that I might be the one doing the joining. I’ve thought about others joining, though. I’ve thought about privileged American white kids who convert to Islam and join the fight to reestablish the Caliphate.

I’m not that interested in the kids of Somali or Pakistani immigrants, or other kids raised as Muslims, or even African American kids who answer the call to jihad. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that’s already been started. But middle-to-upper class white kids who convert to Islam and become the foot soldiers of Allah? This, I am interested in.

In his book Pragmatics of Human Communication, Donald B. Jackson tells a story about Konrad Lorenz, the now-famous ethnologist. One morning, some tourists walking past his front yard saw him waddling through the grass on his haunches, making quacking sounds. They thought that he was mad. What they didn’t know was that he was trying to convince a trailing brood of ducklings, hidden by the grass, that he was their mother. What they didn’t know was that Dr. Lorenz was developing the concept of imprinting.

Of course, the tourists may have thought that he was mad even if they had seen the little ducks, but there are two points in this story that remain relevant here. The first is the one that interested Lorenz: if you can get to a duck at just the right age, you can fool it into thinking that an Austrian scientist is its mother. In fact, it will follow almost anything that waddles and quacks. It may even follow a waddling caliph. The second point is the one that interested Jackson: a behavior that looks crazy in isolation may seem less so when the wider behavioral context is seen. So, to a hockey mom, seeing some young white guy from San Diego — I’ll call him Connor — dressed up sort of like Zorro shouting “Death to the infidel” in Arabic may seem a lot like seeing Lorenz waddling around his front yard quacking. But suppose, just suppose, that there are little ducks in Connor’s yard, too.

Here I’ll use the concepts of imprinting and behavioral context to help understand why jihad might appeal to Connor. Put another way, we’re on a duck hunt.

“Give me the children until they are seven, and anyone may have them afterwards.” — Attributed to St. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Society of Jesus

In The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer devotes a chapter to describing potential converts to mass movements in general. Two groups of likely recruits are of interest right now. The first comprises those who are “partially assimilated,” who “feel alienated from both their forebears and the mainstream culture.” (Hoffer assures us that those who live traditional lifestyles are usually too contented to be good candidates.) The second group comprises those who feel that their individual lives are “meaningless and worthless.” According to Hoffer, then, young people who have been successfully assimilated into a traditional belief system or the mainstream culture and see their lives as having meaning and purpose are less likely to answer the call to jihad. They have been, shall we say, inoculated.

American culture has changed slightly since Hoffer wrote his book in 1951. For example, according to the Gallup, the proportion of the population that considers religion “important” has fallen from 75 to 56%. (N.B., The 56% presumably includes jihadists.) The people who say they have no religion has grown from two to 16%. Generally, “faith tradition” and “traditional belief system” are today understood by those who use such terms to mean “archaic fictions.” In short, religious ardor has cooled. So, the program of inoculation by means of the traditional faith vaccine is not as widespread as it once was. This is our first little duck. Don’t worry, there are more.

“To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.” — “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” Man of La Mancha, 1965

Efforts to assimilate the young into the evolving mainstream secular culture have changed, too. The melting pot has been moved to the back burner and the back burner has been put on simmer, to encourage diversity. The ranks of the Boy and Girl Scouts have been thinned and their once slightly grim mix of quasi-military discipline and Sunday school fun has been rendered more secular and humane. It’s been defrocked and declawed. In public schools, American history is now often taught as a litany of imperialism, racism, oppression, exploitation, and hypocrisy and, on the brighter side, as a continuing struggle against those persistent evils. Jingoism is just not happening.

Is it possible that a child who is asked to pledge allegiance to the flag of a country that, in his second period history class, is revealed to be vile might end up being less than completely assimilated into the mainstream culture of that country? I don’t see why not. Sure, America is ashamed of Wounded Knee, but should every non-American Indian be ashamed to be an American? Perhaps, but if Hoffer is right, failing to inculcate a modicum of patriotism in the minds of the young is a risky lapse in a program of mass-movement disease prevention, particularly in such a diverse society, where a little unifying vaccine may be just the thing to prevent an epidemic of say, jihaditis. Maybe St. Francis Xavier’s point was practical and secular as well: if children aren’t assimilated when small, anyone may have them afterwards, even the Islamic State. In any case, patriotic fervor seems to have faded. This is our second duck. Let’s keep looking.

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Johnny: Whaddaya got? — “The Wild One,” starring Marlon Brando as Johnny,1953

Fish swim, birds fly, and young people rebel. In ’60s America, the young (mostly the white, middle-to-upper class young) rose up against crew cuts, cocktails, war, three-piece suits, button-down shirts, organized religion, and white bread, embracing instead long hair, drugs, peace, bell-bottom trousers, tie-dyed shirts, mysticism, and granola. As intended, parents were apoplectic.

Parents today are made of mellower stuff. Offspring who are agnostic, long-haired, peace-loving, marijuana-smoking, vegetarian, and sport casual, colorful clothes are often a source of parental pride. In a rhetorically tolerant world that adores diversity and is deeply reluctant to be seen as judgmental, it just isn’t as easy to raise parental hackles as it once was. And what’s a rebellion without raised hackles? Boring, that’s what.

What’s a rebellious young person of privilege to do? Occupy Wall Street? You’ll be seen as either an unemployed mercenary or a naïve Marxist. Live off the grid? For a few weeks, maybe, but you’ll be back, and probably be considered a malodorous loser who just couldn’t hack it. Save the Whales? That is so ’80s. Buddhism? You’ll be meditating between your parents. Yawn.

Yes, it’s tough to be a successful young rebel today, but not impossible. In a world of tolerance, cultural diversity, and non-judgmental relativism, here’s what you do: adopt a faith that both preaches and practices intolerance, that scorns cultural diversity and demands strict adherence to religious laws governing every aspect of daily life, and that embraces harsh judgment, severely punishing every forbidden or shameful act. Just do that, and there is a better-than-even chance that your parents, no matter how open-minded they think they are, will become apoplectic. Your dad will probably say a very bad word. Your mom may clutch the drapes. It may be hard to be a rebel today, but, if you want to stick it to the man, just tell him that you’re going to join up with the Caliph and help impose sharia. Clearly, this is our third duck.

“I want to be a vampire. They’re the coolest monsters.” — Gerard Way, co-founder of the band My Chemical Romance

Not only are the young prone to rebellion, but they want to be cool. Don’t scoff. It is a very big deal in American culture to be considered cool. Millions seek it. Trillions are spent each and every fiscal year trying to achieve it. Older people who dismiss it as unimportant have usually just forgotten.

A large part of the universe of cool consists of dark matter. Think of George Chakiris with his switchblade in West Side Story, or Marlon Brando on his hog in The Wild One, or Al Pacino with his “little friend” in Scarface. Think of heavy metal, gangsta rap, and the Twilight Saga. The dark side of cool is alluring, all right, but never forget that cool is a competitive sport. To stay ahead in the competition, sometimes a guy has to adopt a style that is just a bit darker than the next guy’s, with coarser speech, a more menacing look, and deadlier weapons. The competition can spiral out of control.

Consider: a twenty-something student who moonlights as a pizza guy is flopped on the sofa in his apartment in San Diego with his iPad. He is bored. Surfing aimlessly, he stumbles upon a video of a white Toyota pickup speeding across the desert. There’s a black banner covered with white Arabic script flapping over the bed of the truck. A guy wearing wild black pajamas and a big black turban is standing in the back with one hand braced on the top of the cab and the other clutching an AK-47 that he is brandishing in triumph. His tanned, bearded face is lit with a dazzling, slightly crazed smile. The pizza guy’s eyes squint as he studies the face, then open wide as he draws back slightly. After a pause, he whispers, “Connor?” In the Dark Cool Olympics of 2014, Connor has just scored a gold. Duck four and counting.

“Deus vult!” (“God wills it!”) Pope Urban II, declaring the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont, 1095

In “The Story of the Warrior and the Captive,” Jorge Luis Borges tells two tales. The first is about the Lombard barbarian, Droctulft, who, faced with the magnificence of 6th-century Ravenna, switches sides to become a defender of Rome. The second is about a Yorkshire woman who, captured by Indians on the pampas in 19th-century Argentina, spurns rescue and casually demonstrates her rejection of her English heritage by leaping from her horse, drinking the hot blood of a freshly slaughtered sheep, then remounting and galloping off.

The ways in which the human hunger for meaning and purpose can be satisfied can’t be spelled out on a simple, numbered list. Furthermore, loyalties and bonds can be strong or weak, flexible or brittle, but not immutable. As Hoffer said, people who see their lives as “meaningless and worthless” are ripe for conversion. We must find a duckling that tells us just what kind of meaning and purpose jihad offers Connor.

Connor submits to the will of Allah. He learns Arabic and reads the Holy Quran. He prays five times daily, facing Mecca. He fasts. He becomes a member of the global community of the faithful, the Ummah. All true Muslims become his brothers. He moves from the United States to the Islamic State, crossing over from Turkey. He works tirelessly to help reestablish the Caliphate, pulled down by nonbelievers in 1924. He becomes a soldier of Islam, fighting to convert or vanquish all nonbelievers and to spread the word of Allah as revealed by the prophet Mohammed. He fights to defend and expand the IS. He joins in the centuries-long struggle to let the entire world know and enjoy the peace of Islam. His life is filled with personal, cultural, political, military, philosophical, and religious meaning. And if he is martyred in this struggle, he knows he will live forever in paradise.

All of this is pretty heady stuff for a kid from the southern California suburbs who cut his religious and philosophical teeth on Harry Potter. In fact, his first, and unsuccessful, round of imprinting almost certainly happened quite by accident, as he followed the waddling footsteps of Master Yoda.

In his new identity as a salafist mujahid, Connor becomes Abdallah (“slave of Allah”). His new world is pure and clean. Alcohol is forbidden. Drugs are forbidden. Infidelity is forbidden. Immodesty is forbidden. Sexual perversion is forbidden. Pornography is nonexistent. Looking back on his old world, Abdallah realizes that it was corrupt and filthy. The people there lived like pigs (“zay khanzeer”). All the “whatevers” he has ever heard have been trumped by a single shout of “Allahu akbar.” He thanks Allah that he has been shown the way. And that is our fifth and final duck.

“And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid down to rest.”

— “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” Man of La Mancha, 1965

For readers whose hearts have been stirred by the call to jihad, as Connor’s was, I have prepared for your consideration a list of five perfectly reasonable alternatives.

  1. Become a Red Cross Volunteer. Take the training to become an Emergency Response Vehicle driver. It’s the best.
  2. Go to Europe, buy a bicycle and some light camping gear, then explore for three months or so. Get a topographical map so you can avoid the really steep bits.
  3. Get a folk guitar, learn the basic chords, then learn to play and sing as many Bob Dylan songs as you can. Start with “Desolation Row.”
  4. Build a tandoor in your back yard. Learn to cook tandoori chicken and naan. You won’t regret it.
  5. Read everything that P.G. Wodehouse ever wrote. Though somewhat dated, it is still hilarious. Bertie Wooster is a hoot.

Maybe these suggestions leave you cold because they don’t address your spiritual needs, or your need to assimilate in the mainstream culture, or your need to rebel, or your need to be cool, or your need to have meaning and purpose in your life, or maybe because they simply sound totally boring.

If that’s how you feel, there is one more alternative. Before it is presented, I have a request. Please read the list above one more time, and this time notice that in all five of the alternatives, no one gets killed, and no one gets tracked by a Predator drone, armed with a Hellfire missile. Surely, these are the kinds of details that one must take into account when charting the course of one’s life journey, don’t you think?

You read the list again? Really? Still not convinced? You’re sure? OK, here goes: Connor? You’re on the wrong side, man! Join the Marines.




Share This


Bringing the World under Its Domination?

 | 

A couple of new YouTube videos making the rounds talks about the Islamic strategy to take over the world. They talk about how over the last 1,400 years, Islam has spread its tentacles nearly everywhere, slowly increasing its political influence. Mullahs in these videos prophesy, while beating their chests, that Islam will take over Europe and fly its flag over the White House. Sharia will rule the world. It is assumed that Muslim men are forever ready to die and to claim their 72 virgins, once in heaven.

The horror of ISIS’s actions has been made palpable in its own videos. And it is understandable that non-Muslims should react viscerally to the actions of fanatical Muslims in the Near East and elsewhere. But some perspective is necessary. It is even possible to say that not all the bad news is real.

Recently news about ISIS demanding that all women between 11 and 46 years old undergo genital mutilation became the talk of the blogosphere and was widely reported in the international media. Female genital mutilation is mostly a problem in African countries, so the world would be right to pay attention to any news that shows wider enforcement of a horrible custom in an area already afflicted with religious fanaticism and tribalism. Even those who quite rightly don’t want to get their own military entangled in the internal issues of foreign countries would be justified in criticizing practices that are inhuman.

The result is a growing anti-Muslim mass hysteria and an intellectual climate that the military-industrial complex wants.

Alas, not many people paused to verify whether the news related to genital mutilation was authentic, or to check whether there was someone else apart from a lone UN official to support its validity. How easy or acceptable would it have been if the media had written a similar accusation, about some other group, without confirming the authenticity of the report?

But thirteen years after 9/11 — a period during which talking about Islam has been taken out of the realm of political correctness — one can expect to get away with saying the most outrageous things against Muslims without a need to verify the information, before critically examining it. As with several news items like that regarding genital mutilation, even if the news is eventually proven to be false, in the minds of those who accepted it first without critical examination, it will have left an undefined hatred and repulsion against Muslims.

The result is a growing anti-Muslim mass hysteria and an intellectual climate that the military-industrial complex wants. By compromising our capacity for critical examination, we make ourselves gullible and vulnerable to manipulation, sacrificing the very foundations of Western civilization. At the minimum our judgements of the risks we face and solutions we see are erroneous.

I am no fan of Islam. Neither am I a fan of Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Neither am I a fan of the tribal, narrow-mindedness and high time-preference lifestyle of a large proportion of many of those in the African continent. Neither am I a fan of nationalism, a new-age religion to which a large section of Americans is extremely prone.

* * *


I have nothing against “religions” as long as they attempt to explore the spiritual nature of life. But ritualistic religions based on a system of concrete beliefs are an antithesis of spirituality and discourage thinking.


* * *

As I write this, Muslims are being butchered in Myanmar and in Sri Lanka by the much-esteemed Buddhists, for no reason that a rational mind can understand. But isn’t Islam a more fanatical religion? In the sea of irrationality, it can be hard to know which of these formal religions has been worse. Only a century back the Christian nations were killing tens of millions of their own kind in two “great” wars, and even today African tribes kill hundreds of thousands for no good reason. Chinese killed tens of millions of their own. Cambodians killed 25% of their population. Massive killings and pain were suffered in South America and Russia. A few hundred thousand innocent people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima were incinerated by the US. And in suicide bombing those who have shown extraordinary performance are not Muslims but Japanese kamikaze pilots. In recent times the concept was revived by a Hindu organisation, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

What Islam suffers from is generally the reality of life in all poor societies: their irrationality, a cultural existence that has not gone through an age of reason and the age of enlightenment. I have no interest in defending Islam from its problems. It has its own, some very specific to it. But there are some that are taken out of context. So let’s get a perspective on some of those.

In my city in India, businesses complain that Muslims must go to pray twice during working hours. I ask them why they don’t hire Hindus instead. The response I get is that Hindus come drunk in the morning, if they come at all. Alcoholism is a massive problem in most of the poor parts of Eastern Europe and Africa. Drug addiction and alcoholism, albeit not yet officially recognized, are an increasing and major problem among Hindus in India. Ironically, in the popular culture, it is Muslims who have the bad name: for their prohibition against alcohol.

In some Islamic countries, women are not able to attend universities. They are not allowed to have sexual relations when they want, with whom they want, because many Muslim men are obsessed with virginity. Misogyny rules the roost. Men control what women wear. This is the commonly understood narrative in the West. But while men get all the blame, in reality much of the control over women in these societies is conducted by elder women. In the Western media such information is often expressed by using the passive form, perhaps to cater to the needs of those in the Western feminist movement who never want any blame to go expressly to women. Indeed, besides the military-industrial complex, a certain strand of the Western feminist movement takes pride in demonizing Muslims, perhaps because some people caught in that strand want to feel better about themselves. For some women in the West, casual sex, peer pressure that urges them to work even when they don’t want to, the routine of day care for children, and, very importantly, the need of western governments to collect taxes from more bodies have brought more burdens than happiness.

Virginity is indeed valued in poor societies, not just among Muslims. But in some communities in the US as many as 70% or more of babies are born out of wedlock, with the average being 40%. This is a major social problem leading to disintegration of families, which ironically Muslims rightly recognize, calling it “decadence.” In rich societies social welfare programs, albeit in a very corrupt way, take the place of the missing dads. In poor societies, women cannot afford to be single mothers. Parents of such girls are paranoid about their getting pregnant, because bringing up children is very expensive. But can they not use contraception? Contraception is expensive for those earning $1 a day, and still carries the risks of pregnancy and disease. For poor people this risk, however small, is simply not worth the fun — these societies are mostly attuned to survival, not happiness or pleasure, anyway. To put this in perspective: half of births in the US are unintended.

* * *


A deeper reflection on the above might show that examining an alien culture’s social problems without understanding the broader context can be grossly misleading. Should you work for “liberating” women in such societies? Are you more likely to destabilize their societies, making the situation of women worse? Do the problems of women exist in isolation from the problems of men, children, and the elderly? Or do they exist in a balance within their cultural and economic context? Should you shovel democracy and western institutions down their throat? Or would such imposition — if not preceded by an intellectual renaissance — only confuse them, killing their capacity to develop the cultural ingredients to develop such institutions on their own?


* * *

But isn’t what women wear in Islamic countries particularly restrictive?

Not only in Islamic countries but in many Western countries as well, women are expected to show a higher level of modesty. In most of the US, it is permissible for men to go topless but not for women. Depending on their society, people have different senses of shame. Not all forms of distinctive dress for women — or men — are necessarily signs of male domination. One might want to visit Turkey, Malaysia, and even Indonesia, to see whether Islam is necessarily in opposition to modern life.

We grow up with idiosyncrasies of our own culture and don’t see them as such. In India and China, both of which are considered to be on the front line in dealing with Islamic fanaticism, a very large proportion of women are missing: babies relegated to the dustbin, put under the leg of the bed soon after birth, buried alive, not looked after when sick, or aborted because they were female. Why isolate Muslims as particularly bad?

But what about chest thumping mullahs who want to bring the West under sharia law? Such people have existed in all religions and in all regions. Moreover, new immigrants to the West, particularly the so-called educated — from Mexico, Africa, China, India, and elsewhere, including Muslims — have a tendency to vote for collectivist public policies, ironically directing the politics of their new home toward what made their original country wretched. A majority of Western women, who mostly got the right to vote in the last century, have voted for collectivist policies, increased social welfare, police, and state control. The result is that the US has increasingly turned into a militarized police state. They achieved this without much “help” from Islam.

When you hear about mass killings, the reality is usually not that the society is murderous, but that it is just too sheepish and emotionally broken.

One does see armed gangs and in some cases real armies beheading people on TV in Iraq and elsewhere in that region. Such gangs succeed not because individuals and communities, despite the other sins and irrationalities that blossom in a tyrannical society, directly approve of such criminality. They happen because most of the society is so completely broken, superstitious, irrational, and sheepish that it does not resist or fight back. Yes, when you hear about mass killings, the reality is usually not that the society is murderous, but that it is just too sheepish and emotionally broken. The average Muslim, however irrational he might be, still cares for his family and has no interest in killing others.

The Middle East is dotted with American bases, where America has historically tried to influence the region’s culture and politics. What would Americans think if there were a Muslim army stationed outside New York? One might even ask if it is not the sign of sheepishness that some people in the Middle East don’t hate America.

Almost certainly such wretched societies seriously lack the organizational power to take over the world, if they can even conceptualize that. Were this not the case, Israel — a country of a mere 7 million people — would never have come into existence. Many people in the Islamic world have no clue about the US, apart from drones and occupying forces. But the same people have problems identifying major cities in their own neighbourhood. Mostly they don’t know what their neighboring countries are. They just don’t have the intellectual ingredients to imagine expanding Islam to take over the world.

Islamic societies’ biggest problem is not fanaticism but irrationality and superstitions. That is the reason they are poor. Thousands are killed in fights between Shia and Sunni. Some are killed because they refuse to change their religion. But torture, pain, wretchedness, and systemic corruption are a part of day-to-day, moment-to-moment life in most of the world outside the West. Most of these people are born in virtual slavery, wallowing in disease and tyranny. Might-is-right is the operating principle in most of the world, from Islamic countries to China, to Africa, to India. Millions of people in these regions die needlessly every year, their deaths unreported in the media. Why blame only Islam?

More than Islam, what the West should worry about is the increasing irrationalities in the West itself, loss of critical examination in the intellectual space, and an increasing influence of cultural Marxist values — values that are the antithesis of what made the West great but are today posing as what underpins Western civilization.




Share This


The Absurdity of Intellectual “Property”

 | 

This is a response to Kyle Scott’s essay, published in Liberty on August 16.

Kyle Scott’s case for copyright is interesting, and he should be commended for making it so clearly and intelligently. For him, as for many other libertarians, what people write is their own property, like any other kind of property, and they have a natural right to keep it. Government is merely the protector, not the source of their right. All this can be deduced from the natural rights theory most importantly exemplified by John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government.

Unfortunately, so concerned is Mr. Scott with his line of deductive reasoning, so clear, so forcible, so all-sufficient, that he never notices what a strange kind of property he’s talking about. Copyright is property that stops and starts whenever the government starts or stops it. A few decades ago, it lasted for 28 years, with renewal for another 28 years, if you mixed your labor with the thing a second time, by filling out a form asking for renewal. Now it continues for 70 years after your death or, in the case of “work for hire” — work performed, for instance, in the employ of the Disney Corporation, which hired you to mix your labor on its account — for a whopping 90 years after the original publication of whatever you wrote or otherwise created.

Copyright is an invention of government, and it has fluctuated at the arbitrary whim of government.

I have no doubt that many other alterations in the lifetime of this weirdly fluctuating property will occur, as congressmen receive yet more campaign funds from yet more wealthy holders of copyright. As things stand today, however, the heirs of a 20-year-old who writes something, anything, today, and survives to the age of 80, can manifest themselves in the year 2144, demanding that you get their permission to republish this something, anything, that was produced so long ago by so callow a youth. And if the heirs are not around, in the sense of being visible, you will have to find them, or show that you tried. Then, miracle of miracles, in the year 2145, the troublesome property will vanish. The copyright will have expired, a mere 70 years after its author’s expiration, and you will be free to publish it a thousand times over, if you want.

Now really, does this look like property? Do farms and houses vanish 70 years after the deaths of their creators, unless some government action resuscitates them?

Historically, copyright is an invention of government, and it has fluctuated at the arbitrary whim of government. Mr. Scott would doubtless argue that this has nothing to do with the basic issue, which is one of individual right, right eventually recognized and protected, however imperfectly, by government. He might carry his reasoning to the obvious, though absurd, extreme of insisting that anything I write and perhaps toss into the street should be guaranteed to me and my heirs forever — that the heirs of Sophocles and King Solomon, no doubt very numerous by now, should be tracked down and reimbursed for every republication of these authors’ works. Oh no, no need for consultation of Athenian or Israelite statutes of inheritance, which knew nothing of copyright. Principle alone will guide us.

But in truth, copyrighted “property” is no property at all. The assumption that it is property is fraught with as many evils as St. Paul attributed to the love of money.

Everyone has a right to own a house, to sell it, or to pass it to his heirs. But the house doesn’t vanish 70 years after his death, or whenever Congress passes another law. Nor, to get closer to the root of the problem, is the house an abstract title to the legal authority to reproduce a house, the ownership of which title can require expert knowledge to identify after a fairly short time. No, there is the house, at 400 S. Main Street, and there are the people inhabiting the house or paying rent on it to a readily identifiable owner. A house is completely different from the reproduction of a house — or, still more abstractly, the right to reproduce it. Your property right in your house is in no way diminished by my building a house that looks exactly like it. Furthermore, you can’t just build a house and move away and abandon it, and expect other people to run and find you and pay you money for the right to live in it — much less the right to build a house in Dubuque or Delphi that’s exactly like that house. No, other people are eventually going to mix their labor with your house — use it, maintain it, claim it for their own. Even in the most rights-conscious communities, if you keep leaving your grandfather’s gold watch on the sidewalk, someone else is going to pick it up, wind it, clean it, and appropriate it, and no jury will convict him for doing so. Nor should it, all cookie-cutter libertarian theory to the contrary.

The vast majority of copyrights are of no value at all, and honoring them constitutes an enormous tax on productive people.

Now, a copyright is not like a house, and it is not like a gold watch. It is nothing so real as those things. In Mr. Scott’s conception, and that of the United States government, it is an absolute right to keep other people from copying something, for the sole reason that you produced it. You could say the same thing about — pardon my taste for low imagery — your garbage, or the stuff you put in your toilet. Copyright, in this conception, is an absolute guarantee that no one can copy your words, even if you abandoned them, even if you sold somebody the paper they were written on and walked away and didn’t bother to leave your address. Even if you gave the paper away. Even if you left it lying in the gutter. Even if it stayed in the gutter, or in the moldering archives of a vanity press, for seventy years after your death.

Now, if I sold you a house by claiming that Frank Lloyd Wright had built it, and he didn’t build it, but I built it myself, you could sue me for fraud — but the Wright estate could not. I had every right to build and sell the house, even if it looked the same as one of Wright’s houses; I just didn’t have the right to claim that he built it and charge you more accordingly. But if I sold you a laundry list, claiming that Wright had written it, and he did write it, and you reproduced it, only without the permission of his estate, the estate should be able to sue you successfully, according to the argument of Mr. Scott and many other libertarians. What’s the difference? It isn’t a difference of natural right, that’s for sure; it’s a difference of political enactments that have become so naturalized in libertarian thought that rationalizations are found for them.

It never occurs to dogmatists of copyright that valuable works could be protected by invoking laws against fraud. More important, it never occurs to them that the vast majority of copyrights are of no value at all, and that honoring them constitutes an enormous tax on productive people. I know scholars who spend much of their lives trying to trace the copyright owners of works that are almost 100 years old, works that are of no value except to the hapless researchers and a handful of readers. They are paying a pointless tax to a ridiculous law, a law that Mr. Scott would presumably make still more ridiculous by extending it to eternity.

It isn’t a difference of natural right; it’s a difference of political enactments that have become so naturalized in libertarian thought that rationalizations are found for them.

If labor has anything to do with the creation of property — which it doesn’t, contrary to Mr. Scott’s faith in Lockean dogmas, according to which I can’t pick up a kitten in the street without asking who mixed his labor with the land that sustained the kitten’s progenitors, all the way back to Noah — there are a great many more researchers and readers who have a more substantial property right to the stuff they research and read than the authors who once excreted it. If you don’t believe that, try mixing your labor with John Locke’s prose.

Mr. Scott is patently an intelligent person, yet his claims for copyright are patently absurd. This is an observation that could be made in respect to many radical libertarian arguments, particularly those whose results turn out to be, rather ironically, highly conservative. By Scott’s logic, high schools shouldn’t just be teaching Shakespeare; they should be supporting an eternal Shakespeare Trust, providing dividends for his millions of heirs, any one of whom could veto republication of his works, as a matter of right.

This prompts the question: under what circumstances are intelligent persons most likely to make absurd statements, without realizing their absurdity? Answer: When they are in love. And so it is: Mr. Scott — again, like too many other libertarians — is in love with an ideology and cannot see the absurdity to which his supposedly radical position leads him: the absurdity of endorsing, on the ground of individual rights, a massive governmental creation and subsidization of crony “property.”




Share This


In Defense of Intellectual Property

 | 

Libertarianism can be different things to different people. Trying to define it, or characterize it, will leave some libertarians at odds with one another. What follows will isolate me from most libertarians. It is a defense of intellectual property rights (IPR) based on the thesis that there is no normative distinction between IPR and real property rights (RPR). I will use Butler Shaffer's short polemic for the Mises Institute, "A Libertarian Critique of Intellectual Property," as my primary foil as it encapsulates many of the arguments against IPR that libertarian thinkers embrace.

Where Shaffer ends I will begin. At the end of his polemic he boils down his rejection of IPR on the ground that a libertarian cannot endorse a right that is created and enforced by the state. The premise that IPR are created by the state is false, while the premise that IPR should be rejected because they are enforced by the state is unpersuasive. This essay will unfold in three parts, with the first demonstrating why Shaffer’s first premise is false, the second section demonstrating why his second premise is unpersuasive, and the third section confronting other objections to IPR.

Section I: Intellectual Property Rights are not created by the state

The only means through which one may defend RP, and not IP, is to say that the manner in which man exerts ownership over RP has nothing to do with his mind. RP and IP are both products of the same process, even though they take different forms. It doesn’t require a great imagination to see this, but because it is an unfamiliar formulation I will elaborate by means of a familiar source: John Locke. A Lockean justification of private property provides a sound defense of IPR by building through a property of conscience.

Unless we assume that man’s arms and legs move without cognition, man’s labor is a product of his mind.

In chapter 5 of his Second Treatise on Government Locke gives his seminal account of property rights. It runs thus: man alone is in possession of himself, and through his drive and ingenuity he extends his dominion beyond himself. Man is in possession of himself because no other individual gave him his will, conscience, or abilities; thus, no one else can exert dominion over him except that to which he consents.

Man takes possession of property when it lies in common and he mixes his labor with it. Simply put, if there is unowned property available, and someone takes it out of its natural state by mixing his labor with it, that property becomes his so long as there is enough left over for others to sustain themselves, for that man has no right to deprive others of providing for themselves. An acorn becomes mine if it is lying on the ground or staying in the tree, and I take it out of its natural state by mixing my labor with it — plucking it from the tree or picking it up from the ground. The mixing of labor makes it mine because that acorn is no longer what it had been. My labor made it something that it had not previously been, by virtue of my efforts. This means that nobody else can stake a claim to it without depriving me of the fruits (or nuts, in this case) of my labor.

The Lockean argument gets a bit more complicated, but in terms of how common property becomes private, this is it. That is why Locke and his intellectual heirs consider private property paramount for the preservation of liberty, for there is no real distinction between man and his property, since property is nothing more than the extension and physical manifestation of a man's liberty.

As it relates to IP, a Lockean position is easy to extract. Unless we assume that man’s arms and legs move without cognition, man’s labor is a product of his mind. Without cognition I would not cut down trees and build a shelter, nor would I engage in any productive activity that would lead to property ownership. Whether it’s writing a book or building a widget, property originates from man’s will and ability to produce.

If the process by which IP is protected is conducted poorly, that is simply the government doing a necessary job poorly and not evidence that the job is unnecessary.

James Madison has a more expansive, and sometimes confusing, articulation of property rights, but he understands them as Locke does. Madison uses property to describe what man possesses within himself (what Locke would call will or labor), and those external objects that become man's possessions through the mixing of himself with them (land, hogs, etc.). This formulation is articulated by Madison in a 1792 essay entitled "Property." Madison writes:

In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights. Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions. Where there is an excess of liberty, the effect is the same, tho' from an opposite cause. Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.

We may conclude that protecting property, broadly understood, is the sole object of government for both Madison and Locke.

Somebody stealing my IP is the same as someone stealing my RP, particularly if IP is what I use to make a living. If the market for my book is 10,000 people, then someone who resells my book, or makes 10,000 copies it and sells them without my permission, has shrunk the market for me, the originator and creator of the book. This is no different from someone breaking into my shop and stealing 10,000 widgets and selling them on the black market when the market for the widget is 10,000 people. In either instance my ability to make a living through my labor has been denied by someone who illegitimately used the product of my labor without my consent. In simple terms: my right to life, liberty, and property has been denied. Nothing gives someone else the right to capitalize on my labor without my consent, for without my labor that product would not be in existence. These considerations give me sole ownership of the property if we follow the Lockean formulation of property rights.

Section II: Rights and the State

It is not a defect of IP that it needs the government to enforce it; it is the fault of libertarians if they cannot accommodate a necessary and just idea, such as IP, without government enforcement. If libertarians reject IP on the ground that it needs government to enforce it, then we have not evaluated IP on its merits but merely through a heuristic defined by ideology rather than logic.

If the process by which IP is protected is conducted poorly, that is simply the government doing a necessary job poorly and not evidence that the job is unnecessary. The focus should be on how to correct what’s wrong, not how to eradicate protections for property. Government is legitimate when it protects life, liberty, and property, and illegitimate when it does not. That does not mean that life, liberty, and property are illegitimate ends when the government does a poor job protecting them. To reject the ends because the means are faulty is a logical error.

Furthermore, libertarians who embrace RP cannot reject IP on enforcement grounds, for RP also requires government enforcement. Perhaps in idealized settings, or at least in smaller, more communal settings than the current nation-state model, RP would not require the government for protection. But we don’t live in those scenarios and must therefore recognize the reality of the situation. We can certainly debate the degree to which the government protects RP well, the means through which it does so, and the externalities associated with government protection of RP, but I don’t think anyone would say that if the police in every city were shuttered up tomorrow, crime would be reduced significantly the following day. In today’s reality, RP requires government protection just as IP does. Thus, unless one is willing to reject RP on these grounds one cannot also reject IP for the same reason.

Section III: Remaining Objections and Rebuttals

Shaffer objects to those who say that IPR promote creativity by protecting the products of one’s creative endeavors. It is true that IPR do not make me more creative, but IPR protection may provide incentives for creative activities rather than other activities that would be more profitable. If I am a musician who is unable to profit from my music because others can steal my ideas, I will have to find another job. This doesn’t prevent me from being creative, but it does reduce my incentive to do so and it impedes my ability to dedicate the necessary time to creative endeavor.

Shaffer uses the Roman aqueducts and the Egyptian pyramids as examples of human achievements in ingenuity and creativity that occurred without IPR. What Shaffer fails to acknowledge is that these were state-sponsored projects that would not have been realized without financing and organization from a large state. Similarly, while Michelangelo did not require IPR to produce his art he did require a wealthy patronage to support him and his products financially. IPR is one reason we no longer have to rely upon a patronage system in the arts and literature.

We must not deny producers security in their life, liberty, and property for fear that the authority we must rely upon to do so may turn against it.

Shaffer endorses the claim by Paul Feyerabend that “science is an essentially anarchistic enterprise” to demonstrate that an open exchange of ideas is beneficial for scientific and artistic achievement. But the passage from Feyerabend goes on to stipulate that “theoretically anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives.” Shaffer conveniently ignores the operative term “theoretically” and thus fails to explore the reality of our world and defaults to the theoretical without acknowledging having done so. Shaffer, and all those who endorse stripping producers of their ownership rights, should recognize that producers have bills to pay and those who steal their products deprive them of their ability to provide for themselves through the outcomes of their labor. Moreover, thieves do exist, and having a means to guard against them is necessary albeit unfortunate.

Conclusion

In practical and theoretical terms there is no meaningful distinction between real property and intellectual property. If libertarians accept government protections for real property then they must too accept them for intellectual property if consistency is to be maintained.

I am sympathetic to the concern that when we ask the government to protect us it enfeebles us potentially and opens the door for the government to inch into other areas of our lives. But, the potential does not have to be realized if we do not permit it. It is possible to restrain and confine the government to those means and ends that we think most appropriate. Thus, we must not deny producers security in their life, liberty, and property for fear that the authority we must rely upon to do so may turn against it. We must instead opt for just government rather than reject it outright until such a time comes that we live in a world of entirely honest men and women.

With the permission of the author, a reply to this essay has been invited from Wayland Hunter; it is available here.




Share This


Are Poor People Happier?

 | 

Some people believe that those living in utter poverty, in the wretched parts of the world, know best how to smile and enjoy life. “Poor people,” they say, “live simple, contented lives, with fewer worries and distractions.” Some of the best-known spiritual teachers — Stephen Covey, Wayne Dyer, etc. — have talked about greater happiness, deeper connections with the earth, and higher levels of spirituality among the poor societies they have visited. Many celebrities (John Lennon, Richard Gere, etc.) and business leaders (the late Steve Jobs, for example) spent extended time in India to seek spiritual enlightenment.

To a casual observer, all this may look very reasonable. But the reality is completely different. And we’re not talking about a minor, insignificant error: such beliefs seriously affect what we mean by progress (Is poverty better than prosperity?) as well as the public and financial-aid policies we adopt in relation to poorer societies, often with horrible consequences. Even within this strand of erroneous views there are two schools of thought. On one hand there are people who want to restrict all developments in “primitive” areas “to preserve their languages and cultures,” whether those societies want development or not; on the other there are people who want to impose democracy on these societies and flood their poor people with cash, because “they deserve a better material life, their fair share.”

So what is it about poor societies?

Some people living in big cities cherish a romantic notion about rural places within their own area. Romantic, and mistaken: it is often a huge error to presume that rural people believe in simple living, have a higher sense of community, are closer to nature, are friendlier and more compassionate, and are physically more active and healthier.

I have been to scores of the world’s poorest countries, and I have spent extended periods there. I have done several spiritual retreats in India. I have found poor people very hospitable and generous toward me. But one must live there long enough to understand what is behind the facade. One must ask whether poor people are, indeed, happy.

A wretched life is survivable only on the foundation of numbness. Early in life, very poor people learn to switch off feelings, to avoid sensing the nonstop pain of poverty and tyranny. Those in hunger lack an interest in philosophy, a sense of right and wrong, or an aspiration for higher meaning in life. Their lives are driven by expediency, not morality or reason. They relieve the stress of living under tyranny by passing it on to those more vulnerable. They have, quite rightly, one overpowering obsession: survival. Poor people process the world through dogmatic beliefs and faith.

To poor people, a visitor is a novelty, a reason for catharsis, a much needed escape from their mostly wretched existence. The visitor provides them with a sense of comfort, a tacit knowledge that they are not in competition with him for resources. But visitors (and readers of visitors’ reports), beware: it is hazardous to jump to any conclusions about the character of a poor society and its state of being, simply because of a short, smiley encounter. Anyone who calls poverty spiritual is misled, shallow-thinking, or condescending.

* * *

I must expect some readers to respond that I am “over-generalizing.” They fail to comprehend that we always generalize. Was Saddam Hussein a bad guy? Indeed he was. But that is a generalization. In parts of his life, he was a good guy. He was a hero for people from his community. We might say that politicians are corrupt or that bureaucrats are lazy. That does not mean that good politicians cannot exist or that you’ll never find an efficient bureaucrat. Similarly when I talk about poor people, I am referring to the average.

* * *

But aren’t people in poor counties free from the “depression” felt by people in the richer, developed world? Yes, but for a very wrong reason. Poor people just don’t have the time (or the future) in which to feel depressed. On the surface of their existence they create all possible noise, chaos, and smell to keep themselves distracted, to avoid examining their inner selves. If they did find a reason for self-examination, they would emerge extremely frustrated. History shows that a lot of social revolutions happen, ironically, as people emerge from hand-to-mouth existence — the inertia of pre-rational thinking does not necessarily change even after they have started becoming prosperous.

Creating policies based on erroneous assumptions, either to aid poor countries or to change their regimes forcefully, has had disastrous consequences. If we really want to be an impetus for change, we must accept facts as they are, objectively, even if they counter the instinctive sympathy we feel for the weak.

Are the meek inheriting the earth?

In today’s age of technology, poverty does not come easy. Most poor people are poor because that is what they deserve. It is a result of their spiritual poverty, of their failure to imagine abundance and a win-win society, of a sinful state of thinking and worldview in which envy, tribalism, irrationality, and fatalism dominate. It is with their mental paradigms that they elect their leaders. Those in positions of power indeed are tyrants, but see what happens when the underclass is suddenly elevated to higher positions. You should normally expect worse.

Why else did Iraqi institutions built at the cost of trillions of dollars (including the money spent removing a tyrant) collapse like a house of cards within months of being left to themselves? It is just very hard to change the human mind, and without changing that, there is no hope. The removal of Saddam Hussein was at best a result of extraordinarily naive thinking. There is no escape from drudgery until people individually wake up.

Poor people are very materialistic, if you understand that “materialism.” Material acquisition is their obsession, a result of their minds being tuned only to survival. Moreover, when they start earning a surplus — and when they become nouveau riche — their worldviews don’t change easily and may not for several generations. A volcano of crudeness and rudeness erupts. And why venture to exotic countries to understand this? Look into your own backyard. Have you ever wondered why some in the poorest communities in your area have the most expensive cars? Look for information about those who won hundreds of millions in lottery tickets. Most of them end up worse than where they started, with unpaid bank loans, drug addiction, and wrong company.

* * *

A lot of confusion is created by using terms improperly. Some people tend to use “capitalism” in place of “materialism.” While they are not parallel terms and hence not strictly comparable, in essence they are often antonymous. “Materialism” has its roots in addiction to material acquisition and “capitalism” in individual liberty. In my experience those who seek personal freedom often lack any obsession for material acquisition. And one can live in utter opulence and still not be materialistic, if material acquisition is not the driving force in one’s life.

* * *

In the South African capital of Johannesburg, one is awed by Lamborghinis, Jaguars, and other very expensive cars, mostly driven by those who were very poor not long before, but got easy access to cash because of redistribution policies. Those who thought that this money would have gone toward better purposes have been proven wrong.

In my backwater city in India, where cars and houses were traditionally modest, signs of prosperity are now the same as signs of bankruptcy: people buy Audis and BMWs on loans they cannot afford to pay. Alcoholism among women, slum-dwellers, and rural people is on the rise, rather rapidly. A culture of self-denial (owing to the socialistic past) has rapidly mutated into one of pleasure-centeredness. Ironically, the switch was easy; it merely required a change of rules — there was no time-consuming, painful critical evaluation, for such a concept does not exist in the culture.

* * *

One might ask where Indian spiritual teachers emerge from. The reality is that spirituality is a rare concept in Indian society. Religions teach fatalism, dogmas, and superstitions. Magical stories of kings and queens and the myths that go with them grip the mind very early in life and combine to cripple people from thinking rationally. There is too much of materialistic expectation in the concept of the afterlife developed from dogmatic religion, making indoctrinated individuals very resistant to change. The corrupt leaders and sociopaths who benefit have entrenched themselves extremely well, over hundreds of years; and this entrenchment is not going to go away easily, for the sufferer and the tyrant are often two sides of the same coin. In such an ecosystem, those with an interest in spirituality are outcast — J. Krishnamurti, for example — and hence tend to gravitate to certain pockets of protection or interest, mostly catering to American and other Western followers.

* * *

But aren’t Chinese and Indians thrifty? Don’t they have huge savings? Haven’t the Chinese provided trillions in credit to the developed world? Consumption of Louis Vuitton and other exotic luxury goods — brands that I cannot pronounce or remember — is exploding in China, Thailand, Malaysia, and so on. The Confucian culture of China, a culture that encourages saving, is mostly a myth that prevails among China bulls (and I am one, but for a different reason), a retrospective rationalization for China’s successes of the last three decades. Not too long back, the Chinese were seen as spendthrift, lazy, and unhygienic.

* * *

Macau today is a much bigger gambling and sin city than Las Vegas, and growing. An upcoming hotel will soon have the biggest fleet of Rolls-Royces anywhere in the world. The cost of a suite for one night will be $135,000. Each suite will have a private access, perhaps to provide the ultimate in hedonism. I don’t decide what people should do, but I do wish they used their newly minted money for better purposes. However, I have invested some of my money in these pleasure centers. I will leave the reader to worry if I am a hypocrite.

* * *

What does this mean for the future?

What will human society look like in the future, as it continues on the path of economic growth and technological revolution? If poor societies are not really spiritual and deep-thinking, the trajectory they will take and the influence they will have on the larger society as they become richer and more globalized will be very different from what it would have been if their poverty were a result of nothing but their political institutions.

For a long time, I thought — very erroneously — that poor societies would use their initial excess cash to invest and provide for personal development. I had made the same error that I now blame others for.

In reality, poverty would almost instantly disappear were the poor capable of strategizing their lives, of looking at life rationally with the long term in mind. A visit to malls in Asia convinces me that the growth of luxury goods and high-end services will continue to trend upward. As soon as people have enough to eat, they start to consume rotten junk food, and their brand consciousness kicks in, making them spend a disproportionate amount of money on status goods. They must own a Louis Vuitton bag or drive an expensive car, even if it means sharing a room with several other people.

I have devoured with great pleasure the books of Jared Diamond, in which he attributes the success of the West to “guns, germs, and steel” and those of Niall Ferguson, in which he argues that beginning in the 15th century, the West developed six powerful new concepts or “killer applications” — competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic — allowing it to surge past all competitors in the East. But have all these concepts not been available to the rest of the world for at least the past two centuries?

Did Cambodia (where a large population was killed in the civil war), Mao’s China, and vast parts of Africa not use guns for self-defeating purposes? Despite the fact that these poor people had suffered from huge tyrannies, the first thing they did when given the power was set-up worse a tyranny. The truth is that the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution never really happened outside the West, and without those historical revolutions the “killer applications” may be copied but are not understood and do not stick. The guns and the steel have horrendous consequences. Societies outside the West, without an intellectual infrastructure of rationality and ethics, lack the eyes to understand what made the West great; and it isn’t clear that the West still remembers its own moral underpinnings.

You cannot help poor people by artificially giving them power or by merely bringing a regime change to democracy. You can have a hope only if you can inculcate the concept of critical and self-critical reason.

There is nothing glamorous about poverty. Poverty is mostly a reflection of inner emptiness, irrationality, and the paradigms of pre-rational days. Poor people not only have no clue what spirituality means, but lack the awareness, or even the time or patience, to understand it. Those who are keen on getting rid of poverty must do the emotionally hard work of understanding what lies at its roots.




Share This


The Stains of Social Justice

 | 

The United Nations defines social justice as "the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth." Furthermore, social justice is impossible "without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies." Social justice is an axiom held dearly by socialists — apparently reconciled by the belief that great wealth and prosperity would have been created in places such as North Korea, East Germany, Cuba, and Venezuela, if only the "strong and coherent redistributive policies" had been, well, stronger and more coherent. In reality, social justice brings stagnation and decline, which, to socialists, look like fruit ever ripening into new and increasingly meddlesome forms of social justice. To socialists, distributing poverty and despair (even abysmal poverty and despair) is acceptable, as long as they are handling the distribution.

The socialists (more precisely, eco-socialists) in charge of US redistribution have managed to create a new American phenomenon: permanent economic stagnation. While speaking at the November 2013 IMF Economic Forum, Harvard University economist Larry Summers, was puzzled as to why, after four years, the US economy had not yet recovered. Noting that efforts to prevent a future crisis might be counterproductive, he concluded his speech by saying, "We may well need, in the years ahead, to think about how we manage an economy in which the zero nominal interest rate is a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activity, holding our economies back, below their potential."

Translation: even at extremely low interest rates, bank lending has been flat since 2009 because businesses are afraid to invest in an economy tainted by socialist mischief. Since social justice (delivered through the redistributive policies of Climate Change, the Stimulus, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, etc.) is "a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activity;" we need to think about how to manage future stagnation, after some unspecified number of "years ahead" in continuation of the present stagnation.

The socialists in charge of US redistribution have managed to create a new American phenomenon: permanent economic stagnation.

Think about that. In the election year of 2008, we had a do-something-about-it-now problem. Today, in 2014, as the stagnation persists, is Washington ready to do something about it? No. Will Washington be ready to do something in the years ahead? No. But by then it will be ready to think about it. Maybe. The 2008 promises of jobs and economic growth were replaced by the vast, warm fuzziness of social justice vagaries such as equality, diversity, fairness, dignity, renewability, and sustainability. What happened to the grandiose 2008 plan for economic revitalization? In 2009, eco-socialist lawyers and academics reached into their magic hat of "strong and coherent redistributive policies" and pulled out a plan to build a new economy. Why fix an outdated economy that was driven by greed, racism, overconsumption, and planet-heating "fuels of yesterday"? Today, more than five years into the new economy of stultifying compassionate distribution, they reached back in and pulled out a Plan B: inurement.

But as this elite cabal was settling into a genial Washington DC, their big heads bubbling with theories (touted by bigger-headed sociologists and environmentalists) on how to build a shiny new economy, a handful of crass entrepreneurs was settling into the rude world of fracking, creating an oil and gas revolution that would blight the dreamscape of the social justice crowd. The New York Times article "North Dakota Went Boom" eloquently describes the discovery and development of the Bakken Shale Formation in western North Dakota, a rugged, empty area blemished by "roaring fires and messy drill pads." But the blemishes are producing a flood of jobs, prosperity, and cheap energy, infuriating eco-socialists, who have produced but a trickle of anything with their centrally planned economy of government-approved renewable energy. Then there is the horror that the great wealth befalling North Dakota is the result of "an economic imperative that dates back to the triumph of the treaty breakers who usurped the Native Americans and commodified the land, and to the waves that came in their wake, the great white hunters who cleaned out the buffalo." God have mercy. Has there ever been social justice in North Dakota?

Eco-socialists are unwanted in North Dakota, where household income is $2,214 higher than the national average, unemployment is the nation's lowest, and budget surpluses accrue even after major income tax cuts (more than 50% since 2009). But many of them can be found at the North Dakota border, weeping over economic fruits they are helpless to distribute. Tears blind them to "the allure of a derrick dressed up in lights and looming 10 stories over a desolate landscape where the leading academic solution to social and economic stagnation had been to surrender and let the land lapse into buffalo commons." Alas, the North Dakota buffalo commons strains the vision of prying eco-socialists peering into the state. It is a pathetically small plot (only 4% of North Dakota is federal land), barely large enough to hold a respectable climate change sit-in without its whimpers being heard in at least a few of the more than 6,000 wealth-producing drilling sites on private land, where 90% of the wells reside. Other eco-socialists are faced with the task of hawking income inequality or green jobs (such as solar panel installation at $38,000 per year) to the sullied hordes of climate deniers rushing into the state, on their way to oil and gas fields where the average annual wage is $90,225.

It has been said that veterans of the oil patch can estimate the productive capacity of an oil well from the size of its flare gas flame (which burns off the natural gas contained in the well). A seasoned eco-socialist can no doubt make a similar estimate based on the size of the yellow puddle at his stomping feet, as he rages against the carbon emissions that flaring spews into the atmosphere. Out of self-interest, oil companies eventually build gas-gathering pipelines that channel the gas to a processing plant, where they make even more money –while saving the gas. But for wells on federal land, these pipelines require the bureaucratic approval of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — the same law that has delayed the Keystone XL Pipeline for more than five years. Oil companies, therefore, are forced to flare off gas while they wait for their permits. In Wyoming, for example, the average wait time is seven years. According to Forbes Magazine, the state's "lost opportunity cost associated with the delay of oil and natural gas development is $22 billion in labor income and $90 billion in economic output over a ten-year period." Not a problem, when social justice is at stake.

Eco-socialists are unwanted in North Dakota, where household income is $2,214 higher than the national average, unemployment is the nation's lowest.

Under social justice policies, GDP growth during the "recovery" has averaged 2% annually, dropping to an alarming -2.9% in the most recent quarter. This is stagnation. But to eco-socialists, it is not failure. It is merely an economic aberration that their intellectuals will have to think about managing in the years ahead. In the world of social justice, success is not measured by wealth, growth, jobs, or income; the expansion of "strong and coherent redistributive policies" is the only yardstick. Accordingly, with $17 trillion of debt, medium household income down 8.3%, labor participation down to 62.8% (the lowest since 1978), and 46.5 million Americans living in poverty, eco-socialists shamelessly exclaim that we are "heading in the right direction."

And that they have "more work to do." That work largely involves stifling the US oil and gas industry — the only bright spot in an otherwise moribund economy. While forging the new green economy, eco-socialists have suppressed oil (down 6%) and gas (down 28%) production on federal land. Fortunately for our stagnating economy, oil and gas production has increased dramatically (61% and 33%, respectively) on non-federal land. Thanks to entrepreneurs such as Harold Hamm (who discovered the prolific Bakken shale "play") and innovators who developed fracking and horizontal drilling, the US oil and gas revolution has created well over one million jobs, reduced annual oil imports by 800 million barrels, slashed our annual energy bill by $100 billion, and cut carbon emissions by 300 million tons. It has also increased GDP by more than 1.7% — a contribution without which eco-socialists could not claim (at least not shamelessly) that we are "heading in the right direction."

While most of us celebrate these achievements, eco-socialists fear them. Their vision of social justice calls for our vast oil and gas resources to "lapse into buffalo commons." Otherwise, the income inequality gap might widen or the earth's temperature might rise (by the end of the century) or a flame might shoot out of someone's faucet, etc. Besides, the economic contributions from the oil and gas revolution amplify the failure of their immense, whimsical green energy investments, and expose the disingenuous tenets of their overreaching scheme to rebuild the US economy. According to the insightful Hamm, “That’s why these guys are raising so much hell, because suddenly they realize that everything they’ve invested in isn’t going to work . . . They know they’re misleading the public.”

Nevertheless, the social justice parade marches forward. Armed with NEPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other social justice regulations, eco-socialists won't be happy until our utility bills "necessarily skyrocket" and the price of US gasoline matches the price in Europe — thereby paving the way for government-approved solar panels, windmills, and electric cars. Forget about oil and gas. They are yesterday's fuels, dirty and finite. We will have renewable energy in a sustainable economy, even if it takes permanent stagnation to get there.

Social justice leads to stagnation, which leads to scarcity, which leads to rationing, which is what eco-socialists do best.

The good news is that America's oil and gas boom is winning. Eco-socialists, in denial of its benefits, are resigned to the desperate hope that it will be like other booms — short-lived. But estimates of its increasing longevity have revealed a brown stain on the seat of the pants of eco-socialism. There is no stagnation in North Dakota, where energy experts expect the Bakken play to last for 100 years or more. There, the odor of flare gas is preferable to the stench of socialism and, with an annual salary of $90,000, oil field workers can buy all the social justice they need.

This sentiment, of course, is shared by Texas, home to the Eagle Ford and the Permian Basin, and the leading oil and natural gas producing state in the nation. And recent breakthroughs in drilling technologies have the boom spreading to Oklahoma, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico, where the combined shale oil production has increased 57% in the last three years — causing, no doubt, a proportionate enlargement of that nasty brown stain. Mr. Hamm — whose oil company is developing a drill pad packing technique that could put more than 100,000 wells into North Dakota — would probably estimate a much larger and darker stain.

Social justice leads to stagnation, which leads to scarcity, which leads to rationing, which is what eco-socialists do best — with their "strong and coherent redistributive policies." They believe that through such policies we now have affordable healthcare, a kinder Wall Street, a cutting-edge renewable energy industry, and a world-class education system. Soon, electric vehicles will pour out of a rejuvenated Detroit, millions of Americans will work at high-paying green jobs, and solar panels and windmills will bring us energy independence. By then, their economists may have begun thinking about how to manage the permanent stagnation. That is their story, and they are sticking to it, even if it means squandering the world's most prolific source of fossil fuel energy, a resource that, if properly exploited, could revitalize the economy overnight, increase the wealth of every one of us, and finance self-help programs for anyone still afflicted by social injustice.

Nothing will change the minds of eco-socialists. But America's enormous, expanding oil and gas revolution may eventually make them change their pants.




Share This


Farmers of Men

 | 

When people use the term “the homeless,” they make them sound like a leper colony of the damned, invaders from outer space, or some sort of creeping fungus. This attitude dehumanizes homeless people. Which is highly ironic, since those most likely to use the term see themselves as brimming with compassion. How can people be recognized as human beings if they aren’t viewed as individuals? Yet almost never do I get the sense, from those who decry the plight of “the homeless,” that they visualize real faces or remember actual names.

We’ve been getting a number of homeless people at church. The sudden influx is startling. One lady brings her four little dogs. She has nowhere to leave them except in the yard of our parish house, next door to the sanctuary. She sits in a pew, slightly off by herself, and soaks up the liturgy the way a flower soaks up sunshine. We are a progressive church — we Care About The Homeless. But nobody seems to know quite what to do with her.

When we hand over to the government the responsibility to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, we also give it the notion that it has taken the matter completely out of our hands.

Some are baffled that she’s got four dogs, when she probably struggles daily just to feed herself. They evidently fail to realize that the dogs may be the only living souls that show her unconditional affection, or perhaps any affection at all. Being one of those annoying people who get big ideas, I have several times wondered aloud what we might do to help our homeless guests. And I mean, really help them — not just go through a few motions to make ourselves feel better. Every time I do this, I get looks of horror.

Then comes the inevitable litany of “we can’ts.” We can’t give them hot meals, baskets of groceries, job referrals, or affordable housing. We are not, after all, a soup kitchen, a food bank, or a social service agency. But I’m pretty sure that though they may not know this the first time they come, it doesn’t take long for them to figure it out. If they keep coming back — as some do — they may actually want the same things out of the experience as the rest of us.

The homeless aren’t as different from us as I suspect we want to think they are. How did we ever come to think of them as a different species? As something alien, strange, and potentially dangerous?

I suspect it began to happen about the time we decided to hand all responsibility for the care of the unfortunate over to the government. It became Someone Else’s Problem — not our own. We tell ourselves we’ve done this because we’re so compassionate, but actually it has made us considerably less so. We have merely pushed the needy out of sight and out of mind, lulling our consciences to sleep with the narcotic delusion that Someone Else can do our caring for us.

We have no evidence, however, that the government overflows with compassion. And when we hand over to it the responsibility to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, we also give it the notion that it has taken the matter completely out of our hands. Once we surrender anything to the state, it never wants to give it back, and certainly resents having to share it.

Much ado is currently being made about how persecuted conservative Christians are when the state does not mandate mass compliance with their beliefs. That this seems to be the highest purpose to which they think the Gospel calls them does not strike them as the least bit odd. But the same government they want to enforce their dictates has taken away much of their ability to minister to the needy. A duty they have surrendered, for the most part, without a whimper.

This past winter, when much of the country was gripped with arctic cold, a number of churches brought homeless people into their buildings to keep them from freezing. In more than a few cases, this may have made the difference between life and death. Now, one might think this was exactly what churches are supposed to do. But several municipal governments thought otherwise.

When we farm the homeless out to government care, they get no care at all. The government treats them as less than human.

Where were the cries of religious persecution, from the Right-wing Umbrage Industry, when these cities ordered churches that were sheltering homeless people to turn them out into the streets, threatening them with hefty fines if they refused to comply? I certainly didn’t hear any, and since I pay close attention to such matters, I listened for them.

Perhaps the best thing we can do for the homeless among us is really to see them as people — and I mean, before they turn into blocks of ice we must step over on the sidewalk. When we farm them out to government care, they get no care at all. The government treats them as less than human. Given the fact that it’s more likely to care for stray dogs or cats than for homeless people, it treats them as even less than animals.

The only way we can treat homeless people as people is to take back our responsibility to care what happens to them. When they come through the doors of our churches, we can recognize them as spiritual beings, who hunger for more than food. They need to know that they are valuable. That it matters whether they find a warm place to belong, or rot into oblivion in a gutter. This, no government can give them, and when we farmed out the responsibility for their care, all understanding of their deeper needs got lost.

Today we clamor, like baby birds, for the government to give us goodies. Our dependence has bred a malignant narcissism, in which we identify primarily as members of some grievance group to be appeased. The very convictions that form our core we see as somebody else’s responsibility to ensure. But the government cannot give us our souls; it can only take them. It’s high time we took them back.




Share This


Drowned in the Jury Pool

 | 

The other day I reported for jury duty. In California, you report for one day, and if you aren’t lucky enough to get on a jury, you’re out for at least the next year. I’ve gone through this four or five times now, and only once did I land on a jury. That jury was hung, partly because the august legal minds empaneled a woman who claimed that her profession was teaching the principles of jury selection to students in a junior college. She proved to be, as almost anyone would have anticipated, an enormous pain in the ass.

This year, I waited in the “jury lounge” for several hours, not even pretending to watch a propaganda film about how wonderful it is to serve on a jury. I puzzled over the wording of my next book, chatted with a couple of people who, like me, wished devoutly not to get on a jury, celebrated the fact that it was 11:45 and no calls for jurors had been made — and then it happened. My name was announced as one of the 40 people who had to assemble in Superior Court, Section Such and Such, to be examined by the judge and attorneys to determine whether we were fit to decide whether someone should go to jail for burglary and such and such and so and so, and possession of methamphetamine.

The way they do this is to get all 40 victims into the courtroom, and then particularly examine the first 21, to see whether some of them should be replaced by some of the other 19. Why 21, I don’t know. I was randomly assigned a position as Prospective Juror No. 9.

Once we jurors had been properly infantilized, we were taken into the courtroom, seated in our places, and asked a series of questions by the judge.

My cohort’s progress into the jury room was impeded by a court official who spent 25 minutes checking off the list of 40 randomly generated names. He made jokes about his age, and his eyeglasses, and his difficulty reading the list, and our names, and his mispronunciation of our names, as if it mattered how he pronounced anything. He may have been wasting time because the judge wasn’t ready to invite us in. So if the dentist is late, does he have one of his assistants come out to the waiting room and start drilling your teeth?

Once we jurors had been properly infantilized, we were taken into the courtroom, seated in our places, and asked a series of questions by the judge. She turned out to be very sensible. She explained what she was doing with great succinctness, asked her questions clearly, and found ways to limit our answers to what was relevant. She was a welcome relief from my last judge, who when confronted by an elderly man who announced with pride that he had been a member of more than 30 juries and had always enjoyed himself, invited the aged idler to entertain us with stories from his service to American justice. The current judge wasn’t like that. After her round of examination, she gave the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney just 15 minutes each to ask their own questions. I quickly grew to like her.

But what I’ll always remember is the responses of my fellow prospective jurors.

The man who answered the judge’s question, “Would you believe that the defendant is guilty just because he’s sitting at the defendant’s table?” by saying, “Yes. I mean, why else would he be the defendant?” Body language suggested that he wasn’t just trying to get off the jury. He was being honest.

The woman who, thoughtfully and repeatedly, said that she could not serve on a jury because her religious beliefs did not allow her to judge her fellow men. When I spoke with her at the end of the day, she proved to be a Christadelphian, a member of a sect that I had studied but of which I had never met a single member. This was a big deal for me. She was a nice person and probably the most intelligent person I met all day.

She tried to argue me into it. Surely I could vote on a question of fact?

The woman who, when asked whether she or any member of her family had been a victim of crime, revealed that her mother’s car had once been stolen, “and she never got it back!” She started crying hysterically and was told to go home.

The woman who, almost as hysterically, answered several questions by saying that she wouldn’t have a bias about someone accused of drug possession, but if she thought he committed a crime because he was “addicted,” she could never forgive him, “never! never!

The woman who said she had friends who were going to law school, and they told her that “there were things going on behind the scenes,” evidently “things” in the legal system, and therefore . . . something. The judge tried to get her to say what the “things” were, tried to joke with her about how law students sometimes make remarks that don’t mean very much, tried to get her to put some definition to anything she said. But her efforts were futile. She gave up.

The man who answered every question about things that might affect his judgment with some story about his “partner,” his “current partner,” or his “partner in the 1980s,” and who was concerned that his “partner in the 1980s” had a relative who was a “correctional officer.” “Do you know that person?” the judge asked. “No . . . I never met him.”

The woman who answered the question about whether police officers ever lie with an adamant declaration that no, they never do. Never? the judge asked. No, never. The judge’s eyes widened; she was obviously repressing the desire to say something like “What kind of an idiot are you?” Members of the jury pool had less luck repressing their laughter. The judge kept questioning the woman, trying to get her to say whether there was any possibility that any police officer might ever say anything except the truth. Finally the woman conceded that if you got together enough thousands and millions of police officers, one of them might possibly, on some occasion, probably in private, deviate very slightly and unintentionally from the exact truth.

The several people who plainly did not speak English with any facility but who were emphatic in correcting the judge about her pronunciation of their names.

The several people who, refreshingly, laughed off all mispronunciations.

The man who, very, very seriously, reviewed the long and irrelevant history of his employment.

The woman who, very enthusiastically, responded to every question with an account of the social work that she and her husband perform.

The many people who recounted friends’ and relatives’ run-ins with the law, almost always incidents about driving while under the influence (not injuring anyone, mind you) or using recreational drugs, then shrugged and said, “No, the punishment was fair; he brought it on himself.”

If you’ve been adding up this list, you can see that there were a lot of people in that first cut of 21 who may not have belonged on a jury.

What about me? I didn’t belong either. At the appropriate moment, I advised the judge that I thought it was immoral to convict anyone on a drug charge. She read a statement about juries not deciding the law for themselves, and I said that yes, I understood, but in the case of victimless crimes I was in favor of what the statement was trying to exclude, which was jury nullification. She smiled and said, “Yes, that’s what we’re talking about.”

The judge’s eyes widened; she was obviously repressing the desire to say something like “What kind of an idiot are you?”

The defense attorney of course wanted me to be empaneled, so she tried to argue me into it. Surely I could vote on a question of fact? Surely I could determine whether someone possessed methamphetamine? Surely that wouldn’t be convicting anyone? Surely only a judge can sentence anyone? I told her I could see where that train was going, and I wouldn’t get on it. The prosecuting attorney smiled and joked with me, suggesting that I was arrogant enough to think I knew better than everyone else. Maybe he was right, but I was wondering why he bothered. Maybe he was trying to discourage anyone else from acting like me in the jury room. By this point, ironically, I was getting interested in the process and mildly regretting that I wouldn’t get to serve.

After a couple hours of jury examination, punctuated by a short break that turned into a longer break, the judge called the attorneys into her chambers. A few minutes later they came back, and she announced that five people were excused: me, the young Mexican American who sat next to me, the Christadelphian lady, and two others whom I couldn’t connect with the answers they’d given. The Mexican American was a working class kid who had started responding to questions about drug convictions with answers like, “I don’t know. . . I could follow the law. But with recreational drugs . . . I dunno . . . It doesn’t seem right. . . . Well, yeah, I guess so.” After listening to the back and forth about me, he reached a more definite position. He said he would not vote to convict anyone for drug possession. I didn’t talk to him during the breaks, or at any other time; but maybe I was responsible for his values clarification.

And so it ended. I walked out of the courthouse, chatting with the Christadelphian lady, then proceeded to the eight-dollar-a-day parking lot, having experienced the American jury system in what may be nearly its finest hour.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.